This series explores the truth about America’s culture of dependency: that it is driven by the antiquated ideology about an economic system that no longer works in the favor of the people.
More than any other individuals, wealthy black people have by words and deeds encouraged the black masses to worship at the throne of money.
– Bell Hooks, Salvation: Black People and Love
It has never ceased to amaze me how wealthy Black people perpetuate the ideology of the system against which they had to fight to get to where they are. Instead of using their position to dismantle the system (or at least shake it up), they wallow in their coveted new positions within the system’s structure. They insist that anyone can achieve what they have achieved by simply buying into the system. They fail to realize that they are one of the few that have been allowed to slip through the cracks of disenfranchisement in order to portray a stance of fairness and equality. They are the tokens that are held up to the rest of the community’s face to prove that nothing is wrong with the way things are. The truth is something entirely different.
America is a capitalist country. That is the economic model that we use. However, what should be an economic model has become our way of life. For the Black community, there are a number of dangers in using capitalism as a social model for success and happiness.
Capitalism as a Social Model
Capitalism is an economic system that focuses on the production of commodities and the exchange of these commodities. This is fairly easy to understand when talking about products and material goods; however, when speaking of labor and human performed service, things become more complex. Labor gains its value because of the part it plays in the production of material goods. For example, a sweater that is hand knitted may be more expensive in value than that of one produced by a machine because the human labor has to be considered and that human has to be paid on top of the materials that are purchased. This is how labor gains its value in capitalist theory. The products of human labor also include intangible goods such as services that are performed. These services, like the hand-made sweater, are products of labor. In the social aspect, products of labor give the perception of applying value to the actual laborer that does the producing. In short, the laborer becomes a commodity to be valued simply because the value of its products are connected to the human labor that produces it.
A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour.
– Karl Marx, Capital.
The production of labor influences the social character of the laborer because their products are viewed as external extensions of them. For example, fashion designers create tangible products that reflect their labor. The high fashion designer develops his/her prestige according to the value of the products that they produce. This gives the designer a measure of prestige because they are the creators of a highly valued product. This creates a blending of individual identity with the products of labor that they produce.
Often when an American is asked about their identity, at some point, we mention the work we do. We describe ourselves as being a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, etc. The products of our labor become merged with who we are. That is because in a capitalist country like America the products of our labor imply our social standing, our intelligence, our education, and our value in society. One would rather say, ‘I am a lawyer,’ than say ‘I am a nurse.’ One would rather say ‘I am an administrative assistant,’ than say ‘I am a janitor.’ This is because upon immediately hearing these descriptions, certain presumptions arise in the mind. When one hears that someone is a lawyer, it is thought that they make a substantial amount of money and can access power and influence in our society. When one hears that someone is a janitor, it is presumed that this person doesn’t have much education or isn’t that intelligent because if they did they would be a lawyer or something more prestigious. This connection merging of the value of the productions of our labor with who we are as laborers skewed our perception about identity and self-worth.
The biggest problem with capitalism as a social model is that it only values the tangible. This concept forces an individual into a one dimensional box in which they can only identify themselves as what they are able to produce. These are the people that when you ask them where they will be in 5 years, their only answer is to be rich. These are the people who when you ask them about their dreams and desires, you never hear them mention love, friendship, or having a family. They can only identify with that which capitalism gives value to: material wealth.
For Black people this is especially problematic as we are, by our ancestral nature, communal people. We are inclined to connect and interact with one another, but this capitalist model doesn’t allow for that, because capitalism is driven by competition. Anyone who is going to attempt to be successful in a capitalist society must be obsessively driven towards its goal of material wealth and with the competition of everyone else, there is no time for that which does not lead towards material wealth. So, we place more value and spend more time worshiping money and pursuing the accumulation of material wealth than anything else.
What is most important about life is not in the things that we accumulate; those things are temporal. The essence of humanity is not tangible. What makes a person a person — what makes a person valuable — is not tangible. The greatest accomplishments we have made as Black people, was accomplished through collective efforts. There is nothing revolutionary about self-interest; there is nothing revolutionary about wealth; there is nothing revolutionary about capitalism. And revolution is what we need.
I do not seek to attack capitalism nor do I seek to suggest that it is the most horrible economic model the United States could ascribe to. What I am saying is that when sought by those for whom it was not built (in this case the Black community), it will never yield salvation. If upward social mobility, success, and happiness are what we are truly seeking we will have to face the facts that even while living in a capitalist society, we cannot live by capitalist ideology. If we are ever going to topple the gods that rule us, we will have to stop worshipping at their throne.
I’m not sayin; I’m just sayin,
An Angry Black Man
Hooks, Bell. Salvation: Black People and Love.
Marx, Karl. Capital.