It was one of the most beautiful—and one of the most sustainable—farms that Ryanne Pilgeram had ever seen. When she arrived, Penny, the farmer, was sorting through vegetables in the shed. Her husband Jeff, who had a full-time job as a doctor, was hauling flakes of alfalfa to feed the draft horses that they used in place of tractors.
Pilgeram, a sociologist at the University of Idaho, was touring the farm as part of her research into sustainable agriculture in the Pacific Northwest. She had grown up on a ranch in Montana and was already familiar with the world of conventional farming, although her family’s own land had been lost in the farm crisis of the 1980s.
Perhaps for that reason, she froze when a feral dog darted out from a shed and, in front of Pilgeram and the two farmers, ran off with a live chicken, which fell limp in its jaws. This dog was no stranger to the couple. She had just given birth to a litter of puppies, and Pilgeram later learned that she’d been stealing a chicken every day for a week.
But instead of going for his gun, Jeff offered Pilgeram one of the new puppies. She describes the moment as one of culture shock. “They were super chill about it, like it was not a big deal,” she says. “I just kept thinking that it’s a pretty privileged position to be in, to not care if some of your livestock is taken.”
In many ways, Pilgeram found that this couple (whose names she has changed in compiling her research) epitomized the new generation of farmers moving into Western states like Idaho, Washington, and Montana.
Wealthy, educated, and cultured—and with a deep ideological commitment to sustainability—these formerly urban dwellers have migrated to rural areas, where they’ve been able to use savings and inheritances to purchase small plots of relatively cheap land. Here, they can grow organic, low-carbon crops and provide an alternative to the mass-produced, pesticide-covered produce sold by conventional farms.
In many ways, it’s a welcome change. Agriculture is responsible for around 9 percentof the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions—from fertilizer releasing nitrous oxide, for instance, or from cows emitting methane. And large-scale farming isn’t just bad for the environment; the application of pesticides has serious health implications for those who work on farms. Recent studies have linked high pesticide exposure to a poor sense of smell and a doubled risk of cardiovascular disease among Latino farm workers.
But Pilgeram worries that this improved model of agriculture is fundamentally incapable of surviving in a corporatized America—and that the sacrifices these people are making to survive are steadily chipping away at their claims of sustainability.
One problem is the price of the produce. Many of us have had the experience of turning up at our local farmers’ market, armed with tote bags, only to slink back to the supermarket after seeing the prices of the vegetables on offer. This is hardly the fault of the individual farmers. Still, as Pilgeram points out in a paper that she published in 2011, the costs involved with running such an operation mean that the benefits are inevitably affordable only to a small (generally white and middle-class) portion of society.
Meanwhile, those able to afford the cost of setting up a sustainable farm tend to have already benefited from capitalism. Many such farmers made their money earlier in life, through well-paid city jobs, and decided to invest the proceeds into land, according to Pilgeram’s research. Others relied on a member of their family to support the farm with wages earned outside the farm. Some simply had inherited wealth. “You basically have to be rich to farm, really,” said one farmer whom Pilgeram interviewed.
More recently, Pilgeram has been studying the role of women in sustainable agriculture. She’s found that the new cash-for-access model of farming has actually created opportunities for female empowerment within the male-dominated world of conventional agriculture, where women had traditionally assumed the role of farmers’ wife. Today, women are able to buy their own land and farm their own way.
But it’s a limited victory, Pilgeram writes in her most recent paper, published in November of 2018, and empowers only a certain class of women “while leaving [the capitalist] system basically entirely unaffected”—and which also risks gentrifying the towns to which these farmers move, further entrenching the country’s class divide.
Then there’s the problem that the system ultimately rests on a sequence of compromises and sacrifices that the farmers themselves must make, regardless of their ideological commitment to the cause. These sacrifices are personal, environmental, and social. “Only the select few, the … richest amongst us are really taking care of land in a truly sustainable way,” one farmer reported.
In some cases, farmers have exploited their own bodies to make ends meet, working for free or for obscenely long hours; one woman reported working 120 hours a week to ensure that her cheese remained as affordable as possible. Others depended on interns or volunteers who were themselves from privileged backgrounds and could afford to work for free. (Most farmers, Pilgeram noted, avoided the often-exploitative practice of relying on poorly paid Hispanic laborers.)
“The economic system that we have in place makes it impossible, really, to create a socially just food system. It’s not possible under capitalism,” Pilgeram says. Without a drastic change to this system, sustainable agriculture risks becoming an “esoteric side note” to conventional agriculture, she adds—or simply another way for those with money to live healthier lives than those without.
Can a Universal Fund Solve Capitalism?
In the face of growing wealth inequality worldwide, more and more people are discussing alternatives to the current laissez-faire capitalism status quo. Tamara Belinfanti, Sergio Gramitto and the late Lynn Stout offer up their own solution in Citizen Capitalism: How a Universal Fund Can Provide Influence and Income to All.
The authors have devised a concept they call the Universal Fund. It’s like a sovereign wealth fund but is privately created and funded via private ordering. That means that the Universal Fund is to be created from donations of stocks by companies and philanthropists. The government would hence be uninvolved; the Universal Fund is not a socialist venture. Rather, it is in part modeled on the structure of NGOs like the Sierra Club and the Red Cross. The Fund would provide an annual dividend to every citizen, with no maximum income cap. Though it may seem absurd to send welfare payments to the wealthy, it’s politically savvy framing. A free public college bill was passed in ultraconservative Tennessee thanks to having no maximum income cap; conservative detractors weren’t able to use the “class warfare” and “welfare queen” arguments. It should be noted that charitable tax deductions, estate tax reductions, and lowered tax brackets would act as a de facto government incentive for the wealthy to donate to the Universal Fund.
The goals of the Universal Fund would be to decrease wealth inequality, encourage long-term investment and increase civic engagement in corporate culture. On the last point, the authors remind us that, “The top 10% [of wealthiest Americans] hold more than 90% of all shares.” Even in regards to the other 10% of shares owned, most of them are passively owned. Most small-time investors don’t have time to vote at the annual general meetings of every company in which they are invested. Thus, boardroom votes are dominated by two shareholder proxy advisory firms and individual investors who own a substantial percentage of shares, as well as fund portfolio & hedge fund managers.
These Wall Street elites naturally tend to vote based upon their elitist interests. Thus, they usually make decisions that are insane in terms of employee welfare, long-term corporate growth, executive pay, and the environment. For example, `the authors remind us of the recent case of Martin Shkreli, the hedge fund manager who acquired Turing Pharmaceuticals and then raised AIDS medication prices from $13.50 to $750. This is the embodiment of the Reagan-era Golden Rule of maximizing shareholder value. Not only is this Gordon Gecko truism objectively crazy, but it’s also actually legally unfounded. Contrary to what you hear on CNBC or Fox Business, there’s no legal requirement that companies only focus on maximizing shareholder value. The book relates the following quote from Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s comments in the recent case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby: “Modern corporate law does not require for-profit corporations to pursue profit at the expense of everything else, and many do not do so.”
Citizen Capitalism points to the ongoing successes of the sovereign wealth funds of Norway and Alaska, ultraliberal and ultraconservative societies, respectively. The Alaskan fund generally provides each citizen with a dividend payment of a few thousand dollars each year, via the state’s oil revenues. The Government Pension Fund Norway is a more pertinent example since it’s funded through a $1 trillion stock portfolio. Norway is not only able to fund its citizens’ pensions through the Fund, but also exert moral influence on the market. The Fund boycotts various egregious companies, like cigarette manufacturers, and will sell its shares in a company that gets exposed for abusive practices, like employing child labor. Our authors likewise want the Universal Fund to use a carrot-and-stick approach in regards to corporate ethics.
The thesis of Citizen Capitalism is, as the title suggests, rooted in optimism for capitalism. Though they write about the success of the socialist program in Alaska specifically, a conservative state in the US, the authors are convinced that a sovereign wealth fund bill could never be passed in Congress. Recent polls and election results, however, show that Americans are starting to overwhelmingly favor ambitious government-program proposals like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal. As I wrote before, the Universal Fund would mostly be feasible due to tax incentives; these government incentives would likely need to be greatly expanded in order to encourage enough stock donations to build the Fund to a substantial size. Even America’s greatest philanthropists still stockpile billions of dollars in their offshore bank accounts. Thus, one shouldn’t expect the Universal Fund or other private UBI schemes to become a replacement for state management of wealth inequality through programs like public school funding and marginal taxation. Nonetheless, Citizen Capitalism is a stimulating little primer for rethinking the relationship between Wall Street and Main Street managing the looming crises of a rapidly aging workforce and automation, plus the balancing of private and public sectors in regards to solving societal problems.
The language of capitalism isn’t just annoying, it’s dangerous
When General Motors laid off more than 6,000 workers days after Thanksgiving, John Patrick Leary, the author of the new book Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism, tweeted out part of GM CEO Mary Barra’s statement. “The actions we are taking today continue our transformation to be highly agile, resilient, and profitable, while giving us the flexibility to invest in the future,” she said. Leary added a line of commentary to of Barra’s statement: “Language was pronounced dead at the scene.”
Why should we pay attention to the particular words used to describe, and justify, the regularly scheduled “disruptions” of late capitalism? Published last week by Haymarket Books, Leary’s Keywords explores the regime of late-capitalist language: a set of ubiquitous modern terms, drawn from the corporate world and the business press, that he argues promulgate values friendly to corporations (hierarchy, competitiveness, the unquestioning embrace of new technologies) over those friendly to human beings (democracy, solidarity, and scrutiny of new technologies’ impact on people and the planet).
These words narrow our conceptual horizons — they “manacle our imagination,” Leary writes — making it more difficult to conceive alternative ways of organizing our economy and society. We are encouraged by powerful “thought leaders” and corporate executives to accept it as the language of common sense or “normal reality.” When we understand and deploy such language to describe our own lives, we’re seen as good workers; when we fail to do so, we’re implicitly threatened with economic obsolescence. After all, if you’re not conversant in “innovation” or “collaboration,” how can you expect to thrive in this brave new economy?
Leary, an English professor at Wayne State University, brings academic rigor to this linguistic examination. Unlike the many people who casually employ the phrase “late capitalism” as a catch-all explanation for why our lives suck, Leary defines the term and explains why he chooses to use it. Calling our current economic system “late capitalism”suggests that, despite our gleaming buzzwords and technologies, what we’re living through is just the next iteration of an old system of global capitalism. In other words, he writes, “cheer up: things have always been terrible!” What is new, Leary says, quoting Marxist economic historian Ernest Mandel, is our “belief in the omnipotence of technology” and in experts. He also claims that capitalism is expanding at an unprecedented rate into previously uncommodified geographical, cultural, and spiritual realms.
Keywords was inspired by a previous work of a similar name: the Welsh Marxist theorist Raymond Williams’s 1976 book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Williams’s goal, like Leary’s, was to encourage readers to become “conscious and critical” readers and listeners, to see the language of our everyday lives “not a tradition to be learned, nor a consensus to be accepted, [but as] . . . a vocabulary to use, to find our own ways in, to change as we find it necessary to change it, as we go on making our own language and history.” Words gain their power not only from the class position of their speakers: they depend on acquiescence by the listeners. Leary takes aim at the second half of that equation, working to break the spell of myths that ultimately serve the elites. “If we understood… [these words] better,” Leary writes, “perhaps we might rob them of their seductive power.”
To that end, Leary offers a lexicon of about 40 late capitalist “keywords,” from “accountability” to “wellness.” Some straddle the work-life divide, like “coach.” Using simple tools — the Oxford English Dictionary, Google’s ngram database, and media coverage of business and the economy— Leary argues that each keyword presents something basically indefensible about late capitalist society in a sensible, neutral, and even uplifting package.
Take “grit,” a value championed by charter school administrators, C-suite execs, and Ted Talkers. On the surface, there’s nothing objectionable about insisting that success comes from hard work sustained in spite of challenges, failure, and adversity. It can even seem like an attractive idea: who doesn’t want to believe, as author of the bestselling Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance Angela Duckworth puts it, that success rests “more on our passion and perseverance than on our innate talent” — or the race and income of our parents?
What discussions of “grit” scrupulously avoid, Leary writes, is “the obviously central fact of the economy”: poverty. Duckworth and other proponents of grit nod to the limited horizon of opportunity presented to those living in poverty, but insist that grit can help people “defy the odds.” Implicitly, they accept that most will fail to do so: they simply promise elevation to the hard-working, the deserving, the grittiest — that is, to the very few.
“Grit offers an explanation for what exists,” Leary writes, “rather than giving us tools to imagine something different.” Rather than attacking the conditions that make “grit” necessary, the word’s proponents ask women, people of color, and the poor to overcompensate for the unjust world into which they’ve been born. While the need for “grit” is most often preached to urban schoolchildren and people in poverty, its “real audience,” Leary writes, is “perched atop the upper levels of our proverbial ladder,” a position from which inequality doesn’t look so bad.
Leary divides his keywords into four broad categories: first is “late-capitalist body talk,” which imbues corporations with the attributes of human bodies, like nimbleness or flexibility, and shifts focus away from the real human bodies whose labor generates its profits. “Much of the language of late capitalism,” Leary writes, “imagines workplaces as bodies in virtually every way except as a group of overworked or underpaid ones.”
Then there’s the “moral vocabulary of late capitalism,” which often uses words with older, religious meanings; Leary cites a nineteenth-century poem that refers to Jesus as a “thought leader.” These moral values, Leary says, are generally taken to be indistinguishable from economic ones. “Passion,” for example, is prized for its value to your boss: if you love what you do, you’ll work harder and demand less compensation. Some are words, like “artisanal,” that reflect capitalism’s absorption of the countercultural critique that it failed to provide workers with a sense of purpose and autonomy. Finally, there is the category of words that reflexively celebrate the possibilities of new technologies, like “smart”: smart fridge, smart toaster, smart toilet.
As Leary shows, these keywords reflect and shore up the interests of the dominant class. For the tech overlords of Silicon Valley, an “entrepreneur” is someone innovative and savvy, who “moves fast and breaks things.” The entrepreneur alone creates his company’s exorbitant wealth — not his workers, nor any taxpayers who may fund the innovations his company sells. (Elon Musk, for example, has received nearly $5 million in government subsidies). It’s a very useful concept for billionaires: after all, why redistribute that wealth, through taxes or higher wages, to those who didn’t create it?
In these short essays, Leary undermines what Soviet linguist Valentin Voloshinov describes as the aim of the dominant class: to “impart an…eternal character to the ideological sign, to extinguish or drive inward the struggle between social value judgements which occurs in it. ” And in the case of “entrepreneur,” for example, Leary shows that quite a lot of struggle between social judgements is contained in the word.
First defined around 1800 by French economist Jean-Baptiste Say as one who “shifts economic resources . . . into an area of higher productivity and greater yield,” the word was given a dramatically different inflection by political economist Joseph Schumpeter. According to Leary, our contemporary view of entrepreneurship comes from Schumpeter, who believed that the entrepreneur was “the historical agent for capitalism’s creative, world-making turbulence.” When we talk about “entrepreneurs” with an uncritical acceptance, we implicitly accept Schumpeter’s view that wealth was created by entrepreneurs via a process of innovation and creative destruction — rather than Marx’s belief that wealth is appropriated to the bourgeois class by exploitation.
By demonstrating how dramatically these words’ meanings have transformed, Leary suggests that they might change further, that the definitions put in place by the ruling class aren’t permanent or beyond dispute. As he explores what our language has looked like, and the ugliness now embedded in it, Leary invites us to imagine what our language could emphasize, what values it might reflect. What if we fought “for free time, not ‘flexibility’; for free health care, not ‘wellness’; and for free universities, not the ‘marketplace of ideas”?
His book reminds us of the alternatives that persist behind these keywords: our managers may call us as “human capital,” but we are also workers. We are also people. “Language is not merely a passive reflection of things as they are,” Leary writes. “[It is] also a tool for imagining and making things as they could be.”
Tucker Carlson Thinks the Problem With America Is Market Capitalism
If there were any doubt of the direction the Trump-dominated GOP is taking, Tucker Carlson’s monologue on Fox News Wednesday should remove it. Carlson’s not a political leader, but he’s a bellwether, and his words are already being cheered by prominent conservatives. Meant as a rebuttal to Mitt Romney’s New Year’s Day op-ed, the speech wasn’t original, but it reveals the degree to which Republicans have embraced the populist authoritarianism they once condemned.
Carlson began with several swipes against “bankers” who exploit the working class to line the pockets of spooky elites. If that anti-capitalist lingo sounds familiar, so does his contemptuous shrug at the ways free markets improve lives. “Does anyone still believe that cheaper iPhones or more Amazon deliveries of plastic garbage from China are going to make us happy? They haven’t so far.” This is a time-worn rhetorical technique of freedom’s enemies, who sneer at material standards of living in order to elevate abstract social goals over the needs of actual people. In fact, cheaper consumer goods have benefited Americans immeasurably. Some 85 million now own iPhones, for instance, and use them not as trinkets, but as work tools or devices to keep in touch with loved ones. And while Amazon may deliver “plastic garbage,” it also delivers syringes to diabetics, toys for special-needs kids, and even prosthetic limbs for the disabled—all, of course, made of plastic. Freer markets and abundant, affordable imports, have made the average American wealthier than Rockefeller, and 90 times richer than the average human being.
Does that translate into happiness? It depends. More wealth means better access to innovative medical technology, cheaper and safer transportation, cultural riches of art and music. But by making possible a wider spectrum of experiences and opportunities, it also means more chances for disappointment and fear—the real source of the “alienation” capitalism’s accused of generating. Money can’t buy happiness, but material prosperity is a necessary ingredient for the good life, and the practical elimination of poverty today is giving more people than ever before the opportunity to lead lives in ways that accomplish their own goals.
Government policies that curtail their choices are, by definition, obstacles to the pursuit of happiness and impose harms that politicians literally cannot imagine. Consider “cheap iPhones”: nobody can calculate the hours saved thanks to driving-directions features, the lives saved through quick access to 911, or the millions of simple, happy conversations that screentime or text messaging makes possible for families separated by long distances. To deride this as materialism is to scoff at simple, even beautiful human joys. Imagine the consequences of eliminating smartphones (you can’t) and you get a sense of the inhumane sentiments that anti-materialistic slogans conceal.
Yet to Carlson, economic freedom is disposable—”a tool…created by human beings” “like a staple gun or a toaster,” which politicians can eliminate if they decide it’s “weaken[ing]…families.” Since “the goal for America is…happiness”—which includes things like “dignity, purpose, self-control, independence, above all, deep relationships with other people”—the failure of international bankers to make people happy and give them rewarding family lives is grounds for bureaucratic control. Although pitched as anti-government populism, Carlson’s prescription is clear: government management of the economy in order to force citizens into what politicians consider “happiness.”
But America’s “goal” isn’t “happiness”—it’s freedom to pursue happiness. That phrase was written by people who rejected the idea that government gives us liberty to serve collective ends. Their commitment to self-determination has often been attacked by strongmen who think government should manage our choices in order to stabilize society. “Man is man only by virtue of the spiritual process in which he contributes as a member of familial, social groups, the nation,” wrote Benito Mussolini. “Fascism is therefore opposed to all individualistic abstractions based on eighteenth century materialism…[and] does not believe in the possibility of ‘happiness’ on earth as conceived by the economic literature of the 18th century.”
Yet free economic exchange is inseparable from genuine dignity and valuable relationships. That should be clear at least to women, who for generations were denied independence by laws that restricted their freedom, often in the name of preserving “the family” and protecting their virtue. The first stirrings of feminism did destabilize long-standing traditions about the family, as freedom usually does—witness the controversy over the climax of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, in which Nora is so emboldened by her experiment with economic freedom that she finds strength to leave her unhappy marriage. Few women today would choose to return to an era when their fates were shaped by government to serve what officials considered the social good. Yet for Carlson, women’s economic freedom is among the most fundamental ills in our society. Thus he condemns hard-working female executives such as Sheryl Sandberg who think it’s “more virtuous to devote your life to some soulless corporation than it is to raise your own kids.”
Obviously family is important. But like everything, it’s a blessing when freely chosen, and a burden when conscripted as a political device by which the hopes and dreams of actual people are subordinated to the demands of political authorities. Restricting freedom in order to encourage “deep relationships with other people” doesn’t promote, but obliterates, dignity, self control, and independence. It’s a recipe for squalor and resentment, not happiness. Yet it’s the go-to recipe for authoritarians who see individual pursuits as trivial compared to the perpetuation of the state.
Freedom—economic or personal—is not “created by human beings.” It’s the rightful, natural state of all persons. It can unjustly be destroyed, but never transcended. Nor were the infinitely diverse institutions we call “the market” ever “created”—they’re a spontaneous order generated by the free choices of countless individuals pursuing happiness as they decide. Some of their choices may be foolish, or seem so to outsiders who lack full information. But the freedom to make choices, for all its disruptiveness, is the only thing “independence” or “happiness” can ever truly mean.
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