Black Friday passed recently and it got me thinking about the psychological effects of capitalism on our society, about how some people are shamed for their consumption while others are not. Now to state from the start, I am not a supporter of mass consumption and consider myself to be quite minimalist and frugal in my shopping habits; however, I recognize that capitalism is the system our country operates on and it is nearly impossible for us to escape. This system maintains a great wealth gap, meaning millions of folks can’t afford school, healthcare, or food, while the top 1% could pay for these things 1,000 times over. The wealthy can have whatever they want, whenever they want it. They could help solve social justice issues by redistributing wealth into marginalized communities, since dismantling systems of poverty would do so much to bring marginalized folks to a level where they are in control of their circumstances, but they don’t. There is no “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” if you are just trying to survive. Poverty is a cycle which few people are ever able to escape. White supremacy keeps money in the hands of white, mostly male, elite who lead our corporations and our governments, which hold the power to oppress or equalize our society. Corporations and the government beat down on marginalized folks wherever they turn. They are unable to achieve what they want, because they can hardly find what they need to survive. When you are trying to survive, self-actualization isn’t even a thought in your mind. Realizing your full potential and being a positive influence aren’t your goals, especially if you have other family members to provide for.
Humans in this society are caught in a web of capitalism, working endlessly to provide for themselves, and thinking that making enough money to buy anything beyond necessities is success. If everyone was provided for in our society, our goals would shift, and we would focus more on what really matters: learning experiences and our positive impact, not material objects we use to fill the voids that real fulfillment should be filling. We crave instant gratification; it’s cheaper and easier in the short run to make ourselves happy with our purchases, but the happiness doesn’t last. In the long run, we have less money and we are still lacking from what will truly make us feel successful. Now everyone does define success differently, but I wholeheartedly believe success goes beyond financial success; while this is important, without emotional growth and a personal sense of accomplishment, it isn’t worth much. Even if we attain wealth, we will still be grasping for straws by using our consumption as a means to our enjoyment in life.
If we lived in an equitable society, with hard work anyone could be wealthy. We live in a class hierarchy, and poor folks often work significantly harder than wealthy folks and can never advance enough to not have to worry about money anymore. If we had everything we needed provided for us, we could work to earn the things we want, but don’t need, like travel and other leisure activities. The concept of leisure is dead in the U.S.: we work to live and live to work. In some socialist countries, the average workweek maxes out at 20 hours- leaving significant time for people to do the things that make life meaningful. Most people are at least bilingual, have traveled to multiple other countries, and their mental health is much better. Although I recognize a factor of depression is biology, I believe our culture makes us depressed. We are living in a way we were never intended to: one where we are constantly under pressure to work, constantly in a hurry, and constantly overwhelmed. Most older adults I know have spent their lives working jobs they don’t enjoy, looking forward to the one day they can retire, and forget all of their adolescent goals for their life. We are psychologically ill, and the effects of our society bleed into all facets of our health, as well as that of our future generations. The fight against capitalism is the fight for a world where we all have the time, energy, confidence, health, and safety to pursue the things we want to, instead of selling our souls to fund a life we never wanted.
So Black Friday had me thinking…In this society, what kind of messages do we send about who deserves to have the things they want? Although most wealthy people have not “earned,” but rather inherited, their extreme wealth, they are not shamed for their excessive consumption. They could use their money for a thousand other things that would benefit society, but their consumption becomes an addiction and their lifestyles become emblems of excess. Poor folks, however, are expected to continue to make sacrifices until they somehow magically earn enough money to have the things they want, or finally “deserve.” But no matter how hard they work, they will always be light years away from the financial freedom of those born into wealth. Poverty is an ever-looming weight for those who live paycheck to paycheck, and things like homelessness are only a few bad circumstances away from a reality. On Black Friday, we shame lower class folks for seeking out things they want. Although the consumption is not good for the environment or the enslaved workers who make most of our cheap goods, it is interesting how the narrative turns to shame when we speak of lower class folks’ consumption. It is true that some consumption is necessary to exist in this society, and that some consumption can be good for our psychological well-being, for instance, being able to afford a membership to a gym or yoga studio, or some workout equipment to workout at home. These are investments for your physical and emotional health, and everyone deserves the ability to do this. Many people cannot afford the things they need, let alone want, for the entire year, and Black Friday might be the one time they can. Black Friday is only evidence of how broken our system is. People who feel deprived of their financial freedom most of the year overly consume because they feel they are gaining something in their lives, but marketing ploys and corporations are tricking them into thinking that their products are beneficial, and poor folks end up spending money they can’t afford on things they don’t need. People are deprived, and live waiting for the moment where they can feel like their hard work has paid off and they can buy the things that they want. For our society to be equitable, everyone should have everything they need, and everyone should be able to earn the things they want. True equity would be a society where consumption does not come at a price for the environment, non-human animals, or human workers, but we are far from this becoming a reality. It says a lot about our society that we feel we need Black Friday, but it shows how much our working class is suffering, the voids they are trying to fill with material objects- which is not a behavior of only the working class, but one which only the working class is shamed for.
The financial consequences of living in a capitalist society are evident: our lives revolve around work. It’s the psychological effects that are understated. Folks who are already marginalized, such as people of color, face the absolute worst consequences: they succumb to early death due to the stress of living in an oppressive society. Economic injustice feeds into food injustice, meaning many marginalized folks only have unhealthy food options, and their poor health makes it harder for them to work, all contributing to poor mental health and quality of life. Capitalism follows us throughout our entire lives, beating us down. The media perpetuates the myth of individualism, that anything is possible if we work hard enough, but this is a lie. When we realize this, it depresses us, but we continue fooling ourselves into thinking that working hard is what we owe society. Society owes us a lot more than we owe society, and if we were given all we deserved as human beings in a society that preaches advancement, we would truly have the freedom we think we do, meaning how hard we work would determine the success we have. We have the right to define success the way we want to, and as long as we are not guaranteed basic human rights like a livable wage, housing, and education, we will keep holding these things as the ideals of success, and depriving ourselves-and the world- of all things beyond that that we could and should be able to achieve, those great acts that actually make up our purpose.
So who deserves to have the things they want? How does it feel to live an entire life without ever actually being fulfilled? Fulfilled, which does not mean spending our hard-earned money on things we don’t need for happiness that doesn’t last. Fulfilled, which does not mean earning the things we should have been guaranteed from birth. Fulfilled, which does not mean dismissing your higher dreams for your life in place of something more “realistic.” Fulfilled is something we all should be able to feel, but capitalism deprives us, robbing us of a psychological health that is achievable through a healthy, equitable society. Right now, we are expected to be happy “in spite of” the poor circumstances of our lives and our society. In spite of the oppression we face, in spite of the corporations and governments which do not have our best interests in mind, in spite of the continual destruction of our world by these powerful folks. Money is power, and while I do not believe it is the key to a happy life, it is the start. Having the bare necessities of life is essential to start to work on one’s own happiness and true fulfillment. The pursuit of survival and the pursuit of self-actualization will never be parallel. Until we dismantle the racist, sexist, colonialist system of capitalism, we will have no choice but to sell ourselves short to survive. We will all suffer as talented, intelligent, and inspiring individuals are denied the chance to use their passions to better the world, because they can’t afford to- emotionally and financially. We will continue to live in a society that is sick, unable to self-actualize, unable to bring all of our struggle, the hard work that is supposed to amount to something, into a productive fruition.