Letter from the Staff

Margins Staff, Spring 2015

By: Margins Staff, for the Spring 2015 Issue (PDF version)

Today, humanity confronts an unprecedented series of threats. Our ability to survive and thrive is under attack by global warming, extraordinary inequality, and a general sense of powerlessness. All of these are political problems, and we can solve them through politics if we can muster the imagination and will to act together. Yet the American Left has been grasping at straws over the past few decades, unable to offer any unified alternative to the vapid nonsense that passes for political philosophy in the mainstream discourse. Far too often, people on the Left are content to privately gripe about the horrendous state of American politics without acting to publicize their ideas and build a community of thinkers who are dedicated to changing things for the better.

Margins: Student Perspectives from the Left is a magazine created and run by Yale undergraduates that seeks to give leftist Yalies of all stripes a space for thinking about what the society we’re fighting for should look like. Margins wants to bring a sense of urgency to the task of revitalizing the American Left and offering a vision of a humane, just, and radically democratic society. Our vision is comprehensive, so Margins is an equally comprehensive journal of social thought and critique. We will cover politics, philosophy, the arts, science, and technology in a universally accessible way. As our name suggests, we want to elevate the stories of those on the margins of society, to introduce a strong voice for social justice to a campus where the words “Goldman Sachs” and “Bain Capital” are heard disgustingly often. At the same time, we recognize that our privileged status as students of an elite university prevents us from being able to speak for the marginalized.

We operate on democratic principles, making all major decisions collectively as a team of editors. Everyone has an equal say, and we aim for consensus before taking action. We also hope to be more than just a magazine, because theory is nothing without practice. Yale has many wonderful extracurricular groups that channel passionate people into Left-leaning causes, but there’s no umbrella organization to unify the Left. We want to create a vibrant left-wing community and serve as a nexus for radical activism, striving to unite the Left on Yale’s campus by holding social gatherings, public lectures and discussions, and rallies in coordination with various groups.

All voices on the Left will be welcome in Margins‘ pages, but, in our first issue, we wanted to lay out our editorial board’s collective stance on politics, economics, and the society we’re fighting to create. This isn’t necessarily what each one of us individually believes (ask two leftists a question and you’ll get three opinions!), but each of us largely subscribes to the views set out below.

We are critical of capitalism; many of us are anti-capitalist. In a country where the right wing has equated capitalism with freedom, justice, and the American way for over forty years, some might find such a statement shocking. How could you be against capitalism? The 2008 financial crisis and Wall Street’s crimes against the American people are reason enough, but let’s explore some more.

This isn’t just some abstract, philosophical problem you might talk about in the classroom and then forget the moment you step outside. This is personal. Capitalism affects you, and your family, and your friends. It warps the texture of our lives and steals from us opportunities to prosper and enjoy the true wealth of pure, unadulterated life.

Here are what we think are the ten best arguments against capitalism:

1. Capitalist logic is responsible for global warming: Capitalist theory holds that corporations should only take into account their own private costs of production without worrying about the natural or social environments that surround them. The idea that corporations have a right to despoil the environment and emit CO2 without restrictions just to rake in higher profits is the direct consequence of capitalist dogma. If uncorrected, it will destroy the planet.

2. Capitalism makes a mockery of the idea of social justice: Every year, millions of human beings die needlessly from preventable diseases, starvation, and the direct and indirect effects of poverty. Capitalism accepts poverty as necessary. It even embraces poverty as good because the specter of poverty forces people to work. But all human beings have equal dignity and worth: the poor are just as deserving of a rich, fulfilling life as the wealthy. Capitalists victimize vast swathes of society, blame victims for their victimhood by talking about a “culture of poverty,” maybe make token efforts at philanthropy, and then think that they have fulfilled their duties to the poor. Such half-baked attempts at social justice are doomed to failure, and thus under capitalism poverty will always be a horrendous scar on the face of society.

3. Capitalism supports whole economic sectors with no benefit to society, fails to accurately price goods, and undermines the provision of public goods: The profit motive is promiscuous. Capitalism doesn’t discriminate between industries that generate genuine social value and industries that profit off of people’s suffering. Thus, tobacco corporations, fossil fuel corporations, gun manufacturers, Madison Avenue advertisers, and mammoth Wall Street banks thrive despite being actively harmful to society. Capitalism doesn’t distinguish between the use value of a thing (its actual value to real people) and its exchange value (the price it commands in a financial transaction). Markets regularly price things like gasoline below their true price because markets fail to account for externalities like healthcare costs arising from pollution; price doesn’t correspond to value. Left to their own devices, markets also don’t produce public goods like education, healthcare, national parks, universal transportation, and social security programs; in societies where market logic runs rampant, the public sector is hollowed out and public goods are shredded.

4. Capitalism makes most people miserable: Capitalism fails to achieve what ought to be the goal of any economic system: to create the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. It reduces everyone except a lucky few to mere sources of labor. It denies them the basic freedom to determine the contours of their own lives by subjecting them to the stress of incessant competition, forcing them to constantly worry about money and take jobs that they don’t want to do. This stress has physical consequences: a slew of studies have shown that inequality has extremely negative effects on public health. Instead of real freedoms—free time, the freedom to choose one’s work, and freedom from fear—it substitutes a paltry imitation in the form of the “freedom” to choose between different consumer goods.

5. Capitalism is needlessly and unjustifiably unfair: People have no control over their genes. Qualities like height, weight, intellect, beauty, physical strength, familial wealth, and country of origin aren’t freely chosen. Everyone has a different starting point in the economic rat race, but capitalists pretend that equality of opportunity is enough and that, if people born with massive advantages win the race (surprise, surprise!), this is the result of fair competition. What’s more, society provides the preconditions for acquiring any kind of wealth or property in the form of public education, roads and transportation systems, a court system and laws governing property, regulation of the marketplace, post office service, and national defense. Most wealth is the product of environmental and social conditions, not individual effort or “hard work.” No one has an inherent and unlimited claim to their property or money; the rich aren’t more “deserving” than the poor, simply luckier, the beneficiaries of a rigged world-economic structure. Inequality is intrinsic to a capitalist system, but it is inherently unfair. To punish people for not being lucky, to ask them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps (a task that’s physically impossible), and criticize them when they fail, is gratuitously cruel. It’s ridiculous to sing the praises of the rich and treat them as if they’re superhuman when they were gifted with immense advantages from the outset. But that’s the perverse underlying mindset of capitalism.

6. It’s impossible for capitalism and democracy to coexist harmoniously: In an ideal democracy, every person has an equal say, and everyone is a political equal. Capitalism treats people unequally. In an “ideal” capitalist system, your say is proportional to the amount of wealth you have, so the rich count more than the poor. The supposed division between politics and economics isn’t real. Wealth invariably translates into power, especially in a country where four large corporations own most of the media, where there are few limits on campaign spending, and where lobbyists are omnipresent in government. The conflict between democracy and capitalism is fundamentally irreconcilable. If you allow moneyed private interests and tremendously rich corporations to exist, they will always hijack the political system for their own ends.

7. Capitalism exploits and encourages the worst aspects of human nature: Capitalism warps human psychology. It is predicated on creating and stoking endless desires. It exploits the fear of missing out and the basic human tendency to compare ourselves to others and hijacks fundamental human needs for love, community, and belonging to maximize profits. It rejects the idea of limits to our resources and embraces stress, anxiety, and competition. The ideal capitalist consumer is insatiable, never satisfied; the ideal capitalist producer is obsessed by her bottom line and by one-upping her competitors. Capitalism espouses a competitive mentality, encouraging people to take advantage of other people in the economic sphere, and it converts workers into robots, slaves who are constantly under the gun, always subject to the pressure to produce.

8. Capitalism makes it hard to be virtuous: Most people would agree that generosity and courage are virtues. To be generous and magnanimous, you need a fair amount of money and a properly detached attitude towards it, but many people lack those things because of the economic classes capitalism creates. Capitalist enterprises are structured like little managerial fiefdoms—it’s hard to be brave and speak truth when your job depends on your boss’ whims. Society is supposed to be about creating good people; capitalism makes it hard to be just that.

9. Capitalism turns ethically-minded people into hypocrites: Put simply, it’s pretty much impossible to be a truly ethical consumer under a capitalist system. Markets are amoral and often immoral. We’re implicated in systems of oppression daily, whether it’s through the suffering of the factory-farmed animals on our dinner plates or the child and sweatshop labor that goes into our cheap clothing. The cost in time and effort to examine where everything you buy comes from to ensure that it has been produced ethically is enormous, but dropping out of the system to make sure that you aren’t harming anyone else simply by being a consumer is very difficult and carries a large social cost.

10. Capitalism’s emphasis on the struggle for material well-being is outmoded and makes very little sense philosophically: It seems pretty meaningless to waste one’s life trying to put food on the table and fulfill one’s basic material needs, especially when we’ve solved the problem of scarcity in Western industrialized countries. If we distributed resources more equally and made sure everyone had a basic guaranteed annual income, people would be free to pause, breathe, and focus on leisure and the finer things in life. Work isn’t inherently good unless the worker loves her work and freely chooses it. Work has traditionally been valued because it’s instrumentally good, or yields a finished product. This is why capitalists champion work. But we no longer need to produce more and more, and we should de-emphasize work as a result.

For all of these reasons (and more), we consider capitalism in its current form harmful to society. It must either be fundamentally retooled or abolished. Big talk, but what does our solution look like? Some of us are socialists. The Cold War has been over for twenty years, but the various Red Scares did their job. Socialism is still a dirty word, despite its long American history as chronicled in John Nichols’ excellent book The “S” Word. There are many misunderstandings about socialism, and there are many flavors of socialism.

In short, we believe that socialism means democracy to its fullest extent. True democracy can’t exist when the economy is a plaything of the oligarchs, a realm of competition, strife, and social disharmony. Only democratic control of the economy, the cooperative direction of our resources towards the liberation of human potential and the flourishing of individual personality, will free us from today’s moral and environmental crises.

An ethic of care and community, of sharing and mutual support, is something we were taught back in kindergarten. It’s time to get back to basics. Here at Margins, we’re excited to get started.