The capitalist mystique

by Eric Ginsburg

Everyone seems to generally agree that times are tough. The economy is doubled over like it was punched in the stomach, and while some may speculate — and certainly both primary presidential candidates promised — that it will come back stronger than ever once it catches its breath, the truth of the matter is that the economy had a heart attack.

We’ve seen the symptoms before, and even other paroxyisms as the arteries clogged and the extremities lost feeling as they waited for help to trickle down. Yet somehow through it all, we maintain a state of extreme denial, delusionally refusing to talk about capitalism.

The thing is, capitalism has been at war with us the entire time. The system has always been a pyramid, and while some have been able to climb the metaphorical ladder by standing on other people’s faces, the majority has remained — as it must — at the bottom.

Fighting a losing battle to attract jobs and deal with our high unemployment rate is missing the point. Wake Forest Baptist just announced its intention to gut 950 jobs, and while the Winston- Salem City Council may be giving job creation its best shot, incentives like one passed in September for Mast General Stores to create an estimated 12- 15 full-time jobs and around two dozen part-time positions hardly slows the bleeding.

It’s not just that our schools aren’t preparing students for the high-tech, “good” jobs the Triad is hoping to create, attract and retain and that companies are looking outside the local labor pool, it’s that most people in Greensboro and Winston- Salem will never hold such positions.

Yet even when the focus is on addressing unemployment and job growth, which the Greensboro City Council claims is its top priority — despite spending significant time on a noise ordinance, an entertainment security ordinance and a performing arts center — the conversation requires broadening.

The entire point of a job is to sell your time in exchange for wages, ostensibly in order to pay for things like food and shelter. A recent study showed that workers can’t afford fair-market rent working minimum wage in any state even if they are working full time. In North Carolina, you’d have to work approximately 75 hours every week to be able to pay rent, according to a recent study from the National Low Income Housing Coalition. In other words, it would take more than $13/hour just to scrape by.

People find all sorts of ways to make ends meet, from squeezing into apartments to slinging drugs or stealing, and while some may be publicly considered more desirable than others, what do we expect is going to happen when working minimum wage is pointless or there are no jobs to begin with?

North Carolina has one of the fastestgrowing income inequality rates, according to the NC Justice Center, as poor and middle-income Carolinians’ incomes dropped and the upper class earned even more. Even the seemingly well off are struggling — when the mayor of Greensboro owes tens of thousands of dollars in taxes and faces foreclosure despite being the president of a commercial real estate company, you start to see just how deep the problem runs.

If the cities of Greensboro or Winston- Salem actually cared about the well being of working and unemployed people there are plenty of things they could do differently, but these ideas aren’t even on their radar. What about raising the minimum wage, providing affordable housing, decriminalizing marijuana, improving public transportation, strengthening the human-relations department to support workers being robbed by their employers, providing seed money for workerowned cooperatives or a hundred other ideas that our residents could come up with if given the forum?

But that’s exactly the point: People aren’t waiting — nor should they — for politicians to provide the solutions, but as we figure out ways to cope and push for reforms that would make our lives easier, let’s not forget the bigger picture and why we have to struggle to get by in the first place.

Even if we can find ways to lessen the blow as the economy keels over, the fantasy that we can tweak capitalism and end up standing on both feet is how we wound up here in the first place.

Pathologically lying to ourselves and each other that the nation is going to come roaring back and that we’ll all ride the wave of prosperity may serve the interest of people seeking re-election, but it does little for the majority who will always be on the losing side of an everyday class war.

It makes sense that after working 75 hours a week just to pay rent and put food in their mouths that people would want to numb themselves with television or antidepressants or alcohol, or allow themselves to be seduced by the capitalist mystique that we can all “make it” one day if we try hard enough. Sooner or later though, the medication and cable bills will be too high, and the lie told enough times will eventually ring false.