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The Myth of Deserving
The Myths Upholding Capitalism: Part 1
For a while I’ve been wanting to do a series on some of the ideas that underpin the faith people maintain in capitalism, even when presented with evidence to the contrary. That is a component of faith, after all: belief that does not require logic, that goes beyond logic and reason and can therefore be sustained in the face all argument, and at times even in the face of experience. And I am actually quite a big fan of faith in some of its incarnations, but I would argue that capitalism requires a dangerous faith, one that is very directly linked to the devastation of the climate, life on Earth, and a healthy future for our species. So we are obligated to intervene with the worshippers of capitalism, and to interrupt the tenets of their faith.
So, to that end, I’ll be writing a little series about several of the core beliefs of capitalism, specifically those that tether working class people to the capitalist system, leading them to feel invested in an ideology and economic structure that does not invest in them, and in fact extracts our labor, time, and life as they uphold it with their energy and allegiance. I hope this series of articles helps you unlearn something of capitalist dogma, and I hope it helps you help someone else divest from the hegemonic system harming countless people and devastating the planet.
The concept of “deserving” might seem like an odd place to start. Surely we all deserve so much, and if you’re one of those radicals who has a problem with capitalism you might justifiably think our issues stem in large part from a group of wealthy people who believe everyone else deserves almost nothing at all. And I would agree. But, I have very little interest in those individuals, because I think they have very little interest in us, beyond our capacity to produce their wealth, and I think most of them have very little interest in changing. On the other hand, I think millions of working class people want change, both internal and external, and are hampered by their uncertainty around how to go about the process, not their level of desire.
So how does deserving fit into this picture of masses of people looking to be agents of change in the world around them? There are two, related aspects to me. The first is that so many of us were taught by media or relatives or friends to have a list of things we deserve, things we are owed in this life. And the list that many of us in the U.S., and likely elsewhere, grow up internalizing is not really sustainable. This adjustment can be tough but is often simpler and easier than the second issue, which is the more complex idea of what we deserve being something that we must struggle for rather than something we are born with.
To briefly break down the first of these two notions, the American dream has been tied up for some decades now with the vision of a white picket fence, house in the suburbs, two car garage etc. I’m no historian, but my understanding is that this particular vision emerged in the post-war ‘50s boom, particularly for white America. This is no new revelation, but there are two further elements worth examining. The first is that more recently, many people’s aspirations have shifted in a significant way. Namely, Keeping up with the Kardashians has replaced “keeping up with the Joneses.” I’m being a little flippant here, but the shift from quiet, if affluent, upper-middle class aspirations to the goal being extreme opulence is important. It has contributed to the hustle culture where you hear absurd things like “you’re a clown if you’re not pulling in $200,000 a year by age 30” and it’s also contributed to a shift towards pseudo-luxury where brands and stores push the appearance of opulence without the quality you might historically associate with expensive goods and services. It’s also contributed to people going into debt to pursue luxurious lifestyles, all while being ever more invested in capitalism, often thinking of themselves as capitalists while they slave away to make others rich and hold no capital themselves.
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This is not to say that everyone thinks they deserve a yacht, per say. But the creep of luxury aspirations has been accompanied by a creep in what people believe they are owed, or deserve simply by virtue of existing. And this bring us to the deeper, underlying problem of how the understanding of human rights has evolved, how it’s used, and how it’s current incarnation is deeply inadequate. In short, the dominant discourse around what we as human beings deserve is linked to an understanding of human rights that essentially says that we deserve certain things inherently, just by virtue of existing.
And the impulse behind this understanding is unequivocally good. It comes from an effort to level the playing field and bring humanity out of feudalism, when certain people were understood to deserve dominance, and others subordination simply because of the status they were born into. Shifting to an understanding that we all deserve equality, and to have certain basic needs met, was an important and necessary step. And this conception persists largely in response to the pernicious persistence of inequality in the world. We often see this understanding of human rights and of what people deserve brought up as a response to the deep unfairness of this world. We see progressive leaders or organizations declare that we all deserve equal treatment, equal rights, etc. The language with which people assert that we deserve these rights often declares them to be inherent, God given, or a variation on that theme. Each variation is asserting the same essential idea: that human beings are born with rules embedded within them that need to be respected. But just as fairness is a desire rather than a reality, the idea of inherent rights is a desire rather than a detectable reality. The concept of having rights is an assertion of what we should have, not what we do have. Politicians and reformers have found declaring that we deserve certain freedoms because they are inalienable and fundamental to be more powerful than saying we deserve them because that’s how the world should work, ideally. But, the successes of this approach shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the truth that the notion of inherent rights is really an attempt at a better world, not a declaration of reality as it is.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with attempting to create a better world. In fact, there’s nothing nobler as far as I can tell. But the language around what we deserve is limiting, at times even counter productive, and we’re at a point in history where we can’t afford to be short-sighted. In other words, we can’t afford to use the rhetoric that galvanizes people in the short-term but comes around to bite us down the road. What the coming back around to bite us looks like, at this moment, is the persistent belief that if we simply convince enough people that housing is a right, or healthcare is a right, the democratic process will grant us these things. This might seem to go beyond the concept of deserving, and in part it does, but we’re at a place where millions of people believe that they deserve a whole lot, but aren’t aware that we need to fight for each and every one of those things. At an intellectual level a lot of people are aware that unions, aka workers banding together and fighting tooth and nail, won us the weekend, won the 8 hour work day, won the end of child labor (for the most part) and so much more. Setting aside that a whole lot of folks also aren’t aware of that history, those who are tend to think of these facts as the history of yesteryear. They think that things are different now, that the victories of the past are guaranteed, that now we simply deserve such things as clean water and education and a weekend. What so many have forgotten, or never learned, is that under capitalism the ruling class never has enough. They are always reaching out, always grasping for more, always seeking to take those things we think we deserve out from under us.
And we do deserve clean water. Our kids deserve quality educations and we all deserve quality healthcare and longer weekends and shorter workdays and so much more. But what I’m questioning here is the utility of this concept of deserving, not in a vacuum but in a rapacious capitalist society. What I’m asking is what if we used a more helpful approach to the idea of deserving. We could start by being clear that what we currently discuss as inherently deserving is really that which we collectively agree that we deserve. I know that takes away some of the impact of “inalienable rights” that are divinely granted or simply inherent to the human being, but this more accurate understanding does also give us something. It opens the door to seeing that determining together what we believe we all deserve starts to shape society, starts to develop a vision for what a better society might look like.
And it opens the door to seeing that in this unfair world we are not born with anything guaranteed to us, nothing that grants us an automatic right to health, wealth, or life itself. The handful of rights that are now perceived as being inherent were in fact collectively agreed upon. Not only were they agreed upon by the working class, they were fought for. Union members and civil rights marchers and countless others spilled blood, poured sweat, and even gave their lives for the rights we currently have. And even these rights are routinely violated by police, bosses, landlords and other ruling class forces.
What this should teach us is that we have to struggle. While deserving implies something inherent, something guaranteed, the world we want and the world we need is anything but. We can’t afford to take anything for granted, and taking the eventual improvement of the world for granted is exactly what those in power want from us. They want us to believe progress is inevitable, that technology will resolve our problems, and that we don’t really need to lift a finger. But more on these other persistent myths later. For now, what’s crucial is knowing that the construct of deserving, the construct of rights and needs being guaranteed us, is one of the pillars upholding the current system, counter-intuitive though it may seem. One day, we might have a world that works this way, but that day is far out on the horizon, and may never come. In the present we urgently need to understand that we get what we fight for, what we struggle for, what we organize for. And we need to understand engaging in this extended, constant work to be a way of life.
I’m not the first to write on these ideas, nor the last. All I can hope for is that I wrote clearly on the topic, and that this either helps you towards unlearning, or helps you help someone else. Next I’ll be writing on individualism, then progress, then maybe a piece on shifting from rights to responsibilities, and so on and so forth as I make my way through some of the beliefs and myths that underlie our faith in capitalism and work to hold up the system we live under—and do my best to help tear them down, and replace them. Thank you for reading, thank you for subscribing, and if you feel moved to share then thank you for spreading the word. Talk soon! - Josh
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