The Illusion of Choice
Powerlessness, expressed as anger.
We live in a culture that allows for the dehumanization of labor. Every single middle- and upper-class American citizen benefits from this system, myself included. Ensconced in the rosey bubble of capitalism, there is no need to worry about whether or not the people making our clothes and serving our food are making enough money to live. Because this is America, and everyone has a choice. Pull yourself up by the bootstraps! Create your own success! Make the American Dream Great Again!
A convenient world order for the non-oppressed, but the capitalist system that allowed your great grandpa to build an empire from nothing but spit and sticktoitness also allows for rampant discrimination, nepotism, and unequal distribution of wealth. It is built so that an individual possessing a disproportionately large percentage of wealth, power, and property can sit pretty on their dragon’s treasure believing, in their little black soul, that they somehow earned it. That they are more deserving of excessive luxuries than a poor person is of basic necessities.
Because it all comes down to the idea of choice. If we believe that wealth is achievable for any person with a little perseverance and a lot of elbow grease, it stands to reason that everyone has a choice about whether or not to be wealthy. Rich people work hard, poor people are lazy, everyone gets what they deserve - a belief system that only works if you believe another human being can deserve poverty and marginalization.
Couple that entitlement with a national minimum wage that doesn’t come close to reaching the poverty line, and you’ve created a system wherein it is justifiable to simultaneously treat people inhumanely and not pay them for their work. Think about service positions that rely on tips as the main source of income. By allowing this type of employment, the government is taking protection away from already unprotected groups of people. Instead of being guaranteed a wage by their employer, these workers must rely on the humanity of the patrons. But we have already established that a capitalist society encourages the wealthy to feel entitled to their wealth and to see the less wealthy as people who are inherently less deserving.
The twisted ethics of this conundrum doesn’t stop at the super wealthy or even the middle class. If we are encouraged from a young age to view our money and possessions as something inherently belonging to us, anyone who is asking for a bit of it is a threat. In the case of the hyper wealthy or corporations - which somehow are allowed personhood in our great country - this can look like tax evasion, fraud, or unethical campaign donations. In the case of lower income communities, it can turn individuals against each other.
Which really is a genius move. If you have the entire middle- and especially the lower-income classes calling each other out for over charging for services or not working hard enough for their tips - essentially, accusing each other of pulling others down into relative poverty - no one is looking up at the people who really control all the wealth.
Why is it that we race to big box stores for shitty clothes we’re going to hate in two months, but cringe at the thought of adding an extra dollar to the tip at a restaurant? Or spending 2% more to patronize the mom-and-pop mechanic instead of rolling into Service King? It’s all a big marketing ploy. No one puts up billboards saying, “Tipping is sexy” - the people it would benefit can’t afford it. On the other hand, Zara can certainly afford complex marketing strategies to convince young people that their very lives depend on bi-weekly wardrobe replenishments. We’re desperate to give more money to people who already have too much while begrudging the lower classes their daily bread because the ones who benefit from the illusion of economic choice are the entities that have the most to gain from institutional inhumanity.
This bit is usually where the internal argument breaks down and we reach for a La Croix in hopes of drowning our existential angst with the soothing balm of lemony fizz. Even in the solitude of one’s internal monologue, the idea of vast global marketing manipulation scheme cooked up by mustache-twirling fat cats gives us strong tin hat conspiracy theory vibes. Even more so the retort, That’s what they want you to think.
But to full stop at this sticking point is to abort the argument prematurely. The system may be large, but people are small, and it takes everyone’s participation to exist. In which context, they as an entity doesn't really exist. A corporation’s aim isn’t for people to have less, it’s for the corporation to have more. The social manipulation is a byproduct of hyper self focus. Which is the behavior that individuals then mirror in attempts at self-preservation. Capitalism is the water we swim in. If the best way to spend a life is making money, then the best waste of it is to toil without hope of monetary success. It’s almost downright un-American.
The idea of human decency suffers from a simple case of bad PR. The most effective way for corporations to convince us to give them our resources is to make us believe that we need what they are selling more than we need each other, making us into consumers first, human beings second. Consumers are individuals, wary of each other. Human being beings are cooperative tribe animals; they understand that personal survival is dependent on survival of the collective.
The more massive our society gets, the less we are conditioned to take care of each other. People privileged enough never to have known true want are hard-pressed to see their own bias when it comes to the illusion of choice. The reality is that humans have only survived this far through the means of collective struggle - and no one in that collective wants to be starving. It is not a fucking choice. The only difference between someone who has too much and someone who doesn’t have enough is pure, blind luck. Capitalism simply favores some groups over others, and it’s chance for any one individual's’ DNA scramble to have come out clubs or spades.
I’m not talking about abundance here. I’m talking about food, shelter, clothing, and dignity. We’re pissed about being too poor to afford Louboutin pumps, our privilege blinding us to the hurt of those we rely on to maintain our supposedly broke-ass comfortable lifestyles. Because the entities who rely on our spending are the ones controlling the media narrative, it’s easy to believe that we won’t have enough until we have everything. And in order to have everything, we can’t afford to spend money on people, even as compensation for services rendered.
Poverty isn’t a choice, because we are not islands. We live in groups, and our actions affect each other. Some may be wealthier, but they are not better. They’re just lucky.
Photo courtesy Luca Bravo