All posts by Teresa Smith

Woman Unbound: Some Notes on Gender in Capitalism

by Teresa Smith

When I was a kid, my mother taught me how to manipulate men.

She was a single parent with a disability that prevented her from working, and her smile and charm helped us get the resources we needed to survive. She flirted her way into getting our car fixed, into having overdraft fees waved at the bank; she even got a social services worker to eliminate her massive student loan debt. When mom got pulled over by cops, she would bat her eyelashes and pretend to be an idiot: “Oh my goodness officer! I had no idea the taillight was out!”

It always embarrassed me and my sister to watch this performance. It wasn’t mom’s real personality. Afterwards, she would regain her pride by telling us, in her most macho voice: “I hope you were taking notes, girls. This is what you have to do to survive.”

We lived in a large government-assistance housing complex, and I frequently babysat for sex workers, watching their kids while they were out making extra cash. I remember one girl, a six-year-old, Sarah, tore a large chunk of her hair out one night when her mom was late getting back from a job. It was getting later and later, and we kept watching Disney movies, pretending everything was okay, and I didn’t notice the way Sarah was pulling one strand of her hair out at a time until there was a big, bloody bald patch on the side of her head. This was the Seattle-area in the ’90s, and the Green River Killer was still out there. A couple of the bodies of women had been dumped within miles of our apartments.

When Sarah’s mom finally showed up, Sarah threw her arms around the woman’s waist and began crying.

“Get the fuck off me,” her mother cussed her out and hit Sarah a few times before the woman locked herself in her bedroom and bawled.

I never asked what stalled Sarah’s mom that night. I didn’t want to know.

Most of the woman I talked to growing up had exchanged sex for money at least a few times. My mom frowned upon sex work — she was religious and came from a wealthy family — but she borrowed money and favors from her boyfriends all the time.

Patty, the lady who lived next door, once laughed and explained that sex work is “just the same as marriage, only you don’t have to clean their damn socks!”

I got a lot of advice from the women in my apartments: “You should shave your legs, paint your nails.” “If a man starts talking, pretend you’re interested in whatever he says, no matter how stupid he is. Don’t ever act bored by a man.”

These were life-skills they were teaching me. Skills to survive, or at least live more comfortably. But the whole thing disgusted me. When I asked about love, these women tended to laugh. And I hated the way they complained about their men: talking about them behind their backs, much the way a worker might rant about a boss.

But perhaps that is exactly what was going on: Just as the males/workers were lying about themselves in order to manipulate their bosses into giving them cash, the females / dependents were inventing ways to more easily extract that money from the workers.

With our system of care so wrapped up in money, we find that the rarest luxury in this society is trust. Trust that your lover/provider will keep paying your bills even if you don’t have sex with them whenever they want. Trust that you will still be loved by your lover/dependent even if you lose your job. More often than not, this kind of trust is destroyed by the statutory nature of such relationships, and love is left wounded somewhere in the dark.

I didn’t realize my mother was actually trying to help me when I was twelve and she nagged me for months to pluck my eyebrows — “You’ll never get a husband with that unibrow!” — until finally she lost patience and pinned me to the bathroom wall and I wept while my little sister solemnly tweezed the offending hairs. How obsessed my mother was with my imaginary future husband! As if he were a specter lurking over me, watching for any sins against his taste.

In the early 90s, everyone knew the story of Lorena Bobbitt, the woman who chopped off her husband’s dick threw it from the window of a moving car. Some storytellers made Bobbitt out to be a harpy worthy of Greek legend: Lorena innocently smiling as she invites the ill-fated man into her bed, a murderous glint in her eye.

My mom had the best version of the Bobbit story, and the neighbor kids used to come over and beg her to tell it. Mom made Lorena into a trickster, much like Briar Rabbit, with the husband cast as a sort of Elmer Fudd character, hunting through the reeds for his escaped penis. “It’s got to be here somewhere!”

All of us kids disliked the men who prowled around our apartments, beating on doors and moms, drunkenly crashing into things with their cars, leaving a trail of dented mail boxes, scuffed up garbage cans, and fist-sized holes in walls and doors.

When I was in the fourth grade, my best friend Joey and I frequently spent our afternoons together, taking apart old radios, playing with soldering irons, eager learn how things work.

One night, Joey came straight to our apartment after spending the weekend at his dad’s trailer in the Cascade Mountains. I knew something was wrong: his shoulders were pulled up around his chin like his head was trying to escape into his neck.

We sat down in the kitchen and my mom brewed us some tea.

Finally Joey started talking. He spoke for about twenty minutes, and the only part I remember is the way he described his dad holding him down and jamming things into his ears. “First it was a pencil…”

Joey’s face was pale and a little green, like he was about to throw up.

“I hate it when people touch my ears,” he shuttered.

“I hate high places,” I said, and I told him about the time my mom’s boyfriend dangled me from the highest bridge in Eugene because I was “giving him lip.”

I didn’t talk about the time my dad was in town and tried to crush me under a mattress.

Then my mom spoke up and told her finest rendition yet of the Lorena Bobbitt myth, opening with the husband running into a police station, hollering, “My wang! My wang! That woman’s wacked off my wang!”

When I was thirteen, I stopped shaving my legs and became involved in a political battle to save some wetlands in my town. When this happened, many of the women in my apartments stopped speaking to me. I was blatantly ignoring their advice about looking pretty and not speaking my mind. Many of the moms discouraged their daughters from hanging out with me. A ten-year-old girl confronted me and said, “My mom thinks you should shave your legs.” During that time, I got death threats from two of the teenaged boys in the apartments.

By the time I was sixteen, I stopped hanging out with poor people, and started befriending folks in wealthier cliques.

My new friends were all children of white-collar workers, and their parents seemed to have gender all figured out: they spouted theories of gender equality and encouraged their daughters to become scientists. They acted as if sexism didn’t exist, as if women can be independent self-possessed individuals without fear of any social repercussion. And in their homes, this seemed to be the reality. I began to wonder if all the gender nastiness from my earlier life came simply because I hung out with poor people.

Some friends I met through activism helped me get into college, and I dreamed that academia would be a place where I could interact with men honestly, without fear or manipulations.

After going off to university, however, I found myself combating whole new restrictive gender dynamics: teachers who tended to call on male students more than female. Male students who became furious at me if I rejected acts of chivalry. Two of my female roommates had verbally abusive boyfriends. Several of my female friends were raped during college. In fact, I am pretty sure that all of us were raped at least once somewhere along the line: every time I made close friends with a woman, she would eventually disclose the details. It hurt my heart to hear it every time. And when a rapist finally got me, I was startled by how fast all the bullshit started hitting me: Trying to share it with people and having them ask, “What were you wearing?” And, while getting the restraining order, which involved the traumatic experience of seeing my rapist in court, having the judge repeatedly ask me, “Was there any alcohol involved?” As if these are worthy excuses. As if consent can be overridden so long as certain factors are involved.

After my rape, I found out my mother had also been raped. I already knew that my sister had been raped.

One in three American women admits to having been raped at some point in her life, but in my family, none of the women escaped.

When I told my older cousin about my rape, she said, “That’s the thing about college: all your friends start raping each other.”

Female oppression expresses itself differently among the wealthy: the designer date rape drugs, the games played with money and favors, shaming culture that frightens rich women away from voicing their abuse. But underneath it all, there is still that same dehumanization, that same belief that a female is nothing more than a body, and that body is simply a product for consumption.

What does it mean to be a woman in 2013?

In Dreams of Donuts #15, Oakland zinster Heather Wreckage wrote, “I pretty much believe that all female-bodied people have P.T.S.D. because of the constant trauma due to our “gender”.”

When I first read this, I was somewhat annoyed. I don’t want to think of myself as a trauma survivor. But, to my greater annoyance, I think Heather is on to something.

There are so many jokes about the “battle of the sexes,” but how frequently do folks bring up the war?

A friend who works at a woman’s shelter told me an alarming statistic: “During the Vietnam war, 58,000 American men were killed overseas. Meanwhile 62,000 American women died from domestic violence back home.”

But it isn’t just the moments of violence that make womanhood so difficult. To rephrase a Nietzsche quote: Rape is perhaps the dark flower of the horrible seed of America’s culture around gender.

A woman in this society is socialized to be a dependent. Being a dependent means that someone in your personal life has taken charge of your ability to receive money, and under capitalism, it is your access to money that determines how and whether you will survive.

To make her a better dependent, a woman in this society is conditioned to be working customer service all the time. She receives constant social pressure to undermine herself, to repress her ability to articulate her desires. She is supposed to be receptive to the situation, to make others feel comfortable and say “yes” to everything all the time. She must take responsibility for the “mood of the room,” to accommodate the needs of everyone else the moment they feel them. She swallows her anger. She stifles her pain. It is all about pleasing others while looking “attractive,” while appearing to be enjoying herself.

Isn’t it strange how everyone talks about the way a woman looks? It is usually the first thing people say about a woman. It starts to get to you, after a while. A multimillion dollar cosmetics industry has built a veritable empire upon this insecurity, selling women beauty supplies that are frequently made of glass, road kill, lead, and other toxic materials. Many women don’t care if their makeup is increasing their risk of cancer: better to have a shorter life than live with the constant insecurity that, if I let my appearance slide, my food, clothing, shelter, care, and companionship will disappear. Only, no matter how much makeup you lather upon it, that sense of swelling panic never quite leaves.

In my daily life — walking to the supermarket, riding the bus, going to workshops, parties, and classes, I frequently find that I am treated poorly if I don’t act in a self-deprecating way. As a woman, if I’m too assertive, people tend to respond negatively. When I was young, I had more energy to face this shit. In fact, I welcomed it. Once or twice a week during my sophomore and junior years of college, I painted a mustache across my upper lip and sagged my jeans and went to class in my “man costume,” and when people asked me if I was dressed that way for a reason, I’d ask them if they were dressed their way for a reason.

It is strange remembering those college shenanigans now, and asking myself why my energy for such things has disappeared.

Once, in college, a male student opened a door for me. I thanked him, even though I really didn’t need the door opened, and I decided to return the favor by walking up to the next door and opened it for him. He scowled and said, “I was just trying to be nice!”

Another time, I was trying to hang my bicycle from a ceiling rack in my apartment building, and, as I had the bike precariously balanced over my head, a guy suddenly walks in and eagerly says, “Let me help you!”

“I got it,” I grunted and finished hanging the bike. “But thanks for the offer.”

“Yeah, whatever,” my neighbor mumbled as he locked up his bike. “Fucking feminist bitch.”

So what’s with that, anyway? All those guys who get mad at you for denying them the ability to rescue you?

But then there are the times that, to my great shame, I’ve allowed myself to be rescued.

My last year of college, for example, I got out of a parking ticket by batting my eyelashes in traffic court, talking in a fake bimbo voice, and saying to the judge, “I’m so sorry! I didn’t even see that it was a No Parking Zone!” And the judge dismissed the ticket, just like that. Before this, I’d watched three other people — all male — have their parking ticket appeals rejected. The judge seemed quite pleased with himself for having rescued me, and for the next five minutes, he lectured me about staying safe while driving. I nodded and smiled as he droned on, and all I could think was, “So this is what it means to be patronized.”

The judge was in a position of authority over me (I did not have the money to pay that ticket, and he had the power to relieve me of this financial burden), so I allowed him to play rescuer.

So perhaps, we might say, that a male’s ability to put himself in the role of “rescuing” a woman is totally dependent on how much more power he has than her based on the inequalities that exist in our class system. If those eager young bucks who tried to help me with the door and bicycle had had me by the balls the way that judge did, I surely would have allowed them to play out their fantasies of “chivalry.”

Sometimes, I allow myself to imagine what life would be like if I lived in a world in which the dynamics of gender are no longer reinforced by class, a world in which everyone could emerge as the people they would be if we weren’t bound to these weird social roles that are assigned to us at birth based on the lottery ticket of genitalia. What would sex be like if it was impossible to attach all these strings to it? What would it be like to ride the bus? What would it be like if my boyfriend and I didn’t have to work so hard to “contribute equally to the relationship,” to no longer to go through all the discussions and extra chores and exchanges of money and guilty feelings and all the “I really want to check in with you on this because I need to know if I’m being a burden?” What would our relationship look like, post-capitalism? But my big hopes are reduced to something very small when, every day, I am confronted with gender dynamics. Because even though he and I live in a consensus-oriented co-op, and even though he wears eyeliner and I orate about politics, neither of us can escape the subtle power that finances have over both of our lives.

One in four American women experiences chronic nerve pain. When I find myself stuck in bed, grappling with the sense that my lungs and chest are imploding, I often realize that the pain started when I allowed someone to overstep a boundary.

American women are twice as likely to experience depression as men. In the book Silencing the Self: Women and Depression, social theorist Dana Jack shows how women are conditioned to self-silence: to bottle our opinions, thoughts, and feelings. By doing this, we become disconnected from our surroundings and the people around us.

Our mothers and grandmothers didn’t implement better gender relations by simply wishing or lamenting. They were actually out there in the factories, unions, and courts, negotiating for new laws and protections for women.

4000 American women die each year from domestic violence. What would happen if we took a page from our foremother’s books and united to protect each other? We have a lot of power–we make their food, live in their homes, care for their children…

This is the ugly direction we face as every relationship becomes increasingly politicized. If the cultural theorists are right, as capitalism enters its final stages of decay, we are seeing individuals (rather than companies) pitted against each other, until every type of human interaction becomes meditated by the negotiations of capitalist exchange. So perhaps capitalism’s dying days will be marked by women rising up Fight-Club-style, pinning our former masters to the ground, razor blades held to their quivering balls, as they beg us for mercy while we demand that the rapes, the murder, the oppression end.

But rather than war between the sexes, perhaps we will find a way to peacefully relieve each other of the arbitrary duties assigned to us by gender. We could harness the power of language–the power that language has to represent and reinforce our myths. We could liberate our genitals from the straight-jacket of gender and start telling different types of stories, stories about our day, stories about how, this morning, I had amazing sex with my partner, and as the ravenous jaws of my cunt closed around the swelling bud of his gentle phallus, both of us were consumed. And it is a coincidence that the penis in this story belonged to someone who considers themselves male, and that the vagina to my female-identified self, because it could have been any combination of adjectives and body parts. And I do believe that, if there is a moment in physical reality from which the myth of gender emanates — it is the moment when pleasure is transcribed into language.

And yet, I hesitate to get too excited about dismantling gender. Even if we successfully liberate ourselves from arbitrary gender roles, capitalism will simply develop a new game to dictate who will receive care and who won’t. One can only imagine the types of new cruelties people will invent if capitalism continues, what kind of new myths will be used to justify the inequalities inherent in the system.

When I was nine years old, my mom was having trouble with a former lover and we decided to move away and change our names. I told my sidekick, Raymond, a seven-year-old who liked to wear a bath towel cape. His mom, Brandy, was pissed when she heard we were leaving. She came over to our apartment and told my mom to buy a gun.

Brandy was six months pregnant, and let me feel her baby kicking while she explained to my mother: “You have to wait until he comes inside the house to shoot him. That way it’s burglary. If you shoot him on the porch, you’ll get murder, and that will put you in jail for a long time. But if you kill him in the house, then he’s a burglar, and you’re free to go.”
The man they were talking about was my father.

Mom thanked Brandy for her advice and a week later, we packed up all of our things and drove to a new state. The Witness Protection Program gave us some ridiculous new names.

According to family legend, my dad was part of the Symbionese Liberation Army, a group of radical insurrectionists who kidnapped and killed people in the early 70s. The group’s name comes from the word “symbiosis,” and their manifesto was all about how they considered themselves to be “a body of dissimilar bodies and organisms living deep and loving harmony and partnership in the best interest of all within the body.”

My dad wanted to change the world, to make it a better place. But he believed that change had to be obtained through a fight. Perhaps that was why he was so violent at home: unable to find place to vent this violence after the SLA collapsed, he inflicted it upon his family.

We think my dad is dead now.

According to his friends, he was living homeless for several years in a small city in Oregon. Two years ago, he crawled off into the woods and never emerged.

In this war, there are no victors.

I, Capitalist: accounts from a life under the empire

This article now available in print from Black Powder Press.

by Teresa Smith

When I was a kid, I used to watch my mother soak things in hot, sudsy water and then pick the price tags off with her fingernails.

Sometimes, I wish I could soak my soul in that water, that I might cleanse myself of all reminders of the cost of things.

$

A few weeks ago, I was sipping tea with my favorite Marxist–he bought me the tea cuz I’m hella broke–and I was telling him how I’d been offered a job that pays $50 an hour, but I was thinking about not taking it.

“Why not?” he asked. “You need that money.”

I had been jobless for over a year, and to survive, I’d been borrowing money from the people I love. My friends were running out of slack, though, and if I didn’t find a job soon, I’d have to move out of my coveted Berkeley attic corner (I pay $215 a month to live in a drafty rat-infested attic with 3 other people) and move back in with my foster parents in the cultural desert of Seattle Suburbia.

“I just don’t think I should start working yet…” I grappled to explain. “I mean… being jobless is teaching me something… something about value, about capital, about the way money moves people… and I think… I’m close–really close–to figuring out what money really is.”

“No, Teresa,” the Marxist gazed at me with intensity. “Money is a magical and elusive thing. You could spend your entire life studying it and never figure out what it is.”

$

But still, I couldn’t stop thinking about money, about the symbols we use to represent value.

In the mid-1800s, Karl Marx devoted himself to the study of capital. So desperate he was to understand the ebb and flow of value that he quit working and spent every waking hour in the London library, studying. He wrote thousands of pages about the way Capitalism works, creating perhaps the most comprehensive explanation of an economic system ever.

But in his manic efforts to understand it, Marx neglected to participate in the system he was trapped in. …and the Beast of Capitalism punishes nonparticipation without mercy.

As Marx wrote, four of his children starved to death.

$

In December of 1989, I worked my first job. I was five years old, selling sprigs of mistletoe door-to-door for $1 a bundle and I loved doing it! I still remember one young man who bought a sprig, winked at me, turned around, and held the mistletoe over a woman’s head. They kissed like at the end of Little Mermaid, and I beamed at them, proud that my mistletoe had facilitated such an excellent moment.

If someone had told me I was doing it for the money, I would have laughed so hard! But I quickly learned that those little paper rectangles were important: money was the symbol that allowed me to take part in the magical ritual of exchange, an ancient ritual that brings random strangers together to share a few moments of existence before going back to the meantime of our lives.

I made over $100 selling mistletoe, and gave it all to my mom. Her eyes lit up–just like when the checks arrived from her sisters. My mother usually spent her days locked away in her room, but with a huge wad of cash in her hands, her depression completely dissipated. She had power now. Power to do things beyond the meager allotment sent by the Welfare office.

“Santa is going to bring extra toys this year!” she grinned.

¥

After college, I traveled to Japan to teach English. I had been looking forward to the job for months–I love teaching! And sure, the students would be paying for the English lessons, but I thought of the monetary exchange as a ritual that would allow the real magic to happen: the sacred connection between human minds grappling to understand a topic.

But after arriving in Japan, I quickly learned that most of my students weren’t interested in the joy of learning: they behaved like customers: arms folded, eyes narrowed, as if it was my job to serve them a Unit-of-English-Language.

For the first time in my life, I learned what it is like to be reduced to an object, a sum of my functions. Some customers treated me so poorly, I wanted to run from the room. But I was held hostage: if I walked out, I’d lose my job. And I needed that job to pay off my college debt.

“How do you stand this place?” I asked my coworker, Ben, who’d worked at the Language Company for several years.

“I don’t,” he smiled robotically. “When I get to work in the morning, I turn my emotions off. And I don’t feel a thing until I leave the office at the end of the day.”

“That’s horrible!” I said.

“Just wait until your first paycheck comes,” Ben replied. “You’ll realize it was all worth it.”

So when my paycheck came, I tried to make it feel worth it: I drank fine saké with my new friends, traveled to some spiffy ancient shrines, and adorned my body with designer clothes from Osaka’s fashion district. But none of these things could make me feel happy–nothing could buy back the 200+ hours I spent each month feeling miserable at work.

I arrived in Japan in summer of ’07, just in time to watch the Japanese economy collapse. Every couple days, I’d reach the transit station and the neon signs would be flashing: “All Trains: 45 Minute Delay.” This meant that yet another newly-fired businessman had thrown himself in front of a commuter train. It always took the transit workers 45 minutes to clean the flesh from the tracks.

Starting in middle school, Japanese kids are taught to pack their feelings in and work hard–even if the work doesn’t make sense, even if they are being treated poorly–for the sake of future remuneration. Like Christians setting aside their own pleasure for the sake of a future reward, Japanese people are taught to displace their pleasure for symbols: grades and money. But when you hollow yourself out for the sake of symbols, what is left when those symbols are taken away?

“You should feel lucky,” said my coworker, Steve, “that you weren’t born in China.” Before coming to Japan, Steve had spent two years working at an orphanage in China. The parents of the 200+ babies he tended were still alive: they were workers at a nearby purse factory. These people had to work 17-hours-a-day, 6-days-a-week, and if they complained, they risked losing their jobs and starving to death. On Sundays, the workers came to the orphanage to clutch their babies with bloodied fingers. These people received pennies for the each purse they made, which were sold for about $400 at designer boutiques in Japan, America, and Europe…. so that workers like me could make our paychecks “feel like something.”

One day in the break room, my coworkers began discussing the ways they’d thought about killing themselves.

“Sometimes, when a lesson is going really bad,” Ben said, “I think about throwing myself off a tall building and smashing through the windows of the building next to it. It would feel so good to go out like that–to use my body to break something.”

A few weeks later, I left Japan. I would have to find some other way to pay off my college debt.

$

When I was 15-years-old, I learned that college costs extravagant amounts of money, so I informed my mother that I was going to stop giving her cash.

“But I need that money,” my mom sounded frightened.

I worked several jobs–shelving books at the library, delivering newspapers, keeping grounds for the landlord–and I gave most of the money to my mom. I thought it was a frivolous thing, that she didn’t depend on the money, that it just made her life a little more fun.

“If you need cash,” I said, “just ask your sisters.”

“Not until they apologize!” A few years before–right around the time I started giving my mom money, actually–she had stopped talking to her wealthy sisters. Three of her five sisters had married rich men, and they sent cash to anyone in the family who groveled hard enough.

“Well,” I said, “if you want extra money, you’ll have to swallow your pride and talk to your sisters, cuz I’m saving up for college.”

Within the next year, I managed to save over $3000–almost enough for 6 months tuition. I was off to a good start. But shortly after my 16th birthday, I went to the bank to and discovered my account was empty. My mother had used her Legal Guardian privileges to drain every penny.

So I got better at hiding my money.

But once I was no longer providing for her, my mom started treating her children differently…

By the time I was 17, the household had grown so violent, my younger sister and I were forced to leave.

$

“I hate our aunts,” said my 14-year-old cousin, Billy.

“You shouldn’t say bad things about The Aunties,” I said. I was a 21-year-old college student, and wanted to be a positive role model.

“Dude, they lie all the time,” Billy said. “And they gossip about my mom.”

He was right: I had once heard one of my aunts on the phone with Billy’s mom, saying “I love you,” and then, immediately after hanging up, she had turned to me and said “My sister is such a worthless person!” Billy’s mother had schizophrenia and didn’t have a husband. Perhaps that is why her sisters thought it was okay to speak so unkindly about her.

“But the aunties love you,” I heard myself say.

“They never visit,” Billy countered.

“But they send you and your mom so much money!”

“Yeah, but money isn’t love.”

I smiled. Money isn’t love. Billy was always challenging me to see those horrible truths I so often tried to ignore. That was something I loved about him: he was never afraid to call me on my bullshit.

Two years later, at the age of 16, Billy swallowed a bottle of painkillers.

When Billy died, I had been frantically trying to find a ride out to see him. I had a horrible feeling… But everyone was so busy working, they didn’t have time to give me a ride. I don’t own my own car, and didn’t I have the cash for a Greyhound ticket.

$

When my sister and I left home as teenagers, we were lucky enough to be living in the Seattle ‘burbs, an area oversaturated with cash.

When local folks found out that my sister and I were “homeless,” they shared their food, guest rooms, let us ride their horses, and one family even took us on a one-week vacation to Disneyland. It seemed to make people feel powerful to share their resources and luxuries with us. When we thanked them, they always beamed, saying stuff like “Well, it makes me feel great to share what I have!”

Eventually, one family in town let us stay with them on a permanent basis. Our new foster parents pushed us to finish high school, and helped us get the loans and financial aid we needed to go to college.

$

A few days after Billy died, I finally got a ride out to the Oregon Coast to see him. I thought that seeing my cousin’s body would create some sort of resolution, but instead, I left the morgue wanting answers.

“Billy was such a nice kid,” his English teacher told me, “but he just wouldn’t do his homework. So I had to fail him. Then, last month, he dropped out of school…”

“His mom wouldn’t let him study,” said one of his classmates. “I went over there to help with his homework, and his mom pulled a gun on me–a fucking gun!–and told me to leave. I guess she was jealous or something.”

“Sometimes he’d come over to our place for a few hours to hide from his mom,” said a neighbor. “We had to send him home at dinnertime, though. We can’t be feeding someone else’s kid, you know.”

It seemed like everyone in the town liked Billy, and knew that he was experiencing intense violence at home. So why hadn’t they rallied to help him the way people had rallied around me and my sister? I felt like I’d fallen into some horrible alternative universe.

I asked the priest at Billy’s church to explain.

“This town is poor,” the priest said as we folded programs for Billy’s funeral. “And it gets poorer every year.”

The town’s economy had tanked in the 1980s after the Oregon fish and lumber industries collapsed. Soon after that, corporate franchises like Wal-Mart and McDonalds moved in. Before long, a majority of people in town were working for the franchises, receiving minimum wage. The low wages made it impossible for people to shop locally, so almost all the local businesses went under. Now, a majority of the town’s money was leaving the town’s economy, flowing from the franchise cash registers almost directly into the pockets of CEOs and Wall Street investors.

“There are over 500 homeless youth in the area,” the priest said. “And countless more at-risk teens. And we are powerless to help any of them. We just don’t have the resources.”

$

My foster dad runs a company in the Seattle area. It’s a good company: a firm that cleans up hazardous waste. He thinks capitalism is working.

“Why?” I asked last time I visited home.

“Because companies like mine are able to provide well-paying jobs with health care to almost a hundred people.”

But not every company is able to be so noble. Once a company reaches a certain size, the CEOs are legally bound to make more money last quarter than they did this quarter–to make a profit. To facilitate this exponential increase of profits, they must create new markets, reduce the quality of goods, and/or reduce the quality of life for their workers.

My foster dad looked at me with deep concern and admitted, “We give our employees annual raises, but not enough to match the rising cost of living. And we have to slash health benefits every year because the cost of insurance is skyrocketing. This year, we had to cut optical… Next year it might be dental…”

My foster dad is trying to run a good company, but his company is trapped in a competitive profit-based economy, so, just to stay afloat, he is forced to reduce the quality of life for his workers every year.

How long will it be, I wonder, before the suburbs of Seattle begin to look like Billy’s hometown?

$

Recently, I spoke with my computer-savvy friend, Brian, who has worked in the Seattle-area tech-industry for the last 15 years. Brian says working conditions are getting worse every year.

Employers like Microsoft and Google no longer take responsibility for their workers, instead calling them “independent contractors.” They only allow these “contractors” to work 5 months out of the year–this allows the employers to legally skirt their duty of providing healthcare for their workers, while also making it difficult for workers to organize and demand better conditions.

In Brian’s most recent job, he worked for Google in a warehouse near Seattle. During the stressful 5-month contract, two of Brian’s coworkers were arrested for bringing guns to work. Brian blames the horrible conditions: Google imported a boss from the tech sweatshops of India to run the place, and this man had all the workers frantically competing against each other, threatening to fire people who didn’t meet the daily work quota. “I have never been forced to work so hard for so little,” Brian says.

During Brian’s time working for Google, he was hounded by creditors, who took almost his entire paycheck. At one point, Brian was left with $30 to live on for 2 weeks. During that time, he ate little more than a carton of eggs. Once a shapely man, Brain’s skin now hangs from his bones.

In a globalized system of Capitalism, the lowest standard of working anywhere lowers the bar for everyone else on earth. If someone in India or China is willing to do your job at a lower pay and without benefits, then it is only a matter of time before your job is reduced to the same inhumane level, or exported all together.

$

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been jobless for over a year.

When I first lost my job in January 2011, I furiously hunted for a new one. But as the weeks turned into months of joblessness, I eventually lost hope and stopped looking. Now, after a year without an earned income, this high-paying job has turned up, but I’m terrified to take it.

I think I’ve become anorexic about money. As anyone who has suffered from anorexia knows, it isn’t about looking skinny: anorexia is all about control. Throughout your life, you watch your weight fluctuate wildly, until finally, you go a little crazy and say “enough is enough” and you just stop eating. That’s about how I feel with money right now. I’m terrified to trade my labor for money again, whether it’s for $5 or $50 an hour because the moment I step back in onto the Capitalist rollercoaster, I will no longer be in control: the market could fluctuate or my job could be eliminated.

And I am tired of having to gamble in order to feed myself.

$

But even though I didn’t receive any pay this year, I’ve worked quite hard. I edited newspapers, interned at a publishing house, and staffed a youth program–all as an unpaid volunteer. And it felt great to work without money holding me hostage!

I love working, but I never went to touch money again. Because money cheapens everything. Because once we are told we are working for mere symbols (whether it’s grades or cash), we forget our responsibility to check in and be present for the moments that make up being alive, and we forget our responsibility to create real meaning–not just symbolic meaning–in the things we do every day.

$

But my friends have run out of slack. And even though I’ve had a great time working for free this year, my relationships have suffered.

When I lost my job a year ago, I had been living with a man with whom I had been desperately in love. But once I didn’t have my own income, a new, horrible power dynamic entered our relationship: I found myself unable to genuinely express my emotions around him because I felt indebted for the food and shelter he provided me. Our love soon grew cold, and after 2 years together, we went our separate ways.

A similar coldness has entered all my relationships that involve borrowing money. Being put in the position of begging the people you love for money puts a price on love. Soon, your friends can’t trust you to be honest with them. And you wonder if you can trust yourself.

I think I am beginning to understand how my mom and Billy’s mom became so twisted: living on the edge of poverty in Capitalism is living on the edge of death. You feel like a vampire, leeching off the people you love just to survive. They say if a vampire tries to eat food, the food will turn to ashes in her mouth. It is like that with love when you are poor and desperate: love is transformed into lifeless scraps of paper before it can reach you. You take the paper so you can eat today, and your heart begins to starve.

$

When I was a kid, I used to watch my mother soak things in hot, sudsy water and then pick the price tags off with her fingernails.

But I know I cannot soak my soul in that water, for if I cleansed myself of all marks of cost, nothing would be left.

Because Capitalism is not some abstract thing. It is deeply personal. It creates the channels through which care reaches (or doesn’t reach) each of us. And that care transforms us into who we are.

And perhaps my Marxist friend is right: I will never fully understand money. Because the effort to understand money is the effort to understand yourself. It is the effort to understand the flow of power through your life, and the flow of your life as you chase symbols.

I am a hairless mammal. I am completely dependent upon my society for my biological survival. But under Capitalism, my very existence is denied to me if I don’t, in some way, interact with money. It is simply a matter of choosing whether I want money to taint my work-life, or whether I want it to taint my friendships…

$

So I followed the Marxist’s advice and took the $50 an hour job. But what am I doing for this money? I am tutoring a 15-year-old boy whose name, ironically, is Billy.

Like my cousin, this Billy failed high school English. But unlike Billy, his parents have money. His mother is the CEO of a major oil company, and she is giving me hundreds of dollars a month to help her son raise his grades so he can get into a good college. It is important that her son goes to college–not because college guarantees a job (in fact, a majority of unemployed people right now have a college degree)–but going to college has become part of the myth that entitles people to join the 1% of the population that controls a majority of the planet’s resources.

When her Billy is done with college, there will be a six-figure “entry level” job waiting for him, and he will believe he earned it.

$

What does it mean when a CEO can spend $400 a month to have her son tutored, while factory workers must send their children to live in an orphanage? What does it mean when an investor can jet to Sicily for a weekend jaunt, while the restaurant workers that staff the companies he “owns” don’t even get paid maternity leave? What does it mean when one community is able to help its homeless youth, while another community cannot?

I’d call this Feudalism, but the truth is, it is much worse.

Our ancestors brought this Demon of Capitalism upon us because they wanted to end the harsh disparities of Feudalism–a system in which 1% of the population claimed absolute power because they were born into “noble families.” But Capitalism is simply a new myth to uphold the same disparities:

Now, instead of claiming their power through birthright, the ruling 1% claim they have earned their power. This is the myth that money creates.

Those of us at the bottom of the pyramid receive money for working hard, so we believe the myth that the ruling class also earned their positions. But the average CEO makes 650 times the amount as the average American worker. How could it be possible to earn such an inflated amount of power?

The horrible truth is that money has nothing to do with work, and everything to do with power. The people who are already in power have access to infinite amounts of money because they own our debts, they set our wages, and they print the money that we are given for our labor. And we are tricked into believing that other people can somehow earn this level of power, when the game was rigged in their favor from the beginning.

On top of normalizing the same disparities that existed under Feudalism, the Capitalist myth includes the need for exponential increase of profits. So products will continue to break sooner and sooner, the planet’s resources will continue to be devoured, and the conditions for workers will get worse with each passing year. All so the CEOs can convince the investors that their company made a profit. All so the aristocrats can play a game that justifies their own status.

$

My mother lives alone in a trailer park now. I visit her a few times a year, and she always asks for money. She knows I don’t have any–that I am broke and still haven’t paid off my college debt–but she still asks. Old habit, I guess. Perhaps it is the only way she knows how to ask for love.

$

A few months after Billy died, some marine biologists found his mother’s body floating in a tide pool, her fingers wrapped around the gun in her pocket, her bleached hair dancing with the ebb and flow of the sea.

$

None of us chose to be born into Capitalism, but every day, we choose to continue it.

From the moment we received our first grades in school, we became invested in the system–a system of competing to receive symbols instead of working to build love. We became transfixed by the game of “Just one more dollar, just one more paycheck, just one more lottery ticket, just one more investment…” Soon, we become so invested in our symbol-laden Capitalist Identities, we forget to ask ourselves if the system is worth it. But as we run faster and faster chasing the Idol of Money, why does happiness draw further and further away?

Are we ready to end this game?

Are we ready to evolve?

*     *     *

This article now available in print from Black Powder Press.

design by Jen Goble for Black Powder Press

 

Mail Time

Dear Slingshot,

I was happy to see Alex making the effort to keep prisoners in the loop with their article “RABBID Wants You to Write Prisoners.” Hey Alex, I dig mail! I also really dig that Alex did not refer to us as “inmates,” a term of derision inside the walls (Liane Apple, please take note). However, Alex should know that there’s no such thing as a “Prison Industrial Complex (PIC).” This is a misnomer Angela Davis has been trumpeting for years, and as far as I can tell, she made it up. It falsely implies that somehow various governments, state and federal, are making money from prisons, when nothing could be further from the truth. Even with our slave labor, the profits, if any, are negligible and prisons are bleeding state budgets and taxpayers dry. There is nothing “industrial” or “complex” about prison, so people should refrain from using this misleading terminology.

In counter-rhythm,

Rand Gould C-187131

Thumb Correctional Facility

3225 John Conley Dr.

Lapeer, MI 48446

Dear Rand,

Thanks for writing! We dig mail too! But I’m going to keep using the term “Prison Industrial Complex” and here’s why:

The body of a prisoner is a hot commodity under capitalism. Every aspect of a prisoner’s life is parceled up by the government and auctioned off to corporations. Multinational powerhouses such as Sodexo, Aramark, Westinghouse, GEO Group Inc, Correctional Communications Corp., Sprint, and AT&T (to name a few) have won massive government contracts to exclusively sell or rent their shitty food, furniture, facilities, vehicles, surveillance & communications technologies to prisons at inflated prices. (Ever wonder why it costs six times the normal amount to make a collect call from prison? …this would be why.) Some corporations–such as American Express and General Electric–have gone so far as to construct private prisons in Oklahoma and Tennessee which they rent out to the state at a profit.

With over 1 percent of the American population behind bars at this time, the prison market is booming and CEOs are scrambling to get a piece of the pie. As of 2011, total state spending on corrections reached about $52 billion–which is double the cost it was ten years before. Taxpayers are picking up this enormous bill, which subsidizes the corporations that profiteer off prisons.

The irony of all this–or “strategic investment incentive,” depending on your point of view–is that prisons create more crime. Once you have prison time on your record, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to ever get a legit job again. In most states, you can’t even receive food stamps. After release, many former prisoners find they must engage in criminal activity to survive. It’s a vicious cycle, with over 40% of folks released from prison ending up back behind bars within 3 years.

It would seem the system is designed to keep its captive market captive, with the lobbyists and PR specialists that write the laws and control the mainstream media ensuring that the War on Drugs and fear of crime are used to legitimize the PIC to the taxpaying public.

Perhaps it isn’t a surprise that the emergence of the Prison Industrial Complex can be traced to banking tycoon Nelson Rockefeller, who, as governor of New York, signed the controversial Rockefeller Drug Laws into effect in May 1973. These laws instituted minimum sentencing of 15 years for possession of narcotics, criminalizing the choices made by consenting adults about what they do with their own bodies. These laws became the model for future drug laws that have dramatically bolstered the prison population.

Also, I wouldn’t discount the economic impact of prison labor. Around 1.6 million people are in state & federal prisons (as of the last U.S. census in 2010), and every able-bodied one of them is required to work. Prison laborers are paid between 23 cents and $1.15 an hour for manufacturing clothing, solar panels, weapons, etc. Although it is illegal for Federal Prison Industries (also called “Unicor”) to sell prisoner-made goods to consumers, the government purchases these goods, replacing private sector companies. The result is the elimination of manufacturing jobs, decreased wages, and subsequent damage to the economy. Last year, NASA contracted prisoners at San Quentin to make Satellite parts for pennies an hour–a job once reserved for unionized engineers. Soon, the products of prison labor will be floating between us and the stars.

I wish I could say that this is all some freakish accident. But the truth is, this is exactly how capitalism is supposed to operate. The Prison Industrial Complex is simply an extreme example of the way capitalism hijacks the lives of all workers: thanks to private property laws and the taking of the commons, the working class has been made doubly-free–We are free from the ability to provide for ourselves, and free to sell our labor to bosses. Ironically, capitalism’s exploitative double-freedom operates just as easily behind bars.

Over the last two decades, similar trends of privatization have occurred in education and medicine, with corporations increasingly forcing themselves into the lives of people who interact with those spaces. Last year, in the tiny college town of Davis, a group of students and teachers shut down a bank on their campus through peaceful protest. Now they are facing 11 years in jail. The corporations are determined to invade every scrap of public space left in the world, and if they deem you a threat to this conquest, you will end up serving them in prison.

In contra-rhyme,

Teresa Smith of the Slingshot Collective