One of the most formative moments of my life was when I was running a small eco blog called Earth Mums in the mid-00s which focused on consumer solutions to the problem of environmental destruction. Back then I still believed that while capitalism was driving the destruction of our biosphere, it could still be hacked into being part of the solution in some ways.
I got a call from a biofuels startup who saw my work with Earth Mums and wanted to hire me to write search engine-friendly articles to draw traffic to their website. I went to their office for a meeting, and while I was waiting I listened to the three partners—real high-octane entrepreneur types—laughing and talking about the various business plates they were spinning.
One of them had apparently just come back from a consulting job for a product called Lectric Soda, which Earth Mums had a lot of affection for because it was an environmentally friendly household cleaning compound that you could buy for less than a dollar a bag.
“Don’t tell me, lemme guess: you told ’em to double the price?” asked one of the partners.
“I told ’em to quadruple it!” said the consultant guy.
I found it incredibly sleazy how they were making a product that could actually help make households a kinder to the environment less accessible while presenting themselves as eco warriors who want to save the planet. I told them I charge way more than I knew they’d ever pay me for the job and got the hell out of there, but lo and behold I did see Lectric Soda shoot up in price fourfold shortly thereafter.
It left me so deflated and disheartened I wound up shutting down Earth Mums. I could see that these guys and people like them were going to turn consumer ecological responsibility into this trendy elite thing priced way out of range for normal people, and that’s exactly what ended up happening. It wasn’t long before I saw the arrival of eco chic and Whole Foods and Tesla and the rest of this whole new luxury market designed to let rich people feel good about themselves while the world burns and create the illusion that we can profiteer our way out of our problems.
It was just such an in-your-face illustration of the problem. Lectric Soda wasn’t improved in quality, didn’t become harder to make or more difficult to obtain, the supply and demand remained the same; the price was changed because the market would bear it. The hidden hand of the market was not going to magically restore the product to its “correct” value; the value of such products was going to be determined by the narrative manipulations of entrepreneurs, consultants, con-artists, marketeers and ad-men.
“Let the market decide” really means let the manipulators decide, because the markets are dominated by those who excel at manipulating. We’re taught that letting the market decide means letting supply and demand take its natural course, as though we’re talking about ocean tides or seasons or something, but in reality both supply and demand are manipulated constantly with extreme aggression. Manipulating the supply of diamonds. Manipulating the supply of housing. Manipulating the supply of oil. Manipulating people into wanting things they’d never thought to want before through advertising. Manipulating women into feeling bad about their bodies so they’ll buy your beauty products. Manipulating people into paying $2000 for a $20 bag using branding. Manipulating people into buying Listerine by inventing the word “halitosis” and convincing them to be worried about it. Manipulating people into believing Beanie Babies were prized collectors items when they were just standard stuffed toys.
Capitalism gives us a civilization that is dominated by trickery. Those who get to the top are those who succeed in tricking as many people as possible. Tricking them into paying more. Tricking them into buying your product and not someone else’s. Tricking people who actually produce something of value into making you their middle man who gets paid despite producing nothing. Tricking competitors into making the wrong move. Tricking people into asking their doctor about your extremely lucrative pharmaceutical product. Tricking people into buying or selling certain stocks or cryptocurrencies or NFTs. Tricking people by using the legal system and your team of lawyers who understand it better than normal people do. Tricking people into letting you privatize their own drinking water and then selling it back to them in bottles.
It’s a scam competition. Whoever scams the best wins. How can you save the planet from destruction by human behavior when all of human behavior is driven by a bizarre scam competition? And the biggest scam of all is the narrative that this system is totally working and is entirely sustainable. That’s the overarching scam holding all the other scams together.
Proponents of capitalism often decry socialism as a coercive system that people are forced to participate in, but what the hell do you call this? Did any of us sign up to be thrown into the middle of a giant unending scam competition? What if I don’t want to spend my whole life being subjected to people’s attempts to trick me? What if I don’t want to live in a society where everyone’s trying to trick and scam each other instead of collaborating toward the greater good of our world? Guess what? I don’t consent to any of that. I am being coerced into this.
Whenever you talk about the destructiveness and depravity of capitalism online you’ll get people saying “Hurr hurr, and yet here you are participating in capitalism” like that’s an own instead of the exact problem that’s being discussed. Yes! Yes I am coerced into participating in a capitalist society in order to pay the bills and stay alive. That’s the problem I’m trying to address here. It’s like prisoners complaining about the prison system and being called hypocrites because they are in prison.
I’m convinced that this is a huge factor in the mental health crises our society is experiencing today. We’re trapped in this system where we’re constantly being psychologically pummelled with an endless barrage of messaging trying to make us think and feel and desire and loathe specific things for no other reason than because it will make someone money. How can mental health prevail in a civilization where everyone’s mind is continuously being yanked this way and that by mass-scale psychological manipulation? Capitalism poisons our minds as much as it poisons our air and our water.
It’s already so, so bad and it’s set to get so, so much worse, and we’re so, so far from any real changes in our political status quo looking anywhere remotely achievable. All we can do is keep drawing attention to this in as many ways as we can, and hoping enough people open their eyes and start to see what’s needed.