Capitalism and democracy are more than strange bedfellows. They are actively antagonistic forms of social organization. The expansion of one necessarily comes at the diminution of the other. This fact is poorly understood in America, where there is a default assumption that the two forms are corequisite. This essay seeks to outline the argument as to how and why this is the case. In consideration of space, this essay will come in multiple installments. The first installment, this post, will discuss briefly the fact and the consequences of capitalism’s growing role in every aspect of our personal lives. The second will discuss the same for capitalism’s encroachment into our political life. Third, I will briefly discuss why these tendencies are endemic to the system in which we find ourselves.
The commercialization of baking soda provides an interesting example of the expansion of capital into our personal lives. It may seem like a small thing that such products, once purchased in bulk from the local grocer, have become a branded commodity. But this advent is a useful allegory for the trajectory of capital in our lives. And with only a little bit of abstract reasoning, it can be seen that this reality has a far greater impact than a modest yellow and red box would suggest.
The local grocer has become the exception and not the rule. There are many reasons for this, and the phenomenon would make for an interesting study in its own right. Accepted as fact for now, it is a small leap to say the decline of the local grocer is a powerful symbol for the decline of local control of the economy. Groceries are one of those rare things which cut across class, race, gender identity, etc. without exception. We all need to eat, and whether we acquire our food from regional or national corporations, there is one effect that I’d like to highlight with many concomitant results.
Shopping at national brands has the effect of stripping profits away from local communities and sending them to executives and shareholders. This discussion can go on broadly but I will limit it to two points. This sets the stage for local underinvestment. Where profit is stripped from its source, there is little incentive for the profiteers to reinvest in the community. This is especially true with necessary goods like food. Where the local grocer has loyalty to their constituency, the corporation doesn’t even have loyalty to its executives’ country of origin. Second, the resulting upward trickle of wealth creates the circumstances, namely excess of capital, for the institution to spread its hold by establishing new outposts in new regions. This begins the cycle of profit bilking and underinvestment anew.
A final point on the commercialization of baking soda: it once was that we would scoop our baking soda from an unlabeled barrel and take whatever poundage we required for our homes. Now we arise to our Sony alarm clocks, put Folgers into our Cuisinart coffee makers before jumping into the shower where we use Suave hair products and Irish Spring soap. Before we’ve even rubbed the sleepiness from our eyes, we have interacted with and contributed to the trend a dozen times over.
Another way that money power has expanded into our personal lives to the detriment of democracy is the expansion of the scope and scale of the workday. Personally, I do not awake to a Sony alarm clock; my HTC smartphone’s alarm function does that. One of the very first things I do before hitting the Cuisinart is to check both of my email accounts to make sure that there are no work-related updates which demand my immediate attention. All of this in spite of the fact that I work for a rather progressive institution. Indeed, surveys have consistently found this to be the new “normal.” According to Bob Collins’ report on Minnesota Public Radio, “One in five employees has checked work email by 7 in the morning, and the average employee has spent 46 minutes working before ever getting to the office.”
And this reality is not limited to professional and salaried workers. As we begin our work earlier and end it later, there is a demand for services stretching through ever greater hours of the day. Various forms of transit, from rail to cab service, must operate throughout increasing hours; gas stations maintain increasing hours; and assorted food services expand the scope of their hours of operation. This happens both in response to the effective demand created by longer working hours in general and also as the capitalists are forced into competition with one another.
There are numerous anti-democratic consequences of these trends as well. The most obvious is that we are spending more hours of the day operating within the context of an authoritarian institution. It is telling, on the face of it, that we spend these extra hours following the rules and etiquette of our workplaces and responding to the imperatives created by the same. It also demonstrates the degree to which we have internalized our own oppression. While, on average, we leave work at 5:48pm, we are working in one form or another until about 7:19pm. So, we are willingly providing nearly twelve hours of labor each day – half again the eight-hour standard fought for by the labor movement (Murphy).
Another side effect of these increased hours is the diminution of personal time which could otherwise be spent enriching our families and our communities. It also reduces the amount of time available to us for civic engagement. Lack of time is a commonly cited excuse for people’s failure to be active members of their social and political communities. Voting patterns are an insufficient proxy for general civic engagement but it can be a useful stand-in when discussing liberal, bourgeois democracy. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 34.9% of non-voters cite being too busy as their reason for not voting. However, I would be quick to point out that a huge volume of those are probably bullshit; in my research, I came across articles that cited things like sports and manicures as being part of people’s business.
Capitalism has injected itself evermore deeply into every realm of our lives, including the personal. This expansion has necessarily come at the expense of democracy in the social and political spheres, and it results in a diminishing space for local control of resources and wealth. We not only allow these intrusions in seemingly small ways, like our individual consumption choices, but we become active participants in the process as we spend ever-increasing amounts of our personal time interfacing directly with the system through work. The expansion of capital requires the diminution of democracy, and when we become active participants in the process, we begin to internalize the authoritarian tendencies of the system.