Written by Dr. Susan Rosenthal MD, author of the book “The Social Sources of Sickness: What I Learned From 50 Years in Medicine”.
There are three basic freedoms: freedom to say NO; freedom to move away; and freedom to change what does not work.
Individual freedom requires social support. To say NO, you need others to respect your choice and not force you to obey. To move freely, you need others to support your movement and not erect walls and roadblocks. To change what does not work, you need others who are affected to accept the change.
Basically, freedom is a social relationship, where me having my freedom depends on you having yours. A system is required to secure this social arrangement.
Systems shape us
We create systems in order to make things happen. A system has three elements: a purpose or goal; a set of rules, policies, and procedures designed to achieve the goal; and relationships that are shaped by applying the rules, policies, and procedures.
The systems we create are not separate from us; they organize us. Consider competitive sports. There is a goal (to win). There are rules of the game and penalties for violating them. And there are participants, whose behavior and relationships are shaped by the game.
The goal of the capitalist system is to extract capital from human labor. Achieving that goal requires a system with rules, penalties, and social relationships that all support the goal.
This three-part essay examines how the capitalist system robs us of all three basic freedoms; what blocks us from claiming our freedom; and how we can create a social system that supports freedom for all.
Part 1. My Body Is Not Your Capital-Producing Machine – Or Is It?
It is commonly believed that we have little control over our work lives, but that life outside of work – family and social relationships – is ours to shape.
In reality, time outside of work is largely consumed with two things: replacing the energy we put out on the job so we can work again the next day, and raising the next generation of workers to replace the current one. Production depends on this reproduction of the worker.
The tight connection between production and reproduction is difficult to see because they are organized differently. Production is organized socially, with billions of workers linked in global chains of manufacture and distribution. Reproduction is organized privately, with individuals and families expected to replenish and reproduce themselves with no outside support.
Employers benefit from privatized reproduction. They can hire workers to produce while avoiding the cost of replacing them, even though their business depends on it. According to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business,
Paid maternity leave is a totally ridiculous kind of demand to expect employers to pay. Those who want to have babies should pay for them.
Because production and reproduction are differently organized, it seems they exist in two different spheres: an economic sphere of work shaped by capitalism, where one has little control; and a personal sphere of friendship and family, not shaped by capitalism, where one is presumed to have total control.
In reality, work and life-outside-of-work are parts of a single capitalist system. Despite the relentless message that we make our own lives and ‘there is always a choice,’ it is impossible to have a personal life that is separate from, or exists outside of, the capitalist system. Lack of freedom on the job requires a lack of freedom outside it.
The more authorities restrict reproduction and individual behavior, the more the myth of two spheres breaks down to reveal only one sphere, capitalism, that dominates every aspect of life.
You cannot refuse, and you cannot leave
The goal of capitalist production is to produce capital. Capital is profit that is invested to extract more profit. Profit comes from paying workers less than the value of what they produce. The lower the wages, the higher the profit.
Jeff Bezos rakes in billions of dollars in profit by paying workers far less than the value of their work. He then uses this profit to purchase other businesses that enable him to exploit even more workers and make even more profit. Bezos is accumulating capital. The more capital he accumulates, the greater his power over society.
No one freely chooses to work all their life to produce capital to make others rich. The worker must be robbed of the freedom to say no, to leave, or to change the system. To maintain this social arrangement everyone, including the worker, must do their part.
Employers rely on the State to ensure the conditions for capital accumulation. As Braverman explained in Labor and Monopoly Capital,
In the most elementary sense, the State is guarantor of the conditions, the social relations, of capitalism, and the protector of the ever-more unequal distribution of property which this system brings about.
The State gives employers the legal authority to dictate the conditions of employment. Unionized workers can modify some of these conditions, but they have no legal right to challenge the nature of the work or how it is organized, to determine staffing levels, or to curb executive pay. All major work-related decisions fall under management rights. The State uses the legal system, the police, and the military to enforce those rights.
States allow employers to use, abuse, and discard workers as the cost of doing business. When hazardous working conditions cause sickness, injury, and death, the State sides with the employer. Workers’ claims for compensation are minimized or denied, fines levied against companies are too small to change anything, and no employer ever goes to jail for killing a worker.
States use legislation and monetary policy to prevent workers’ demands from cutting into profits. The legal minimum wage sets the bar so low that the average worker must go into debt to pay for basic essentials.
The only option for those who cannot work or refuse to do so is appeal to the State for support. Such support is notoriously difficult to get and kept miserably low to deter all but the most desperate. Ontario makes it easier to access euthanasia than to access social support.
States restrict travel in order to block workers from escaping to a better situation. Around the world, millions of people are incarcerated for the ‘crime’ of crossing a border in search of a better life.
Border restrictions trap workers in low-waged areas. Employers are free to move production in and out of these low-waged areas, giving them leverage to lower the pay of workers in higher-waged areas.
States use immigration controls to manage the size and composition of the workforce to benefit employers. Lower unemployment increases the pressure to raise wages, and importing more workers lowers that pressure. Denying equal rights to newcomers enables employers to underpay and overwork them, exerting a downward pressure on the pay and conditions of all workers.
All these measures ensure that, no matter how hard they labor or how much they protest, the worker is blocked from escaping their assigned role as a capital-producing machine.
What personal life?
The concept of ‘personal life’ ignores how much our lives are restricted outside work.
The modern family is a State-regulated institution. Laws dictate who can marry and who cannot, who is a family member and who is not, and how many unrelated people may live in a dwelling. Laws enforce gender norms, restrict access to contraception and abortion, and determine at what age a person may engage in adult activities.
One cannot leave a family at will. The State can forcibly return runaway youngsters to their families, place them in alternate families, or confine them in detention centers. Spouses who want to leave their marriages and parents seeking relief from childcare duties can be held financially responsible for ‘dependents.’
The State defines what it means to be a fit parent and can remove children from those it declares unfit. The State decides if families separated by national borders will be reunited or remain apart, and whether family members will be deported.
State laws compel young people to attend school, whether they want to or not, and parents are expected to enforce this law. In Jacksonville, Florida,
if a child has more than five unexcused absences [from school] in a calendar month or 15 unexcused absences in a 90-day period, parents can be arrested, charged with a misdemeanor, and face up to 60 days in jail.
Not free to be me
Organizing reproduction in family units demands distinct gender roles; men are cast as the primary producers, and women as the primary care-givers. Someone has to care for the young, sick, and infirm, and it’s typically the lower-paid woman who is paid less precisely because of her care-taking duties.
A family system based on reproducing couples allows no room for gender fluidity or for being intersex or trans. Those who do not conform to their socially assigned gender role risk punishment in the legal system or treatment in the medical system. As long as reproduction is rooted in the family, we cannot escape the pressure of binary gender roles and all the oppression they generate.
Capitalism favors standardized production, where large numbers of identical objects can be quickly produced with less labor and more profit. To produce uniform outcomes, the worker must make the same moves over and over again. This assembly-line model has been adopted in every industry, including hospitals and schools. As one principal instructed his teachers,
When I stand in the hallway, I should be able to hear all fourth grades saying the same thing. Do not deviate from the scripted program and do not fall behind in the pacing plan.
The demand for uniformity dominates every area of life. To maximize profit, the capitalist class engineer plants and animals to eliminate variation, reduce workers to the status of interchangeable cogs in a machine, and convince people of all nations to desire the same things and behave in the same ways.
Shut up and conform
Questioning makes progress possible; it invites us to examine what we are doing and why, and to consider different options. Capitalism makes questioning policies or those who make them a serious offense, even treasonous. We cannot speak freely or share vital information. The relentless persecution of whistle-blowers Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and Steven Donziger serves as a general warning not to question authority or hold it accountable.
A system that demands conformity cannot tolerate dissent or diversity. In the past, people who thought, felt, or behaved differently were considered interesting, odd, eccentric, colorful, or characters. Today, such people risk being labeled ‘mentally ill,’ forcibly drugged, and confined to a psychiatric institution, possibly indefinitely.
The social power of modern psychiatry cannot be explained on the basis of its scientific validity or clinical effectiveness, both of which are highly contested. Its influence comes from its usefulness to the capitalist system.
Since slavery days, the State has partnered with medicine and psychiatry to enforce conformity and obedience. Today, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) catalogs unacceptable behavior in every area of life, with unacceptable behavior meaning protesting how things are, or disturbing others with your protest.
Being trapped in an oppressive social system is so painful that many people break down, lash out, use drugs, escape into fantasy, and so on. Mass misery cannot be acknowledged without bringing the entire capitalist system into question. Instead, modern medical systems practice damage control, where the sick and injured are patched up and returned to the same situations that harmed them.
States control reproduction to manage the size and composition of the workforce; minimize the cost of social support; and enforce social control. What the pregnant person wants or does not want is not considered.
To lower the birth rate, China imposed a limit of one child per family in 1980. Violators could be punished with fines, job loss, forced abortions, and loss of access to social services. As the birth rate fell, the one-child policy was replaced with a two-child policy in 2016, followed by a three-child policy in 2021.
To raise the birth rate, Nazi Germany outlawed all forms of birth control, including abortion, with stiff penalties for violators. ‘German-blooded’ women with large families were awarded the Mother’s Cross: bronze for up to five children; silver for six or seven; and gold for eight or more.
To increase the enslaved labor force in the US, Black women and girls were forcibly impregnated and compelled to bear their rapists’ children. When importing enslaved people was outlawed in 1808, forced reproduction became even more important to the slave economy.
Planters advertised for [Black women] as they did for breeding cows or mares, in farm magazines and catalogues. They shared tips with one another on how to get maximum value out of their breeders. They sold or lent enslaved men as studs and were known to lock teenage boys and girls together to mate in a kind of bullpen. They propagated new slaves themselves, and allowed their sons to [do so].
To minimize the cost of social support and reduce the risk of rebellion, States sterilize those they consider ‘surplus’ or socially unfit, including Black, Indigenous, imprisoned, addicted, disabled, and poor people.
During the Great Depression, the International Congress of Eugenics met in New York City to discuss the mass sterilization of unemployed workers. One speaker declared,
A major portion of this vast army of unemployed are social inadequates, and in many cases mental defectives, who might have been spared the misery they are now facing if they had never been born.
The US-funded program to sterilize Puerto Rican women had two goals: to reduce the number of poor people on the island; and to promote the migration of women workers to New York, which would be easier if they had no children.
Between the 1930s and the 1970s, approximately one-third of the female population of Puerto Rico was sterilized, making it highest rate of sterilization in the world.
In the US today, 31 states plus Washington, DC, legally allow the forced sterilization of people with disabilities
When the US Supreme Court abolished the legal right to abortion, it shattered the belief that our bodies belong to us, and that life-outside-of-work is ours to shape.
When states coerce and force women, girls and people with the capacity for pregnancy to remain pregnant against their will, they create human chattel and incubators of them. By doing so, state lawmakers force their bodies into the service of state interests.
States typically prioritize the welfare of the fetus over that of the parent. Prospective parents are bombarded with advice on how to produce a healthy child and can be penalized for behaviors that risk fetal health. In the US today, a miscarriage can get you charged with manslaughter or murder. In El Salvador, a women was sentenced to 50 years in prison after a stillbirth.
Protecting the pregnant person is not a priority. There are no public warnings that pregnancy can cause severe pain, traumatic injury, hemorrhage, sepsis, sterility, disability, and death.
Women in the US are 14 times more likely to die by carrying a pregnancy to term than by having an abortion. In Mississippi, a Black woman is 118 times as likely to die from carrying a pregnancy to term than from an abortion. The United States is the most dangerous place in the industrialized world to give birth, ranking 55th overall in the world.
Because staying pregnant is more dangerous than having an abortion, a complete abortion ban in the US would increase the number of pregnancy-related deaths by an estimated 21 percent overall, and 33 percent for Black women. These figures do not include the rise in deaths from unsafe abortions.
The Supreme Court refused to consider these matters. Justice Alito wrote,
We do not pretend to know how our political system or society will respond to today’s decision overruling Roe and Casey. And even if we could foresee what will happen, we would have no authority to let that knowledge influence our decision.
It seems counter-productive for capitalism to restrict abortion. Women need to control their fertility so they can work outside the home. Denying this control has a devastating impact on their earning potential, as well as disrupting industries that depend on female labor.
The capitalist class are not united on all things. For some sections, social control is the highest priority. They rightly fear that people who are free to choose in any area of life will push for freedom on the job. To prevent that, they claim the right to dictate what people can and cannot do, and use the State to impose their beliefs on society.
A tiny elite can only rule a large majority by robbing them of the choice to live any other way. By definition, such rule is authoritarian.
As the gap grows between the wealthy capitalist class and the impoverished working class, the risk of rebellion rises. To maintain social control, governments all over the world are becoming more authoritarian. Two recent US examples include the Trump insurrection and the proliferation of forced-birth laws.
In Canada, a seemingly liberal government has adopted an unprecedented number of Secret Orders-in-Council that are never published and cannot be accessed by Parliament or the public. Secret decision-making enables elites to enact policies that ordinary people would reject, such as exporting billions of dollars in weaponry to the US and Saudi Arabia. A genuine democracy has no need for secret policies.
Technological advances make it easier to enforce authoritarian control. A 2011 report warned,
Within the next few years, it will be technically possible and financially feasible for authoritarian governments to record nearly everything that is said or done within their borders – every phone conversation, electronic message, social media interaction, the movements of nearly every person and vehicle, and video from every street corner.
Fear of majority rebellion has spurred increased funding for police and expanded police powers.
The budgets of modern police departments are staggeringly high and ever increasing, with no parallel in history, producing incarceration rates unseen around the world. If police and prisons made us safe, we would have the safest society in world history — but the opposite is true.
That is how afraid of us they are.
Having suffered through a lethal pandemic, most people are working harder and longer for less, while profits and executive pay soar. Inflation is rapidly rising, yet the modest demand that wages at least match inflation is rejected as excessive and inflationary. Corporate profiteers get no such criticism, even though fatter profits account for more than 50 percent of increased prices.
A US report found, “markups and profits skyrocketed in 2021 to their highest recorded level since the 1950s.” The average price markup was 72 percent higher than a company’s costs, pushing net profits to the highest value on record. The authors conclude,
Since markups are unusually and suddenly so high, there is room for reversing them with little economic harm and likely societal benefit, including lower prices and less inequality.
They must have missed the capitalist memo that profits are sacred and workers are expendable.
Instead of forcing corporations to lower prices or raise wages, officials are jacking up interest rates on loans and mortgages. This has the effect of undercutting wages, driving workers deeper into debt, and making it more difficult to pay for essentials, such as food, housing, and medical care.
Understandably, confidence in capitalist institutions is falling. Only 36 percent of Americans think the US system of government is sound, and only 13 percent of Americans are satisfied with how things are going in the US.
When the majority lose faith that the existing system can solve their problems, they look for alternatives. One result is a global resurgence of working-class rebellion with millions of people protesting their suffering and demanding fundamental social change.
Written by Susan Rosenthal