By Sheila Lam, she/her
I was mulling in the bath recently, thinking about a candle I like. Set in a hand-blown glass jar, it has notes of Japanese Hiba wood and night jasmine. It's a beautiful object but it retails for over a hundred dollars. I looked down at the two other candles I already had at the foot of the tub and laughed at myself. Did I need another one? Of course not. Did I want another one? Absolutely. Then I felt bad. I was being irresponsible and frivolous. For that amount of money, I could buy a week’s worth of groceries or donate it to an organization fighting violence against AAPI. I started to spiral thinking about the ways I could make better use of that money and how wasteful it was to even think about buying yet another candle. I got so overwhelmed with negative thoughts that I got out of the tub. I had an intention to cleanse when I drew the bath but now couldn't get the unpleasant feeling of capitalism off me.
When you think about capitalism you might be met with images of big banks and Wall Street, of men in slick suits on a trading desk but we often forget that capitalism is equally if not more present in our everyday lives in small and silent transactions that influence us in every way. I’ve been thinking about capitalism a lot lately. With the past year that we’ve all experienced, I know many others have been too. Without distractions and the constant buzz of daily meanderings, we saw just how deep capitalism has dug its noxious roots. I’ve been trying to understand my role in it as much as its role in our society. Trying to reconcile the disparity between wanting nice things and dismantling capitalist thinking. It’s a challenge, to say the least. How can I believe in taking down a system that I’m still actively participating in?
By definition, capitalism is just an economic system of trade and profit. But reading about it that way felt wrong. Simplifying such a complex establishment doesn’t illustrate the punishing effects it has on people and the community. Rationalizing it that way felt cold, clinical, and somehow absolves it from all its inherited wrongdoing. Removing the spiritual understanding of its relationship to society made it worse. Because at its plainest, the part of capitalism that betrays us the most is its ability to disconnect us from one another.
Capitalism takes people out and away from communities and replaces those spaces with greed. It takes the idea of “what’s mine is mine” to a corporate scale, placing private enterprise and ownership as pillars atop a bedrock of individual productivity. Imbuing values that celebrate exploitation and antagonizes rest and social organization. It reduces our role from an impactful component that helps support and forms our society to one that merely exists separately on the fringes.
With a deep inhale, exhale and pause to consider what I was learning, I found a little clarity in understanding the difference between private and personal property. For me, it was extremely helpful to make the distinction. Personal property refers to personal possessions or consumer goods. For instance, a car you may have in the driveway or a closet full of clothes. These goods were likely gained in a socially fair manner. You saved up your hard-earned income and out of necessity or joy treated yourself to something. Private property—or capital—is where the danger lies. Private property is a producer good. It is defined as a relationship dependent on one side being left out. That already opens with an unsteady intention. In most cases, it is the value of work that is being deprived of those who perform labor to generate capital for someone else. Of course, not all examples of this are harmful. I could work at a shop where my labor is exchanged for gainful employment and a salary. All is well. But when that relationship is exploited, and it so often is, that’s when capitalist thinking fails the greater good for the privileged few.
When I look at my friends and community, I don’t care if they purchase designer goods or indulge in personal comforts. I love that for them. In whatever material way that comes up, we all need it sometimes. Removing the guilt of having possessions and enjoying experiences is in many ways a weapon to demolish capitalism. Taking care of ourselves with rest and pause in personal comforts makes it possible for us to offer our best selves back to the community. The issue that I have is when capital under accumulated wealth is being hoarded. (Hello, billionaires?) Are your employees being compensated comfortable living wages? Are disenfranchised communities being seen, heard, and supported? And are reparations being paid back to the people who’ve had their resources stolen from them? Because what I’ve come to understand is that the solution lies not in rejecting personal property—the solution isn’t about looking at the individual at all. It is about what you as an individual are doing to better your community. It is re-establishing the connection we all have to one another. Keeping empathy at the heart of our decision-making for both people and our planet. And that’s the difference. You can have nice things, keep corporations accountable, and eat the rich—all at once.
Written by Sheila Lam for Youth To The People