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Are You Really an Anti-Capitalist? Or Do You Just Hate Your Job?

It’s easy to bemoan our “capitalist hellscape”—or use it to justify a soulless, obscenely lucrative job. But few Americans are willing to put in the hard work of being an actual anti-capitalist.

Tesson/Andia/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

At one point in George Orwell’s 1984, protagonist Winston Smith copies into his diary a passage from a children’s history textbook that describes the oppressors whom the revolution had supposedly banished, an almost mythological creature known as a capitalist. “They were fat, ugly men with wicked faces,” the textbook says, who owned everything and were the only ones allowed to wear top hats. “When any ordinary person spoke to a capitalist he had to cringe and bow to him, and take off his cap and address him as ‘Sir.’”

This is supposed to be a marker of how disconnected Smith’s Party-dominated world is from its prerevolutionary history. But reading it recently, it occurred to me that if you tweeted about how fat and ugly capitalists are today, chances are you’d be rolling in the likes and retweets.

Capitalism has become a dirty word, and there’s almost nothing you can say about capitalists that would be too harsh. Capitalism is choking our planet. Capitalism is incompatible with democracy. Here’s a paper from 2021, which I picked out more or less at random, that says “neoliberal capitalism”—defined partly as the slashing of the social safety net—is one cause of “rising rates of psychiatric disorders.” Someone get me a T-shirt: I’m not crazy, I’m just living under a capitalist superstructure! Then there would be a picture of a kitten looking cute.

Which is to say, it’s trendy to pose as an anti-capitalist today—and comically easy. Performative anti-capitalism (and almost all of it is performative) requires almost nothing of its adherents, least of all hard choices about how to live. All you have to do is post about it.

Terms like “capitalist hellscape” and “end-stage capitalism” have become so commonplace in discourse that they’re even used by people for whom the current economy is anything but a hellscape. A few months back, when the value of cryptocurrency plummeted, the cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase responded by abruptly canceling hundreds of job offers. This was big news in the tech space, since Coinbase had been poaching employees from big-name firms like Meta, Amazon, and Google by offering them staggering salaries. The woulda-been hires were understandably upset, and a bunch of them complained to Vice’s Motherboard about their shabby treatment:

One hire said he had been offered more than $300,000—double what he was making at his current company, and an amount he described as “life-changing money.” He felt he couldn’t turn it down. “We just live in this fun capitalist hellscape where you kind of have to say yes,” he said.

Have to? Or want to? If you are pulling in six figures for a job that consists of doing whatever in front of a computer, and someone offers you even more money to do the same thing, you aren’t being forced into bondage. The Coinbase guys are not holding a gun to your head and forcing you to eat the catered lunch they bring in every Friday. You aren’t one of those workers of the world who are being told to unite and cast off their chains, because you don’t have chains. You’re living a life of luxury unimaginable to the vast majority of humans who have ever been born.

But us highly educated white-collar types can’t admit that life is sweet, at least not publicly, and maybe not even to ourselves. We’re expected to feel a certain amount of existential dread over climate change or the general state of the world. If you don’t profess at least a low level sense of anxiety every waking minute of your doomscrolling life, you’re either heartless or brainwashed. It used to be that you were supposed to feel guilty because you were a sinner, but while sin (and religion in general) is out, guilt is very very much still in—only it’s the kind of guilt that doesn’t compel you to pay any price. You just have to feel a bit bad for a little while, then you can go back to taking pics of that locally sourced tasting menu you are doing for your friend’s birthday. It’s a pretty good deal, once you think about it.

What has emerged from this directionless, meaningless guilt is a knee-jerk style of anti-capitalism. It’s not quite what I would call political, although it’s sometimes linked to socialist-ish politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. You’ve probably seen examples of it in your feeds, in articles from lefty news outlets, and maybe in real life. It’s not so much a coherent ideology as a feeling that great faceless forces are pushing down upon us all the time.

This feeling isn’t wrong. The particular strain of capitalism we’re living under is absurd and vicious. Power has been concentrated in a handful of monopolistic corporations, which in turn pass the majority of their profits to an ultra-elite class of CEOs and investors. These vultures overheat the planet, degrade the environment, exploit workers, crack down on labor unions, and bend governments to their will, all in the name of maximizing shareholder value.

But scratch a self-professed “anti-capitalist” and often what you find is not revolutionary fervor but something more mundane. When someone says I am being ground between the gears of the capitalist machine, they sometimes mean “I don’t like my job.” That’s basically what the Zoomer “anti-work ethos” comes down to, described in this Vox article as not a rejection of capitalism or work but a rejection of lousy jobs. For all the talk about waves of employees quitting during “the Great Resignation,” people were mostly just moving on to jobs with better hours and pay, taking advantage of the leverage workers have over employers in this time of low unemployment. And don’t get me started on “quiet quitting,” which is apparently a term Generation Z uses because it believes it has invented “slacking off at work.” 

Sometimes, anti-capitalism is just a stand-in for wanting different consumer choices. A Refinery29 article titled “Is It Possible To Be Anti-Capitalist And Love Fashion? It’s Complicated” eventually comes around to describing a trend of small businesses making high-quality, long-lasting clothes. One such brand, Selkie, sells dresses for upward of $300—which sounds more like a subset of consumers choosing to spend their money in different ways, rather than a rebellion against capitalism.

I should emphasize that all of this is fine. It’s fine to buy expensive clothes that will last a long time. It’s fine to spend money at union businesses or Black-owned businesses or local non-chain stores as an expression of your values. It’s fine to quit your job because you hate it. It’s fine to not try super hard. It’s fine (if not great) to make $300,000 a year doing God knows what for Coinbase. But none of this amounts to radical politics, or really any kind of politics.

Articles about anti-capitalism inevitably gesture toward how phony a lot of this stuff is. In the middle of a piece about the commodification of anti-capitalism, this Refinery29 author pauses to admit her own complicity in (waves hands vaguely) this whole thing: “As a Kiwi who’s currently living in London, I’m not proud to admit that during the city’s four-month lockdown, I personally contributed to Jeff Bezos’ wealth by paying £7.99 a month to have products delivered to my doorstep via Amazon Prime. I also had meals delivered via Deliveroo, for which I paid a further £7.99 per month to have the delivery fee wiped. It seems millennials like me want to change the world without changing anything about the way we live our lives.”

The piece should have ended there, but maybe out of a desire to not call out the readers as hypocrites, the writer continues: “But living in a consumeristic, individualistic culture means living with contradictions.” To which I say, sure, whatever gets you through the day. But also, if you find Amazon Prime and Deliveroo to be such useful services that you’re paying for them despite sorta hating yourself, maybe the takeaway is that modern capitalism is working out pretty well for you and you are not any kind of anti-capitalist at all?

It’s worth thinking about what a genuine rejection of capitalism would look like. It could mean working on behalf of a radical left-wing political candidate or organization. It could mean living on a commune or practicing freeganism. It would probably mean giving up some of the comforts that modern capitalism affords the upper classes, which is why not a lot of us in practice choose to reject capitalism. It’s much, much easier to bemoan the capitalist hellscape than to look in the mirror and find the hellscape looking back at you.