It’s Time to Break Up With Our Exploitative Political and Economic System

Malaika Jabali’s new book explains why living under capitalism is like being in an abusive relationship. It’s a funny and engaging primer on anti-capitalist and socialist politics, and it couldn’t come at a better time.

“Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.

Martin Luther King Jr., 1961.

A lot of people are saying they want to take some permanent space from capitalism. Polls show that large numbers of young people have a negative view of it—no surprise given many Millennials and Zoomers aren’t likely to buy a home, are deeply concerned about the impact of capitalism on the environment, and believe that economic elites wield too much political power across the board.

Worse still, these feelings have a strong basis in reality. It really is the case that home ownership is becoming unattainable for everyone without a trust fund, our planet is facing a serious environmental crisis, and economic elites do in fact wield tremendously outsized influence relative to ordinary citizens. Uber-rich bros like real estate CEO and multi-millionaire Tim Gurner may try to blame this discontent on too much avocado toast or  “arrogant” workers, but many of us right now have adopted an “it’s not me, it’s you” attitude towards what we call neoliberal capitalism—a state of arrangements in which profit is prioritized above human needs, personal grit and developing “a brand called you” are deemed more important than social welfare policies, and the state and the private sector work hand in hand to enrich corporations and billionaires at the expense of the rest of us.

This frustration, and a lot else besides, is the topic of Malaika Jabali’s and illustrator Kayla E.’s whip-smart and very funny new book It’s Not You, It’s Capitalism: Why It’s Time to Break Up and How to Move On. Written as an accessible guide to anti-capitalist and pro-socialist politics, it doubles as something of a therapeutic cleanse to help readers get over the worst long term relationship most people will ever have. 

Popularizing Anti-Capitalist Politics

One of the sad truths about American socialist writers post-1980 is they’ve struggled to reach a wide audience (despite the fact that there are plenty of societal conditions to be unhappy about, which could be used to spark a reader’s interest in alternatives to capitalism). This is in part due to the sheer ideological clout and vast resources poured into defending neoliberal capitalism at the climax of the Cold War and after it. This effort was so pervasive that even many leftists became closet Fukuyamaists, convinced we had reached “the end of history.” (As the idea went, after the fall of Communism, there was simply no better kind of society that could be envisioned other than Western liberal democracy.)

But as Ben Burgis reminds us, this failure was also partially a result of the socialist left retreating into intellectual, artistic, and academic spaces in the aftermath of failed ’60s radicalism. One consequence of this is that socialists tended to adopt the tone, style, and expectations aligned with those communities: writing for a select audience that valued dense intellectualism, self-conscious novelty, and insular referentiality over more democratic and popular styles. By itself there is obviously a need for leftists to write big, dense, creative books that make a rigorous case for socialism for those readers who already have an understanding of leftist political theory at a scholarly level. But any political movement also needs to convert the skeptical general reader with popularizations, explainers, guides, manifestos, and, of course, many, many cartoons. Fortunately this genre has ballooned since the Bernie Sanders campaign, with energetic socialist writers like Jacobin’s founder Bhaskar Sunkara and Current Affairs’ own Nathan J. Robinson filling this giant gap.

Jabali’s It’s Not You, It’s Capitalism has now entered the fray and brings a fresh and exciting attitude and perspective that’s to be very much welcomed. Jabali completed a law degree at Columbia University and worked as a lawyer for a time before transitioning to journalism as the Senior News and Politics Editor at Essence magazine. (Her 2018 piece in this publication, “The Color of Economic Anxiety,” won the 2019 New York Association of Black Journalists Media Award for Newspaper/Magazine feature.) A self-described “survivor of NYC’s dating scene,” she uses the fun and tragically relatable motif of leaving a toxic relationship behind to make the case for saying a not-so-sweet goodbye to capitalism.

“For centuries, America’s capitalists have worked to structure society so that it most benefits them. For instance, they lobby for policies to make sure there are few limits on the wealth they can accumulate, from laws minimizing union power so workers can’t bargain for better benefits and wages, to trade deals that allow capitalists to seek cheaper labor in developing countries, to fighting against a $15 federal minimum wage. This results in a completely skewed distribution of the country’s wealth and income.”

Over 10 chapters she lays out many of the most damaging facts about capitalism while arguing for a transition to socialism. This includes the staggering levels of inequality that have become common since the 1990s, with Jabali pointing out that the top 1 percent of earners are now paid 160.3 percent more than they were in 1979 while wages for the bottom 90 per cent only grew by 26 percent. Given this, it should be no surprise that the bottom 50 percent of Americans own very little of the country’s wealth, while the top 10 percent of earners possess about 70 percent of the wealth. These are staggering levels unseen since the Gilded Era that preceded the Depression and the New Deal, and there is a high price to be paid for this inequality in terms of living standards for ordinary people and even the basic economic efficiency that pro-capitalists claim to care about. 

Making the case for “Medicare For All,” Jabali points out that the “idea of free, government-funded healthcare is growing in popularity. But like with many of our social services, we can only have good things in limited ways or in temporary spurts, with the ever-looming threat that they will end.” Jabali draws attention to how the United States spends more on healthcare per capita than any other wealthy country yet has very little to show for it with the for-profit system. Life expectancy in the United States is considerably lower than in most other developed states, infant mortality rates are high, and  satisfaction with the healthcare system is low. Despite this, and the fact that countries with publicly funded health systems blow the United States out of the water in terms of both health outcomes and public satisfaction, very little progress has been made to get us closer to a Medicare for All kind of system. A big part of the reason for this isn’t that it would be politically unpopular—indeed, polling shows that the public increasingly favors government-provided, universal healthcare —but that vast sums are spent by the insurance industry to prevent public healthcare from taking off. As Jabali points out, the big problem isn’t our inability to envision “another system”—there are plenty of more successful public alternatives around the world that we could use as models. The problem is “political will” since many “elected officials just can’t get out of the insurance companies’ beds…” This showcases the deeper structural problems with contemporary capitalism and puts the lie to the “there is no alternative” rhetoric that was once so popular. Even when there is a clear, popular and better set of alternatives, the political economy of power in our society makes it so that we can’t make progress towards it. Capital is more than a bit controlling like that.

Broadening the Socialist Canon

Perhaps the most vital contributions of Jabali’s book are her lightning fast introductions to a huge array of socialist icons. These include familiar, but rarely read, voices like Martin Luther King Jr. and Karl Marx to less well known icons like Charles Barron and Bayard Rustin. This is an extremely important project, since one of the consequences of the post-Cold War era is that the canon of socialist thought became largely unfamiliar even to academics and intellectuals. As political philosopher Elizabeth Anderson put it in her excellent new book Hijacked: How Neoliberalism Turned the Work Ethic Against Workers and How Workers Can Take It Back, it’s telling “that in the history of political thought, no social democrat has been canonized, despite the huge influence of social democracy in many wealthy capitalist democracies.”

One would add that this is in spite of the enormous intellectual and moral contributions made by writers in the socialist canon, from Marx through Eduard Bernstein to Rosa Luxemburg and Cornel West. It is only now that the canon of socialist thought is becoming resuscitated and reintroduced as interest in socialism increases alongside anger towards neoliberal capitalism. 

Jabali deserves an additional note of gratitude for introducing the huge number of socialist and anti-capitalist writers and activists who were and are women and people of color, disproving the caricature of socialism as exclusively the purview of Bernie Bros and class reductionist white dudes. These writers played an essential role in directing the socialist movement’s attention to issues of sexual and racial oppression. Discussing W.E.B Du Bois’s contribution, Jabali observes out how he “thought Marx and Engels had the right diagnosis for capitalism in Europe, but he showed that their analysis couldn’t be perfectly applied to the United States. He argued that it wasn’t only white capitalists who harmed Black workers by treating them as property and forcing them to toil on their land. The white proletariat harmed Black people, too.”

This was (and occasionally still can be) an uncomfortable lesson for many on the left who adopt the reductionist view that class solidarity will trump everything. But it’s a vital one in helping us understand why many in the white working class support the Republican Party. When Trump slashed taxes for the rich and appointed union busters to the National Labor Relations Board, he also kept his promise to build a border wall and ban Muslims from entering the country. 

WE’RE NOW A 501(C)(3)!

Of course, introducing long-dead authors to readers is helpful, but is far from enough. This is where Jabali’s decision to refer to all kinds of present-day activists is a savvy one. If a skeptical reader is expected to act on what they’ve read in a book, they need to see examples of those ideas put into action. I was inspired by the example of how socialist Astra Taylor, cofounder of the Debt Collective, successfully put pressure on Joe Biden to abolish student loans for borrowers while organizing strikes in support of abolishing $10 billion in debt for students who had attended for-profit colleges that had engaged in unethical practices.

This kind of story undermines the most powerful weapon in the reactionary arsenal—namely the rhetorical imploration that the inequities and injustices in the world, whatever one thinks about them, are either God-given or natural and so cannot be changed. The “there is no alternative” refrain is played whenever someone tries to say public healthcare is too expensive, or environmental reform is impossible given our dependence on fossil fuels—though, strangely, cost never seems to be an issue when it comes to exporting weapons, bailing out banks, or offering hundreds of billions in tax cuts to the already very wealthy. 

It’s Not You, It’s Capitalism is a very funny and lucid introduction to anti-capitalist politics that doubles as the book debut of a fresh voice in American socialist circles. In many ways, it’s a model for how to write and present these ideas to a mass audience that may not be familiar with them but feels deeply that our present society has a lot wrong with it. Above all else, Jabali’s portraits of the ordinary men and women who did make things better, many very poor and disadvantaged, shows how the only unrealistic sentiment is the idea that things can carry on as they are. People deserve justice and have been denied it for too long. As Jabali points out, “socialism may not complete us and sweep us away in some whirlwind romance. But it may give us the comfort we haven’t felt since capitalism forcefully weaseled its way into our lives.” It’s long past time we showed capitalism—along with its plutocratic friends, bad taste, and extraordinary lack of style—the door.  

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