How Capitalism Cost Americans Their Dignity

SEEKING FREEDOM FROM IMMISERATION-My kid sister arrived to visit me this morning, on a 7 a.m. flight, and as she took a nap, unable to sleep, I headed off bleary-eyed to the little street where I sip my coffee and think my thoughts.

There, in the morning sunshine, a London taxi pulled up, and the driver, harried, pressed for time, reluctant, muttering, helped an old, old man out, and bent him roughly over his walker. The old man, as frail as winter, began to shuffle, delicately, slower than a little child… one foot, just inches at a time. 

I watched, concerned. The busy, busy people strode by. He tottered, about to fall. I ran and caught him just in time. 

“Do you need some help?” I asked, not wishing to offend him. After a moment, he nodded, frowning. He was a proud old fellow. And as I walked him to the restaurant at the end of the street, he softened, and we chatted. 

Now. Let me explain the meaning of this little story. 

If there’s a missing ingredient in the world today --in economies, in societies, in culture-- it seems to be this: dignity. Neoliberalism, capitalism, growth--all these things seem to have cost us something more precious than they have returned to us, and that is why we feel so angry and disappointed and frustrated. We may have cheaper flat-screen TVs but the price for those seems to have been our dignity. We treat one another badly. Incited by demagogues, we are more focused on what we can take away from one another now than on what we should give to one another. We are used up and disposed of by our institutions and systems the instant we are no longer productive and profitable. There is a crisis of indignity sweeping the globe, and that is why extremism is rising. 

(Let me put that another way. A sense that our lives really count, matter, mean something greater than egotism, selfishness, greed, and self-absorption, that we were put here for better and truer things than merely being cogs in the grey, mindless capitalist machine, that there is something inviolable and inalienable in every one of us -- these things have gone missing. We are crying out for purpose, belonging, meaning, significance these days and that is one great reason that the fascists hold such a seductive appeal.) 

But what is dignity? It’s a subtler notion than we think in the Anglo world. Here, we suppose dignity is something like being rich: a McMansion, a fine wardrobe, a yacht perhaps. When a person has these things, then they have dignity. Until they have such things, they cannot hold their head up high. Or perhaps we reduce dignity in another way:  to never needing to ask for or rely on anyone’s “help”, which is to say, the tired old myth of self-reliance. Whether or not you agree with that, I’m sure you’d agree with this much: in the Anglo world, we think of dignity as something like social status, external esteem, how much people admire us, how much power we have over them, or at least how little power they have over us (never needing anyone’s help) --  and that is what we are really trying to win. 

And yet dignity is none of this. You know it and I know it, because something truer in us rebels at something so necessary to us being such a shallow thing. If it is just that, then it is barely worth anything at all. It can be taken away as easily as it is given -- and above all, dignity should be something that endures, something inherent and intrinsic. But none of the above is. 

When I say that we live in a crisis of indignity these days, we can think of America as the prime example. Americans live astonishingly poor lives. They cannot send their children to school in safety from massacres. Their intellectuals “debate” fascism and sexual assault, as if they were putative social goods. A majority live paycheck to paycheck, with no effective savings, at the mercy of capitalists, who charge them 100 times what Europeans pay for things like insulin and education and surgeries. They’ve lost faith in the future, and their democracy is shattering. If you want a telling statistic, 30% of Americans have apparently had to crowdfund healthcare.  Is that what people with dignity are made to do? 

So, Americans live lives of a unique kind of despair, what Marx would have described as immiseration. They are depressed, lonely, distrustful, angry, abusive to one another, and suicidal — not just because the money hasn’t trickled down to them (it was never going to), but because, more deeply, they live in a society where they are not truly free anymore. 

To be immiserated is not just to “be miserable.” It is something much deeper than that, and modern-day America reveals it in precise and unsparing detail. Americans live a series of terrible dilemmas. Chemotherapy… or my mortgage? That life-saving surgery… or my kids’ college? Retirement… or healthcare? And so on. And yet these dilemmas are only a sign of the truer one of immiseration. The real dilemma that Americans live is that they choose either to prey on one another, and prosper -- or not prey on one another, and barely survive. 

And that is what “immiseration” really is: the need to prey on one another’s fellow human beings to survive. To abuse, hurt, and harm them, in order to win one’s own bread. In Marxist terms, to exploit them, as a condition of one’s own prosperity. When capitalism reduces us to that, it has won, and we have lost — because capitalism will never make proles capitalists, yet now the proles are exploiting each other, but never even receiving the wages of the exploitation they perform, in the futile hope they one day will be capitalists. The proles are now acting just like little capitalists — but the proceeds of all that exploitation go only to the capitalists, never to the proles. What a perfect con game. Immiseration…and now, the proles are the instruments of one another’s ruin. 

Yet that is precisely what modern American life boils down to now, isn’t it? You can be poor and good, or you can be affluent and predatory. But you can’t be affluent and good — not for long, anyways. If you want to do something that genuinely improves peoples’ lives, you’ll be paid a pittance. But if you want to be a corporate exec, a hedge fund manager, an investment banker — you’ll rake it in. The dilemma of immiseration — thanks to capitalism, which says that we can never do good and noble and worthy things at a decent income, because only the predatory, the exploitative, deserve to prosper most. Capitalism won — but Americans lost. 

Now, Americans, having been inculcated into the mindset of cruelty, of capitalism, for so long — centuries of slavery, segregation, domination — might well think: “So what? Why would it make me happy not to have to prey on people?” And yet the answer is very simple. It is not about happiness — at least not first, but second. It makes you free not to have to prey on others. And only someone who is free can be genuinely happy — otherwise, there is only relief and self-gratification. 

So, dignity is liberation from this terrible and indecent dilemma that Americans face. It is the choice not to have to prey on anyone else simply to survive. Who pioneered that notion of dignity? Europeans — notably, the French, where it is a legal principle. And that is because their intellectuals weren’t limited to capitalism as the solution to all human problems. 

Dignity is freedom from immiseration. I want you to see how beautiful this notion is — dignity as liberation from having to prey on anyone else to survive — precisely because it is so different from Anglo notions of dignity, which are severely impoverished and lacking. Here, dignity is not just my social status, my power, how much people admire me, and so on. It is none of these things whatsoever — which fail to satisfy us morally anyways, which leave us feeling empty in the end, even if we attain them. You can have all those things — but still never really have dignity, can’t you? 

So instead, in this European conception, dignity is a higher freedom. It is the freedom from having to exploit and abuse and harm anyone else, just to win one’s bread. It is the freedom from having to prey on anyone else to begin with as the necessary price of subsistence. That notion makes a great deal of sense for Europe to have pioneered, given what happened in World War II. 

And so, without such a notion of dignity anchoring a society, it’s all too easy to see how it might collapse into fascism, too. If people are forced to prey on one another to survive — immiserated — then it’s not a giant leap to fascism. The only difference is the degree and quantity of exploitation and abuse we are talking about. Instead of cheating people of insulin, for profit, we are cheating them of their livelihoods, possessions, and rights, for supremacy. Without dignity, a society will always be vulnerable to fascism — just as American has been proven to be. 

(In that way, in Anglo-speak, we might say that dignity is freedom from “structural racism” and “institutional bigotry.” But still here, the European notion of dignity remains more powerful. Because it is about freedom from exploitation and abuse on both sides — for the victim and the aggressor both. This notion says that we have dignity not just when we are no longer the “victim” of “institutional oppression” — but that the aggressor is a victim, too, forced into the position of preying on people to survive, and thus, sacrificing their freedom to do, be, accomplish, better, higher, truer things.) 

So, this notion of dignity understands that people can be put into situations where the price of their survival is to prey on their neighbors, friends, and colleagues. That it may not really be a “choice,” in the naive way that Anglos think of everything being a choice, at all. Just as it isn’t, really, for Americans. First, we must be liberated from the need to prey on others to survive, if we are to be free. Free to what? To realize ourselves, of course. To find and know and discover and develop we as something more, better, and truer than mere exploiters who do not even receive the wages of the exploitation they perform. American life has dwindled to indignity precisely because Americans don’t have a working notion of dignity — in fact, they don’t have one at all. And in that way, Americans are not really free at all anymore. 

And that brings me back to my little story. Who was gaining something, and who was losing something, when I helped that frail and gentle old man to the restaurant? An Anglo would say that he was gaining my help, and I was losing my precious free time and energy and attention, being diverted from “work.” That is why everyone rushed by, ignoring him. He needed my help — he was losing his dignity, too. We both lost something this morning. 

But the truth is very different. I gained my dignity by helping the old man. It was the exercise of my own freedom. I did not have to prey on anyone, in that moment. And he was gaining something, too. His dignity, too. He did not have to prey on anyone either but could accept my help. No one was losing anything — both were gaining. And that is what dignity really is. It is the freedom, really, to give our possibility to one another. But we can’t ever do that if we are immiserated, bound to prey on one another to survive in the first place — as Americans are. Not because they cannot help old men down the street. But because they cannot seem to understand why the highest freedom of all is to make lives and societies of such tiny actions multiplied.


(Umair Haque’s essays appear on Medium.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.