Bending The Arc November 2021
A Social Justice Newsletter for Educators
“For me, the question is, how do we live under conditions of market totalitarianism? There is no one rubric that explains the whole world, but the idea that we live in a situation where money-making comes before all else is a pretty helpful rubric for understanding some of the weird stuff that we see around us.” - Teju Cole in conversation with David Naimon
We need to talk about capitalism.
What I mean is that I want us to talk about the connections between unchecked capitalism and accelerating inequality, between capitalism and white supremacy, between capitalism and histories of colonial theft. I want us to talk about capitalism because I think we have a lot to learn about a system we engage that also helps to maintain multiple forms of oppression. It’s November and I’ve decided to go there.
A few weeks ago I came across a series of blog posts connecting corporate backed education reform in the US with an ethnographic study of Wall Street culture. In three separate articles, political scientist David Kaib considers Karen Ho’s Liquidated - An Ethnography of Wall Street as instructive in understanding belief systems animating corporate education reform such as an overwhelming faith in the smartness of wealthy elites, a hyperfocus on efficiencies and competition; an assumption that education should function like other “markets.” The upshot is that I ordered the book and began reading.
Besides charting the recent history of Wall Street’s winners-take-all ethos, Karen Ho examines the prevailing mindsets guiding both individuals and institutions. While reading it was almost painful to realize recognize how the ruthless pursuit of profits with little regard for the human collateral damage has come to reshape business practices across numerous industries.
In response to what he terms “market totalitarianism,” author Teju Cole (quoted above) remarks:
“People are suffering, people are impoverished, but the economy is great. It’s the economies, the market. Inside all of that, how do we grieve? How do we mourn? How do we care for each other? How do we imagine a possible future?”
And which future for whom? That’s what I’m sitting with in observing how unbridled capitalism along with deeply normalized consumerism promotes so much harm, injustice and environmental degradation. Given the power we have allowed several mega corporations and an increasingly untouchable billionaire class to amass across the globe, it can be a challenge to believe in our capacity to change the tide.
What’s in store…
My offerings this month therefore, are resources of a different nature. The links are for contemplation and further investigation. Receive them as an invitation to question some of the ideas we take for granted or assume to be inevitable. They are also a reflection of my personal worry about the ways I see neoliberal mindsets colonize our areas of greatest need: housing, education, health care, and environmental protection, to name a few.
Forgive me in advance, I know it’s way too much to read or take in at once. The newsletter will not self-destruct in a week or even a month. Pick and choose what seems potentially interesting and keep it moving.
In a brief documentary, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, abolitionist and geographer, outlines the history of racial capitalism and how it shapes our current notions about incarceration.
“For black Americans, achieving upward mobility, even in thriving cities that compete for tech jobs, private capital and national recognition, is as complicated as it was in 1963. In that economy, black Americans hustled in the face of legal racial segregation and social stigma that cordoned us off from opportunities reserved for white Americans. In 2020, black Americans can legally access the major on-ramps to opportunity—colleges, workplaces, public schools, neighborhoods, transportation, electoral politics—but despite hustling like everyone else, they do not have much to show for it.”
Something I did not know but I suppose should not really surprise me is that George Washington accrued his wealth primarily through land speculation. He also held hundreds of slaves across several farms. In an eye-opening episode of the Scene On Radio podcast, host John Biewen examines the question of why it was wealthy elites who were at the forefront of the American Revolution. Fascinating to learn about the much more complex motivations of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and others in resisting British meddling in their business affairs. There is also a substantial section on Cherokee societies pre-contact in this episode which I also appreciated.
Just in case you’re looking for some reading material for the young people in your life that may provide both an engaging and entertaining exploration of capitalism, consumerism and their effects, consider this middle grade series, The Iremonger.
Literally as I was writing this, a long read by George Monbiot was published in the The Guardian: “Capitalism is killing the planet – it’s time to stop buying into our own destruction.” He underscores many of the things I wanted to say far more eloquently and with detailed examples.
Happy Fall, y’all.
Every month is a new adventure because I never know exactly what’s going to emerge here. That’s both the beauty and the risk of this project. Thanks for sticking with me and I’d love to chat about what you find interesting.