This is the distribution of wealth in America; over 50% of the population possesses below 4% of existing capital. The upper 10% of Americans control two thirds of the wealth in this country, as much as the bottom 90% combined. Within the top 0.001% (we’re talking several hundred people maximum here) about 20% of our nation’s wealth circulates and stays hidden away in assets, give or take a few of those percentage points at any given time. Again, because this may not be emphasized enough or hit home as hard as I want it to for the reader; out of 330 million people, roughly 300 – 400 hundred individuals, mostly within the same few families, hold a fifth of the country’s wealth. The richest country on Earth.
We have established an economic structure within America’s version of capitalism that allows upward mobility for some at the cost of opportunity for others. Currently in America we have a labor structure not dissimilar from feudal castes several centuries ago. Workers don’t have any stake or influence in how companies treat them and often don’t own property, instead resorting to renting from agencies that are just massive corporations providing housing for profit. In this case, as in nearly every other American institution permeated by capitalist thought, the concern for lives or comfortability of average folks only extends so far as it keeps them alive and contributing to growth. Whichever way you look at it the massive inequality in wealth and opportunity among Americans is one of our most glaring issues.
A quick history lesson to explain what I mean by the statement that we are existing within a new feudalist structure. Capitalism was created out of a desire to jumpstart the economy for the lower classes and create some opportunity for class mobility during a period of oppression in the 16th century. European feudal economies flatlined because there wasn’t any growth potential. People needed capital to open new businesses and innovate new production methods however there wasn’t a system to secure that capital; economic activity had to take place in the “physical” world where you could only buy and build according to what physical money you had. People had no way to secure housing beyond relying on a lord to provide land they could work on, so one of the main solutions was to create a system of lending and credit. With the ability to get money from investors or nonexistent credit, the idea was that people could now take risks by opening new businesses, innovating, and spreading to new markets. There was an opportunity for people to earn higher wages too by working outside of the typical feudal structure and the entire concept of capitalism was created to allow individual pursuit of freedom and fulfillment without an oppressive entity controlling your labor forever. With increased mobility, wages, and creation of new fields due to scientific advancement, people were earning more than ever which led to a society that saw rapid development and improved quality of life over the next several hundred years. Coincidentally, the Bubonic Plague also helped spur more opportunities in labor markets as it was so devastating that the few left who could work were able to demand better treatment. (However it also allowed further consolidation for rich land and corporate owners). Innovation is the cornerstone of capitalism, and the pursuit of individual gain that correspondingly benefits the collective or institution is its inherent goal.
America was designed to have this capitalist ideology that would allow our people to pursue free enterprise and their own individual gain, over time being adopted as the “American dream.” However it quickly became clear that in reality, the philosophy of increasing personal profits to benefit society, crucial for the adoption of capitalism, was happening for one group at the cost and oppression of others. This is due to the failures of our government to ensure a society that promotes individual pursuit of happiness while protecting the collective from extremes of selfishness that humans exhibit when held to no accountability. Especially in America, capitalism has been allowed to take the predatory form of rich people who direct the economy extracting labor at the cheapest possible cost, with workers having no power to influence policy or their working conditions.
The power imbalance is so severe that workers even fear retaliation by being fired when advocating for better treatment within the company they keep afloat with hours of labor. There is a saying that capitalism can take either a savage or benevolent form; the United States has always been a system of savagery. Regardless of what tactic used there has always been oppression of a group of people sponsored by the government in our iteration of capitalist structure. The country was built on extreme exploitation of others for Individual gain in the forms of systematic genocides to indigenous peoples and their culture, enslavement of African Americans, and the conscription of immigrants and other poor people into sweatshop labor with inhumane living conditions. Our modern government uses less openly exploitative tools than it did at the inception of our nation, but even though slavery is now illegal the wealthy forces trying to keep the status quo of power structures have wiggled their way around to find methods of keeping the people from having true power in government. These include suppressing union organization, deregulation that has created environments where workers rely on the company to survive no matter how low wages are, and at the most extreme; pseudo slavery by imposing restrictions on marginalized groups that keep them in generational poverty and constant brutalization.
Those who were historically oppressed by the system still are the most disadvantaged in today’s America; people of color and the lower income classes. Really though, anyone who isn’t wealthy is taken advantage of in today’s America. Billionaires in this country serve as veritable kings ruling over their small domain of peasantry, a tragic outcome in a system which was designed to supposedly prevent that from happening. The upper class also have insane amounts of political influence that stems from their massive coffers and the corporations hey control, creating a system of oligarchy rather than the meritocracy we are told exists. The American dream as it stands is dead for the average person. Our government has let the wealthy dominate and create a system that only serves their interests, tossing aside millions of Americans as human collateral.
As our economy has grown over the years it has taken the form of a Jenga tower, allowing the top to pull resources from the lower classes and add them to their stacks. As they do this, the entire structure becomes unstable it will eventually collapse as the bottom of the structure has nothing to keep it standing. Some inequality in wealth distribution is all well and good in a capitalist society, and I do not believe that transitioning from a capitalist market is the solution. However our rules have been written in a way that lets the upper class snatch up all resources, taking their fill while leaving bare crumbs to the other 99%. Thus within our game of life in America we have seen it become impossible for anyone to pull themselves up by the bootstraps because there are no more opportunities left for them to grasp on to. The opportunities that do exist have virtually all been taken over by those in power, putting obstacles in place such as exponentially expensive education or steadily raising experience requirements that restrict the ability of younger people entering the labor force from pursuing the same linear career or life trajectories that older generations were able to at the “height” of America, the times that Donald Trump wanted to invoke us back to. (Unfortunately in those times many policies were intentionally segregational. Additionally I would argue that FDR and the New Deal had a larger impact than any Keynesian policy on the success of America into the 60’s and beyond, despite his racism. We can discuss that another time, and I will link if I ever make a formal post about this because I think it is a fascinating subject).
The reason that the U.S. hasn’t been able to enact a more socially progressive regime is that people don’t demand change from our government. As John Steinbeck would argue, we are complacent because many Americans believe they are millionaires to be and soon will be able to thrive within the system built around them like the rich and famous on TV. The lie that the upper class feeds us, that we too can be rich within America, is a tasty treat dangled in front of us like a carrot to keep driving our labor within an unequal system that we will never be truly rewarded in. Luckily, many younger generations are waking up to this reality as they see the truth of grinding through a 9 – 5 to pay rent and survive, additionally feeling lost due to how limited their potential feels within these structures. Even middle aged folks and their parents may slowly have been realizing this, but their views within conservative dominated politics they vote for haven’t been represented as thoroughly since Trump and his ilk, even Biden and Obama, have essentially accelerated the status quo of corporate domination through their policies. Were it a perfect democracy, we may not have had this as Meagan Day points out here. (Coincidentally refuting Steinbeck too).
The barriers recent generations face to live independently have paradoxically increased despite the vast wealth we gained as a nation in the mid 20th century. This is due to the enormous costs needed for the average American to get an education, pay for living expenses (renting), and keep food on their table; let alone think about a family. The baby boomers and older generations who secured their own financial security cut off the ability of younger or disenfranchised people to build up the same wealth. Housing purchases are at an all time low among the millennial generation, and due to financial insecurity and lack of savings people are refusing to start families, seeing the birth rate rapidly decline. Single family dwellings are rapidly disappearing, within some disenfranchised communities they have always been common, but among young generations that would have been starting a family were they at this stage in life 40 years ago nearly everyone is relying on roommates or partnerships while they grind through school. Following an increase in barriers to higher paying jobs due to housing insecurities, educational access, and sheer volume of candidates in the market, many people in their 20’s and 30’s are beginning to feel stuck. This tremendous stagnation in younger people has had the effect of killing entrepreneurialism. (For more on this see my analysis of architecture as an indicator of the broader market). Increased deregulation and inequity within the markets has erected significant barriers to the majority of our population wishing to pursue their own capitalistic endeavours without corporate oversight. In our deregulated ecosystem, small business fish are acting as corporate sharks’ food. People are more risk averse when they have no cushion to fall back on, and in 2014 small business startups were at a 40 year low. They have only declined since, going into a death spiral during COVID-19, and we don’t even know the full damage that the pandemic has inflicted yet. Regardless, it is very clear that corporate entities prospered off of the crisis while small entities were forced to close their doors en masse. The upper class nearly doubled their wealth during the pandemic while small business and individuals were suffering and forced to throw money into the maws of billionaires for survival.
The point in explaining how entrepreneurialism and individual family units with homes is dead is to extend an analysis that shows younger generations, hundreds of thousands in each state, are increasingly being forced into situations that cause a reliance on corporate entities. To come full circle on the discussion of a new feudalist structure forming, because America only values capital and growth of wealth we have been corralled into existing within a society that demands keeping up with inflation and other costs out of the lower class’s hands. As life becomes ever increasingly expensive, so does the cost of education and other opportunities that will create access to the necessary resources that allow for a higher paying job. The problem is, millions of Americans haven’t been able to keep pace with this inflation through generational wealth like the top 10% are. I will further expand upon this in various other writings, mainly describing historical disenfranchisement within all institutions for POC and many poor groups that has shaped their realities now. I’m particularly looking forward to discussing the Great Recession, and how the contributions of both parties have enabled our current system which makes many folks slaves to corporate debt as they take on loans to pay for education, housing, credit, and life. America will never allow the opportunities afforded to the top few for all until we embrace a more socially focused version of capitalism. The minimum wage has flatlined since 1991 and protections for workers, including unions, have been crippled as politicians continue the crusade that Friedman and Reagan embarked upon to erase any meaningful social safety nets. In placing value in capital over human life, we have reinforced America’s savage version of capitalism that pushes for stock return and investor value over anything. This is all well and good for corporations within a capitalist sphere, but not for a government. (Which has been infiltrated by Wall Street on all levels).
If we apply empathy to our version of American capitalism, we will be able to improve our social conditions beyond what we believe possible in our individually driven mindsets. To create a system that creates a version of social capitalism for everyone in America, instead of savage capitalism for the lower class and socialism for corporations, is the ultimate goal. Through a lens of collective thought we can improve the conditions of our society, and help mitigate the damage we are doing to the planet in the process. Think of how powerful a movement like Occupy Wall Street was, and that was only about demanding financial equality. I can’t even begin to start on the environment, and have so so much to say. I am looking forward to more discussion.