Down But Not Out: How To Turn a Man Into an Avaricious Beast
“In societies that worship money and success, the losers become objects of scorn. Those who work the hardest for the least are called lazy. Those forced to live in substandard housing are thought to be the authors of substandard lives. Those who do not finish high school or cannot afford to go to college are considered deficient or inept.”
People call me Joe. I am 33 years old and have had many negative experiences under capitalism. Living under oppressive conditions shapes a person in ways they don’t normally think about: from work to interpersonal relationships to developing a social life and especially in child rearing. The damage that this economic system and the whole of class society have caused is almost incalculable. Capitalism, as we know, is parasitic and exploitative in nature. In my experience, the effects of living under a system that places priority on a non-material object, i.e, money, over human life can produce unforeseen and lasting consequences.
I was brought up in a Catholic working class household in Washington State, the oldest of seven children. I witnessed from the beginning conflict over money, not just between close family members, but extended family members joined in the conflict as well. The struggle to survive with little or no money is hard enough without the social stigma attached to it. In my family that stigma was damaging for many people involved. There is a common conception in this society that people who have fallen on hard times have only themselves to blame and they should pick themselves up by their so called “bootstraps”. The stigma gets worse when you find yourself continually impoverished. I will never forget the experiences I had as a child and I use them to keep myself grounded as an individual. It’s not as if my life was terrible by any means, we lived in a safe working class neighborhood and my childhood was relatively good – until about the mid 90s when the neoliberal capitalist machine really took a lot of people out of the workforce. It created a lot of pain for us. And out of my childhood arose two poignant antagonisms. Catholicism and capitalism.
Those awkward teenage blues
Mixed between pubescent angst and constant anxiety due to unstable living conditions I began to equate money with evil, and came to see rich people as the problem. I was always taught that those who were rich were ok if they got their money through hard work. But what I saw around me was a decadent class of liberal professionals who were gentrifying our town and driving us working class people out. I was in a constant state of anti-wealth rage. It was only through music and education that my class-consciousness began to develop progressively. The bands that began to change my thinking were most importantly, the “Dead Kennedys,” the “Subhumans”, “Oi Polloi” and “The Specials.” I was lucky to take English and history classes from some exceptional teachers who included the texts of Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, Emma Goldman and Eugene Debs in their curriculum. As well as learning about the whole labor history of the United States, it really jump-started my awareness and I began taking an interest in anarchism and communism. I began to develop my understanding about why the world is the way it is. I think if I never found these ideologies and these bands, I would have just found something else. And for many people in my community they found hard drugs and alcohol. I feel lucky not to have been caught up in that cycle of pain.
Neoliberalism sets in
As I grew older, my parents lost their home and livelihood. In the 90s, the fish companies in Alaska began to sell out to foreign investors. The price of salmon dropped dramatically. This hit many people very hard. It put my father out of work. I can’t even begin to imagine what that kind of devastation must feel like. This took its toll not only in a financial way but obviously in an emotional way. It pretty much ruined us. The companies sold out and cut the fleet in half. It was just a simple and amoral business transaction. But the effects of it are still felt to this day. We had to move several times and it was awful. It was a really hard time. For everyone. But we stuck with each other and got through it.
I first entered the working world when I was in high school. Working in restaurants after school was fun for me, I enjoyed not doing school work. I was brought up to have a strong work ethic and I always took work seriously. But this wasn’t just a hobby or an activity to pass the time or for me to gain work experience. My family needed the money. If my brothers and I didn’t work I don’t think we could have survived. Even with our extra income it was still tough. Still – my parents always made sure there was food on the table. My work was only in the wintertime.
Working on fishing boats
In 2003 I began to work in Alaska as a seaman with my father on board fish tendering vessels and commercial fishing boats. We would work for fish processors hauling fish to processing plants from smaller fishing vessels. From then on, mostly every summer I was working up in Alaska. I wanted to be home. I hated being up there. I missed my friends and wanted a social life. But looking back it was probably one of the best bonding experiences a father and son could have and I am grateful for that.
I did that kind of work for about 10 years. Looking back I believe it was a bad career choice. The hours were long, it was dangerous, the pay was not good and there was no job security. As soon as I got home I would have to start looking for work again. So I started going back to school. I attended community college and was enrolled in a wooden boat repair program. I didn’t finish. I went to work at a shipyard instead. Making $15/hour right out of school was good for me. That was a nasty job. We built one tugboat and I was laid off. Then I got another job through the union at another shipyard. That was probably the best job I ever had. Real good guys my co-workers were. Laid off again. After being laid off a few of my friends helped me get into the union. I began working commercial construction with my buddies and they started me at journeyman wages even though I was an apprentice. I told my supervisor I was being overpaid so they could sort it out. I figured it was better to be honest about it upfront instead of letting it go on and then face problems down the line. Plus, I didn’t feel right about being paid for skills I did not have. He said he would take care of it. A few days later the boss came down and ordered me to pay back the money. I refused and they fired me. I was so angry. Even my union rep didn’t support me.
I have loads of medical debt. And most of it is from working with no medical coverage. I was injured on the job a few times, and even though sometimes the company paid for me to go to the doctor, I still had a huge deductible to pay – which I could never pay in full. I rolled my ankle on one job while the port was switching their insurance carrier and for whatever reason I wasn’t covered – nor would my company cover me. So it went on my tab. I had bill collectors hounding me. “No I can’t pay $189 today. I have to make rent.” I remember when the bill collectors would harass my mother to the point of making her cry. Those kinds of people are the lowest of the low.
I continued to work in commercial construction until the crash of 2008. I was working on a construction job and one day the boss laid the whole jobsite off. No more money coming in he said, the investors pulled all their money. I left the job site at 2 in the afternoon.
Rent is theft
Anyone who rents should be able to accrue some credit based on renting. In many ways it is more stable to lend to people who rent because if they don’t make rent every month, they get evicted. But it doesn’t count for a damn thing. It’s just pissing away money. This is the life I have been living forever. My parents lost their home and have been renting for 20 years and this isn’t NYC. It’s the Pacific Northwest.
In the winter of 2011 my wife and I found out she was pregnant. No savings, no house not even really a reliable vehicle. I don’t have to tell you that there was a bit of a panic which was both joyful and neurotic. The house we were living in had black mold, lead paint and there was a galvanizing plant and an asphalt production facility across the highway. We had to get out of there. By the time my son was ready to be born, I was flying home from Alaska and only a week later she was ready to have the baby. We continued to live in that house for another year because we couldn’t find anything we could afford. So we got on a low-income housing list back where I grew up and we’ve been here ever since.
That old neighborhood just ain’t the same
The bad thing about moving back to where you grew up is being reminded of times in your life when you wish you had the chance to have done something differently. All the bad shit is still here. And it’s getting worse. The economy is bad, the inequality is bad and the drug problem is bad. Opiates are hitting a lot of people – especially those who are economically disenfranchised. Our neighbors were trafficking meth and heroin. A guy I went to school with, I saw him shooting up in a church parking lot behind our apartment in broad daylight. We walked by him as we went to the store. How do you explain that to a 3 year old? A dude almost died while he shot up and overdosed on the jungle gym my child plays on. And most people don’t think that in a working class community there is a large percentage of working poor, but every Wednesday that food bank is packed. We are here. We exist. We aren’t going away. The problems of capitalism aren’t going away. No matter how much organic kombucha you drink or how many “ethical” purchases you make, the problems are going to escalate – and the children are going to be the ones who suffer the most.
No white picket fence for me
Currently I have no prospects of ever owning a home. Homeownership in the United States is a symbol of many things: self-sufficiency, material success, individuality and a way to begin saving for the future. It used to be that owning a home was no big deal. But as wages have stagnated and home prices have skyrocketed, fewer and fewer people have the chance to own a home. What kind of effect do you think this would have on a person? In this society we are told if we can’t keep up that it’s our own fault. More than that, those who don’t own homes are perceived as less than worthy or not focused enough. This is especially hard when you see others around you moving up the social ladder and then find yourself constantly lagging behind. But then you look again and see a larger mass of people struggling in the same way you are and you wonder why the system is the way it is. Because I know from experience that we all work harder for our money than most of these bourgeois hipsters.
No college for my children
I also have no way to save for my child’s future. We can barely make rent every month. We don’t qualify for energy assistance because we make “too much”. College isn’t even on the radar. At this rate my child will end up a wage slave just like the rest of us. And by the time he’s old enough to work, the wages will probably be on par with the rest of the third world. Think about that. How is this different from this situation and feudalism? Not much. With the reactionaries doing away with public education and college affordable mainly for the well to do, what’s to stop them from reinstituting child labor? Is this the future that is being left for my son? This is what keeps me up at night.
The silver lining in the clouds
One check away from destitution
Right now I am subsisting on meager wages and am just one paycheck away from outright destitution. In the Pacific Northwest, if you are not a techie or a professional, you are probably maxing out on wages at $25/hour. Most people I know are making less than $15/hr. There are exceptions I know, but what I see is a wage decline. Ten years ago I was making $15/hour. And that was for entry-level work! I work three jobs right now. Monthly I am probably grossing $2,000. And half that goes to rent. If I lose my job, then it’s pretty much hopeless. This is terrifying.
Bernie Sanders and the 2016 election revue band
Bernie Sanders jump-started my class-consciousness again. If he does nothing else, he will be remembered for that. I’ll remember him for that. He is the reason I gave communism a second chance. I may call him an imperialist pig now but the truth is, that I was so depressed and apathetic I began turning to metaphysics as a solution to help myself. What a mistake. Thank god for Bernie Sanders. I would begin to well up when he would talk about healthcare or people who work 60 or 70 hours a week and they still can’t survive. I’ve seen that. I’ve lived that.
My family works harder than anyone and we still don’t have a damn thing. My mother is a caregiver for a mentally ill man. His own rich family won’t even put up the money to deal with him. Out of the sheer godliness of my mother’s heart, she cares for him for free. And you see the difference. The proletariat IS humanity. The bourgeoisie are incapable of having any humanity only because they cannot commodify it. They choose to exploit their fellow man and in return they suffer the loss of their own soul. They don’t even have enough humanity in themselves to care for their own flesh and blood. That is why they must be done away with as a class. The new generation must be taught the class struggle. Sanders reinvigorated the class struggle. I fought hard for his candidacy, I talked to people from all over the country, I became a Precinct Community Officer (PCO) in my district. I was so bright eyed and bushy-tailed. Then the reality check that the activist Lucy Parsons warned us about came true… “Never be deceived that the rich will allow you to vote away their wealth.”
Beyond Bernie. Marxism as the next step
I was angry, hurt and disillusioned. What was the next step? I started looking further into socialist politics. Marxism gave me a new idea I could get with. The well-known Marxist economist Richard Wolff began broadcasting his weekly program “Economic Update”. Wow! I thought he actually had a legitimate analysis of why capitalism works the way it does. It turned my thinking around. Bernie Sanders is old news. He’s part of the bourgeois electoral system. Let’s move on to bigger and better things. The more I learn about imperialism, colonialism and capitalism the more I understand why we live in this situation. Now I can say I consider myself a Marxist-Leninist and yearn for the good old days of the Soviet Union. I still have much to learn about scientific socialism and its practical applications. But I haven’t felt so energized in a long time. I am rediscovering my political self again.
Will the proletariat be fooled again?
Capitalism relies on the exploitation of people. I have had it far better than many in this country who suffer much worse exploitation every waking moment of their lives. America as an empire depends on exploitation in order to function. Will we see a real revolution or will the proletariat be fooled again by shiny promises of achieving the so-called “American dream”? My hope and dream is that the working class of this country will cast aside their nationalism and trade it in for internationalism. I hope that they will see the dichotomy between the bourgeoisie and proletariat and realize that to achieve the so-called American dream we must struggle for it collectively.
Joe Costello is a self-educated Marxist who lives with his family in Washington State and can be reached by commenting on this article.