Every day of late, we seem to hear a warning that goes something like this: “Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has highlighted the very real fact that authoritarian forces are on the rise and that democracy is under attack across the globe.” If we ask Jane or John Doe on the street about dictators, they would probably bring up Putin, or maybe Xi Jinping, Maduro, Castro, or even Morales. They would also quickly point out that here in the West we live in a free and democratic country and can do whatever we want.
If we were to take a closer look at what has happened to the West over the past 50 years, however, we might start to wonder about our freedom. We are tied to a singular economical structure that itself imposes a singular concept of society. There is very little to be done in this society without money. After all, we are led to believe, what could possibly be the meaning of one’s life if not to make money, spend money, and think about making more money?
It might be helpful to turn that question around: What else would you do with your life, we could ask, if you didn’t have to make money? What would you think about? What would you talk about with friends, if not shopping, prices, and everything else connected to consumerism? When we meet someone, one of the first things we ask is “What do you do for a living?,” as if this is our most important and defining characteristic.
This economic structure of Western societies could and should be defined as a dictatorship. The dehumanization and fragmentation of our culture, so apparent today, has been caused, in many ways, by this growing dictatorship of money.
This dictatorship can best be illustrated by looking at different aspects of the phenomena. Each point on its own is perhaps not a huge issue, but once we recognize how they are all connected, we begin to understand how money dictates so much of our lives.
Let’s start with something as simple as water. Bottled water is easy to stow in your gym bag, and a must for your at-home disaster-preparedness kit. Its meteoric rise since the 1970s, however, has had a negative impact on the environment, and the battle between bottling brands is hiking up the cost of our planet’s most important, most precious resource. The main issue with bottled water is water’s transformation from a common good to a product that you need to buy in stores (since, as the corporations have told us, public water is not safe for your health). In 2018, revenue from bottled water in the United States amounted to $18 billion.
How else does the system capture us? By getting young adults to take out student loans. Students of today’s generation are facing financial struggles that were completely foreign to past generations. The cost of post-secondary education has slowly been shifted from the public (a common benefit to all) to individuals. Since the 1980s, the cost of an undergraduate degree has increased by a shocking 213% at public schools and 129% at private schools. What has enabled this increase to happen without greater public outcry? The Guaranteed Student Loan Program started in 1965 and provides low-interest loans to thousands of college students each year. Every student is told not to worry about the cost of college, which now can be postponed. Today, as a result, the student loan debt crisis affects over 43 million Americans, who owe $1.75 trillion in federal and private student loans, or an average of $29,800 per graduate. These young adults are enchained to their debt, which affects their credit-score, impacts their capacity to borrow money for a car or a house, and puts pressure on them to find high-salaried work post-graduation (whether it’s the type of work they like or not). It takes many of them decades to pay back this money and by that time, they are engaged in other types of credit, keeping them slaves to their bank-masters.
Entertainment: In the 60’s there was a revolution in music led by a new generation of youth who wanted to “change the world.” Of course, money-minded people saw an opportunity to capitalize on this by creating a whole new industry. Songs from the 60’s and 70’s now represent 70% of the U.S. music market, according to the latest numbers from MRC Data. Bob Dylan recently sold his entire back catalog to Sony in a landmark 9-figure deal, while the new-music market is shrinking. This coincided with the expansion in the entertainment industry of Intellectual Property (IP). The term was first used in the 19th century, though it was not until the late 20th century that intellectual property became commonplace in a majority of the world’s legal systems. Mr. Dylan had no problem making a living through revenue from his concerts, album sales, and private engagements, but the business guys wanted more and so they added on another layer with IP. Now on top of his “normal” income, he also gets paid for use of his already-paid-for songs. This is really magic.
Now, we, creative consumers of movies, music, and documentaries, have monthly subscriptions to streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, Apple, and HBO, reaching a market size of $419.03 billion in 2021 and poised to reach $ 932.29 billion by 2028. We do not buy and own any art productions but instead paying a monthly licensing fee to corporations (of which very little goes back to the artist in the first place).
King Plastic: The oldest among us might remember life before credit cards. Everything you wanted to buy had to be paid for in cash until the banks came up with this “magic” piece of plastic. The first universal credit card was introduced by the Diners’ Club in 1950 and another, known as a travel and entertainment card, was established by the American Express Company in 1958. This changed everything and consolidated the banks’ concentration of power. You are no longer limited by the cash you have on hand but have access to a line of credit. So now you don’t need cash but have instead a new daily worry: how am I going to pay off my credit card balance? Overall, Americans owe $807 billion across almost 506 million card accounts, the equivalent of the NYC budget for 8 years.
Technology: In March 1876, phone technology was developed. Later, a network was built, with landlines installed as a shared resource for everyone in the house to use, along with the radio (1890s), the refrigerator (1899), TV (1927), and so on. In 1973, however, Motorola developed the first wireless phone and a few years later the personal computer industry truly began, moving us from the notion of technology being “shared” to it becoming almost a personal prostheses. The development of WIFI technology eliminated the need for a personal landline connection, but instead of this being seen as an opportunity to provide everyone with internet access, corporations saw it as another chance to make money, and so now we all have to pay for our access.
Of course, WIFI is a simple example, but the health care system in the U.S. works in the same way. Your health coverage is linked to your having a job, so if you don’ work, you stop having health coverage. It is that simple, yet that absurd.
Of course, everyone can do whatever they want with their lives — after paying their bills (rent/mortgage, taxes, transportation food, internet, education, mobile, car, student loans, clothes, credit cards, childcare, healthcare therapy) and working one, maybe two, and sometimes three jobs to do that. In reality, very few people I know are doing what they want with their lives. People in general do what they have to do to stay afloat.
As in any dictatorship, a minority are the perpetrators and a majority the oppressed. U.S. billionaires saw their wealth grow by $1.8 trillion during the pandemic, their collective fortune skyrocketing by 62 percent during that time, according to a report from Americans for Tax Fairness (ATF) and the Institute for Policy Studies Program on Inequality (IPS). Meanwhile, a survey of 2,633 U.S. consumers, conducted in partnership with PYMNTS.com and released last week, found that 64% of Americans were living paycheck to paycheck in January 2022, up from 52% in April 2021.
Of course, as always, there are many things that we could do to transform this absurd situation. On a personal level, we would first need to acknowledge it as a dictatorship under which we are submissive. The second step would be to dedicate, in your daily life, a little time and free energy to non-commercial activities (socializing, reading, volunteering, artistic exploration, etc.). Start with 30 minutes a day, and then look to grow that number over time. That will be a big step in the right direction, the beginning of a liberating process that might open the door to new horizon and new possibilities.
On a social level, there are plenty of proposals that could be implemented to free our lives from this dictatorship, such as universal health insurance, implementation of a universal basic income, moving from a representative democracy to a direct democracy, providing free access to college, developing a fair minimum wage and implementing a maximum wage, and so on. In a political dictatorship, the central power seeks to isolate people and make them fear foremost for their personal safety and that of their family. Similarly, in an economic dictatorship, corporations and banks seek to keep people worrying about their own situation, their own ability to get by and take care of their own families. Any attempts to think about the whole are scared away with cries of “socialism!”
Like those brave men and women around the world who fight together against tyranny and political dictatorships, aspiring to a higher ideal, the future is ours to build if we can first free ourselves from our enchainment to money.