Our Biggest Fears of a Soviet Dystopia Are Becoming True Under Capitalism
Another dull day at the office and I’m sitting at my desk staring glassy-eyed into my work-issued MacBook, dredging my soul for inspiration to finish writing advertising copy for some big business account that’s trying to sound “relatable.” Then an interesting headline pops into my news feed. An international firestorm, but surprisingly, not caused by our “very stable genius” president rage-tweeting us to the brink of nuclear genocide while scarfing down his seventh Quarter Pounder of the day. No, the Houston Rockets general manager expressed support for the Hong Kong protestors, and the Chinese government swiftly whipped the NBA like a red-headed mule. I sigh, lean back in my chair, and stare out the window as the cicada sound of fingers clacking on the keyboard fills the air around me. It’s sonic waterboarding.
I begin to ponder how concentrated global capital is undermining our most cherished ideals: freedom of expression, self-determination, truly bottomless breadsticks. Our growing dependence on Chinese markets has already had censorial effects on Hollywood production, a theme so viscerally portrayed in South Park when Randy strangles Winnie the Pooh to death. When China was first designated the World’s Sweatshop, Bill Clinton pitched us on this idea of “engagement”—America was supposed to liberate developing countries by exporting its democracy. Instead, we’re importing Chinese autocracy.
American capitalism has this Soviet-esque quality to it, with all its pointless and repressive bureaucracy, collectivism, propaganda, burnout, and helplessness. In fact, our workforce has ballooned with what David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs”: industries like financial services, telemarketing, corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. It’s like Kafka crafted an economic system for shits and giggles and then the whole Western world said, “This, but unironically.”
An email notification banner flashes across the top right corner of my screen and interrupts my internal monologue. A Big Pharma client wants me to replace the phrase “enjoy your moments” in an Instagram caption with “the potential to possibly have more moments.” Whenever I come across this kind of business-speak, I wonder if corporate lawyers are this tedious during cunnilingus because it’s the only conceivable way these doughnuts could make this world slightly less insufferable. And it’s another reminder of the moral quandary I’m situated in: As a PR copywriter who supports universal healthcare, it seems all this money dumped into marketing could be spent on something far more ambitious — like bankrolling someone’s insulin treatment on GoFundMe.
The bleak, misty sky lingering outside my window is the color of a sweaty gym sock. I wonder if I’m depressed or jaded or nihilistic, or if a certain amount of time on the career path blurs the three until they’re indecipherable. Shouldn’t our lives be more exciting than this? My 9-to-5 has curdled into an indiscriminate slog of meetings, projects, and requests to “please give this a look.” Modernity is draining in its mundanity. Yet somehow, when the evenings roll around, I’ve fallen into a cagey dissemblance and my brain has deteriorated into applesauce. These are hours we could otherwise have for fun, sex, hobbies, or anything other than humming along to the Belichickian phrase “do your job.”
One day in 1935, Alexei Stakhanov hewed 102 tons of coal during a six-hour shift in a Ukrainian mine, and a giddy Soviet government unspooled the feat with a propaganda assault, valorizing workers and emphasizing traits like cleanliness, neatness, and preparedness — not too dissimilar to Jordan Peterson lectures, except slightly more intelligible to native English speakers. In America, we’re conditioned to obsess over #RiseAndGrind, a lust for Monday mornings fueled by a cult of performative workaholism that’s impossible to escape. But for what? You’ll hear the adage “work builds character” from warehouse managers, boomer dads, and Joe Biden whenever he’s not apologizing for another casually racist comment. Well, ask yourself: Does your job really build character, or is it more likely to bring out things like anxiety or a pent-up sense of homicidal rage?
Even after the HBO satire Silicon Valley turned the vacuous mission statement “making the world a better place” a recurring punchline, lizard-brained politicians and sociopathic CEOs will still cheerlead the virtues of work with high-minded messaging about innate creativity and boundless possibility. Steve Jobs set the bar for exhorting this gobbledygook as he dressed like an adjunct slam poetry professor and spoke about humanity with flair while rolling out new iPhones that wouldn’t even work with the charger you already own. Now the world is littered with delusional incel tech bros who fancy themselves as “visionaries” because they secured VC funding for designing an app that adds gold sprinkles to poop emojis. Spotify, a music streaming platform, says its mission is “to unlock the potential of human creativity.” WeWork, a company that provides shared workspaces for startups, wants to “unleash every human’s superpowers.” Dropbox, which lets you upload and email files, says its purpose is “to unleash the world’s creative energy by designing a more enlightened way of working.”
In the Soviet Union, where work was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system doled out as many jobs as necessary to guarantee full employment. But this is the very problem that market competition is supposed to fix, according to the pencil-necked dweebs at the National Review who write their columns while using cancer patients as footrests. But take a look at our private health insurance system — which ranks 29th in the world and is double the cost of universal systems — and you’ll see that its inefficiency is exactly why this bloated corpse of market bureaucracy has its hands around our throats. Even as Comrade Obama forced the individual mandate onto geriatric Tea Partiers, he admitted as such:
“Everybody who supports single-payer health care says, ‘Look at all this money we would be saving from insurance and paperwork.’ That represents one million, two million, three million jobs [filled by] people who are working at Blue Cross Blue Shield or Kaiser or other places. What are we doing with them? Where are we employing them?”
For the pleasure of preserving millions of unnecessary paper-pushing jobs, we have a system that leads to a host of other needless indignities: 30 million Americans are uninsured; half of the population delays or forgoes medical care due to affordability concerns; greasy tapeworms hike the price of a life-saving drug from $13 to $750.
We Americans, in all our freedom-humping geniusness, let loose rampant, deregulated vampirism that has unleashed calamities that reshaped our nation — opioid epidemics, Trump, The Big Bang Theory, the backpack kid dance, Taco Bell Cantina, all that stuff. If capitalism fosters human creativity, then why does our economy produce an extremely limited demand for artists, musicians, academics, researchers, or scientists, but has a seemingly insatiable appetite for corporate lawyers and rehashing the same Marvel superhero movie every six months? Well, if the 1% controls most of the wealth, what we call “the market” is merely a reflection of their desires, and it’s imposed a privatized tyranny on us all.
Our fine capitalist nation has long obsessed over rugged individualism, and I assume this started right around the time those goofy cowboy commercials turned the Marlboro Man’s lungs into the inside of a steamboat furnace. See, the Soviet Union invokes black-and-white images of emaciated children toiling around in breadlines and donning outfits that look like H&M knockoffs of Justin Bieber’s clothing line. But capitalism, we’re told, respects the sanctity of the individual over the repressive collectivist will. Margaret Thatcher declared, “There’s no such thing as society, there are individual men and women.” Ayn Rand’s philosophy glamorized the galaxy-brain greatness of übermenschen who would run sustainable energy startups that force-feed migrant children crack as they sprint on power-generating hamster wheels. Friedrich von Hayek compared baseline social welfare to Nazi fascism because they’re both “collectivist.” Koch-funded talking haircuts promote “individualism” as if it’s a Pavlovian response to “maybe we shouldn’t let Nestlé monopolize water.”
Descendent from chattel slavery, capitalism is by the dollar, of the dollar, for the dollar. Your individual needs are sacrificed for a higher purpose: your employer’s profit motives. Corporatism is collectivism. Ask “fulfillment center” workers how much Jeff Bezos respects their individual needs as their latest 18-hour shift without a bathroom break has them passing kidney stones the size of Fruity Pebbles. Collectivism is retail workers rocking matching polo shirts. Collectivism is Elon Musk tweeting “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week” as he stands to reap stock compensation upwards of $50 billion if Tesla meets certain performance levels. The differences between a company retreat and political reeducation camps do not lie in the level of collectivist thinking — no — it’s their outright coercion and a seminar featuring your over-caffeinated EVP preaching about “cross-department collaboration” (which usually translates into passive-aggressive email chains).
The simple truth is, you were hired so your CEO can leverage your sweat and mounting desperation into another luxury yacht. Low-wage workers feel the brunt of management. The United States has a larger share of working-age people living in poverty than any other OECD nation. Should these interchangeable cogs displease their superiors, they lose their means of feeding themselves and their family, and 43% of American children are raised in this precarious situation. If your options are “take this job or starve to death,” then voluntary employment is a scam as transparent as indulgences or astrology. Imagine being locked in a padded room and “Blurred Lines” was played on infinite loop as you were forced to read @realDonaldTrump’s tweets with jumper cables clamped to your nipples, and I’d only free you if you pledged to dedicate the bulk of your remaining time on Earth to serve me. Your “freedom of choice” is a farce.
As we reject collectivism that serves the common good, we’ve accepted collectivism in service to narrow, increasingly consolidated capital. The polar ice caps may be farting battery acid, but at least we made the stonks go up and up.
One of the great fears of socialism — that small, unelected groups of bureaucrats would decide what to make and sell — is increasingly coming true under capitalism. In his book Capitalism vs. Freedom, economist Rob Larson writes, “Rather than the ‘planned economy’ of socialism that haunts [F.A.] Hayek’s dreams, it is corporate monopoly and oligopoly, and their industrial organizations, that are the main source of today’s central planning.” When you think about it, what is a corporation other than just a privatized bureaucracy?
Even the Gilded Age — the time of purest laissez-faire capitalism — wasn’t an era flourishing with enduring competition: It was defined by classic free-market monopolies like Standard Oil, American Tobacco, and US Steel. Walmart and Amazon have amassed “trading monopolies,” and they brandish their power by dictating terms to wholesalers through rendering regional competition unviable or squeezing small publishers via the “Gazelle Project.” Rather than the government determining which speech will be heard, and which product features will be offered, those decisions are made by Mark Zuckerberg, “Jack,” Apple, Google searches, and race-baiting YouTube algorithms. And Barry Lynn writes about concentrating “market structures,” often obscured by maintaining independent brand names even after giant holding companies subsume them. Nine of the 10 bestselling brands of bottled water are sold by Pepsi, Coke, and Nestlé; 90% of America’s domestic beer production is controlled by Molson Coors and AB InBev; five banks control half of the financial industry’s assets; four airlines fly 80% of American passengers; and GE, News Corp., Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, and CBS control 90% of American media.
In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted by century’s end, technology would reduce the workweek to 15 hours. Rather than freeing ourselves to pursue our own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, technology has been marshaled to tether us to the office in this dystopian Panopticon scenario. Your iPhone has you fretting over your email or Slack feed every 10 minutes. Attempts to discourage working “off the clock” misfire, as workers read them not as permission to stop working, but to further distinguish themselves outside the 9-to-5 boundaries. Cultural critic Anne Helen Petersen asks, “Why am I burned out?” in her viral BuzzFeed essay. “Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time. Why have I internalized that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it — explicitly and implicitly — since I was young.”
The Communist Party created the Young Pioneers and Komsomol shortly after the Russian Revolution because they wanted to shape their ideal Soviet citizens through volunteer work, sports, and political and drama clubs. In America, we have “business ontology,” the belief that everything should be subjected to business strategy, because anything valued by businesses is, by definition, legitimate. As corporate America became ruthlessly efficient at maximizing quarterly profits, newer generations needed to be engineered to be the very best busybodies possible.
And that process begins from the get-go. In Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, Malcolm Harris lays out the myriad ways in which our generation has been trained, tailored, optimized, and primed for the workplace. “Risk management used to be a business practice,” Harris writes, “now it’s our dominant child-rearing strategy.” Running around the neighborhood is scheduled into supervised playdates; unstructured daycare has become pre-preschool; neighborhood kick the can or pickup games have transformed into organized leagues; unchanneled energy (diagnosed as ADHD) is medicated and disciplined; education is a matter of training students to ace standardized tests.
Modern American life is a tornado of joyless perplexity. It’s no wonder we’re corkscrewed around in internal hurricanes as we desperately lash ourselves to the nearest desk. Soviet workers were subjected to six- and seven-day workweeks, but in America, we meander through the unspeakable gray area that exists between indentured servitude and wage slavery.
Productivity’s outpaced pay by 600% in the past four decades, even as corporate profits soar. And yet, most Americans live paycheck to paycheck, accumulating debt along the way. It’s prohibitively expensive to give birth, get sick, and buy healthy food and a home in a decent school district. Meanwhile, CEO compensation has increased to 312 times the average worker from 58 times in the early 1990s. From 1979 to 1989, the income growth of the average one-percenter was 26 times their counterparts in the bottom 90% — from 1989 to 2014, the ratio swelled to 52 times.
And we’re not even allowed the dignity to be openly miserable. Anxiety is medicated; burnout is treated with therapy. The most common prescriptions are “self-care” or “mindfulness.” Give yourself a face mask! Go to yoga! Use your meditation app! At SoulCycle, we pedal away to the barking of an overzealous instructor. We listen to self-help Audible books during our commutes and set TED Talks to orchestral swells. We live that Migos trap life ‘till we die lit. It’s gotten so bad we spend half our waking hours consuming “wholesome memes” when we’re not tweaking out to Fortnite.
But much of self-care isn’t care at all; it shifts the burden of stress onto the individual and away from the socio-economic factors responsible for our malaise. It’s an $11 billion industry whose end goal isn’t to alleviate burnout, but to placate workers into self-absorbed zombies who mask their lingering depression by personifying Tony Robbins’ flattest aphorisms. There’s a reason why Google’s “Search Inside Yourself” program isn’t called “Search Inside Your Company’s Shortcomings.”
If you feel dragged, you’re not alone. In 2019, the United States ranked 18th in the World Happiness Report and set a national record for misery. The world that Children of Men projected seems more like an extrapolation of our reality than an alternative — ultra-authoritarianism can coexist with Pride Month Sponsored by Bank of America. Child internment camps and Starbucks inhabit the same timeline. Stalinist gulags peaked with 2.5 million prisoners in 1950; American prisons are stuffed with 2.3 million inmates, many of whom “earn between 86 cents and $3.45 per day for the most common prison jobs,” according to Prison Policy Initiative. “When fascism comes to America, it will not be in brown and black shirts,” said George Carlin. “It will not be with jack-boots. It will be Nike sneakers and smiley shirts.” Correction: America is a swirl of No Country for Old Men and Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale and Lord of the Flies and Thank You for Smoking and The Office and Game of Thrones and Black Mirror and WWE and The Onion and Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
At the first Stakhanovite meeting, Joseph Stalin famously declared, “Life has become better, comrades. Life has become more cheerful.” It symbolizes the gap between the Soviet Union’s promise of prosperity and the reality of millions of starving, impoverished workers trampled by authoritarian rule disguised as communism. American propaganda is more diffuse, from brands and corporate-backed news outlets, which would explain the delta between Domino’s commercial pizza and the cheesy slabs of cardboard they actually make. Mark Fisher wrote about what he dubbed “market Stalinism” in Capitalist Realism:
“The way value is generated on the stock exchange depends of course less on what a company ‘really does,’ and more on perceptions of, and beliefs about, its (future) performance. In capitalism, that is to say, all that is solid melts into PR, and late capitalism is defined at least as much by this ubiquitous tendency towards PR-production as it is by the imposition of market mechanisms.”
The typical American has gone from seeing about 500 ads each day in the 1970s to about 5,000 today. The omnipresence and effectiveness of advertising contradict one of the fundamental assumptions of capitalist society: We’re all autonomous individuals making rational choices in pursuit of our well-being. Brands around the world spend $600 billion per year assailing us with campaigns that channel the sacred ecstasies of consumerism into the salacious come-ons of compulsive hedonism. Pepsi, Nike, and Gillette were correlated with progressive social movements. Fyre Festival was billed as an ultra-chic “Coachella in the Caribbean” and delivered a refugee campsite and two depressing documentaries. Pop-up shops promise nature and art and knowledge-seeking but ultimately lead to experiential voids. Instagram influencers inculcate inadequacy in their followers with airbrushed photos and some generically inspirational caption about how they #LiveAuthenic. Corporate social responsibility lends “moral purpose” to consumption — Buy fair-trade goods! Use fewer plastic straws! Eat Impossible Meat! And, of course, love can’t shine without diamonds. As Jean Baudrillard writes in The System of Objects:
“Advertising tells us, at the same time: ‘Buy this, for it is like nothing else!’ (‘The meat of the elite,’ ‘The cigarette of the happy few,’ etc.). But also: ‘Buy this because everyone else is using it!’”
Advertising exerts an iron rule over our consolidated corporate news media. Rather than relentless Soviet-state newspeak, a few conglomerates give the illusion of rigorous political debate, even if it’s contained within the bounds of what financial elites deem to be “acceptable opinions.” Businesses care about the context of their ad placements: A spot for a mink fur coat next to a broadcast about global poverty might not make for the most brand-friendly association. These various market and institutional pressures create a “propaganda model” by filtering and limiting the information people receive, as noted by Noam Chomsky in his book Manufacturing Consent (not to be confused with Joe Biden’s unofficial campaign slogan):
“The power of advertisers over television programming stems from the simple fact they buy and pay for the programs — they are the ‘patrons’ who provide the media subsidy. As such, the media compete for their patronage.”
Our news is a bullhorn of caricatured kayfabe — half Shakespeare, half steel-chair shots. Fox “News” functions as Trump’s Pravda, and CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker views pro-Trump panelists as “not just spokespeople for a worldview; they are ‘characters in a drama,’ members of CNN’s extended ensemble cast.” Much like Kanye’s and T-Swift’s “beef” or Logan Paul’s vlogs, we’re all marks living in a pseudo-reality of our own machination.
And money doesn’t only shape our media; it also sets the political agenda. Mick Mulvaney, the interim White House chief of staff, brazenly admitted that money determined who he listened to while serving as a congressman: “If you were a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you were a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.” There’s also the famous Princeton study that analyzed 1,779 policy outcomes from 1981 to 2002, finding that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy,” while average citizens “have little or no independent influence.”
I glance at my iPhone and it’s 3:45 p.m. The clock is ticking toward temporary freedom. Thirsty Thursday, date night with a yogi I met at a Parquet Courts show a few days prior. I can already taste the old-fashioned I’m about to order, with each sip bringing me closer to an intoxicating reprieve from rat-race redundancy. Then an email from a creative director lurches into my inbox. I can already tell my evening plans are on their death march. He asks — as if I can really say “no” — if I can stay late and review a new business pitch deck that will be presented to a prospective client the next morning, and says I should expect it from the graphic designers anytime between 6 and 8 p.m. (I eventually received it at 10:30.) Who needs human connections when you can spend four hours scouring a 220-slide presentation for double-spaces and misused punctuations?
I turn to the white wall beside me and see “I’d rather be employed than fit” written in dry-erase marker. Friends, strangers, co-workers, they brag about logging 60, 80, 100 hours a week at the office like it’s a badge of honor rather than some undiagnosed terminal neurosis. Corporate America opened a zoo and the animals just show up on their own. Defending this system is its own form of Stockholm syndrome.
Critics of socialism, or any universal social program, often weaponize the word to invoke a Red Scare PTSD flashback to a ruthless totalitarian regime choke-holding the “free market” into hapless submission. Usually, they define socialism as government encroachment on the economy, which would mean, according to those terms, that capitalism is also socialism. Market competition can’t function without the enforcement of property rights and anti-trust laws. And we already have government handouts in the form of bailouts, subsidies, tax breaks — they just function as vampire squids jamming their blood funnels into working-class wallets and siphoning money to billionaires.
My issue with free-market logic is it only analyzes power through the lens of government, and it’s often oblivious to, if not downright dismissive of, the power of concentrated capital. In an economy predicated on accumulating wealth, money is freedom, but more importantly, money is power. According to Thomas Piketty’s estimations in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the richest 1% of Americans own 35% of the wealth, and the richest 10% own over 70%. The top 1% owns hoards a third of all stock, and the top 20% holds about 90%, based on data from the Economic Policy Institute. This includes most of the traded corporate stock and assets that represent some of the largest companies that dominate our lives, like Wall Street and Silicon Valley.
“Pragmatic” Democrats and right-wing grifters grasp for cheap political points by conflating Bernie Sanders’ criticism of extreme wealth concentration with a resentment of wealth in general. Even as Americans spend the majority of their lives rotting away at companies owned by shareholders and controlled by executives, they have little to no say in shaping their immediate surroundings. Workers watch the owners and C-suiters gorge on an all-you-can-eat buffet of profits while they scramble for breadcrumbs. We marvel at the horrors of Stalinism, but Uncle Sam outsourced authoritarianism to MBAs who distill their personality disorders into “management styles.” There’s no need to worry about if or when the Soviet-style dystopia will arrive. We’re already living it.
The tension between negative and positive liberty has been a longtime leitmotif in American political skirmishes, but the Reagan consensus staked a monopolistic claim on “freedom” through sheer marketing savvy: The golden fishing lure of free markets stands in contrast to a brutal Soviet dictatorship. At CPAC 2019, Donald Trump, when he wasn’t grabbing the US flag by the liberty, proclaimed, “Democrat lawmakers are now embracing socialism. They want to replace individual rights with total government domination.” But what use is freedom if a democratically unaccountable corporation can subvert it? If your livelihood depends on Facebook and Twitter, your First Amendment right is effectively neutered if they boot you off their platforms. The government may not compel you to pay taxes for universal health care, but tethering health insurance to employment keeps millions of Americans in job lock—the UAW-General Motors strike showed how companies can try to leverage it to quell worker discontent.
Money and control may not deliver happiness, but they certainly provide an opportunity for self-determination. Sometimes that may be through government ownership — some argue that bringing Pacific Gas and Electric under the state of California’s control is more likely to serve the interests of Golden Staters rather than shareholder profits. Sometimes that may be through expanding workplace democracy — giving workers more power in shaping their company will give them a greater sense of self-worth.
The main point here is to illuminate how unfettered capitalism and democracy are at odds with one another. We’ll need something more than “OK boomer” to lift ourselves out of this grim slide. Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs suggests asking these two questions to set the terms of debate: “Who gives the orders? And who owns the stuff?” I’d add a third: If we’re so afraid of socialist governmental authoritarianism, why do we tacitly accept corporate autocracy when it has more of a direct impact on our daily lives?
Well, with a gentle sigh of resignation, I text my would-be date, “Sorry, can’t make it. Work stuff.” The clock on my iPhone is no longer ticking toward temporary freedom, but something more dire, something penultimate that’ll prelude the next work-related boondoggle that leeches more of my already limited time on this planet. I never thought living in hell would be this monotonous. I can already hear the undead chicken voices jangling around in my skull — suck it up you entitled millennial — that reinforce my internalized exploitation. There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored, but I’m plopped in front of a desk, just riding out the American Dream until I can never wake up from it. I type my diplomatic correspondence back to the creative director, since working in PR has equipped me with the ungodly ability to channel the temptation of running head-first into a brick wall into pantomiming jovial pleasantries.
“Of course! I’d be happy to take a look.”