The Crime of Capitalism and Our Dr. Watson

by Ryan Joseph Slater

 In today’s social landscape, Andrew Yang perfectly embodies a halfway intelligent private investigator who entirely misunderstands the crime. 

Everybody knows that the Sherlock Holmes stories revolve around Sherlock’s keen insight into criminal behavior and his ability to solve crimes. And most people are aware that his companion, Dr. Watson, was a less bright, albeit helpful, companion for solving them. Watson is famous for procuring myriad details and suggestions for their investigations, which often seem promising, but he always lacked the critical insight to discern useful information.

Nonetheless, Watson’s mistaken suggestions, which perennially led to Sherlock’s often-quoted, ‘It’s elementary, my dear Watson,’ were a series of critical mis-steps that actually oriented Holmes’ productive analysis. That’s because Watson’s questions allowed Sherlock to grasp and ignore the ordinary, un-important details, and, instead, focus on the crux of the investigation. 

Today, Andrew Yang is our Dr. Watson. When he examines the crime scene — here synonymous with the American social order— he sees a country ravaged by economic inequality, which leads to financial distress, relationship problems, and unhappy employment. He correctly sees that economic inequality makes us less free and therefore less fulfilled. The presidential hopeful also correctly identifies that a lack of wealth negatively impacts our ability to self-actualize, be it by creating art, starting a new business, or having more fulfilling relationships. 

But when Yang assesses a social order in which people struggle to pay for housing, for food, for education, and a whole host of human rights, he falsely understands the crime to be a lack of money. The solution, according to him, is to give people more money in the form of a $1,000/month “Freedom Dividend.” 

Certainly, giving an individual an extra $1,000 per month will increase their financial power, enabling them to buy more essential goods and thereby make their life easier. “It’s all about making us freer,” he told Stephen Colbert. Money from a reliable source would make most of us — who increasingly rely on precarious work conditions— less stressed, if not happier. 

The issue with the logic is elementary. Although his emphasis on a Universal Basic Income indicates an interest in economic justice, such a policy quickly exhausts its transformative capability so long as it operates in a relentless capitalist regime. The real question is: why can’t people can’t afford to live a life of dignity?

Image result for karl marx
““To be radical is to grasp things by the root.” 

This question, rather than asking how to get people more money, orients us towards the true nature of the crime, which is the exploitation of the working classes by capitalist elites. The case for theft is obvious. While workers, by definition, generate value in any business, the owners and shareholders reap the majority of profits. The tendency for capitalism to unequally distribute wealth holds true nationwide and across time: in the last thirty years, the top 1% of America’s wealthiest people have added $21 trillion dollars to their wealth, while the bottom 50% has lost $900 billion dollars. Capitalism’s profit motive incentivizes businesses to cut costs by decreasing employers’ wages/salaries, even while forcing them to work harder and longer. Despite technological improvements designed to relieve humans of labor, today’s working class works longer than their 1970’s counterparts and 30-90 minutes more per day than their cohort in Europe. Yang’s fails to understand the evidence at the crime scene. 

The crime is not, as Yang implies, that the wealthy have more money than the middle and lower classes. It is that they steal this wealth ad infinitum. A concrete example is the way landlords are free to increase rent. Every month, we pay a large chunk of our income to an often faceless entity who is probably significantly wealthier than us. When his property-owning cohort owns something as essential as housing, we are forced to pay what he asks— or else we risk homelessness. If citizens began receiving the Freedom Dividend, then landlords would know that their tenants could afford a substantial increase in rents; therefore, they would raise rents. The same is true for all commodified essentials, like housing, food, and private transportation. 

Putting on the Sherlock Holmes cap, we can now more freely articulate the problem and solution. What we call the crime of class exploitation, capitalists and moderates call the profit motive, which is the primary motive behind all capitalist development. If we say (1) the crime is class exploitation, which is enabled and driven by the profit motive and (2) that this profit motive is intrinsic to capitalist development, then (3) the capitalist social order is a large scale crime organization. Instead of handing-out money to citizens, the solution is to alter the power structures that promote this exploitative behavior. 

A Watson-type intellectual might here accuse me of overstating the problem; he might say that it is an issue of inflation. In reality, the issue is the ability for the capitalist classes to extract wealth from those beneath them; the power to extract wealth is co-concurrent with the crime. Even aside from essentials like healthcare and housing, the nature capitalism of capitalism funnels money up, not down. More money circulating in the economy would make businesses more profitable, and therefore keep them open longer, but there’s no guarantee that owners will share this profit with their employees. If companies make more money but continue to pay starvation wages, then the bulk of the ‘Freedom Dividend’ would land in the pockets of the already wealthy. Because the rich set the stage for economic interactions, they have the power to re-distribute any nationwide dividends back to themselves.

All attempts to redistribute wealth are deeply flawed unless we also alter the power structures that enable the rich to steal from us. Only socialist agendas put us on the correct path.