Catching feels about the election? Read this.

So I wrote this post right after the debates, and then I sat on in for awhile, because… IDK, reasons. And it might still be living unpublished in a notepad, except that I am sitting at my desk early this morning, watching the garbage truck roll by, and it reminded me of the whole point of this article.

I know that might sound like a punch line. (Garbage truck, politicians. Ha. Ha.) But it’s absolutely not a punch line, it’s a reference to the most important concept you need to know to understand the modern world: surplus value.

You see, garbage collection used to be a public sector job. And back in those days, there’d be one guy driving the the truck, and two more guys riding on the bumper who would jump off at every stop, grab the garbage on the curb and toss it into the back of the truck.

But the function of rubbish removal has been privatized, and it’s also been automated. Instead of three employees per truck, there’s just the one guy in the cab who not only drives from house to house, but he also operates a big mechanical claw that scoops up the trash bin and tips it over the back of the truck.

What used to be three jobs is now down to one job, and most of us have barely noticed. We’ll talk about this later, but for now, please just pick up a mental sharpie and write this term on a stickie note in your brain: surplus value.

On one of my client calls last week, we discussed how systems of coercive control maintain their authority by offering ‘bounded choices’.

If you don’t know what a bounded choice is, think of a parent struggling to make sure their toddler is dressed appropriately for the winter weather.

A novice parent will tell the child, ‘Put your sweater on!’ and the child might very well shout back, ‘No!’

But a savvy parent will ask their child, ‘Do you want to wear the red sweater or the blue one?’ knowing that the child will feel like they are in control of their choices while the parent is, in fact, the one who is shaping the outcome in the only meaningful way.

It’s been obvious to me for most of my adult life that the two-party political system in the United States is a similar setup. We have been convinced that the only way to responsibly participate in our democracy is to feel deeply invested in whether the red sweater or the blue sweater wins.

Very few people seem to notice that there is a universe of other options beyond the bounded choices we are offered – which by extension means very few people are questioning what system those bounded choices are put in place to protect.

An actual physical copy of the New York Times ended up on my desk this morning thanks to Yunus using the newspaper to line our cat traps, which is about the best use to which this rag could be put.

The ‘top of the fold’ opinions article by Nicholas Kristof, that darling of feel-good American centrism, caught my eye with the headline, ‘What have we liberals done to the West Coast?’ … groan.

It didn’t take more than four paragraphs for me to realize that, as per usual, Kristof was using an awful lot of words to fantastically miss the point.

So I promptly flipped over the opinions section to read the below-the-fold article in which Jamelle Bouie, who in recent years has impressed me with his unflinching commentary on racism in American culture and politics, managed to surprise me in the worst possible way by soundly telling on himself as a simp for the owning class.

The chief argument of Bouie’s commentary was that capitalists should support the Democrats (whose party he occasionally conflates with democracy itself) because the Democrats will protect the systems that safeguard the acquisition of capital.

Vote for Trump, he says, and you will inadvertently be voting for conditions that will, quote, ‘impede the accumulation of wealth.’

Here’s another sentence lifted right out of the article: ‘There is no way in which the Democratic Party constitutes a threat to capitalism.’

He says that like it’s a good thing.

And thus we see that the Overton window of political debate in the United States has narrowed to the point of giving us a choice between which style of wage theft we prefer: the idealistic hand-wringing intellectual style, or the nakedly avaricious totalitarian style.

Will it be Heart of Darkness for you, or Lord of the Flies? Red sweater or blue?

Completely absent from the bounded choices offered by Bouie’s article specifically, and absent from mainstream American political debate in general, is the question of whether capital is, morally speaking, even a thing which ought to be accumulated.

Now, I want to be really clear before I go any further – I am in no way opposed to entrepreneurship, opposed to money, to leisure or even opposed to wealth. I think all of these things are just swell.

But it’s an understatement to say there’s some slippage in our collective mind between the definition of entrepreneurship and the definition of capitalism.

As is often the case, etymology gives us line of sight into the true spirit of things.

The word ‘capitalism’ evolved from the Latin root ‘capo’ or head. It originally referred to how many heads of livestock you had: cows, sheep, chickens – any individual animal being much like any other one of its type.

Since one cow represents a certain degree of wealth which is more or less identical to the value of any other cow, your overall wealth as a landowner can be calculated by counting up the total number of your heads of cattle.

And so this method of calculating wealth extended to counting its human producers. If you lived in the Classical period or the Middle Ages (or *ahem* early modern America), you might calculate your wealth by counting the heads of your slaves or your serfs.

During the Industrial Revolution, your factory workers were your capital, ie your means to accumulate wealth.

And so it is, up to this very day: under capitalism, you’re either the owning class, or you are the cow.

There’s one concept that is essential for everyone to thoroughly grasp if we’re going to properly discuss capitalism and its discontents.

If there is only one thing you remember from reading this post, please let it be this term: surplus value.

Surplus value is what workers create with their labor.

In earlier forms of capitalism, this surplus value was primarily understood to be what was added to raw materials to make a finished product: the difference in value between, say, a pile of sheep’s wool and a fancy Persian carpet, is created by the labor of the spinners and the weavers and the dyers. This addition is called surplus value.

The important point to remember about surplus value is that a business has no meaningful wealth, save for the wealth created by the labor of its employees.

Another important point – one that I think might be getting obscured by the use of Marxist terminology – is that ‘labor’ does not refer only to physical work, such as the work done in factories and on farms.

In this age of the information economy, of privatized healthcare, privatized education and private everything on down the list, the labor of project management and software development and skilled nursing and classroom instruction are all sources of surplus value which is being accrued into private hands.

20th Century philosopher Hannah Arendt categorized the goings-on of humans into three ‘tiers’ which she named: labor, work, and activity.

Labor, in her mind, was the sphere of ‘basic’ life sustaining actions: plowing a field, banging a hammer, scrubbing the floor.

Work was the sphere into which one might be called by some special talent or vocation: according to Arendt, a cardiac surgeon or an engineer could be said to be engaged in ‘more’ (insert eyeroll emoji) than labor, they were doing work.

Activity was the sphere where we disclosed our identities as social beings, and into which we poured our souls: writing a poem or playing the violin were examples of things Arendt considered activities rather than work or labor.

To be clear, I am not here to advocate for this obviously elitist categorization of human occupation.

I am bringing it up because Arendt articulated these distinctions at what, in hindsight, was probably the fulcrum point between what you might call ‘high capitalism’ and late stage capitalism (the 1950s), and these labels offer a certain line of sight into human attitudes about economic behavior that have outlived their usefulness.

We live in an age where automation technology is eliminating more and more tasks that would be coded as labor, and an age where many employees feel they are pouring their hearts and souls into their work.

Both of these factors obscure the point that surplus value is being created in the workplace, then held and hoarded by private interests.

You’ve no doubt heard the poem, ‘they came for the communists, the socialists, the trade unionists’ … and when they came for me, there was nobody left to speak out.

On a similar note, automation technology came for the laborers’ jobs, and we didn’t speak out (or more precisely, we just blamed Mexico and then China).

But now technology is coming for the knowledge workers’ jobs, and we suddenly find ourselves wringing our hands.

Aside from AI creating an aesthetic hellscape that hurts my brain, the chief concern I have with the technology is how it continues to eliminate human labor, work, activity (whatever you want to call it) from the process of generating surplus value – which wouldn’t be a problem unto itself, but as long as that value is continuing to be accrued and hoarded by private interests rather than amortized across the population, that’s when we have an economic catastrophe heading our way.

AI isn’t just being used to create visually painful art or to generate questionably accurate search results.

AI is being used for software coding, for medical diagnosis, for categorizing newly discovered galaxies.

And since science and industry are now primarily controlled by private interests, it’s important to realize that the main point of why AI is being developed is not to uplift and liberate humanity, it’s being developed so that it can be used to hyper-accelerate the rate at which surplus value is produced while drastically decreasing the amount of labor used to produce that value.

Fewer scientists, doctors, writers, and software engineers on the payroll means more profits for the owning class.

It’s not that I object to the notion that humans should ‘have to’ contribute – in a practical sense, I think every human yearns for the dignity and satisfaction provided by ALL of the various pursuits of labor, work and activity.

By and large, contributing to community wellbeing creates a sense of connection and meaning that feeds our hearts more than isolation and selfish pursuits will ever provide.

But what sane human, when offered a truly unbounded set of choices, would willingly choose to hustle all day long, and then have the vast majority of the value they created with their labor be taken away and hoarded by a private owner? Who would be grateful to receive a few crumbs on the dollar for a hard day’s work?

The only reason humans keep saying yes to this arrangement is because most people face one of two bounded choices: work for the owning class and let them steal most of the surplus value you created, or go starve to death in a ditch somewhere.

Play this one out in your mind: as more and more jobs are chiseled off the economy by technology, and fundamental human survival needs are increasingly gate-kept and controlled by private interests, what exactly are we going to end up with, if we don’t exit this current system and build an equitable alternative?

Well, more of what we already have right now:

–A majority of people in various states of economic desperation, with a small buffer class of comfortably paid workers who don’t code their own activities as labor, and

–Politics as a brawl between the supporters of team red sweater and team blue sweater, none of whom want to do away with the farm because they’re all clinging to the fantasy that someday they’ll be the landowner and not the cow.

Do I accept the basic premise of Jamelle Bouie’s analysis of our political options? No, and for several reasons.

Firstly, I’m not pro Democratic Party any more than I am pro capitalism. With the benefit of the passage of time, we’ll look back on the current-day economic and political systems as just another form of exploitation and coercive control, like unto corporate feudalism.

Secondly, I don’t buy the argument that either one of the major political parties is making America safe for sustainable, little-d democratic capitalism, even if you could convince me that such a thing by definition could be said to exist, let alone convince me that capitalism is a system that deserves to be perpetuated.

Bestie, you are closer to being a climate refugee than to being a billionaire. You are batting for the wrong team.

What, then, do I believe? What do I advocate for?

In this highly specialized society in which no individual person or family can be as self-reliant as the Libertarian Trad Wives of Instagram would have you believe, the only way we’re going to dismantle this system is by figuring out how to work together in human-scale communities to expand our choice set.

I don’t profess to have the complete roadmap to a bright & shiny post-capitalism future, but that’s kind of the point: sustainable change isn’t created by a binary choice between one option and another, both of which are presented to you by some outside authority.

Sustainable change is crowd-sourced and iterative, and while I hope we can agree on the final destination – total collective liberation for all beings – we don’t have to wait for the perfect solution to appear before we begin the evolutionary process.

Liberation begins when we start making one small shift at a time in how we do business, how we distribute profits among our team, in how we consume, in how we trade, in how we treat each other.

We do not wait until we’ve got every detail sorted, every contingency planned for. We do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We just get moving, experimenting, growing… and collectively we open up bigger and smarter pathways forward, options unbound by the multiple choice bubbles of mainstream American thought.

And if you are a person who (rightfully) desires to live in abundance and to experience more time spent in leisure than in hustle, and if you have lingering doubts about the notion that capitalism is doing a baddie on us, know this:

There is already far more wealth generated by our economy than we need to ensure every human on earth is properly fed, clothed, housed, educated and otherwise resourced. At this point in human development, scarcity is a choice, it’s the strategy by which capitalism perpetuates itself, but it is most certainly not a necessity.

Part of the reason this goes unnoticed is that the wealth created by the world economy is so abstractly enormous as to be functionally incalculable. I don’t think the human brain deeply understands the vast difference between, say, 100 million and a billion dollars.

As an exercise in bringing this concept to human scale, let’s just imagine we took the $216.5 billion ‘net worth’ attributed to Jeff Bezos – a figure that *roughly* represents the surplus value he has stolen from workers – and we distributed it evenly across all ~1.5 million Amazon employees worldwide.

That would give every employee a payout just shy of $150,000 – a figure that could mean the difference between, say, renting a bed in an overstuffed community house and putting off major life milestones like marriage (as is the fate of many low-wage workers), and being able to buy a house and start a family.

(One of many reasons the architects of Project 2025 can spare me the lip service they give to ‘family values’.)

Then, instead of wages being set at the lowest possible point in order to maximize continued theft by Amazon’s private owners, imagine the profits Amazon makes as a company being distributed among its employees in a way that is proportionate to the value those employees are generating for the company.

Because if there weren’t Amazon employees to stock shelves, pack boxes, drive trucks… There wouldn’t be an Amazon. Likewise for every company that has ever existed. Spare me the paternalistic rhetoric that capitalists ‘provide jobs’ for their employees. Correction: employees of private companies provide wealth for their owners.

You might think that companies distributing profits to employees sounds impossible, or economy-breaking at the least, but it’s already being done by many successful companies in the United States –

Publix, WinCo, Bob’s Red Mill, Round Table Pizza, King Arthur Flour, New Belgium Brewing Company, Great Lakes Brewing, Equal Exchange Coffee, Stewart’s Shops, Davey Tree, Chicago & Northwestern Railway… These are just a few regional ‘household names’ of companies that are worker-owned.

Depending where you live or have visited in the United States, you may be familiar with some of these names but probably not all of them. And if you live anywhere else on the globe, there’s a whole separate list of employee-owned companies local to YOU.

And that’s kind of the point.

Worker-owned businesses generally do not have a built-in incentive to grow monstrously, globe-swallowingly, earth-destroyingly large. They stay at human scale, and economies remain competitive.

Late stage capitalism does not breed innovation, and it does not facilitate competition.

It breeds price-fixing, wage minimization, resource exploitation and gatekeeping access to basic material needs. It reaps benefits and extracts value, placing both into private hands, while at the same time it passes along many of the hard costs and negative consequences to the public sector.

And crucially, here, it creates the kind of bounded choices (work for us or be homeless, buy your groceries from us or starve) that are tantamount to enslavement.

If we amortized all the wealth created in our economy across all the workers in each company, there would be no billionaire owners, instead there would be millions of millionaire employees.

If you doubt me on this point, go talk to the millionaire cashiers at WinCo.

My point in writing all this agitprop? And my point in connecting it to the election?

Friends, it’s time to accept that presidential politics is a giant clown show, and wringing your hands over a televised argument between two cadavers in ill-fitting suits is a waste of your time.

This isn’t me telling you not to vote. Do whatever your conscious bids you on Election Day.

But here’s my point, and my call to action: please, for the love of authentic small-d democracy, on every other day of the year please just ignore the clown show.

Do not be taken in by the false dichotomy. We are not toddlers to be managed, we don’t have to select the red sweater or the blue, we can choose the green velvet cape if we want it.

But only if we liberate our minds from the bounded choices we are being offered, and only if we reclaim our energy, emotions and intellects for the work that truly matters.

Divest your attention from the political theater, and instead, invest your energy, talent and love into building what comes next. That’s the only decision I care about; that’s the only thing that’s going to save us.

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