capitalism makes no sense to me

a black and white photo of a protest. the person in the forefront has dark skin and a microphone. there is a sign on the left that reads "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor."

cw: frank discussion of harm to oneself and to others, capitalism

I’ve been pondering the ways in which I don’t fit into the dominant culture, which I think is related to my personal experience of being neurodivergent.

When I say that I am neurodivergent, I mean that I’ve recognized myself over and over again in other peoples’ descriptions of their own neurodivergence, and in clinical descriptions of autism and ADHD. It has made it easier for me to understand why I do what I do and why I don’t do other things. These days, I am seeking to know myself better, through therapy and through long periods of introspection, which I am fortunate to have.

There are a couple of ideas that are competing in my mind to be foremost, but I think it’s because they are all tangled up together but are equally valid and important things to consider.

I want to take a moment to note that I dislike the term ‘neurodivergent’ because it seems to imply to me that someone like me is considered negatively different to a ‘neurotypical’ person, when it seems to make more sense to use our language to acknowledge that there are multiple kinds of people with multiple kinds of minds and thought patterns, which does not make any one of us better or lesser in a ranked way.

1. a profound sense of justice manifested in how I view the choices available to me

When I reject the concept that exploitation of people or resources is just, it becomes antithetical to believe that any of us should put anyone else in a position of exploitation.

Capitalism in our current socio-economic structure seems to work only when one is willing to exploit others in order to participate in it.

This is definitely a problem because if I don’t participate in capitalism, I won’t have the kinds of resources available to me that I need in order to access things I would naturally categorize as human rights: shelter, food, health care. It leads me and others like me to find ways to live outside this capitalist structure, in ways that aren’t exploitative and that encourage shared ideals of justice and reciprocity and care.

Capitalism as it functions currently seems to result in a strengthening of structures that are inherently violent, very specifically our carceral system, which shows up almost everywhere. Every problem that we have with one another needs to be addressed in non-carceral ways, but it is so fucking easy here to resort to power-over to get our needs met. We invite law enforcement into every place we occupy, and law enforcement is not our friend. Even if it helps us in the moment, we are wounded by it because it adds to the harm done to others.

Do you remember in the first months of the COVID pandemic, in 2020, when it was pretty common to see people saying ‘I don’t know how to explain that you should care about other people’? This is how I feel about what capitalism has done to our ability to treat one another with compassion, empathy, and justice.

2. the concept that making no choice is in fact a choice on the side of the oppressor

I think this idea contains an assumption that the choice in question is between a harmful choice and a non-harmful choice, but there seem to be precious few of those kind of clear-cut choices. The world is made of grey areas, and we have to rely on our own internal sense of right and wrong to weigh our choice; we have to continually do the math of harm (yes I know I link that essay a lot but that’s because it ALWAYS comes up for me).

My internal need to live my beliefs means that I wrestle constantly with what choice I ought to make, and what it means if I try to opt out of the system that is forcing that choice.

An example of my own comes from the ways I used to try to participate in marketing and operating my business (I was a freelance web designer and web developer for over a decade, and dabbled in consulting for others doing their work primarily online). If I charged the kind of fees that would mean I could stay financially ahead of my household bills, this was more expensive than my target market could afford; so if they really really needed it and couldn’t find another way to get it, they would have to do things that were harmful to themselves: overworking, borrowing money at high interest rates, or choosing to pay me and then not being able to pay their own bills.

It was so goddamn hard to know that I was offering a service that was so important that it would drive people to harm themselves to access it. I think that marketing should be clear and offer ethical choices, although the prevailing message to all of us in that niche at the time was that we should utilize psychological tactics of scarcity and fear to induce people to spend money they didn’t have so that we could ‘be paid what we were worth.’

My solution, which I didn’t like very much, was to try not to use any of those tactics in my marketing, which meant that I often didn’t know how to make my work visible to those who might need it. I was trying not to participate in capitalism on one side but on the other side I was hustling so hard to pay the electric bill that I had regular panic attacks and still wasn’t bringing in enough money for us to live on.

Eventually, I went to work as an IT engineer, which was fairly horrible. I burned myself the rest of the way out and when I left that job, I had nothing that I could do because of the harm I had caused to myself, and the harm the system had caused me.

3. we should be able to participate in reciprocity-based systems of exchange in order to get our needs met

I think it probably makes logical sense, that we could create a system that took everyone’s needs into account and then enabled us to make choices based on harm reduction and justice, rather than clawing our way forward and trying not to see the scratches we’ve left in other peoples’ flesh.

It is really difficult for me to express these ideas when I am writing about what it costs to work with me as a death doula, for example. In order to say that I am not going to charge everyone the same amount, I see that I need to explain why, and then I get into the weeds of trying to unpack concepts that don’t necessarily just click into place so that a person can then decide how to interact with me if they need to.

I believe, based on experience, that the only way a system of reciprocity can exist is when we understand ourselves to be wholly who we are as individuals, when we accept that we have needs and that it is natural to ask for them to be met, that there is no shame in asking, and that we can trust that others have also done the work of knowing their internal worth. We can trust that something we ask for won’t result in harm if we trust one another to say ‘no’ when we can’t do something. And we need to also learn to find the edges where it’s less harm to put in more effort than for the other person not to have that need met. Then we pull together to hold up the person who gave more when it was needed, so that they can recover.

We seem to have internalized a particular harm, probably skewed toward people who were raised in abusive religious families, that we must forgo our own comfort in favor of not making someone else feel that they have not gotten what they wanted. Additionally, we bring an assumption that what needs doing must be done by us, whether or not that is actually true. We don’t know how to untangle our personal ability to meet needs from our own feeling of unmet need, so we default to the thing that makes people the least angry with us, whatever that means for us.

when disaster and ruin want to see this world end
I know that I’ll get through it by the side of my friends

all the love I can muster, I will give it to you
though I know that you could doubt me every word said is true

and when the fountains run dry and turn this world into stone
I promise on my soul that you won’t be alone

Promise On My Soul (Ralsei’s Wish), PARANOiD DJ
Spotify embed of Promise On My Soul

I told you it was all tangled up.

These are the things I’m doing to try and swim across the swiftly-moving river of capitalism in America:

  • I refuse to put prices on my business website even though it’s probably obscuring why I’m doing that (still working on this one)
  • I have internalized a way of speaking to others that assumes they and their needs are equally important as mine
  • I am learning to say ‘no’ when I truly cannot do something, which means I have to do A LOT of internal work
  • I am doing my best to operate in our society with the balance of the math of harm foremost in my mind, and not trying to over-analyze a choice after I’ve made it

Sometimes I make it across the river, exhausted and exhilarated, and other times I manage to crawl onto the far shore after being swept downstream further than I was before.

It sucks here, doesn’t it?

I don’t know how we can make it better for all of us until we can all consider these kinds of ideas, and I think that there is a cross-section of us — the ones with a ‘rigid sense of justice’ — that can grapple more easily with these ideas, but we don’t know how to bring this up to people who aren’t predisposed to worrying as much as we do about what every single choice might mean.

Golly, sometimes I can be a bummer.

Tell me, if you want to, how this plays out for you. I want to know what you understand about all of this so that we can feel the relief of knowing we aren’t alone in this.

xox, Nix

featured image is a photo by Sushil Nash on Unsplash

Nix Kelley
Co-parent to multiple kids. Writer. Death doula. Member of the Order of the Good Death. Seeker on the Path of Light. Queer, non-binary, & trans.



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