The inequalities inherent to capitalism function in pretty much the same way. Capitalism is a planned economy partitioned into units that wildly vary in size (small and medium-sized businesses, corporations, multinationals), controlled by the highest ranks of these units. Although capitalist theorists always try to portray “the market” and “consumer preferences” as the driving forces of the economy, these abstract concepts really only hide the fact that some people are in control of the means of production and use this control to impose their values on everyone else, just like law-makers impose their values on their subjects. When economists talk about economic freedom, they really mean the freedom of these elites to steal, acquire and take away capital at will, just like how political freedom usually refers to the existence of independent nation-states. The “freedom” and the “values” that matter are those of rich white sociopaths in suits.
If we look at reality instead of textbooks, we see that the net result of capitalism is a general attack on freedom. With the support of its international institutions and the ideology of neo-liberalism, which drives the ever-expanding capitalist machine, and its need for always lower wages and lower production costs, into more and more “developing nations,” planning units plunge entire populations into poverty, in some cases outright slavery, and subjugate them to the colonialist logic: “you exist to service our needs, not yours.” For these populations, there is no economic freedom possible. They are trapped and at the mercy of the “developed” world. From the economic inequality which resulted from prior colonialist waves can only come a further degeneration of economic freedom.
The great inequality between the employers and the individual workers means that employers can set their terms and dispose of anyone whom they find too inconvenient or too unreliable for their purposes. The “freedom” of the worker is therefore the same as that of the voter: to have a hand in choosing his master. Certainly the average worker has no freedom as regards to his work, except that which he can eke out when the masters are not looking.
But most importantly, employers grab a large percentage of the money gained by selling the worker’s production, called profit, preventing the worker from receiving the full product of his work. The employer, who centralizes capital, continues to accumulate capital, and the worker is left with narrowed possibilities of consumption, and by extension production. Since money is the prime measure of economic freedom in a capitalist society, economic freedom will therefore tend to be centralized by the planning units and their leaders. Like all other forms of usury, profit is the symbol of the fundamentally parasitic nature of capitalism: parasitism against individuals, societies and the world.
The union was supposed to be a force that would equalize this imbalance, and for a while it accomplished great positive steps, until the structure of the union itself became calcified, and, as happens to all movements which become successful, the survival and power of these organizations, not the welfare of the workers, became their first priority. Political experience has shown that unions are necessarily pro-work hierarchy because they depend on that work hierarchy, the dichotomy between employer and employee, for their very purpose; their survival depends on workers not being free. Self-management, that is to say libertarian socialism, is in no union’s interest.
Between the planning units and specific governments, there is also a vast intersection of collusion, policies made for vested interests, conflicts, and so on. Wars and neo-liberalism are two great examples of this. Once again, the outcome of these maneuvers will depend on where the balance of power lies, but they very rarely come out as a positive for the average citizen. To use an example relevant to my topic, the inequalities between firms leads to the adoption of public policies which favour big firms against smaller firms (for example: barriers to entry, minimum wage laws, eminent domain, strict patent laws and intellectual property laws), which further concentrate economic power in a few hands.
Besides the two major hierarchies, there are of course many others. I would put the hierarchies of religion, sexism (which nowadays is largely reducible to religion and commercialism) and racism in the same category. I draw a sharp distinction between these hierarchies and the two previous ones, because these are founded on, and justified by, an imaginary power. Political power and economic power are real, but sex, race and gods are all imaginary. Therefore there are two considerations: the inequality that is real, and the inequality that is imaginary. That being said, it is also obvious that both have an impact on society, because it does not matter for social purposes whether a belief is real or imaginary: as long as people believe in it, they will act on it, and thus there is an impact in both cases.
However, there is a way in which the imaginary nature of the power does make a difference, in that it makes the belief itself as important as actions. When we look at economic power and political power, there is no question that those forms of power exist, and no one considers belief or non-belief in them very important. No one wakes up in the morning wondering “gee, I think maybe money is just meaningless pieces of paper” or “maybe policemen really can’t hurt me after all.” Within the framework of our society, these are not reasonable things to doubt (this is not to say that I really do believe that money and policemen are unquestionable in all contexts). Where imaginary power is concerned, belief takes on paramount importance; but this has the advantage that individuals can exorcise its baleful influence on themselves simply by ceasing to believe, an advantage which does not exist with real power.
Religion differs in that its source of moral superiority is not an imaginary human attribute but rather an imaginary all-powerful being (or beings). But in all these hierarchies, the result of the imaginary inequality is to position oneself in the “superior group” and to delegate moral responsibility to some other construct outside of ourselves. In religion, worshipping the correct god in the right way means that one is “saved,” and follows the moral and ethical code ostensibly given by the god; the dramatic inequality between the god and the follower merely ends up being an added motivation to surrender moral responsibility. In sexism, having the correct set of genitals means that one is “a man” or “a woman,” and therefore innately worthy of respect on that basis regardless of one’s actions. In racism, having the correct skin color means that one is of the correct race, and therefore innately morally superior. One’s actions performed on the basis of being in the “superior group” are automatically justified, regardless of their nature.
When we surrender moral responsibility, we give up on part of what makes us human beings: our capacity to empathize with other human beings, to be social animals, to see others as more than masses of flesh. The prototype of this lack is the sociopath, who is born without a conscience, without empathy, and without higher emotions like love and compassion. But human beings can be made sociopathic as well. The soldier, who has been turned into an obeying automaton and has been trained to objectify the enemy, is necessary less than fully human.
But ultimately all hierarchies are sociopathic, because they, by their very nature, create an elite which pursues its own interests and the interests of the system at the expense of everyone else’s. As I’ve discussed many times before, this is not because the people populating the system were evil or sociopathic from the beginning: all we need is to assume that people will naturally seek to use the power available to them for their own best advantage. For example, the corporation is sociopathic (as I’ve recommended before, watch the movie The Corporation for a full explanation of this point) because the people who populate its decision-making levels seek profits, which both helps the corporation they work for (their “team”) and helps them preserve and improve their own careers. Issues such as constant fraud, massive pollution, violence and slavery against third-worlders, the gambled livelihood of the workers, and so on, necessarily take a backseat to the constant search for profits, even though we would qualify individuals who support such things as sociopathic.
One may argue that these inequalities only affect those people who are not part of the “superior group.” But if we look at the situation in a more global manner, we see that everyone is someone else’s enemy. No one is really safe from being oppressed, even the non-elite members of the “superior group,” although obviously those who are privileged in a given society mostly have the upper hand. Either way, it should be obvious that the greater the real inequality, the most devastating the effects on freedom as a whole. The race and religion-motivated wars led by the United States, for instance, prove that religious bigotry and racism can bring about genocide. We should also not be reminded of the millions of people who still live in fear in our very own societies because of homophobia.