For nearly 20 years I identified as an anti-capitalist anarcho-communist, but ironically in the last four years, as those ideals have exploded into the mainstream in response to Trump, I have gone the opposite direction.
It was just a few months before Trump was elected that I started a job at BNY Mellon, one of the biggest banks in the world. I felt like a sellout, like I was taking part in some great evil.
But I started the job and it was really easy, but they also kept me busy with fun projects and I felt guilty about actually liking the job. Corporate jobs are supposed to be soul-sucking like in Office Space. I wanted so badly to hate it. Everyone there was so boring. All they talked about was how much they loved their wives and how proud they were of their children. They were so vanilla by my standards but I was repeatedly surprised by how kind and reasonable they all were.
Then in the first few months there was a big anti-capitalism Occupy Wall Street protest right around our office so the company sent everyone home for the day. They made it very clear there had been no threats of any kind from the Occupy groups. This was to be a 100% peaceful protest but they sent everyone home anyway, just to be on the safe side and reduce any potential drama.
For some reason I felt like I should be angry about this. “This is so dumb. I used to protest with Occupy. There’s no threat there. Any “drama” we do encounter will probably just help people get to a better understanding of each other. None of the small businesses I’ve ever worked for would have sent me home just for my safety.”
Then when I got home and got on a conference call, I heard someone complaining about Occupy. He basically said, “I don’t understand these people who come down screaming about capitalism but they offer no solutions. You go down there and talk to them and say, ‘ Well, what do you suggest we do to solve the wealth gap?’ and they just yell and say ‘it’s up to you big bankers to fix it! Rich people are evil!’ I get the frustration of where they’re coming from but what am I supposed to do with that?”
And I almost instantly came up with a really snarky, sarcastic response that I thankfully did not have the courage to say out loud: “Sure, that’s just like if a plane crashes into your house, you really have no right to complain unless you know how to fly a plane and can offer up a set of solutions.”
I thought I was so smart for coming up with that response.
My commute was 20 to 30 minutes on the subway so a while later I signed back onto Audible and started listening to nonfiction books. I started pounding through them. I think I “read” 99 books in 2017, nearly all of them nonfiction. I listened to all sorts of things but specifically I remember a few books about capitalism and the economy. Books like Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert T. Kiyosaki, Thinking Like an Economist from The Great Courses, The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley, and The Richest Man in Babylon which are presumably true stories of economics translated from stone tablets written a couple thousand years ago. I listened to a lot of entrepreneurship self-help books as well, many written by seriously wealthy individuals. One big recurring theme was “we don’t know what’s going on either, so it’s all trial and error.”
I slowly started to change my attitude once I had a deeper understanding of the context and history of capitalism, how it works and how wealthy entrepreneurs think about and deal with money–and it’s not how Bernie Sanders tells you they see it. Over and over again I heard this concept of “Attach yourself to a mission. Don’t try to make money. Make a positive difference in the world in the best, most efficient, innovative, and effective way you possibly can and the money will flow naturally.” Billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Sarah Blakely all subscribe to this. It seems like most of the successful people I know, particularly the ones I really respect, also subscribe to this.
Then I watched a documentary about Bill Gates, a man I used to hate more than anyone else on the planet. The man has spent nearly his whole retirement working every day to solve disease and sanitation problems in third-world countries.
And I watched a lot of Shark Tank, focusing specifically on Lori Greiner, the “Queen of QVC” and the way she focuses primarily on adding value for the customer. “My products must demonstrate efficacy for my customer,” she said once, meaning “If it doesn’t clearly and measurably make people’s lives better, I won’t invest.”
And there’s a lot of other things I thought about that I won’t get into right now.
And yeah, I’ll admit, I started making more and more money. My real-estate investments started paying off. I’ll admit that capitalism has worked very well for me and that makes me biased. But I also spent many years as a dirt-poor anarcho-communist, no health insurance, riding a bike to my line-cooking job because bus passes were too expensive. At one point I was so poor I didn’t have a working fridge or stove. Yes, I’m privileged now but I have seen the other side of things.
I can look back on that part of my life and realize that hatred of capitalism was never the answer. That hatred was what was trapping me. That hate was forcing me to focus on money, which, believe it or not, is not an effective way to succeed in capitalism.
Capitalism is not a plane we’re all trapped in with one big powerful pilot who makes all the decisions. Capitalism is like one giant family, and we’re all a part of it. Sure, it may be a dysfunctional family but it’s our only family and we have a responsibility to try our best to make it work. We can’t just hate on our older siblings and try to sabotage and crash the whole system then claim they’re the bad guys. We have a responsibility to take part. We have a responsibility to educate ourselves on money-management and economic theory. We have a moral responsibility to make smart, reasonable decisions with our money.
I had never before even read a book on capitalism but had decided to hate it anyway, which meant I wasn’t acting in good faith. Of course capitalism is going to fail if you refuse to participate or even take the time to gain a basic understanding of how it works. All political systems require active participation from the people. Just because I can think of a system that would work better in theory, doesn’t make it right to turn my back on my current family.