The Crush of Capitalism

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Right now, in early June, the smell of jasmine is in the air, everywhere. There are entire walls of the dense vines in full bloom, and when I walk to school each morning, residents and business owners of the neighborhood are out watering the vines with care.

The stucco exteriors of some of the buildings here have been hand painted with decorative floral motifs, which I imagine must need to be repainted every few years. So much work! For what?

As I spend more time here, I realize how conditioned I am by American culture to think in terms of productivity and efficiency. I mean, if you’re not feeding the insatiable capitalist machine, what are you even doing? I’ve found that, as delighted as I am by walls of jasmine and hand-painted architectural details, I’m also troubled, in spite of myself. I can’t help but think, “That must cost a lot,” or “That must be a lot of work,” which leads me to wonder why they do those things. Do they attract more paying tourists? Do they increase property values? Perhaps the Milanese maintain their hand-painted walls and spend so much time tending their jasmine vines because they value beauty for its own sake.

If you’re not feeding the insatiable capitalist machine, what are you even doing?

As the apparatus of capitalism marches inexorably forward, gaining momentum each day, the pressure to keep up increases. And this pressure is real—it’s not just that we feel like we need to keep up with the Joneses, and that a simple change in mindset would enable us to slow down, to somehow pay our bills and meet our obligations using less money and time. Nothing is worse than the paternalistic baby boomer who shakes his head at young people and says, “In my day, we knew how to relax and enjoy life.” Sorry dude, you’re not special; those were just different days. These days, it takes a lot more to stay afloat.

Realizing this—that we are all being pushed forward, faster and faster, by economic forces outside of our control—makes me, paradoxically, feel some agency. Living in another country (granted, one that is also contending with these very same pressures) has enabled me to see more clearly that my tendency to value productivity so highly is not an inherent part of myself so much as it is a product of my position in time and place. That realization empowers me to cultivate the parts of myself that aren’t of use to capitalism, and that I’ve therefore been conditioned to value less. At heart, I like to make beautiful things, and not always to display for others or to sell. I like to spend a whole afternoon reading a book, and don’t want to feel bad about it. I like to sit on my back porch at home and watch squirrels chase each other in the trees (did y’all know there are no squirrels in Italy? I miss them). I like to walk in the woods with my friends and talk about the future.

My tendency to value productivity so highly is not an inherent part of myself so much as it is a product of my position in time and place.

As someone with a small business selling things, especially things that are very much wants instead of needs, I might think critically about capitalism too much for my own good. But I think it’s better to see clearly the context we are all living in together, and make decisions accordingly about how we want to live. Yes, if I want to keep paying my bills I need to actually earn money at this business. I can’t give the bags away for free in some sort of anti-capitalist art happening. But I can choose to grow slowly and thoughtfully. I can choose to make the bags more beautiful than the market demands. I can write these long and honest posts for you, even though it’s not clear how they fit into my larger business plan. Because I trust that there is a place for this kind of business in some corner of the frenetic and frantic marketplace. I believe this because I know I am not alone in this feeling, and that others might also be looking for refuge.

There is so much we can’t control. But that makes it all the more necessary to be intentional about the things we can.

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