Wednesday, February 09, 2011

What Ronald Reagan's stupid face taught me about capitalism

It was the summer after 10th grade when I learned everything I would ever need to know about corporate capitalism.

Chalk it up to boredom, a wish to spend some time away from my parents and asshole friends, or a simple base desire to ineptly hit on and not hook up with a new crop of young teenage girls -- the more things change... -- I chose, voluntarily, to spend a week of my life on the campus of a nondescript Pennsylvania college learning about the power and glory of America's Free Market System.

And what a load of horseshit that was.

Founded in 1979, Pennsylvania Free Enterprise Week was started by a group of educators and businessmen interested in addressing “the compelling and urgent issue of workforce preparedness.” Born in 1984, I was founded as the result of a condom breaking in the back of a Chevette. Yet while coming from dramatically different backgrounds, the mysteries of fate decided that the paths of I and this seven day course in corporate capitalist brainwashing would cross that magical summer of 2000.

I'm getting teary just thinking about it.

In between what I was later told were motivational speeches from the likes of former Pennsylvania Governor and color-coded chart aficionado Tom Ridge and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert – truly, I was a privileged youth – the program consisted of this: creating groups of about a dozen other pimply-faced youth who, in something of a corporate Lord of the Flies, selected a CEO, a CFO, a COO, a CDO, a CPO, etc. etc. ad infinitum, to Lead Us. We then proceeded to sell undefined “widgets” in various made-up markets based on the numbers a computer would spit out. Basically we, the corporate elite, would guess at what a computer algorithm wanted by writing down on a piece of paper how many widgets we desired to sell in a given place on a given day. We would then submit said piece of paper to the mercy of the electronic gods.

This was meant to teach us something about supply and demand. Or so I was told (According to the program's website, I apparently learned to “appreciate our free enterprise system” by witnessing from “a practitioner's perspective what it takes to be successful in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.” I believe the website was also written by a computer algorithm.)

As the future unemployed – nay, unemployable – English major of the group, I, of course, was the P.R. guy: the dude who wrote up bullshit speeches to deliver to our mock shareholders and who drafted the compelling advertising copy about how my fake firm's brand of widgets would make you last longer in bed and whatnot. The Lord's work. And while it was undoubtedly a bullshit job – aren't they all? – it was a bullshit job that I busted my ass for, developing blisters from furiously writing corporate jargon and phoney-baloney speeches with my trusty Dixon-Ticonderagos (#2's, motherfucker).

And my company won, damn it. We won.

I don't know how, and I don't know why, but that god damn Dell computer decided my group of hormonal 15 year olds was the best widget-selling firm of Pennsylvania Free Enterprise Week session two. The. Best. And, this being a lesson in capitalism, we would of course be generously rewarded for it.

Our reward for whatever it is that we did came at an end-of-the-week reception, hosted by a bunch of bald old white dudes with sad old white dude faces, who, we were told -- fingers crossed – could be us someday. Seated at a table in a crowded auditorium, my esteemed colleagues and I snickered as various other groups received awards for “most improved” (assholes) and “best spirit” (pricks), knowing that the real prize awaited us, not those also-ran jerk-offs. Admittedly, we had no idea why this was the case.

Tipsy from my third apple juice, our prize finally came after a long, tedious hour of pretending to care about others' achievements. And what did we get for winning it all? One share of stock in (wait for it) . . . Atari. One. And not 1982 Atari, mind you, but year 2000 Atari, aka worth-less-than-the-transaction-fee Atari. Shit.

Soon, however, bitterness and anger over wasting a week of my young life working harder than I frankly should have for some bullshit game turned into white hot, unadulterated rage: the CEO of our firm, who did nothing more than sign off on the number of widgets we said we wanted to sell -- a very nice young girl who I got along with quite well, the bitch -- got her prize: three solid gold coins with Ronald Reagan's fat face – excuse me, former President Ronald Reagan's fat face – emblazoned on them. Street value? A fuck of a lot more than my share of Atari.

And that's when I really learned what all this work-hard-and-capitalism-will-reward-you! jazz was really all about: ensuring a bunch of overworked schmucks would bust their assess for a few decades – suffering a stroke by 47, confined to a home by 52 -- so some do-nothing CEO could take all the glory. Oh sure, during the work stages you're all a “team” – all in this together, dammit – but come reward time, well, it won't be your little Julie taking tennis lessons from Pete Sampras.

I'm not bitter about the experience, though. As far as life lessons go, I learned a valuable one.

Rhapsodize all you want about the virtues of “free markets," corporate capitalism -- that is, the system that we have, not the one Cato Institute scholars have wet dreams about -- ain't it. Indeed, as you'd think more right-wing libertarians and conservatives would acknowledge, corporations themselves are creations of the state, unnatural entities that couldn't exist without massive government intervention.

Who, after all, grants corporate America limited liability for its actions, while at the same time strictly limiting and regulating workers' ability to organize, boycott and strike? Who ensures drug companies reap billions from their “intellectual property” and moves to strike down anybody who doesn't pay the proper tribute to their corporate masters? And who, by the way, ensures that natural resources like oil fields and farm lands aren't merely collectivized by local communities? It ain't the Koch Brothers and their trusty copy of Wealth of Nations: it's the state. Big government and big business go hand in hand.

So let's be honest: The U.S. is a corporate state with a government that -- like all other governments -- was founded to further the economic exploitation of one class by another; one that adopts the language of freedom and free markets to perpetuate a form of 21st century serfdom. And I thank Ronald Reagan – or at least those coins with his stupid face on them – for showing me how it really works.


  1. ahhh... that's excellent, Charles.

    Pennsylvania is at the top of Exploitation Central since the Nation's founding -- it's still largely rural, had lots of oil (relatively speaking) and coal, both of which guided its growth during industrialization (read: mechanized exploitation). Pittsburgh's sooty skyline was a great emblem of that period! And there's still all that "undeveloped" rural land to exploit! Tycoons and robber barons, gather round!

  2. My father was born and raised in Greenville, PA, near a Bethlehem Steel plant, as I recall; he used to tell me about how the soot was so thick in the air that he could mash his face against the screen door and come away with a thin black grid printed all over his skin -- and being a young boy at the time, thought this was pretty cool.

    His dad (my grandfather) worked at a rail car factory in town. One of Dad's summer jobs in high school (mid/late '40s) was pouring ingots; of course, safety regs were for shit back then, and Dad was constantly coming home with little burns on his arms from splattering molten metal.

  3. What? A Chevette? That must suck when you think about it -- conceived in a Chevette. Couldn't have been something more romantic, like the protagonist in the Allman Brothers' "Ramblin' Man":

    ...and I was born in the back seat
    of a Greyhound bus
    rollin' down Highway 41!

  4. Market Zero1:54 PM

    I was there in 99 and our company won the shit and went to that dinner. Me and this guy Dean were the PR department and we didn't even get a share of Colecovision stock (think I'd have remembered that) but DID win an all-expense-paid tepid handshake from Robert Enterprise Eberly. Only speech I remember was from some syndicated cartoonist who told us how God showed him how to draw Fred Flintstone. Also failed to hook up - fuckin' state capitalism, I tell you!

  5. In stiches, Charles. So true. Amazing thing is people keep buying this shit on and on...

  6. Anonymous12:22 PM

    Too bad there isn't honesty like this in our public media!

  7. How did I miss this the first time, through?

    I love everything about this piece from the title on. Perhaps, it's just because I'm in a good mood, but I am fairly sure this is the most entertaining polemic against capitalism ever written.

  8. You end an otherwise compelling story by blaming big government for the abuses of the wealthy.

    Consider, instead, this: if the American government vanished tomorrow- no army, no judges, no laws, no cops, nothing- all the people who own those corporations, who reward themselves for grinding the peons into an early grave, would still have all their money, all their wealth, and all their power.

    And there would be quite literally nothing stopping them from hiring some thugs, putting them in uniform, maybe buying them a tank or thirty, and enslaving your ass.

    Enjoy your government-free life- nasty, brutish, and short indeed.

  9. Kris -

    That hypothetical is weighted down with a lot of assumptions. But even putting that aside, all you're saying is that state thugs are better than private thugs. The reason why is not obvious in this era of mass incarceration, disposition matrices and drones. Then there's the fact that you haven't disproven any of Charles' claims but you are a good deal less entertaining.

    I give you a C with a sense of regret.

  10. Kris,

    If the American government vanished tomorrow, that would probably be bad as the sort institutions that necessary for a less coercive society to thrive haven't been developed. What I aim for is social revolution, from which a political revolution can follow. You need a society of anarchists for an anarchist society to thrive; not utopia, but a majority that abhors the use of violence to exploit and is willing to organize against efforts by others to employ it.

    I'd just throw this out there, though: You raise the possibility of the rich, freed from the state's limits, going full-on fascist with private armies. I'd argue that's more or less what we have now, with the state working as capital's policeman to keep the pitchfork-wielding proles away from their mansions. Wither the state, though, and you can no longer call in the national guard when the townsfolk decide to collective the local power plant.

  11. Also, thanks ohtarzie.