How Capitalism Became Young People’s Pusher, Pimp, and Abuser
There’s a strange and terrible thing I’ve noticed — and you might have too. Nobody I know under the age of 40 or so can make it anymore. That applies to people over 40 as well, of course — but as we’ll see, an economy’s fate hinges in many ways on young people.
What do I mean by “can’t make it”? I mean it in all the ways that anyone can mean it. Young people can’t make ends meet. They can’t earn decent livings. Hence, they can’t save. Because they can’t save, they can’t buy homes. Because they can’t buy homes, they can’t start families. Because they can’t start families, they can’t move out. Because they’re stuck living in their parents’ homes, they’re depressed, frustrated, and furious. Hence, the rise of the “side-hustle”, but I digress — let’s think about the meaning of all this.
(And because they’re depressed, frustrated and furious, I’d guess, they turn to what they can afford — social media and Netflix and “self-care” and so on. But these don’t make the emotional trauma — and it is a trauma — of being trapped in powerlessness and hopelessness better, they make it worse. A vicious cycle has emerged: economic disempowerment, psychic trauma, social isolation….wasted potential. Psychoeconosocial failure, a situation so gruesome we barely have words for it. But I’ll come all that, in quite sordid detail, shortly.)
Capitalism has trapped young people in a kind of never-ending adolescence — during which it stalks them, like prey. It never lets them grow up — while telling them to ‘take responsibility” and “be adults” and “pick themselves up by their bootstraps.” Like a monster, it traps them, isolates them, and picks them off one by one, when they’re at their weakest — for their sweet flesh. Wham! The dystopian tales of this age aren’t so far off the truth. Young people are kept in this state of perpetual adolescence so that they can be exploited with maximum, perfect efficiency — until they have nothing left, and then they’re disposed of.
Now, you might think I’m exaggerating. Alas, my friend, a brief glimpse at basic socioeconomic realities suggests that if anything, I’m understating the case. Depression and suicide are soaring amongst the young. They can’t afford to move out. They’re having fewer relationships. They’re even having less sex — when have you heard of young people having less sex? Doesn’t that alarm you? They’re broke — and they’ll never retire — but they can’t get decent jobs in the first place. A life as good as Dad’s? Grandma’s? LOL — it’s a distant dream.
It’s no surprise, then, that young people have given up on capitalism, either.They aren’t just against it. They mock it just like a child might say: “I’m not afraid of that monster!” They hold in contempt and scorn and disgrace. They should. Young people are giving up on capitalism because capitalism has failed them.
Beneath this grotesque veneer of dystopian inevitability lies a deeper truth. Young people sit at the intersection of three great economic shocks — ones which no generation, really, has had to face before. First, digitization has stripped the last few remaining good jobs from the economy, and concentrated them among a tiny number of “tech” companies. Second, financialization has made everything a matter of piling on debt, so that the unaffordability of things remains invisible. Third, decades of underinvestment in society have made the basics of life laughably unaffordable. When you’re paying $10K a year for healthcare…per person…the idea of having kids, starting a family, buying a home becomes a bitter, twisted joke.
What do young people do? Well, what can they do? If they have affluent families, they endlessly tap them for the support they desperately need. Dad! I need to pay rent. Mom! I need to pay for healthcare! Uncle Dan! Can you help me with my car payment? And so on. There’s no shame in it, but because we feel so ashamed of it, we don’t discuss it — young people are on life support these days, my friends — even the responsible and productive ones.
Those who don’t have affluent families are in far worse positions. What do they do? Well, a lot of them have turned to drugs. Sure, young people always take drugs (hi, 22 year old Umair.) But there’s a big difference between a spliff here and there and a helpless dependency on opioids because you’re stuck in a dead end life in some rust belt town. Young people are medicating away the pain of capitalism, essentially.
Those that are brave enough not to medicate away the pain are forced, increasingly, to turn to grotesque and demeaning lives to make ends meet. The rise of camgirls and online-escorting-to-pay-for-grad-school and so on is one example. There’s nothing wrong with sex work, and if you choose it, great — but my feeling is that many women aren’t choosing it so much as they’re being compelled into it by financial hardship. That’s a common feature, too, of collapsing societies — their women have to sell their bodies to support their men and themselves — hence, we Americans make fun of the Eastern European sex industry, Thai child prostitutes, mail order brides, but we don’t quite connect the dots — that’s what capitalism is doing now to our women, too. It’s another thing we don’t discuss, because we’re too busy lionizing sex work to wonder: is it just a coincidence sex is being commodified and harvested for profit in more extreme forms, at the precise moment our society’s collapsing?
What about men who have neither affluent families, and can’t sell themselves like women? They turn to digital gig work, many of them — driving Ubers and TaskRabbiting and so forth. While those gigs might help drive “down” the unemployment rate, it’s an illusion, at best — because you can’t do it forever. It’s not just not a career — it’s the opposite of one: an activity that invests nothing in your human or emotional or social capital. It’s another way to sell your body, essentially — because you can’t develop your mind, heart, or soul. That’s not to say people don’t pay for school with Uber or camming or so forth — sure they do — the point is: should they have to? What does it cost us all when those are the choices on offer?
Do you see what’s really happening here? I’m drawing some extreme examples — to make a point. What’s a camgirl? Something like a concubine, a kept object of pleasure, unless that’s what said person only ever really waned to be. Sorry if that makes you mad, I guess — but sex-positivity, too, should have some critical limits. What’s an Uber driver? Something like a chauffeur. Capitalism is recreating something very much like a feudal society, where today’s young people are essentially becoming servants, serfs.
They are selling the very last things they have — their bodies, their muscles, the most desperate forms of labour, from sex work to menial work. These forms of labour are of course the lowest paid, and the most predatory, too. Young people are being forced to sell their bodies to the lowest bidder — instead of having their minds, hearts, and spirits nourished, nurtured, and cultivated. What else is a serf, really, but someone who is compelled to sell their physical labour in the most menial way they can — instead of being able to develop themselves more fully, their minds, creativity, intellects, aspirations, imaginations? Isn’t that why the world went nowhere for centuries?
That is how capitalism is preying on young people. It keeps them trapped in a perpetual adolescence — never allowing them to grow up, afford homes, start families, become genuine adults of their own. Then, cleverly, it asks them to sell the only thing they are allowed to have, since they cannot really grow up — their bodies, their sweat, their tendons and muscles. Once those are exploited to the maximum — bang! The commodity is disposed of. Does a camgirl get a retirement plan? Healthcare? What’s the Uber driver’s career model? You see my point, perhaps. Young people are kept a perpetual adolescence by capitalism because there is little more profitable than a kept class of fresh, smiling serfs and servants to pimp out — who are always a tap and swipe away.
It’s a truism that “capitalism is exploitation.” But what precisely does that mean in the context of a collapsing 21st century society? Something like this.
Capitalism has become our young people’s pimp and pusher, their madam and their jailer, their sweatshop slavedriver — it is the algorithm that auctions their bodies, sweat, and muscles to the lowest bidder, at the highest cost, and little more. It is not the gentle hand which nourishes them into adulthood. I mean all that quite literally. Do you think I’m being unfair? What does reality say, when you look at it coolly, unemotionally? Aren’t young people turning to increasingly desperate forms of both labour and consolation, as their society collapses around them, just to survive?
When I said capitalism was preying on young people, this is what I meant — it traps them in a perpetual adolescence, where they’re kept young, and then picks them off, one by one, for prettiness and health and strength of their bodies, more or less. Capitalism has made young people nobodies, going nowhere, because there’s nowhere to go. There’s just a perpetual adolescence, during which you’re exploited ruthlessly for the things you have when you’re young — muscles, sweat, energy, a fresh body — and then discarded like trash, once those things are even faintly scarred, abused, marked. Wham! Time to exploit the next line of young people. For their bodies, smiles, tendons, flesh — the only things people trapped in an endless adolescence can have — until those are not so fresh and lithe anymore.
Capitalism isn’t maximizing the possibility of America’s young people — turning them into tomorrow’s great inventors, revolutionaries, artists, and thinkers. It’s true that some of those might emerge, but by and large, they are becoming servants now. Concubines and chauffeurs and cleaners and “assistants”, 40 year old interns, opioid addicts, internet burnouts, people who’ve never had a decent job in their lives, youngsters approaching middle-age who still live with Mom and Dad because there’s nowhere to go. People who, in the end, might just be growing accustomed and resigned to being ruthlessly exploited for the sweet taste of youth by the old, the rich, the predatory, even as they rage into their screens against the machine that preys on them.
Capitalism is creating a kind of feudal caste society now — and young people are at the bottom. They are like algorithmic servants, whose primary purpose in life is to sell their youthful bodies — not to develop their minds — in whatever increasingly desperate way they can find. Driving a car, doing a cam show, cleaning a home, and so on. Another way to see it is that young people are something like janitors of desire. They are there to clean up after the messes society’s appetites make. Want to get laid? Need some plumbing? Just swipe! Ahh, sweet relief. Maybe you see what I mean. Young people are servants and prisoners of desire now — a caste of menial pleasure-workers, always there on-demand, to service you…which is what servants have always been.
But can a caste society of algorithmic servants dong menial body-work, selling their youth in increasingly desperate ways, also be a democracy? A modern one? A place of abundance, peace, growth and maturity — or just a perpetually destabilized place, by this cycle of being perpetual adolescence, too?
You see, something very grave and vital is lost when we pimp out our own young people to capitalism, or when capitalism becomes their pusher, pimp, and sweatshop boss. Those young people don’t turn into tomorrow’s Einsteins, Salks, and Malalas. Not at nearly the same rate. They give up on democracy and freedom — enough of them sit at home burned out and high and depressed and sucidal, instead of voting and marching. They become traumatized and wounded. So much so that perhaps they buy into the mechanisms of their own oppression — hey, Facebook’s good for me! Don’t take my Uber away! You can hardly blame them, after all — where else do they have to turn, but to oppression, for the means of subsistence?
You see the trap now. Capitalism says to young people something like this. I’ll never let you grow up. Sell me your body, while it’s fresh, if you want to live at all — here, I’ll give you a few pennies for it. Shrug. It’s your choice. I’ll never really let you develop your mind, your heart, your soul. In this way, capitalism is something very much like the boogeyman, my friends. It is all the archaic monsters dwelling in our unconscious in this way — preying on our children in the darkness where only an algorithm glimmers, stealing away their youth while they sleep, making them old before they have ever really been young.
And yet young people still show signs of life. They are rebelling against capitalism, because capitalism has failed them, in all these terrible and gruesome ways, which have yet, I think, really to be understood. That should give us all a little hope. The young have always been the wisest among us. And in their vehement rejection of capitalism — even if they don’t quite still know the depths to which it has abased and disgraced them — they are better and truer leaders than they know.