After the disruption of labor brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis that we are currently experiencing, Americans are, possibly, finally realizing the intense negative effects that harsh American capitalist business practices have on them. Many Americans are opting to work from home instead of working in the office from 9-5 because they feel that they can excel in their work and have a better overall well-being from the comfort of their own home over the oppressive atmosphere of the office. And after taking a closer look at why American capitalism operates in the way that it does, I don’t blame them.
Among all the capitalist countries in the world, American capitalism operates uniquely. In American business practices, managers typically incentivize “unskilled” workers through punishments (instead of promotions or rewards) as higher-level employees raise the price of the goods (and effectively their own salaries) (Desmond, 2019). This practice increases the wage gap that we see in the U.S., where 40 percent of the country’s total wealth is owned by the richest one percent of the American population. Americans, specifically lower class Americans are not paid livable wages and not afforded sufficient insurance and healthcare while their bosses continue to get richer. The oppression of disadvantaged people is so inherent in American business practices because these practices were created by slave-owners to control and oppress enslaved people.
In his 2019 article for the New York Times, “American Capitalism Is Brutal. You Can Trace That to the Plantation”, Matthew Desmond writes that as the demand and supply for cotton grew after the invention of the cotton gin, slave-owners created complex hierarchies on their plantations with multi-level hierarchical units consisting of owners, lawyers, managers, and enslaved people in order to more closely supervise every aspect of enslaved people’s labor, as well as to supervise enslaved people themselves (Desmond, 2019). This is similar to corporate hierarchies that we see in modern businesses.
Along with this, a handful of plantation owners created spreadsheets and record books in order to heavily supervise every aspect of enslaved people’s labor, the most popular one being Thomas Affleck’s Plantation Record and Account Book (Desmond, 2019). Affleck’s book was revolutionary in creating economic practices that are still used today, such as evaluating expenses and revenues and their greatest gains and losses, determining end-of-the-year balances, and quantifying capital costs (Desmond, 2019). However, Affleck’s book was also extremely oppressive to enslaved people, as it also allowed plantation owners to calculate depreciation by evaluating the market value of enslaved people over the span of their lives, heavily surveil every aspect of enslaved people’s lives, and to even anticipate the rebellion of enslaved people (Desmond, 2019). Although these bookkeeping techniques were helpful in developing beneficial economic practices, they were also incredibly harmful to enslaved people, as their primary goal was to surveil enslaved people to maintain their oppression.
We see the lasting effects of these bookkeeping surveillance techniques in 21st century business practices, such as software that records workers’ keystrokes and mouse clicks, computer video monitoring, and email surveillance is the new way for managers to control their employees (Desmond, 2019). The goal of surveillance software is not to improve employee performance or workplace morale, it’s to undermine employees and ensure that they don’t do anything that their managers would deem to be “out of line”. How are we, American employees, able to feel comfortable in work environments that monitor us so closely? How are we able to flourish under managers that use surveillance as a constant threat of punishment?
And although employers in America do not use violence to oppress their employees, they do use these oppressive business practices to prevent their employees from being able to obtain workers’ rights. As Desmond points out in his article, only 10 percent of American wage and salaried workers belong to worker unions (Desmond, 2019). This is no surprise, given the disadvantaged positions that American capitalist practices put American laborers in.
Desmond writes, “Unrestrained capitalism holds no monopoly on violence, but in making possible the pursuit of near limitless personal fortunes, often at someone else’s expense, it does put a cash value on our moral commitments” (Desmond, 2019). American businesses have put “cash values on moral commitments” for far too long, prioritizing the increase of their paychecks over the well being (and higher salaries) of their employees. If American business practices are rooted in plantation practices that were meant to oppress enslaved people, is it moral to continue utilizing these practices?