Edition #71: Three Versions of Reality

Plus, who should John Mulaney be now, a case for smaller social circles, and ekphrasis

A Note From the Editor

Have you ever heard the phrase “reality is subjective”? It means that every person’s reality is slightly different, contingent upon a multitude of factors like their background, preferences, and biases. Opposite of objective reality, when something is ruled by fact (i.e. the sky is blue), subjective reality allows for more color and personalization. It makes me think of the Maxtrix, or of those dreamy days when I’m gazing at the spray of rolling ocean waves and briefly wonder whether I’m in a simulation. Certain moments are just too precious to feel worldly.

Subjective reality makes the most sense in a globalized context. In America, our reality is different from that of someone living in Kenya, or France, or Japan. Even within American, our versions of subjective reality vary based on what part of the country we live in and what side of the political spectrum we fall on. At any given time, half of the country looks around and sees the skeleton of hope lurking around the corner while the other sees inevitable doom, depending on who’s in office. Despite these differences, Americans have much more in common than we think. For the most part, we have the same set of shared defaults: most people will get married and adhere to some version of the nuclear family structure; during financially sound times, most people will work a job. We will shop on Amazon (over a third of the US population uses the Amazon app), we will try to save for retirement by investing in to 401ks, we will own pets.

Some of us practice religion, mostly a version of Christianity, but that number is declining. A chunk of us participates in the 40-hour workweek. We understand healthcare is a privilege granted to those who are employed, we accept that paid maternity leave is neither a requirement nor a commonality, we know we must pay taxes, we know there is no federal requirement for paid sick leave— if you’re employed by a company who grants you the ability to fall ill without losing your livelihood, it’s considered a privilege. Lucky you!

Sure, the system doesn’t work for everybody. And sure, most of us are exhausted and constantly looking over our shoulders wondering whether we’ll be able to squirrel away enough money to cement our place in the ranks of those financially unshakeable few, but this is just the way it is. While both subjective and objective reality exists within America, there is a third version of reality that pervades class and ideology and region, one so ingrained I hadn’t even known there as a name for it— capitalist realism.

Capitalist Realism: The predeominant conception that capitalism is the only viable economic system, and thus there can be no imaginable alternative.

Capitalism permeates every facet of the American system, from healthcare to education to employment to politics to the classic dogma of The American Dream—come here, you can be anything. That American is still globally considered the land of opportunity has everything to do with the fact that we are a nation governed by capitalism, and it has worked well for many people for many years. But there are parts that haven’t worked, too. We see the wreckage; increased homelessness due in large part to stagnant wages, declining birth rates thanks to the rising costs of raising a child, and the lack of affordable childcare assistance, a portion of the population who are uninsured. Like the way we accept the 40-hour workweek, we also accept these factors as the downsides of our system.Our imaginations have existed in a tunnel for so long that though we suspect it will not be sustainable long term, we can’t fathom an alternative. Even the anti-capitalist movements like Occupy Wallstreet are geared towards mitigating capitalism’s most damaging effects (in this case, economic inequality) versus providing the framework for an alternative system. As British theorist Mark Fisher, who coined the idea of capitalist realism, says, “It is easier to imagine an end of the world than an end to capitalism.”

Consider our current situation. You’ve probably heard that many businesses, restaurants in particular, are having a hard time getting their staff back. Help wanted signs to hang in nearly every window here in New York. I’ve participated in variations of the same conversation this week: why is this happening? Don’t people want to get back to work? The general consensus is that low-wage workers aren’t rushing back because they are currently making more money on unemployment—with the federal government subsidizing an additional $300/week for unemployment benefits—than they would be making at their jobs. While reactions to this reality vary, the traditional American response is disgust. “Why are we encouraging people to be lazy?”

This is a prime example of capitalist realism at work. We are more outraged at the prospect of employees not wanting to go back to low-paying jobs than we are about the fact that a vast majority of these jobs provide unlivable wages and no benefits. In this school of thought, perceived “laziness” is a cardinal sin—worse than greed, corruption, exploitation. Laziness is evil. But what if these people who aren’t rushing back to work aren’t actually lazy? What if they're making the best decision for their families, trying to put food on the table and stay safe? Because if they were to get sick, they might not have adequate coverage to get the treatment they might need?

When small businesses can’t find staff, they feel frustrated. I talked to the owner at my favorite underground massage spot this weekend, watching as she hurriedly toggled between the massage, answering the phone, and turning away customers. She said no one wants to come back to work yet and so she has to operate as a one-woman show. “Lazy,” she said, and on one hand I understand her frustration. Small business owners need workers, but some cannot afford to pay said workers a living wage thanks to the increased operating costs of running a business. Instead of being mad at the system, which pours insane amounts of money into mega-corporations through tax incentives and mostly neglects small businesses, the small guys are mad at the other small guys. This, again, is capitalist realism at work.

In a recent episode of The Daily, the host and guest discussed our current economic situation, theorizing about what might be the root cause of the shortage of low-wage employees. One line struck me: "These benefits make it easier for them (employed individuals) to be picky about jobs, to hold out for higher pay.” Imagine that—Americans having the option to hold out for a job that pays more than $7.25 per hour. Try doing some math on that wage if you haven’t before. Try to imagine what your life would look like if that wage was your only option right now, and then think about whether you’d rather jump back to that or hold off for a higher-paying job.

Cheers, my dears, and as always, thanks for reading. What do you think about capitalist realism? Do you think it’s a force for good, problematic? I love hearing varying opinions, so leave a comment or shoot me an email— because the best discussions happen when two people attempt to hear one another.

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Three Pieces of Content Worth Consuming

  1. Who Should John Mulaney Be Now? I'm not sure why I ever let myself get emotionally involved in celebrities’ love lives. It's rare, but it happens, and it happened when I heard John Mulaney and his non-celebrity wife were getting a divorce. Mulaney recently did his first stand-up show post-rehab and it sounds like it was rocky, lacking his typical polish. This piece examines the inherent vulnerability that being a comedian requires, examining how the most beloved comedians have had to reinvent themselves over time.

    Stand-ups need the audience to know what’s funny, what’s interesting, what they think. In exchange for their vulnerability, they get connection.

  2. Every Day Was Saturday in Harlem. I devoured this teaser of “An American Project,” a photo series of photographer Dawoud Bey. The images as a result of bey’s weekly visits to Harlem in 1975, and the vibrancy and life in these photos make me want to travel back in time. The retrospective is currently on display at the Whitney through October.

    “Driving through the crowded streets, I was amazed by what appeared to be the many people on vacation,” he has written. “It seemed to me that no matter what the day, everyday was Saturday in Harlem.”

  3. The Pandemic Shrank our Social Circles. Let’s Keep It That Way. Only recently did I realize how much of my self-value is tied to be well-liked. I've always liked having friends- a handful of close ones, a broad swath of distant ones—and at times, my attempts to keep up with these circles have left me feeling drained. The most interesting part of this article was the experiment at the start, where a professor went through his phone contacts and created a hierarchy of friends and what they do for him in attempts to decipher those he valed most. In reality, we only have the capacity for so many relationships. It feels right to remember that more isn't always better, that it's OK to reserve your energy for those who energize you.

Perhaps You Should…
Try Experimenting with Ekphrasis

Ekphrasis is art inspired by other art, like a poem describing a painting. I learned about the concept earlier this year in a fiction workshop when our instructor tasked us with visiting a museum and writing a scene inspired by a piece of art we found. The assignment was delightful; it allowed me to experience a trip to the Met differently than I ever had before. In this same vein, I decided to experiment with poetry in different forms, enlisting the help of some talented friends to turn written words to spoken words to movement. The result was lovely (see for yourself), and I suggest giving art-inspired-by-art a try in your own creative projects.

**Bonus Content** (Funny Posters for National Parks)

I don’t know why this made me laugh so much, but it did. A graphic designer made posters for National Parks using their visitor commentary found in their bad reviews.

A Quote From A Book You Should Read:

“In the months after that, he would sometimes ask her “How’s conquering the world going, my sweet ruthless girl?” in the delighted dumbed-down tone you would use to tell a housepet it was ferocious. She would nuzzle him, beginning to understand that just because he didn’t see something in her didn’t mean it wasn’t there, knowing there was still some freedom in the way he did not yet fathom how real and how neccessary her ruthlessness would be.”

-The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans

This newsletter is best served with a side of conversation, so drop your opinions, reflections, and thoughts in the comments below and let’s get to talking.

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Or, share the most thought-provoking piece from today’s edition with someone you love, then call them up to discuss, debate, and percolate. As a wise woman once said, “Great minds discuss ideas.”