When I was in college, I saw a picture in a textbook of small children picking through a gigantic trash dump in Brazil. Known as catadores, these kids scour the garbage looking for food, recyclables and items to sell. According to the caption, the owners of the landfill hired armed private guards, who would sometimes shoot the children — the trash had monetary value because it could be rendered into pig feed and sold.
That little bit of text in the margins of a sociology book always stayed with me. I was struck by how sick, surreal and absurd it was that the lives of poor children in the Global South had been devalued to the point that they worth less than literal garbage.
In addition to sadness and pity, I felt a conditioned response as someone raised in relative comfort in a global empire: I was relieved that I lived in a “developed” country where these sorts of nightmare scenarios aren’t happening.
But recently, amid the winter storm that has devastated much of the country, I came across a news story that called to mind that image that I encountered more than a decade ago. Police in Portland were ordered to guard the dumpster of a Fred Meyer supermarket to keep people from taking discarded food.
At a time when an estimated 54 million people, including 17 million children, are experiencing food insecurity due to the economic shocks caused by the pandemic, it’s unspeakably cruel for any city to devote scarce resources to preventing hungry people from getting fed.
The chickens are coming home to roost. Many of those problems that people in the imperial core consider to be the exclusive domain of the “Third World” are appearing here.
Our way of life in the United States has for so long been guaranteed by neocolonial relationships with countries like Brazil, whose entire economies and political systems have been disrupted, derailed and destroyed by decades of neoliberal shock therapy and US-backed military coups.
The social stability that Western countries enjoy rests on a material basis of wealth extracted from Africa, South America and Asia. Most of the worst forms of immiseration produced under capitalism are off-shored to the “underdeveloped” nations, while the benefits flow back. As a result, Americans enjoy a relatively high standard of living and access to a wide array of consumer goods.
Now, the United States faces a perfect storm of crises — economic, environmental and epidemiological — that are being criminally mismanaged. When confronted with scenes like the humanitarian disaster underway in Texas, commentators fall back on facile comparisons with “Third World countries.”
The implications of all this talk is that these things are supposed to happen in poor, dirty, dysfunctional countries not here. Seeing “Third World” conditions in the epitome of a “First World” country creates a certain sense of shock in Americans.
In countries that are synonymous with the “Third World,” such as Haiti, these conditions have spawned mass revolt. But in the United States it will be a while before the failures of capitalism manifest in the same sort of uprisings.
Why? Well, this can be explained by a concept socialist scholar Mark Fisher has termed “capitalist realism,” which is best summarized in a quote from cultural critic Frederic Jameson: “It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.”
It’s accepted as common sense in the United States that we are past the “End of History.” Capitalism and liberal democracy comprise the end state of human development. They may be imperfect but there is no alternative.
But as powerful as this form of ideological control may be, it has limits. As crisis follows crisis and more Americans start to experience “Third World” misery, it will be increasingly harder to resolve the resulting cognitive dissonance.
Whenever capitalism is challenged, the stock response of its defenders is to point to Soviet breadlines and totalitarian surveillance. This deflection is less and less convincing as these phenomena become facts of existence in the heart of global capitalism.
Fisher’s capitalist realism is a manifestation of what Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci dubbed “cultural hegemony.” Gramsci theorized that as Western liberal democracies developed, they would increasingly rely on social control achieved through manufactured consent rather than coercion.
Gramsci formulated his theory in the 1930s, and in the decades that followed, this hegemony solidified in the West through the institutions of mass media, education, think tanks, etc. But now the legitimacy of the neoliberal order is starting to falter, creating the potential to chip away at it.
According to Gramsci, socialists have to engage in a “War of Position” that involves constructing a countervailing force opposed to the dominant ideology. It is not enough to critique capitalism — we have to articulate a viable alternative.