The world recently discovered in shock that someone who heads a capitalist industry which turns humans into products for the American public’s consumption treated some of those humans as products for his own person consumption. The outrage is palpable, Americans who’ve collectively spent billions of dollars watching humans turned into products utterly appalled that those products were not created ethically, as if their daily lives are not actually sustained by people being consumed and then thrown away.
I was once a social worker. Not the sort that actually get paid much; I’m not of a high-enough American economic class to have actually gotten a degree to do that (or any other) sort of work. Instead, for $10/hour, 40 hours a week, I kept the regurgitated shit of liberal capitalist civilization from killing themselves or each other. EMT’s will know what I’m talking about, or the similarly low-paid home health care workers who change your grandmother’s piss-stained sheets while dodging her angry insults–they know what I’m talking about, too. And anyone who, like me, was homeless, living on the street–they’ll get this.
If you’ve never done that sort of work, have never lived on the street, you’ll no doubt find the way I speak of this a bit…crass.
Deal with it. Get over your uneasyness. It’s gonna get worse.
If you’ve never done that sort of work, you probably don’t get it.
Maybe you can’t.
Maybe you won’t.
Maybe you should, though.
I once wiped shit off of a man’s face. Late 20’s, nice guy when he wasn’t drinking. But he was always drinking, because he was trying not to kill himself like his father did, and his uncle did, and his brother did. Nice guy, but had a genetic muscular disorder that made him shake uncontrollably, and also had epilepsy. Nice guy but would scream the worst stuff possible at you because your job was to keep him alive, keep him from getting killed by other guys who were tired of him stealing from them, keep him from getting killed by the hand-sanitizer he’d drink because 15 40oz fortified beers wasn’t enough to keep him as drunk as he wanted to be.
Nice guy, actually, under all that.
It was a shame about the muscular disorder, the one that would make it impossible for him to sit on a toilet for more than a minute without shaking. Sit on a toilet with your trousers around your ankles, try to take the sort of shit that alcoholics take, that explosive sort that sprays wet feces everywhere, but then suddenly lose control of all your muscles, and something not so nice happens.
I’d find him writhing on the floor, covered in diarrhea. The shit was everywhere–the walls, the toilet, his hair, his face, sometimes the ceiling, always the door handles and toilet paper. The lenses of his bottle-thick glasses, strapped to his eyes by tight elastic like goggles, would always be covered with steam on the inside and wet yellow-brown feces on the outside.
And he’d scream. That fucker could scream like few others, raging at you like you fucking made him roll around in his own shit. Angry that you saw him like that, angry that he needed you to help him, angry that he couldn’t control himself, angry that he didn’t kill himself like all the other men in his family had.
His father, his uncle? They’d watched their own dad flail in his own shit. And so when they grew up and started losing control of their body, they killed themselves. And so too did one of their sons, leaving only this guy, the guy flinging his shit at me and telling me to ‘fuck off.’ And leaving people like me, getting paid $10/hour, to try to keep people like him alive.
I didn’t mind, not really.
I also didn’t mind the women who’d throw knives and bottles at me across a desk, accuse me of raping them in the middle of the night or stealing their children or drugs. I didn’t mind the women who developed hydrophobia, didn’t wash their vaginas for months and filled the entire facility with the stench of necrotic rotting genitals. I didn’t mind the heroin addicts bleeding all over me, the men threatening to kill me because they said I stole their beer. I didn’t mind all the death, either–the Hispanic guy who got his face smashed in by the Black guy who mistook him for another homeless guy who’d offered to blow him; the 500 lb woman whose heart gave out on my lunch break and whose heart wouldn’t restart no matter how hard I or others pushed on her chest. The suicides–messy, messy suicides taking days to clean up, the woman who turned up the heat in her apartment and sealed off the windows and turned on her shower before killing herself so the entire corridor smelled like moist, warm dead flesh for two weeks.
Somehow in the 7 years I did that work, I found a way to endure the screams and insults and harassment, the daily horrors, the putrid smells, the death and fear for my life. At first, I told myself I was ‘making a difference,’ that I was doing something good for the world or humanity. Later, I realized this was mere delusion–there was no good being done, no difference being made, but at least I wasn’t actually contributing to the mess.
I–and others like me–functioned as sanitation workers for the society the rest of you enjoy.
And that’s what I actually did mind.
I’d go to cafes and listen to friends talk about social justice, about how women are paid less than men and how Blacks are oppressed by whites. And I’d nod, of course, because all that was true. But it was never quite clear we were talking about the same sort of social justice.
None of my friends had cleaned shit off the face of a mixed-race dude rolling around in his own diarrhea. None had watched a women who’d been repeatedly raped then stab another woman for stealing her crack. None actually knew the First Nations guy who got shot in the back four times by the cops for crossing the street while homeless and deaf.
For them, it was all big theory, grand frameworks, deep desire to make the world better after their retail or tech or barista job, in-between research for their PhD’s or their next television series binge. Talk of how there weren’t enough highly-paid tech workers of a specific gender was important, they assured me. Getting the police to wear more video cameras and having more representation in major corporate environments–that was social justice.
Talk about capitalism, though? Make a connection between the hipster cafe we were sitting in or the decent-paying jobs and and nice apartments they were living in and all the homeless people in the streets?
For me, ‘social justice’ was wiping shit off a guy’s face as he’s trying to punch you, all the while knowing he just wants to cry because life is pretty hard, because he’s been homeless for fifteen years, been sent to jail for sexual assault and public inebriation and breaking into some nice middle-class person’s house to steal what he could to get more beer so he didn’t have to drink hand sanitizer. For me it was keeping guys like him from getting killed by cops called by people who cared about social justice and equality but didn’t want some homeless dude scaring their kids.
I eventually quit that work. You sort of need to, eventually. The pay never increases, the deaths and assaults and shit-covered faces don’t stop happening. And the people around you never get it, either. Inequality, racial injustice, prejudice, privilege–they keep talking about it like they know what it is, like they’ve watched someone’s liver burst inside their body, holes opening up in their skin to expel all the toxic fluids built up in their legs, pooling on the floor around them.
They never get it, but they keep talking anyway. Inequality is all caused by the Patriarchy, or lack of education, or ‘the system’ apparently, not their own desire to have nice jobs in nice neighborhoods and not have drunk people wandering around with shit on their faces scaring their innocent kids, not their desire to have Pumpkin Spice lattes without stepping over a homeless woman’s feces in the doorway of the Starbucks, not their insistence that equality and capitalism are possible if we just trained the cops better and got more white women in power.
They never get it, and I do not think they will.
When I was a social worker cleaning up after the feces shat out by Capitalism, I imagined one day those around me would begin to make the connections between their middle-class lifestyles and people writhing in shit on the bathroom floor of homeless shelters.
I imagined one day people would make the connection between the new yoga center in the gentrified neighborhood and the homeless women bleeding out of her ass because she was raped by the dealer she had to let do anal on her after another woman stole her crack money.
I imagined one day people would make the connection between the settler-colonial enclave called the United States and the homeless dead native gay guy who’d drank himself to death because he’d just found out he was HIV positive
I know now such a time is never coming.
There will be no revolution that includes those people.
They don’t fit into the master narratives, because the oppressors are all of us.
Women are as guilty here as men, even if those women don’t make as much as their male counterparts in IT. Blacks are as guilty as whites, even if their white coworkers can go shopping in malls without getting followed. Gays are as guilty as straights, even if those gays can’t hold hands walking home from the bars on the weekends. Disabled people are as guilty as the abled, even though not every restaurant in a nice neighboorhood is accessible.
Every American who refuses to fight capitalism and the capitalists themselves, who settles instead for esoteric tea-talk of equality and social justice, placing their own particular experiences of injustice as the necessary center of the world’s political struggle, who urges hashtag revolts and twitter campaigns instead of an end to capitalist exploitation and relentless displacement, ensures nothing will change.
What has become of American social justice is a bourgeois jerk-fest, identitarians waging symbolic wars on social media while people too poor to use twitter die from the only thing the enlightened refuses to confront.
I learned another thing in those years as a social worker, cleaning up the trash other people discarded, making sure the good urban liberals never need confront the despair they caused.
Every homeless person I helped meant a homeless person no one else needed to see. It meant fewer break-ins, less public inebriation. Children’s playgrounds with fewer needles littering the swings, vibrant urban centers with fewer assaults on middle-class woo-girls stumbling home drunk from the bars. The screaming schizophrenics were kept safe inside so you didn’t have to hear their maddened wails, the drug-addicted folks kept off your streets so you didn’t confront a corpse on your way to work in the morning.
I listened then and I listen now to how everything can be fixed by more awareness, more equality, more representation, more reform. People who are certain we just need more women in Hollywood, or more gender-neutral pronouns, or body-cameras on the police, more representation in the military, a better president, less toxic masculinity, more regulations, better laws–all things to smooth over the bleeding wail of what America and Capitalism really are.
All that so we don’t have to look at what we’ve actually done to the world. All that so we can blame someone else. All of this so we never have to see the shit we cause, dying human, dying foreigner, dying forest, dying species, dying planet.
At least when I was wiping shit off a guy’s face, I made his life better for a few minutes. And when he screamed at me, blamed me for his feces-smeared glasses, he at least had an excuse.
Few of us can really say the same thing. We have no excuse: the shit is ours, we smeared it all over ourselves, paid others to clean it up, turned humans themselves into shit and paid people to shovel them out of sight.
The whole melodrama wears a bit thin after awhile, the disavowals, the public hand-wringing, the cries for better treatment of our consumer products, a desire to have our way of life without the horror and suffering without which it cannot exist. Women groped and raped by a captain of a media industry whose products have ensured that the pain caused by American capitalism is drugged away from those who might otherwise try to stop the suffering–there is nothing new here. It’s the same exploitation that fills your grocery store shelves, gives you sleek new tech gadgets and cheap gasoline. The women of Hollywood were at least treated a little better than the cattle in American factory farms, treated a little better than the homeless drug-addicts in the shelters, treated much better than the Africans enslaved and the First Nations peoples’ slaughtered to make the cities you live in.
This has always been America. This will always be America, until America finally ends.
This has always been Capitalism. This will always be Capitalism, until the Capitalists are finally gone.