Over the past few months, I have reflected upon how capitalism’s tenets and virtues have affected the way that I operate. As I am a kinetic learner, I started with how capitalism’s values feel in my body. I feel (feelings: not valued in a capitalistic society) as if my body is just a vessel, and sometimes an enemy. I sense capitalism’s urge for me to work or keep moving in the way I cannot physically keep still; sitting in class I notice my legs twitching, in therapy I always am moving my hands. I feel an emptiness and a chronic sense of exhaustion.
As a person existing within the system, I sense the tensions of my internalized need to work and the physical and emotional limitations of my body. There have been many times, especially in college, where my body needs rest and I feel the urge to sleep. But I push on—for that last page of reading due the next day, the problem set due at the end of the week—to put a checkmark on what I presume to be too many empty boxes in my planner. When my emotional and physical being cannot be pushed, and I fail to continue my work—the crux of my value within the system—I resort to mental stress. I become both the worker and the boss, the laborer and the punisher, inflicting upon myself what has been so ingrained that it feels inherent—at the expense of my body’s needs.
I first started ruminating on how capitalism influences my inner workings last year in my sociological theory class sophomore spring. Capitalism thrives off the exploitation of labor, disproportionately for marginalized and oppressed identities. Capitalism puts pride into hard work and success, while blatantly ignoring the inaccessibility some oppressed communities have to this idealized success. In the pursuit of work and success, competition arises, which leads to alienation from one another and even from our own bodies. We become machines, in a conveyor belt in which each minute of labor we put in holds up the framework of capitalism.
As students, we seamlessly internalize the mechanisms of capitalism.This system has quantified our worthiness based on our results in a deceptively meritocratic system. Capitalism expects the same value of product from everyone, blatantly ignoring how different systems of oppression impact someone. With the competitive nature that precipitates out of capitalistic endeavors, inequality is accepted as an inevitable truth.
I identify as a woman of color. As a WOC, I have internalized “otherness” and inferiorities. Racism and sexism intersect and compound to damage my wellbeing and the way I operate; capitalism further exacerbates the damage done by these oppressive hierarchies. As a woman, I am taught to do labor that often goes unseen and unnoticed. This is because capitalism only values labor in which there is a tangible output, which often disregards the emotional and biological labor that is often expected and also stigmatized.
Emotional labor feels antithetical to capitalism’s definition of labor. My mental health issues feel like a burden and an excuse to this system; it creates a toxic cycle as when it has impacted my performance, the more pressure I put on myself and the worse my mental health becomes. Sometimes, I am in an emotional state where I cannot work, and I have to calm and recenter myself. But in this time, I have not studied enough or done less homework. It then becomes harder to reconcile this tension as work piles up. Being gentle on myself has felt gratuitous as it does not have a bearing on my academic performance, the product in which I can prove my labor to the capitalistic system.
Grades then become a benchmark in which to rate us. Each semester, I receive a series of numbers that I feel define me. A grade on an essay or an exam—the good ones give me a sense of elation, the bad ones leave me defeated, as if I have failed. These numbers rank us and give us a sense of value; we become commodities ourselves. We advertise ourselves as products to be sold to employers in the form of resumes—one page to list all we have done (not how we feel or who we are), all the academic labor we have engaged in to be displayed for (often unpaid) short-term opportunities. Grades become an intermediate to sense our place in the hierarchy of capitalism, as we prepare to go into the workforce. The labor we put into these four years of college are advertised so we can go into further labor as adults. Grades become salaries, and career success becomes a currency of our worthiness. Capitalism is enduring, and its effects are persistently damaging. College sometimes feels like a ridiculously expensive way to make us more attractive in the labor market, to prove ourselves in a capitalistic system.
Time becomes a means in which to accrue capital, and is thus critical for a student. There are often jokes about Tufts students never having time and how overbooked we are. If we dig further, there lies a deeper issue. We can never stop doing: working, going to club meetings, leading, creating. Whatever it is, we feel a need to be doing something all the time. Free time feels foreign, almost forbidden. And when it comes to academics, there is a twisted sense of pride associated with the amount of work we are able to do in a given scope of time. Hours spent being idle or not doing schoolwork become associated with guilt. But where does this guilt come from? It comes from our deeply internalized values of capitalism.
This is the first semester in which I can honestly say I have put my mental health and wellbeing over my academic success. Yes, it comes at a cost—to self worth that has been constructed from and tied to the capitalist system. But at the same time, I feel closer to liberation*. I still have so much more to work through in terms of how I have internalized the system of capitalism. But I have taken tangible steps to start to untangle these ingrained, damaging values. One of these steps is I have stopped using the word “productive” to describe how I spend my time. I have found that the concept of productivity controls the amount of self-satisfaction I feel. I use productivity as a litmus test to evaluate how my days are: days spent being “productive” mean days of which I can be proud, whereas the opposite results in a feeling of longing and almost regret. I have come to hate the word “productive” because of its ties to our capitalistic values. Stopping myself from using this word has slowly helped me grow as my own person and reconcile what should be important to me.
The onset of the pandemic has exposed the ways our higher education institutions also perpetuate and place emphasis on capitalistically inspired academic performances. Essentially, the way Tufts handled the fate of our academic futures was “business as usual,” to the detriment of students’ wellbeings, disproportionally so for students of color, those of low income backgrounds, those with first generation status, and those from unstable households. We were told to push through the pain, anxiety, and festering dread of uncertainty—that our work should hold precedence above all else.
Yes, learning is important. But the stress, labor, and emphasis we put on academic success, at the expense of our own wellbeing, points to a deeper societal problem. We shouldn’t feel that time not spent towards finding labor post-college or college work itself is time wasted. We must learn to balance, to deconstruct the values of capitalism and listen to our own bodies. We must heal.
to float, let my body rest
under cool water
and the sun
warming my shoulders