On Capitalism and Lilith’s Brood

Ever since the class we had where Beth broke our time into 15-minute segments, I’ve been trying to do this on my own. Ever since, I’ve noticed a huge increase in my productivity. I remember that when that class finished, Beth mentioned something along the lines of keeping in mind why we usually break our time into one or two hour sessions, and how capitalistic society encourages this. The success of my own experiment reminded me of the first time I ever consciously realized the depth to which I had internalized a negative capitalistic concept:

I had just graduated high school, and was out to dinner with an English teacher I had gotten especially close with. I mentioned to her my confusion over how to become a productive member of society. I was half-joking, though it was a topic I had a lot of anxiety about: my health at the time was very poor, to the point where I wasn’t capable of getting out of bed without significant pain and some assistance, and I didn’t see a future in which I would be able to contribute to our society. In response to my comment, my teacher told me that there was “no such thing as a productive member of society,” and it was just something I had been trained to think. She said that solely by existing I was contributing to the world just as much as lawyers or doctors. It made me reevaluate how I saw value, and why I saw it that way.

My teacher’s way of thinking is something I have to remind myself of constantly, as I’ve been conditioned to think that value comes only from physical product and economic contribution. I know now that this isn’t true, but still I find myself falling back into my worries about contribution, and when I catch myself, it makes me angry: I’m so accustomed to relying on a hierarchy that above all, I want to find my place in it. I then started thinking a lot about how hierarchy is intrinsic to well functioning capitalism, with its need for people to stay in their respective places so that the entire system functions. This hierarchical society we exist in teaches us that the level we are at determines our worth. Part of my growing discomfort with our societal values probably comes from my Human Contradiction – the urge I have for a hierarchy in which I can function, working against my intelligence that this way of existing isn’t better than simply being and thinking.

Hierarchy itself is a delicate thing; my Sociology 100 class taught me that people are more likely to revolt against their leaders when conditions are beginning to improve, than when they are consistently bad. Is this a sign of the Contradiction? Are we happy to function in a hierarchy when things stay the same, but intelligence of how things could be better leads us to revolution? And, more importantly, while grappling with these huge questions, how does it affect our lives on a personal level?

I met with Beth a few weeks ago and mentioned how for the majority of the semester, I felt less capable than others in class because of my status as a sophomore in such a high level course. She reminded me that my age does not discount my intellect; but still, (much in the way sub-adult ooloi are not taken seriously and simply humored), my place in the arbitrary levels the college assigns affects the confidence I have in my own abilities. Before I thought about this, I was content to feel less qualified because I have had ingrained into me the messages that these levels we are placed in – specifically in academia but also in society – are defining and definite. Similar to the harmful messages I had internalized about worth and productivity in society, I now realize I’ve been internalizing messages about my worth as a productive member of a classroom.

We have talked often about autonomy in this class, and I can’t help but thinking the productivity and intelligence that I believed to be healthy values were imposed upon me without my consent. I’ve come to realize that part of my journey in reclaiming some of my autonomy is in addressing what our capitalistic society has taught me, and how I can un-learn those messages I’ve absorbed.

In Lilith’s Brood I really identified with the struggle that the characters had in re-teaching themselves how to work together in their new world. They had to unlearn a lot of what capitalism teaches because the Oankali don’t operate under it (and because the government was completely destroyed). Certain things I noticed in the stories that we talked about in class as being very human things, such as the humans in Lilith’s settlement still wanting to grow their own food, even though there wasn’t a need for it with Lo’s ability to grow all of their food for them. Was stubbornness and want of self-reliance a piece of Lilith’s humanity in rebelling against the Oankali and reclaiming some autonomy? Or was it the thought that only by being able to contribute to their settlement would she have value? I believe it was a mix of both, which brings up the interesting point of how her situation and my situation are switched: her autonomy was only reclaimed by falling back on certain capitalistic messages, whereas mine is reclaimed by thinking critically about, and re-thinking them.

Capitalism is an inevitable facet in our lives when we live in the U.S., and I don’t think there is a way around the harmful things it teaches us (or any other of the bad things that come of it). I’m not trying to propose we tear down the state and national government as we know it, but I do think we need to start thinking more critically about how we see value and how our self worth is affected by the hierarchies we are forced to operate in.

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