It’s better to be poor in the U.S. than to live in a Communist country, right?

Right, and it’s better to be dead than Red!

All kidding aside, this common assumption is supposed to give people living in the U.S. the comforting thought that we live in the best of all possible worlds – the richest, the most righteous, and most of all, most free. Even if you’re poor, you’re so lucky, because we have freedom.

But to accept that idea is to sidestep the question about what makes us – and others – poor. It doesn’t bother to define what freedom is, or for whom.

The people of the world all want the same basic things: economic security and the freedom to make our own cultural choices about how we live. Neither capitalist nor previously existing communist countries have been able to deliver on either of those simple desires. Many of us believe that a new way to arrange an economy and a political system is possible. Another world is possible.

But only if we ask the right questions.

Let’s begin at the beginning. If you were a Native American within the expanding boundaries of the U.S. after 1776, you didn’t consider yourself “poor,” even if you lived at subsistence level from year to year; you were living the life your tribe had lived for generations. Your culture respected not the person with the most stuff, but the one who gave the most away. You didn’t hunt or farm individually, but as a tribe. No one owned the land; how could a person own it, when s/he didn’t make it?

Hmm, sounds like you were kind of living a communist life!

But the folks who invented the U.S. thought that was crazy; at least that was their excuse when they murdered your people and broke their own treaties to get your land. You learned what it was to be poor when you lost your access to the natural resources you depended on for food, clothing and shelter, when you were considered too “primitive” to manage the land “reserved” for you, when even reservation land was divided into individual plots against your cultural practices, and when the rights to oil and minerals under your land were given to white businessmen.

Today, due to this history, many tribal communities are among the poorest in the U.S. Have they been more free than people in communist countries?

Pine Ridge Reservation

Remember that the United States was founded with slavery intact. If you were African, not only were you here against your will, but you were also considered inhuman, a commodity – poor by definition. Before the Civil War, the South was the richest region, and most of the privately held wealth took the form of enslaved people. Even after emancipation, if you had the luck to gain access to any property so you could be free to work for yourself, you were not protected by the law.

In fact, the less poor you were, the more you were endangered; white folks didn’t like “uppity” black folks who had the nerve not to be poor. In 1921, the flourishing Black section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was burned to the ground and the people run out of town, and no law was invoked to punish the wrongdoers or to compensate the African-American community for what they lost.

Laws created to build a white middle class, such as Social Security, did not at first apply to blacks. So, if you’re African-American, a negative balance sheet is your “inheritance.” You are still three times as likely as a white American to live under the poverty line, twice as likely to be unemployed, six times as likely to be incarcerated, twice as likely to be sentenced to death.

Two and a half centuries of legal and illegal racist practices keep some people poor because of the color of their skin. As W.E.B. Dubois, the great philosopher and activist wrote, “Being a poor man is hard, but being a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardship.” There is no individual freedom when you are treated differently due to your race.

Poverty is deepening in countries around the world, too.

In India, if you are a small rice farmer, you will know that thousands are impossibly indebted to agribusinesses like Monsanto, from whom you must buy patented seeds and pesticides. If you are a small corn farmer in Mexico, you may have made a living in the past, but you too have become poor after free trade agreements have allowed cheaper U.S. corn to invade your markets. The rich are getting richer by impoverishing people around the globe.

Capitalism depends, first of all, on the theft and control of natural resources from indigenous people around the world. Next, they control the working class through divide and conquer tactics, by giving advantages to some workers over others, such as white workers over workers of color. Then, mayhem happens among workers, while Nero fiddles and amasses more wealth. Individual capitalists steal and cheat others out of their money, like the bankers who sold dreams and mortgages to those they knew couldn’t afford them, the Wall Street moguls who invented new gambling games where they held all the cards, and the Walton brood who pay such low wages to Wal-mart workers that the rest of us cover their Medicaid.

Capitalist governments also make the world safe for companies to force their products on other nations through “free” trade agreements that destroy small farmers, and through loans that require the dismantling of public services for the poor. These bargains strip the populations of developing nations of economic stability and the liberty to make personal and cultural choices. The freedom of consumer choice that some of us in the U.S. enjoy is actually subsidized by the misery of millions, within this country and around the world.

Capitalism makes 99% of the world’s people poor, with the U.S. leading the wolf pack, and freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

Better to be poor under capitalism than live in a communist country? The answer is not so obvious after all.

Meizhu Lui

About Meizhu Lui

Meizhu Lui is a founding member of Freedom Road Socialist Organization. She is the co-author of The Color of Wealth: the Story Behind the U.S. Racial Wealth Divide. Her views have also appeared in mainstream news media such as the Washington Post, CNN, and Politico.com. She describes herself as a “professional troublemaker!”
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