What galls us most about Mylan Pharmaceuticals’ inflating the price of the EpiPen to bursting is the stark image it presents of the fix we’re in. Like distant trees in a midnight flash of lightning, the hands of our corporate masters are for the moment seen clear as crystal squeezing a human throat.
Such flashes are really all around us and are to be discerned even in the soft clouds of the corporate press. From the privatization of public functions to the militarization of our police forces, the top one percent increasingly reveal themselves as a hostile camp. But in its brazen price gouging for a life-saving device that is prescribed for over 3.6 million Americans, Mylan has provided us an unmistakable metaphor—we are hostages.
We held hostage as consumers. The great lie of free market economics is that markets are self-regulating but that consumers can exercise free will in this deterministic system by voting with their wallets. In the most immediate sense, the EpiPen fiasco exposes this canard. A free market is anti-human and antisocial. OK, the market says, if the EpiPen is needed to save your child’s life in the event of an allergic reaction, let’s find out just how much your child’s life is worth to you. For those hostages who can scrape together the $600 out-of-pocket expense for a set of two pens, something else in the family budget must be sacrificed. For many families this sacrifice may be food security itself. Proponents of the system paint a picture of powerful consumers naturally governing the market by making their choices. In reality, these choices are Hobson’s choices, painful options among sacrifices.
But more than this, to be born into a market system is to be thrust into a venal world where all human endeavor is governed by the profit motive and where we are saturated in a language of advertising—a language of lies and misdirection. The choice that matters most in such a world is the one that is not presented in any store. That is, the choice to live a different kind of life in a different kind of world, one not bound by the brutal shell game of profit.
We are held hostage as workers. Trapped in a race to the bottom, we claw at each other as competitors for the crumbs scattered by our captors. Living in deindustrialized cities or impoverished rural towns, we try to provide for ourselves and our families with the pittances afforded by what the rulers call “casual” labor—part-time jobs, contract work, temporary positions. We lose our homes, we watch our children walking into a world that has no place and no hope for them. We turn in our despair and boredom to heroin and meth and alcohol. For those still in the middle class, the demands at work grow more intense while wages stagnate. (The recent “good news” of a rise in middle class income is a publicity stunt on the part of the ruling class, a one-year blip on a steady recessionary slide.) As opportunities for movement dry up, employers become captors we must appease no matter the demands at the risk of losing our jobs, the risk of dropping from the middle class altogether.
Only 6.7 percent of private-sector workers are unionized as of the 2015 Bureau of Labor Statistics report. The unions that do represent workers are comfortably in collusion with their industrial “adversaries” and regularly sell out their constituencies. One need only look at the recent contracts the United Auto Workers has imposed on American workers for evidence, with their concessions that include a two-tiered wage system that essentially undermines autoworkers as unionized labor altogether.
We are held hostage as citizens. In our cities, men—and increasingly women—are arrested in large numbers, often on on trumped-up charges, and put through a legal system that extorts plea bargains and delivers long sentences for nonviolent offenses. This mass incarceration is joined to an increasingly privatized prison-industrial complex where prisoners’ labor is rewarded with wages as low as .17 cents per hour.
In addition to this literal captivity, urban citizens find their school systems under attack by the movement, fully supported by the federal government, to hand over public education to charter schools.
This was done to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and it is now being perpetrated in Detroit under the nefarious auspices of an “emergency-manager” of the city’s beleaguered school system. And this scheme to siphon public funds upward will doubtless be coming to a school system near you.
Flint’s water, the most expensive in the country, is poisoned with lead. In fact, we have learned that water systems throughout the country are contaminated with lead. Citizens are told there is no money to right the situation. Yet the government finds endless waterfalls of cash—$5 trillion since 9/11—to shower upon the war industry in pursuit of the U.S.’s imperialist aims. Finally, it is war to which the captors intend to ties us after November’s presidential election. Preparations for massive escalations of the war in Syria are underway, but more ominous still are the preparations—military and political—being made for war with Russia and China, two nuclear powers.
In all these ways we are captives of the powerful. They hold our health, our freedom, our lives, our children’s lives in their hands, perpetually demanding their ransom. We cannot continue to pay. The price in every instance has become too steep. It is time to break free of this captivity, this abuse. Only by dispossessing our captors of our labor and lives and by claiming our rightful place as equal partners of each other in a democratic control of our resources can we hope to free ourselves. We are allergic to this system. It is killing us, and the only remedy is a genuine revolution. Because we will never get anywhere by appealing to the conscience of Mylan and our other captors. We are the ones with a conscience, and that conscience demands that we act.
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