How Capitalism Colonized My Life

There once was a king who wanted to make a realistic map of his kingdom. He hired the best cartographer in town to make a map with a 1:1 ratio of the land. After the map was finished, the king ordered the map to be laid out so that the people can see it’s magnificence. And the map was truly magnificent. It captured every detail of the kingdom and people were in awe of its realisticness. However, many months after the unveiling, people got used to living on top of the map. They forgot that the roads and the directions were not originally there. They did not care enough to think of the land underneath the map. The map became a part of everyday life. Many years later, a new generation of citizens continue to live on the map. Some have been told folklore of the days the map did not exist. Others, don’t know anything about the old land. The map became life.

Ethiopia is the only country that was never colonized by the Europeans. I grew up hearing that everywhere from my parents, my teachers, the internet, everywhere. We serve as the bastion of African independence and resistance. So, why do I feel so powerless when I was born in the only independent nation in Africa?

Colonization takes many forms. The first is the one that immediately pops into your head when you hear the word: imperialism. Imperialism had such a devastating world-wide effect that it overshadows other forms of colonization. In his book The Theory of Communicative Action, Jurgen Habermas describes a different kind of colonization. Although the ego tricks us into believing we only live one life, we actually exist in many different worlds. The most primitive and essential one is the lifeworld. The lifeworld is the given world that we all experience. It’s collective, universally present, inter-subjective, and grounds all the other created worlds. This is the world where we tell jokes, walk through nature, have late-night philosophical discussions, and cry over pain. We spend the majority of our childhood in the lifeworld until we head off to school. Education is not part of the lifeworld. It belongs to a different world called the system world. The system world contains all the structures that humans have built across time. It includes education, the government, the economy, the military, and many others. We create the system world to make the lifeworld easier to enjoy and understand. For example, it would be almost impossible to have a democratic government if we had to gather everyone in a state to vote on every issue, every day. So, we designate power to qualified people to deal with these problems for us. However, this power can corrupt and something insidious can creep into our lifeworld. When this happens, someone needs to stand up and take communicative action against it.

Capitalism is the all-reaching colonizer that affects almost every single person in the lifeworld. While I can’t speak for the textile workers in Bangladesh or the migrant farmers in California, I can tell you my story. Capitalism first entered my life when I was three months old. That’s when my mother left her husband and her infant to pursue “a better life” in the US. For the first seven years of my life, I saw her maybe three or four times. But, the money she sent back to us tried to make up for her absence. Because of her sacrifice, I always had a house, food on the table, and a private education that stimulated my young mind. However, no amount of money can make up the cost of family. So, in 2005, my father and I packed our bags and the only life we knew to move to California. I wish I could tell you this was our happy ending but it’s just the beginning of the story.

California is ridiculously expensive. Almost impossible to live in, expensive. What’s worse is that we live in the Bay Area, one of the most wealth concentrated regions in the US. On one side, we have the rich techies that work for Google, Amazon, Facebook and live in Los Gatos or Palo Alto. On the other, we have countless homeless and starving people sleeping on the cold streets. Coming to the US, this was life for me. There was nothing else I could compare it to, nothing else that was “normal”. This wealth inequality followed me home into our family. My mother, who used to be a nurse in Ethiopia, has been working as a Certified Nurse Assistant for 20 years. There’s nothing wrong with that except she’s had two full-time jobs for 20 years. On average, she works 16-hour shifts four or five times a week. Still, with all this work, we were still barely making it during my first years in America. As a seven-year-old, I couldn’t really understand why my mother would not be home for the majority of the day. When she was home, she was either sleeping or too tired to make a meaningful relationship with her estranged daughter. As a precocious child, I tried my very best to not make living any harder than it was, which was too much to ask in a seven-year-old. I never asked for new toys, I kept my baby brother from waking up my mom for food, and I didn’t make a fuss while being transported back and forth from our babysitter’s house. Life was hard, confusing, and messy for everyone in my family. But, we never had time to heal from our pain because the demands of capitalism are life or death. So we marched on, suffering silently.

After working as a night security guard for a number of years, my father realized that he was not using his skills wisely enough to support his family. My father is the smartest person I know. He was the manager of a bank in Addis Ababa and forced me to learn set theory during summer after 7th grade (thanks Dad, didn’t appreciate it then but I do now). He enrolled in a technical college and found a job as a lab technician at a prominent Bay Area hospital. Things started to get better, but not good enough for my mom to quit any of her jobs. After a number of years, we settled into a dull routine, with the system world running our daily schedules. My mom would come home at 7 am from her graveyard shift, my brother and I would get ready for school, my mom would drop us off and go to sleep, she would pick us up after school, go to her day job while my brother and I waited for my father to get home, we would make dinner, my mom would show up at 7 pm for her lunch break (we’d watch Jeopardy as a family), we would continue to live in our lifeworld while she headed to her graveyard shift at 11 pm, and repeat. Every day, repeat. Then, I went to college.

University is interesting because it contains both the lifeworld and the system world. There are professors and peer advisors and tests and deadlines and papers. But, there are also friends and partying and dorm food and fun. Moving away from my parents didn’t stop capitalism from packing itself along with my shower caddy and fairy lights. As a first generation student, I cringed every time I told my parents how much each quarter would cost them. Growing up seeing my mom work twice as hard as any other parent, I felt guilty for draining the bank account she sacrificed her lifeworld time to work for. As soon as I got the hang of academics, I applied for a part-time job in the dining hall so I didn’t have the rely on my parents for pocket money. But, growing up the way I did, I didn’t know I had developed a money disorder.

Let’s take a little break from philosophy and head towards my other love: psychology. A money disorder is defined as “a persistent pattern of self-destructive and self-limiting financial behaviors”. There are many different kinds of money disorders but the one I developed was the hoarder. Ask anyone who really knows me, whether it be my close friends or my family, I am a cheapskate. I would rather peel my skin off than spend any amount of money on anything. You might be thinking, well that sounds like a good money disorder to have, at least you’re saving money and not wasting it. But, that’s not necessarily true. See, money disorders often have their roots in early childhood experiences with wealth. People with money hoarding personalities were usually victims of childhood poverty. Now that they have a little bit of money (or even a lot of money because money disorders don’t end after a certain income), they can’t spend it. Every time I use my card or give someone cash, I’m one more transaction away from being in that place of despair and helplessness again. Money disorders don’t rely on reason or logic, they rely on fear. They rely on colonization. When I moved to college, my lifeworld was consumed by capitalism. When I needed new clothes or new shoes that didn’t hurt my feet, I wouldn’t buy them. I checked my bank balance on my app multiple times a day (even days when I didn’t spend anything, just in case). It took me hours to decide what to eat because I didn’t want to waste my money if I made a bad decision. I was anxious, depressed, indecisive, and constantly thinking about my impending doom. My lifeworld sucked.

So, what changed? Carnival.

Carnival in the Netherlands is supposed to be a magical time. Since I decided to study abroad in Maastricht, I was looking forward to the days where I can get drunk with thousands of other costumed people, it’s like Halloween but for a whole week. Little did I know that carnival had something else in store for me. Instead of a week full of booze and happiness, it was filled with loss and resilience. Instead of adventures and travel in Eastern Europe, I had solitude and reflection. And before I even begin telling this story, I want to let you know that this one actually does have a happy ending. But first, let’s go to the start: Friday, March 1st, 2019.

The first day of March was probably the best day of March. My best friend from Utrecht was visiting my city to see the carnival phenomena, my study abroad friends were gearing up to celebrate, and I was on top of the world. After the pregame at my spacious dorm room, we decide to hit the town. At this point, I was pretty drunk which led to this lapse of reasoning: instead of taking some cash and my phone in my bag, I decided to bring my phone, my wallet, and my passport that was inside my wallet. Obviously, a stupid mistake but still, just a mistake. The night rages on and I’m having an excellent time with my old friend and my new ones. As we wind down around 4 am, I came to the realization that I didn’t have my phone anymore. As phone theft is common in the Netherlands, I was slightly upset but didn’t think too much of it (I also had the phone for 5 years making the loss a little easier). However, that was only part of the damage.

When I woke up the next morning, the first thing I noticed was the blood in my mouth. I run to the mirror to see my busted lip. Under my fat lips were two chipped teeth. After dealing with the shock of this discovery, I begin to start locating my things as I often do after a night out. My going out mantra is “If I didn’t lose anything, it wasn’t that much fun anyway”. However, I had too much fun on Friday night because not only did I lose the phone I realized the night before, but I had also lost my wallet which included my cash, cards, passport, and all other ways of identifying myself. I was no one.

During that fateful week, I lost all my connection to the system world. I had no money, no school, no friends (because they were traveling), no citizenship, no name. It was uncanny. I was still myself but I had no way of proving I was myself, the only life I had was the lifeworld. To make matters worse (or better in the context of this story), my WiFi was down so I had to walk all the way to the city center in order to connect my laptop to the world out there.

Thankfully, after a week, someone had found my wallet with almost everything in it (to the person who stole my 80 euros, I don’t blame you, your integrity has been compromised by the system world). I bought a cheap phone, I got my teeth fixed, and I had all my cards and passport back. Although I had mostly a bad week during Carnival, I met some amazing Dutch people on Sunday that gave me a sticker. It said Slecht Gaan Gaat: Bad Going is Still Going. I realized all those things I lost were utterly meaningless in the lifeworld. I existed and I didn’t have to prove it to anyone. We can exist the way we want to but we all live on a map. A map of society that we create for ourselves. A map with cellphones, and debit cards, and cash, and passports, and flights, and travel plans, and everything. But, we also exist off the map. We exist in nature and as nature. Our existence in the lifeworld is essential, our existence in the system world is contingent.

Capitalism embeds it’s messages deep in our brains, making us think that it’s necessary. But it’s not. At least not in the way it exists today. If the system we created doesn’t represent the wants of the public, if the system we created harms the needs of the public, if the system we created invades and colonizes our lifeworld, it’s time to fix it.

Like I said before, this is just one story of a 20-year-old Ethiopian immigrant and how capitalism colonized her life. There’s also the homeless man who can’t get help for his schizophrenia because of funding. Or the wealthy son of the venture capitalist who never sees his father because he’s always on business trips. Or the child actor whose innocence was exploited by Hollywood to make a couple of bucks and now we make fun of for going off the deep end. Or my high school teachers who have to fight to live educating the nation’s children. Or the politician that just sold her constituents and planet to the lobbyist.

It’s time to redraw our map.

An Ethiopian immigrant, philosopher, psychologist, comedian extraordinaire