Something is wrong in America. From income inequality to race relations, to climate and health crises, the symptoms are well-known.
To determine the cause of these crises, the culture instructs us to look within; that responsibility rests with the individual. But what if the actual source of our societal sickness derives from the society itself?
“The economic game is rigged,” Bernie Sanders told us in the recent presidential campaign. But for a vast majority of Americans, that wasn’t news, as labor wages have remained stagnant since the late 1970s, while cost of living has skyrocketed along with CEO salaries.
What if the underlying problem is capitalism itself? What if working class exploitation is key to capitalism’s success, as Marx identified back in the 19th Century?
While it’s tempting to look back to the New Deal era as a time when capitalism functioned favorably for working people, FDR’s economic policies were basically mechanisms to save capitalism from the rising calls to nationalize banking and other industries due to the free-wheeling financial excesses that led to the Great Depression.
While New Deal policies created an economy that worked for working people, the natural tendencies of capitalism to exploit labor and resources to generate capital remained constant. And by the mid-70s, those tendencies started to push back against New Deal policies in the creation of neoliberal, free market policies.
By the 80s, with the election of Ronald Reagan, neoliberal policies were tilting the chessboard back in favor of the capitalists; from labor unions to corporations; from progressive taxation to tax policies that favored the wealthy. And the trend has continued unabated through Republican and Democratic administrations, resulting in the outsourcing of jobs and financial deregulation that led to the Great Recession of 2008, and decimation of America’s middle class.
While neoliberal economic policies have been the ideology underlying America’s vast suffering, it’s unlikely you’ll hear the term mentioned in mainstream media, academia or politics. The idea is to put the onus on the individual through institutionalized programs of mindfulness and positivity, for example, to stave off calls for nationalization of essential services. It’s my goal to bring the awareness of neoliberalism to the foreground.
It’s in that spirit I created the I Am Mannequin photo series. While I’ve been writing about the impacts on the individual from neoliberal economic policies for some time, it’s through my images of storefront mannequins trapped behind glass, with the outside world reflected, but out of reach, that finally give the discussion visual impact. Through this lens, anyone dependent on wages for economic survival in today’s America is a mannequin.
My goal is to develop this project into a teaching tool, in the form of a short documentary and book, to educate those trapped behind the glass about the injustice being perpetrated upon them, and that their plight is not of their doing, but of a system that capitalizes on the exploitation of humanity.
I’ll be posting essays in this space that will ultimately accompany the images in the book and documentary. I invite you to stay tuned.
To view the complete collection of I Am Mannequin images, click here.
To chip in to the GoFundMe effort to bring this project to fruition, click here.