The mafia is famous for running protection rackets. This usually consists of a mobster sauntering up to an unsuspecting resident or shopkeeper, making thinly veiled threats of violence from an ambient source, and then offering peace and security for a fee. A person is just going about their business when a powerful entity barges in, simultaneously creating a problem and selling the solution. The result is hell for ordinary people, easy money for gangsters.
You know who else does this? Capitalists.
Here’s an example: the pharmaceutical company Purdue started manufacturing OxyContin in 1996, claiming that it was non-addictive. For years, they knew that was a lie, but covered it up while pushing for reckless prescriptions and higher doses anyway.
After millions of people did in fact become addicted to OxyContin, opening the door for many to use and become addicted to heroin, the company’s board saw an opportunity. They started talking about expanding into the addiction treatment market to become an “end-to-end pain provider.” According to ProPublica, “Purdue executives discussed how its sales force could promote Narcan,” a drug used to treat overdoses, “to the same doctors who prescribed the most opioids.”
Barge in, cause problem, sell solution. Money in the bank.
Purdue took only minor steps to expand into new realms on “the pain and addiction spectrum,” as its billionaire owners the Sackler family proposed in a secret initiative codenamed Project Tango. Already facing mounting public scrutiny, perhaps the company feared the risk of blowback to their simultaneously making money off of creating addiction and making money off of creating treatments for that addiction.
But the fact that executives seriously considered it — during a time when, according to a lawsuit filed against the company by the state of Massachusetts, they were knowingly pushing an addictive drug on millions of people — is extraordinarily sinister.
Individual corporations doing this kind of thing sets off alarm bells for most people. But capitalists are engaged in an elaborate extortionary process at all times, and it’s entirely normalized. For every way that corporations can screw people, there is a remedy on on the market. The more screwed you are, the more money you have to shell out for these remedies — until you get to a point where you can’t afford anymore.
Let’s say you live in a city where the rents are skyrocketing, but wages are staying the same. In this scenario, your boss, your landlord, and the city’s real-estate interests are colluding to screw you for profit, though they may not be sitting in meetings together talking about how to pull it off like the Purdue Pharma board.
You’re just barely squeaking by when tragedy strikes. You get injured and go to the hospital. Even though you’re insured, you’re now saddled with an unexpected bill.
Without a single word exchanged between them, your health insurance company has just joined your employer, your landlord, and city developers in the grand conspiracy to give you a raw deal — and keep as much money for themselves as possible.
That’s the shot. Here’s the chaser: now you can’t afford rent this month. So you seek out a short-term loan, but the only people who make short-term loans to borrowers in your financial situation are payday lenders. Their entire business model is predicated on taking advantage of desperate people like you. They charge dangerously high interest rates, rates that would ruin you if you weren’t able to make good by deadline.
But you can’t think about that right now. You really have no choice if you don’t want to be evicted. So you take out a loan and pay your rent. Temporary relief.
But then the panic starts to set in again. You need to pay off the loan before things get ugly. So maybe you take a second job working the night-shift for minimum wage. Now you barely sleep, and a whole other company has just joined your first boss, your landlord, the city’s real-estate developers, the private insurance industry, and the payday lending industry in milking you for every penny and every hour of labor you can possibly give.
The capitalist class harasses the working class and demands it cough up money to prevent further harassment. But the harassment never really ends. It’s no different than extortion by the mob, except in this case the mobsters are not only operating legally but are actually guaranteed a seat at the table of government, as politicians in both parties openly cater to their whims and assure you daily that the interests of your tormentors are actually identical to your own.
The vision laid out in the Purdue lawsuit — billionaires sitting around a table plotting to throw people overboard, then sell them a liferaft — is stark and appalling. But it’s only a more condensed version of what the capitalist class does to working class all the time.
Purdue may get what’s coming to it as a result of this lawsuit. But no single lawsuit can take on all of society’s elites. That will require a radical economic transformation. In the end, only socialism can keep the gangsters at bay.