Comics Bulletin: ‘Captalism Must Die!’ doesn’t pull any punches
by John Yohe
June 4, 2014
The subtitle to Captalism Must Die! doesn’t pull any punches. Artist/writer Stephanie McMillan’s latest book is “A basic introduction to capitalism, what it is, why it sucks, and how to crush it.” ‘Nuff said?
This is not, like McMillan’s previous books, a narrative with sequential art, which may disappoint fans (I confess, it did me at first). Instead, it’s a more text-heavy non-fiction book explaining capitalism and class theory, interspersed with one-page cartoons that serve as ‘in other words’ visual explanations of McMillan’s at times jargon-y text. Also as necessary pauses, breaths, and laughs.
Early on, McMillan states that she’s not trying to write an academic-sounding text, but rather something that’s accessible and easily understandable. The problem is that she’s dealing with Theory-with-a-capital-T: that is, what is known in academic/university circles as Marxist theory, but is called by people who actually try to live it as ‘class theory’ and/or ‘proletarian theory,’ and therefore the use of some academic-y terminology is inevitable, and therefore maybe a little intimidating and/or the cause of eye-rolling to casual readers.
A basic example is when she uses the word proletariat. I think most people have a general sense of what it means: working class and/or poor people. But, when McMillan writes a sentence like, “The proletariat is the only class able to offer an alternative to capitalism,” while true, it verges on sounding overly righteous. For the record, I agree with her—I just think language like this (which may sound normal within class theory circles) can be off-putting: sounds great preaching to the choir, but people on the street (even though they are proletarians) might tend to back away, and cross to the other side of the street.
On that note, I’ll suggest something to readers that I learned at St. John’s College: when reading a text, always avoid the introductions. Just proceed on to the text and don’t let anyone, including the author, tell you how to read it. The quote in the previous paragraph comes from McMillan’s intro, where she’s at her most slogan-y. Not to mention the anonymously (and supposedly collectively) written intro by somebody at publisher INIP, which is super pretentious.
Again, I’m not disagreeing with McMillan, but her strength is in her art, her comics, and her humor, her satire, and the main text is where this comes out. Or rather, again, in her cartoons: All my favorite characters from previous books like The Minimum Security Chronicles: Resistance To Ecocide and As The World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial, make appearances, especially Bunnista, the one-eyed radical activist bunny (he lost an eye from being experimented on in a cosmetics testing lab).
My wish is that McMillan had kept with her sequential art format for this book. Not as a narrative story, but still as explanation. I wonder/suspect if McMillan doesn’t think it’s possible, or perhaps appropriate do so, but I know it is, because it’s been done: Marxism For Beginners, by Rius, the first of the (mostly great) For Beginners graphic novel line of non-fiction texts, was a classic when it came out, and still is.
McMillan though, fifty years later, is going for a bigger picture, and/or feels a greater sense of urgency. She’s telling us, “No really, the shit’s going down, right now!” Are you concerned about climate change? Concerned about immigration? Concerned about corporate control of mainstream media? Concerned about gun violence?About fracking? About student debt? About credit car debt? About the housing bubble? All of these issues, and more besides, have their roots in capitalism, in its exploitation of workers, and its basic (unrealistic) need for unlimited resources in order to ‘work’ (and by ‘work’ it’s still based on using the labor of workers to enrich the rich.) Also, whereas Rius just explained the Marxist critique of capitalism, McMillan does that and goes farther by also offering suggestions on things we can do, right now, in Part 2 of Capitalism Must Die!.
My response to capitalism has mostly been that of my literary hero, Charles Bukowski, who’s writing is all about the rejection of the supposed American Dream, in which, if you work hard, you’ll become successful and make money. Bukowski, in writing about lower class (ie proletariat) life, saw capitalism as inevitable, but that there is a certain freedom in giving the Bartelby shrug of “I’d prefer not to.” That is, you can play the game, and work when you have to, and kind of slip through the cracks and, as long as you don’t care about having a new plasma-screen tv, you’re ok. Also, as long as you know your labor is being exploited (which Bukowski was very aware of), you, or Bukowski’s characters, just don’t work hard, or hardly at all.
But McMillan would respond that it’s not a game. And, she’s right. I’m less concerned about WalMart workers being exploited (though I should be) than about, say, the fact that “93 percent of all large ocean fish” are gone (!), or that fracking is actually being sold to us as viable because we continue think of oil and gas as an unlimited resources, and can’t even conceive of the idea of using less power. But, again, these things are all related: they’re all driven by corporations’ need to make profits.
A book like Capitalism Must Die! makes me want to be less of a Bartelby, and more of a Bunnista. I almost hesitate to recommend it to new readers of McMillan, and instead might suggest starting with The Minimum Security Chronicles: Resistance To Ecocide and As The World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial, where the satire is rampant and biting. But I see this book as McMillan wanting to step back from comics a little bit, in order to offer a clear explanation of what informed those stories. And, to offer some Real World solutions. Though the cartoons are still the best part. Capitalism Must Die! is not a story, but a reference book. Or, a handbook. For the coming Revolution. You’ll want a copy when it comes. Maybe you could participate.