One of the hallmarks of capitalism is the exploitation of human labor.
Its roots can be traced back to slavery and the triangular Atlantic Slave Trade. (Note: this was all happening on stolen land.)
After the abolition of the slave trade, the industrial revolution relied on low-wage workers under poor working conditions (including the continued exploitation of freed slaves) until labor movements won the hard-earned basic rights that we have today.
However, the story does not stop there. While citizens of post-industrial developed nations may feel like capitalism has done its job in terms of achieving a relatively “high standard of living” for the majority of the population — which is debatable — that is only possible because low-wage labor was outsourced to the Global South.
The strategy of “out of sight, out of mind” gives the illusion that capitalism is benefiting everyone when it clearly does not … and never has.
That’s the case even before we examine how much exploitation happens in Western countries today. The cracks are showing as rising living costs coupled with stagnant wages have revealed how untenable this whole system is.
The reality is, we live in a world where the exploitation of workers is the norm. It’s a feature, not a bug. The system is working exactly as intended.
This is a complex topic. There are layers to this, and it would take volumes to explain the whole history of exploitation under capitalism.
For the purposes of this article, we’d like home in on one thing in particular: the idea that things should be free on the internet.
People expect things to be free on the internet
The tech world has normalized the expectation that most things online should be free.
But there is always an ulterior motive to “free.”
Here are a few common examples we might encounter online:
- When we aren’t paying for products via our money, often we are selling our data and access to our attention. To companies like Facebook and Google, we are the product that they sell to advertisers. Meanwhile, we are expected to create the content that actually keeps people on these platforms (for free).
- In the freemium model that’s common with software services, businesses offer their product/services for free (commonly, a trial period or limited product features) in order to “hook” people into becoming a paying customer. This is enabled by investors who pump money into startups that are directed to grow fast and not to worry about making money. These businesses don’t actually have a viable business model in the short term. They operate on the hope of monetizing their audience in the future. Sometimes, that works. It can also crash and burn.
- Many online businesses use free offerings like lead magnets or communities as a way to generate leads.
A “free” internet might work for big corporations because they have the advantage of scale, but it hurts the average person.
Just think of all the content creators online who are expected to publish their work for free on platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok, or via their own newsletters and websites. The largest accounts might be able to make money via ad money or support from patrons, but the vast majority of people don’t see a cent.
View counts, website traffic, subscribers, and followers don’t pay the bills.
Why this matters + what we can do
As long as we live under capitalism — where access to food, housing, healthcare, leisure, and everything we need to live well is contingent on money — everyone should be fairly compensated for their labor.
Ideally, we would abolish wage work. Everyone would contribute as they are able, and we would take care of everyone in society based on need. (It would help deal with climate change too!)
In the meantime, implementing policies like a living wage as minimum wage, universal basic income, shorter work weeks, and adequate paid/sick/parental leave would go a long way towards having a more equitable society.
We need to do what we can to make sure all labor is compensated for, monetarily or otherwise.
Beyond that, we want to move towards a world where all work is recognized and valued.
So what can we do alongside working for systemic change?
Individual actions alone won’t change the world, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do what we can, when we are able.
What we decide to do with our money can have a significant impact on people’s lives. For example, being discerning with our discretionary money could make a difference. What could this looks like?
- Many of us have favorite YouTube channels where we spend as much time as we do on Netflix. We’re not saying cancel your Netflix, but give equal consideration to supporting an independent creator on Patreon.
- Buy books from your local bookstore instead of Amazon, if you are able.
- Participate in mutual aid!
This isn’t a concrete checklist to tick off, but some examples to serve as inspiration.
Don’t shame yourself (or each other) for having a Netflix account or reading on your Kindle.
These actions won’t save the world, but they are individual acts of rebellion that might make a difference in someone else’s life and help shift our culture towards abundance rather than scarcity.
For business owners and marketers, it’s important to realize that ethical marketing doesn’t exist independently in a vacuum.
“How we sell” is just one part of “how we do business.”
Running a business means interrogating every aspect of it, and rooting out any expressions of exploitation and oppression you can find. For example, an organization can’t claim to practice ethical marketing if it also exploits its workers.
That means paying a living wage at a minimum. (And much more when possible.)
The Ethical Move Community will be a paid offering
The Ethical Move Community will open in July 2022.
To us, the community is the work.
Over the course of The Ethical Move’s existence, we’ve learned so much. As we’ve discussed before, we want to do things differently.
We don’t want to be the arbiters of what is ethical or not. (No one has that power.)
Yes, we are happy to show up as mentors and guides when appropriate. But we are also aware that there’s much we don’t know. There is much we aren’t qualified to speak about.
There’s infinite wisdom in the world, and it does not come from any one person. Little bits of it come from each and every one of us. We must listen to — and hear — each other, primarily those whose voices are, and have been, marginalized.
What we can do is hold space for those who share our aspirations. To do the work to invite more people into the conversation. To facilitate connections between one another. To support each other on this journey.
The community isn’t a marketing funnel for a bigger offer that we hope to sell to you. You’re not signing up to be a “lead.”
The work we do in this container is the point. There is no ulterior purpose.
This space is where we’ll support each other as we learn how to change the way we sell, the way we do business, and, ultimately, how we can work towards collective liberation, together.
It is our full intention to nurture this space into a thriving community — not to use it as a means to an end.
To do this, this has to be a paid offering so that we can pay our team for their time, energy, expertise, work, and emotional labor.
It would not be sustainable for The Ethical Move to continue to operate with a team of volunteers.
Even though all current team members volunteered willingly, it would be unsustainable for us, as individuals, to continue this in the long-run unless we are paid fairly for our work.
Organizationally, it would become unethical to rely on churning through new and “fresh” volunteers to keep this work going, especially as one of our goals as the “stewards” of The Ethical Move is to build a truly diverse team.
We recognize that this movement MUST be led by those who are marginalized, folks who are disabled, BIPOC, queer, neurodiverse, and/or from the Global South.
And all of those future collaborators should be properly compensated for their contributions.