how we relate:
patterns of extractive capitalism in our personal relationships, and what skin and mitochondria can teach us about interdependence and liberation
If we are hoping to create systemic change, we must also create change at the individual level. All of us create culture: culture is alive, and we breathe new life into it every day with the cumulative force of our seemingly insignificant actions. Social change is cultural change. Cultural change is created in large organized movements, yes. Cultural change is also created in the many ways we tend and relate with one another every day.
How we tend to our relationships, whether intimate or professional, casual or committed, will have an effect on the system as a whole. Change is a fractal, as adrienne maree brown teaches in Emergent Strategy, rippling from small and interpersonal to large and systemic. Change must begin at the individual level. It cannot end there, but it must begin there. How we nurture and tend to our personal relationships is an essential part of the efforts we must engage in to dismantle oppressive systems.
The United States is founded in capitalism, we know this. But in particular, the United States is rooted in extractive capitalism: the focused effort to extract wealth from one class to benefit another class. For extractive capitalism to function, classism must exist: there must be the ruling upper classes that exploit working lower classes.
Extractive capitalism depends on strict borders between classes. The upper classes require a very clear and fortified boundary between themselves and the lower classes to leverage inequality and amass wealth. These aren’t new observations. Marx wrote extensively about this, and others have written extensively about Marx.
Global extractive capitalism requires militarized borders between countries to maintain class distinction between countries: the wealth of upper classes in the so-called developed nations not only depends on the lower class workers of those same nations, but also on the working class citizens of the so-called undeveloped nations, or the “third world” to use the title that diminishes these countries and places them as less valuable and valued than the countries that profit from them, literally implying they inhabit a different world than our own.
The narrative of extractive capitalism wants us to believe it’s a lack of work ethic or mismanagement of resources leading some individuals and some countries to be poor while other individuals and countries are rich; in fact it is the resources, both human and ecological, of the poorest that create the wealth of the richest. It is a violent system, it is part of the foundation of white supremacy, and it has covered the ground in blood many hundreds of times over.
From a human perspective, it can be difficult to understand why developed nations are so obsessed with militarized borders. From the perspective of extractive capitalism, however, it makes all the sense in the world. The wealth of the few requires the poverty of the masses. It’s that simple.
Radical change must begin with the individual and expand outward to systemic level. And so part — not all, but a crucial part — of resisting the violence of extractive capitalism and its militarized, restrictive borders is examining how we mimic the patterns of extractive capitalism in our relationships.
Where do we limit access in a way we might call protection, but is actually rooted in a need to maintain dominance? Where do we try and amass power by extracting it from others? Where do we confuse control with love? Where are we hyper-focused on the transactions of a relationship — the tit-for-tat of keeping score and winning point?
How can we instead nurture our mutual wellbeing?
Boundaries aren’t the problem. Merging or a false claim of unity doesn’t honor the truth of variation and the ways life exists not in spite of, but because of differences. We’re multi-celled organisms. We exist quite literally because millennium ago when the first eukaryotic cell evolved, a boundary was held and honored. Boundaries are sacred. Boundaries give life.
The skin, our largest organ, is a boundary. We often call it our greatest defense against the world, but defense is the language of war and battles. The skin is our container, protecting us by keeping us in relationship with the world.
The skin, like all membranes, is semi-permeable. Meaning, it lets some things travel freely across its border, and holds a clear “no” to others. The skin, and all semi-permeable membranes, is adaptable: as the needs of the whole and the needs of the individual shift, the membrane shifts accordingly. This, for example, is why you sweat in the heat, but not in the cold. The skin adapts, makes the most nourishing choice in the present moment, and is ready to shift again when needed.
The skin is a membrane we can see and touch, but each of our trillions of cells has these semi-permeable, adaptable membranes. It’s how the body speaks to itself, it’s how our body converses with the world around us.
Semi-permeable membranes allow these trillions of individual cells to create trillions upon trillions of relationships. You are here because trillions of individuals — your cells — have developed ways of living in interdependent relationships with one another.
Within each of these trillions of cells is an incredible example of what is possible when the exchanges necessary for life to exist are free from the restrictions of transactional models: the mitochondria.
Mitochondria are organelles — small organs within each of your trillion cells. The mirochondria generate Adenosine Triphosphate, or ATP, which is the essential energy of all cells — the energy of life itself.
Mitochondria generate ATP and transfer that energy within the cell and between all the cells of the body. I am able to write these words because the mitochondria have made this possible. You are right now able to read this because the mitochondria in your body has made this possible. Everything that is, everything that has been, everything that will ever be is because of these mitochondria and the ATP they create. It’s the stuff of magic, and it exists right now trillons of times over, in your pulsing, breathing, perfectly imperfect body.
Recent scientific discoveries show mitochondria not only create the energy exchanged between cells, but they themselves are capable of moving between cells: mitochondria move to where they are needed to nourish the greater good of the whole. Coming as they do down through the matriarchal line, down through all the many ovaries life has passed through, we could say they are doulas, facilitating change, nourishing life, trillions and trillions and trillions of times over again in each of us, in every living being.
The body understands interdependence. Right now, within your own body, if there is a cell in need of aid another cell is reaching out to offer what it can, in the form of energy or oxygen or hormones or mitochondria ready to facilitate what is needed. The body does this because the body is based in mutual interdependence.
Extractive capitalism withholds access and accumulates power, justifying the suffering of many at the hands of a privileged few. We need alternatives to the violence of this system, and we need those alternatives at a global scale. It’s helpful to remember extractive capitalism is an idea: humans made it up. Ursula LeGuin taught us it can seem inevitable because for many of us it’s all we’ve ever known, but it’s an entirely fabricated system with absolutely no basis in the natural world. It was imagined, and this means alternative systems are imaginable. The effects of capitalism — the enormous human suffering and catastrophic environmental degradation — these effects are real. But the system itself is based on ideas.
We carry examples of alternatives to extractive capitalism in each of our cells. The body holds the answers our minds are searching for: relationships that are adaptable and aware of the importance relationships between the wellbeing of the greater whole and the wellbeing of the individual.
Mitochondria offer an example of what it means to shift resources to areas that have been harmed. Healing from the violence of white supremacy and all related systemic oppression includes shifting resources to communities and areas harms by these violent systems. Humans built the systems of extractive capitalism and white supremacy, humans are responsible for destroying them and returning to what the body has always known: life exists because of differences, not in spite of them, and life exists in mutuality, not in domination.
Extractive capitalism feeds white supremacy and all oppressive systems. These violent systems are fed by all the many ways we relate to and with one another. The mitochondria, microscopic doulas of change and life at the cellular level can also teach us how systems rooted in mutual wellbeing are not only possible, they’re the very foundation of life itself.
Times are urgent. We need different ways of being in relationship with the world. Thankfully, our body has the answers our minds are desperately looking for. Our task then, is to remember what the body has never forgotten. And as we remember, we must act.