Voices: Sorry to burst your bubble but Beyoncé’s ‘anti-capitalist’ anthem isn’t what you think it is

·5-min read
Beyonce performs in 2011 (Getty Images)
Beyonce performs in 2011 (Getty Images)

I have some upsetting news. Beyoncé is a capitalist. I know, I was as shocked as you that the woman who once received $2 million to perform for the son of Muammar Gaddafi is a devotee of our exploitative economic system. (To her credit, she later said she donated the money.) But it’s worth mentioning today as Bey positions herself as just one of the proletariat, releasing what is the biggest workers’ anthem since Dolly Parton poured herself a cup of ambition.

“Break My Soul” is a fantastic song. It has a great beat and a message which will no doubt resonate with many people. It certainly resonated with me. “Now, I just fell in love/And I just quit my job/I’m gonna find a new drive/Damn, they work me so damn hard,” she sings. And honestly, I’ve never found her more relatable than in that verse.

You see, at the end of 2019, I finally quit my job in the mortgage industry to pursue writing full-time. After eight years of misery, I was free. It is the best decision I ever made. Giving up the unrelenting grind of corporate life, I fled the cage that was my office for a career that is stimulating, challenging, and fulfilling. I’ve never been happier.

If you can pull a Skylar or a Beyoncé and quit your crappy job, do it! I fully support anyone breaking free of the corporate-capitalist trap and finding their bliss where they can. Life is too short for work to be meaningless and miserable. I think even the most strident capitalist would agree with that, at least in theory — or at least for themselves.

There is a problem with this framing, though. Quitting my job was a risky bet on myself, one that I was only able to make because of certain privileges. They weren’t many, but they made all the difference. To begin with, I had grandparents who were willing to let me move in with them, rent-free, while I built my business. Not everyone will have that luxury, and rent doesn’t pay itself.

I already had some success in media. I’d been writing for the Independent on and off for three years by that point, and I had bylines at other major publications. I had the college education, the network, and the social and cultural capital to make a success of myself. I fought hard for all of that, which is one reason it took me until my mid-30s to make the leap to full-time freelancing. Still, acknowledging the benefits of having my education and my contacts is necessary because without them I never would have succeeded, and indeed many very talented writers don’t because they lack one or more of these privileges.

Therefore, when heard through the ears of the working poor, “Break My Soul” sounds like just another middle-class platitude rather than an anthem for our times. How could it not? Beyoncé, after all, is hardly the working poor. She grew up in a life of relative affluence, the daughter of a sales executive and a salon owner. “I didn’t grow up poor,” she once said. “I went to private school; we had a very nice house, cars, a housekeeper.”

Nowadays, Beyoncé is doing pretty well for herself, too. She owns her own production company and had a stake in Tidal, the streaming company her husband Jay-Z recently sold his controlling stake in. Alone, Investopedia estimates she’s worth $440 million, with a combined net worth between she and her husband at over $1 billion. If someone broke her soul, she could probably afford to buy a new one.

Most of us can’t. Wages have remained stagnant for forty years, and more than half of Americans have less than $5000 in savings. Unsurprisingly, a LendingClub survey last month found that nearly two-thirds of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Meanwhile, the average monthly rent in the US exceeds the average monthly gross pay of minimum-wage workers. If you quit, you usually can’t claim unemployment insurance. You’re likely to lose your health insurance as well. Clearly, most people just can’t leave their crappy jobs.

That’s a shame, because these are the folks whose souls are likely most broken by our unjust economic settlement. They are also the ones most likely to be left behind by the Great Resignation, simply because they don’t have the means to leave their jobs. And, of course, there is the reality that someone will need to do the thankless jobs in society — care jobs, sanitation jobs, and service jobs all can be backbreaking and arduous work, yet all pay a pittance.

The Great Resignation, then, cannot be about individuals quitting their jobs as it has been reported and as Beyoncé’s song would have it. Instead of a moment of self-empowerment for you, me, and Bey, this moment should be one of a great awakening and the dawning of a new class consciousness among the workers of this country. The Great Resignation must lead to a great resettlement of our exploitative and unjust economy, with the workers of America — and indeed the world — taking back control from the billionaires who have crushed us under the heel of their own greed.

To achieve that, we need not individual actions but a collective movement. We need to create an economy not where middle-class and wealthy folks can find self-actualization but one where workers are empowered rather than exploited and encouraged to collectivize their individual struggles. To liberate all workers from the oppressive economy we live in, we need to unionize, to strike, and to realize that by fighting and struggling together we will gain more than we could ever hope to gain on our own.

Individual action might make me feel better or you feel better, but it does nothing to help the most oppressed workers in our economy. So, by all means quit your job if you’re miserable. Life is too short. But understand that this is a personal, not a political, act — and that only by joining hands with your fellow workers to demand a just economic settlement will you help effect real change. Resigning isn’t enough. We need a revolution.

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