The United States economy doesn’t look too shabby right now. Job numbers are through the roof, and the stock market is hitting record highs. But the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer.
One fifth of Oakland residents live below the poverty line. Still, blaming an entire economic system like capitalism can feel vague and ineffective. But there’s one place in Oakland where people are encouraged to imagine an alternative, post-capitalist reality.
Capitalism is Dead
That’s the future that the Museum of Capitalism in Oakland’s Jack London Square wants you to imagine. It’s a collection of curated “artifacts,” or conceptional art pieces. One of the curators, Timothy Furstnau, cranks away at a “minimum wage machine.”
“When you crank the handle, it actually spits out pennies at the rate of minimum wage,” Furstnau explains. “So if we were to crank this for an hour, I would get 12 dollars and 86 cents.”
Andrea Steves is the other curator. Together, they create and curate art under the name FICTILIS.
“The Museum of Capitalism is a museum that looks back on capitalism, and remembers capitalism as a historic phenomenon,” Steves says.
This pop-up museum is located in a giant warehouse overlooking the Oakland waterfront. People outside are kayaking and sipping gourmet coffee while the train whistles by.
The Basic Tenets of Capitalism
The exhibits in this museum reflect some of the basic tenets of capitalism, like trading labor for wages, and allowing the free market to determine the value of goods and services. The museum also highlights some practices that Karl Marx didn't see coming, like trading internal organs for cash. One display in the museum features glass kidneys on a pedestal.
“I think it’s a sort of visual representation of a larger phenomenon of the way the body can be bought and sold,” Furstnau says, then grimaces in horror, like he’s scared the way he’s speaking is too laissez faire and he needs to self-regulate.
Steves glances at him, and says, “Don’t answer things if you feel like you don’t have the right answer.” She turns to me and explains, “Tim hates radio. Whenever he has a radio interview, he gets really angry about it.”
The fortunate among us don’t have to give up a kidney to survive late stage capitalism. Journalists like myself are paid to ask strangers questions. In return, the people I interview get publicity. But there’s something about our interaction that feels strange, like FICTILIS is all too aware of their supply and my demands.
Dispatches from the fishbowl
Steves takes me to the next piece, where visitors to the gallery are invited to fill out forms that correspond to either gestures of surplus or debt.
I ask how this relates to the theme of capitalism, and Furstnau explains that the pieces don’t necessarily say anything specific about capitalism.
That’s when I get it: the artwork isn’t telling people how to feel. This is not an anti-capitalist museum. No explicit agenda, no proposed solutions, just a starting point for visitors to reflect.
“I think it’s difficult to find distance from something like capitalism when you feel like you’re in it,” Furstnau says. “There's the sort of joke about the fish in the water, and the fish says how's the water, and the other fish says ‘What water?’ Right?”
I asked Furstnau what he thinks of capitalism, but he’s still it figuring out from inside the fishbowl.
“This is maybe a place where a one word answer would be good, but I have to think hard about that one word,” he says.
Then he pauses for a long time. It’s fitting, because that's the point of the museum: to help people pause and reflect.
“I feel conflicted about capitalism. I feel curious about it. I am in awe of it sometimes, I feel terrified of it other times,” he says. “It's a solution that doesn't work for everyone, and it doesn't seem like it's possible for it to work forever.”
An Improvement District lends a hand
As artists and curators, FICTILIS is actually pretty good at accumulating capital. They got a big grant to launch this museum, and partnered with the Jack London Improvement District to find a space here by the waterfront and train station.
“We just love seeing vacant spaces activated, and bringing new people to the district who wouldn't ordinarily visit,” says Savlan Hauser, the Jack London Improvement District executive director.
The Museum of Capitalism occupies a warehouse that was renovated to house an upscale food hall. But the forces of the market intervened, and the plan collapsed during the 2008 global economic crisis. Until recently, it sat empty. There’s lots of empty space in Jack London Square.
“We want to reflect the community needs, but also find a home for uses that are homeless, like this museum,” she says.
“Homeless” is a funny word to use to describe museums in need of space in Oakland in 2017. There’s a homeless encampment just a few blocks away, and Hauser says neighbors here are keenly aware of this.
“We're all feeling a little under-resourced and powerless to do any major change,” she says.
Capitalism lessons from Jack London Square
The story of the Jack London District is Economics 101. Several decades ago, developers swooped into this former industrial neighborhood to turn it into a tourist destination. But they overestimated the demand, and many of the warehouses are still empty. In a capitalist economic system, people buy and rent property with capital. Also under capitalism, not everyone has enough.
“The fact that the museum deals with the concept of capitalism is fascinating for us as a changing neighborhood, but also a really relevant conversation to make active in Oakland right now,” Hauser says. “We're not afraid of the challenging content.”
The revolution begins, or maybe it doesn’t
Back inside, FICTILIS take me to a display of clay heads dangling above a bed of dirt and plants.
The dangling clay heads represent Thomas Midgley Jr., a chemical engineer who developed a new formula for gasoline. His inventions made internal combustion engines work better -- by adding lead, which poisons the air and our bodies. This weekend, visitors are invited to return the favor, by smashing Midgley’s head in.
“When smashed, the head containers will disperse seeds that can help remediate the climate change that Midgley's inventions and many others have created,” Furstnau says.
Soon after the clay heads are smashed, the Museum of Capitalism will shut its doors. But outside -- amid the fancy restaurants, yacht clubs, a bowling alley, just down the block from the homeless encampments and extreme poverty -- it’s a capitalist theme park.
Does that mean it’s time for the revolution to begin? No, it’s less dramatic. Coffee roasters are moving into the warehouse space that once held art.
Worry not: extreme wealth, profit motives, competition, and desperation will remain on display in every city in America long after the Museum of Capitalism is gone. But you may have to squint. Fish don’t notice the water when they’re swimming in it.
The Museum of Capitalism is located at 55 Harrison Street in Oakland's Jack London Square, and it's open to visitors until August 20th.