Understanding Capitalism Part IV: Capitalism, Culture and Society

Understanding Capitalism Part IV: Capitalism, Culture and Society

 By - February 4, 2005

The impact of capitalism on culture and society has been a matter of great debate ever since its emergence in Europe as an economic system in the late 1700s. The impact of capitalism on culture and society is an issue that really stands apart from all of the other economic concerns.

In many ways, the cultural impacts of capitalism overshadow all other considerations of the system. It is capitalism’s impact on society that has shaped Western Civilization for the past 200 years.

The cultural impacts of capitalism are extremely varied, and this has left room for its proponents to champion its merits as well as its detractors to criticize its ill effects.

Discussing the impact of capitalism on culture can be difficult. In what way is “capitalism” responsible for a given aspect of culture, indeed can any aspect of culture be said to be a product of “capitalism”?

Yes, certain aspects of culture and society can be said to be a product of “capitalism”, but defining how and why something is said to be a product of capitalism is very important.

Some of the key concepts relating to an analysis of the effects of capitalism on culture are profit motive, commodity, human desire, and the market economy. The capitalist system is based on private ownership and consolidation of the means of production, where the production of commodities is guided by profit motive to satisfy human desires.

What capitalism does do is it encourages people, in general, to engage in activity that is deemed valuable by other people. This is what many people see as capitalism’s most positive attribute, and indeed this is an extremely important factor in the ways in which the capitalist system has been successful.

The Culture of Work

At a certain level competition and profit motive, both of which are encouraged by the capitalist market system, provide a stimulus to action. This encouragement to act is a major factor in the diversity of products that are produced by capitalist societies.

In the way that the capitalist system works, however, reward is not always proportional to contribution. In many ways the capitalist system is a “winner take all” type system, and this “winner take all” system actually encourages stronger competition.

A contest can be used as an example.

Reward in a capitalist system is similar to a gold panning competition where the winner takes home a large portion of all the gold panned by everyone during the competition.

For example, let’s say that a gold panning competition is held in Alaska with 500 contestants, where the First Place winner will receive 50% of all of the gold collected during the competition, Second Place will take home 25%, and Third Place will get 15%. The remaining contestants will keep whatever is left over of the gold that they collected after the needed amount is taken to pay the winners’ prizes.

This competition will encourage people to participate and it will encourage people to work hard to try to collect as much gold as possible. It will also, of course, encourage cheating and other such acts, as is to be expected in any competition.

At the end of the competition everyone brings in their gold to have it weighed. Let’s say the person with the most gold brought in 20 grams of gold, and the person who brought in the least gold brought in 2 grams.

What we can see here is that the person ranked #1 collected 10 times more gold than the person ranked #500.

Assuming that the average amount brought in was 10 grams of gold, then 50% of the gold brought in would be 2,500 grams of gold.

This is what the first place winner would receive, 2,500 grams of gold. Now, that person only collected 20 grams themselves, but they get a portion of everything that everyone else collected as well. Of course the majority of people, though they would still have some gold after the competition, would have less than they actually collected.

Such a competition would encourage people to pan for gold - it would, in effect, “stimulate the economy”. It would encourage productivity.

The “dream” of  “making it big” would encourage people to hone their gold panning skills, it would encourage people to develop new and better ways to pan for gold, it would, in effect, promote progress.

The fact is, however, that this is a winner take all type system. The person at the top is getting a disproportionate amount of the gold that was collected by everyone. The winner gets more than what he or she collects, and it is the fact that there is the potential to get so much more than you as an individual collect that drives the competition forward.

This, “competition”, of course, may be perfectly "fair", in that anyone can win it. There is no discrimination in who is allowed to participate and there are no regulations that hold anyone back in particular. Indeed, it is also the case in this competition that the person who collects the most is also rewarded the most, so in that sense it is fair. However, of course, the amount that the winner gets is dependant upon how much everyone else collects as well, because the winner is getting more than just what they collect as an individual, they are getting a share of what everyone collected, and the majority of participants take home less than they collect. Likewise, working the hardest does not guarantee that you will win the competition, there are elements of chance involved, but working hard does increase your likelihood of winning.

Nevertheless, the competition does promote progress and it does result in more gold being collected and it does provide a “dream” for its hundreds of participants.

It is by a similar fashion that modern capitalism promotes progress and makes fortunes. It is also by a similar fashion that capitalism encourages a sort of “work ethic”, although not exactly, because in the real world it is as though no one knows exactly how much gold they or anyone else has collected, and at the end of the day everyone believes that the amount of gold they are taking home is exactly the amount of gold they have collected, and thus the first place winner “believes” that he or she has collected 2,500 ounces of gold and those at the bottom don’t realize that any gold has been taken from their collection.

So, when the first place winner takes home 2,500 ounces and the last place person takes home half and ounce, everyone believes that the person in first place actually “worked” five thousand times harder than the person in last place, despite the fact that they really only collected ten times more gold.

This perception of vast discrepancy of effort contributes to even greater drive and social pressure to work harder, and thus the “culture of work” is established.

The Culture of Desire

In addition to promoting a culture of work, capitalism also promotes a culture of desire.

Economics is defined in college textbooks across America today as, “the study of human choice in using scarce resources to satisfy unlimited wants.”

The marketplace is effectively limited by how much people want. This leads to a natural tendency in a market system for the sellers in the system to work to increase human desire, leading to the creation of more and stronger wants, and thus expanding the market.

While marketing is the most direct expression of this phenomenon, it really pervades the entire culture and is reflected in general entertainment, personal attitudes, religious values, the education system, and government policy.

The development of the culture of desire created by market capitalism has actually been one of the biggest, if not the biggest, change in American society since the birth of the country.

Many early Americans believed in austere lifestyles, the Puritans being the most prominent example of this. The Puritans didn’t allow dance, wore mostly black, and practiced a culture of self-denial. The Puritans, of course, were actually a relatively small group, especially by the time of the founding of the country.

Even the average American, however, was relatively reserved in early times. Of course, in early times the country was not capitalistic and people were much more self-sufficient. Most individuals and communities provided for their own needs and wants directly, independent of the market system. America was a predominately family farming country, after all, until the mid 19th century.

The Buster Brown brand, developed in 1904, became established through one of the most pervasive marketing campaigns in history

Advertising and the consumer culture had become significant by the Roaring 20s of the early 20th century as the American capitalist economy really began to thrive. This later increased with the widespread adoption of radio, but it wasn’t really until the 1950s, and the widespread usage of television and movies, however, that the consumer culture revolution really began. Not only did technology facilitate the advancement of consumer culture, but the Keynesian economic policies adopted by America after World War II viewed consumerism as the drive-train of the economy.

While many examples can be given, cigarette smoking is a classic example of a specific case of the promotion of a product via not just advertising, but its portrayal in media and society in general as well.

Interestingly, the tobacco industry is the oldest major industry in America. The tobacco industry was also highly involved in slavery, as slaves were heavily used on tobacco plantations. Arguably the tobacco industry is the epitome of the American establishment, and represents some of the oldest fortunes that exist in America, as well as some of America’s oldest corporations.

Slaves harvesting tobacco

Nothing really represents “The Man” in America more than tobacco, yet, this industry, through marketing, Hollywood, and general social presentation, was able to convince millions of Americans, not only that “smoking was cool”, but also that it was a form of rebellion “against the establishment”.

Ironically, many “social rebels”, those troubled youth who “hated the system” and wanted to “fight against oppression”, bought into one of the biggest elements of the very system that they opposed. Nothing represents power, corruption, deception, the legacy of slavery, social manipulation, and the good ole boy system more than Big Tobacco, and yet for generations “rebels” by the millions have been lighting up, and they continue to do so, feeding the establishment that they love to hate.

That is just one example, however, of how an irrational desire for a specific product has been promoted by industry, but it is the overall culture of consumerism that is of bigger concern.

All media and social practices that promote desire in general are embraced by capitalist culture, because the promotion of desire itself, even when not directly related to a specific product, promotes a culture of consumerism, and much of advertising is not about promoting a specific product, but indeed about promoting the overall culture of desire.

In the natural world, emotional desires motivate animals to engage in the activities needed for survival and procreation. Human desires developed over millions of years of evolution in environments of typically scarce resources and opportunities, where strong motivations were needed to prompt action in the face of risk.

With the advance of human civilization, human beings have been able to alter the natural environment and make resources that were difficult to obtain in the natural world much easier to obtain. This has happened rapidly over the past 10,000 years or so, and the ability of people to make these resources more easily obtainable has continued to increased over time. The same basic trigger mechanisms exist in the human brain today as did millions of years ago when early hominids were struggling for basic survival.

This is, for example, why people today have such a high affinity for fatty foods. Historically, fats were a scarce resource that was difficult for humans to obtain. Fats are extremely high in energy, and thus very valuable to humans “in the wild”. For this reason, humans evolved a high affinity for fatty foods. The desire for fatty foods drove humans to pursue resources that were highly beneficial to survival in a natural context, and to prefer those resources over other possible alternatives when there was a decision to be made.

It’s important to remember that economics is the study of human choice in relation to limited resources.

In American society today, however, fatty foods are no longer scarce resources that are difficult for humans to obtain, but our brain is still motivated to seek them out as if they are scarce resources that are difficult to obtain, and thus, in terms of decision making, people are generally compelled by their desires to prefer fatty foods over other foods, even when the choice of the fatty food is not rational. This has resulted in our capitalist market economy focusing on the production and marketing of fatty foods because they are easy to sell because humans have a natural instinctive desire to prefer fatty foods. The culture created by marketing feeds on these desires and works to increase them.

Traditionally, many religions have developed as efforts to limit the overloading of these natural desire mechanisms.

What the capitalist system does, is it provides a profit motive for sellers to exploit human desires for personal gain.

The unleashing and deepening of human passion and desire creates demand, and that demand moves products off the shelf to satisfy those wants, thus creating profits for sellers. The commercialization of sexuality, since sex is a fundamental human desire, is a primary result of the capitalist market system.

Sexuality is marketed directly, but sexual cues are also heavily associated with non-sexual products in capitalist market cultures as well. By associating sexual cues with products, such as cars or beer for example, the biological desire triggers are stimulated.

The marketing of sexuality to teenagers is perhaps one of the most controversial products of the capitalist system. Because sex is one of the most primal and strongest forms of desire, sexuality is one of the most effective marking tools, and a highly sexually active culture is a culture more open to overall consumerism, and thus a highly sexually charged culture is encouraged by capitalism.

During puberty people are particularly strongly impacted by sexual marketing and this encourages sellers in a market system to target preteens and teens with highly sexual media. This is not just in the context of advertisements, but all media, including music, movies, books and stories, etc. Increasing sexual awareness increases overall consumerism.

Products themselves can be a way to further promote a consumer lifestyle and to deepen human desire. A popular new line of toys that demonstrates this concept is the Bratz Dolls line of products.

Bratz Dolls are marketed towards the 4 to early teen age-group and portray sexy, fashion savvy, self-centered, consumerist characters with lots of "needs" and "plenty of attitude". Bratz imagery abounds with sexual cues and material accessories. The makers of Bratz Dolls claim that they are just giving children what they want, that dolls are just harmless pieces of plastic, and that it's ultimately the parent's responsibility to choose if they think the dolls are appropriate for their child or not.


(notice use of the word "passion")

As psychologists know, dolls are powerful learning devices for young people that can greatly influence worldviews, and of course the makers of Bratz Dolls know this too, they just deny it publicly. Capitalists know that young girls brought up playing with Bratz Dolls are more likely to internalize self-centered consumerist lifestyles, and therefore be "better consumers" as they grow up, or even while they are young for that matter.

Dolls have long been a way of passing cultural norms on to children. In traditional societies, however, where production was home based or community based, parents, or at least community members, were who made the dolls that children played with.

Homemade dolls

As the Industrial Revolution progressed and capitalism became more prominent throughout the 19th and 20th century in Europe and America, industry-made dolls became increasingly reflective of a more material culture. The Bratz Dolls are continuing that trend, making children increasingly attuned to fashion, materialism, and sexuality, instilling in them the values of capitalist culture.

Its not just Bratz Dolls, however, it is a general industry trend in children's and teen media. 

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation produced a special covering this topic called, Buying Into Sexy: The Sexing Up of Tweens. The video of this special can be viewed by going to the afore mentioned link, or directly via the link below, and is highly recommended.

Video of the Broadcast

Transformation of the Family

From colonial times through the 1800s America had a largely home-based economy. In 1776 85% of Americans were farmers, and a lot of the non-farming industry was also still home based, such as making tools, clothes, food products, and other commodities. Much of America was also a vast, unsettled, wilderness. Because of these factors, many people had large families. 

Early American family at work

During these early times children were financial assets to a family. In 1860 children were economic assets by age 7 in all regions of the country. Teenagers may still be economic assets in some rural farming areas today, though this is rare. Today children cost $250,000 on average to raise to age 18. In the 1700s and 1800s a child would have represented a handsome profit to their family by age 18. 

This is because industry has moved from being home-based to being to being based outside the home, and because children are increasingly playing the role of consumers in the economy, because capitalists target them as such.

In addition to this, the role of women in the family has changed dramatically as well. There is a difference between the changing role of women and children within the family though. Children changed from being financial assets to being financial burdens, but women's labor was transformed into commodity.

The women's movement by itself will be discussed in more detail as a separate topic below, but it must briefly be touched upon here. The women's movement correctly sought to elevate the social status of women to that of equality with the status of men. However, in the context of America's capitalist society, what this resulted in was the transformation of women's labor into a commodity.

In capitalist society something is only recognized to have value if it is a commodity. Our GDP (Gross Domestic Product), which is deemed to be such an important number for tracking the progress of the America economy, only tracks quantifiable economic transactions. As such, any work that is done that does not result in the buying or selling of a commodity is seen as "worthless" by national economists in relation to GDP.

The issue goes beyond this number however, it really goes into how individuals as members of society see value. The reality is that in our capitalist society, where we only recognize the value of commodities, this resulted in women seeking to participate in the production of commodities in order for their labor to be recognized as valuable. 

The truth is, however, that the labor of raising a family is valuable, but our capitalist system does not recognize it as such, because it is not a commodity.

Capitalism is, therefore, resulting in the transformation of family development into commodities. Instead of a woman or man staying home to raise children, they go to work, where their labor is quantified and returned to them in the form of a paycheck, which is recognized by themselves and society as a measure of self-worth.

That paycheck is then used to pay someone else to care for the children, buy processed food, and to buy other products and services to substitute for the care of the parent. This process results in an increase in GDP, but in truth, this is an ineffective system that is resulting in massive loss of value from American society, however, this process is a result of the natural tendency of the capitalist system to transform things which are not a part of the market system into commodities. 

The issues for the family go well beyond this however. The biggest issue really is that, ultimately, shared labor creates social bonds. This is a sociological and psychological fact. When people labor together to produce something that they feel is valuable, this creates a bond between those people. We all know this. Capitalism destroys those social bonds by transforming labor into a commodity and by externalizing our productive efforts outside our family and community units.

We no longer live and work together as family members and neighbors, and this is perhaps one of the most corrosive social problems faced by capitalist societies today. The sense of community is inherent in shared labor, in fact some argue that a community is defined by its sharing of labor. Traditionally, throughout all time prior to the Industrial Revolution, people lived and worked together in close proximity to one another.

Shared labor is a fundamental social thread that ties human beings together. This is a product of our historic communal evolution. 

Today many people who work with charities and special organizations express a special kind of satisfaction and kinship with their fellow workers. This is because of their shared labor, and their shared recognition of a special value that they have cooperated together to create. That sense of progress and accomplishment together with other people has been the basis of human society and family for millions of years, and industrial capitalism is undermining that basis.

This is recognized by many scholars and institutions, and this is why "team building" exercises used by the military, youth organizations, and others, involve group construction projects were people work together to produce something. Shared community and family labor is also the basis of Amish society, and serves as a major social tie for the communal Amish lifestyle.

Feminism and Multiculturalism

The struggle for the social equality between men and women and among all racial groups has long been a major element of the Socialist movement. From the 1800s through the 20th century Socialists, Communists, and various other "Leftist" groups have made the struggle for gender and racial equality a prominent part of their agenda.

The reality, however, is that market capitalism has seemingly done more to enfranchise women and minorities in America than anything else over the past 30 years.

Historically, "Leftists" argued that women and minorities were disenfranchised by the class structure of capitalist society. This argument was based largely on a view of people as workers. The argument, correctly, went that women and minorities were exploited as workers because they were not paid equal wages for equal work, and that the underpayment of women and minorities on the basis of gender and racial discrimination was a part of the fragmentation of the labor market, and served to bring down the price of all wages by causing competition between disparate social groups.

Communists, Socialists, and other pro-labor organizations, sought to elevate the status of women and minorities to equality with that of white males as a part of the larger labor movement, so that the entire working-class would be united together in a singular struggle for the improvement of working conditions and compensation.

After World War II, as has been mentioned, American society became increasingly consumer, not producer, oriented.

While "Leftist" groups continued to appeal to women and minorities as producers, capitalists have increasingly appealed to women and minorities as consumers. This was slow at first, but has continued to build over time. During the 1950s women were heavily marketed to, and after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s racial minorities have been increasingly catered to by the market as well.

It has to be remembered that even just 30 years ago there were still major conservative public figures who were openly racist and sexist. It was a real political and social challenge for "the Left" to present the case for equality under the law for women and blacks. 

Over the past 15 years , however, business has increasingly catered to women and minorities as consumers. Any realistic assessment of American society has to recognize that Corporate America and the market economy have done more to bring women and minorities into the mainstream over the past 15 years than anything else.

Today even the most far right-wing public figures embrace multiculturalism. While most of the social biases against women and minorities have dropped away, and while no serious political or popular figure publicly expresses sympathy with overtly racist or misogynist views anymore, the way in which Corporate America has "embraced" women and minorities is interesting. 

As is the case with so many things, the introduction of profit motive has had some possibly unintended side effects. 

In 1967 Dr. Martin Luther King made the following statement in his "Beyond Vietnam" speech:

Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken -- the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

Today, however, racism has been mostly conquered, but materialism and militarism are continuing to grow. The fact is that both women and minorities have become part of the wealthy establishment in their own right today. Many of the people involved in the Civil Rights movement saw it as a means to create greater social equality for everyone, but in fact what has happened is that women and minorities have become a part of the capitalist power structure.

Not only this, but Corporate America is now the main provider of racial and gender "identity".

Perhaps one of the greatest marketing strategies of the past 15 years has been the selling of "cultural identity", packaged for consumer consumption and driven by profit motive.

Companies know women and minorities spend money too, and if you want to get their money then you have to tell them what they want to hear. They have taken the "attitude" of feminists and civil rights leaders and packaged it for resale.

Today, women and minorities are among the most materialistic subgroups who are the most highly marketed to. Many women and minorities have become extreme supporters of capitalism because it is Corporate America that has actually catered to their desires more than anyone else.

Corporate America tells women exactly what anyone would want to hear - that they are strong, powerful, beautiful, intelligent, spiritual beings who only need to buy Nike gear to show the world how empowered they are. Capitalists feed on the insecurity of the disenfranchised to sell them the idea of enfranchisement.

Women make up over 50% of the population in America and account for 85% of all customer buying decisions. Women dominate the marketplace and Corporate America knows it.

Corporate America's message to women and minorities is simple - "embrace materialism".

A quick search on Google gives an idea of just how big a topic marketing to women is:


Marketing, as any good marketer will tell you, isn't about selling things, its about selling ideas, and shaping how people view the world in such a way that they view your product as an essential part of their life. Selling "Girl Power" has never been more rewarding, but it couldn't be farther from the Girl Power of the "bra-burning" days.

Apparently Girl Power Magazine sees selling "Wedding Planning for Dummies" and "Brazilian Waxing" as part of its mission to "empower girls worldwide".

Although many of the feminists and civil rights activists were Leftists and Socialists, and saw the struggle for civil rights as a part of the struggle against capitalism and exploitation, what their work has ended up doing is opening up vast new markets for Corporate America. 

Market research also shows that among married couples women do more purchasing than men, and thus, of course, Corporate America's message to women is, "don't let men prevent you from buying what you want." This really has nothing to with women's empowerment, and everything to do with encouraging irresponsibility in order to promote the sale.

The situation is little different for minorities. 

The so-called minority "counter culture", is among the most materialistic "subcultures" in America. The dominant force among "urban counter cultures" is, of course, hip-hop, with everyone from Coca-Cola and McDonalds to the entertainment industry racing to cash in on the action. Coke has even created a specific "hip-hop character".

Coke creates hip-hop figure to inject Sprite with attitude

Interestingly, while "Leftist" civil rights activists over the past 100 years have also opposed materialism and the corporate agenda, hip-hop is a minority based cultural "movement" that has embraced corporate branding from its very inception. Run-DMC pioneered the hip-hop and rap market in the 1980s with songs like "My Adidas", a song about their brand name shoes.


Urban, so-called, "counter culture" has been hooked on expensive brand names ever since. A "cultural movement" that explicitly embraces brand names - what more could Corporate America ask for? The rest has been history, with multi-billion dollar corporations lining up to help teenagers rebel by buying into the corporate mainstream. There is no question really as to why hip-hop is popular; it's because it has corporate backing.

The market system is also embracing the growing Latino population in America as well. Businesses like Latino immigrants because they are often a source of cheap quality labor, and with Latinos making up significant portions of the population in areas like South California, South Texas, and South Florida, the marketplace is quick to adjust to Latino consumers by offering Spanish language products and services, Latin foods, and catering to other cultural peculiarities of Latino consumers.

While many White American conservatives lament growing Latino immigration, and often complain about high Spanish speaking regions of the country, the reality is that this is all a product of market capitalism, and in fact the American economy is dependant on continued immigration for growth.

Emasculation and Selling Masculinity

As the marketplace has rushed to build up women's egos, it seems to have rushed to tear down men's self image, both as a means to reshape the way that men see themselves and as another way to appeal to women's sense of consumer superiority.

Obviously different product marketers have different marketing approaches based on their target markets, so several different patterns of marketing in relation to men have emerged. There is the corporate agenda to "feminize men" by the beauty and fashion industries, which has been popularized under the term "metrosexuality".

There is also the depiction of men as mindless, low brow consumers, whose only interests in life are to drink beer, ogle women that are way out of their league, and watch football on TV all day. In everything from commercials to sitcoms, and even TV dramas, men are overwhelmingly depicted as primal in nature, with very basic needs revolving around food, sports, women and alcohol. Men are often shown standing in awe at some new product, speechless with jaws wide open, like... umm... duh...

This stereotyping of men is an attempt by the marketplace to define men as consumers and as individuals who would rather spend time thinking about how the basketball draft might affect next season  than thinking about how the economy functions or about world events. Its like commercial blinders, the less attention is paid to the world outside the consumer market, the more likely men are to spend money within their narrow frame of focus.

In commercials and sitcoms men are typically depicted as indecisive, incompetent, or subordinate to women. This is a common theme in everything from McDonalds commercials to television programs like Home Improvement. A common scenario may be something like the following: A women doing house chores describes a problem to her husband, who is sitting on the couch and gives a puzzled answer. The women then takes action by picking up the phone and calling to order a product or service. 

This makes women watching the commercial feel good about themselves and it makes men feel threatened by women and thus seek to take action to reaffirm themselves.

Capitalist market society emasculates men in order to sell men back their masculinity through commodities. The message given to men is, "you are not masculine, but you can become more masculine if you buy these products."

It's an attempt to threaten men's egos in order to prompt them into purchasing action, through the fear of losing their social status if they don't buy enough stuff to prove how manly they really are.

After all, if you don't spend all day Sunday watching NASCAR or football and drinking beer, "you might be gay".

A culture that fosters sexual insecurity in men increases the likelihood that men will buy goods and services to reaffirm their masculinity. 

Embracing Irrationality

Market theory is fundamentally based on the concept of individuals making rational and informed decisions. Interestingly, however, capitalists work to induce people to make irrational and uninformed choices. While market theory is predicated on individuals making rational and informed choices, businesses are encouraged by the market to mislead consumers, present biased views of products, restrict consumer access to information, and induce consumers to make emotional decisions.

As Kern Lewis, director of marketing for CMG Financial Services, put it in Forbes magazine:

We are the marketing executives who need to build brands to the point where they inspire "loyalty beyond reason."

This, of course, is made all the easier the more irrational that people are. For this reason, capitalism promotes an entire culture of irrationality and emotionality. Capitalism also promotes a culture of pettiness and encourages people to focus on insignificant concerns.

This is because the more different small issues that people become concerned with, the larger the marketplace becomes and of course the less people are concerned about forming a rational understanding of the big picture.

All forms of media that cater to promoting irrationality, pettiness, or emotionality, are favored for distribution by media companies. Forms of media that encourage rational thought, in depth understanding, clear analysis, or objectivity are naturally not as likely to be distributed in a capitalist system, where the means of distribution are owned by those with an interest in promoting a consumer culture.

This is all very evident in American popular culture today. People are encouraged to become engrossed in the meaningless aspects of other people's interpersonal relationships. Nothing of use can be gained by individuals who become obsessed with daily drama of fictional characters, superstars, or even so-called real people in "reality" programming, but it does get people emotionally involved in typically irrational relationships, where irrational emotional behavior is modeled to be embraced an emulated.

Ignorant individuals are both more easily entertained by others and less likely to entertain themselves. Self-entertainment, of course, is not a commodity, and, as has been said, the tendency under capitalism is to transform that which is not a commodity into a commodity, thus self-entertainment is transformed into passive entertainment that is bought and sold.

America's anti-intellectualism is also a product of capitalist culture, because intellectuals are discriminating buyers who make informed decisions, often based on information outside of that which is provided to consumers by sellers. The market promotes an environment that will produce individuals more likely to be able to be persuaded to buy products.

Another form of anti-intellectualism is not a product of consumer culture, but rather of producer interests. America has a history of anti-intellectualism among its "captains of industry", many of whom saw theory as a waste of time compared to action. Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford are classic examples of American leaders of industry who were anti-intellectual. Both had high praise for practical knowledge, but were dismissive of so-called impractical intellectual pursuits, such as history.

There has also been a perception among employers, right or wrong, that intellectuals make poor employees because they are more likely to think outside the box, and thus not follow orders, or attempt to somehow otherwise change the system or reject authority.

Intelligent people are also more likely to negotiate for higher wages as well, because they are more likely to have an understanding of their employment contracts and of the overall operation of the business and thus be more likely to know when they are being underpaid.

Moreover, anti-intellectualism creates social chaos. Answers are seldom found, and so the selling of the quest can go on indefinitely. There is no economic incentive to solve social problems at the microeconomic level, because social problems present economic opportunities. At the macroeconomic level, of course, this contributes to the breakdown of society, but individual profiteers get money during the process.

Catering to the Lowest Common Denominator

America's Meltdown

A common saying among businessmen is, "the customer is always right". Of course businessmen know this isn't true, but it is what they tell their employees and it is how businesses approach customers. In business you treat the customer as if he or she were always right. 

The reality in America today is that private industry dominates our culture. The majority of social interactions that people have today are within the context of the marketplace. The profit driven approach to these interactions by industry is to make every consumer feel as though they are right about everything, and to make them feel good about themselves. The result is that industry, the dominant element of our culture, bows down to the lowest denominator.

Leaders of industry repeatedly recite the mantra that they are not role models, that they are here to entertain or to provide a service or to please the customer. Its not their job to "defend culture" they claim, yet the fact is that all of our social interactions make up our culture. Business cannot divorce itself from influencing culture, business is a part of culture.

When soft drink companies produce advertisements that show teenagers hanging out with baggy pants, talking slang, and acting stupid, they claim that "they are just trying to reach their target market at their level". This is true, but they are, at the same time, also validating and promoting a type of culture.

Due to profit motive and markets there is no motivation for business to challenge potential consumers. Business is not going to tell teenagers to straighten up, tuck in your shirt, and get a haircut, because a teenager might not like that, and if they don't like it then they won't buy their product, they will go to a competitor. Hence, industry is motivated to tell teenagers to do whatever they want to do, and in order to be even more accessible to them they will talk to their target markets on their level. If that level is poor grammar then so be it. If that level is laziness then so be it.

A primary example of this is a recent trend among urban fast food chains. At many fast food chains today a recorded greeting is played when a customer drives up to the ordering station in the drive through. In urban and predominantly African American locations this greeting is recorded in what might, politically incorrectly, be termed "Ebonics".

McDonalds and Taco Bell have no interest in promoting any specific culture, other than a culture of consumption, so if their market research shows that the majority of their customers in a certain area use poor grammar, then they will adjust their approach to match the poor grammar that their customers use in order to make them feel more comfortable.

This is also manifested in a wide variety of entertainment, from music to Hollywood to "reality TV" and the news.

Programs like Blue Collar TV are just one of the thousands of examples of how catering to the lowest common denominator goes beyond marketing and is a general element of American media and culture. 

Schools and families are at extremely large disadvantages in trying to promote values of respect, learning, reason, quality, etc. in a culture that is dominated by self-interested profit motive to undermine all of those values. 

Conclusion and Summary

Perhaps one of the great ironies of economics over the past 200 years has been the criticism of Adam Smith because he was contradictory. Adam Smith, for example, wrote extensively about the benefits of the division of labor, but in other cases he also wrote about the detrimental effects of the division of labor. Karl Marx seized on his criticism of the division of labor and made the abolition of the division of labor an element of his communist ideology. Later, neoclassical economists disregarded Smith's criticism of the division of labor and focused on the economic benefits of the practice. In both cases Smith has been called a thinker who illuminated noteworthy ideas, but was too contradictory, and thus his work needed to be "clarified".

In Chapter I, Book I of The Wealth of Nations Smith states:

The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labor, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is anywhere directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labor.

He goes on to say:

This great increase of the quantity of work which, in consequence of the division of labor, the same number of people are capable of performing, is owing to three different circumstances; first to the increase of dexterity in every particular workman; secondly, to the saving of the time which is commonly lost in passing from one species of work to another; and lastly, to the invention of a great number of machines which facilitate and abridge labor, and enable one man to do the work of many.

However, after writing three chapters in favor of division of labor, in Book V Smith states:

In the progress of the division of labor, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labor, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging, and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war. The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, and makes him regard with abhorrence the irregular, uncertain, and adventurous life of a soldier. It corrupts even the activity of his body, and renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance in any other employment than that to which he has been bred. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expence of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the laboring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.

It is a contradiction indeed, but the fact is that this is a contradiction in reality. Both of Smith's statements are true. This example, and others like it, led to a divergent development of many of the ideas set out by Adam Smith. The prevailing capitalist ideology today ignores the contradictions in the system, and rejects the line of thinking illuminated by Smith that recognizes the need for forces outside the marketplace and the potential for economic expediency to come at the cost of humanity.

Adam Smith clearly understood and demonstrated that microeconomic self-interest can act in contradiction to both macroeconomic interests and in contradiction to human social interests. It is, in fact, astonishing that over 200 years ago, prior to the development of modern capitalism, Adam Smith was able to have the depth of understanding that he did about economics and society. In a strange way The Wealth of Nations is more relevant today than ever, because in many ways it provides a better understanding of today's economy than our current economic textbooks, which focus on graphs, formulas, and pure market theory, while claiming not to understand why it is that human beings don't follow the formulas.

Examples of this can be found in any American college textbook on economics. The 2003 McEachern college textbook, Economics 6th edition, endorsed by the Wall Street Journal and used in colleges across America, states the following:

Choices in food, body art, music, clothing, reading, movies, TV - indeed, all consumer choices - are influenced by tastes. Tastes are nothing more than your likes and dislikes as a consumer. What determines tastes? Who knows? Economists certainly don't, nor do they spend much time worrying about the question. They recognize, however, that tastes are important in shaping demand.

Quite a bold statement for a textbook that also defines economics as the study of how humans use choice to select scarce resources to satisfy their unlimited wants. 

The reality is that today the market and industry are shaping tastes more than any other environmental factor. Capitalists know this; they are well aware of it. It is, indeed, by design. 

The July 5th, 2004 edition of Newsweek ran an article about the study of thought patterns in relation to economic choices. The following is a quote from the article:

And that, in turn, is a step toward the holy grail of marketing: being able to figure out how people will make choices that haven't been offered yet. The same tools that can answer deep questions about primate behavior can also be used to get people to sign up for more cell-phone minutes than there actually are in a month. A handful of researchers in the United States and Europe are already using fMRIs to test how product brands are represented in the brain. The goal of every consumer marketer is to have people "identify" with a brand, to develop the kind of loyalty that goes far beyond a utilitarian preference for, say, one kind of pickup truck over another. Emory University psychologist Clint Kilts scanned subjects as they looked at a variety of products, from cars to soft drinks, and found that this sense of brand identification elicited a strong response in the medial prefrontal cortex. This is the brain area associated with what psychologists call the "sense of self", one's self-constructed identity. His insights are now being offered to the corporations of the world through the Bright-House Neurostrategies Group in Atlanta, a pioneer in the emerging field of neuromarketing.

For more on Neuromarketing see

Frontline: The Persuaders: Neuromarketing

Neuromarketing Overview

Ironically, this "discovery" could be seen as the scientific proof of Karl Marx's theory of commodity fetishism, a major element of his opposition to capitalism. Marx described commodity fetishism as the tendency of people to identify objects with their sense of self, and he saw in capitalism the unleashing of a profit motive to exploit that sense of self in ways that would undermine both individuality and society.

The reality is that for the past 150 years both Marxists and Capitalists have acknowledged that commodity fetishism is real, the difference is that Marxists have sought to tame it, while capitalists seek to exploit it.

The truth is that there are both positive and negative aspects of capitalism. A system where individuals are driven by self-interest and profit motive to produce goods and services does encourage many people to work, and it does lead to the development of a broad diversity of products, but the system is far from perfect and the negative effects of such a system leave much to be desired. Profit motive, consolidation of capital, and a market economy clearly also provide a great incentive for exploitation and social manipulation. 

Even when there is no conscious intention to engage in culturally destructive behavior, the market economy can lead to chasing profits down some very dark holes. 

One of the major hallmarks of capitalism has been the consolidation and centralization of capital, i.e. the means of production. As production of goods and services has become the domain of large, powerful, international corporations, social pressures on the providers of goods and services have been reduced. In the days prior to capitalism, when the majority of production was done in the home or local community, producers and sellers were both a part of the common culture and held accountable to it. People knew producers by name, and sellers knew their customers by name. Thus, producers were inclined to have a much more positive relationship with their community and their products were much more likely to reflect local values.

Today, as economies of scale lead to ever greater consolidation of capital and growth of mega-corporations, the means of production, and thus the means of the creation of culture, are taken further and further out of the hands of common people. Those making decisions about product development and marketing are far removed from the public that they sell to, and far removed from the workers who make their products. As an example, Nike CEO Phil Knight ran his company for years without ever having even been to the countries where Nike products are produced. Not only had he not seen the working conditions of the company that he ran, but he didn't even have any knowledge of the culture and living conditions of the countries where "his" factories were located.

When people are so far removed from both the workers that they employ and the customers that they sell to there is no relationship left but pure profit motive.

Clearly capitalism is the dominant force in American society today. Ever since the "Reagan Revolution" capitalism has had increasing effects on American culture, as corporations have gained in power, the economy has become increasingly competitive, and technology has extended the impact of the marketplace in everyone's lives.

Those seeking to understand American culture today need look no further than the dominant institution of our nation to see the source of the culture that we live in: Capitalism.

Understanding Capitalism Part I- Capital and Society

Understanding Capitalism Part II- Personal Property, Money and Finance

Understanding Capitalism Part III- Wages and Labor Markets

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