Capitalism, an Indecipherable Thing.

The common threads of thought among the interviews fall into two broad categories: Support with inaccurate definitions of capitalism, or apprehension/distaste without a coherent definition of capitalism. If one’s understanding of something is not completely coherent, then contentions stemming from that will not be as logically sound as they could be. Below I will analyze several of the reoccurring myths that are common to the U.S. perception of capitalism (at least as this blog has collected), and why those myths result in the other emotions and thoughts discussed in various interview posts.

First: Capitalism is freedom/democracy. This appears in many interviews, often among older interviewees or well-off ones, but is not exclusive to them. It is not hard to see why this happens. This concept is the cornerstone of U.S. civic education from a young age, and the crème de la crème of U.S. identity propaganda. To suggest otherwise is to be unamerican. Yet, we see some dissonance. Many of the interviewees realize innately that they have no real definition for freedom outside of conflating it with capitalism and vice versa. Ergo we see that even when interviewees acknowledge products of capitalism that are negative, often times those things are spun as the price of freedom.

Second: Capitalism is when things are bought and sold. Capitalism has, for obvious reasons, a focus on disembedded markets. They are part and parcel. It is easy to conflate this focus with a focus on simply all commerce. One interviewee characterized capitalism as “the ability to buy whatever I want.” As the point of the interviews was to glean an understanding of capitalism and not correct presumptions (which would defeat the point), many interviews worked from this framework. This, in combination with the first understanding, often leads the understanding of alternative systems to be “Bad, unfree, cannot buy things I want.”

Third: Capitalism is an inescapable force with agency/will. Interestingly, while fewer interviewee’s than expected professed that capitalism was natural or inherent, many held an understanding that Capitalism was a sort of beast with will all its own. One interviewee joked that “You can’t really get away from it” and another remarked that “It will stop at nothing to consume and invent more things to consume.” Capitalism has whims. It prefers the rich, creates a mystic market that determines prices, costs, demand, etc.

These three major understandings combine to create a muddled cultural understanding of capitalism, which makes sense. The very framework many people have for understanding capitalism is ill-defined and conceptual. The root cause of this is any number of things from propaganda to poorly structured education, but the result is what Mark Fisher would describe as capitalist realism. The popular understanding of history and the inscrutability of the system people live under makes a truer understanding difficult, and neatly organizes the more abhorrent parts of capitalism into the category “Things to worry about within the context of capitalism.” The popular understandings of capitalism vary so widely but share trends like those above precisely because these understandings are largely experiential, not historical or economical, and several key understandings encourage others. For instance, the understanding “capitalism is when I can own a shop” naturally leads to the idea that shop ownership is otherwise abridged, or that capitalism is when people own shops. Personal experience inevitably changes what one comes to understand, but this obfuscation is remarkably common to the U.S. understanding of capitalism.

“Any Sort of Lengths in Order to Consume More Things”


The interviewee is a college age musician. Their background is fairly typical, two married parents and a low income home. First generation college attendee. The most relevant excepts of the answers given are quoted below.

Question 1: How would you define capitalism?

“Capitalism I would say is an economic system that is centered around the ‘free market.’ And will essentially do just about anything to sort of make money. Expand neo-liberal interests in the name of the free market, etc.”

Question 2: What differentiates capitalism from other modes of production?

“Capitalism is sort of a hungry beast. It is always consuming. It always has to consume something in order for it to survive and not crumble. If we compare it to stuff like feudalism for example obviously the tech difference is there but as an economic system capitalism can only survive with mass amounts of consumption. Other systems may be more stable.”

Question 3: How do you think capitalism has changed over the years, if at all?

“In my point of view, to go off the need for consumption, we can see that capitalism will go to any sort of lengths or environments in order to consume more things. To chase profit. Nowadays we literally have private companies and billionaires rocketing people into space for tourism. When in the sixties getting a person on the moon was a national government thing. Now it’s so everyday because it’s marketable. We can see that development of capitalism constantly adapting to new spaces. We have like cyberspace and such. The whole NFTs and Metaverse thing. Capitalism is making up and creating realms of existence for profit and to consume from that is outside the tangible.”

Question 4: What is your role in capitalism?

“My role in capitalism is the same as anyone else who isn’t a capitalist. I am going to be exploited for my labor (making music) and I will never most likely see a lot of success or fame regardless of how good I am. Not that that’s something we should strive for, I think capitalism has ingrained that in my head. I mean I’ll be exploited like everyone else. Just a part of the system doing their best to survive.”

Question 5: How do you think capitalism influences the arts?

“I mean looping back to the thing I just said. I am aware of the ingrained idea I have as a musician which is the ‘live fast, die young, make it big’ mentality. That’s how capitalism treats artists. Especially musicians. Artists either make it big or they don’t. There is no living comfortably with the arts. It’s not something you can devote your life to. You have to pick up a day job. What should be their passion and the thing that they devote their entire life to is always always always referred to as a side gig. Under capitalism if it is not making something tangible or routinely exploitable, a resource or labor that is infinitely exploitable, it is not useful to capitalism. That’s why the image of the starving artist is the  first thing that comes to mind when someone says they want to major in an art. Beauty is not sustainable under capitalism.”


The interviewee has a fairly coherent view of capitalism. They seem to understand it as a system that is not natural but tied to a historical and technological context. The musician understands capitalism as a rapacious thing that requires expansion to grow, even going as far as to invent things to commodify. The interviewee also posits that capitalism views labor as an exploitable resource and imagines the perfect resource from a capitalist perspective is one that is infinite. This is interesting as it is essentially an admission that capitalism is unsustainable as few resources are infinite and those are mostly conceptual resources.

Unlike other interviewees, there is no mention of social mobility. The interviewee is an artist and understands art in capitalism as essentially a lottery. One “makes it and dies young” or toils in obscurity. The understanding of capitalism as something that intrinsically devalues art is quite interesting as it is a criticism that many levy even if they do not realize that capitalism is the root cause, as this interviewee does. Take for example complaints about micro-transactions in video games or low-quality Netflix shows.

Capitalism is also understood by this person as inherently unstable due to the inherent greediness of the system. They explain that even things like war and space travel are permissible for profit. There is the implied understanding of capitalism as amoral while other systems are potentially moral. There is one unifying trait with the other interviewees that I have interviewed, and that is the concept that the driving force behind negative aspects of capitalism is the rich. This interviewee understands the rich as symptomatic of a system, however. Not the origin of the negative associations.

“Working will get you where you need to be”

The interviewee here is a young male high school drop out with a GED. They have worked several part-time jobs, live at home, and are currently attempting to find long-term employment. The most relevant section of each response has been quoted below.

Question 1: How do you define capitalism?

“What I think it is, is the system in place where money gets you further, if that makes any sense. The more you work the more you’ll earn, the better you’ll be, etc. In reality it’s much more complicated. Lots of ins and outs. But that’s the basis. Working will get you where you need to be and you have to do it yourself.”

Question 2: What role does capitalism play in your daily life?

“Well I do try to make money and get a job. Which I think capitalism is. I do frivolous spending which have no real meaning but scratch an itch. The standard. Everyone spends what they can when they can.”

Question 3: What differentiates capitalism from other modes of production.

“The rich get richer easier, under the guise of having done it themselves. In reality it’s being born into it and what not. Capitalism is more self-serving.

Question 4: Do you believe capitalism is inherent to society.

“No, not at all. There are other places that have been more successful that big capitalist America that operated under different systems. So no, not at all.”

Question 5: How do you think capitalism has evolved over the years, if at all?

“More corrupt now. It’s like I said earlier, the rich are getting richer, the cost of everything is increasing and the wage is not. Capitalism here at least is becoming worse.”


The interviewee understands capitalism to be, at its core, a system where work returns money. The more work one puts in, the more money one gets. It is a very natural part of life, everyone gets a job and spends on things they like when they can, but they can imagine alternatives. Beyond that, they think there is historical precedent for these systems.

However, there is a sense that this system, which is not inherently distasteful, has become corrupt over time. The interviewee could not articulate why this happened. To them capitalism has a central nature independent from the actions of its participants, but certain participants abridge this, namely the rich.

The interviewee’s understanding of capitalism is decently national. While they acknowledge and understand that capitalism exists other places, they seem to think it is different or that American capitalism. This could root from only being familiar or being most familiar with capitalism close to home, or it could indicate an understanding of the U.S. as capitalist at heart. Unique in that inherent-ness, even if capitalism isn’t natural.

The overall view of capitalism by the interviewee is interesting as it demonstrates how one can understand contradictions or flaws in capitalism by lived experiences even if one does not have a solid definition per se.

“I Mean, I Guess I’m a Consumer”


The interviewee is a collegiate senior whose passions include library science, writing, and literature. The individual has no training in economics or political philosophy in an orthodox or amateur manner. The interviewee comes from what the U.S. would colloquially deem a middle-class background. I’ve compiled excerpts of the more relevant sections of the interview below.

Question 1: How do you define capitalism?

“It’s an economic system where you- see the thing is I don’t know a lot about other economic systems so I don’t really know if I’m describing capitalism or something else. A system where you- I dunno, I feel very on the spot. I guess it’s your supposed to get paid based on the quality or quantity of the work you do. Some people get paid a lot and some people don’t and sometimes it’s arbitrary and that creates different economic classes.”

Question 2: How do you think capitalism has evolved over the years, if at all?

“Well I’m sure it started out as a good idea. I’m sure at some point it functioned properly and everyone benefitted the way they were supposed to, but now it’s evolved long beyond that and only serves a select few, leaving the rest of us suffering.”

Question 3: What is your role in capitalism?

“I mean, I guess I’m a consumer. I don’t really create anything so I don’t think I’m a producer. Like how they teach you in kindergarten that you’re one or the other. No one really elaborates on that.”

Question 4: Do you think of capitalism as beneficial to your life?

“Is one of the questions ‘do you think you benefit from capitalism’ because no, not really. I’ve never experienced any other system but if I wasn’t in a capitalist society I dunno if it would be worse. It’s certainly not great now.”

Question 5: What differentiates capitalism from other modes of production?

“I mean I don’t really know any other types of economic systems. I know socialism is an alternative but I don’t listen to you [Drew Underwood] enough to really define it. I guess I don’t really have an answer, I don’t really know enough about other modes of production. Teaching that sort of thing is extremely taboo. No school would teach it accurately, even college classes. I’d have to find that on my own.”


The interviewee highlights a crucial and fundamental point: the dominant ideology seeks to seem like fact, and due to this many people lack the language to criticize or analyze capitalism even if they are frustrated with it. Unrest is either channeled through the vector of electorailsm which does not address the issues people are experiencing or simply chalked up to the product of the inscrutable forces that must dictate modern life. The market is so foreign to understanding that people simply assume that the economists are scientists telling them the truth about a natural phenomenon and not academics purporting a view that is not always in line with sociological or historical findings.

This is not a moral failing or the result of sloth. Take the interviewee, who is by all indication a kind, intelligent, and savvy person. They do not lack the language because they are inattentive or reluctant to improve themselves, the cultural hegemony is just inimical to understanding alternative systems beyond vague bad feelings about them and propagandic platitudes. This does not only apply to leftism, the classical foe of liberalism, but precapitalist production as well. If one asked your average St. Louis resident about the Ming economy, they would likely not be able to make comparisons beyond vague broad strokes (even if the Ming economy was first explained to them). This is even the case among economists to a certain extent.

Another key concept to note is that even the understanding of capitalism is fairly rudimentary to a collegiate level student. Granted those in economics programs are likely more familiar (even if this familiarity starts from a system taken as fact), but the interviewee could only think up an A->B interaction taught to them in elementary school. It is worth thinking about why this is and what mechanisms encourage this. Furthermore, why?