Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?

The three interviews that I conducted this semester surveyed a range of ages and stages in life, salary range, and knowledge of capitalism as a system and how it operates. However, despite the range of personal perspectives and experiences, the collective thought regarding capitalism was not a positive one, which I was surprised to see across the board. Judging from the history of capitalism in the United States and the ingrained nature of labor in the economy, I believed in the beginning that a large percentage of my interviewees would feel like capitalism was the American economy and therefore there was no changing that. However, that was not the case to the extent that, although the interviewees commonly viewed themselves as “cogs in the machine,” the outlook on capitalism swayed towards the negative. From the recent college graduate, M, to the college senior, T, I expected to see a similar perspective of capitalism given their age and economic status, especially regarding their liberal philosophies and views.

I did not expect the final interviewee, which was a Southern older gentleman who had been working for over fifty years, to so passionately reject and defend capitalism. BR first and foremost felt that he had been cheated by the system. He provides a careful critique of what he considers the American dream of capitalism, discarding the idea as unrealistic in corporate America. His first declaration that capitalism “is s**t” set the tone for the rest of the interview. BR’s condemnation of capitalism stems from the cyclical nature of poverty and how it feels inescapable. BR attempted his entire life to escape from poverty, working from the time he was 14 in an effort to do something with his life. The establishment of his business and the economic growth that he was able to experience was short-lived, with the market crash bringing it to a quick halt. The shift from seeing himself as an innovator to a “cog in the machine” hit immediately, and his view of capitalism changed from a positive outlook to a negative future. His resentment of capitalism, however, is broken by his belief that capitalism is the only system that works and his connection between capitalism and U.S. values. The lack of information that both M and BR have on other economic systems is indicative of their belief that capitalism defines America and their lack of education regarding capitalism as an economic system and what factors make it run. The “cog in the machine” perspective of capitalism leads to what I would describe as both weariness and a general distrust of the economy.

All three of my interviewees have experienced poverty, and that drastically changes the overall view of capitalism and what can be achieved through working in the system. For the young college graduate, the phrase “capitalism doesn’t support me the way I support capitalism” plays into his ignorance of how capitalism works and his own frustrations over the cycle of working, paying taxes, and dying. The idea that capitalism is the lesser of two evils fits in with BR’s beliefs, and that total socialist programs would not work. With socialism as both BR’s and M’s only comparison to capitalism, the choice is clear. There is a small chance that one can rise to the top and make millions, and that small chance is enough for those two interviewees to accept capitalism in the American economic system. Most Americans, without an education in economics or business, do not fully understand how capitalism works as a system in a social, political, and economic sense. T, however, had the educational background to understand how capitalism worked and was the main proponent against capitalism. Ironically, her greater comprehension of capitalism lead to her greater rejection of it as a system and contributed to her ambivalence regarding the nature of capitalism as a system and its pros and cons.

The interviewees M, T, and BR present a spectrum of views that both reject capitalism for its faults and embrace capitalism for its opportunities. BR, although he expressed his bitter feelings towards capitalism and the market after the loss of his business, believes that there is no alternative to capitalism despite his disdain. T, on the other hand, strayed into socialist territory regarding social laws and some economic regulation. Her inherent knowledge of capitalism as a system was the highest, yet she had the biggest issue with it as a part of America’s economy than either BR or M. M splits the middle between BR and T; he both firmly believes that he could have the chance to rise in status, but also asserts that socialist programs should be implemented by the government to alleviate the mental and physical toll capitalism takes on the laborer. Through these three interviews, all three to some extent reject capitalism for what they believe to be a form of corruption but view its positives as outweighing the negatives in the long haul. This group of interviewees provides a conflicting perspective of capitalism that struggles to combine optimism in the face of economic growth with pessimism regarding their expected economic outcome.

Based on these interviews, as well as observing the interviews of other classmates through their posts, across the board there remains this idea that Americans only have a very fundamental understanding of capitalism and what it does. The idea that one can become rich under capitalism is appealing, especially to those who are or have been under the poverty line. More education on economic systems, in this case, indicates a more critical approach to the negatives of capitalism and points out the struggle to change classes under capitalism. The superficial definition and understanding of capitalism contribute to its idealization in the media and in the public’s eyes, allowing for that narrative of capitalism to continue. I myself would have been in the first category of people prior to this class. However, more education and further critical thinking on the subject allowed me to more deeply understand capitalism as a system and the overall effect it has on the American people. The idealization of capitalism and the view that the pros of capitalism outweigh the cons only exists without the education of American citizens as to how a capitalist system operates and how regulation is enforced.

50 Years of Work and Nothing to Show

The interviewee, referred to as BR, is a sixty-six-year-old man who works in a Purina cat-litter factory as a forklift driver. From far rural VA, BR has experience working on a dairy farm, several factories, and even owned his own business in lawn care. BR dropped out of high school to join the military to support his family when he was 17 years old after the family farm took a turn for the worse, and so his second job was driving trucks in Korea. He tried to build himself up with a successful business in lawn care, but the 2008 recession drove the business into the ground. His experience with capitalism throughout his life caused his perspective to change regarding the market and the system of labor. His disillusionment with capitalism provides a remarkably different outlook than the perspective of the previous interviewees, who were either college students or recent college graduates.

How do you define capitalism? 

How do I define capitalism? Easy. Capitalism is s**t, boy. It’s a dog-eat-dog system where cutthroat can’t even begin to describe the things someone will do to get an upper hand over somebody else. I’ve done it, but do I regret it? No, you have to play the system to survive in the system. Capitalism is individualism at its finest, let me tell you that. Nobody matters but yourself. 

How do you think capitalism impacts the economy? 

What do you mean how does capitalism impact the economy? That’s a stupid question, girl, capitalism is the only thing that impacts the economy. The economy is run on the system, and the system controls the end product. I learned one thing working at places like BJ’s or Purina, you are a cog in a great machine that pumps out money for people that aren’t you. The biggest machine of them all isn’t the government, it isn’t the economy, it’s what drives both of those things and that a theory, the theory of capitalism that somehow we adopted. 

How do you see yourself in a capitalistic economy? 

I tried to play the economy as an entrepreneur, but the system failed me. I had a very successful business mowing lawns and landscaping in Tennessee, catering to the rich. The 2008 Recession hit me hard, that no good Bush’s bad regulation caught up in the end. I used to see myself as an innovator, a man of business who was going to take the world by storm. Instead, I ended up jobless and almost homeless because of the system. Now I know I am just a cog in the machine like I said. 

What differentiates capitalism from other economic systems in your opinion? 

I wish I could answer that question. I don’t know much about any other economic systems; I was in Korea during the end of the Cold War, and that was about the end of my relationship with “commies.” I could not give a s**t what other economic systems there are because this is the one I have to deal with. 

How did your parents view capitalism? Does it differ from you? 

My parents were adults during the Great Depression, and that does a number on you. My mama used to save plastic baggies and rinse them out with water so that we could use them again. Stuff like that. Economic hardship does things to you. For a bunch of coal miners from Clintwood, [Virginia], you had to do everything you could to scrape by. The economic system wasn’t a concern. My parents dropped out of high school too, married real young. They didn’t see the bigger picture, they just saw the price for food and gas and knew they needed to cut corners to feed everyone. With that in mind, of course, my parents’ view of capitalism is different. I’d be offended if it wasn’t. 

Has capitalism been positive or detrimental to your life? 

I’d say detrimental, but I have food on the table and a roof over my head. It took forever to get here, but I am thankful for what I do have. But off the record? Officially detrimental. I lost my business, I almost lost my home, I’ve struggled to feed myself and my kids, and I have seen the way that the system has treated my kids. Poverty is harmful, and capitalism breeds it. So I guess that’s what I have to say on the matter.


BR is both cynical and realistic when it comes to his understanding of capitalism. Given what I knew of his experiences in the workforce, I was unsure which way he would go in regards to resenting or exalting capitalism. Instead, there is a gruff condemnation of the way that “the system,” as he calls it repeatedly, is run and how it is distributed. Dealing with poverty in both childhood and adulthood gives a different perspective to the fluctuations of the market and how it can impact your daily life personally. BR gives a detailed account of why he has to accept capitalism for what it is because it is the American economic system but bemoans the downfall of his business and the difficulties of working as someone without a high school diploma. BR says that he sees the “bigger picture” better than most Americans and that trying to keep up with the constant changes and influences feels nearly impossible. This perspective of capitalism, shaped by decades of hard manual labor and struggle, truly believes that our economy can only be run through capitalism. BR’s illuminating interview brought up several points regarding the cyclic nature of poverty and economic oppression, and he seems to feel that there is nothing he can do to change his status. Although it is a bit of a bleak outlook on capitalism, his past experiences warrant his doubts.

An Economic Major’s Perspective

This interview was completed by T, a 23 years old senior college student who has been working since she was 15 years old in both serving and factory jobs. She views herself as lower-middle class, both growing up and now as a working adult paying her way through school. She is currently studying applied economics and business and has an office job offer lined up in Quantico following graduation. Her knowledge of economics and her critique of the overarching concept of capitalism proved to be an intriguing and informative discussion. The most impactful part of her interview is described under each question, and, after the interview was completed, I went back and reflected on her views and observations. 

  1. How do you define capitalism? 
    1. I don’t know if you want to ask me about capitalism, it might turn into my manifesto. . . Alright, I’m an economics major so I should know this. Capitalism is an economic system where people and companies work towards their own individual profit instead of the state controlling it. I learned one thing in class.
  1. How do you think that capitalism impacts the economy?
    1. Well since we are a capitalist economy I would like to think capitalism impacts the economy quite a bit. . .instead of human rights playing a role in laws and stuff its private companies own interests. Some things have to be controlled by the state, we’re seeing the impact of that in things like healthcare right now. Allowing the production of goods necessary for the survival of humans given their circumstances at a set price is just horrible. When we lost our insurance the flat rate for anything medical was so high that if I got sick or hurt before I got back on insurance, I didn’t know if I could pay it. 
  1. What role do you see yourself playing in a capitalist society?
    1. Anyone living in a capitalist society has a role in it. I am working, going to school to get better jobs to work, or spending my small amount of free time doing whatever I want. All of that amounts to either my own individual profit or the company I am working for’s profit. Even the university profits from my desire to get a job requiring a college degree, and those student loans put food on the table for the people whose calls I ignore. I’m an economics major; the study of capitalism is inherent in understanding the American economy.
  1. What do you think of other types of economic systems? 
    1. I would say I am socialist if I didn’t find so many problems with socialism. Some kind of socialist system? In an ideal world, I guess. The production of goods and services for use at least sounds better than for purely profit. Let’s go back to bartering, I don’t know. 
  1. How do you think capitalism has evolved over the years? 
    1. It seems more cutthroat now, I guess, but I only have my lifetime to observe, and only half of it if that. When I was a kid it felt like everyone famous was a millionaire. Now we have billionaires and trillionaires. No human should be able to accumulate that kind of wealth. 1 percent of the population with a majority of the money? That just doesn’t seem fair. It’s evolved so that the people at the top keep getting richer and richer, and the only way you can launch yourself there is a good idea and a loan. And underneath the people become poorer and poorer as they hoped that maybe, if they worked hard enough, they might rise to the top too. In reality, capitalism is becoming meaner. 
  1. What do you think are some positive and negative effects of capitalism? 
    1. I can probably speak more about the negatives than the positives. . .capitalism definitely promotes inequality as an innate part of its structure. People profit off of other people. Us regular citizens get caught in this boom and bust system where we don’t know what the price of something will be from one day to the next. I want to start my own business, but I know it is going to be hard with other companies monopolies on the market and the hard start for up and coming businesses to get off the ground. On a positive note, if I do make a really successful business, I will be very well off and might buy a few dozen cats. But the chance that I get there is small. I don’t really want to think about it.

T knew quite a bit on the subject of capitalism given her major and therefore made several points that I found very thought-provoking. I surprised the interviewee with the interview, so she was not given time to prepare her statements or look up anything. The interviewee had very little to positively say about capitalism, looking at the downfalls of capitalism and their views of capitalism per their experiences. Given their major and their personal goals for the future, T’s anxiety, when faced with the uncertainty of the market and a capitalist world, showed at the end when I asked them about the positives and negatives of capitalism. Trying to break into the world of business is scary because there are so many older and bigger competitors in the American market, and I think that is what pushed the interviewee’s view of the economic system.

“Love-Hate Relationship”


The person being interviewed is a graduate of the University of Mary Washington currently working in theatre as a lighting technician. He has not taken an economics class since high school, and his understanding of capitalism for the most part connects to his conception of the current U.S. economy and economic system. His graduation into the world of the pandemic and the current situation of the job force has given him an intriguing view of capitalism and its goals. The most succinct answers to the given questions are written below, removing the pause fillers and repeated words.

Question 1: How do you define capitalism?

“I guess if I were to describe it, it would be the American economic system, but if someone were to ask me for the definition, I don’t know what it is. I think it’s an open-ended economics system or something like that but with a little bit more rules and regulations.”

Question 2: How do you think capitalism impacts the economy?

“It is the economy; I mean kind of, but no. Aren’t we a trillion dollars in debt? If capitalism was doing what it was supposed to do, which is positively impact the economy, I don’t see a lot of evidence that supports that.”

Question 3: What role do you see capitalism playing in your daily life?

“Working 9:00 am to 5 pm, paying taxes, and dying as a hardworking American should. That’s the end of my answer. You got my answer. Theoretically, it’s supposed to be the driving factor as to why I go and get a job, and there are supposed to be benefits. But with capitalism not helping with health insurance or 401ks, capitalism doesn’t support me the way that I support capitalism.”

Question 4: What do you think of economic systems other than capitalism?

“When dealing with economic systems it feels like we are picking the lesser of the evils. We aren’t allowed to live on the planet, eat what we need, and exist with what we need because people want and need to exist with other things. Like, we don’t need to go be hunters and gatherers, but why can’t we have state-paid health insurance? At the expense of raising taxes, because nothing is free, but when you compare to having bad eyesight that you have no control over, what if you could just pay a little more out of a paycheck rather than pay thousands of dollars in copays? The line is very thin as to where capitalism is good and bad, and I am not enough of a professional to understand those or to make a decision.”

Question 5: How do you think capitalism has evolved over the years?

“I think people have made it evolve to what they wanted it to. It’s the reason I can’t remember the definition from school, even though I definitely learned it, because it is constantly evolving and changing. It’s weird to see the effect of Americans on capitalism because I don’t think we are very conscious about our effect or our influence on the economy. I think we react to what’s happening in the news and gas prices and things like that instead of focusing on what’s going on in a capitalist system. Take gas prices again for example. If I am driving and I see that gas went down from yesterday, I will for sure be more likely to stop than if gas had gone up in price from yesterday. I do not consciously think about buying when the gas is cheaper could have an effect on the economy or American capitalism. It used to be a conscious thing to be a consumer. Now it’s just life.”

Question 5: Do you find capitalism to be effective?

“Yeah, for sure. I mean, plenty of people are rich, they make 100,000 a year. When you understand the system and you are able to use the benefits that are for people who are successful, then you are able to create another abundance of success. I don’t think it’s effective for everyone though, which I don’t think it is designed to be. If it was, then why are things the way they are? Why is America in debt? Why am I in debt?”


He looked at himself as a consumer of goods and a producer of labor, someone who lives and dies in the system while trying as hard as he can to succeed within a capitalist setup. But how can someone succeed financially in an economic system that they know little about?  Although he could not fully define the system, he did understand his inherent ignorance on the subjects and wondered if his lack of knowledge of the system was purposeful. His statement that ”capitalism does not support me the way that I support capitalism” suggests that he believes the system is broken and does not support the common worker, but thinks it to be effective in allowing producers to accumulate more and more wealth. Hopeful Americans can stand with capitalism given the small opportunity to rise to the upper one percent in wealth. If that opportunity exists, the system of capitalism will continue to pique human interest and development. 

The comparison to gas prices is interesting as it relates to a previous discussion in class, in which the supply and demand of a product determines the price, but the public can blame that difference on a variety of factors that do not relate to the actual change in price. The interviewee’s admittance that he did not care why the price went down, just that it did, suggests that his interaction with the market and his understanding of it are not equal. This raises questions as to why consumers stay ignorant of the processes of capitalism when there are no benefits. The term “react” is a fantastic way to describe what people do in response to the push and pull of supply and demand. The lack of understanding of the readable movements of the market allow for people to react in certain predictable ways, such as the outrage at shortages or commentary on an abundance of a type of product. He admitted to being prone to those same reactions, but understands that there are forces beyond his control that shift the prices of commodities. 

A love-hate relationship seems to describe a common paradigm of the American working class with capitalism. Although their place in capitalism and as a member of the labor force gives the working class certain benefits, this subject’s discontent at the outcome of the system and his experience within it possibly conveys a larger overarching tension between capitalism and capitalists and the means of production.