Clambering to Be Content under Capitalism

Based on the interviews my classmates and I conducted throughout this semester, I gained a greater perspective of the average person’s qualms with capitalism. The public perception of the capitalist system focuses mainly on its weaknesses. A few individuals found capitalism unquestionably successful, however, the majority believed the system needed fixing. Respondents shared concerns over greed, inequity, and the lack of a social safety net within a capitalist economy. Although the participants in the interviews generally shared negative attitudes concerning capitalism, they were reluctant to embrace alternative economic systems. Though participants all had strong ideas surrounding their position in a capitalist society, they suggested that changing the operations of capitalism is well beyond their control, and they kept their focus on just getting through the workday.

The subjects I interviewed expressed that capitalism is an imperfect system, though they had mixed interpretations of the best ways to remedy the ideology’s flaws. Many interviewees alluded to Karl Polanyi’s theory of the double movement: when economic situations worsen- people tend to push for better conditions- and the government typically responds with solutions. Similar to Polanyi’s description of the free market as a utopia, participants expressed that although a free market economy sounds like a good system, in theory, there are concerns of inequity and instability that plague capitalism. Perspectives on whether or not government involvement in regulating the market was a good thing were mixed. Participants generally noted that the government had the power to look out for the average person. But, similar to the political-capitalist figures who shaped the economic development of New York, discussed in Brian Murphy’s Building the Empire State, interviewees noted that the government and the economy are almost inseparable actors.

In my interviews, the participant with the fewest years of education had more fears of the concept of government interference. I believe the working position of the respondents also affected how they viewed capitalism. Of the three people I interviewed, the one in retirement seemed to have a generally positive view of government intervention in the economic sphere, while the interviewee working at a big box store held a more negative outlook. How much control people feel they have over their lives impacted their thoughts on the government’s interactions with the economy. The box store worker, who noted he felt used and overlooked in his daily life, spoke about how owners of big businesses influenced political decisions. Continuing, he brought up religion in the context of discussing how capitalism impacts his everyday life. He noted that gods word is more important than the powers at play within the economic and political sphere. His incline toward religion showed me how capitalism can feel like something so beyond the average person, it feels like we are all predestined to the roles the system assigns us and that our only hope is that whoever oversees us has our best interest. Though this respondent was particularly firm in his thoughts on government in capitalism many interviewed individuals echoed similar ideas. Interviewed subjects explained that government officials care more about lining their pockets and winning elections than looking out for the interests of the public. Respondents viewed concerns over their safety and health as collateral in the political game.

My interviews revealed a pattern where people recognized the falsehood that capitalism is a system based on merit and hard work. Participants described the economic system as one designed so the rich get richer. Respondents also expressed that many opportunities are not available to all people and that being born into favorable conditions typically granted a more comfortable future. The majority of participants did not describe what comprised favorable situations other than being a part of a privileged few, though some noted that being white gave an advantage. However, two participants claimed that capitalism was a color-blind system where people of all races could find success. It is important to note that both participants who viewed capitalism as color-blind were white. Many interviewees noticed and condemned the racial and class factors instilled in America’s capitalist economy but did not express having a knowledge of the deep history of racism embedded into the capitalist system. Though, the idea of racism being a prevalent factor in who gets advantages in today’s economy only highlights the ideas expressed in Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism. This acknowledgment that capitalism is not just a system affected by racism, but one created in racist ideologies that serve as a means to maintain racial status-quos.

Along with recognizing the concept of inequities imposed by capitalism, participants noted a lack of a social safety net. Interviewees worried about access to quality health care and corporate greed. They saw that uncontrolled capitalism leaves some people off much worse than others. Many claimed that the government should be responsible for distributing funds to help people pay for things like health care and education. A few interviewees believed that anyone could obtain security by working hard enough and that the government should not be involved. Though other participants contested this viewpoint, accounting for factors such as disability or poverty that could prevent a person from obtaining a steady job.

Though most participants held criticism toward capitalism, they also expressed they were grateful for the freedoms the system provided. Many interviewees said capitalism gave them the freedom to choose things like how to spend their money and what career path they followed. Although many also expressed that these freedoms come at a cost to the greater good and the environment. Perhaps the privilege of freedom to choose is worth more than other people’s safety or environmental conservation. Though most participants did have genuine concern over capitalist greed and its impact on American politics, they reflected that the ability to choose is enticing. My interviewees also noted that they did not ponder the effects of capitalism daily.

Conversing about the system made most participants uncomfortable. All three people I surveyed feared saying something insensitive. Discussing the impacts of capitalism is difficult for people who feel they have little control over the system. Interviewees looked to different modes of escapism such as religion, their families, their hobbies, or even the kind of occupation they pursue to combat the loss of individualism imposed by a system that expects hard work with little reward for the average person. Respondents expressed that they either do not have the time to ponder the negative aspects of capitalist ideology or that doing so is too overwhelming. Most people try to take life day by day without thinking of the intricacies of capitalism. Maybe not paying it too much mind is the only way to rationalize living under such a system.

It’s Difficult to Define and Difficult to Defy

The interviewee is in her early twenties working at a startup company in Manhattan. She remarked, “that is such a loaded question,” in response to being asked to define capitalism. She described capitalism as “a system that assumes people want a lot of money.” The interviewee is a self-proclaimed artist who took on a full-time job at a company that sells a marketing product. Her thoughts on capitalism reflect someone who is self-aware of being caught up in hustle culture but whose aspirations to create films push her to continue working.

“I think younger people are warier of capitalism than older generations,” she stated. “The red scare and the cold war had everyone afraid of communism, so older people tend to think more highly of capitalism.” Though the interviewee claimed to be of a generation more critical of capitalism, she also added, “I’m good at making money, I think there are a lot of stupid people who are good at making money though.” She likes to disassociate herself with a crowd only interested in profit as she observed, “some people see making money as success.” However, she has a different way of defining success, she sees it as doing what you love, but she is aware that under capitalism, “you have to play by the rules.” She explained that working hard now and saving is how she will start her film career and get away from working for money in the future.

The interviewee has aspirations of ascending beyond the need to work for a living, but currently, she is discontent with her job. “I like my coworkers, but I hate what I do,” she remarked. “I feel guilty,” she added regarding her company. “I don’t like selling something that promotes hyper-consumerism.” She often worries about the repercussions of her job, “I don’t like selling something that subconsciously gets people to buy things they don’t need, it’s a waste of money and bad for the environment.” She continued on her concern for the environmental impacts of consumerism, “we market for products designed to break, and then people have to buy more things.” The drive of her company to market items for a profit often overlooks the repercussions of mass production and consumption. She feels her position in this system, while a tragedy of circumstance, is aiding the rise of consumerist culture.

The interviewee worries about whether the practices at the company where she works are ethical or justifiable, “many companies will put profit over almost anything if they can get away with it.” When asked if there was a better system, she responded, “As much as I question capitalism, there are no other systems that seem to work as well at such a large scale.” She also mentioned how, though many people see capitalism as a system of equal opportunity, this idea is far from the truth. She emphasized her fortune, “I got pretty lucky, I was born in an area with a good public education system and got to go to college. Not everyone gets that.”

Though the interviewee questions the moral implications of capitalism, there is no escape from her nine to five until she can reach her goal of becoming an independent filmmaker. And even then, “capitalism,” she sighed, “is not that simple.”

It Doesn’t Help to Think About it

He had just gotten off his 3:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. shift at the big box store where he works. “Capitalism, I try to stay away from that stuff,” he joked to me. “Well, no, there is no way of getting away from it,” he added, assuring me he was only kidding. The interviewee views capitalism as a way of life, with no escape, but he has an optimistic take for someone who feels overworked.

When asked how he would define capitalism, he took the “powers that be” approach. “It’s a bunch of rich guys who own stocks, and we all work under them.” I was intrigued by his response to the question, no words like “economics” or “system.” The interviewee sees capitalism as far beyond his control and in the hands of wealthy company owners.

I asked him how he feels about his job. He explained that he is generally content but added that things could be better. “Right now, I’m feeling discriminated against because I’m an old fart.” He is in his sixties and complained that he has spent twenty years working at the same company and feels his hard work has barely been recognized. “It’s better than other companies, I feel like we are compensated fairly well, but you’ll always feel underpaid.” He continued, telling me, “they tell you things like thank you or good job, and that’s nice and all but it’s just words.” He alluded to the idea that in a world where the dollar controls life– he would take a larger paycheck over kind sentiments.

The interviewee sees faults in the company where he works, but he also expressed that he is thankful for his job and is glad it provides him with good health care. Though, our conversation took an unexpected turn when he added, “you know, we are not just living to be workers at some company.” Then he continued explaining, “I don’t know what the right system to live under is, I guess his system.” I was not sure who he meant when he said “his,” but then he added, “you know, it’s all in god’s hands, and you got to follow him, not the capitalism will.” I was not expecting this response, but I admired his optimism. Under a system that expects long working hours with little reward, religion can act as a coping mechanism.

The interviewee expressed that capitalism is a system that is far from his control, but he tries not to ponder on it too much. He also said that he does not like to focus much on politics either. He feels as if politicians often do not have the interests of the working-class in mind. “They don’t do us right,” he claimed, “people with a lot of money influence things, and they can manipulate it on you.” His thoughts on capitalism showed me that in a world where the dollar speaks, it is difficult to trust people, especially people with a lot of money. For him, religion provides escapism from a world where he feels like a cog in the machine and gives him a sense of hope and individualism.

Changing for the Better

Interview 1:

She responded, “these are not easy questions,” when asked whether the system of capitalism was beneficial. The person interviewed is 84 years old. Her perspective on capitalism has been shaped by a changing world and the experiences of her mother and father. “My mother had to go to work instead of high school,” she remembered. Her mother, born around 1904, lived an experience that is hard to imagine an American child having today. The interviewee’s mother’s mother died when she was young. Her father worked in the city and did not have the time to raise a daughter, so she lived with her grandmother who did not speak much English. Capitalism undoubtedly shaped her life. The interviewee’s mother was thirteen when she went to a business school and started working full-time at a meat-packing plant as a secretary. “Even though she wasn’t educated she was smart. That’s why she got the job she did,” the interviewee claimed. Then she asked, “Can you imagine being a fourteen-year-old hopping on the trolley to go to work every day?” The image of a child that young having a full-time job feels so far removed from the experiences of the majority of American children today. “I think she liked it though,” she explained, “it’s hard for me to think it was a bad thing for her.” Considering the period, it was not the worst thing a child could be doing. “It made her grow up fast,” the interviewee added. She never reflected on whether or not growing up fast was a good or bad thing, though the tone of her voice indicated indifference. “I think of all the systems Capitalism is the best one we have,” the interviewee stated, “though there are flaws, I think a free market means free people.” She then asked me, “do you agree?” Though her ideas were concise, she seemed hesitant in her responses, almost afraid to say the wrong thing. “I think Capitalism would not be possible today without the changes that have happened.” Continuing this thought she explained, “The government is much more involved than it used to be, which overall I believe is a good thing, though you don’t want the government overly involved.” Elaborating she used Sweeden as an example, “it was once very socialist, which I think was bad for the country, they are much more Capitalist now.” Her views on Capitalism are shaped by the opportunities that have shifted since her mother was a child and increasing government involvement. In her eyes government involvement has improved the American quality of life, though she believes too much involvement would be detrimental to personal freedoms. She ended her interview by explaining, “Capitalism and all, it is walking on a fine line, and who we elect matters.” Overall, though she noted flaws within the Capitalist system, she explained it as a system of opportunity and change. She believes the desires of an average person remain influential in a capitalist society and that capitalism ensures individual freedom.

-Helen Dhue