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.

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.

Reflections on How we Understand American Capitalism

My interviewees did not surprise me.  Each of them reflected stereotypes that I expected to see going into this project, stereotypes that I think are pretty indicative to how we wrestle with capitalism in our daily society.  As a whole, the questions we created as a class do a good job at capturing these stereotypes or misconceptions, especially in terms of understanding the relationship between history and capitalism, and how capitalism evolved from nineteenth-century America into our modern global financial system.

Continue reading Reflections on How we Understand American Capitalism

Reflections on the History of American Capitalism

My interviewees generally reflected a number of trends about the way that we as a country understand capitalism today. My interviewees came from a  wide range of political perspectives, and there was certainly varying viewpoints and degrees of nuance expressed in their answers to different questions. I felt the questions we came up with as a group served well to highlight the areas where people did have a stronger understanding of capitalism, and the areas where they had a less complete understanding. The overall impression I received from my interviewees was that most of them understood, on at least a basic level, what capitalism essentially is and how it functions in practice. The answers I got when asking about the origins of capitalism or how it interacted with society, however, were much less certain.


My first interviewee, a family member named Chris, has an MBA in Finance from Georgia State, so not surprisingly, his answers on questions about defining capitalism and how it actually works were fairly informed answers. When asked about the origins of capitalism though, Adam Smith was the only specific person or timeframe he could directly point to.

There’s cynical undertones to some of his answers; Chris, a former college Republican who never voted Democrat in a Presidential election until 2008, originally had libertarian or classically liberal beliefs about the free market and considered capitalism to be a entirely beneficial system. I think these are entirely typical beliefs of someone who grew up during the Cold War, when capitalism was juxtaposed against communism in what was portrayed as a grand clash of democracy and free markets against collectivism. The change in his views is an interesting one; he’s become decidedly more skeptical about the market over time, especially following the 2008 recession and his brief period of unemployment in 2011-2012. That was a personal experience for him, but I feel that it reflects something of a chink in the facade that capitalism presents; when times are good, it’s easy to portray capitalism as both an efficient and a morally good system, but when the good times end, people become more open to alternatives to capitalism. Unrestricted capitalism, when it runs wild, ultimately destroys itself, as in the Great Depression, and has to be rehabilitated. We saw in Burgin’s The Great Persuasion and the Wal-Mart reading that it took an extended period of time and a combination of intellectual and more ground-up processes for laissez-faire capitalism to again become part of mainstream American politics, and not just part, but the dominant economic ideology from the 1980s up until 2008.


My second interviewee, KH, is a fellow student here at UMW, and she’s decidedly in favor of the free market in general, not surprisingly since she is a supporter of the Republican Party. What stood out to me about her interview was the casual way she referred to capitalism as some kind of an abstract force; she described capitalism itself as being responsible for things, rather than people in a capitalist system or people who were participating in capitalism. I think this ties into the way she was taught capitalism; when I asked her how capitalism had been taught to her, she said that she thought it had been taught to her in a balanced way. But it seemed clear to me that while she was certainly willing to characterize certain famous capitalists and business practices as not being entirely good, the system of capitalism itself was never portrayed as anything but an objectively good thing during her education.

The answers she gave about the alternatives to capitalism as well revealed a harsh view of certain alternatives. She associated capitalism somewhat with mercantilism, but considered communism, socialism, and fascism to be all part of the same package in some ways, and she drew the National Socialists (Nazi) connection between fascism and socialism. This is somewhat ludicrous on the face of it; the Nazis purged any actual socialists from Germany under Hitler’s regime. But I think it’s revealing of a way that Americans often conceive any sort of state control or direction of the economy as being an action of a sort of totalitarian other, coming back again to the Cold War view of the free market and communism, and harkening back to World War II with fascism.


My third interviewee, MS, had perhaps the most balanced perspective on capitalism in that he neither discounts any alternatives or holds it up as an absolute good. He thinks capitalism is good in that when people’s merits are equal to the task, they can rise quickly, but when people become useless from an economic perspective, they’re left by the wayside. When I asked him if he thought capitalism is a meritocratic system, he answered “Not anymore,” and stated that it used to be, but today, that it mainly benefits the One Percent, the elite. When I asked him about the history and origins of capitalism, he admitted that he didn’t really feel informed on that point, and felt that capitalism had not been taught to him very well during his education. The One Percent remark, besides being a callback to the protests against Wall Street, also made me think of Karl Polyani and his theory of counter movements. The backlash against free-market capitalism as a system in the wake of 2008 has not been anything like it was after the Great Depression, but there is certainly a backlash against Wall Street or the One Percent, which could represent the modern counter-movement against unrestrained capitalism.

To round up with a few common themes, all of my interviewees had somewhat vague or no answers on the early history or origins of capitalism, which probably says something about the way capitalism was taught to them. Another answer that was common to all three interviewees was that capitalism had changed over time in ways that are not necessarily positive. The two younger interviewees both agreed capitalism was natural, at least to some extent, and all agreed that capitalism has had an impact on social issues, though only KH considered that impact to be a positive one, stating a somewhat Milton Friedman-esque view that capitalism could produce beneficial social effects as people could boycott businesses to effect change. Most people seem to have some grasp on the effects and basic function of capitalism, but are unclear on its origins and development.


Capitalism: Yay or Nay?

During the interview process I came across many answers to the same questions. My three interviewees were taken from all walks of life, different ages, and education levels, lines of work, sexes and even variant citizenships. What struck me as strange though was not the different answers they came up with, but how similar some of these answers were.

Continue reading Capitalism: Yay or Nay?

Glorified and perpetuated ideas

As part of the assignment for interviewing individuals throughout the course, we were also assigned a reflection post to complete at the end of the semester, the purpose of which is to discuss discoveries made through the interviews and how they relate to ourselves and the course. As part of my reflection I will talk about the continuity I found within my interviews in relation to my own opinions and material from within the course.
The interviews demonstrated that the understanding that most people have of capitalism in America is very basic. Continue reading Glorified and perpetuated ideas

Interview Reflections

Overall, the interviews show a lack of understanding of what capitalism truly is or its origins. Most did not learn about capitalism in any depth in primary or high school. Of my three interviewees, two attended private school and one public school, and none of them had more than a rudimentary understanding of capitalism or how it functions, which shows that education across the board has failed in this area of history and economics.

I admit that before I began this class, I am not sure I would have been able to give an adequate answer to “what is your definition of capitalism.” Like myself, a number of people associated capitalism mainly with Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, the “robber barons” of the late nineteenth century. Although with these examples it is apparent that when taken to the extreme, unfettered capitalism leads to exploitation, as Carnegie and Rockefeller so well illustrate, people tend to not want a different economic system. Communism and socialism were the most common answer to other economic systems, though very few believed that they would be beneficial or successful, as history has shown. This relates to the fact that the majority of people interviewed see capitalism and democracy as naturally linked.

It is apparent how prevalent the “myth” of the self-made man, the entrepreneurial spirit that capitalism and democracy combine to make possible, continues to be in society today. Many people mention that capitalism often benefits those people with better resources and access to information, than it does less fortunate people, and although they see this as a problem, it is often justified as the nature of capitalism.

I found it interesting that a number of interviewees claimed that they did not have any experience with capitalism, when in truth, any consumer in the American market has interacted with capitalism. This shows that people generally do not have a full understanding of the United States’ economic system.

Reflection Post

Over the course of the semester the class has gathered the public opinion and education of Capitalism. A common theme I found with people’s opinions is that their career and demographic determine their views. The opinion of financiers and people in high positions  is that Capitalism has always been around and is the only thing that works. The interviewees also believe that most of the world flourishes on Capitalism, and that the social hierarchy it produces keeps the system balance. Continue reading Reflection Post

Capitalism: Learned from Experience, Not School

The majority of people interviewed for this class seem to have formed their ideas about capitalism from personal experience rather than from a historical perspective. Most people concur that capitalism is free enterprise without government influence or control. What people do not tend to agree on is whether capitalism benefits everyone. The people interviewed can be split into three groups based on their approval or disapproval of capitalism: a passionately enthusiastic group, an apathetic group, and an anti-capitalist group.

Continue reading Capitalism: Learned from Experience, Not School

American Capitalism: Reflections on Its Mystery and Mythology

After our first class, I made an entry in my private journal where I answered all of our interview questions. I wanted to have a way to compare my interviewees’ answers with my own before my thoughts became impacted by class readings and discussions. I also wanted to trace my own intellectual evolution over the course of the semester. I would characterize my pre-class answers as unambiguously pro-market. I talked about how capitalism is a natural system that rewards creativity and efficiency, expressed my belief that voluntary transactions are superior to state planning, and praised the Industrial Revolution as the most important period in human history.

Continue reading American Capitalism: Reflections on Its Mystery and Mythology