“Capitalism is Successful because it is Unnatural”

For my second interview, I discussed the nature of capitalism with my father, SL.  A college-educated 58-year-old white male, I was interested to see how similar SL’s answers would be to SM’s (my first interviewee) perspective on capitalism.  SL identifies as lower middle class (in terms of his income), although he grew up relatively poor in Norfolk, VA.  He was raised by a single mother, and at a young age, often had to work to help contribute to the family’s survival. He has been working since he was roughly 15 years old, and has a diverse background when it comes to employment, having worked for people who started their own businesses, big corporations and the United States government.

When I asked SL to define capitalism, he defined a “society that is based on business and making money.”  He elaborated, in a similar way to SM, that capitalism enables people to “do business as they see fit.”  SL said that his relationship with capitalism is a complicated one.  As I wrote above, he has worked for minimum wage and for big businesses.  He worked for the U.S. government when he served in the military, and he said that he has usually found himself in senior management positions.  “I’ve done almost everything,” he said, “working for a lower middle class income and working for someone who started their own business,” which is what he does now.

I asked him if he felt like he has benefited from this lifetime of work, and although he believes that it is important for everyone to work, as this is the natural order or human life, his response was simply “No.  I have worked hard my whole life since I was 14 years old, and I am ready to retire, but I don’t think I will be able to survive on Social Security alone.  I truly believe I should be subsidized in my old age to be compensated for my lifetime of hard work.”

This perspective is quite different from SM, my first interviewee, who looks forward to a lifetime of working hard in order to provide for his family and carve a fortune for himself.  SL’s perspective on alternatives to capitalism are also different, but they both agreed that capitalism is clearly the best alternative.  “If we compare it to communism, socialism, or other forms of totalitarian control in society, I think capitalism is clearly better, but I still believe we should have subsidized healthcare and social security so that people who work hard their whole lives are able to live out the rest of their life peacefully.  So I think some elements of socialism are okay, but capitalism as a whole is way better than its alternatives.”

I asked SL about the influence of capitalism on America’s past.  “I think it has motivated people to work towards their goals,” he said, “to start businesses and work their way towards prosperity.  In the past, maybe someone was an underdog, a businessman making widgets or whatever, if they made a good product and worked hard, they would be successful and be able to provide for their family, grow their business, and no longer be the underdog.”  SL argues that this has changed recently.  “After recent decisions, like the Citizens United case,” he said, “corporations take as much advantage as they possibly can.”  He argued that because of this, the “small guy gets crushed” by these “big, greedy corporations that are all about the almighty dollar.”

SL definitely acknowledged that there has been some sort of shift in the way capitalism functions in America now.  I asked SL about the origins of capitalism in the United States, and he argued that as colonies, we engaged in a capitalist economy, but Great Britain benefited the most.  “With the constitution and the declaration,” SL said, “we were endowed with the idea of the pursuit of happiness and a free society.  They warned us about it,” he argued, “but they certainly set up a society in which capitalism would flourish.”

SL acknowledged a sense of change over time in America’s relationship with capitalism.  Nowadays, big business controls a great deal of what is going on, he argued.  During the early years of the American republic, SL said that we were a predominately agrarian economy, with a spread out population in which there was a definite sense of self-sufficiency and artisanship.  “As the world became smaller and we gained a worldwide market,” SL stated, “we now needed more regulation and oversight because big business gained a lot more control.”

Most interestingly, I asked SL if he saw capitalism as inherently natural to human beings.  He answered oppositely of SM and said no.  “Naturally, people like to be led and told what to do,” SL argued, “that is why capitalism is so successful.  It goes against the grain and forces people to be inventive and competitive.  One guy decides to go against the grain and make a car when everyone else is riding horses, or a plane when everyone else is driving cars.”  I thought this was a fascinating argument, especially as opposed to SM, my first interviewee who argued that capitalism is inherently natural to human nature because we are born into a competitive, “dog-eat-dog world.”  Although thy are both arguing the same thing and they both agree that capitalism is clearly better than its alternatives, SM argued that capitalism is inherent to our nature, while SL argued it is not.  Overall, it was fascinating to see how these two interviews stacked up against each other, especially considering the varying backgrounds of the interviewees.

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