“Living for Yourself”

For my first interview, I discussed the nature of capitalism with my roommate, SM.  A 22-year-old white male with two college educated parents, I was interested to see how similar SM’s perspective on capitalism would be to my own.  SM identifies as relatively wealthy, middle class, and he grew up in a diverse neighborhood in Northern Virginia.  His father is wealthy, and according to SM, worked his way up to become a senior administrator in a major bank.  His uncle also owns a small business.

When I asked SM to define capitalism, he defined an economic system that provides for “the means to pave your own way and choose what it is you want to do.”  He elaborated that capitalism enables people to have the opportunity to do what they want to do in life – to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and pave their way toward economic independence.

SM said that capitalism provided his family the opportunity to have options and be successful.  He elaborated that his father was able to make good money and support his family by providing for their needs.  When I asked SM to describe his personal relationship with capitalism, he said it inspired him to do the same for his family in the future.

When we discussed capitalism’s impact on the United States, SM argued that there have been both positive and negative effects.  Although capitalism provides people with opportunities, he argued that it also encourages greed and a “survival of the fittest” mentality where people act more selfish.  This, he pointed out, is natural.

He didn’t have a firm grasp on the historical relationship between the U.S. and capitalism; however, interestingly, he acknowledged that there has been some sort of change over time.  He noted that capitalism evolved with the industrial revolution after the Civil War, but he maintained that since the revolution, Americans have had a strong anti-government consciousness.  “There is more of an emphasis on the individual now,” he argued, “and competition is much fiercer, but Americans have always more or less been that way.”  SM argued that capitalism has spurred innovation in this country and fostered efficiency.  He also noted that capitalism historically has benefited our society, because the alternatives are “far worse.”

According to SM, these alternatives, namely socialism and communism, are “robotic, they are systems in which the government tells you what you can and cannot do.”  He contrasted this to a capitalist society, where “you live for yourself.”  Despite these platitudes, SM did acknowledge that capitalism has effected social issues in this country, arguing that income inequality fosters tension and, often, bitterness.  Sometimes, this distribution can become unfair, he noted, although he argued that the American dream of self-reliant success is still very much alive and well.  “It’s there if you’re willing to work hard enough.”

Overall, SM understood that despite capitalism’s benevolent elements in our society, there is still a sense of push and pull.  Capitalism is “clearly” better than its alternatives, he argued, but it still effects people unequally and fosters greed and selfishness.  Despite this, SM viewed capitalism as the natural fit for human beings.  When I asked him outright if capitalism is the natural way things should be, he responded: “I think so.  It’s a dog-eat-dog world.  Everything is competitive, there is a biological element to ‘making a man of yourself’ vs. having everything laid out for you.”  He had an awareness that perhaps this point of view was a result of the environment he was raised in.  I thought this was important.  Although he was aware of his own biases, he still strongly believed that capitalism is the natural system inherent to human society.

SM is my roommate and currently a senior in college here at UMW.  I was intrigued by his awareness of bias in his background and acknowledgement of the push/pull dynamic in our social relationship with capitalism.  In the end, he presented an argument that is not unsurprising and is often associated with Americans’ popular perceptions of capitalism.

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