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.

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