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.

Overall, my interviewees were varied in their backgrounds and in the biases that affect their understandings of capitalism.  I interviewed a fifty-eight year old father with a military background, college education, and variety of experiences working in the private sector; I interviewed a twenty-two year old male undergraduate business major who identifies as wealthy and hardworking, and I interviewed a twenty year old African American female environmental science major who identifies as lower-middle class.  Each of my interviewees has had access to high education, and I recognize this as a limiting variable; however, their varied socio-economic backgrounds and experiences working provide enough variation to make this a decently representative survey of mainstream perceptions of the history of capitalism in this country.

My first interviewee, my roommate SM who is majoring in business administration, reflected what I expected to be the dominant popular perception of capitalism.  Of course, I expected his answers to be influenced by the fact that his father is an extremely successful businessman, one who has worked hard to get where he is.  SM’s views of capitalism as natural and inevitable support these expectations.  He has been raised surrounded by wealthy families who embody the successes of capitalism.  Naturally, he buys into the paradigm that capitalism is inherently a benevolent force whose alternatives are far, far worse for everybody.  This paradigm has been constructed, we have learned over the course of this semester, by thinkers such as Hayek and Freidman, and by the popular myths of a binary worldview perpetuated during the Cold War.

My second interviewee, my father SL, surprisingly bucked my expectations and argued that capitalism is not natural, but he argued that is why it works, so he still perpetuates the underlying notion that capitalism is successful and far better than any potential alternatives.  Both SM and SL lacked a nuanced understanding of capitalism as a historical force, and understandably so seeing as they aren’t in an undergraduate history seminar, but similarities in their answers suggest broader trends in the way we as a society understand the emergence of capitalism in this country.  Both of them understood capitalism to be intrinsically American, engrained in our identity since the pre-revolutionary era.  Although both recognized changes over time, such as the “necessary” trust-busting policies of Teddy Roosevelt and the need for regulation after the Great Depression, both SM and SL blanket the Cold War binary worldview of capitalism vs. everything else across American history, and understand capitalism as a system inherent to the United States itself.


My third interviewee, BO, broke this mold, and although she is an environmental science major, her experience working with social justice groups and her socio-economic background as an African American and identity as a woman suggest reasons why her answers seemed much more informed.  She seemed to have more of a grasp on the idea that capitalism is not inherent to our society, but rather an invented system that has evolved over time.  She also held different views on the alternatives to capitalism, arguing that socialism may present a viable alternative that doesn’t foster rampant inequality and lack of access to privilege.  BO’s answers offer an educated understanding of the nature of capitalism in the United States, but I do not believe that this understanding is the norm.  The answers I received from SM and SL seem much more in line with the answers I expected to receive at the beginning of the semester, and I believe that they represent the views of most Americans who have had some degree of access to a college education (I cringe at the thought of how most people, who have had no exposure to the critical thinking skills of a liberal arts education would answer these questions).


Ultimately, these interviews reflect several, unsurprising themes present in the popular perceptions of capitalism in this country.  First, as a whole, our understanding of how capitalism works is limited.  Americans seem to understand what markets are, but the technical details of how commodities work, for example, and what it truly means to live in a capitalist society, are not common knowledge.  Second, there is limited understanding of how capitalism emerged and evolved in the United States.  All three of my interviewees recognized that capitalism, to some extent, evolved and changed over time; however, none of them understood capitalism as a system that was created by men in this country over time.  This is a common misconception about capitalism, one which we dispelled over and over again in this class.  Capitalism is a system, a set of norms we adopted and created as a society, a system which has actively evolved with our history over time.  There are countless examples of this.  Two quick examples include the development and collapse of slave mortgages in the 1830s and the curbing of child labor in this country at the end of the nineteenth century.  Both of these examples illustrate how capitalism as a financial system was created, evolved and changed due to actions taken by people involved in economic systems.


Finally, my interviewees (excluding the anomaly of my third one) viewed capitalism as the clear winner in a binary world of ideas.  This suggests that as a society, we have perpetuated the binary paradigm of the Cold War, in which American capitalism was pitted against any potential alternative as the clear moral winner, conflated with ideas of liberalism and democracy.  Although SL argued that capitalism works because it is not natural, both SL and SM echoed the same sentiment that capitalism is somehow inherent to our way of life, which is inherently right.  I believe this notion of capitalism as natural is prevalent in our culture, as is the perpetuation of this binary paradigm.

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