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.


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