Does Capitalism Destroy Culture? A Response

Writing in the Intercollegiate Review, Michael Matheson Miller explores a question that haunts me frequently: Does capitalism destroy culture? I highly recommend his article. His short answer is “yes and no.”

Miller notes how global capitalism exports ugly (but cheap!) Western big box stores across the world, and how it also does the opposite, allowing us Westerners a broader array of ethnic foods and access to the work of traditional craftsmen of every kind, which in turn sustains these otherwise outdated vocations.

He also notes that many critiques of capitalism are really aimed at industrialism, which I’ve noticed recently in arguments about whether the global economy demands one-size-fits-all education. People demanding nationalized education because of the global economy simply don’t get the global economy.

A global economy means more innovation and diversity, not less. It means 3D printers and niche products and Seth Godin’s “tribes” and “the long tail of the market.” One-size-fits all education, like factories, befits the industrial age, not our post-industrial global economy. It’s harder to see this because different countries are at different stages of development, and some are largely industrial, factory-driven economies still while others are increasingly post-industrial.

I love this quote:

Finally, while capitalism does indeed transform, and even destroy, aspects of traditional cultural life, I would argue that the most destructive global forces of cultural transformation especially in the developing world come less from market economies than from the Western, secular, organizations like the United Nations, the World Bank, the NGO industry, and the U.S. and European governments. These powerful institutions wield “soft” and “hard” power to foist a reductionist vision of life upon millions of the world’s poor. People criticize McDonald’s and Walmart for cultural imperialism, but no one is forced to eat a Big Mac.

And this: “America has seen a cultural shift from productive capitalism with focus on saving and investment to a consumerist mentality where we consume on borrowed money.” Preach it, bro! (Maybe I shouldn’t say that to a man with three master’s degrees.) This indicates to me—and Miller seems to agree—that the way we use capitalism is not so much capitalism’s fault as it is a reflection of our own cultural decay.

I struggle with capitalism because I do not like mass consumption. I do not like how the easy availability of life’s daily needs makes us waste the resources God has given us. I don’t like a throw-it-away society, or a society that acts as if it’s just to market everything (marriage, sex, children…). Even so, capitalism seems like democracy. It’s the best of rotten options out there. I can’t think of an alternative that does not breed worse consequences. Can you?

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