Slog Music

Music, Nightlife,
and Drunks

Friday, July 27, 2012

Most Americans Don't Know What Capitalism Is

Posted by on Fri, Jul 27, 2012 at 9:10 AM

John Bussey:

Just half in U.S. view capitalism positively, even fewer can define it. But the election will be a referendum on it.
Retweeted by Wall Street Journal
The fact that so many can't define it is a sign of the system's success. If you don't know what capitalism is, you won't be able to mentally separate it from reality. If you can't separate it from reality, you will not see it as what it truly is, historical, but as what it is truly not, natural. If see it as natural, will be incapable of imagining other alternatives, other forms of social relations, other possible worlds.


Comments (37) RSS

Oldest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
what alternative do you propose?

me, i'd just take what they do in germany or france or england and copy it lock stock and barrel from high speed rail to socialized health care to gun control to a parliamentary system to how they finance college. or canada, which recently passed the usa in per person wealth,
these are all capitalist systems btw.
Posted by having government isn't socialism on July 27, 2012 at 9:28 AM · Report this
theInvisibleDick 2
Successful capitalism depends on an impoverished educational system.
Posted by theInvisibleDick on July 27, 2012 at 9:30 AM · Report this

While I don't disagree with portions of your post, I do not think you have substantiated your assertion that Capitalism is unnatural in the slightest.
Posted by Your Obvious Point, Being Rather Obvious on July 27, 2012 at 9:31 AM · Report this
Phoebe in Wallingford 4
@2: So then you're saying that the more well educated people are the more they reject capitalism?
Posted by Phoebe in Wallingford on July 27, 2012 at 9:36 AM · Report this
Most people can't define communism, either. I guess that means they can't separate communism from reality, either?

What does that even mean, that you have to be able to define something to "separate it from reality"? Are we supposed to be able to separate everything from reality, as if not being able to define gravity or calculus or the Renaissance somehow leads to confusion between those things and reality?
Posted by also on July 27, 2012 at 9:38 AM · Report this
Hernandez 6
@4 I take it to mean that widespread ignorance prevents challenges to the status quo at times when the status quo is clearly not working for most people.
Posted by Hernandez on July 27, 2012 at 9:44 AM · Report this
Supreme Ruler Of The Universe 7
The issue with capitalism is that most never get to experience it.

Even well paid professionals still sell their labor.

It is rare for a person to have access to enough capital to create a or succeed and then be able to try again.

Yet this is exactly what we should be doing!
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe on July 27, 2012 at 9:51 AM · Report this
Urgutha Forka 8
Capitalism is a great idea - the consumers essentially run the marketplace. But that's not what we have in the U.S. We have a Frankenstein's monster of an economic system. Some capitalistic parts, some socialist parts... monopolies, oligarchies, cronyism and corruption, and so on.

The only problem with pure capitalism is that it is its own worst enemy. It's ultimately self-destructive. Free competition will inevitably end with one company/market/person controlling everything. The end point of free competition is the complete absence of competition.
Posted by Urgutha Forka on July 27, 2012 at 9:53 AM · Report this
@8: Is there any country, anywhere, that has an ideologically pure and homogeneous economic system? Has there ever been?
Posted by also on July 27, 2012 at 9:55 AM · Report this
Hover Dog 10
@5: The difference is that we don't currently have a communist economy.

The people who can't define capitalism are the same people who exist within a capitalist economy & society. In a lot of ways, it determines how we interact with others, how we measure success, and how we view concepts like fairness.

If someone doesn't recognize that these things are influenced by capitalism specifically, then it simply becomes "the way things are", or natural. At that point, it becomes very difficult to seriously consider alternative systems.
Posted by Hover Dog on July 27, 2012 at 9:57 AM · Report this
Urgutha Forka 11
Nope and nope (at least, as far as I know).

The problem is the people who throw out blanket statements like "Communism has already been tried, in the Soviet Union, and it failed." Which is bullshit because the Soviet Union had as much of a patched together economic system as the U.S. does.

As you said, every nation has a piecemeal economy. There may be little societies here and there that run on some pure form of capitalism or communism or whatever, but they're small, isolated anomalies.
Posted by Urgutha Forka on July 27, 2012 at 10:08 AM · Report this
Phoebe in Wallingford 12
Also, does "define" mean in a sentence, in a paragraph, a short essay?

I truly believe that my economics professor in college would have take a few to gather this thoughts on how he would define capitalism given the parameters for his answer.

Wikipedia says:
Capitalism is an economic system that is based on private ownership of the means of production and the creation of goods or services for profit.

Most Americans know that, but only a few could articulate it on the spot. That doesn't mean they are not bright enough to make intelligent decisions about economic policies and political choices. If that is what you're trying to get at Charles.
Posted by Phoebe in Wallingford on July 27, 2012 at 10:10 AM · Report this
Fnarf 13
Democratic socialism with a predominantly capitalist economic system is the only prescription that has ever or will ever provide wealth and happiness for the majority of its citizens. There ARE no "alternative systems"; there are relatively minor adjustments of the various sliders one way or the other. The US's economic system is not hugely different from Germany's, or Japan's, or Brazil's, or France's, or Australia's, or any other even partly successful country. Even China is predominantly capitalist in its actual economic workings -- the industrial powerhouse that they have become appeared only after managers of companies and managers of capital were given the freedom to work outside of immediate state control. And the real engine of China is the small private entrepreneur.

Pure state control of capital and business has died out for a reason: it doesn't work. At all. There are no counterexamples because counterexamples are impossible. Just as obviously, "pure" capitalism, with no socialist state providing fiscal management and social benefits, doesn't, and can't, exist.
Posted by Fnarf on July 27, 2012 at 10:19 AM · Report this
Corporations are fucking people my friends.
Posted by Vadt on July 27, 2012 at 10:20 AM · Report this
Matt from Denver 15
@ 11, it's complicated further by the fact that people who do understand this stuff also don't agree on what "pure" capitalism is. Some will say it's laissez-faire; others will acknowledge the state. Some will allow for a wild-west free-for-all and whatever happens happens, but others will acknowledge the need for rules.

It's a lot like Christianity; most Americans will describe themselves as Christian, but most will disagree over what that means. They'll agree on a few major points but have serious disputes over what appear to be minor ones to outsiders.* Capitalism is similarly regarded - most people understand (or are, at the very least, comfortable with) how markets are supposed to work and how most of us benefit, even those at the bottom. (You think urban poverty is bad today, you should have seen it 100 years ago.)

* I know of a small congregation who split up over the issue of whether those "left behind" after the rapture will be aware that the rapture happened. Some argued vociferously that no, when it happens our memories will be wiped clean of the people who get to float up to Heaven that day.
Posted by Matt from Denver on July 27, 2012 at 10:21 AM · Report this
It seems #13 demonstrates the point of the post well: "Things are the way they are and there is no other way for them to be".
Posted by part time on July 27, 2012 at 10:42 AM · Report this
Teslick 17
Find me 10 Marxists, and I'll show you 10 different definitions of Marxism.
Posted by Teslick on July 27, 2012 at 10:44 AM · Report this
Fnarf 18
@16, are you dim-witted? There are many, many possible ways for "things to be". All of the good ones involve a measure of personal freedom to operate in the economic sphere without total governmental control. If you can't tell the difference between, say, Brazil and US, then maybe you ought to get better tools besides hammers. Read a book.
Posted by Fnarf on July 27, 2012 at 10:56 AM · Report this
biffp 19
Charles, the Stiglitz interview on the Daily Show is a 'must see.' What's going on in the US is not capitalism, it's a perversion and smoke screen for a lot misconduct by the richest 0.01%.
Posted by biffp on July 27, 2012 at 11:01 AM · Report this
seandr 20
what it is truly not, natural

Actually, when you consider that humans have been trading goods and services with each other since prehistory, capitalism is quite arguably rooted in natural, evolutionarily significant human instincts involving reciprocity. The ability to negotiate a shrewd deal with a neighboring tribe could well have determined whether a given clan of cave people would survive the winter.

Likewise, the compassionate intentions behind communism - i.e., from each according to his ability, to each according to his need - are also rooted in human nature. From an evolutionary standpoint, these instincts would only have worked at the level of the clan or tribe, however, and would have fallen apart at the level of the city, where that kind of naively trusting attitude would have quickly separated the country bumpkin from all of his possessions.
Posted by seandr on July 27, 2012 at 11:21 AM · Report this
treacle 21
16, re: 18... QED! :D

Re: Charles post: Most people can't tell you what money is nor where it comes from either.

I'll bet that perhaps only a couple of you here -at most- actually know where money comes from and what it really is.

If you understand this tool called "money" that we humans have created, you'll quickly see that there are in fact other options and ways for things to be.
Posted by treacle on July 27, 2012 at 11:22 AM · Report this
seandr 22
@19: Perhaps the biggest coop of "the 1%" is selling the idea that capitalism and government regulation are somehow at odds with each other when in fact the opposite is true.

You can't have a large scale system of free and fair trade without government regulation anymore than you can have a professional baseball league without umpires.
Posted by seandr on July 27, 2012 at 11:27 AM · Report this
balderdash 23
Capitalism's greatest bulwark is people's fear of losing what they have, even though the ones who are so afraid are usually the ones who don't have much. I've met a lot of libertarians and they've almost all worked shitty minimum-wage jobs, but they were all prepared to kill to protect their property rights.

The degree of doublethink required to believe that a capitalist system is free or fair - and those are ultimately the fundamental values that get brought up - is an amazing thing to see.
Posted by balderdash on July 27, 2012 at 11:31 AM · Report this
treacle 24
20, Um, trade =/= capitalism.
Making a shrewd deal =/= private ownership of the means of production in mass society.

I submit that you are conflating two very different things.

Rigging the game so that winner takes all is pathological, an illness, a social wrong. Which makes it no surprise that the rich have social & mental problems. Just look at Mittens.
Posted by treacle on July 27, 2012 at 11:35 AM · Report this
@23 FTW.
Posted by sarah70 on July 27, 2012 at 11:37 AM · Report this
biffp 26
@22, the hypocrisy with which the pull out the invisible hand is what bothers me. Crowing about the American dream while they have rigged the system so only the children of the rich and powerful can succeed is really the greatest scandal of the last 30 years.
Posted by biffp on July 27, 2012 at 11:37 AM · Report this
I've seen and experienced the other worlds, and reject them. I'll take what we have and work to improve it.
Posted by ryanmm on July 27, 2012 at 12:12 PM · Report this
biffp 28
@27, universal health care, access to higher education and a net for basic needs (food and shelter) are needed for an economic system that encourages risk taking and innovation. Canada and Australia's median incomes are now $20-30k higher, and China, India and Ghana are graduating more people. The US is already fallen way behind with this Tea Party/Grover Norquist bullshit fest.
Posted by biffp on July 27, 2012 at 12:37 PM · Report this
keshmeshi 29
anymore than you can have a professional baseball league without umpires.

I believe that's called dodgeball.
Posted by keshmeshi on July 27, 2012 at 12:37 PM · Report this
keshmeshi 30
If Americans don't know what capitalism is, then they can't know what about our current system they actually like. The average American wants universal health care, a welfare state, and high taxes on the rich, but whip out the word "socialism" to describe those policies, and the average American turns against them.

What I wouldn't give for a fucking educated populace for once.
Posted by keshmeshi on July 27, 2012 at 12:40 PM · Report this
Charles Mudede 31
the most important thing you need to know about marxism is this: it's not an economic theory; it's theory of an economic system, capitalism. if you are not critiquing capitalism that is a very good indication that you are not a marxist. this is something many americans find hard to understand: marxism is not economic theory or an alternative economic system. marxism is only about capitalism. capitalism goes, marxists go with it.
Posted by Charles Mudede on July 27, 2012 at 12:45 PM · Report this
biffp 32
Marxism is a critique of capitalism makes sense. Most people in the US equate it with communism, but there's a political point to that. It's a weak defense to set up the straw man of 'it's better than other systems.' I couldn't believe this pathetic cartoon from this week's Economist:

Posted by biffp on July 27, 2012 at 1:08 PM · Report this
Ian Awesome 33
People are, however, starting to understand what capitalism does and who it victimizes. More and more people are turning to more "radical" ideologies and whether you agree with Occupy and the current anti-capitalist trend or not, one must agree that more and more people are realizing that there are people who benefit from their suffering and making profit from their labor while they go nowhere.
Posted by Ian Awesome on July 27, 2012 at 1:38 PM · Report this
treacle 34
27, What's it like living in the Inca's moneyless empire? How was using negative-interest currencies? You know of a world where the rich voluntarily give back to improve the whole? Where people treat each other as equals, regardless of social status? A place where there is no artificial scarcity of money?

Do tell, where are these worlds? I wanna check them out first hand too.
Posted by treacle on July 27, 2012 at 2:26 PM · Report this
seandr 35
@24: Free trade and private propert are, in fact, highly conflated concepts.
Posted by seandr on July 27, 2012 at 3:53 PM · Report this
seandr 36
@31: I don't see how you can disentangle Marxism, the critique of capitalism from communism, the alternative to capitalism that followed directly from that critique. Well, I guess you can, but not without stripping Marxism of any claim to being revolutionary.

@33: Suffering? Jesus Christ, kid, read a fucking history book. You don't know shit about real suffering. You haven't experienced it, and you haven't witnessed it. None of us have. The level of suffering it takes to fuel a revolution doesn't exist in this country. You and your friends aren't fighting suffering, you're fighting boredom.
Posted by seandr on July 27, 2012 at 10:07 PM · Report this
@2 No, capitalism needs a just government to regulate it. When unregulated, capitalism leads to monopolies, which stifle all the best parts of capitalism--its ability to reward innovation, its ability to allow supply and demand to make the most unpleasant jobs the best paid, and its ability to allow the best-made goods and services to command the best prices. When regulated, however, capitalism can be very good for society.
Posted by DRF on July 30, 2012 at 7:15 AM · Report this

Add a comment


Want great deals and a chance to win tickets to the best shows in Seattle? Join The Stranger Presents email list!

All contents © Index Newspapers, LLC
1535 11th Ave (Third Floor), Seattle, WA 98122
Contact | Privacy Policy | Terms of Use | Takedown Policy