Does Capitalism Destroy Culture?

12:03 AM 8/21/2006 by Macro90 Edited 9:15 PM 11/22/2006 by Macro90

There is a belief many hold that capitalism destroys culture, that capitalism needs to be tamed for this reason. But is this true? Let's see.

Firstly we need to define both capitalism and culture. Changing the definition may change the conclusions.

I'm too lazy to think of definitions by myself so I will outsource the job to Google. According to Google, capitalism is "An economic system in which the means of production are privately owned and controlled and which is characterized by competition and the profit motive." There are many more definitions there. But most of these definitions do not really capture what it is I want to emphasize, and that the freedom inherent in capitalism, that business exchanges are VOLUNTARY. Capitalism involves voluntary exchange by individuals trying to increase their own welfare. This contrasts against communism where economic decisions are in the hands of the government. Each individual does not have a say in economic issues. Thus economic decisions are involuntary. Capitalism puts purchasing decisions in the hands of the individual while communism puts purchasing decisions in the hands of the government.

Now what is culture? Ignoring the biological definition, Google definition states that culture is "the attitudes and behavior that are characteristic of a particular social group or organization" or "a set of learned beliefs, values and behaviors; the way of life shared by the members of a society" or "the accumulated habits, attitudes, and beliefs of a group of people that define for them their general behavior and way of life; the total set of learned activities of a people." So to summarize all this, culture is the set of behaviors, attitudes, habits, and other characteristics of a group of people.

Now here is the supposed problem: when capitalism is introduced among a group of people, then their culture is destroyed. This can be true. If the group of people weren't already capitalist then the introduction of capitalism may change their behaviors. For example, in the past if they lived under communism they may have received bread from the government (e.g. in Russia). When capitalism is established individuals will have to work and buy bread instead. This changes their behavior and thus changes their culture. The culture of receiving bread from the government is destroyed and replaced by a culture of working to buy bread.

Capitalism also generates many other changes. For example, when people have freedom to pursue what it is they want, then this may induce supply of different things. For example, in a communist country the government may decide that only classical music is appropriate. All citizens therefore were forced to listen to classical music. Then capitalism comes along and music from around the world is introduced. Individuals now chose which music to listen to. Suppose that people in Russia on average prefer rap music to classical music. Then most people in Russia will buy rap music and the culture of these people will change because, instead of listening to classical music most now listen to rap music. So classical music culture is destroyed.

So yes, capitalism can destroy culture because it can change the way people behave.

But the important question is: is this harmful?

Under the old system, the government forced the people to listen to classical music. If you didn't listen to classical music, you were shot. Business decisions were involuntary. Each individual had no say in how they treat themselves. The state controls everything. With capitalism, we have a shift of power from the state to the individual and the individual may decide that he doesn't like Mozart anymore and decides to listen to American music like Run DMC or Eminem instead. Culture is being destroyed, but these individuals choose to listen to the rap music voluntarily.

Suppose you fed your child Coke. Now suppose your child all of a sudden tells you that she hates Coke and wants Pepsi instead. You give the child Pepsi. You have just destroyed culture. You have destroyed Coke culture. But is this a problem? The child chose to drink Pepsi instead of Coke. If we wanted to protect culture from capitalism, then we will have to use force to stop the child from drinking Pepsi. We have to use force to prevent the Russians buying rap music. We have to prevent people from doing something they want to do. Is that a good thing to do?

What many people seem to believe in is a very simplified notion of culture, that Japanese people like Japanese culture, Chinese people only like Chinese culture and so on. But if this is so then why are there McDonald's restaurants in both China and Japan? If nobody in China and Japan liked McDonald's then why would anyone put these restaurants up? That they are there is evidence that there are individuals there who like McDonald's. Culture is not something based on countries. It is based on individuals. Individuals have unique tastes. This explains the diversity of commercialism-because suppliers must create diversity in commodities to accomodate the diverse tastes of consumers. Many people who don't like the idea of a McDonald's opening up in China believe that individuals are not individuals, that they are part of countries and as such should conform to the culture set by the stereotypes of that country. But this is unrealistic. To enforce such idealistic environments would require coercion and force to stop individuals from dissenting from behavior dictated by the state or any other authority.

Capitalism and globalization, we should understand, reaffirms the sanctity of the individual. It emphasizes the atomistic nature of the human species. It destroys the importance of nationalism by destroying the culture that these entities have for so long tried to force upon the people.