Capitalism, cultus, and culture

Michael Matheson Miller reflects on the question, “Does capitalism destroy culture?” Off the top of my head, if I had to answer this question in an elevator I might offer something like, “Yes, to the extent that markets and economic motives become the keystone of a society, then capitalism doesn’t so much destroy culture as displaces it in favor of material-driven competition.” But Miller’s piece is nuanced and a very helpful introduction to anyone considering this question seriously:

I will say from the outset that I support open, competitive economies that allow for free exchange, but I would not call myself a “capitalist.” Capitalism is generally a Marxist term that implies a mechanistic view of the economy and a false dichotomy between “capital” and “labor.” Capitalism also comes in a variety of forms and can mean many things. There is corporate capitalism, oligarchic capitalism, crony capitalism, and managerial-bureaucratic capitalism, such as we have in the United States. However, cultural critics of capitalism usually don’t make those distinctions and, even if they did, many would still be critical of an authentically free market.

So without trying to tease apart all of these strands at the outset and so risk never getting anywhere let me use the term “capitalism” and ask and answer the question with the broadest of brushstrokes. Does capitalism corrode culture? I think the answer is yes and no. …

… 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. Contrast this to activities of groups like the UN, UNICEF and Planned Parenthood, who impose secular ideas of family, motherhood, sexuality, abortion, contraception, and forced sterilization on the world’s poor. It is bad enough when a country like China does this to their own people, but when bureaucrats in Washington or Paris are manipulating poor families in the developing world, and tying aid packages to so called reproductive rights it is a naked act of cultural imperialism.

There now exists what the New York Times has called a “daughter deficit” and what The Economist has labeled “gendercide.” Millions of baby girls are being aborted in the developing world as people are encouraged by international agencies and NGOs to have small families. For a variety of cultural reasons, when forced to choose, many of the families choose to have baby boys and abort their unborn daughters. The consequences of the loss of all these human lives is of course incalculable, but that isn’t the extent of it. The birth ratio of boys to girls is now so skewed that this will have devastating social and political consequences.

This is not the result of free markets. It is a product of selfish consumerism, bad anthropology and faulty economics—an outgrowth decades of educational policy and top-down social and economic planning that grows out of the zero-sum-game fallacy, which in turn fosters an anti-natalist ideology that dominates development insiders. Not surprisingly, these insiders are rarely proponents of the free market, and if they do give the market a nod it is a kind of techno-bureaucratic capitalism ruled by elites who haunt Davos each year. …

While the market does enable people to indulge in a lifestyle marked by the illusion of radical autonomy, the main sources of such thinking and behavior are not market economics, but a number of harder to diagnose intellectual and spiritual crises that plague the west. These include things like reductionist rationalism that makes all questions of truth, beauty, and the good life a matter of personal predilection; a nominalist conception of human freedom where freedom is merely the exercise of the will separated from truth and reason; the radical individualism of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau; and radical skepticism (see David Hume) which makes reason a slave to the passions.

A market economy can help spread these ideas, but it is not their source. I am not arguing that a market is neutral. Markets have clear positive and negative effects, but exacerbating a problem is not the same thing as causing it and it is simplistic to attribute to capitalism alone the effects of a host of intertwined forces of social change. …

Capitalism has profound effects on culture and it is a mistake to think that that the market economy is neutral or that markets left to their own devices will work everything out for the best. It is also a mistake to blame capitalism as the cause of cultural destruction. Market economies come with trade-offs and cultural dysfunction and cultural renewal are complex and cannot be explained by economic analysis alone. As Christopher Dawson reminds us, it is not economics, but cultus, religion, that is the driving force of culture. It is also a mistake to think that secularism is neutral. Modern secular progressivism has become the cultus of Western life and this plays a much more potent role in shaping culture than economics.

Capitalism is not perfect. Like democracy, it needs vibrant mediating institutions, rich civil society and a strong religious culture to control its negative effects. But we wouldn’t trade democracy for dictatorship. Nor should we trade the market for some bureaucratic utopia.

A commenter on Miller’s piece offers a lengthy response, but this part in particular is worth thinking on. For all the bemoaning of corrosive forces on the one hand, or incredible opportunity afforded by international markets on the other, this gets at the heart of just how radical a shift industrialization represented for human life:

“the breakdown of the traditional family certainly is – of course not exclusively – related to the physical separation of work place and family life, and while the working day has been reduced considerably, distances have increased, in some cases requiring long hours on the road to and from work, or imposing weekend family life…”

In miniature, this is why we say that neither markets nor technology (understood maximally as techne) are neutral. They will always imply or demand shifts in the way human life is lived. Perhaps often for the better in material terms, but at incredible cost even if the total cost were only the shift in individual and family life described above.