Five Themes of American Conventional Wisdom Part 4: Capitalism

So the fourth installment of this series, based on my friend Ron Miller’s take on American cultural conventions, I’m going to look at his thoughts on Capitalism and how it plays out in American conventional thinking, based on the first chapter of his very insightful book, What Are Schools For?

Ah “capitalism”… a word that to me connotes a big driving machine. A word that is loaded with so much baggage from the last 200 years of Western (and world) history, including all the robber barons, all the strife between workers and management and the competing ideologies of socialism and communism. A term that emphasizes the people, the “capitalists”, with the big bucks to finance business projects, rather than “free enterprise” which connotes more the entrepreneurs who start those small businesses (like my son and his friends did).

According to Ron…

Perhaps more than any other theme, it is capitalism that defines the identity of American culture. It is the almost unanimous acceptance of capitalist ideology — by the worker as well as the entrepreneur, by the followers of Jefferson and Jackson no less than those of Alexander Hamilton — which distinguishes the United States from most other nations.

That rings true to me. So though some Republicans accuse Obama of being a socialist and some Democrats accused Bush (and particularly Cheney) of being some sort of fascist, both camps support capitalism and free enterprise, just with differing ideas on how much government regulation there should be.

But more broadly among the American public, most of us look at issues, including education through this sort of materialist cost/benefit lens of running a successful business.

The vast majority of Americans eagerly defend capitalism both for its effectiveness (it has, after all, produced unprecedented material prosperity for the nation) as well as for its moral virtues (to a large extent capitalism does reward ingenuity, initiative, and effort, and the economic freedom it engenders is historically related to the political freedom offered by democratic government).

If it were just limited to being our economic system, that would be one thing. But Ron’s thesis here is that woven together with Puritan theology (Calvinism), capitalism has become an American “state” religion of sorts (that separation of Church and State does not apply to), with a set of moral standards beyond just facilitating commerce. This becomes problematic because those moral standards are typically measured based on external material success and moralistic behavior rather than internal human development.

The standards for measuring success are overwhelmingly materialistic; whole realms of human experience, notably the aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual, do not count as qualifications for the job market or as emblems of achievement. Capitalism promotes individualism and self-assertion in social and economic terms, but places far less value on self-understanding, on critical intelligence, or spiritual discovery. Practicality and productivity are more important than contemplation or inner questing; meditative practices are disdained as “contemplating one’s navel.”

So any effort or enterprise that turns a profit and is not obviously evil or exploitive is by convention not only economically, but ethically sound. Our education system and the development of our youth in general unfortunately get viewed in this lens. The key object of education and the early years of life leading to adulthood become maximizing ones economic potential, and achieving a lofty position in the economic hierarchy. This certainly smacks of patriarchal thinking, where ranking is critical to define our superiors and inferiors.

What can easily get lost in this sort of focus, is the maturation and development of the individual human consciousness, and as a result, the continuing development of our collective consciousness as a species. Youth becomes a long involved preparation for an economic slot in the work world, and “finding yourself” is an exercise that seems less and less justifiable in these materialist terms. As a result we can end up “living to work” rather than “working to live”. As Ron says…

Ruled by an unrelenting competitiveness, American culture is suspicious of contemplation that does not demonstrate its immediate practicality. Just as the religious tone of the culture encourages practical moral discipline rather than mysticism, capitalism demands tangible results, not inward seeking or self-realization… This materialism is a major source of personal spiritual alienation and the disintegration of family and community life.

Could this spiritual alienation, family and larger community disintegration be a lot of what we are seeing with our youth in our schools? Their lives are becoming too much of a materialist economic treadmill without any real elements of “questing” that many traditional cultures associate with this pre-adult period of life. Are we “schooling” our kids at the expense of their real development?

Free enterprise, separated from religious aspects, can be an egalitarian economic model that helps foster calculated risk-taking, self-direction, thinking outside the box, learning from failure, and other highly developmental experiences. But when you mix in the Puritan theology making externally measured economic success the yardstick for the human soul then real development of that soul can get lost in the shuffle, in favor of “keeping up with the Joneses” or achieving “economic security” at all costs.

And as Ron indicates, capitalism can warp our sense of balance, along with the world’s ecological balance…

As a worldview (not simply as an economic system), capitalism involves the belief that nature exists to serve human needs and wants; consequently inventiveness and audacity in taming nature are highly valued, and quality of life is measured in terms of how quickly raw nature is converted to human use—the gross national product. Furthermore, capitalism involves the belief that there are no inherent limits to human progress and comfort; therefore, the most ambitious and wealth-producing entrepreneurs are widely honored, and technological innovations are almost always welcomed.

It is interesting the conventional wisdom that as a big time entrepreneur capitalist (like Bill Gates or T. Boone Pickens) you can make millions and be seen as worthy, but if you are a CEO making millions working for one of these capitalists then you are judged much less so. What’s that all about? Aren’t they all getting astronomically more than a living wage?

Ron says that the conservatives champion capitalism to build a hierarchy of meritocracy (as a substitute for the traditional hereditary aristocracy) assuming…

that only a select few can actually attain the pinnacle of success because human nature is lazy and untrustworthy; those few who discipline themselves to achieve should be amply rewarded, and the mass of people should simply be content to share in the general prosperity by respecting private property and the rule of law.

This is an obvious mix of Puritan theology and patriarchy. That whole dissing of human nature of course weaves in the Calvinist idea that only a few of us are chosen to rise above our sordid human nature. Is this why “helicopter” parents berate their kids to get those stellar grades in high school and then go on to the best colleges and get the high powered careers? Since I was somehow “chosen”, shouldn’t my kids be as well?

Certainly “free enterprise” can be tied to a much more egalitarian view of human nature would be a very different animal. Says Ron…

The liberal version of capitalism has been more generous, asserting that there is room for everyone to succeed—if not a particular individual, then surely one’s children.

But according to Ron, both liberals and conservatives share the belief that…

Social problems and cultural discontent are best solved by stimulating personal ambition and increasing individual opportunity, rather than by radically questioning the cultural values that may be their root cause. Consequently, the use of education as a panacea for social and cultural problems is a consistent pattern in American history.

So this is where say, Obama and Palin, find their common ground, its all about the social discipline of education. Of course, just like with capitalism, the blue/red argument is over the particulars. Education becomes a battleground for major political and social forces, each coming up with their one-size-fits-all educational programs.

In my thinking, this is at the expense of the individual development of the human consciousness. And as a result parenting, and the whole concept of what youth and human development are all about, gets caught in the crossfire. Somehow we have developed capitalist schools and capitalist parenting that prevailing conventional wisdom justifies.

2 replies on “Five Themes of American Conventional Wisdom Part 4: Capitalism”

  1. Unimpressive. Defining capitalism would have helped a lot. Stating that conservatives are materialists doesn’t follow from any stated premise or evidence.

    To ignore the necessary controls of functional governance is to miss the point. Not only are a significant portion of the populace not going to strive, they are often freeloaders, in the classic sense of game playing, and must be dealt with.

    Once again, a serious appraisal of actual human nature, not utopian wishing, is needed. Hope the next one is better…

  2. Ormond… I would say both conservatives and progressives are materialistic in their judging of what is of value. This tends to minimize the more intangibles of what makes for healthy, happy and evolving society. Everyone may not strive in a materialist sense, but I think everyone strives at some level to realize themselves as best they can, unless beaten down or otherwise severely damaged along the way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *