Editor's note: This article is the first of a two-part essay, the second part of which will be published tomorrow.
In July of this year Michael Matheson Miller of the Acton Institute published on the Intercollegiate Review online an article entitled "Does Capitalism Destroy Culture?"
He begins his article by stating: "One of the most enduring critiques of capitalism is that it is morally and culturally corrosive." And he confesses that since this critique is made not just by Marxists but also "from political observers at almost every point on the political spectrum...the criticism is worth attending to seriously." One who, like myself, has been a critic of capitalism for many years must voice appreciation for Miller's honest acknowledgement of this widespread criticism of capitalism.
If capitalism, however, is "morally and culturally corrosive," what exactly is capitalism? This is something that Miller never says. Nor, as I have written elsewhere, is he unusual, for attempts to provide an exact definition of capitalism are surprisingly rare. People perhaps assume they can point to the economic system around us and say, "Well, that's capitalism."
But in fact, that is not sufficient. For there are many facets of our economy, some of which are peculiar to capitalism, others not. Private property, for example, which is sometimes held to be the defining note of capitalism, has been around for millennia, long before anything that can coherently be called capitalism existed.
In an effort to provide a more exact understanding of capitalism, I will use the definition that Pope Pius XI gave. It is the most accurate that I have seen and it expresses the specific note that distinguishes capitalism from all other ways of organizing economic activity. Capitalism according to Pope Pius is "that economic system in which were provided by different people the capital and labor jointly needed for production" (Quadragesimo Anno, no. 100). In other words, in a capitalist system by and large some people own the means of production and hire others to do the work for them. Throughout this article this and only this is what I mean by capitalism.
Now, is capitalism in this sense "morally and culturally corrosive"? Although any form of capitalism does tend in that direction, Miller rightly notes that capitalism "comes in a variety of forms and can mean many things." Capitalism, when it is restrained by a complex of legal and other institutional forms—as for example the West German social market economy that allowed labor unions considerable say in the running of corporations and otherwise tempered the forces of free competition—can operate in a manner that mitigates its socially harmful effects.
But this is unusual. The capitalism we have in this country tends toward the free-market variety, with latterly an increasing mix of pure crony manipulation and chicanery. And it is this sort of capitalism, free-market capitalism or anything that approximates it, that I especially charge with being "morally and culturally corrosive." In examining Miller's argument, then, I will be concerned mostly with free-market capitalism, for it is chiefly that which allows the baneful effects of capitalism's separation of ownership and work to become fully manifest. The fact that a perfectly free market has never existed does not affect my argument, for the closer that an economy approaches to it the more its ill effects display themselves.
Miller enumerates four accusations that are made against capitalism, although the first two are essentially part of the same accusation. The first is that "it destroys traditional culture and ways of living," while his related second point is that "global capitalism is a leveling force that is making the whole world homogeneous and Westernized." Thirdly, "Critics also charge capitalism with promoting radical concepts of autonomy," and lastly, "The most powerful critique of capitalism is its relationship to consumerism."
Let us consider each of these in turn.
As to the first point, Miller admits that "generally the answer is clearly yes." Capitalism does destroy "traditional culture and ways of living." What is responsible for this, he says, is chiefly innovation.
As new technologies, industries, and goods and services emerge, they make older ones obsolete; old industries are shut down and new ones emerge. New forms of management and technology and division of labor transform traditional work and social relations, and new technologies alter traditional roles of women and men in the house.
This, says, Miller, "is what Joseph Schumpeter called 'creative destruction,' and it would be naive to deny that creative destruction doesn't come with serious trade-offs."
Miller then gives two examples that he claims show how this "creative destruction" can actually aid traditional cultures. One is that in Ghana "global trade and new imports have stimulated the local music industry" so that "local musicians now control about 70 percent of the Ghanaian market." And the second is an entrepreneur in Rwanda "who produces traditional baskets and sells them not only locally but at Macy's in the United States."
What can one say about this? In the first place technological innovation is doubtless as old as the human race and in itself is not an evil. But it can at times become an evil if it proceeds too fast or has disruptive results or creates unnecessary inequalities, e.g., by allowing rich or politically powerful individuals to assume control of processes or resources that formerly were more widely available. Free-market capitalism, though, does tend to encourage technological innovation in ways that are not necessarily helpful to humanity. This is because a producer is concerned only with how much money he can make from his activity. The possible disruptive social effects are almost never a concern of his, nor is he displeased if he can gain control over some process that formerly was owned or controlled in common. A near perfect example of this is convincing mothers to buy processed cow's milk to feed their babies rather than to use the free milk provided by God for that very purpose. It is true that mothers and physicians have been complicit in this unnatural rejection of one of God's gifts. But that is the way free-market capitalism operates; seldom does it force itself upon us. Instead it effectively takes advantage of the weaknesses of our fallen nature.
What of the two counter examples that Miller raised, from Ghana and Rwanda? The first is merely bizarre, for although "local musicians now control about 70 percent of the Ghanaian market," we would presume that before global trade they controlled 100 percent of that market, so clearly this has not been a gain for traditional Ghanian music. What of the second, the lone Rwandan woman whose baskets are sold by Macy's? Is this a success story that shows the immense potential of a global free market for traditional producers? While naturally one wonders about the presumably numerous other Rwandan women and the effects of globalization on their livelihood—do they all sell at Macy's?—let us examine this at a more fundamental level in the context of Miller's second main point.
Miller brings up this second point averring that "Related to the [first critique] is the argument that global capitalism is a leveling force that is making the whole world homogenous and Westernized." And he says, "There is partial truth to this and any visit to an American suburb each with its own Home Depot, Lowe's, and Walmart bears this out." But on the other hand, argues Miller, "We see the rise of specialty stores,...restaurants with cuisine from all over the world and a variety of choices that did not exist fifty years ago."
What can be said in response to this? Cultural sharing or transmission from one culture to another is an ancient trait of mankind, and generally there is nothing wrong with it. But as with so many things, circumstances can make it an evil. If done on too wide a scale or too indiscriminately or too rapidly, it can debase or destroy both the receiving and the transmitting cultures. Capitalism, and especially globalized capitalism, make the process of cultural sharing both more intensive and more extensive. Local regional cultures in the United States have been almost entirely destroyed by the indiscriminate effects of market forces, and what little of such regional cultures still exists is often merely a facade for tourists and possesses little or no authenticity.
But what of the Rwandan basket maker? Do not global market forces allow her traditional cultural product to exist and even to flourish? What we think of this, it seems to me, depends upon what we think man is. Within the providence of God mankind has developed various cultures in various parts of the world. Are we to regard our own cultures, and the cultures of the rest of the world, as so many objects of choice, as so many consumer items among which to pick and choose as we feel moved, much as we might when wandering through a shopping mall? Today let's eat Chinese, tomorrow Peruvian.
Is it not obvious that such an approach to the various cultures of mankind debases both the integrity of a culture and our own humanity by dissociating us from any organic contact with any particular place? If it is a good, as Miller says, that there are "plenty of different restaurants with cuisine from all over the world," do we really want this to be the case everywhere we go? So that in rural France we'll find our Chinese restaurant and our Mexican restaurant and perhaps a McDonald's as well? And what then will we find in rural Mexico? A French restaurant alongside the Chinese and not far from the McDonald's? Such a notion of culture makes it simply a means of relieving boredom or titillating the sophisticated. Culture becomes entirely detached from any real place and we might as well create fake cultures with fake cuisines and set up restaurants to sell them all over the world. Actually this is a marketer's dream, and Americans at least, with our abysmal knowledge of geography, would hardly notice if they were offered fare from Uzania or Pangovia or any other imaginary place.
But Miller has more to say in response to his second point. He writes,
It is a mistake to conflate modernization and broad use of technology with Westernization. A young Asian eating McDonald's while listening to an iPod likely knows little if anything about the culture, traditions, and religion that shaped Western civilization and set the ground for technological developments that he enjoys. The use of modern technology does not make one a Westerner any more than the use of Japanese technology educates one about Zen.... The world may be less flat than we imagine.
This, it seems to me, is a confusion. Why so? Well, Miller had already admitted that this country itself has become homogenized, as "any visit to an American suburb" shows. Although the spread of Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets does not make the entire nation into blue grass country, it surely does do something to destroy local culinary traditions and to standardize taste. As I said earlier, a certain amount of cultural sharing is both inevitable and good; what is wrong is when it is artificially stimulated and becomes the norm. That is what free-market capitalism does. The fact that a "young Asian eating McDonald's...likely knows little if anything about...Western civilization" does not mean that his own cultural traditions are not being corrupted or destroyed by the worst or most superficial that the West has to offer. Our young Asian learns nothing from eating McDonald's about Catholic faith or culture, by far the most valuable thing that ever developed in European civilization, but instead apes Western man in his dress, technology, choice of food and entertainment.