Acton Institute Powerblog

Miller: ‘Does Capitalism Destroy Culture?’

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

Anyone who’s driven across the American landscape knows that there will be a familiar string of fast-food chains, gas stations and box stores along the expressways. You could virtually eat the same meal as you drive from one coastline of America to the other. Michael Matheson Miller, Research Fellow and Director of PovertyCure at the Acton Institute, takes up this issue, asking, “Does capitalism destroy culture?”

[S]ince the cultural critique comes from political observers at almost every point on the political spectrum, and since the bureaucratic-capitalist economies of the world really are cultures in crisis, the criticism is worth attending to seriously.

If we are going to analyze the cultural effects of market economies then I think the one of the first things we need to do is distinguish between those things Peter Berger called “intrinsic” to capitalism and those “extrinsic” to it. We need to distinguish among at least three things:

  • the cultural effects caused by capitalism,
  • effects aided and abetted by capitalism,
  • and those things that exist alongside capitalism and are often conflated with capitalism, but that are distinct from it.

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.

Miller states we must understand creative destruction: recognizing that as new technologies, goods and services become available, others become obsolete and drift into oblivion. (How many barrel-makers and farriers do you know?) He does acknowledge that globalization can have negative effects on culture, and the effect can impoverish traditional art forms and ways of life. That doesn’t mean we should stop what we’re doing, though:

As Tyler Cowen notes in Creative Destruction, global trade and new imports have stimulated the local music industry in Ghana where local musicians now control about 70 percent of the Ghanaian market.  Global markets have also provided producers of traditional goods and music a bigger market to sell their wares and take advantages of economies of scale.  When I was in Rwanda I interviewed Janet Nkbana, a entrepreneur who produces traditional baskets and sells them not only locally but at Macy’s in the United States. As more people travel and live abroad and tastes become more eclectic, Janet has potential consumers she would never have if her market were limited to Rwanda.  Her business success has also brought with it positive social benefits to her community.  Though basket making is a traditionally female industry, her company’s success has attracted Rwandan men to seek employment, and this has not only raised family incomes, but also reduced the incidents of alcoholism and violence against women and children. This is an example of cultural transformation afforded by global capitalism, and it is clearly a positive one.

Ultimately, Miller concludes that capitalism is not a neutral force, and one must weigh the costs against the benefits:

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.  For all their fallen, human faults, free and competitive economies have enabled millions of people to lead lives of human dignity and pursue human flourishing, and funded the creation of beautiful architecture, music, and cultural products of all sorts.   If we are going to take cultural decay seriously then simply blaming capitalism will not get us very far.

Read “Does Capitalism Destroy Culture?” at Intercollegiate Review.

Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.


  • Curt Day

    Before answering such a question, we need some working definitions. Such as which form of capitalism are you referring to? And what are the criteria being used to determine whether culture is being advanced or destroyed?

    • Marc Vander Maas

      You might try reading the linked article, which at the very least directly addresses your first question.

      • Curt Day

        SInce the author of the article spends more time saying what capitalism is not while making vague equivalencies of it with democracy, it does not really address the questions. For example, is the capitalism being referenced rely on the bretton-woods system or neoliberalism? My guess, with the globalization, is neoliberalism but I can’t say for sure. But what is for sure that the market rules. For example, in his creative destruction, the old ways are disposable to make room for successful new markets. And though the author doesn’t like the word capitalism itself because of separation it creates between capital and labor, the author fails to mention that technological unemployment has been a big partt of creative destruction. Here, those who work, and the communities in which they live, become disposable if the new doesn’t enough replacement jobs. And indeed, it hasn’t.

        Also the comparison between capitalism and democracy is self-serving unless one admits that just as with democracy, you have one person-one vote, you have one dollar-one vote with capitalism. That is because with capitalism, it is the accumulation of wealth that speaks.

        Though not identified as such, the author does seem to be describing a neoliberalism. Note that in many countries, neoliberalism was ushered in by violence. Such examples can be seen with Chile, Argentina, and Russia. While in other countries, disarray served to usher in neoliberalism. Poland serves as an example there.

        Finally, the author has his own Sophie’s choice dilemma to solve here. For either the author favors severely limited to nongovernment intervention in the market which, under globalism, has only served the moneyed-interests as it allows them to make the rules under which all other must abide or the government makes the rules for the sake of the moneyed-interests. In either case, those who have made the most effective use of the market has the loudest voice that controls how the government makes the rules. This is how it is working out in the real world.

        in other words, where competition is king and greed is your source of energy, your capitalism cannot escape the different kinds of problems cited in corruptions of capitalism such as oligarchic capitalism.

        As for culture, it will only reflect the good and bad of life. In that sense, culture acts as a thermometer so that when culture looks sick, one must immediately rush the other parts of society, such as its economic system to the emergency room in order to help culture

        • Marc Vander Maas

          Not quite sure how you come away from that article with the impression that Miller spent all his time “making vague equivalencies” between capitalism and democracy. He really doesn’t. At all.

          Also not sure why one has to discuss Bretton Woods vs. neoliberalism in the course of a general discussion about whether capitalism destroys culture. That seems to be a completely unnecessary deviation deep, deep into the weeds.

          • Curt Day

            Never said he spent all of his time making equivalencies. But he did spend part of his time doing that.

            The Bretton-Woods system gave control of currency and its flow to the respective government of each country. Neoliberalism gave such control to the moneyed-interests of the world and this negates democracy in any country that the moneyed-interests target.

            BTW, how don’t see how the discussion of how neoliberalism affects culture being a deviation since the title and major point of the article is the effect that capitalism has on culture and neoliberalism is the prominent form of capitalism today.

            In addition, I simply said that culture measures the effect that capitalism has on society, I didn’t say capitalism destroyed culture.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            Curt, seriously: the word “democracy” doesn’t even appear in the piece until the third to last paragraph of the piece, and then only in the context of making a comparison. Miller goes 17 or so full paragraphs before even mentioning the term, and then uses it in the context of noting that people are far more willing to criticize capitalism than democracy, among other concepts. He than says that capitalism is like democracy. That’s not the same thing as saying capitalism is democracy. So, unless you have some secret decoder ring that can determine the underlying meaning of the piece or intent of the author, no, he did not spend any time at all making equivalencies between capitalism and democracy.

            With regard to Bretton Woods and all that nonsense, allow me to quote from the article: “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?”

            Miller is making a broad argument about the basic overarching concept of capitalism. In other words, he’s trying to make an overarching argument that avoids the arcana of things like disputes about the gold standard vs. fiat currency and such, because to do so would probably end up requiring a book-length dissertation in order to tease out all of the nuance and would not be helpful in advancing a reasonable discussion of the issue. (Put another way, he’s trying to avoid arguing in the manner of a Curt Day blog comment.)

            It seems that you struggle to understand this, so I did you a favor and googled “capitalism.” Here’s a definition for you from… ah yes, the American Heritage Dictionary. This should do nicely: “An economic system in which the means of production and distribution are privately or corporately owned and development is proportionate to the accumulation and reinvestment of profits gained in a free market.”

            it took me all of five seconds to come up with a workable idea of what Miller is trying to address. If you want to spend hours going round and round with someone about the finer points of monetary policy, well, it’s a big internet and I’m sure you can find someone to argue with.

          • Curt Day

            I know the term democracy takes place in the writing. This is why I previously wrote that he spent part of his time using the equivalence. So I addressed that. And I address the idea the degree of similarity between capitalism and democracy. Capitalism favors according to wealth whereas democracy, ideally speaking, counts each person equally. So what is your point?l

          • Marc Vander Maas

            So your position is that if the term “democracy” appears in an article about capitalism, the author is necessarily conflating the two regardless of context?

            I guess I really have two points, Curt: The first is that you made a specific claim right off the bat in our discussion that any reasonable person can discern to be completely untrue simply by reading the linked article. In other words, you’re wrong. My second point is that you seem to be almost pathologically incapable of having a simple general discussion about a topic without drawing in all sorts of extraneous issues that serve no purpose other than obfuscation and deflection. Is that clear enough for you?

          • Curt Day


            Let the reader make their own judgment. What follows comes from the article:

            Finally, capitalism also acts as a proxy for other issues which would be politically incorrect or at least politically imprudent to address directly. Criticizing capitalism is easier and more politically acceptable than it would be to critique democracy, egalitarianism, or the welfare state. … Can you imagine a contemporary politician in the United States or Europe standing up today and talking about the dangers of too much equality or democracy? What would happen if a politician blamed consumerism on equality instead of corporate greed?

            IMO, the above shows a tying together of capitalism and democracy to some degree. But in many cases, democracy has to be overridden for neoliberal capitalism to be installed. Examples of this include Chile, Argentina, and Russia. Others were economically blackmailed into accepting neoliberalism. Poland is an example. That regardless of what you want say about the author’s views of capitalism and democracy, today’s capitalism has, in many cases, worked against democracy.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            So I suppose that Miller is also “tying together” democracy and egalitarianism, and democracy and the welfare state, right? I mean, seeing as how they both appear in the same context in that paragraph as the word “democracy.” Clearly, your grasp of rhetoric and the English language far exceeds mine.

            And while we’re talking about the wishes of the people being overridden to install neoliberal capitalism, let’s just ignore how the the implementation of socialism more often than not involves overriding the people as well. Often with tanks.

          • Curt Day

            First, egalitarianism is not necessarily a welfare state. It reflects by those in charge whether it be elite-centered or democratic on how wealth is to be distributed more equitably. A welfare state would imply that people don’t work for what has been given to them and that is not implied by egalitarianism. We should also note that the ‘welfare state’ is not bad in and of itself.

            In addition, James Madison, in the Constitutional debates did draw a closer relationship between egalitarian when he warned of the democratic threat to England. His fear was that if every person could vote, then agrarian reforms would follow.

            And btw, let’s ignore how ‘socialism’ has been installed. But let’s be precise about both. In my previous note, I specifically referred to neoliberal capitalism, which is today’s capitalism. I didn’t refer to other forms. So now, which form of socialism are you referring when you want to mention how socialism has been installed?

          • Marc Vander Maas

            Oh, I’m probably referring to all of those kinds of socialism that ended up causing horrible human suffering and tragedy, which of course have nothing to do with your magical form of socialism that bucks the trend and somehow spreads power all around and gives away free ponies to every little girl. I don’t know, Curt. It doesn’t matter what I say because you’re just going to go off on some tangent about how the Neoliberal McDonalds conspiracy overturned Bretton Woods and now has a van parked in your front yard oppressing you.

          • Curt Day

            You can be snippy if you want. But if you really want to examine what was the cause for the suffering, you might want to ask, did gov’ts like Red China and the Soviet Union hurt others through socialism or through authoritarianism by being elite-centered?

            This is the pertinent question for us because Socialism does not have a monopoly on being authoritarian by focussing on elites, we have in our current capitalism here. In addition, our country killed many other people even before neoliberal capitalism was ever started. Of course some might find solace in the fact that Red China and the Soviet Union had more people to kill.

            And btw, neoliberal McDonalds overturned the Bretton-woods system? You really don’t care about a rational discussion. You are simply defending your tribal turf.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            [slow clap]

            I stand in awe of your complete inability to consider that perhaps socialism has some elite-centeredness that’s just baked into the system. Also, I find myself completely staggered by your apparent assertion that the only reason that we haven’t annihilated as many people as those bad, misguided socialists (who never had the benefit of your profound insights on socialism) for the simple reason that we simply don’t have enough people to kill. Bravo, Einstein. Bravo. I mean, I had already given up on reasoning with you in any way, but then you unload that gem… I defer to your absolute mastery of unreasonableness.

            Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go deal with a van full of agents from the NeoLiberal McDonalds conspiracy who are oppressing my family and working to undermine the world monetary system on orders from their wicked overlords, the “Moneyed Interests.”

          • Curt Day

            If you want to remain rigid and think of socialism as a monolith because that is how you have been raised, that is your right. You would be wrong, but that is your prerogative.

            But what you could do is at least work on correcting capitalism and how it exploits people. We see it in our country today where regardless of which political party is in power, those in power have been bought and work for the benefit of the moneyed-interest.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            So we’re going to go from implying that market nations would engage in wholesale slaughter if only they could get their birthrates up to the “reasonable socialist” pose again, are we, Curt?

            I don’t think of socialism as a monolith. I think of it as an idea that can sound really attractive in theory that unfortunately doesn’t work in practice, and is in its most extreme form responsible for a mountain of corpses. I don’t think that because I was raised that way – it’s not as if my parents were hard-core cold warriors – I think that way because I can read. Because I’ve studied history. Because I believe in the basic Christian premise that mankind is fallen, and because socialism ultimately fails to account for the fallen-ness of man.

            I don’t believe that the market is perfect. I do believe, however, that it has a demonstrated record of actually lifting people out of poverty and providing the most of everything that we want to see – basic necessities, growth, wealth, human flourishing – and doing so in a manner that actually makes things more affordable and available both to the wealthy and the poor. If you have to be impoverished and had the opportunity to choose whether to be impoverished in the United States or, say, Laos, which would you choose? I think the answer is self-evident.

            If you insist on believing that we could make our society more just, caring, and all-around better if only we would scale up the manner of governance of the local farmers elevator to govern a nation of 300 million people each of whom has different ideas of how best to pursue their various goals in life, be my guest. It doesn’t work, but hey, it’s still (kind of) a free country. And rest assured that I will continue to promote – day in and day out – the superiority of the free market undergirded by religious principles.

          • Curt Day


            Do you make strawmen as a hobby? I made no such implication and you know it.

            In addition, the market economies have lifted some but only because they have exploited others. And that is what the record shows regardless of the form of capitalism. And one’s view of capitalism with regard to its dependence on exploitation depends on which end of the whip one resides. If one wields the whip or rides on the coattails of them that do, one finds the damage done by capitalism to incredulous at the least and minimal and justified at the most. Those who live on the other end of the whip tell a different story.

            If you don’t believe me, identify a period of time in America’s capitalism where its prosperity did not depend on exploitation?

            And finally, socialism is working is isolated pockets of America where you have worker co-ops that are run democratically. You have the same in other countries. You had working socialism in the Spanish Revolution and the Paris Commune. They didn’t last because the outside, opposing conservative forces had the military on their side. There are other examples of collective societies that worked as well.

            So quit with your strawmen because with the already staggering and still growing economic disparity in the West as well as its continuing contribution to the destruction of the environment along with assumed right to wage war against anyone, you have a lot to account for without bringing imaginary players into the game.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            “Of course some might find solace in the fact that Red China and the Soviet Union had more people to kill.”

            Explain what you’re implying with that sentence, Captain Brainpower.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            You know what? Don’t even bother explaining. Really, at this point, I could care less what your theories are.

          • Curt Day

            I noticed that a long time ago. Just don’t be blind to the harm caused by the implementation of the theories you support

          • Marc Vander Maas

            I am simply gobsmacked at your lack of self-awareness.

          • Curt Day

            Yes, you do have a gift at projection

          • Curt Day

            If you want an answer, don’t be insulting.

        • Marc Vander Maas

          As for violence and corruption in capitalism – well, thank God we have the peaceful 1917 Russian Revolution to look to as a model for ushering in new economic systems. Or even Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which voted nearly unanimously to join the Soviet Union with no fraud or violence or anything. Or the totally peaceful and non-violent imposition of communist rule in Cuba, which to this day remains home to a non-oppressed population that gets FREE HEALTH CARE. Or the Great Leap Forward, or the completely peaceful transition of systems in Vietnam, etc. Come to think of it, you might not be familiar with what not to do with stones when you reside in a glass house.

  • RogerMcKinney

    This is an excellent article for the most part. Most people have drunk the atheist-socialist Kool-Aid that says we are all born innocent and society makes us bad. Non-Christians should know better, but it’s really sad to see Christians sucked in by such idiocy.

    “There is corporate capitalism, oligarchic capitalism, crony capitalism, and managerial-bureaucratic capitalism, such as we have in the United States.”

    No. There is only one capitalism. Free marketeers since Adam Smith have held to a consistent definition. Socialists have labeled all forms of corruption and mixtures of socialism as capitalism in order to disparage it. For example, crony-capitalism is nothing but old-fashioned corruption. “Managerial-bureaucratic” capitalism doesn’t exist; the US enjoys a form of socialism known as fascism.

    “Schor details the marketing and advertising that bypasses parents and tries to market directly to children as young as three and four years old.”

    Socialists exaggerate the power of advertising. Advertisers wish it was as effective. Research shows it to be nowhere near as powerful as socialists claim.

    “Brands, he argues, have replaced families, religion, and communities as a source of identity.”

    That’s just a ridiculous exaggeration.