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.