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Does Capitalism Destroy Culture?

As of late, I have been thinking about a tension at the heart of capitalism, and ran across a 1980 column by conservative author George Will that summed it up:

The Republican platform [of 1980] stresses two themes that are not as harmonious as Republicans suppose.

One is cultural conservatism. The other is capitalist dynamism. The latter dissolves the former. …

Capitalism undermines traditional social structures and values; it is a relentless engine of change, a revolutionary inflamer of appetites, enlarger of expectations, diminisher of patience.

Capitalism’s critics claim that the pursuit of profit can become like a black hole, consuming all of our attention and energy at the expense of culture. Some argue, for example, that the shopping activity that accompanies “Black Friday” comes at the expense of a traditional Thanksgiving. Many of us suspect that it would be better to be contemplative and thankful for our blessings, but who can resist a good deal?

Before we condemn capitalism for eroding culture, however, we should consider a real-world comparison. How did music, art, and other cultural pursuits fare under the opposing systems of the Cold War—the communism of the Soviet Union versus the capitalism of the United States? 

In reality, the free world produced better art and greater opportunities for cultural enrichment generally. From music to television to movies, the U.S.’s high economic growth coincided with a cultural boom that has made America a leader around the world, both in industrial production and cultural expression. Capitalism also has the advantage of allowing individuals to participate in culture—and any culture only lasts as long as individuals continue to participate in its traditions and institutions. The U.S. produced both more total cultural content as well as material that was more diverse in style and genre. Meanwhile, in the USSR, commissars foisted politically approved art upon the population, while banning creative expression that they judged to be inconsistent with socialist ideals.

Another weakness with the argument that “capitalism is bad because it destroys culture” is the assumption that all legacy culture is good, and should persist forever. If a cultural practice is good and desirable to begin with, it will likely continue regardless of the pressures of capitalism. A free society, however, allows cultural norms to evolve and preferences to change. In many places in the U.S., so-called “blue” laws once required many or all businesses to close on Sundays. Legislatures enacted these laws to reinforce Christian religious observance that calls for honoring God by refraining from worldly pursuits on the Sabbath. Today, however, many people are not only less strict in their own religious observance, but there is far more resistance to using a particular religion’s tenets to guide law and policy. Many people find working or serving customers a more valuable use of their time on Sundays than the spiritual practices previous generations generally observed. It is still possible to close your business on Sunday if you prefer, but it is (for the most part) no longer mandatory, leaving people to find the highest use for their own time. The cultural importance of “rest” still goes on for many, they just change how they get it. Whether it be a late night Friday movie, a cup of coffee with a friend on Saturday, or a picnic in the park Sunday with loved ones, regularly scheduled rest was the cultural goal of the old blue laws, and Americans have found new ways to realize it.

Capitalism’s critics also bemoan cultural homogenization, often citing the growth of corporate behemoths like McDonald’s, with its tens of thousands of franchises all over the world, as cultural imperialism. The regions that have embraced capitalism over the past century, however, did not simply adopt American culture so much as they adapted and merged it with their own. McDonald’s is certainly a product of the American business world, but the golden arches do not always sell Big Macs. International locations have very different menus—I’ve yet to see the McNürnburger, or Ebi Filet-O Shrimp anywhere in the U.S. The process of global cultural diffusion that capitalism accelerates has also long since stopped being merely about things coming into or being sent from the United States. K-pop music from South Korea and Bollywood films from India, for example, are now global experiences for which the U.S. is just one of many markets.

In a world of capitalism and culture, the market is a force for boosting and amplifying culture. Just as a business owner works to provide new and better products to his customers, so a free economy creates a “cultural market” that enables citizens to participate as never before and add their own unique offerings and interpretations. This gradual change, wrought by countless voluntary choices made by billions of individuals around the world, is the way human culture has changed in most times and places. The main exceptions to that rule have been the violent political movements that have tried to force a new conception of what is culturally appropriate from the top down, whether it be the Jacobins of the French Revolution, the Bolsheviks of the Russian Revolution, or the Maoists of the Cultural Revolution. Those are the forces of change that conservatives like George Will, and the rest of us, should worry about seeing replicated.  

Even when gradual cultural change alters our most beloved traditions—like Thanksgiving, as I mentioned above—it often leaves behind an unappreciated benefit in the form of a new tradition. For many Millennials who have grown with divorced parents or other issues of family dislocation, a traditional Thanksgiving may be too difficult or awkward to enjoy. That does not mean that the tradition of Thanksgiving dies, though—just take a look at Friendsgiving when you get a chance. The market responds to changes in demand, and the cultural market does as well.