Capitalism is the idea that folks can invest their assets (not just income or monetary assets) into projects and products they feel are worthwhile. The individual can generate and distribute his or her wealth. The assets are used with knowledge of self, family, culture. Lets say a landowner is sitting there and notices a pile of wood on his or her land. The landowner might decide to trade this wood for milk from the farmer down the road. They both decide on a fair trade (price) and both are happy to receive the product or project from the other. There is a human element, and the wood and milk were readily available to each party.
Consumerism is the idea that folks desire to consume and own products for his or her gain or to elevate social status. These products are not necessarily needed, nor provide long term wealth. While the products may feel worthwhile they are consumed in excess or sold in excess. The assets are used to partake in a social structure. Let’s say that that same landowner saw the wood on his land. He decides to put the wood in bundles and sell them for $8/cord at the gas station. The same farmer down the road takes his milk and sells it at the same gas station for $5/gallon. They create labels and intense marketing strategies and the consumer starts to think this has to be the best milk and wood ever–even if they don’t need it or can’t afford it. They must consume! Now the value of both products is strictly monetary and sold through a third party who also profits.
Even as I write these examples, it is hard to separate the two ideas. And the inherent problem or catch in each example is capital. If I am not a landowner, I have no capital. If I have no capital, neither system works. Or both systems work incredibly well to keep those who invest, not necessarily those who consume, in a position of social or inherited power. I found myself in this predicament during college. I amassed debt not through the actual education (my entire college career was paid for through tuition scholarships) but through taking out loans to rent a home, eat, buy books, etc. I did not take out these loans because I was lazy or lived a luxurious lifestyle. I did so because I had no idea how to engage in economics or investments. My ability to make sound financial decisions was affected by my lack of capital (resources). I did not subsequently ignore bills because I was a criminal, or financially inept. I simply did not have the funds.
Eventually, I earned my graduate degree and now pay bills on time. Still have a lot of debt. However, it wasn’t my academic talents or grit that got me out. I had some help. I was born into a white (lower) middle class family and was able to ask family members for help at times, although I learned nothing of investments. I may have some inheritance but in the meantime I’m not a land owner, I know nothing of procuring property. I’m not a home owner. I cannot partake in the rentier economy I see benefit so many around me. And I’m not sure that I would. I’m not a hater of capitalism or consumerism, necessarily, but I see there may be a different way to do things. I like capitalism because it encourages me to trade veggies and herbs I grow in my garden for other things I may need. I get to evaluate my own needs within my own culture and acquire or sell/barter products and projects. I purchase from local growers and vendors at the farmers market. I like this. Its personal, its enriching. Its easy to demonize capitalism if one is not benefiting. I’ve found myself in this pickle. Now I see its more complex.
I think where I most get hung up is our identity connected to work. The first question most folks will ask is “what do you do?” Well, I’m a therapist. But I’m also a gardener. A runner. Sometimes a scientist. I have a wide skill set. And I also get hung up on the phrase “he will make more money than you ever will.” Yep, I know. But that’s not my objective in life. Yeah I want to buy things I need, live in a nice place, but I don’t need much more. Of course I could amass wealth for “noble” causes and give away my wealth or I can give away social capital and my time. All equally valuable to me. With that, I understand that all folks are not like me and each person knows themselves best. These are the individualistic principles upon which capitalism was founded. I don’t want to get away from the unique needs of each individual or his or her decision to buy or consume what is best for his or her needs–independent of me.
I could be considered an expert in a few fields. Only through the framework of public higher education so this is faulty at best because this is only one modality of knowing. I can see someone’s situation objectively and perhaps provide some reflection to lead to insight. But I never will,and never have, known what’s best for someone else. I can guess at what products or needs folks might have and try to fill these needs through work (paid or unpaid) that I enjoy greatly. But again, I do not know what is best for another person only being a true expert at being myself. This form of individualism celebrates the capacity of each person to make their own decisions. I can decide to not buy a home. I can decide to find a financial advisor to buy a home. This becomes tricky territory with the idea that all individuals are valued at the same levels, and that there choices are considered acceptable within the dominant framework. They may not be. But that does not take away from the individuals right to choose.
I suppose then, on the fourth of July, I write about American ideals witnessing very viscerally all that could be deemed wrong with our political or public values. But, I do believe most folks have the freedom of choice and as we advocate for immigrants we advocate for these folks to choose to come here legally or illegally and that his or her right to profit once in the country are the ideals upon which capitalism was founded. It’s perhaps America’s own trend toward consumerism that causes us to pay wages that are unfair to continue to create a culture of scarcity. One can choose to work at a job at a higher or lower wage with or without great benefit or risk. But these jobs and choices have much more meaning when we are creating things we need, directly selling to one another, creating humanity. When we find a task that is, as they say, our life’s calling. And that is capitalizing one’s own inherent worth.
“Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated, thus, everyone’s task is unique as his specific opportunity to implement it.”
-Viktor E. Frankl