Capitalism and Culture

A previous article from October entitled “The Real Enemy: Capitalism” argues that issues of discrimination around gender, sexuality, and race have been “dramatically magnified and perpetuated by capitalism” and that when combating these societal ills it is necessary to be aware of “when our efforts align with what the money-making system wants: to deflect blame, and capitalize on your well-intentioned efforts.” A response article from November entitled “Capitalism Is Not Evil. We Are” argues that capitalism “creates products that reflect the culture and values of the consumers” and thus capitalism is not the “root cause” of discrimination, prejudice, and bigotry, but rather our sexist and racist culture is the root cause.
Despite the different theses of these articles, they actually both seem to have similar arguments. Compare these two statements:
“We reward unethical companies for implementing “green” or “inclusive” practices, thinking they’ve become good guys, instead of thinking that they’re just cashing in on a different phenomenon.”
“Progressivism and inclusionism happen to be “in” right now, and businesses from soap to Broadway are just trying to sell you more products.”
I think that this confusion of disagreement and agreement highlights the importance of systems thinking when dealing with complex systems like culture and capitalism. The first article argues that A causes B, and the second that B causes A, when in reality A and B both feedback on each other. What we call “culture” is created by a huge number of factors, which includes capitalism and the things that people learn from what they consume. The behavior of investors and businesses (capitalism) is also determined by a huge number of factors, including what people have bought in the past and what they think people will buy in the future, and thus one of those factors is definitely culture. Neither capitalism nor culture determine each other, but rather they exist in a system of feedback loops in which they clearly influence each other as well as many other important systems (like politics and physical reality).
To simply look at one system determining the other is to miss the full picture and will always be misleading. The problems of capitalism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, colonialism, white supremacy, sustainability, poverty, etc. are all systemic problems; they are not causes or effects of this or that, but properties that emerge from the structure of the systems and systems of systems of which they are a part. This is why systems thinking is necessary when trying to tackle these issues. For a short introduction to systems thinking I recommend checking out “Thinking in Systems: A Primer” by Donella H. Meadows.

Green Space December 2013

Green Space is for anyone who wants to contribute to or learn about green initiatives at Olin and the world. Want to submit an article about green initiatives? Please do! Want to learn how you can make a difference in your own life or at Olin? Easy!

Please, read on and listen well, because, you know, this is your world too.

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