My Take on Capitalism and Consumer Culture

Capitalism is great. It allows you to create your own opportunities and to be rewarded when you work hard enough. This is because capitalism is built around private owners rather than the state who controls the country’s trade and industry in exchange for profit. What this means is that you can, to some extent, control your revenue. Contrarily to a communist society, you can, to some extent, live the American dream if you work hard enough. And if you come from a poor family, you can, to some extent, move up the ladder and increase your living conditions in order to have a better future. But is that really the truth? Here are some of the issues I have with capitalism.

Problem 1: Wealth Gap

While what was listed above is partially true, there is a large problem within our economy with systemic economic disparity. You’ve probably heard of this a lot before. There are people who are at the bottom of the ladder and unable to escape poverty because of their socio-economic circumstances. And then there are the people at the top of the ladder who are able to get filthy rich in the system, people like Jeff Bezos making billions while his employees are living on minimum wage to survive every day, earning $8.96 million per hour compared to the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. That’s 1,235,862 times more money that Jeff Bezos makes compared to his employee…is Jeff Bezos really worth 1,235,862 other human beings?

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Why we say the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. Source: https://www.vox.com/2018/7/29/17627134/income-inequality-chart

My opinion, however, is that the people who are at the top are not the ones to blame. I am not saying that people at the top of the ladder do not deserve their income. I read this opinion article written in the New York Times by Rachel Sherman, an associate professor of sociology at the New School, who makes the case about how extremely wealthy people in society are not the bad, evil people as society perceives them. Sherman shows how these individuals are just like us, human beings, who simply happens to be much wealthier, and they worked extremely hard to earn that position. At the end of her article, she proposes that:

Instead, we should talk not about the moral worth of individuals but about the moral worth of particular social arrangements. Is the society we want one in which it is acceptable for some people to have tens of millions or billions of dollars as long as they are hardworking, generous, not materialistic and down to earth? Or should there be some other moral rubric, that would strive for a society in which such high levels of inequality were morally unacceptable, regardless of how nice or moderate its beneficiaries are?

I completely agree with Scherman. There is a deep-rooted structural problem in our society that allows people to get so rich. Instead of blaming specific groups of individuals, We should rethink our social arrangement, moving towards a more equitable society by putting in place laws that prevent people from getting so wealthy and more efficiently distribute capital. Get rid of fiscal paradises, make people pay their taxes, alongside other initiatives, and we will move towards a more equitable society.

Problem 2: Consumer Culture in Capilatistic Societies

I have a humanities class with my excellent teacher Lisa Sumner to talk about Modernity and Consumer Culture. In this class, I became more aware of our consumer culture alongside capitalism, defined as “ the spending of the customer's money on material goods to attain a lifestyle in a capitalist economy”. This, I believe, is a problem we don’t talk about enough in our capitalistic society.

Wants replace needs.

The line between what we want and what we need is becoming so blurry nowadays, as we are bombarded with advertisements everywhere we go. We “need” more clothes even though there is no more space for clothing in our closet. We “need” the most modern iPhone to replace our outdated 1-year old phone. We “need” the latest shoes that Nike released. We “need” that hottest new piece of technology that everybody is using. But the truth is, we don’t “need” any of these things. Our capitalistic society encourages us, consumers, to see wants as needs. Just two hundred years ago people were living well-off with just food and sleep. But today, we “need” everything, never satisfied with what we currently possess.

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So today’s companies, built around consumers, are focused on answering wants, not needs. They’re focused on creating consumer attachment to their product, making them believe that they cannot live without their product. And companies have been extremely successful. Just look at Apple, their customers are so loyal to them that they are willing to wait days in the line in order to get the company’s latest product.

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Customers Waiting in Line at Apple Retail Stores for iPhone XS, XS Max and Apple Watch Series 4. Source: https://www.macrumors.com/2018/09/20/iphone-xs-apple-watch-launch-day-lines/

This is scary to me for many reasons: we are no longer creating tangible value in our society and advancing the cause of most human beings, but rather deluding ourselves with tools that make us, first-world consumers, just a bit lazier. Instead of focusing on large societal problems like poverty, world hunger, climate change, most companies create solutions to problems that benefit the elite western consumers, not most human beings. If we look at some of our society's biggest companies such as Uber and Amazon, are they really that revolutionizing? They propose solutions to first-world problems, making our lives easier mostly through software, while the rest of the population is struggling in poverty.

We are given the chance to indulge in our wants, while other humans in the world don’t even have enough to satisfy their basic needs.

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Basic human needs according to Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs.

Capitalism encourages us to optimize everything we do. Think about Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, all the large companies that you know today. They make our lives easier, more efficient, connects us with more people, and in that sense, they’re innovative. But they’ve never actually helped solve any of society’s biggest problems. Just first-world problems.

Don’t get me wrong, I am extremely passionate about entrepreneurship. I run my school’s entrepreneurial club, so I would be hypocritical to criticize people for pursuing a passion for entrepreneurship. Most people are not passionate about solving global issues. Their passions lie in other things, such as fitness. They might build an app to facilitate the lives of people or come up with a revolutionary piece of equipment. And I totally respect that. What I am arguing, however, is that as a society, where everything is motivated by economic profit, it is not in the interest of companies and people to help people at the bottom of this virtual ladder.

Our consumer culture encourages us to indulge in consumer products. Companies are built on consumer culture, they live off consumers to survive. And capitalism encourages them to maximize their profits no matter the cost, so they outsource their products to third world countries with extremely cheap labour, promoting modern slavery, evading taxes to maximize profits, and so many other unethical things. Our capitalism allows that because it considers companies as moral entities, so when they are challenged legally, the people who run them are not directly affected.

A lot of people say that business isn’t personal. But maybe that’s where the problem is. Its disconnect to society and its focus on growth and expansion, appeal to consumers, branding, all encouraged by our capitalistic consumer society, is deeply disturbing to me.

Sometimes I wonder if most companies created today are truly contributing to innovation or stagnation at a global scale. Are we truly progressing or digressing as human species, merely disillusioning ourselves with progress by looking at the growth of the economy when we’re really just making things worse for the poor countries, stripping their land of their resources and bringing it back to our first-world country?

The framework in which capitalism lies fundamentally challenges the idea of people helping others just because they want to. it encourages people to seek jobs that make the most money, instead of living something fulfilling. It promotes productivity, the “grind”, the efficiency culture, rather than the enjoyment of the small moments. It prevents us from living the present and focusing on the future. And as consumers, we are hopeless victims, aware of how unethical corporations are, yet too selfish to sacrifice our own comfort in order to make a change because it doesn’t make a difference for us.

While I might not have solutions yet to these problems, I still wanted to voice my concern about these issues, and maybe as a society, we can bring more awareness to these issues into a more equitable and forward-thinking society that is more globally aware.

Steven Gong