Is capitalism the cause of materialism?

Kaity Whipple p.6

Is capitalism the central reason for materialism within our society?

There is no denying that modern society in America clings to materialistic goods. As our country has so called “progressed” through time with inventions and new technology its people have become increasingly involved with tangible wealth. Now a days materialism has become such an issue that people feel as if they’re not as good as someone else just because they don’t have the new I phone that all of their friends have. Today someone goes to lunch and without a doubt there will be a family at the restaurant with a young kid playing on his or her I phone or I pad at the table. And sure enough, if the parent takes away that I pad there will be a tantrum expected immediately. Women fight over men for wealth and even solicit their bodies to attain riches. The list of examples of materialism within our world today could go on.  The problem with a materialistic society is that it has reached the point where men and women have begun valuing themselves based on what they are able to tangibly accumulate in comparison to others. What is the cause of this materialistic society America has formed into?

                Our country is based on an “economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state”- capitalism.[1] “Capitalism is the only system that led to the freedom of slaves, the end of feudalism, the equal rights of all individuals, regardless of race, color, sex, etc.”[2] Contradictory to this statement is the observation that freedom and equality have been diminished by the fact that materialism has caused people to judge themselves based on others and judge their own greatness based on how much noticeable wealth they have acquired.  Is capitalism the cause of materialism in the United States?

Living in a capitalist environment seems to be the easy answer for why our culture is so obsessed with the material things of the world since it can be reasoned that one of the main aims of capitalism is to provide individuals with their own profit. Accompanying that reasoning is the fact that our capitalist society is immensely focused on industrialism and mass production of goods. We buy goods; we sell goods. It’s no surprise that American’s are so obsessed with material goods!  While this seems like a convincing claim, there is a different view on capitalism claims that a person’s interest in physical riches over ‘spiritual’ or intellectual wealth does not result from capitalism.

Ludwig Von Mises, author of Liberty and Property, presents a pro capitalist view on how society should be. He agrees that that yes, there are things that are more important to humans than an abundance of material wealth but that it is up to the individual weather or not they will seek out “higher and nobler pursuits.”  Von Mises says that those who think that the state or government should be in control or have the ability to organize spiritual or moral culture have a somewhat rudimentary view on capitalism. This author points out that capitalism is not to blame for people’s favoring of watching “a boxing match to a performance of Sophocles’ Antigone…” In today’s world we could relate this to a preference of the masses in attending a rock or pop concert rather than the opera.

In Liberty and Property, the author states that “the distinctive principle of Western social philosophy is individualism. It aims at the creation of a sphere in which the individual is free to think, to choose, and to act without being restrained by the social apparatus of coercion and oppression, the state. ”[3] This being said, many could vouch that the capitalist society puts the business owners or capitalists in charge, and the capitalists job is to promote their good or service which is in a sense then promoting materialism.

Karl Marx would also add a valid argument that capitalism is a cause of materialism within society. In the Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx divides society into two classes, the bourgeois and the proletariat. The bourgeois is defined as the class of modern capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage labor. The proletariat is defined as the class of modern wage laborers, who have no means of production on their own, are reduced to selling their labor power in order to live.[4] Already it is seen that just by defining these two classes, the bourgeois and the proletariat, Von Mises idea of freedom of thought, choice, and action without restraint is shot down. The proletarian’s job is to mass produce for the bourgeois.[5] Mass production is based on materialistic goods and therefore is directly related to the ideals of a capitalist society.

                The founding ideals stated in the United States Declaration of Independence mention that every person has the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Our country exalts itself for being the supposed land of freedom and opportunity. People are able to pursue the ‘American dream.’ But now the American dream seems to revolve around materialistic concerns. Since the idea of the American dream has been around, it has somewhat centered around being able to comfortably live with a family, in a nice home, with some room for extra spending money. Today, the American dream consists of having the nicest home, the most gadgets or up to date technology and toys available, and extra money to spend on whatever they so desire. It has turned from somewhat materialistic to fully focusing on wealth and looks. According to Ellen Goodman, “Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it.” [6]

                The problem with materialism is that people are now using material goods in excess to essentially try and buy their way to happiness, which cannot be done. This has caused many people to develop depression and other mental struggles. According to a study done in the United Kingdom on children aged 9 through 12, the kids who believed happiness was associated with money, popularity, and looks, were more likely to suffer depression than those kids who did not believe this. The article written about the study stated that the happier children commonly believed that being happy was about healthy outlooks on each day and the practice of following their goals, whatever the outcomes might be.[7] Because those people measure their own self-worth based on how much tangible wealth they obtain, it is easy be overcome by depression, anxiety, or sadness when the happiness that was hoped for is not found within a material item.

Whether or not capitalism is the cause of materialism, obsession with wealth is clearly a large issue in the United States. This issue must be handled before our country loses the great values that it was built on. It would be hard to believe that our founding fathers would take pride in the fact that our country, the land of the free, is today world renowned for its greediness and obsession with money. America was made to be a land of opportunity but it could be possible that this idea of freedom and opportunity has turned into a strive for wealth and power. It is also easily arguable that the people of this country have forgotten the true meaning and reason for capitalism.  It is obvious that the foundation of capitalism has paved the way for the prosperity and endurance of America, but has it also caused detriment?


[1]  (Oxford American College Dictionary n.d.)

[2]  (Capitalism Magazine 2013)

[3]  (Mises 1958)

[4]  (Marx & Engels 1848)

[5]  (Marx & Engels 1848)

[6]  (Khurran 2013)

[7]  (Daily Mail n.d.)

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