Capitalism as Culture

 “Economic development” is often considered something that is inherently good in Western dialogue. Beginning with the introduction of the Truman Doctrine in 1947, it is hard to imagine a United States that does not offer its help and foreign aid to countries it considers to be underdeveloped in contrast to its own. While theorists would debate the process by which it should and can occur throughout the 20th century, as theorist Arturo Escobar puts it, “Development had achieved the status of certainty in the social imaginary.”  While the push for industrial development began in the late 19th century in many “underdeveloped” economies in response to the globalization of markets—underdeveloped in comparison to that of the United States, France, Britain, and other Western countries—its model was most clearly defined in Walt Whitman Rostow’s The Stages of Economic Growth published in 1960. Beginning with the stage of “Traditional Society” and ending with “Age of High Mass Consumption,” Rostow represents this development model as an alternative to Marx’s Communist Manifesto, and therefore as a model for lower-income countries to follow as an ideological counter to the Soviet Union during the Cold War—certainly a vehicle for increased U.S influence in the “Third World.” This model stresses the outcome of development as an improvement on the standard of living within society through capitalist methods of industrialization and consumption, but Rostow makes note that both culture and politics develop and exist mostly separate to that of the economy, stating, “Although the stage-of-growth are an economic way of looking at whole societies, they in no sense imply that the worlds of politics, social organization, and of culture are a mere superstructure built upon and derived uniquely from the economy.” But how can a society that is traditionally agrarian develop to an era of mass consumption without a loss or change in culture and values? And by this kind of development, how much of the nation’s population will be left behind, without access to the newfound wealth of the elite? In order to understand the impact of capitalist ideologies on the culture and values of “developing” countries, we can look at the case studies within Factory Girls and The Poverty of Progress through the lense of “discourse.” Through this alternative theory on development authored by the aforementioned Escobar, we can show the introduction of the framework of capitalist ideologies causes not only a replacement of economic policies, but in fact a replacement of cultural norms and values that can often lead to a lower quality of life not only for the masses, but for the workforce in particular. 

The most important element in Escobar’s development theory is the idea of discourse as a way to control, subjugate, and exploit the Third World by the West: “Discourse is not the expression of thought; it is a practice, with conditions, rules, and historical transformations.” By changing the motivations of the economy to that of profits to compete with and supply that of the United States and Europe, both Meiji Japan and many countries in South America had to change the relationships between workers and producers, completely upending traditionally agrarian cultures and forcing the exploited class to adapt, retreat, or fight. In Escobar’s words, “For what is at stake is the process by which, in the process of the modern West, non-European areas have been systematically organized into, and transformed according to, European constructs.” For example, in early 19th century Bolivia, free trade with European countries was beginning to take a large bite out of the profits and well-being of the local agricultural sector. “Free trade bore some responsibility for the nation’s poor agricultural performance. A chronic imbalance of trade between 1825 and 1846 had cost Bolivia $14,316,148 pesos, much of which was spent to import food the country was perfectly capable of producing.” Similarly, it was the early stages of globalization and the liberalization of markets caused by traditional imperial powers that would influence the leaders of Meiji Japan to enforce industrial development upon their own people, in the form of industrializing silk and cotton production. “The trade imbalance from the flood of imports was a nightmare for a government pledged to quickly build modern military might supported by industrialization and an institutional infrastructure that could put Japan on a par with the Western imperialist nations.” This track and discourse of economic capitalist development in the late 19th to early 20th century in order to compete with Western countries would completely change the culture surrounding the working class, especially women in the working class, to that of increasing economic output—while at the same time decreasing their quality of life. This is shown by the amount of women left indebted to these companies even after years of work, the sexual exploitation within factories, and the amount of women who shifted to sex work in general in order to help support their families. 

 In The Poverty of Progress, the capitalist discourse of development is represented more broadly, with examples from multiple South American countries which changed dramatically with the introduction of foriegn capital and motivations into the market—a capitalist culture which challenged and attempted to replace “folk culture.” As Burns notes, the agrarian landlords had to respond to these new economic policies in order to compete with foreign imports. “The landlords who entered the capitalist marketplace became more closely tied to the cities with their services, capital, and technologies…In their pursuit of profits from distant sales, they changed their agricultural techniques and labor relations: the farm became a factory, the peon a wage laborer.” This change, consequently, adversely affected the traditional “folk societies.” Folk culture, as defined by Burns, was based upon a “common language, heritage, beliefs, and means of facing daily life”— But in the eyes of the capitalists and elites, this was a life in a backwards society. “Imbued with European political ideas, inheritors of the Enlightenment, the elites scoffed at the concepts represented by the folk caudillos; ‘barbarians’ was the epithet they hurled.” After the introduction of capitalist investment and methods of production in the 19th century, not only were rebellions frequent, but the financial burden also fell unequally upon the folk society. “The burden of financing the railroads as well as other accoutrements of progress inevitably fell on the local poor…it diminished the amount of land, labor, and capital available to produce food for local consumption.” Thus, with the discourse surrounding these local communities concurrent with that of barbarians, the majority of governmental policy was to force them to adhere to modern standards rather than adapt to their wants and needs—resulting in a lower quality of life for folk people in Latin America. 

The discourse between the producers and workers in Meiji Japan was similar to that of the discourse between imperialist nations and nations within South America, offering an opportunity of “aid” that seemed beneficial for the lower class, or in the case of South America, the folk society. The key players in Meiji Japan when it came to moving women from working in the traditional sector were the recruiters for the factories, and the promises they made to these women and their families. “To poor peasant girls he would promise the sky… Recruiters’ tales dazzled the desperately poor. Over and over again the shock of discovering the difference between the recruiter’s glowing descriptions and the realities of mill life resounds in the songs women sang to keep themselves awake at their machines.” Once the women got to the factories, this discourse changed from what the factories can do for the women, to what the women do for the factories to increase profits—but arose under the guise of patriotism. These factories would introduce company songs and arranged for the women to hear uplifting lectures on moral themes, among other tactics, in order to increase productivity and morale. Most importantly, these lectures would stress the significance of modernizing Japan in order to compete with imperialist nations. “Employers stressed the importance of silk reeling for both the modernizing nation of Japan and the poverty-stricken families back home in the countryside. Loyalty to the company was offered as a means to both national and family prosperity.” The power of this patriotic discourse directly impacted economic policy, which in turn passed on this burden onto the unknowing agrarian families desperate to keep up with the changing means of production. 

According to Rostow’s model, both Meiji Japan and the 19th century countries mentioned in The Poverty of Progress were both in the “Preconditions to Takeoff” stage, as there is an emphasis on exports and imports, and the industrial sector is just beginning to advance to that of Western countries. What I have shown here, however, is that in order to begin this stage and the process of industrialization is that, contrary to Rostow’s assumption, cultural, political, and social discourse must be built upon the basis of a capitalist economy; replacing, if not reducing, the culture of traditional “folk” society is constantly shown to be inevitable. This new culture required a sacrifice and exploitation of the working class, for the purpose of increasing economic output—essentially, every aspect of life was put into new terms, with new labels. It was the power of this new discourse that would unequally benefit the elites and the imperialist powers, creating a hegemonic force that echoed across the globe, both directly and indirectly. “The greatest political promise of minority cultures is their potential for resisting and subverting the axiomatics of capitalism and modernity…” Clearly, the introduction of capitalist tools and methods in these societies changed traditional culture and political practices. But when looking at a country like Japan, that is now one of the most advanced countries and economies in the world, we have to ask: was it worth it? Do all economies have to undertake a period of great exploitation among its workforce to achieve “modernity”? Not every country has the means or wants to follow this Rostovian model, and too often does this search for increased capital, science, and technology end in impoverishment and exploitation for the masses—and thus a replacement of “folk culture” with capitalist values, ethics, and governance.  

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