Capitalism and the Shapers of American Society

Due to the capitalistic economic structure of the United States, American culture is driven by a never ending desire to consume. Capitalism affects every fragment of American society, including but not limited to the mass media, public education, health care, as well as individual social relations. The political, social, and economic power in the United States has and always will lie with those who have the highest socio-economic status, whether that is achieved through individual sacrifice resulting in upward social mobility, or simply being born into a family in which your ancestors achieved great status.

The phrase survival of the fittest is prevalent and constantly used to justify America’s capitalistic economic structure, a structure in which the disparity between those whom society deems as successful and those who couldn’t quite cut it. The resulting disparity creates a dichotomy between society’s haves and have-nots, and while the haves are the ones who harbor the power and influence in society, the have-nots are a group plagued with social angst and feelings of stress, negativity, and disbelief in the system.

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Our modern capitalistic economic structure has resulted not only in strife between social classes, but also a type of disillusionment towards the government, which they blame their problems on politicians and the government. The two main contributors which have led to the deprived state of modern America are people’s feelings towards Interest-Group Liberalism and the corrupt actions that accompany it, as well as human nature itself, which manifests itself through capitalism.

James Madison warns against factions in his essay, Federalist Paper No. 10, but also admits that factions will not cease to exist as long as men hold different opinions, have different amounts of wealth, and own different amount of property, they will continue to fraternize with people who are most similar to them. Madison couldn’t have been more right, as all of these conditions still exist today: people, due to capitalism, still have different amounts of wealth, with that wealth comes property, and with movements such as suburbanization one will see that people still socialize with others just like them. Another claim by Madison is that if a government was to be truly effective, the men who are elected officials are supposed to be among the most virtuous in the country, and not willing to sacrifice the public good for personal gain (Federalist #10).

Unfortunately for Americans living in the modern day there have been more than a number of occasions when elected officials in this country have engaged in corrupt and self-serving behavior. Due to lobby and interest groups who have become increasingly more important in political affairs, candidates typically will vote not in favor of the public good but rather in favor of which interest or lobby group offers the most money towards the candidate’s campaign.

Personally I view this as a corrupt practice, and I’m sure that Madison would as well, as politicians not acting within the best interest of the public simply to line their pockets and their campaign fund is using their position to gain a leg up on the citizens they represent. Another more pointed example of government corruption occurred in 2008, when then governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich essentially tried to sell the Illinois Senate seat vacated by President elect Barack Obama.

Selling this seat would result in nothing more than personal profit for Mr. Blagojevich, as once again an elected political figure put himself before the citizens who entrusted him to be a delegate on their behalf. This new government, referred to as Interest-Group Liberalism, is representative of an openly dishonest form of politics and the corrupt behavior undertaken by elected officials and those with political power breeds malcontent, cynicism, and skepticism in many citizens in this country. The result of the brooding malcontent of citizens towards their government institutions is withdrawal from political participation.

Another major contributor to the current state of American society would have to be human nature itself. One of the major theorists who wrote distinctly about human behavior was Thomas Hobbes. In his writing of Leviathan, Hobbes describes the individual human as a highly sophisticated machine, in which all of the inner-workings described as mechanical functions (Leviathan, p. 9). Hobbes’ relation of a human to a machine provides the jumping off point for his belief regarding what drives human actions. Hobbes claims that certain appetites or desires come about in the human experience and that these desires must be dealt with, and that each individual will choose to act upon these appetites in an effort to achieve their own self-preservation (Leviathan, p. 39).

This view that it is human nature to act upon the desires which are most prevalent in our lives raises the idea that humans are innately self-interested, if not selfish. Hobbes acknowledges that the natural human inclination to act independently of one another while promoting self-interests results in a perpetual state of war through which men will attempt to conquer one another to achieve personal desires (Leviathan, p. 88-89).

I would argue that currently in the United States we are experiencing Hobbes’ perpetual state of war in the War on Terror. The War on Terror has no true parameters for victory, so there is no true knowledge of how and when the war will end, and also the fact that the war itself is a promotion of American self-interests to have cheaper oil and also having military bases in the middle east. The state of war proposed by Hobbes results in a way of life that is “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short” (Leviathan, p. 89). The self-interested behavior that humans innately exhibit according to Hobbes, seems to draw a direct modern day parallel to the actions undertaken by many in America’s current capitalistic economic system.

While looking through Hobbes’ opinions regarding human nature in his writing of Leviathan, it’s quite obvious that Hobbes very cynical regarding human nature. Despite the cynicism shown by Hobbes, I agree with his opinions as they still hold true even today. Hobbes’ descriptions of human nature kept drawing me back to the way people behave in modern day America, where we are drawn to materialistic dreams and seem to only value a consumerist morality. As mentioned before Hobbes takes note of a person’s innate ability to act in their own self-interest, and lo and behold one of the fundamental building blocks with which we have built our American society revolves around the fact that we as humans act with our own self-interests, with no regard for those surrounding us.

The idea of capitalism is built upon the human appeal to want to improve his or her own standing in the world by obtaining as much material wealth as possible. Hobbes’ belief that it is human nature to act independently of one another, as America’s economic structure is built upon the fact that the individual sets out to gain wealth only for himself and his family, and will do whatever it takes to achieve this goal, regardless of moral blockades.

To understand this concept one must look no further than the collapse of the housing market in the United States, as soon as people were being evicted from their homes, real estate vultures would swoop in, buy up the property for pennies on the dollar, and then sell said property for profit. Acts like this are immoral and perpetuate the idea that the actions through which one attains wealth do not matter, but only that wealth is attained.

Through capitalism, and the perpetuation of individual self-interests our modern day political system has become far too dependent on the business and economic aspect of society, with lobbyist groups having the ability to simply throw money at political candidates in able to ensure that certain laws are enacted while others are kept from a vote. Capitalism has become the controlling authority required to keep a country’s people under control which Hobbes referred to as Leviathan, in our modern day capitalism has become king. Corrupt government officials working in turn with lobbyist groups, as well as the self-interests perpetuated through modern day capitalism have created a type of plagued modern American society, and unfortunately I don’t see anything that political leaders can do to change that.

Works Cited

1.) Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, Accessed 25 May 2010

2.) James Madison, “Federalist #10,” in The Federalist Papers, at (Last modified: 26 May 1998; date visited: 23 April 2010).

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