Plumb Lines

February 24, 2009

Is Culture Necessary?

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 1:58 pm

Imagine my excitement when I see that Ross Douthat has written a post called “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.” Disappointingly, Ross concludes that maybe there  really are cultural preconditions  for successful capitalism: virtues like thrift, self-reliance, and norms like trusting  your barista at Starbucks cashier at McDonalds to make you the latte you paid for. Many intelligent people subscribe to this view, but I think it’s wrong.

There is no question that the economic crisis would be less severe had the typical American not squandered the last decade leveraging his house to pay for 50-inch plasma screens in every room thereof, and indeed no question that the old-fashioned Protestant Ethic provides enough cultural capital to run an industrial market economy. Such a culture may be sufficient, however, without being necessary. Is any culture at all necessary for industrial capitalism beyond the culture of hit songs and tv shows that industry itself supplies? What if it turns out to be the case that all we need for successful capitalism are consumers consuming?

This is a rather important question, and I’m afraid the economic crisis tells us nothing about the answer. While cultural failings may have exacerbated the crisis, what went fundamentally wrong was the assessment of risk. This is a technocratic failing, and I suspect that as long as a technocratic fix like the stimulus is on the table, the global middle class will shrug off pleas for a renewed culture of self-restraint. Remember what happened to the last guy who tried to convince Americans that thrift was the answer to their economic woes.

David Schaengold


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