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Essay: Capitalism

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  • Published: 23 March 2018*
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Capitalism has been the dominant economic system in the United States since the first Industrial Revolution in the early nineteenth century. Since then, countless men and women have gone to work in American factories in order to make enough money to survive. These workers have gone on to have children, and their children have had children, all of which are raised in a society of capitalist values. Such values include things like the Protestant work ethic, which influences the United States’ “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality. Additionally, children have become one of the largest consumer classes in America, with a huge buying potential, and thousands of harmful ads targeted towards them every day. In this way, capitalism has, and has had, an adverse effect upon American youth.
Capitalism seeks to implement into children a sense of the “Protestant work ethic” that America was founded upon. The term was coined by one of the founders of the science of sociology, Max Weber, who used the term to denote the particularly Calvinist belief that spiritual purity and salvation would outwardly manifest as a positive towards work, frugality, and efficiency in one’s profession. This belief was especially effective because as Karl Marx once said, “Religion is the opiate of the masses,” and no one wants to seem as if he is lacking in religious piety. Thus, by espousing themselves as godly men, the most prominent capitalists could achieve their goals of making exorbitant amounts of money by claiming that it was God-given, much like the way that monarchs of previous centuries held onto power by claiming that it was their divine right. In doing so, the capitalists could justify their immense wealth, while explaining the suffering of other by claiming that it was simply because they did not work as hard, and were therefore not chosen by God (“Protestant Ethic”). Such a view became the dominant philosophy in the United States, as the nation was founded upon Protestant, Christian principles. This view has caused harm to people of all ages, but has hurt children in a very particular way. In the United States, the concept of minimum wage was originally established so that a person could work forty hours a week for minimum wage and be able to provide for a small family. However, as inflation and prices of goods rose, wages did not. Now one working for minimum wage would have to support his family on around $10,000-$20,000 a year, which is near impossible. Most people living on wages such as this work multiples jobs, but still may require government assistance. In American society, these people are portrayed as lazy, which their work in manual minimum-wage jobs obviously disproves to any person who bothers to look into the lives of the workers. These workers oftentimes have dependent children who cannot provide for themselves, and therefore rely upon their parents, who barely make enough to support themselves, for food and clothing. Public perception of the poor is so negative, due a great deal to how ingrained the Protestant work ethic is in United States society, and thus, people blame the poor for their own financial situation, which in reality is controlled by executives of companies who make millions of dollars a year for themselves, while paying their workers as little as possible. Such blame and disgust for the poor leads to reluctance to work towards effective social welfare systems, which provide the poor and their families with money for necessities, such as housing, food, and healthcare. Reluctance to fund such programs has an adverse effect upon the children of workers. Due to the belief that the parents would be able to support themselves if they simply worked hard enough and had a strong enough faith, children are left without important necessities such as food, healthcare, and stable housing, along with less commonly thought of needs like school supplies and hygiene products. Under the system of capitalism in the United States, with its heavy belief in the centuries-old Protestant work ethic, children are deprived of needs, simply because of the supposed sins of their parents.

Children under capitalism are the perfect target for advertisers, and often become the most important consumers for many industries. During the holiday season, ads of the year’s hottest toys flood the papers, television, and internet. Children demand that their parents buy them whatever their heart desires. From the hundred-dollar American Girl dolls, to seventy-dollar Hatchimals, toys continue to increase in price every year, and parents keep buying, which in turn makes the executives at the tops of companies and stores all the richer. Children as targets for advertisements is nothing new. Consumer culture targeting children has been around for almost as long as consumer culture itself. As early as 1916, companies were vying for advertisements in publications geared towards children, as the buying power of children, and their power to empty their parents’ pockets was well-known. The phenomenon started in the late 19th century, and mainly took the form of advertisement cards and placement in children’s magazines(Jacobsen 16). Advertisements were of course gendered, with ones for boys reinforcing images of rugged masculinity and athleticism, while ones for girls promoted femininity and “girly” tasks, such as housework (Jacobsen 33). A famous example of the child of yesterday being an important consumer can be seen in the movie A Christmas Story, when the main character, Ralphie makes his mother keep purchasing Ovaltine because of an advertisement he heard on the radio, which promised prizes to those who kept buying. The real takeoff of the child as a consumer occurred in the 1950’s, with the advent of the television, where advertisements could be placed into the breaks of children’s and family shows, for products like toys and food products. This has evolved now into advertisements on websites and ads before videos on YouTube, advertising much the same things that were being advertised fifty years ago, with the first advent of television. Because of all the advertisements that are directed towards children, parents spend millions on the products depicted, and thus the children become victims of an interesting type of consumer culture that has adverse effects for those involved. In a consumer society, people find worth and satisfaction from purchasing consumer goods. Those who have the most are the most valued. That is to say, the child with the newest phone or nicest toys will be more popular than perhaps someone with an older phone or secondhand toy, who did not have the purchasing power to buy the newest item as soon as it came out. Additionally, consumer culture creates much waste within society (Louis Fox). People are constantly being told that they need to buy new things, even when their old things are not yet worn out or unusable. Such constant consumption creates an amount of garbage incompatible with what humans are able to safely and responsibly dispose of, along with draining lands and native people of important resources like oil and lumber that have been theirs for years (Louis Fox). Inside of American capitalism, people are born and indoctrinated into this type of consumerism; from the time that one is able to comprehend what is occurring on a screen in front of them, advertisements are forced onto them to indoctrinate them into a consumer culture, which hurts their self-esteem and forces them into a cycle of resource destruction and consumption. In this way, American capitalism also hurts children throughout the nation, as well as children and adults in other countries that are exploited in order to gain the resources needed to maintain the capitalist machine.

Throughout history, industries have been run by underpaid and overworked employees, many of whom have been children. In the United States, the horrors of children working in cotton mills was captured by Lewis Hine, as he traveled around New England factories photographing the poverty and injuries he saw that were caused by children working upon dangerous machines. This line of dangerous work in America has died out for the most part, due to the implementation of tough child labor laws designed to keep children safe from the horrid conditions of work in factories. However, as the practice has died out in America, it has increased in other countries, as industries have moved their factories overseas, where there are less labor laws and manufacturing is more affordable, in order to maximize profit. For example, around the world, 260 million children are involved in working, with the majority working in the agriculture and manufacturing industries. This population makes up around 11% of the world’s children (Moulds). A particularly heinous industry from the beginning of the process up until the end is th
e fa
shion industry, where children are made to pick cotton and other materials needed for clothes, spin fabric, and finally piece together and sew the clothes as well (Moulds). In all steps, fashion, one of the most important signs of conspicuous consumption and consumer culture, is built upon the pain and suffering of children. Even in the United States, though our rates of child labor are drastically reduced due to labor laws, children, especially migrant children, often work in dangerous agricultural situations, on places like tobacco farms and such (“Child Labor in the USA”). With the rampant abuse of adults in the workplace, it can easily be seen that children are even easier targets for the capitalist industries, as they hold little to no political power. In all ways, children are a pawn in the system of capitalism, whether it is because they are viewed as a possible consumer, or because they are a worker to be exploited to make a profit.

One of the more effective ways to view the effects that capitalism has on children is conflict theory. Established by the father of socialism, Karl Marx, conflict theory is founded upon the belief that society is founded upon the struggle between various groups and organizations for their own benefit, and that such struggle is the principle of societal interaction, and will then contribute to social change or revolution (“Conflict Theory”). Such a theory can be applied to class struggles, such as in this class, which examines the struggles of the ruling class of capitalists, who seek to make as much profit as possible, against that of the general public and working class, particularly the youth of the proletariat. Gains are made by the capitalist every time a new toy or trend becomes popular and flies off the shelves, or a product succeeds in making a child feel insecure if they do not have it, thus contributing to the culture of consumerism that such capitalists try to create. Wins are made for the children of the proletariat, as well as children in general, when a new labor law or restriction upon the work of children is enacted, or when a particularly expensive consumer trend dies. Such struggles will continue in a sort of tug-of-war, until eventually a sort of revolution will put an end to the capitalist system, or children become completely indoctrinated and subscribe to the capitalist system. A belief such as conflict theory heavily relies upon extremes and a thesis and antithesis, which are two completely opposed ideas, which at times make the concept hard to view as conceivable. However, conflict theory makes the most sense in a context involving a class struggle, as that is how Marx originally intended the theory to be used. In doing this, children become a separate class of consumer, which they are, from adults, who are far less impressionable and may have been raised in a different time when, while still existent, capitalist systems were a bit different. By creating children as a separate class, their unique struggle as both consumer and worker against the capitalist society in which they live is given its own context and voice.

Capitalism has had, and still does have, very negative effects upon children throughout history. Children have been harmed by the important American ideal of the Protestant work ethic, which punishes them for the supposed sins of their parents. Children are being sucked into a vicious consumer culture that urges them to buy more and more and never be satisfied. Perhaps most tragically, children are still to this day being abused by employers who seek first and foremost to make a profit off of their labor, even in a developed country such as the United States. Despite these grim realities, there are things that can be done to lessen the harmful effects of capitalism on children worldwide. For instance, in order to lessen the effects of the Protestant work ethic, one could petition the government for a better welfare system, one that perhaps includes universal healthcare, all while donating to local charities that help those in need. Another way to help lessen the pressures of consumer culture is to buy secondhand, and to stress, via effective communication, that one’s worth is not measured by the number of possessions that one has. Perhaps the most important way that a person can communicate concern and compassion for children harmed by capitalism is by attempting to be an ethical consumer. This can be done by doing such things as researching companies before buying from them and spreading the word to one’s friends and family to do the same. This is not an easy thing to do, as nearly all products are created using unethical methods. Even so, even if ethical consumption is impossible, it is important to question the morality of capitalism, especially in regard to the adverse effects that it has on children, who are among the most vulnerable members of society.

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