Relationship Between Culture and Economy

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Critically consider the relationship between culture and economy. To what extent is it true to suggest that decline of community and the growth of competitive individualism are produced by the shifting needs of the capitalist economy?


  • independent self reliance
  • a doctrine that bases morality on the interests of the individual
  • a social theory maintaining the political and economic independence of the individual and stressing individual initiative (Penguin English Dictionary, 2001)
  • an economic system characterized by the profit motive and by private ownership and control of the means of production, distribution and exchange (Penguin English Dictionary, 2001)

The 15th century saw the rise of humanism and the re-evaluation of the human condition in relation to his or her world. This was viewed as a journey from the dark ages of fear and oppression to the enlightened visions of individuality and hope. In reality, it was a journey that very few were privileged enough to afford. One arena for the exercise of this alternative approach was equating classical Greek and Roman cultures with what was then the rigours of contemporary religion. Already, the image of the individual is looking to another stereotype for definition. Yet how surprised these early scholars would be to find that with this individuality came loss of community spirit, apathy and destruction of the extended family in supposedly advanced societies. They would probably be less surprised to find that economics and politics are two of the tools which have been used to carve out and colour these new societies.

The following essay looks at how specific these factors operate within this changing framework of postmodern (Featherstone, 1991) society. It extends its scope beyond classical economic and political theory, which is due more consideration that given here. It considered some of the literature available on the subject of culture and economics, but, in order to get a balanced view, it also tries to see what other elements contribute to the decline of community.

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To start with, it is necessary to understand the elements that go to make up contemporary society. To put it in Foucaultian (1983) terms, how are these discourses constructed and what are their requirements. How specific are they to each society?

“They [discourses] offer us social positions and statuses: the capitalist economy makes us into ‘workers’, ‘employers’ or ‘unemployed’”

(Burr, An Introduction to Social Constructivism, 1995, p.54)

Culture and economics have been much studied, investigated and written about but the relationship between the two has been a difficult one to define. Guiso, Sapienza, Zingales, (2005) argue for a “heterogeneity of preferences” as affecting peoples economic choices. If one agrees with this, then the roots of this heterogeneity have to include culture. However, each of these elements of human society have only the stability of the time in which they are created. They are shifting sands and manipulated by both internal and external factors. For example, in a democracy where politicians are elected by the people, it can be supposed that they are saying what the people like to hear and promising to do what the people who elect them want. It may be a cynical view, but once in power, it appears that one form of manipulation gives way to another. As Chomsky (1992) says, propaganda is to democracies what power is to dictatorships. Political ‘spin’ both reacts and leads. Yet, as the Frankfurt School of Philosophy shows, a depressingly negative conflict between applied reason and an ability for society to cope with, and adapt positively to, change. For example, the search for ‘panaceas’ (Horkheimer, 1987) disturbs explanations of society and economics. The panacea of the poor, as the saying goes, used to be religion. Theorists now point to consumerism as the new religion, yet it fails to provide the happiness it promises.

Horkheimer (1987) explores the roots from which these questions arise and examines the success of individuality and autonomy. Why, when advanced technological societies seem to provide such levels of individual choice, is there such discontent? Could it be that an undermining of certain values has rendered us instinctively insecure? Could it be that there is truth in the statement that “every aspect of culture is in the process of commodification and linkage to the sale of goods” (Herman, 1995)? If so, is individuality an illusion and humans purely commodities to be sold to whether through cultural conformity or adherence to contemporary ideals?

For the purpose of this essay, certain parameters need to be placed on the issues. For example, culture, as defined by the Penguin English Dictionary (2001), is a number of things. It is mental development, namely through education. It is the “intellectual and artistic enlightenment as distinguished from vocational and technical skills”. It is the customary beliefs and social forms of specific groups. Finally it is defined as “socially transmitted pattern of human behaviour that includes thought, speech, action, institutions and artefacts” (Penguin, 2001). This essay will mostly involve the last definition of culture. Economics seems simpler to define: “A social science concerned chiefly with the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services” (Penguin, 2001). However, even in these general terms it is easy to see how culture and economy inter-depend. For the purpose of this essay, culture and economics will be put in the context of capitalist economies. It will start with questioning what the needs are of a capitalist economy according to theory and actuality. It will then examine how community has changed and whether both the past society and present individuality are ideals rather than realities. This will then be put in the context of contemporary society. Whilst this essay has a specific focus, it is understood that there are many other forms of political, social and economic systems and these can have different effects depending on their societies. For example, as Paecher, in agreement with Burr’s quotation above, points out;

“Different forms of discourse result in the prioritising of different forms of knowledge; change the power relations between discourses and the knowledge relations associated with them will change as well”

(Paechter, Educating the Other: gender, power and schooling, 2001)

This puts the issues within a cultural context. To do the same with regard to economics one could take the following example. Certain people who benefit from a technologically advanced capitalist economy would find survival extremely challenging in a subsistence economy. However, this is but one approach and one aspect of these issues. In order to see whether capitalism and the increase of individuality alone have been the reasons for a decline in the ideal of community, the ‘needs’ of all these elements of society have to be considered.

The ‘needs’ of a capitalist economy can perhaps both be guided and led by the society they are integrated with. A ‘need’ to understand and quantify the changes that occur within these economies has led to works such as that done by Webber and Rigby (in Albritton et al, 2001, pp. 246-262). To take a factual analysis as typical of the more classical economics, they study the slow down in world economy that took place in the 1970’s. They concluded that a lowering profitability in the advanced economies was to blame for the slow down. They took this overview and quantified the results of economic change in order to assess what the reasons were from an analytical perspective.

In reality, unemployment rose and wages, as Sennett shows, fell. He quotes a fall of 18% in American wages between 1973 and 1995 (Sennett, 1998, p.54). Whilst the division of rich and poor is as evident through history as today, the illusion that a capitalist society would benefit all individuals was dissolved. Discontent and disillusionment with political promises became part of the culture. It may be that the pressures felt by individuals to strive and survive through competitive application of business strategies has its roots in the depression and vulnerability of unemployment. Sennett talks about these changing pressures in terms of inequality within corporate structures. He has individuals required to out perform and increase skill diversity (p.55) in order to succeed. Work is therefore governed by economics on the one hand and culture on the other with politics as a mediator between desired forms of society and managed realities. In this light, the opposite of competitive individualism is unemployment and whilst fear of the latter keeps the former competitive, the cost of the latter encourages methods of achieving full employment. For example, Featherstone uses the actions of Seattle (1996) to develop its image as a “quality of life capital” (p.107). The aim was to reduce its mass unemployment by making itself attractive both within the cultural sphere above and as a thriving economic entity. This postmodernisation (Cooke, 1988; Zukin, 1988b cited in Featherstone, 1996) is, once again, a form of self-publicisation and image production – something that this essay will return to later.

To return to the UK situation. A percentage of the UK population became dependent on the Welfare State for survival and became known as the long-term unemployed. Politics and economics are at the forefront when it comes to paying for unemployment. Since the 70’s, politics has tried both a carrot and stick approach to reducing outgoings on the unemployed. Behind these initiatives is the Government budget and the premise that you can measure the success of a country by its National expenditure – this will be returned to later. Politics has continued to experiment with methods of cutting the costs of the Welfare State. Programs such as working for the dole were started. Limiting the time unemployment benefit is available for has been tried. Gradually, the programs and policies work there way back to education, the family and the community. For example the Back to Basics campaign could be seen as an attempt to introduce values that would apparently aid community cohesion. However, the ethics involved required a level of appreciation and agreement with the cultural capital (Bordieu, 1987, cited in Featherstone, 1991) of that discourse. Long-term unemployment undermined the expectation and value of educational cultural capital. Yet, “western governments [tended] to view education as a principal means for alleviating social disadvantage” (Webb, Schirato & Danaher, 2002, p.111). Therefore politics had to try and create the values to aid economics. For a section of society, there was no educational habitus, as Bordieu would put it, or familiarity with ‘mind sets’ that make education familiar. Again, politics needed to create these as ‘natural’ expectations. This is one demonstration of the links between economics, culture and individuality and already it shows how the elements are forced both to react and interact. It also shows a necessity for illusion, created ideals, stereotypes and manipulations.

A different approach looks at the ethics behind human society and puts parameters on the changes they incur. For example, market survival, success and failure through economic cycles brings in Sennett’s (1998) exploration of ‘flexibility’. Flexibility can take a global or local approach for businesses (and seems to be one of the manufactured ideals that consumerism needs to create within its target markets). When faced by falling profits in their domestic markets, the multi-nationals (cigarette firms, drinks etc) tend to expand into under-developed markets such as the third world, youth, specific racial groups (Herman, 1995). Other forms of flexibility worked on creating ‘needs’ in domestic markets (Sennett, 1998). They create niche markets and challenge the individual to be incomplete without compliance. These ‘needs’ may be defined as part of the basis of capitalist economies, but they also become part of the defining factors of their societies, part of their history and therefore their culture.

The next question is how is the actuality of ‘community’ affected by business. How do the ethics applied to financial success co-exist with a construction of community? A tendency to divide the community into constituent elements – business community, cultural community, class community etc has led to a range of definitions. Wenger (1998), for example, explains individual integration into business systems through the idea of a community of practise. The variables are at what level individuals are integrated into these systems and this is one way of viewing business and business community in contemporary society. It can also start to expose the isolation even within a workforce. For example an ITC worker can work from an office or home so long as the technology is in place. Although he or she is a member of this community of practise, they can be isolated from the control systems that lead it. Even if working from home, they are divided between which community they are contributing to.

To return to consumerism, it would seem that rather than focus on the destruction of the family as a form of power, consumerism and the business community uses it as an expression of individuality. Likewise, politics appears, when faced by a population that is demanding reform, to come up with an ideal that no longer exists and re-creates it in the form it requires – the Nuclear family becomes a unit of modernity, essential services become community actions.

The forms used to promote these needs range from local publicity to mass media, globalisation and spin politics. Herman (1995) looks at the affect of the market on culture. He identifies the tools of commercialisation on television, both in subliminal forms (brand placement) and straight-forward advertising. He looks at how commerce exploits certain pre-existing elements “which sell´ (1995) (e.g. sex and violence). He suggests that the global popularity of American movies, music and escapisms “reflects the global decline in family and civil life, and loss of faith in politics.” (Herman, 1995, p.8) Whilst this has been a simplification of the intricacies of commercialisation, it agrees with those such as Slater who state that “culture as a whole has become consumer culture” (Slater, 1997, p121).

In the introductory section questions were raised as to why discontent should exist in an apparently free society. So far, the dichotomy of appearance and actuality in a capitalist society has been alluded to rather than explored. At the essence of this duality is perhaps the recognition that the “fundamental unit of meaning in capitalist and economic thought is the object,, that is, capitalism relies on the creation of a consumer culture” (Hooker, 1996). An object is controllable and manipulatable. However, if the object is a human being then it is that person’s individual choice that has to be appealed to. As the roots of commerce tend not be the same ethically as those applied to society, appealing to individual choice requires a certain degree of basic undermining of community values. This ethical difference is shown by the types of programs Governments use to support business, which they must in a market economy, as opposed to the types of programs used to re-construct community. Whilst the former takes a business community approach, the latter tends to work on the individual.

At one level, the individual is expected to rationalise, at the other to conform through consumerism and political acquiescence. Alexander (1997) explains that recognition of this duality of commerce and its society has existed for some time. In essence, he argues that an imbalance threatens society` when it becomes overly dominant and creates a “severed culture” (Alexander, 1997, p.209) and therefore artificially sustained. He quotes Disraeli and Snow as warning that a:

“similar gulf continues everywhere between the mind of commerce and industry on the one hand, and the mind of non-commercial people – most people – on the other.”

(Alexander, The Civilised Market, 1997, pp.208-209)

If this is the case, one of the needs of a capitalist economy from its community is complicity and another is apathy. When the USA and the UK became enamoured with the market, they did not fully comprehend that business is based on profits and that “present profits are offsets to future costs” (Alexander, 1997, p.124). Governments supported markets at the cost of small business, competitiveness and ultimately high unemployment. To support an artificial ethic, society must either be too powerless, and at worst apathetic, to demand change, or too comfortable believing the ideals of individuality. The price of this redefinition of ‘self’ has been loss of community cohesion. This brings us to the means of capitalist power and whether loss of community values are the price to be paid for individuality.

Slater examines how philosophies and theorists identify ‘alienation’ (Slater, 1997, p.104) of the individual where people become a commodity to be managed. For the majority, they no longer are integrated into a society within which they are part of the control system. It has been argued that there is the illusion of control maintained through choice (Slater, 1997). An idealistic example could be an individual in a self-sufficient but essentially subsistence economy such as a tribal village. Each person contributes to the survival of the whole village. Roles are understood. Culture is therefore a reflection of unity and survival. However, in the apparently ‘rich’, technologically advanced economies, the cult of the individual has placed specific values on success through materialism… and perhaps best supported this through the illusion of choice. Slater further examines this illusion of choice and its production through the media and suggests that:

“All consumption, but above all cultural consumption, has become compensatory, integrative and functional. It offers the illusions of freedom, choice and pleasure in exchange for the real loss of these qualities through alienated labour; it integrated people within the general system of exploitation by encouraging them to define their identities, desires and interests in terms of possessing commodities; and it is functional in that consumer culture offers experiences ideally designed to reproduce workers in the form of alienated labour.”

(Slater, Consumer Culture and Modernity, 1997, p121)

Slater comes to the above through his study of the development of political economics from Marx to Smith, the Frankfurt School to Soper (1981) and Doyal and Gough (1991). He uses the issue of modernity as his framework. In the above quote he talks of capitalism as essentially a cycle of loss. He also argues that culture produces the demand for this capitalism in the first place and that therefore if “all objects of consumption are meaningful [this] implicates them in the wider field of cultural reproduction” (Slater, 1997, p.5).

The following looks briefly at this social reproduction from the perspective of Bourdieu and education. It does this in order to see how individuality and community actually fit within contemporary society. This gives an opportunity to see how political mechanisms use social structures for the production of specific communities.

Bourdieu (1983, cited in Webb, Schirato & Donaher, 2000) argues that schools are mechanisms for social reproduction. In this example, they are mechanisms for reproducing social inequalities through their policies and practises. For example, Mercier and Harold (2003) demonstrate that the religiously and culturally generated westernised ideal of the heterosexual family unit finds expression in school documentation. This raises the question of discrimination. Whitton, Sinclair, Barker, Nanlohy and Nosworthy (2004) list the forms of discrimination likely to be met in teaching ranging from race to academic ability.

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How each school accepts, rejects or translates these terms of reference seems to depend on its own cultural and educational version of Bourdieu’s habitus (Schirato & Yell, 2000). For example, schools that respect difference may act firmly to stamp out evidence of sexism under the banner or anti-bullying. Their reaction may be just as firm against the somewhat more recognised discriminatory forms of racism (Lareau & McNamara, 1999; Sandercock, 2003). In understanding the reactions to these issues, the values placed on social inclusion finds expression through applied social reproduction. For example, translation of another degree from another country into a qualification recognised abroad can take a renegotiation of Bourdieu’s cultural capital (Schirato & Yell, 2000). If the issue to be re-evaluated is race or sexuality, the space for it in the culture determines the procedures necessary to move from isolation to inclusion. This can be empowered or disabled by the values placed upon it.

To take this a step further would perhaps be to recognise this example as showing the vulnerability of individuality when it is beyond specific economic value systems. Social, economic and political discourses can perhaps be seen as reflecting and manipulating the value systems applied to educational institutions. As Robert Doherty (Journal of Educational Enquiry, 2003) puts it, social exclusion may be perpetuated through deliberate institutional, personal and political ambiguity. If there were an economic value to be placed on the people involved, the situation may be very different.

Berger asserts that “capitalism does operate by the principle of self-interest” (Religion and Liberty interview, 2004). However, he then goes on to divide the situations individuals occupy. For example, a business person may well be a parent and apply different ethics and attitudes to each area. Therefore, whilst successful businesses require an underlying self-interest, the same person may have a more altruistic approach in other areas. When Broom and Selznick (1979) explain culture from a framework of social organisation, they show how different underlying values affect the individual.

“Culture is the design and the prescription, the composite of guiding values and ideals”

(Broom & Selznick, Essentials of Sociology, 1979, p.57)


“Statements of need are by their very nature profoundly bound up with assumptions about how people would, could or should live in their society: needs are not only social but also political in that they involve statements about social interests and projects.”

(Slater, Consumer Culture and Modernity, 1997, introduction)

In this context, consumerism takes culture, re-designs or creates need and draws an illusion to create a contemporary image of individuality. The politics of a market economy apparently has to conform to support this in order to support its economy.

However, one way of assessing how individualism stands in relation to a balance of power between culture and economics is to look at some of the recent studies into ‘downsizing’. Whilst not new this is an individual choice and a reaction to discontent with contemporary society. In Hamilton’s (2003) examination of what he terms a sickness derived from affluence, he sees down shifters as the “standard bearers in the revolt against consumerism” (p.207). They represent a move away from humans as consumerist ‘objects’ and return to values based not on how much they own and earn, but on their value as people. However, this is still an expression of individuality and it is not a return to community or family values. In this book Hamilton tracks the changes from the classical economist’s view of economy where the aim was to quantify how to develop a society’s wealth. He takes in the voices of dissent such as Veblen (1925) and Galbraith (1958) that sought to warm against the growth of consumerism not as a panacea but more as a cultural poison. Other warnings came in the forms of nations approach to their pronunciations on economics. Where policy makers and politicians need seemingly factual tools to communicate with their electorate, economics can provide. However, Hamilton uses the example of Kuznets warnings regarding reducing a nation’s prosperity to a measurement based on national income (p.13). These provided something of a false floor above which consumerism and the individual continued to thrive but below which a widening gap was forming. It could be seen as a hollowing out, an undermining, of the values that had held people together, but perhaps that is too idealistic. When he comes to the unchallenged rise of ‘neo-liberalism’ (p.10) Hamilton uses the discontent within rich societies to demonstrate how wealth and consumerism have failed the individual. He points out the essential fact that individuals have to act in their own interests in order to support consumerism. From this point it is easy to make the jump to the illusion of the individual as some-one with free choice.

These illusory factors are perhaps products in themselves. For example, Lasch (1978) looks at the human condition as predisposed to narcissism. If this is so then illusions and ideals, as recognised by Bordieu (1990), are allowed to distance themselves from reality through altering systems of belief. For example, Bordieu uses the example of social roles such as monarchy to show how culture endows roles within specific structures (1990) and creates the person in that image. He recognises “social functions are social fictions” (p.195). Yet again, images are presented in place of realities. Applied to this is change. Lasch states that the ‘degeneration of politics in spectacle” (1978, p.81) has led to the transformations of “policy making into publicity” (1978, p.81). He continues with identification of this distance between image production and reality. He explains how disempowerment, and alienation, occurs due to these images becoming the focal points. Whilst these two points of view may diverge on other issues, they agree on idea that “images of power overshadow the reality” (Lasch, 1978, p.81). But where do these images and illusions find their genesis? In modernised reproduction of ideals? In the production of expected stereotypes? Is the notion of the family unit replaced not only by a unit of commercialism but by an image of itself and its role in social structures? Both Bordieu and Lasch recognise the impossibilities of endowing an illusion with responsibility.

Another method of judging how the community fits with politics is to look what happens with migration, such as with the Italian culture. This is historically strongly networked, in part due to the city state mentality and late unification of the country. Amici, vicini, parenti (friends, neighbours, relatives) as the saying goes are still a composite force in Italian society. The answers as to why community spirit should have resisted degradation better than in many other technologically advanced societies has been much explored. One answer stems from the weakness of the political bodies and lack of trust in the ability of a politics to support the nation. These seem to be one of the fundamental causes of continued community interdependence. If this is true, then the link between politics and a consumer society is evidently very strong. Whilst Italy does not in any way lack consumerist ideals, it maintains the community through a distrust of political spin and lack of longevity (although Berlusconi has succeeded where many have failed – perhaps aided by owning some of the television stations).

This can be taken further by looking at how Italian reacted to migration. For example, how did the Italians who migrated to America react? According to Gardaphe (undated), they were “constantly negotiating their relationship between the local cultures of their origin and of their land of immigration”. It is interesting to find that self-image of Italian American individuals is affected by whether they are integrated into the structures of power associated with that community:

Where the local identities are strong is where Italian Americans are an integral part of political and social infrastructure; it is weak where there is little or no connection to that community.

(Gardaphe, undated)

This would agree with the idea that competitive individualism plays two roles in society. It could be said that an egocentric, consumerist attitude where the self is important above all else plays into the hands of the illusion of modern society. However, the above Italian American example seems to show that community needs to involve all aspects of society in order to provide a strong, cohesive balance of powers.

To a degree, this essay has been broader in its approach than hoped. However, it has tried to substantiate the view that there are many elements responsible for community decline. It has looked at the rise of individuality from its roots as a part of historical community – the Enlightenment and Renaissance – to the extremes of alienation brought about by competitive individualism. The essay has looked briefly at education from the perspective of Bourdieu and his theories on social reproduction. It has also looked at migration to see what happens to a particular community then. In summary, the rise of competitive individualism seems to be more negative than positive. It has not provided the happiness that it promised, yet the illusion of freedom makes it worth while. Throughout the essay, illusion has been a focal point for both economy and culture. The essay has looked at propaganda and ‘spin’ as tools of the market place and politics and produces of illusion. This emphasises the division between reality and illusion. Whilst the essay agrees with Bourdieu that the reality of social institutions is that they do attempt to reproduce the societies and cultures they come from, it also agrees that politics and the market create the ideal for their own ends. Therefore, competitive individualism is just one part of the re-definition of community. However, where culture will change in accordance with society, individualism is a basic essential of a capitalist economy without which the market cannot operate in the form we now know it.


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