Dr. Sarah Ellington
The politics of capitalism are confusing. Even for political scientists, “capitalism” does not mean the same thing to all people, all the time. Interwoven into news stories about modern healthcare in the United States, used as a scapegoat and a saviour for the rise and fall of technologies and innovations, and omnipresent in nearly every political discussion, capitalism is a word thrown around by many and understood by few – myself included. In sum, the question of what is capitalism? is a one with wholly unique answers, depending on the context of the question and the background of the one answering. It is a question I am not the first or last to ask, the smartest or dullest to ponder, or the best or worst equipped to answer.
To me – someone whose expertise is merely adjacent to political theory – capitalism is an economic mindset. Capitalism is a lens through which someone can attempt to better understand the motivations and reasoning behind human interactions. Like other theories of international relations (e.g., realism, post-colonialism, etc.), capitalism can explain why people (and countries) act and react in particular manners. Countries make trade decisions based on a capitalist understanding of the global market; people make investment and job decisions based on a capitalist understanding of life. Both individuals and countries are expected to follow a capitalist logic when making most decisions. Understanding capitalist logic helps us make basic assumptions about the actions of people and countries and predict their future actions. In this way, capitalism always reminded me of the grand theories of international relations that I learned back in my undergraduate days. Everything and nothing, all at once. A great explanation and a lost set of words.
However, capitalist interpretations of world and individual events are grounded in reality more than any other international relations theories. Other explanations of international relations have given rise to seemingly infinite variants – new critical theories and new interpretations of old theories abound. Capitalism is a more universally accepted and integrated system. Although some countries are still rooted in communism or socialism at the level of national governance, these countries trade within a strictly capitalist framework. The same is often true at the individual level: many people describe themselves as communist or socialist but exist in a fundamentally capitalist society. Capitalism is a way to understand both micro and macro transactions between individuals and countries, and remains a relatively universally accepted understanding of these transactions.
Capitalism’s defining features are inherently tied to the economic, social, and political features of society. Capitalism emphasizes meritocratic competition, the minimization of losses (and therefore the maximization of gains), and the advancement of relationships that benefit the two aforementioned characteristics. These defining features bleed into all aspects of life. Capitalism is inherently political: policies are created in such a manner that chooses to either highlight or downplay these defining features.
My own work provides an example of these confusing yet defining features of capitalism. My doctoral thesis from the University of Delaware (2022) studied contemporary asymmetric power relations between indigenous communities and other politically relevant actors in Latin America. These relations were considered in the context of indigenous languages, interrogating the power dynamics that influence the rights, representation, and preponderance of speakers of indigenous languages in Latin America, as well as the politics of language more generally. In each chapter, I looked at a number of case studies related to education expenditure at the state level and foreign direct investment. My work was fully entrenched in the world of capitalism, but fought to prove the need for less asymmetry. It was a difficult balance to strike, especially considering my positionality. It is work that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Although my work wound through twisting thickets of theory, case studies, and statistical analysis, at the heart of my work is a human existing in the capitalist world – with no easy way out.
Image: Smoke billows from one of many chemical plants in the area, October 12, 2013. Giles Clarke/Getty. https://www.businessinsider.com/louisiana-cancer-alley-photos-oil-refineries-chemicals-pollution-2019-11
Dr. Sarah A.V. Ellington has her PhD in political science from the University of Delaware. Her research focused on indigenous language erosion in Latin America in the post-ISI era. All of the views and opinions expressed in this piece are her own.