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Oxford defines Kaput as "broken and useless; no longer working or effective" - similar to our unbalanced economic system. This is a page dedicated to the intersection of capitalism and social, political, and environmental problems.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Young Capitalists

I remember that when I was young it was always a special day when I got to stay home from school. Whatever the reason, one thing was always for certain. I would get to watch the Price is Right.

Recently, I began to watch this show again. My interest in it now is quite different. Where I used to marvel at the prizes, now I am enthralled by the very idea of this game. The issue that I take with the Price is Right is that it builds young capitalists - and in a unique way that is not really matched elsewhere.

So let's start off with the basics. The Price is Right is about winning prizes. Right? Well, although that is true, it is centred (as the title suggests) on knowing the price for a wide variety of goods and services. Accordingly, this show helps to shape, even from a young age, notions of value. Rather than teaching people that value is a social construct, the Price is Right reinforces the "absolute" nature of value. This differentiation is quite important - it promotes the supremacy of the capitalist system by affixing concrete monetary value to all things.

Obviously, the Price is Right isn't the only place that reinforces notions of value, status symbols, or a wide array of other facets of our advanced individualist and capitalist system. Young people are indoctrinated into our system with allowances from parents, with various programmes in school, with television advertisements, and through conversations with peers. However, none of these other media have the same impact as the Price is Right. Although contestants and the audience are always trying to estimate the price (which is the goal is every single challenge), there are millions of people who are playing alone at home, yelling at their televisions. And again, youth make up a good component of this group.

The most unfortunate part of this socialisation is that it is so subtle. Since the Price is Right is a game show, the focus is on "entertainment", and serious questions surrounding indoctrination of young people will be invariably met with dismissal. The show and the network have been making a mint on the idea for decades, and the companies who showcase their products have a vested interest in disguising their marketing as "entertainment".

With all of this said, I still find the show interesting. And often I find myself enraptured by the game - all the while forgetting that I am being told how to fit into our economic system. And that is how powerful the Price is Right is when it comes to socialising us about value and the American dream.


  1. Money is an abstraction to account for value. It allows society to more efficiently produce goods and services through economies of scale. Of course, the concept of value can be inflated, (i.e. stock market speculation), but without money we would have only bartering as a method of trade. We certainly would not live well if it were not for money. Being socialized into an economic system is hardly a bad thing. It also allows people to - think- that they are making their own decisions with their own money, and even if they aren't truly exercising free will the illusion is really nice.

  2. Yes, money is a shorthand. But you have to ask yourself what it is a representation of. In our system, the value of something is based on supply and demand, not based on whether or not something is environmentally responsible, safe, or even all that useful. And most products have inflated value, except for those (such as oil and agricultural products) that are subsidised heavily and thus undervalued.

    All the continuing consumption and accumulation over the years has been accompanied by something called financialisation, which basically refers to more money changing hands. Where once there were informal markets such as your social networks, where you could barter and trade, now there are very few vestiges from the market. In fact, there is significant legislation that prevents barter and trade in some parts of the United States and Canada.

  3. Ah, the Price is Right. Highlighting people's fascination with "stuff". Where it doesn't really matter what you win, as long as you win it.

    One of the big problems with our society today is that people associate happiness directly with the ammount of stuff they have. Bigger house? Happier. More powerfull car? Happier. An extra bag of chips from Wall-Mart because they were on sale? Definitely happier.

    We should be measuring happiness in terms of how healthy we are, how much stress we are under, how much time we get to spend with friends and family, how well we get along with our neighbours, etc. And despite what advertisements would have us believe, being happy isn't something you can buy in a store.

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  5. That's an excellent point Quinn. Accumulation is a significant problem, and you are getting at something I mentioned briefly in my post - the status symbol. Like you said, "it doesn't really matter what you win, as long as you win it". Moreover, as long as what you win gives off the impression that you are middle/upper class.

    I think one of the interesting components of the show is the prizes. If you watch it enough, you can get a sense of the "variety" - falling broadly into cars, trips, housewares, and technology. All of these are status symbols, with the exception of the trips, which are definitely an interesting exception. Trips are based around consumption such as shopping or kitch semi-culture.

    Finally, your point on buying happiness is so important. Many studies have shown that the happiest people are those who have enough money to pay for what they need and then have some savings for a rainy day. But of course, that doesn't sell and surely doesn't support the expansion of capital!

  6. I think all of these posts are hitting on very important points. I am going to grab onto the very good point that Quinn made about happiness. The first thing that came to my mind was also the statistic that shows the accumulation of wealth/stuff only correlates with an increase in happiness up to a certain point. However, although this connection to happiness is important to the continuation and growth of a capitalist society, ultimately what is an even stronger, conditioned driver of our need for "stuff" is its connection to our self-worth, a basic human need very much tied to both mental and physical well being.

    A huge problem with a capitalist society is that we are always left wanting more – whether it’s that new tv, bigger house, fancier car, or our next promotion. This leads us to judge others and ourselves based on what they have and whether it is “better” or “worse” than what we have (upward and downward social comparison). We then place ourselves and others accordingly in a hierarchy of “haves” and “have nots”, or those who are worth less and those who are worth more, which has devastating consequences.

    People are rewarded with “stuff” spanning various levels of extravagance across various points of their lives, particularly at significant milestones (e.g. graduations, weddings, etc.). Receiving gifts from loved ones is often a reward that lets you know that you are on the “right” path according to the dominant culture and how society defines “success”.

    Thus, “stuff” has become integral to our own sense of self-worth and represents the value that others tell us we have, both in subtle and not so subtle ways. We internalize these feelings on deeper levels than we are consciously aware of.

    I would argue that until we have a disconnect between our own sense of self-worth and the shit we have accumulated we will never reject the capitalist system because we mistake the gifts we receive as approval for ourselves as a people, when in fact this stuff really represents approval bestowed upon us for our willingness to participate in oppressive structures and ways of living society has built and is afraid to deviate from or let go of.

    Until we can critique the current state in which we live and expect others to live we will never get back to basics and remember what is truly important in life (all of those things that Quinn named) and in being a good person (i.e. virtues such as kindness, openness, generosity). As a result we are doomed to fill an insatiable void that we have been misled to feel we have – and our efforts to fill this void through temporarily “satisfying” means will just keep growing if we continue on this path. This blindness and unwillingness to question this system also inevitably prevents us from reaching out to the “have nots” who are inevitably created (e.g. people living in poverty or experiencing homelessness) because we can conveniently trick ourselves into believing that we are inherently better people and are “deserving” when we look at all of the wonderful stuff we have, whether we won it through sheer luck on a game show or have been given it in connection with special events, rites of passage, or designated holidays.

    Overall, we have forgotten what it means to be human and the inherent value of every being on this planet. If we are going to survive as a species and as a planet we need to have a drastic change in the way we see ourselves, others, all the (truly) useless crap we have, and the value we attach to ourselves relative to our status in a powerful socially constructed hierarchical system which continues to exploit all of us.