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As a teacher of design, foresight and sustainable business models, I understand the challenges of engaging students and stakeholders in critical discussions about capitalism. Many people have a limited understanding of capitalism and how it shapes our society, often confusing it with democracy, freedom, and innovation. This confusion can make it difficult for them to envision alternative ways of organising society beyond the dominant capitalist system.

To address this issue, creating a solid connection between design and politics and between innovation and the material conditions that shape our societies is essential. By doing so, we can help students and stakeholders understand how design and capitalism are currently intertwined and how design can be used for social and political change.

Psychological and social factors supporting capitalism

Supporters of capitalism often perceive and understand the world through a variety of foundational lenses, which shape their views on society and the human condition. Here are some key concepts:

  1. Individualism: Capitalism promotes the social paradigm where individuals are responsible for their success or failure. The emphasis on competition and the pursuit of self-interest reinforces this perspective.
  2. Accumulation: The process of capital accumulation is a fundamental component of the capitalism process, which involves appropriating surplus value generated by workers and reinvesting it into the means of production, leading to wealth concentration and inequality.
  3. Meritocracy: In the social construct of capitalism, meritocracy is often celebrated, where people are rewarded based on their skills, abilities, and hard work. This reinforces the idea that social and economic inequality is a natural outcome of individual differences in talent and effort.
  4. Free market: Capitalism is rooted in the doctrine of a free market, the belief that deregulation, privatisation, and minimal government intervention are the most efficient and effective ways to allocate resources and create wealth.
  5. Private Property: The value system of capitalism emphasises individual ownership and control over resources and means of production, reinforcing the idea that individuals have a right to the fruits of their labour and can profit from their investments.
  6. Patriarchy: Capitalism reinforces gendered inequality by privileging male ownership, control, and devaluing women’s work. This perpetuates societal norms that marginalize women, resulting in unequal opportunities, limited pay, and the undervaluing of female-dominated forms of work.
  7. Growth and productivism: The ideological perspective of capitalism stresses growth and productivity as key pillars, promoting the belief that economic growth, constant expansion, and increased production and consumption are essential for economic health and individual well-being.
  8. Competition: In capitalism, competition promotes innovation and efficiency but also perpetuates a “survival of the fittest” mindset, leading to social divisions, inequality, and strained relationships. It prioritizes individual success over collective well-being, hindering cooperation and equity.
  9. Imperialism and colonialism: Within capitalism’s expansionist framework, imperialism and colonialism are often legitimized through economic arguments, ideological framing of “development,” and dehumanizing racism, masking the violent domination and systemic exploitation they cause.
  10. Dehumanization and racism:Capitalist systems have often relied on processes of dehumanization and the establishment of racial hierarchies to rationalize exploitation.
  11. Extractivism: Capitalism characteristically emphasises extractive industries, such as mining and oil drilling, prioritising the extraction of natural resources for profit, reflecting a worldview that nature exists solely for human exploitation.
  12. Consumerism: In capitalism, consumerism is a pivotal concept that ties economic growth and personal fulfilment to consumption. It equates personal worth with the ability to consume and emphasizes the influence of marketing and consumer choice on societal trends.
  13. Overwork and burnout: Under capitalism, relentless work and high productivity are often prized, resulting in a culture that normalizes overwork and downplays self-care. This can lead to chronic stress and widespread burnout, negatively affecting health, relationships, and quality of life.
  14. Surveillance: Surveillance technologies are increasingly used to monitor and control labour and consumer behaviour in Big Data Capitalism, suggesting that privacy is a luxury and that individual autonomy is secondary to profit motives.
  15. Financialisation: In the evolving capitalist framework, financialisation prioritises wealth generation through financial mechanisms over traditional, tangible work. This shift, which puts the financial sector at the heart of the economy, often exacerbates wealth inequality and can increase economic instability due to the inherent volatility of financial markets.
  16. Commodification: The philosophical perspective of capitalism promotes the idea that everything, including nature, human labour, and social relations, can and should be commodified for profit. This perspective reinforces the notion that everything has a price and that economic value is the only legitimate form of value.

Not all of the pillars of capitalism are exclusive to capitalism. For example, patriarchy and imperialism have existed in many economic systems throughout history. However, the critical distinction with capitalism is how these pillars are reinforced and perpetuated through the system’s fundamental mechanisms and institutions, such as the free market, private property, and competition.