American Capitalism

Thoughts on American Capitalism and archaeology

Capitalism has lasted over five hundred year and is considered to be the most dominated economic force in the word. With political economy and Marxism  having much of it’s original emphasis focused on Western capitalism. It will be no surprise that much of the Marxist perspectives are applied to historic periods in archaeology.  The American historical experience was and is not exempt from these forces and can be seen as one of the best examples of a developed nation based in a capitalist culture.  Because of America’s early roots in capitalism, American historic archaeology provided a powerful set of tools and methods  to evaluate history of American Capitalism (Matthews 2010).

Like many of the other approaches, modern day political economy research has many perspectives applied.  Much of historic archaeology of American Capitalism is fundamentally based in the works of Karl Marx and Max Weber . Through their influences, the study of capitalism requires consideration  as a social phenomenon that transforms from  community production efforts to a lower valued employment by an impersonal labor market (Matthews 2010).

Marx in American Historical Archaeology

Much of Marx’s influence in American Historical archaeology comes from his notion of individual freedom. Marx distinguished individual freedom as between “use-value” and “exchange-value” objects of commodities. Basically, every object has a use. For example, gasoline burns to create energy. However Capitalism makes these qualitative objects less significant then their equivalent exchange-value. For example, the a steering mechanism (the thing the allows tour car to turn) is worth less than the gasoline. This is because exchange-value is quantitative and allow for equivalency in reference to common value (Money!!!). Marx’s argument is that money “stands in” for more foundational common factors that underlines all value: Human Labor. Marx focuses on how labor becomes free! Marx also believed that private ownership of labor leads competition that then leads to a direct impact on individualism (Matthews 2010).

I will address some emerging theoretical trends of American Capitalism in historic archaeology theory

Capitalist Individual Materiality

In this approach the material culture of American capitalist life has three simultaneous  and competing levels of meaning that has documented  emerging capitalism along with its expansion into dominance (Matthews 2010:3):

Use-value: “all objects are what they are made of and what they were intended to be used for” Marx also included “labor of human beings required for reproduction and happiness”

Exchange-value: “the value of an object in relation to others in terms of its relative (usually monetary) worth.” Marx included “the appropriated labor of individuals that came to be exchanged in the market for a wage that afforded them the objects required for life and happiness” Therefore the “primary of exchange value  in capitalism was based in the transformation of objects  into commodities — that is, objects whose value was determined more by their place in the market than by their usefulness in work and other productions”

Commodity fetishism: “comprised the attributes of objects that allow things to stand in for people.” Marx saw this as the “sense that those attributes of social production that make it possible to value skill and knowledge and recognize distinction become endowed not in the makers of objects or even their users, but rather in the objects themselves.”

That through looking at the associations of objects that people want to construct themselves, archaeology can identify objects that have agency in capitalist culture.


American historical archaeology of Capitalism is suited to address many issues concerning the interpretation of American Capitalist life. However, Marxist archaeology of American Capitalism seems to be centered on seven popular social issues: (1) Freedom, Culture, and the self in Capitalism system; (2) The expansion of capitalism in North America; (3) Defining the interaction of nature in Colonial America; (4) Capitalist as a Metropolis; (5) material culture translations of survival in success; (6) the archaeology of resistance on communities outside Capitalism, and (7) Race and African American resistance in Archaeology(Matthews 2010:3).

References Cited

Mattews, Christopher N.
2010    Introduction. In The Archaeology of American Capitalism, edited by M. S. Nassaney, pp. 1-8. The American Experience in Archaeological Perspective, M. S. Nassaney. University Press of Florida, Gainesville, Florida.


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  1. Pingback: Welcome! « Capitalism in archaeological theory

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