The Capitalist Frame

Bomba America, sketch (Detail), by Frida Kahlo. Jacques and Natasha Gellman Collection, MOMA. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Hammers get a lot of bad press because some people try to use them for too many different tasks and end up making a mess of things. Likewise with the concept of cognitive framing, especially as it’s been applied to American politics.

To more win more elections, the claim has been made, Democrats need to change their framing. The problem isn’t that Democrats consistently sell out the people in favor of their corporate backers; it’s that Democrats haven’t devised metaphors and rhetoric clever enough to trick people into thinking differently. If people could just be given a different perceptual lens—or frame—they would see that it’s in their best interests to vote for diversity-loving Democrats rather than authoritarian Republicans. When used to make arguments of this sort, the concept of framing can indeed seem a bit silly.

But sometimes framing is the right tool for the job, and we would be intellectually poorer without it. First, a couple definitions: frames are sets of taken-for-granted assumptions about how the world works and how it should work; framing occurs when we rely on these taken-for-granted assumptions to perceive, make sense of, and evaluate what goes on in the world around us (and inside us, too, for that matter). Framing in this sense is like breathing: we do it all the time—we must do it all the time—but we’re rarely aware of doing it. We just look at the world and grasp, more or less firmly, what’s going on. We can do this at all because we’re always using one frame, one perceptual lens, or another.

Rather than talk about frames, we could of course use the more familiar concept of ideology. We could say that people embrace politically-inflected beliefs that shape how they see the world and judge the rightness or wrongness of it. Someone in the grip of, say, neoliberal ideology will look at a government-provided public service and see it as an undesirable obstacle to unleashing the superior power of the free market to meet people’s needs. Someone in the grip of militarist ideology will look at an international conflict and think of how force could be used to defeat whichever side is deemed the enemy. Ideology is a robust concept for understanding why people see these sorts of matters in different ways.

So is “framing” just social science jargoneering? What can we do with framing that we can’t do with plain old ideology? Here’s what: the concept of framing can help us get at the cognitive foundations on which ideologies are built. This can in turn help us understand why ideologies are resistant to change and how they can be challenged by exposing their dubious cognitive foundations.

Among sociologists, Joe Feagin has used the framing concept in this way. He has written about the “white racial frame,” a concept he believes can help us understand how it is that racism persists, despite nobler intentions. According to Feagin, this frame includes “not only racist prejudices and stereotypes … but also racist ideologies, narratives, images and emotions, as well as individual and group inclinations to discriminate.” This is a hodgepodge definition that throws too much into the hopper at once. Yet there is a valuable idea at its core: white people in a white-dominated society are imbued with a way of seeing the world that naturalizes white superiority to the point of rendering it invisible or, even if it does become visible, unproblematic. As Feagin says, this isn’t a matter of individual racist foibles. It’s a matter of what’s baked into the culture becoming so baked into our minds that we don’t even recognize what we’ve done to ourselves.

Neither Feagin nor any proponent of the racial frame concept would say that by itself it is the key to liberation. At best, it is a tool for analysis and self-reflection that can help us figure out what the lock looks like and what will be needed to open it. Without the concept, it is harder to expose the racist contents of mind that not only naturalize white dominance but also keep white people acting in ways that reproduce that dominance—even when its victims object. Without the concept, we are less able to critically examine the deep assumptions that serve to perpetuate racial inequalities. So rather than disparage the concept of frame, we should use it wisely. Here I want to suggest how we might use it to probe the cognitive underpinnings of capitalism.

Just as there is a white racial frame, there is a capitalist frame. This frame consists of the ordinarily unnoticed assumptions upon which we draw to make sense of and evaluate the world around us. “The world,” in this case, is not the physical universe but rather the humanly-made social and economic world. We perceive this world through the perceptual lens I am calling the capitalist frame. As with Feagin’s racial frame, this frame too is largely invisible; we see through it, and see what we see because of it, but we don’t usually see the frame itself. What, then, are the assumptions that constitute the capitalist frame? Let me take a shot at articulating a few of its pieces.

There is, first of all, the assumption that property ownership, as underwritten by the state, confers a right to benefit from the use of that property. If the state says I own a plot of land or a factory, I am entitled, according to this assumption, to derive economic benefit from however that land or factory is used—whether or not I contribute any brain or muscle to the process. The assumption, in other words, is that the mere fact of legal ownership confers a right to charge some form of rent. If a piece of property is mine, so is a piece—or perhaps all—of the value anyone creates through use of that property. That’s the assumption.

Pointing out this assumption is likely to elicit an “Of course!” response from most quarters. “That’s how capitalism works!” it might be said. But this is precisely the point. The capitalist frame through which most of us see the world leads us to take for granted the idea that property ownership confers a right to profit. Steeped in capitalist culture as we are, we don’t see the problem. Profiting from property ownership is natural, normative (i.e., morally right), and unproblematic. To question this assumption is to question a basic principle on which society is built. The capitalist frame shields this principle from scrutiny by making it part of the lens through which we see the world.

A second piece of the capitalist frame is the assumption, a corollary to the first, that nature can be privately owned. Not just the surface of the land but also the minerals and oil beneath it, the plants that grow out of it, the animals that live on it, and the water that flows through it. Absent the assumption that elements of nature can be owned—combined with the assumption that ownership confers a right to control and profit from the use of these resources—capitalism would hold no legitimacy. For capitalism to be accepted as a sensible way to organize an economy, these assumptions must be embedded in the frame and thus kept off the examining table. Counterframes, about which more later, must be seen as wildly wrongheaded.

A third assumption is that people require bosses, without which nothing productive would get done. Humans are assumed to be naturally competitive and selfish rather than cooperative. Bosses are thus needed to compel people to work together harmoniously. Here, too, there are corollaries: because bosses are essential to ensure cooperation, determine the goals of production, and orchestrate the labor process, bosses should be rewarded at higher rates than direct producers. In this case, the constituent assumptions of the capitalist frame lead us to believe not only that bosses are essential, but also that it is right for bosses—from front-line supervisors to CEOs—to be paid more, often vastly more, than mere workers. To say that bosses are necessary and deserve to be paid more is, within the capitalist frame, to state the obvious.

A fourth constituent assumption of the capitalist frame is that wages can be fair pay. The assumption, more precisely, is that if wages satisfy workers, no exploitation is occurring. The fact that everyone seems happy with the wage rate that’s been arrived at is seen as evidence that economic justice has been achieved. What this assumption buries is the surplus value that has been wrung out of labor—the greater value workers create through their labor than is returned to them in the form of a “fair” wage. The capitalist frame cloaks this inherent exploitation and directs our attention to how workers feel about their wages—feelings that are always shaped by what workers think is possible given the power of bosses. “A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work” usually means, “This is about the best we can expect to do, all things considered.”

A fifth assumption is that wealth comes from the market. This assumption appears correct to many observers because the exchange value sedimented in commodities isn’t pocketed until those commodities are sold. The notion that wealth comes from the market also helps to legitimate capitalist wealth by making it appear to result from superior business acumen. It’s the capitalist frame, however, that sustains this illusion—that wealth derives from entrepreneurial genius—by obscuring the exploitation of labor at the heart of the wage relationship. The capitalist frame makes it easy to forget, or never consider, that if workers were paid the full value of the widgets they produce, there would be no profit to take home when those widgets are finally sold.

Looking at the world through the capitalist frame makes the economic relationships and practices that constitute capitalism seem sensible, reasonable, and right. It also makes some of these practices nearly impossible to see. As I’ve suggested, this is analogous to how the white racial frame works to make white dominance invisible in many ways and unproblematic when it is pointed out. In fact, what is likely to cause trouble is spotlighting a dominant frame that renders social and economic inequalities ordinarily invisible or unproblematic. To do this is to risk marking oneself as radical and out of touch, if not downright nutty. It is akin to suggesting that the earth is not the center of the universe.

If we think of frames as the cognitive foundations of ideologies, we can see why ideologies are so hard to change. Most people don’t rationally commit to political beliefs based on logic and evidence, such that better logic and evidence will dislodge their beliefs. Rather, people commit to political beliefs in large part because those beliefs accord with and affirm their basic assumptions about how the world works—assumptions that will not be abandoned without having at hand a new way to make sense of the world that is more practically and emotionally compelling. Without an alternative counterframe to provide the necessary cognitive foundation, radical political theories will seem to have no grip on anything real and warrant no allegiance, no matter their internal elegance.

When I was a kid, my dad once scolded me for using a screwdriver as a pry bar. He was trying, in his own gruff way, to teach me a lesson about using the right tool for the job. The same principle applies to intellectual tools. The concept of frame is not an all-purpose tool; it’s even a bit crude as these things go. Still, it can be used to do important work, such as figuring out how minds are shaped by culture and economics in ways that, in turn, help to perpetuate inequalities. That’s worth figuring out, presuming a desire to lessen or abolish these inequalities. If we know that frames are part of the problem, then we know that replacing them will need to be part of the solution.

Thanks to Taurean Brown for the conversation that prompted this essay.

Michael Schwalbe is professor emeritus of sociology at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at