T Nation

Capitalism: Is It Utopian?

Somehow, the thread on the Sgrena “60 Minutes” piece became a discussion on Capitalism vs. Communism.

I thought this topic needed a new thread.

My thought is this:

Capitalism has never professed any “higher” ideals, even from it’s early roots of Mercantilism. Plain and simple…it’s the buying and selling of goods for profit…with an important component being wage labor.

Yes…the pursuit of profit has, and probably will, always lead to corruption, exploitation and “haves-and-have-nots”… but that is the case with ANY system that groups of humans live under.

Some will have wages higher than others…and some will buy and sell goods at much greater profits than others.

To me…the promises of Communism were, and are, Utopian in and of themselves , not merely in its pursuit and execution.

Communism also seems to fundamentally go against Human drives and motivations to succeed. Collective pursuits for the “greater good”…and the corruption that occurs in the “redistribution of wealth”, are concepts that were, and are, bound to fail…and fail miserably…

I’ll stop…

The Forum is now open…

Mufasa

communism doesn’t work because it takes away your pride.

Capitalism rewards risk. Capitalism rewards hard work. It is human nature to progress: make more money, get more education, have more stuff. Capitalism encourages an individual to progress, or to do better.

Communism sucks the drive out of the human spirit. I know that there will be those that say that the communism we’ve experienced isn’t pure communism, but there is no such thing as pure anything.

We don’t have pure capitalism in the U.S. If had, there would be no labor laws, no minimum wage, no OSHA.

I think that a system which, in some way mimics nature – with a component of competition for resources, I mean, is going to succeed moreso than a system which removes that competition (such as fascism, communism, etc.) because like it or not, we remain animals. Our environment is more in a world of suits and ties instead of palm fronds and stone-tipped spears, but that hasn’t changed what we are inside. A thing to remember here is that we aren’t solitary hunters in an every-man-for-himself way – we are tribal. That means that we are always looking out for number one, but still keep our minds on our community. There has to be cooperation to some degree, because through that cooperation we were able to rise above the jungles and build these massive cities and all of our technology. I think that a capitalism-type of system like we have now is pretty damn close to what made us great in the first place. Look at what we have achieved… there is a reason that we are powerful, and I don’t think it’s all because of luck.

Another important aspect of this great system we have is freedom. Think about it: let’s say a primitive guy discovers that he has a natural knack and love for fishing. He can yank fish out of the water like nobody else. But unfortunately, there’s a rule in his tribe that says his family has to be farmers. There goes a great natural talent down the drain, because our fisherman didn’t have the freedom to pursue what it was he was really good at. Our system of capitalism celebrates the fact that our fisherman has that chance to get out there and try his hand and to pursue his dream.

Ayn Rand said it all…
Twentieth Century Motor Company…

I’ll start with a very well-known quote:

"
Communism: great ideal, wrong species
Capitalism: wrong ideal, right species
"

I don’t fully agree with the above quote (I’ll explain why), but I think it sums up quite nicely what Mufasa said, I wanted to acknowledge that.

As a human being, I believe Capitalism is fundamentally flawed, because in its purest form it basically makes us even worse than animals – at least animals seek and destroy only to live and reproduce, while most humans will seek and destroy for the purely materialistic, selfish, and ultimately fundamentally shallow pursuit of power and wealth. When we die we don’t get to carry our power and wealth with us (something that even the ones that believe in an afterlife will have to agree with), so what’s the point of pursuing great power, wealth and success, really?

As an Economist and Game Theorist, research shows me that Capitalism is fundamentally flawed in the sense that it generates a “survival of the fittest” environment that breeds discontent, unhappyness, conflict, and, ultimately, war. In the Animal world, the weakest will perish; in the Human world, they will first become poor, which, for some, is an even greater punishment than death.

So it doesn’t surprise me that, according to most studies, the US has the unhappiest population in the whole wide world (it also has some of the happiest people in the world, but the 5% that is “extremely happy” simply does not make up for the 50% that are “extremely unhappy”). We actually keep telling ourselves that all is OK, but when we look deep inside us, we can’t bring ourselves to pretend we’re happy. Because we’re not. So the trick is to keep people from realizing they are, indeed, shallow, empty and miserable – most of the time. So it’s our politician’s job to help us not look deep inside our consciousness.

The problem – and the reason we can’t really solve this – is that communism is so fundamentally flawed (it goes against every single law of Economy and Game Theory, so I wonder how anybody ever believed it’d work), it is impossible to implement with this particular species (that calls itself Homo Sapiens Sapiens), to the point it is simply unsustainable even in the short term – it creates a deadly spiral to where populations are unable to even feed themselves. To this day I am surprised that the USSR and China were able to feed their populations under a communist system for as long as they did. The West must have been doing a bang-up job of secretely helping them, because there’s no other way they could have survived for as long as they did.

What’s the fundamental flaw? Communism does not trigger the brutal, viral instincts inside all of us – and those are the same instincts that keep us alive. It’s like keeping a virus in a closed vial filled only with air – if it’s not allowed to infect some organism, it will perish.

Capitalism triggers those essential brutal instincts – enough to keep us alive. The reason it does that is that it leverages the fact that there is only a 1% difference in our DNA from our closest cousin species – 1%. We’re not that different. Actually, a male Homo Sapiens Sapiens’ DNA is closer to a male chimpanzee’s than it is to a female Homo Sapiens Sapiens’ DNA. Actually, we are, quite possibly, nastier than chimpanzees (which are pretty nasty creatures themselves) – because in order to hide our pesky consciences (that theoretically make us human) we live in denial and in a fantasy world where we tell ourselves we’re somehow superior, pursing wealth and power is a Good Thing™ and capitalism is AOK.

It might sound harsh, but realizing that is what prevents people from making such a large-scale mistake as communism. I’m pretty sure that if Marx realized that he’d have had kept his mouth shut.

Then again, if he had kept his mouth shut we wouldn’t have Computers right now, and we wouldn’t have gone to the Moon.

Yes, because even in a Capitalist environment humanity is capable of great things when united against a clear enemy.

Ironic, isn’t it? That’s Human nature for you…

So do not be surprised by seeing politicians always coming up with “enemies” – real or not. That’s the only situation were we do behave slightly better than our primate cousins – united against an enemy.

To sum it all up, here’s the recipe for a “great” country:

  • Start with a Right-Wing Capitalist environment so that people’s basic instincts – aka, our side that makes us essentially behave more like a virus than a cute, furry mammal – are properly tapped to keep us fed and alive

  • Add a large dose of religion (aka “das Opium des Volkes”) and, to be safe (there’s a some non-religious people to cater for too) run massive brainwashing operations creating collective delusion to keep people away from using their consciousness as much as possible

  • Help develop a series of clear common enemies (internal and external) that ocasionally bring out the best in people, so that we can tap ourselves in the back every now and then – and keep the delusion alive

Tagline: It’s NOT the economy, stupid.

hspder: Ummm… Interesting take there. So basically, you’re saying that it’s government’s job to keep us impotent and stupid, right? So only the truly evil and ambitious are corrupt enough to take a hold of the reins of power and drive the wagon train further towards the horizon? Am I close?

Hmmm… perhaps you are one of those “extremely unhappy” people, then? Dude, this life isn’t all that bad at all. Government, in case you’ve forgotten, is not some machine that churns us in some meat grinder… that was a bad acid trip imagery made popular by Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”. The last time I checked, government is made up of folks just like you and me. Nobody is out to get you. Well… mostly.

You can go anywhere and do anything that you set your mind to, buddy. This is the beginning of the Golden Age. Don’t forget that. You are free in a way that no other people in the history of the planet have ever been. Make the most of it – revel in it… that’s my advice to anybody who asks.

Good thread Mufasa. I think the key issue here is that there is a huge gulf between the practices of Communism and the ideals of Communism. Personally I think Marx and Engel’s wrote the “Communist Manifesto” during the industrial revolution. Society and industry were in a transition period and the manifesto did not take into account the emergence of the middle-classes, it applied a simplistic view of society and its industrial organisation. This is one the problems Lenin faced when the Bolsheviks came to power, all theory but no practice. Capitalism on the other hand at its very crude level was ‘the market’ determines values of the goods, very simple and very practical. To lump Capitalism into one group is also simplistic, its how governments manage the spread and probable inequality created by competition which differentiates one type of ‘Capitalist’ government from another, Liberal-Socialist (Sweden,Britain, etc) to Liberal-Conservative(US). Before I get jumped on by the Republicans and Democrats, those ‘Liberal’ and ‘Conservative’ definitions aren’t the same definitions used to differentiate party allegiance in the US, they are non-cultural specific, they are political science definitions.

Ahh yes the capitalish system. Currently it is the most sucesfull in the world. BUT theres a price to be paid. The world is severely out of balance and this system will ultimately crumble as well due to pure greed as warned by our Father Pope John Paul II.

This system keeps EVERYONE of us, even all you fine people on this site as slaves to the pursuit of the mightly dollar. You can never stop the pursuit of material wealth in the capitalist system. It’s designed to lure you with easy loans, credits, new material, cars etc…This system controls you and keeps you in line with the threat of loosing your “credit” and makes you the sheep that dedicates it’s life to pursue silly material things in an endless struggle to pay bills and try to move up. In the capitalist system, keeping you owning money is a system of controll that uses leverage. You were all pretty much already born in debt and will die in debt. So in essence you’re a slave to $, whether you like it or not.

Birth rates are down under the Capitalist system as well, why? Well because now young people want to get their piece of the pie first. They want to LIVE and acquire material and monetary wealth and honestly don’t want the burden and responsibility of a mouth to feed, it’s the new form of selfishness that infesting this system with the new generations.

Capitalism is only fun if you’re very sucesfull in it, otherwise it plain sucks and your quality of life will go down the tubes.

Lets face it Marx was a theorist of capitalism, that’s where most of his analysis went! Both capitalism and communism promise a consumer society, but what became eminantly apparent is that state beaurocracy can not provide the same advancements as private industry, hence the poor quality of Soviet cars, TVs etc. Additionally Communism logically can not provide a Utopia and create equality because it elevates the intelligentsia above the level of the worker, in order to lead the worker on the correct path- basically a re-alignment of aristocracy. Because the intelligentsia come to power through revolution, not election they then lack legitimacy, and must gain that through tyranny, hence we have the horrors of the Soviet bloc. Captialism on the other hand favours an almost Darwinian system of culture, in which only the strong ‘make it’. Hence we again have stratification. There is an alternative (not that Fukuyama would like you to know this) and that is anarchism, or ‘direct democracy’. It however relies on people having ethics, so whilst it almost happened in Spain (but was blocked by BOTH the left and right wing!), and currently does happen in Switzerland I doubt there’s any hope in other Western countries because lets face it, we’re too greedy and really don’t care about anyone not in our immediate prescence.

[quote]lothario1132 wrote:
hspder: Ummm… Interesting take there. So basically, you’re saying that it’s government’s job to keep us impotent and stupid, right? So only the truly evil and ambitious are corrupt enough to take a hold of the reins of power and drive the wagon train further towards the horizon? Am I close?

Hmmm… perhaps you are one of those “extremely unhappy” people, then? Dude, this life isn’t all that bad at all. Government, in case you’ve forgotten, is not some machine that churns us in some meat grinder… that was a bad acid trip imagery made popular by Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”. The last time I checked, government is made up of folks just like you and me. Nobody is out to get you. Well… mostly.

You can go anywhere and do anything that you set your mind to, buddy. This is the beginning of the Golden Age. Don’t forget that. You are free in a way that no other people in the history of the planet have ever been. Make the most of it – revel in it… that’s my advice to anybody who asks.[/quote]

Prehistoric man had more freedom than us, there is also no evidence of war before agriculture and enourmous evidence of peaceful collabaration between groups of people. They may not have been free to go to Subway or buy a widescreen TV but they had a far more profound freedom. On another point you’re right the people in government are like you and me, but thats one of the interesting points of an urban, post-modern existance- the fulfilling of multiple roles. From 9-5 a man can be laying people off, or ordering the bombing of a country or destroying vast habitats with powerplants, but then he can go home and have dinner with his kids because he has many roles in life. Thats where we have freedom- we can be multiple people (not that thats neccasarily a good thing, i.e. the above example, or the rates of depression, corporate discontent etc.) We can’t go anywhere and do anything. When I lived in downtown Atlanta and crossed a clear road I recieved a ticket because it wasnt at a crosswalk. I couldn’t even legally buy a beer. social stigma prevented me dating interacially. I was only allowed to walk in the local park, no rollerblades, bikes etc. I had police sheperding me everywhere, even the dorms I lived in. I wasnt even free to have privacy because the immigration services had to check my bank account, every country I’d visited in the past, family ties both sides of the Atlantic and then my room was checked every few months by the housing officials. There may be nobody out to get you, but instead there’s thousands out to co-erce, sheperd, and watch you. what a golden age.

I wanted to add to something Gregus brought up…(this comes from a tretis on Capitalism that I had in my records…)

Capitalism relies on the creation of a consumer culture, a large segment of the population that is not producing most of what it is consuming. Since capitalism, like mercantilism, is fundamentally based on distributing goods and moving goods from one place to another, consumers have no social relation to the people who produce the goods they consume.

In non-capitalist societies, such as tribal societies, people have real social relations to the producers of the goods they consume. But when people no longer have social relations with others who make the objects they consume, that means that the only relation they have is with the object itself.

So part of capitalism as a way of thinking is that people become “consumers,” that is, they define themselves by the objects they purchase rather than the objects they produce.

Question:

Is this a “weakness” or “flaw” in the system…or all the ills that Gregus brought up (which are VERY real) the responsibility of the “consumer”?

Mufasa

I see someone else addressed it, but freedom and capitalism are not synonomous. For example, there can be a class known as slaves which don’t get to play any ownership games.

My point? Just because you are free and can do a lot, that in and of itself probably isn’t part of the capitalism debate. That is part of “my country is great” because it combines capitalism, democracy and a mostly respected constitution that guarantees rights.

Heh, for another issue, consider that you can have classes of a capitalist/democratic society that don’t get to vote even though they are not defacto slaves. Again, just look at fairly recent history.

Sure, it’s better than other systems to date, but it is far from perfect. Instead of revelling in how great our system is, lets find the real issues it causes or allows and keep making progress.

We get blinded by pride a lot it seems.

Capitalism is not perfect, but it is better than anything else.

I had a great Econ. teacher in school who gave us a little crash on why communism will not work. His example was as follows. Suppose I told every student in this class that now matter what you do, your final grade I this class will be a B, how many of you will attend this class this semester. No one?s arm went up when he asked, and that my friends is why communism will not work, amongst other reasons.

I realize that this is a huge generalization, but the point still remains.

As for those that abuse capitalism do to their greed, I do not believe that they are true capitalist, because they are in a sense biting the hand that feeds them. They are destroying the very system that they claim to follow.

Anyway that is my .02 cents.

Vroom hit the nail on the head. That is why we need a government “of the people, by the people and for the people.”

The government must provide the services that capitalists are ill equipped to provide. (police, fire department, lower education, roads, environmental oversight etc.)

Capitalism is only part of what makes things work.

And I wish people would quit on the “communism works in theory” bullshit.

Communism is a horribly flawed theory. It doesn’t work in theory and it doesn’t work in practice.

Why is it always Capitalism vs. Coummunism? Is there not another economic system out there? I’ve wondered about this for the last few years and then discovered Parecon or Paticipatory Economics. I can’t claim to know too much about it as I don’t have alot of training in economics but it was surprising to actually stumble upon this. There was a debate between Michael Albert(the progenetor of Parecon) and David Horowitz. I just leafed through the debate but you can read it if you like here www.zmag.org/horowitz_flap.htm

Zep:

There are others (Socialism being the other of the “Modern Big Three”). Some have long since disappeared and/or been tried in limited form:

Feudalism
Communalism
Tribalism
Mercantilism (the roots of Capitalism)
Many “hybrids”

Capitalism and Communism have been the two systems that have gone “head-to-head” in our Modern World.

About the imperfections of Capitalism:

I agree with everyone 100%. It requires a vigourous system of checks and balances (both public and Private) and “safety nets” (both public and private)of the “have-nots” can very soon become “have-nothings”…

I also agree with vroom and others…it’s a system that must operate within a system of Freedom backed by strong protection of individual rights…

Mufasa

I’d like to take a stab at this from a classical perspective. The very first exploration of communism, in any rigorous sense, was in Plato’s Republic. Now, Plato borrowed heavily from Aristophones’ “Assembly of Women,” which first put forth the idea of an entirely communistic society. Plato expanded the idea, and explained the function of the various parts. Because this is not an introductory to political philosophy, I’ll sketch things out very quickly.

According to Plato’s Socrates, to create the best state, we must first rusticate all those above the age of reason (11). We must do this because the foundation of a new order must be in convictions and beliefs, and not in rhetoric; Socrates is prudent enough to realize that convincing an extant people who have deeply rooted traditions will be impossible. The children would be raised and schooled, and taught that they all were born from the earth. Each child will have been born from a different metal, a different element of his mother. Some are bronze, some silver, and some gold. Throughout their education, the reigning Philosophers must determine which of these types each of them is.

Each type of person has a different function, as suited to his ability: laborer/artisan, soldier and Philosopher (ruler). I won’t go into more specifics of the myth here, but suffice it to say that for Plato, any foundational act must begin in myth, and all practical authority of law must stem from the gods.

In this way, Philosophers could rule. Now, law is itself imperfect. A law is necessarily imperfect, because it encapsulates either very narrow cases that do not apply generally, or because it is generally applicable and does not concern itself with specifics. We say that justice “is blind,” but the original meaning of this phrase was not in the ideals of equality, but rather in the way in which the law does not “grind exceedingly fine.”

We can say that there are really only two major types of rule, and that is autocratic or monarchic, and legalistic. In one, in the purest sense, rule is exercised by a man or a group of men, without regard to a constitution or fixed laws that may not be deviated from. In a society governed entirely by laws, there is no capricious character to rule; it is entirely decided by rules that ought to be comprehensible to any man of normal intelligence.

We know, from experience, that these are ideals and not realities. They don’t really describe any regime that exists, because they are both utterly impracticable. A despot cannot really rule entirely capriciously, even with a very detailed network of henchmen and spies. At some point he must set down his laws, and must rule according to them, at least in part.

At the same time, a society entirely governed by law without regard to specific circumstances is radically opposed to human nature.

But the goal of any good regime is to at least enable the citizens to live the good life; that is, they must be able to seek perfection of their souls in accordance with the good. Further, Socrates tells us that justice lies precisely in “minding one’s business.” This isn’t just in the sense of not being a busybody, of course, but also in the sense of engaging only in the endeavors for which one is suited. So a shoemaker ought not lay bricks, and a mason ought not try to cobble shoes. We wouldn’t expect a well-built wall from the shoemaker, nor would we expect a comfortable shoe from the mason.

It stands to reason, then, that just as in the market, our politics should be similarly well-ordered. We do not pick our shoemakers by lots, for example. We pick them for their ability in shoemaking, which is somewhat obvious to us. But the higher the art, the more education necessary to differentiate ability, and the citizen is in no position to make a study of all arts, including politics, to that great an extent.

So Socrates looked to heaven for the best regime. If God is a being of infinite wisdom, he is necessarily just. Few people, if any, would say that God is a despot. God is necessarily just, based on our definition, if he does precisely what he is good at, what is his business: ruling. God is infinitely wise, and so we will without reservation say that he is well equipped to solve any problem that may arise.

We may disagree as to what degree of difference there is between the Philosopher and the citizen. The Philosophers have been chosen from those children in each generation who are the most capable and enthusiastic for wisdom and truth (episteme), and who do not simply follow accepted opinion (doxa). But whatever degree of difference there is, the wise Philosopher is much more wise than a law, as a law cannot itself have wisdom.

To return to the matter of communism, as a practical concern, we must preserve this order, this autocracy. To maintain it, each citizen must be divided into his class in childhood. But we know that human beings are partial to their families, and would resent having their child put in a class other than their own. And this opens up a new problem; for a truly healthy state, each citizen must be working for the good of the whole, and not himself. Yet the family, which is really only an extension of the Ego, is opposed to the interest of the state.

Household management (oeconomicon) prioritizes the family at the expense of the state, seeking to maintain the father’s interest. Further, as we’ve already established that deference to divine authority forms the foundation (literally and figuratively) of the best state, we must maintain at least the illusion of this noble lie. As such, there can be no marriage, and complete communism of children. Children would know no parents other than the state, and would not be preferred based on birth or supposed heritage.

There could also be no squabbles between families, nor familial interest, nor preferential treatment. Each man would act as though he had a thousand children and a thousand fathers; that is, with respect for his elders and with patience with the young.

Communism, then, in its initial formulation was conceived from the state down. Wishing to create a perfect state, which would mean that each man would be happy (but not satisfied), Socrates has given us the description of what would be necessary to create this polis.

Marx starts at the other end. He first imagined the proletariat, dominated and humiliated under the yoke of the aristocracy. What must be done, then, is to restrain the dominating impulse in man by a series of social upheavals. The state absorbs industry, and chooses to pursue only those things that are useful without creating superfluity.

For Marx, Communism is the reintegration of man with fellow men; the state is a necessary formality, the means through which this end is achieved. By dividing labor to each according to his ability, Marx seeks to alleviate the psychologically destructive humiliation of capitalist dominance.

Let us stop and examine the underpinnings of both Socrates and Marx, but from a foundational perspective. For Socrates, men and women are rusticated, and one begins with fresh minds and bodies. For Marx, we instead begin with the downtrodden rising in revolt. For Socrates, there is necessarily a wise ruling class who, through force or through rhetoric, convinces the citizens that they must leave, perhaps due to worries about a disaster.

We know that the Philosophers cannot convince the citizens that they are deserving of rule and obedience, but they may possess the lower skill of being able to convince the citizens to act in a particular way, at one time, to pursue their interests. No matter. Marx sees subjugation or ejection of the “ruling class,” essentially, the bourgeoisie.

But still lingering in the back of that revolutionary mind is the notion that he has been a slave, and that he must preserve his freedom, if one may call it that, through violence or whatever means. And also, for the Marxist, there is always the idea that work is not a pleasure but rather a necessity. We participate in labor because it is necessary and because everyone else does, but not for its own virtue.

Now, for Socrates, each man is happy in his position, but not entirely so. The laborers might wish to create more elaborate designs, but that is forbidden to them. They must confine themselves to mastery of their art as it is practiced simply, and not extravagantly. The soldiers would like to dominate the world, perhaps even their own city, but they must not. They are happy to defend the best city, but their thumistic urges are not indulged. The Philosophers would like to engage in philosophy, but they are bound to engage instead in politics. No one is completely satisfied, yet each realizes that he is fulfilling his divinely ordained purpose. The Marxist has no such comfort.

I’m afraid this has deviated from my original intentions, and I’ll have to conclude here, by saying that to understand any political system, we must look not only at what the system means for us as we are, but also how it would change who we would be. Socrates looked to men as they are, and laws as they might be. Marx, instead, only looked to men as they might be, but not as they are.

[quote]Zeppelin795 wrote:
Why is it always Capitalism vs. Coummunism? Is there not another economic system out there?[/quote]

There are many other economic systems out there – however one of the most basic things about human beings – and americans in particular – is that they fear change, and especially fear change to unknown or “unproven” things. People don’t like feeling like ginea pigs.

It’s ironic, isn’t it? We’re theoretically intelligent beings, and hence theoretically we are able to adapt to different situations better than any other life form in the planet; however we seem to be deeply allergic to new situations, which means we are allergic to using that same intelligence.

If there was a God, He’d have to have a very perverted sense of humor in designing something like us.

[quote]vroom wrote:
That is part of “my country is great” because it combines capitalism, democracy and a MOSTLY RESPECTED constitution that guarantees rights.

[quote]

Vintage Vroom.

Pathetic.