from the desk of H. Bowie...

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Reframing our Debates about Capitalism

Gary Cooper looking askance at his newly acquired butler in a scene from the Frank Capra film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

There is a flaw in the reasoning behind our infernal, never-ending, society-splitting debate concerning socialism vs. capitalism, and I want to point it out.

To start with, imagine the lives of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

(Notice I say “our” with confidence because, even though I don’t know who you are or where you were raised or what you look like, I do know that you, like all of us humans, are descended from one or more tribes of hunter-gatherers.)

Our ancestors foraged off the land. They did not accumulate more material goods than they needed, or more than they could wear on their backs or carry with them. But in general, they:

  • Had developed/discovered a sustainable way of life;
  • Managed to pass that way of life on from one generation to another;
  • Provided some sort of meaningful work for everyone;
  • Provided food and water and clothing and shelter to everyone;
  • Took care of each other, to the best of their abilities, when they became sick or frail.

Would you call their society an early example of socialism? I don’t think so. Because what was their alternative? After a successful hunt, were they going to let half the tribe starve while half of the meat spoiled? When they discovered a fresh patch of berries were they going to pass laws that prevented some of their members from eating them? No, of course not. None of the alternatives we can dream up would make any sense. They were just living the hunter-gatherer life.

So if we look at our modern industrial society today and ask ourselves what changed between then and now, between them and us, you might think that the answer would be long and complicated. And the details certainly are. But in broad strokes, there is only one essential difference:

Humans began to generate a surplus.

This started with agriculture. We started growing grains and other things that could be stored for future use. And before long we were growing more than we needed for the immediate sustenance of our communities. And so we had to build places where the grain could be stored, and devise accounting systems to keep track of who had contributed how much. And as the surpluses grew, our societies discovered we had enough extra energy and materials to do new and interesting things. We invented written language. We made reliable discoveries about the nature of the world. We built factories and trains and planes and iPhones and all the rest of it.

But the essential idea to grab onto here is that all of this depended on our collective ability to generate a surplus – more stuff than the members of our society needed for their immediate survival. Without that ability, nothing we recognize as modern civilization would be possible.

Now it turns out that the question of what to do with surplus energy and materials is a tough one. There are lots of different options. One person might want a new car. Another might want fancy clothes. And another might want to start a new business, to build some new product, or deliver some new service. The possibilities are, in fact, endless. But who gets to decide? And how do those decisions get made?

This is where capitalism rightly enters the picture. Because the alternative is some form of centralized planning agency that makes all these decisions for us. And for any sort of modern, large-scale society, this sort of centralized function just doesn’t work very well.

(I’m reminded of the story of the Russian commissar who visited New York City sometime in the fifties or sixties, who wanted to be driven around to see the lines of people queueing up to get their daily bread, and could not believe it when he was told that the city had no such lines. How was it possible? Who was planning how much bread to bake, and where it should be delivered? And how were they managing to satisfy everyone, without generating too much of the wrong type of bread? The Russians couldn’t do it via centralized planning. They were pulling their hair out trying to get it right. And this was just bread! And before there were whole-grain and gluten-free varieties! How would they possibly cope today?)

And so capitalism, instead of making decisions for everybody, wisely allows everyone to make their own decisions about what they want to do with their surpluses.

But now – and perhaps you’re already seeing it – we come to the essential flaw in our modern debates about the relative virtues of different sorts of economic systems. Because capitalism is a system for making decisions about what to do with our societal surplus. But what it is not – and what it was never intended to be – is a system for denying sustenance to any member of our society.

And so, if we go back to the basic societal characteristics of our hunter-gatherer forebears…

  • A sustainable way of life,
  • The ability to pass that way of life on from one generation to the next,
  • Meaningful work for everyone,
  • Food and water and clothing and shelter for everyone,
  • Care for the ill and the frail…

We have to see that these are just table stakes for any modern society claiming to offer something better than simply living off the land. (And frankly, given the sizes of our modern human populations, sending everyone out to hunt and forage is not really an option anyway.) These basic societal functions should be non-negotiable.

So if our society is not living up to its minimal obligations to provide sustenance for its members – and many, including myself, would say that it is not, here in the US – then is this the fault of capitalism? Is it really a question of whether we throw out capitalism and replace it with socialism, as so many today would seemingly have us believe?

I think not. I think, instead, these are the questions we should be considering.

Question # 1: Is it realistic to expect capitalism to be provide a complete system for managing all aspects of our society?

I think the answer here, clearly, is no: capitalism is a great system for deciding how a society should spend its surpluses of energy and materials, but it is not, and was never meant to be, a complete system for managing all aspects of our society. In particular, it was never meant as an excuse for leaving large numbers of people hungry and homeless and sick, and for allowing children to be raised without an adequate education.

We cannot expect capitalism to provide the basic means of sustenance for all members of our society; but we can expect society to provide a framework in which capitalism can operate, while still ensuring that all of society’s members have access to the basic things needed to sustain life.

Notice how I am framing this: capitalism is not the whole of society, but is a system that operates within a society.

Call this notion “societalism” if you’d like, or make up some other name for it, but it is certainly not socialism, and it certainly doesn’t require us to throw out capitalism.

Question # 2: Which societies are we talking about?

This is really the key debate we should all be having. Because there are only two basic possibilities here.

A. Society includes everyone living within a certain region.

B. Societies are formed along other lines, and societal responsibilities only extend to those who fall within those lines.

Now notice that, if you go down the path of option B, your notion of society can take many different forms, depending on who is included:

  • All those working as employees for a specific company;
  • Everyone who shares a certain ethnic heritage;
  • All those who attend the same church, or who belong to the same club;
  • Alumni from a specific set of educational institutions;
  • People who work for a specific industry, or who share some specific profession;
  • All who are willing to swear allegiance to an anointed leader.

Now I want to be careful here: you can have many different ways to group people within a society, without each of those groups being called a separate society. But when one or more of the five basic societal responsibilities I’ve outlined above is fulfilled by such a group, then it starts to become its own society.

And, of course, this is exactly what we are seeing today, and see being consistently defended, especially on the right: health insurance provided by employers; bitter legal battles over the rights of gig workers (including when they should really be classified as employees); thinly veiled appeals to voters based on the colors of their skin and/or religions and/or places of birth; support for or attacks on cities and states based on whether they are run by Republicans or Democrats; pensions that are dependent on union membership; selections of judges based on their attendance at a small set of schools. And of course, above all, attacks on government at all levels, because those are the only institutions that could possibly be used to pursue the alternative option: fulfilling societal responsibilities for everyone living within a certain region.

And so, we have to ask, what is the problem with Option B? Just this: it requires us to abandon our neighbors and, in order to justify such an inhuman action, it requires us to vilify and demonize and dehumanize those who fall outside the lines of our carefully constructed artificial societies.

And where does this lead? To the brink of chaos, just where we are today, as we read the news about the FBI arresting a group of white supremacists who were poised to kidnap the legally elected governor of their state. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking of this as an aberration, a one-off action by a fringe group. This is where we inevitably end up, this is what we find at the bottom, once we start down the slippery slope of dividing up our communities along some lines other than natural geographic ones, and denying basic societal privileges to those who live among us.

And so, I think, the answer to question # 2 has to be this: we must think of a society as including everyone living within certain boundaries, and those societies must fulfill their basic responsibilities to their members.

Question # 3: What are the specific policies we can enact in order to ensure that our societies fulfill their basic responsibilities to their citizens, while still allowing capitalism to perform its intended function?

This is where our elected leaders need to be focusing their efforts. These are hard problems to solve, but not impossible ones. And this is where we as citizens should be asking legitimate questions about these possible policies.

And yet, remarkably, but somehow not surprisingly, our social discourse never seems to get to this stage, the stage at which we might actually be able to make some real progress.

And why is this not surprising?

Because this is the real point of the endless, and endlessly phony, capitalism vs. socialism debate that keeps getting thrown in our faces; the people who feed us our daily nightmares – Oh my god, what happens if those lefties get elected, that will be the end of capitalism and the end of society as we know it! – are the same people who want nothing more than to grab as much power and money as they can, and hold on to it for as long as they can.

That’s what’s really behind this never-ending debate.

Bottom Line

So what have we learned?

  1. Every human society has the responsibility to provide five basic things to all of its citizens:

    • A sustainable way of life;
    • An ability to pass that way of life on from one generation to the next;
    • Meaningful work;
    • Food and water and clothing and shelter;
    • Care for the ill and the frail.
  2. A human society must include everyone within a geographic region.

    To draw the societal lines elsewhere leads inevitably to bitter civil strife, and perhaps ultimately to outright war.

  3. Capitalism is a means of deciding how to spend society’s surplus of goods and services, of energy and materials.

    And it does a pretty good job of that, if we don’t ask it to do more than can be fairly expected of it.

I’ll leave you with these thoughts for now: they should be more than enough for you to ponder for a day or two.

October 12, 2020