Thursday, August 31, 2006

Reversing the Argument

     Most open-minded people have thought about the possibility of alternatives to capitalism at one time or another. Unfortunately, I think many people quickly dismiss the idea because they think of one or two particular problems that could exist in an non-capitalistic society. The objections range from a number of things, but they generally start with, "It just seems like X would happen". I think many of the objections that people raise to non-capitalistic systems can be reasoned away with a better understanding of what the alternative is actually about as well as pulling from examples from historical events that are not taught and thus are not very well-known.

     However, let's assume that they are valid objections. They certainly could be. After all, few would argue that the alternatives to capitalism are perfect, just that they are better. It's probably impossible to create *perfect* economic and political structures, and it's impossible to guarantee that a certain system will operate in ways that we desire, if only for the obvious reason that it's functioning hinges critically on the complex dynamics of society.

    Having said that, imagine we reversed the situation. Imagine we were living in a socialist society and were theorizing about the possibility of changing to a capitalist society. Just think of all the criticisms one would have!

  • Wouldn't wealth begin to accumulate over time, resulting in the quality of lives that people have being determined almost 100% on the conditions in which they were born?
  • With wealth accumulating to such an extent, wouldn't those with wealth be able to undermine the democratic process, resulting in a loss of not only economic freedom, but also of political freedom?
  • Wait, so even though there are enough means to feed, clothe, and take care of the entire world population, millions will die from hunger and preventable diseases yearly because it is impossible to make a profit off of them? (I have some interesting data from a UN Development Report that I'll post on in the next few weeks relating to this).
  • Wouldn't those who owned the private resources and businesses be rewarded in the market for keeping wages low and polluting the environment?
  • Don't people work better when they "own" a part of what they work with rather than just be paid a wage to work for the benefit of someone else?
  • And so on....

        Point being, when people think about alternatives to capitalism I hope that they will remember to think about what they are comparing it to.

    SH said...

    I think there are several reasons why people dismiss the idea of alternative so quickly:

    1. They don't know about or don't see the problems with the current system. After all, most people in the "developed" countries are not starving or jailed for political views. If people don't come face to face with the issues they are almost as good as non-existent for most of them.

    2. When they do see the problems they are taught how to explain them away. "People in Africa are starving? Well, if they would just work a little instead of relying on us for help they would be in a better shape." Problems are rarely attributed to the system. That is not taught in schools. What is taught is rationalizing things within a given (current) framework: "what we have is the best. If something doesn't seem right it is because someone is doing something stupid/bad."

    3. People are bombarded with constant stream of information that declares superiority and fairness of the status quo. It is very difficult, psychologically, to challenge the prevailing point of view. So any information in support of it is being blindly accepted while anything challenging it is dismissed as soon as possible, which is at the very first sign of anything being wrong with the idea.

    4. Failure of USSR and other alternative systems leads people to believe that alternatives are impossible. In addition to that, anything and everything that is in any way shape or form, even in a name, is associated with past "socialist" regimes is automatically dismissed because of decades of demonizing and propaganda.

    5. There is no well-defined and/or well-known alternative. "What do you have in mind? Parecon? Never heard of it."

    6. There is no evidence or at least people don't know of any evidence suggesting that preferable alternatives are possible.

    Mookie said...

    "It'll never happen! We prefer our cutthroat way, because we've become so embedded in it we cannot even hold off on being jerks because some other jerk will come along and jerk with us. That's why we have to be in constant competition with each other. Really, because socialism can't happen, it is better that we continue on with this unstable and inequitable economic system."

    Which sounds a lot like "I don't understand, so I won't bother" or "I would rather be greedy." Sometimes I wonder if some people think everyone else is out to get them.

    Mookie said...

    6. There is no evidence or at least people don't know of any evidence suggesting that preferable alternatives are possible.

    "If I can't imagine it because I was raised in the capitalist system, it just must not be possible."

    Maybe a name change is in order. Use terms like "enlightened self-interest" for altruism, or "selfish concern for others". Gets people to buy your idea without setting off their programmed response mechanisms.

    bernarda said...

    Apologists for corporate capitalism frequently argue that the system has increased wealth and benefitted people around the world, who would be worse off without it.

    However, there is no evidence for that. Since there has been no real alternative allowed, no one can know if corporate capitalism provides the goods better than some other system would have.

    In a world where 80% of the population remains poor, often direly poor, how can one argue the success of the current system? Take a small exception, Cuba. Even with an illegal economic blockade by the fascist American government, Cuba provides the best health care and education for all of its citizens of any country in Latin America.

    The latter are based on the American plutocratic/oligarchic model which benefits a small minority and leaves the majority to fend for itself. Imagine how successful Cuba might be if it could develop economically in a normal situation.

    But American capitalists certainly don't want to allow any model that might show them up.

    Delta said...


    I agree with what you said, and I think you've summarized quite nicely all the problems that exist about bringing people around to alternatives. There are ways to combat all these problems, but it isn't going to be easy.


    Really, because socialism can't happen, it is better that we continue on with this unstable and inequitable economic system

    The fact that the current system is unsustainable is indeed one of the most important arguments for why it must be eliminated. Many people around the world from all different idealogical backgrounds think that the future is grim, and perhaps by tapping into that and helping them realize that the current system is at least largely responsible for many of the things they worry about (nuclear war, environmental destruction, police states, etc) we can change some minds.

    The words socialism, communism, and anarchism have certainly taken big hits from huge propaganda efforts as well as people who describe themselves as such without representing the ideas at all. So yes, it is tough to use those words. But personally I would prefer to keep the words and win them to the idea. It seeems like the analogous problem of calling oneself an atheist. Some call themselves "Brights" or whatever, but I've never been a fan of that terminology.


    Yes, another problem that exists today is even if you can win over people to the idea of an alternative to capitalism, you still have to struggle, both economically and militarily, from capitalist states who have no interest in their sources of cheap labor and raw materials disappearing, much less an example of a democratic economic system, with the associated truly democratic political system, coming into being.

    Mookie said...

    Stabilizing the economy, distributing resources and goods more effectively, switching to renewable energy sources, and providing a decent education to everyone are just some of the things we could only do if we were out for long-term group survival, instead of short-term individual wealth-grabbing.

    Drunken Tune said...

    Yet, we've all seen that anyone in charge of who produces what [a historical-ish look at Communism], can't possibly know what would be best for a society. In fact, countries such as the USSR have failed because the means of production was controlled by a few. What we need, as in Cuba, only more so, is a model of a society that works without a central planner dictating the job and lifestyle of the people.

    Anyone taking an Economics 101 class will see that capitalism is perfect on paper. In fact, I don't think it would be too out there to claim that capitalism has been very successful - at what it's meant to do. The problem is that economic and political power in the hands of anyone is too dangerous for a society to function and still have any semblance of equality, fairness, or justice. It doesn't matter if it's the government or an individual. Humanity just can't take it without a majority of people suffering.

    Anonymous said...

    I like capitalism. I think it is the best system simply because it affords the most freedom. We have to be careful though, because unregulated capitalism will bring out the worst in people. That has been proven.

    Anti-capitalism isn't 'freethought' so I think you need to rename your blog.