A Ramble About Capitalism and Socialism and Whether it all Really Matters

Discussions about politics always lead to many arguments over capitalism and socialism.  I don’t really have principles with capitalism in theory.  I think a lot of good can come out of it.  Through that spirit of competition, things that companies compete at can lead to many improvements in technology, and the development of things that people want to help them solve problems and make their lives better.  It’s been difficult to really verbalize what I don’t like about capitalism other than a gut feeling that it misses the mark, so I wanted to explore the topic a bit, and also talk about socialism as well.  Both words sort of don’t do us justice as humans.

*Spoiler alert*

If you haven’t seen the movie Gattaca, which everyone should, then you might not want to read this, although the part of the story I am going to tell isn’t really central to the plot.  The main character Vincent had a younger brother, Anton, who was genetically superior in this sci-movie, Vincent had a heart defect.  They would compete with each other as children by swimming out to the ocean to see who could swim the farthest without getting worried and needing to swim back.  Anton would always win, until one day Vincent won and left home never looking back.  In the future, their paths cross again by circumstance.  Anton is a cop.  Vincent is someone who could be turned in by his brother in this future where genetics is everything.  So Anton and Vincent have a moment of truth, and Anton challenges Vincent once again to their swimming competition, never understanding how it was that he lost to his brother who had a defective heart.  Their initial competition was important for Vincent to realize his dreams and have the courage to follow them.  So as they compete once again and swim out to sea, a determined Vincent is going strong, and his brother Anton falters, is exhausted and starts to drown.  Vincent stops and rescues him, and swims him back to shore.

This is humanity, or what humanity should be.  We may compete as a means of helping ourselves improve, but in the end we are brothers and sisters and when another is suffering, we forget about the competition and we help each other.  This is not capitalism, at least it is generally practiced today.  In capitalism today, you compete to get ahead and whatever the damage in your wake, whatever suffering that might be happening outside the realm of your drive for growth is not your problem.  Can capitalism be separated from selfishness?  In theory the answer is yes, but this doesn’t often seem to be the case.  Does capitalism promote greed, promote the corruption of our better nature? Ultimately it seems to me to promote capitalism as a system to live by that is truly beneficial to all, that promotes liberty, and happiness is a mistake.  Capitalism at best much a sub-system under a larger framework that is focused on the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants. Capitalism is a system designed by humans, it was never meant to be a system to design humans.   On the surface it seems to maximize freedom, but I would say that it’s very enslaving.  We are slaves to consumerism, slaves to the constant making of money, slaves to the clock, with no real thought to our happiness which supposedly we are so free to make happen.

amp-quot-capitalism-rewards-hard-work-amp-quot-yeah-right_o_2033411So is socialism better? First let me explain how I define socialism, the word has come to mean so many things:

“A political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.”

I will start out by saying that any ideology can be corrupted by greed and if there is a governing body the chance is there.  Socialism is something that seems to be an antithesis to freedom, and in some ways this is correct.  But maybe the better question is, how free are we really meant to be?  We evolved in tribes of about several hundred.  We were mobile out of necessity, and not sedentary.  Resources were uncertain as the environment changed, and as we most likely made occasional mistakes with damaging an ecosystem which we depended on.  But it was like a small town.  Everybody knew each other and took care of each other.  Taking care of children was communal, the idea of ownership was non-existent.  You passed down skills, and I am sure there was competition to help improve skills, but in the end success for the tribe was about cooperation.  Some people had lesser skills, some people were likely injured from time to time, some might have been too old or too young to be very effective, but that was life.  Everybody did what they were able, and for those that weren’t able, you took care of them.  You didn’t work for yourself.  As the best hunter you didn’t say, I’m taking all the meat today, good luck suckers!  At our core, our brains are wired for this idea of the collective, and the empowerment of the collective is an important tenet of socialism.  We are after all a social species.

So why do we see so many flaws in socialism?  The difference between that tribe of several hundred, and cities, or states, or countries, or the entire globe is that we don’t all know each other.  While we may be built for empathy, the fact remains that empathy is much easier to have when you’ve known someone personally (the longer the better), and in a tribe everybody knows everybody and you depend on each other.

In many ways, I feel that capitalism vs socialism boils down to a similar debate between individualism and collectivism.  Two things I’ve blogged about before.  When I frame capitalism as a sub-system in a larger framework I guess I now see individualism sort of similarly.  I am sure individuality played an important role in the tribe.  Someone having creative ideas was surely encouraged, having a diversity of expertise (even if everybody had to have similar skills), would have also been beneficial.  But if someone came up with a better way to catch more fish, it certainly wasn’t profited from.  They wouldn’t have just kept storing fish for themselves and sold them to their hungry tribe members, they would have taught this method to others and shared their haul while others learned.

In the end I just don’t see capitalism as the ideology that saves us all.  It is always going to produce winners and losers, and winners can keep rigging the game to make sure they keep winning.  And even if they intentionally don’t rig the game the privileges they and their offspring gain, compared to those with less makes sure that the deck gets continually stacked in their favor.

But if socialism is a better mirror of our tribal life that our brains are wired for, how do we get around the disconnect between the people we know and those we don’t?  Of course we could look at science and say, hey genetically we are pretty much the same and despite the fact that we are brought up in different environments, fundamentally the same things keep us happy and prosperous.  We could remain curious and continue to learn about other cultures and other problems people face, and see how similar their struggles are to our own, or what we might have gone through in the past.  We could believe in that Greek concept of “agape” a love of mankind, or a higher love that transcends our day to day to lives.  Can these things ever replace truly knowing each other, and develop empathy in the same way?  But they seem like good things to embrace even if in a lot of ways, we have to take them on faith.  We take so many religious myths on faith, so why not something that increases empathy for our fellow human?

I mean the truth is that capitalism can work, but it doesn’t mean you can get away from sharing, helping each other, and working for the rest of your tribe which is quite large in the present day given how much our population has grown and how global the economy has become.  Civilization is such a large departure from how we are wired, but for as many wonders it has created, it has spawned deeply disparate class structures and large populations in which a wealth of resources floats beneath the noses of those who have the most power to help people, and temptation to take over give becomes too great for our fragile minds who evolved in a far more uncertain world than we live in now.  Our fears and uncertainties can also be exploited by others, trapping us into a never ending cycle of divisiveness eroding the empathy which made us the successful species we are.  We are better when we cooperate.  At the end of the day I don’t really care to argue about capitalism vs. socialism, but whatever system we decide as best has to do away with greed.  I hope that one day we can find a path back to that communal culture from whence we came.

What Makes A Good Human?: Love

My second quality for what makes a good human comes as no surprise to anyone.  Who doesn’t like love?  Who doesn’t want love?  Is this a quality I really have to try at? Is this something that I have to be vigilant about?  The word love tends to conjure up images romance and being in love.  But anybody who has thought about love for any length of time knows that romantic love is really just one aspect of love.  In fact I would argue that your ability to romantically love someone has little to do (at least in a direct sense) with your ability to be a good human.  We all have the capacity for love and this wonderful human trait gives rise to many of other ideals and qualities that make the world a better place.

If you’ve tried to define love before, most likely you’ve had difficulty.  Music, poetry, art have all had their attempts, and one could argue that through the medium of the arts one might be more successful. Love, like art, is often open to some degree of interpretation and means different things to different people.  While neuroscience has made a lot of headway in look at love and attachment as a biological drive, I want to go back to older Socratic definition of love that separates love into four categories.

  1. Eros – Romantic love
  2. Storge – Familial love
  3. Philia – “Brotherly love”, or the love between friends
  4. Agape – Love of humanity

So in terms of having the quality of love, I assert that every one of these is important to both ourselves and others on a variety of scales.  Think how much happiness all these types of love can bring, both in loving others and feeling that love towards you.  Now from a biological level storge, and philia are shown to both to be important drives in our brain, with eros still up for debate, but at the very least eros is a secondary drive that helps give us the attachment and friendship to a possible mate.  And it is our capacity to love that I believe gives us agape as an emergent property that can extend to all humanity.  It should also be noted that most of us learn first about love from the familial love.  How our parents love each other and love us.  This, perhaps, makes storge the most important in giving us a healthy sense of what loving each other is really about.  And since loving is learned, it should also be noted that there are those who adopt and raise children that are not their own that do wonderful jobs, so the biological connection of family need not be there for familial love to be shown to children.  In fact one of the strongest cross-cultural morals we have is protecting children from harm, so it’s not surprising that love and bonding can occur between adults and children who are not their own.

Love, at least to me, is the best cure we have for suffering, whether it is suffering from sickness, poverty, fear, depression or any other situation that causes harm and pain.  When you love you have a desire to stop another’s suffering.  Thus love leads us to both compassion and empathy.  Ultimately I find that our capacity to love motivates us to do so in the best way we know how.  I would also argue that love without feelings of compassion and empathy is pointless.  It’s insincere and unhealthy and can sometimes be destructive, because then you are just loving for your own sake and not because you truly care about the other person.  Perhaps that really isn’t love at all.

Now love as a verb can be tricky.  Above I said “the best way we know how” and this can often lead to honest attempts at love that are ineffective.  Sometimes loving someone is staying close, sometimes loving someone means to let them go, sometimes loving someone is being tough and unyielding.  At this point I’d rather not get into a discussion about how best to love, because when we talk about all the other qualities that will be discussed in this series, I believe the answers about how best to love someone reveal themselves. So knowing how best to love someone is another part of what makes love so difficult to define. However, I believe that love is love, it’s just that the ways in which we can experience love, show love and give love are far too numerous to list.

Biologically we are a social species that operates on reciprocal altruism.  Love is therefore the primary way in which we build attachments to each other for our long term survival, both for reproduction and bonding.  Thus the idea that there is no unselfish act is somewhat true as a whole.  However, we are not always so shallow that we expect kindness to be repaid right away, In general if we love, and show kindness and caring to others they will hopefully love us and thus want to do the same for us when we are in need.  In a broader sense, our ability to love tells us that we survive better when we cooperate, and your motivation for cooperation is increased by the love you feel for those in your group.

The downside of reciprocal altruism is that it makes love mostly beneficial for those in your immediate circle.  Loving humanity as a whole becomes a somewhat abstract extension of our ability to love those closest to us.  Showing love to humanity may involve acts of charity, but how do we know that we are helping?  We are used to having love returned when we show it, so how does humanity give back to us?  Trying to better humanity as a whole is also an extremely slow process. The impact you may have may not be felt until beyond your lifetime. The problems of humanity are large and it takes great momentum to affect change that no individual person can do on their own.  Even great people like Gandhi And Martin Luther King, Jr. needed the support of the people.  In this way acts of kindness and charity for the greater good may be the most unselfish acts other than it give you a sense of well-being and happiness.  But just because loving humanity as a whole is more abstract, and can feel like we are just adding a drop to the ocean, it does not excuse us from the fact that it is more moral for us to love humanity.  To move from the abstract to the tangible one has to remember that empathy and compassion also have an intellectual side that must be fed.  I will address this more in another part of the series, but for now remember the following:

  • All humans are of the same species.
  • The biggest factor in why you are what you are has much more to do with where you were born and the circumstances you were born in than any inherent ability you have (or think you have).
  • Any race or gender put into the same set of circumstances will produce similar outcomes.

Therefore when we feel empathy for those suffering that we can see, feel, hear, etc it takes little imagination to determine that even those beyond our senses suffer in the same way and that doing something to alleviate the suffering of others is the moral thing to do.  One of the chief ways to morally justify inflicting pain and suffering on others is to dehumanize them.  Getting people to believe that another group of people are not of the same species lessens our empathy, therefore, logically, dehumanizing is immoral.

If love has a darker side it is only perhaps to let it envelop you to the point of not paying attention to anything else.  The oft portrayed young couple in TV shows or movies who give no thought to other things claiming they can “live off love” are ridiculed for a reason.  We’d like to believe that John Lennon was right and that “love is all you need”, but anybody past about 30 years of age knows that’s a crock.  The world can be a shitty place, and love can be hard to muster at times, and so life has to be full of other things as well that are fulfilling and happy.  Love can also be unhealthy when we direct it towards inanimate objects.  We’ve all met people who love money too much, their car, sports teams, drugs, other material goods, etc.  While love shouldn’t be predicated on whether it can be returned, it should at least have the potential to be returned.  Pouring love into things that cannot feel your love, or return your love might be okay for a light hobby, but should never take a backseat to the suffering of the living. Perhaps the common theme to the darker side of love is obsession.  Obsessions usually don’t serve one well in the long run.

It could easily be argued that love is the most important of any virtue, and given how much of our lives are spent looking for it, maintaining it, and grieving over it, it’s probably true.  Nevertheless I hope to convince you with this series that there is more to life than love and there are many things we can do to be better at love.  I encourage you all to celebrate love and show love as often as you can, and keep striving to diversify the ways in which you add love to the world.