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.

It All Hangs in the Balance

One of the problems I revisit regularly in my mind is the one of individualism versus collectivism.  It has been brought back to my mind as I finally concluded reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. His final two books in the series look at the idea of having individual consciousness or a more global consciousness which is inspired by the Gaia hypothesis, in which humans participate in self-regulating consciousness cooperatively with each other and all other life to create a state of perfect balance.  Asimov too struggles with the loss of individuality in favor of the common good.  Asimov seemed to be in favor of the latter, although I believe he tried to argue that a global consciousness doesn’t mean there is no individuality only that at times we must put that aside for the greater good.

The United States is a highly individualistic nation and it’s no surprise why so many nations with throngs of people forced to conform into a faceless, impoverished mass would envy the American way of life and freedom.  It occurred to me that many of the debates I seem to have about politics and ways of life are often have, at the heart, the issue of the greater good (collectivism) vs. individual freedom.  I guess it seems that I also side with the collectivist philosophy, but I also recognize the value of individuality to make that collective dynamic and adaptive to a changing understanding of our universe.  Whether it’s capitalism versus socialism, gun rights, globalism vs nationalism, justice and law, these debates often rest on arguments on what benefits the greater good and how much freedom we should have as individuals.  There is a balance to be had, and most critically thinking people I know agree on this, even if we disagree where that balance should be.

Freedom in itself is a strange concept because it doesn’t seem possible in the absolute as a social species.  How free am I to make any of my decisions? I should be free to buy my own clothes, but what if those clothes are made in a sweatshop?  But what if, even that meager wage allows people to live instead of starve, or at least a few more are able to break from that impoverished life.  When I simply provide for my family I make a thousand decisions that can impact positively and negatively others in the world, and though it may seem like I am living a quiet life causing no harm this may not be necessarily true, even if that harm is indirect.  How much does my lack of struggle in life come at the expense of someone who must struggle more?  It’s easy to ignore that which is not in front of your face and that which does not feel like part of your community.

Our species is a social one, and there is no getting around it.  Regardless of whether we are shaped as a hunter-gatherer society or “civilization” everybody has a role and can play a part.  And even if age or some accident in life, or a random birth defect we even have the ability to carry that small fragment of population along with us, and even find a way to find a use for them, even if that use is only to increase our capacity to have compassion.  As a result whatever values we hold will shape who we are as a species.  Too strong of a value on individualism over the greater good could leave us with vast degrees of inequality, decreased value on cooperation, and dysfunction in the ecosystem.  Too much emphasis on the collective can lead to greater conformity, loss of diversity of thought and ideas, and thus stagnation from individual growth and growth as a society.  The question becomes how can we promote individuality while at the same time convince people to work together and be in harmony with their environment?

If we remove humans from the Earth we would find a very self-sustaining organism.  Barring some large collision with an asteroid, life would persist until the sun went nova.  However it would be a mistake to think that there was a global consciousness such as described by the Gaia hypothesis.  I think it’s always a bit of a myth that other organisms live in balance with nature, whereas humans do not.  If you studied population dynamics in school you perhaps learned about cycles of rabbit and wolf populations.  The wolf is not conscious of the fact that it must conserve how many rabbits it eats or that it should hold off on having babies this year because if all the wolves in an area increase in population there will suddenly be a rabbit population in starve.  It thrives according to the food it can gets, and if can no longer get food, it starves, and there are less wolves, allowing the rabbit population to rebound.  Rabbits that evolve better evasion skills pass on their genes, and wolves with better hunting skills pass on theirs. And the population of both rabbits and wolves oscillates about an equilibrium, an average value that both populations of rabbits and wolves do not know they are maintaining.  One of the values of our intelligence should be that we can discover these equilibriums and we are best adapted at maintaining it.  We always haven’t been conscious of our place in the ecosystem, but we are now, and understanding more all the time.  It’s not surprising we could be so destructive, but as we learn more we also have the ability to extremely great stewards.

Annotation of the PREDATORS-PREY Relationship

Of course Asimov’s Gaia world, just as proposed by Lovelock, is likely a pipe dream in reality, because in his idea there was a collective consciousness that made decisions only in proportion to maintaining balance.  Such a reality for humans would mean that we would have all make sensible decisions about how many children to have, what to eat, and how to live peaceably in our environment.  But what’s interesting to me is that we also see examples of this in our human histories.  Many groups that ended up on islands learned how to conserve rather well.  Spacing out how often and how many children we had, techniques at preserving and storing food, techniques for domesticating plants and animals were all attempts to have ample food supplies for harsh seasons and changes in the environment.  But like any form of life, when abundance is presence, there is no thought to be conservative in terms of population.  We became masters of farming and population exploded as we began to be able to seemingly provide ourselves with food at will.  As it turns out we were only fooling ourselves, because our powers were still not limitless, although it made sense how it might seem so in the short term.

What I do see when I look at humanity is a potential for a march towards that ideal of global consciousness.  We may never truly have a global consciousness with each other and all life on the planet, but what we do have is empathy.  We have the ability to be conscious of the damage we do to our environment and other life, and what the long term impacts of that damage will be.   We have the ability to recognize that we might all be different pieces in a puzzle, but that we have equal value to the whole.  Just like each piece has uniqueness and is still integral to the puzzle, we can maintain our individuality while also recognizing what we are all a part of.  In this sense there would be no difference to an actual global consciousness and all acting in a way as if there was one.  We have a long way to go, but I believe it all begins with humility and compassion, and acceptance of the idea that all humans are part of the same tribe, the same community, the same species, and that we all have value.

A Little Respect

From http://masalamommas.com

In a conversation with a good friend who was born and raised in India, we had one of those east vs. west discussions.  I think it’s natural to always defend the values of where you were raised to a certain degree, for me I was raised in the west, but had an Indian father and thus spent time with many Indian friends and relatives as well as having been to India a couple times so I’d like to believe that I can look at both sides objectively and see the best and worst of both worlds.

This particular discussion was about family values.  My friend argued about the lack of family values here in the west, specifically the lack of respect for one’s

parents.  I think even a lot of parents here might support her claim.  In India there is a lot more respect for parents and the elderly in general.  Before evaluating whether or not such statements are even true, let’s perhaps breakdown some factors that might be important in the different attitudes of children in the west vs. east.  (Note here in the east I will be focusing about India, but India does share similar values with other countries in Asia towards family and parenting, and for the west mostly U.S.A and Canada).

In the west we might attribute a lack of respect to the following:

  • Both parents working meaning less time to spend, discipline, and guide children
  • In the west there is a general rejection towards authority, government, and hierarchy
  • High divorce rate
  • Highly valuing individualism over collectivism
  • A tendency to be more mobile and not living very close to family
  • A long history of a strong economy allowing for greater financial independence at advanced ages

In the east we might attribute greater respect to the following

  • Relatively low divorce rate because of the emphasis towards arranged marriage, binding families and resources over an emphasis on romantic love
  • Like many nations that have had historically high poverty rates (although India is an economic powerhouse now) have created a system in which there was simply no plan for the elderly to be taken care of should they become unable to take care of themselves. Thus grown children are expected to take care of their parents financially when they can no longer work.
  • High population density and again the historically weaker economy means people are less likely to leave the area near where their parents live
  • Less job opportunities for women historically and thus allowing many women to remain at home giving more time for discipline and guidance. This also reduces the amount of retirement money that would come into a home when the parents are older

I am sure there are probably others, but honestly I feel like a weaker economy historically and a lack of social security and retirement plans for older people has created a system over time that required closer family unity.

But regardless of the reason let’s take a look at whether or not it is actually true whether or not there is an actual difference of respect.  First of all I have never actually seen a study that proves this is true.  Certainly there are many studies that talk about the differences in behavior culturally between young and old, or parents and their children.  However none of those studies really measure respect.  The dictionary defines respect as the following:

“A feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements”

It seems to me the first error in this discussion is that maybe we aren’t talking about respect, but duty, or obligation.  I guess it could be respect if say “abilities” involves the ability to parent a child, but that’s a bit of a stretch, given that even a weak ability in raising a child can get one to adulthood.  So respect seems to be something different and it is not clear whether there is a difference between east and west. A soldier in the military can follow the orders of a superior out of duty, but still not respect that superior.

I have known numerous Indian children who were given little freedom in choosing what they wanted to be, who they can marry, how they want to marry, etc.  Well I’m not saying they obeyed purely out of duty, because clearly there is love there as well,  but I do know some children who resented their parents for taking advantage of that sense of duty and love to set them on a course in life that they did not want.  It’s somewhat questionable to me how much respect there was.   They often did what they were told even though they were unhappy about it.  Parents in the east would do well to recognize that their kids are not simply extensions of themselves but individuals.

On the other hand, parenting is not really easy.  It’s easy to doubt yourself and your actions.  A lot of times you might just default to what your parents did to

From http://blogspot.com

you instead of really adopting a practice you are not comfortable with.  Raising kids takes time, energy, and resources.  Kids growing up in western culture would do well to remember that and appreciate more often the sacrifices and difficulties associated with raising them.  However, does not listening to your parents indicate a lack of respect for them? If we value individuality as a nation, isn’t likely that your child is simply expressing that individuality.  This can be hard when you see them making mistakes, especially the same ones we made.  But isn’t that how we also learned some important lessons.  Again, just because a kid chooses to ignore your advice and do their own thing, doesn’t mean there is a lack of respect, it just means they feel more compelled to exercise their own judgment right or wrong and see where it leads them.

Whether it’s duty or respect, I asked myself after the conversation with my friend, why did I have a child?  Was it so I could raise somebody who would listen

From http://www.childandfamilymentalhealth.com

to everything I had to say about what to do in the world?  Was it so I could instantly have someone who respected me regardless of my flaws, weaknesses, and the way that I treated him/her?  The answer of course is no, but what is absolutely wonderful about the parent – child relationship is that it begins with love.  There is an implicit trust and affection built in, and so we only have to think how best to foster and grow that love from the simple biological relationship to the complex relationship that binds any two people together.  As I watch my son grow I can already see his sense of self forming, and I know it will only get stronger with time.  It seems that we always have to remember that respect runs both ways with our children and I hope I have the wisdom to know when to let him express his individuality even if it runs against my better judgment and my need to remain his protector.  Being able to let go is also a quality worthy of respect and it seems to make some sense that as children grow the qualities that they admire in you and others change.  I hope that I will be able to grow along with him and adapt to his changing needs and desires while remaining an ever present part of his life.

While there are differences between east vs. west parent – child relationship I don’t think any one of those is a better way of doing things.  Respect is always earned and I think it is best earned when a parent demonstrate an ability to understand what their children are going through and by constantly being there for their child.  I think this is what builds a lasting respect between parent and child.

 

Join Together With the Band

Whether self is an illusion or not the end result is the same.  We try to set ourselves apart.  Even with respect to those we are closest with.  It can be a simple thing such as the way we style or hair or the clothes we like to wear.  But more often we set ourselves apart from people through bigger traits, such as intelligence, style, athleticism, friendliness, openness, leadership, etc.  To do this often we must make judgments.  Sometimes those judgments are through evidence, but many times they are not.  Our sense of self not only wants us to be unique but often more special as well.

This is all clearly one side of the coin, because on the other side is the part of us that wants to be part of a collective.  Here we find a

From http://www.oakland.edu

strong desire for community, a need to fit in, a want to be surrounded by those that are like us.  It seems that most people exist on a spectrum between pure individualism and pure collectivism.  Some people need community more than others.  Some people value their individualism more than others.  Many people I know who are religious, while they may talk firmly about their religious convictions, when they talk about what they enjoy most about their faith, it is being with groups of people who share the same beliefs.  The sense of community is often strong with them; whether it is fond memories of big family gatherings surrounding religious holidays, or socializing with members from their church.  I know at a lot of Sikh temples, the women get dressed to the nines to go to church because it is much more of a social gathering than a simple practice of faith.

What really interests me about a group or a collective are the mechanisms in which they work.  Besides the psychological comfort of being surrounded by like-minded people, there is also safety and protection with in a group.  A group, singular in purpose, will often be more successful and have higher productivity than an individual.  Sometimes that purpose can be positive such as a group of volunteers cleaning up a neighborhood or park.  Other times large groups can become a mob and be damaging and irrational.

From webteachertools.com

What I think is fascinating is that despite how singular the purpose the group may have, it seems that the most successful groups are the ones in which there is diversity and a good deal of individualism.  A sports team may have an overall purpose of winning a game, but a football team will never win if everybody is only good at throwing the ball.  Each player must have their specialty and those individual efforts must be coordinated in achieving a purpose.    Most things that require a group of people require diversity as well; whether that is diversity in skills, talents and ideas.  Diversity generally benefits the entire group.  All people have a chance to grow as they learn from others and appreciate others for the special skills that they bring to the collective.

I am a big fan of the rock band Queen.  I remember watching an interview once with Freddie Mercury or Brian May.  I can’t quite remember who said the words, but the words themselves have always stuck with me.  It was something along the lines of “We are

From http://s.cdon.com

all very different people and studio sessions are exhausting as all 4 of us fight to get a little of what we want on each album or track.  But because of all that fighting we are able to produce something better than what any of us could produce individually”.    Dealing with diversity is exhausting.  It would be much easier if everybody thought exactly the same way and things didn’t have to turn into arguments, and that you didn’t have to compromise.  When the value of diversity is not appreciated that is when groups fall apart.  This is true whether it’s a leader who doesn’t listen to others, or a team member who forgets that it is teamwork that wins in the end and not solely an individual effort.

Our desire for individualism and being part of a group or community is a fundamental part of humanity.  People say that the U.S. is a very individualistic society and that we are built on a strong sense of individualism. Yet the first words of the Constitution are “We the people…”.   I do think our desire for both does often lead to struggle though.  If self is a product of knowing others than the group even becomes more important as we try to define ourselves as individuals.   As the world gets connected more globally, it is easy to feel more lost and unsure of who we are as individuals and how we can contribute to this large community.    Maybe that’s why I’ve always valued learning and education.  The more I know about the world, the more I learn about myself.