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.

Who’s Better, Who’s Best

And so it begins. The dark side of parenting comes out and I was taken aback at my reaction.  A friend of mine shared with me a beautiful audio recording of her daughter reciting the alphabet.  It was the cutest thing ever and I enjoyed.  Her daughter is 3 months older and then I started to think to myself, my son is hardly saying any words.  I mean kids change fast, but he only has 3 months before he should be saying his ABC’s as well.  What if he doesn’t?  Am I bad parent? Is my kid not going to be very smart?

And it’s happened other times as well. When he shows interest in a particular thing, my mind starts to race.  He likes playing drums, he’s not even 2, what if he’s going to be this amazing drummer?  How awesome would that be?  Hey there is this kid on YouTube the same age as my son playing the drums and he is much better than my son.  Crap my son isn’t special!

Dhyan_hatSo I confess my mind has gone to such places, but before you start to lecture me I just want you to know that my anxiety passed as quickly as it came, but it makes you think why one would have such a reaction? Of course it’s a common stereotype, that parent living out their dreams through their child.  Or perhaps just as common, are the parents using their kid as a pawn to compete with other parents to show each other up to determine who is the better parent, because they have the better kid?  So I had to seriously contemplate whether I was this type of parent.  Where were these feelings of anxiety and competitiveness coming from?  Why is it important to me that my son be extraordinary in some way?

So dismissing the idea that I might be a crazy person I thought about this sort of biological reaction I had when my son was born,  for him to grow and get stronger. While it is important to enjoy the moment, I think it’s natural for a parent to want to see this growth in their child.  Self-reliance is ultimately our goal, even if at the same time it sucks so bad when they don’t need us anymore.  There are a lot of people in this world and so it seems also reasonable that we would have this drive for our children to be extraordinary at some particular thing or to have a natural talent that drives them in a particular direction.   It can be the easy ticket to self-reliance.  Rich or poor when they have some inherent gift to fall back on, it’s a feeling of security as a parent.  You may have heard the stereotype before that all Indian parents want their kids to become doctors.  A well deserved stereotype actually.  My uncle was one of those parents who wanted their children to become doctors.  The reason he gave for this was that doctors are never unemployed, they are always needed and thus his children are always assured in an income.  Being originally from India where there was no social safety net, where poverty was and still is fairly high, I can understand such a philosophy.  They were however well off and my cousins very well educated, they would be successful in anything they chose.  But as I see the places my own mind goes I understand the obsessive Indian parent constantly pushing their children towards medical school.  I of course never would force my own child into anything in particular, because in the end I can’t ignore the fact that my child is an autonomous being who needs to be free to make decisions for his self.

In the end, the right answer just seems to be to just remember to love, to encourage, and to teach them to learn well, wherever their interests lie. Teach them the value of determination, teach them the value of caring about what you are doing and taking pride in your own work.  Whether my son is extraordinary or not, he will always be extraordinary to me and that’s a gift in of itself.  I think it’s the hardest thing to know as a parent.  How do you make your child self-reliant?  There are so many avenues to that destination it’s easy to get lost.  Perhaps the best I can do is to trust in myself and my own self-reliance to do well in the moment and stop trying to worry and predict the future.