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.

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.

Are we ourselves?

Psychology has become a fascination for me in recent years, particularly trying to understand how the mind works.  A class I sat in last year about love which focuses a lot on our relationship to others had me also asking the question “What about the

From Illinois.edu

love we have for ourselves?”  In talking to my colleague who teaches the class, she said to her knowledge, while many have done intensive studies both through surveys and neuroanalyses of the brain in relation to the love we feel towards others, she wasn’t aware of any studies that really studies our brain when we think about our own self.  For instance I wonder, what areas of the brain activate when we start talking about ourselves?  Is it the same area that activates when we talk about our mother?  A frightening thought indeed. Like many questions it began to lead me down a whole other path of thinking as well about how we develop identity and about individualism.  How do we become the people that we are?  How do we know ourselves?  Is our sense of self just an illusion?

From http://www.studentaffairs.pitt.edu

In the first month or so it is clear that newborns don’t have a sense of self, and numerous studies have shown that they still see themselves as extensions of their mother.  Essentially still in the womb, although the womb conditions have clearly gone through some big changes.  🙂  For the past few weeks I can clearly start to see changes in my son as he begins to engage in the world and starts realizing that he is an individual separate from others.  Although filled with a lot of terminology I am less familiar with my colleague sent me a link to a paper that talks about the development of self (as well as other things).  I found it interesting to learn that the sense of self is initial learned by imitating and watching the behavior of others.  As social animals only through learning about others do we begin to get a sense of self.  I found this to be a fascinating dichotomy.  Because on one hand we think of ourselves as unique, which is at the heart of our individualism, but this uniqueness appears to come from the observations of others.

Now I am not suggesting that we don’t have some genetic uniqueness as well.  Many parents report their children having a personality from very young ages that appears to be different from their own or their siblings.  I have no doubt that this is true.  But it could be that the children are picking up on personality traits that we don’t recognize (or admit) in ourselves or it could be that genetic differences influence how we perceive the actions of others and thus each child interprets behaviors and intentions slightly differently.

It seems to me that even if this would not be the case we would still all be quite unique because our lives are sum of a unique set of experiences.  No person meets the exact same people, goes to the exact same places, and experiences the exact same education.  We are all dynamic and constantly changing individuals such that even children of the same parents will experience their parents and different times in their lives when they have more or less experience, different skill sets, etc.

So it’s not that self is so much an illusion but rather that the concept of self perhaps has no value without the context of others, especially for a social species.  We are constantly comparing ourselves to others, judging others, labeling and categorizing others, and while I can see the harm that this can sometimes, it seems that it is something we have been doing all our lives.  Without doing that can we understand who we are as individuals without comparing and contrasting ourselves to

From http://www.chameleion-web.co.uk

others?  People tell you not to care what others think of you, but this seems like somewhat unrealistic advice.  No matter how much a person protests that they don’t care, there is no question we all do care.  What we really want to do is shrug off the people who think we suck and believe hook, line, and sinker in the people who think we are awesome.  It seems to me that this is really hard thing to do given how much of our life we spend defining ourselves through our relationships with other people and so we must often take the good with the bad and then reflect on the interpretation that others seem to gather of our behaviors and actions.

I would love to hear the thoughts others have about this, and would love to get academic about it as well is you have any expertise to share.  This I would like to be just one in a 3 part series as I am also fascinated, as an extension of individualism, by collectivism.  After that I’d like to look at the somewhat more ethereal topic of duality.

Society. Fixed. Done.

There is one solution that really solves all our problems.  It’s just two words.  In these two words there is no more hunger, no more war, no more cruelty, or rape.   There is equality amongst gender and races.  People can have guns and don’t have to have taxes imposed on them.  Everybody makes smart decisions about their health, about sex, about when to be a parent, about how to be a parent, and raise their children well.

You probably know people like this, and you know people who advocate it because it’s so obvious and easy.  It’s called Personal Responsibility.  I capitalized it because it’s so important and because it is the answer.  Alright, I’m done blogging.

…hang on…nope…I just remembered something.  We don’t live in a utopian fantasy.

  • You shouldn’t need to have a law that tells you to wear a seat belt or text while driving I know this is important so I drive safely
  • You shouldn’t need a law that forces you to get health insurance or makes you be a responsible employer and take care of your employees by giving them a living wage
  • You shouldn’t need to have laws that force you to hire women and minorities as it should be self evident that gender and race don’t matter and that ultimately it boils down to who is best for the job
  • You shouldn’t need to have gun control laws.  One can be trained how to use a gun and keep it in a safe place away from children
  • You shouldn’t need to impose regulations on corporations.
  • You shouldn’t have taxes imposed on you.  If something is important I’ll be happy to contribute some money to someone who will do what needs to be done.
  • You shouldn’t need to get welfare because you can work.
  • You shouldn’t need money as an incentive to work.
  • You shouldn’t get raped if you are personally responsible about what you wear and how you behave (umm…how about being personally responsible and not raping someone?)

These are just some of the common complaints you hear from people in regards to laws, governance, and “responsible” behavior.  Anyone can see how sensible these statements are, theoretically.  Yet one wonders why indeed do we have laws or talk about imposing such laws and regulations?  If everyone was as awesome as you, who feels so injured to have something imposed on you when you already know you should do it, what’s the point of government sticking its nose in your business? Why is society dictating my behavior when I already know better?  You know your business and conduct yourself responsibly.  Right?

For now I am going to pretend that nobody is willfully ignorant (which is also pretty utopian).  The problem of course is, that personal responsibility is kind of like the nature of God.  Everyone has a different definition of what it means.  If every citizen in the country had the same definition of personal responsibility things might be alright.  Although this in itself would be hard for a big country, in which everybody lives in different regions and by definition the regional disparity requires different needs.  It only takes a handful of farmers to feed a lot of people, yet those farmers are just as important as the whole lot of people they feed.  So the first step would be for all people to accept within a country at the very least that people in all parts of the country have value and we may have to contribute some of our income to them.  This might include roads, education, and protection.  Protection itself can come in the form of a police department, fire department, or military.  One could argue that if everyone was personally responsible the need for a police department kind of goes away.

A personally responsible society however also recognizes their place in the world and in nature, and so realizes that the decisions they make might adversely impact other countries and wants to make sure that it is nice to other countries.  They recognize the value of preserving wildlife and rare species and is responsible about what it hunts and where it builds.  They recognize the true cost, not only in monetary units of drilling, mining, extracting.   This type of responsibility also costs some money because sometimes we might have to do things a little more expensively to preserve ecosystems or protect the environment.  This personally responsible society doesn’t mind.

And accidents do happen.  There are infectious diseases, natural disasters, etc.  Society pays for things in which nobody is to blame.  It is the personally responsible thing to accept that and contribute to help mitigate damage and help rebuild and repair.

Most of the people in this personally responsible society don’t feel too much stress, because the very rich realize that they don’t really need all that money and are quite happy to use their massive wealth to help out the person who doesn’t make too much of his own.  As a successful head of corporation he is extremely happy to contribute more to society because he has a lot of excess.

What a great place to live, but of course it doesn’t exist.

So perhaps the first question we might ask,  “Is everybody capable of this broad set of requirements for personal responsibility?  Of course the answer is no.  Nurture plays a big role in this.  We have belief systems, disparity in education, disparity in resources.  Even if nurture could everywhere be equal, we still have genetic differences.  Some people have physical and mental disorders.  Trauma happens in people’s lives that impact their ability to function at a high capacity.  Even when it’s an accidental event, and not something like murder or rape.  The free market ends some businesses, causing people to lose jobs.  Theoretically new jobs are created, but those might be in some other location.  Another country even.  Also as time goes on we make new discoveries in science and technology.  The industrial revolution has brought about climate change, but it seems unlikely that we started building all these factories knowing the harm it would do in the future.  As we become aware of things, new areas of responsibility become apparent.  So there is going to be a natural evolution towards winners and losers, new problems to deal with as old ones become understood and more cost efficient, and the personally responsible thing to do would be work together to continue fighting that imbalance.  It requires vigilance.

The next question we need to ask is “What can be done to make people more personally responsible?”  There is no quick fix, and there is no one answer.  Education can make us better aware of problems that impact society.  Of course knowledge and wisdom are very different.  In Plato’s famous treatise on love he talked about agape and love of humanity; a brotherly love for all mankind.  We need more of this kind of love, but people fear (and perhaps with good reason) that it comes at the cost of a loss of individualism.  I’m not certain that is completely true, but it might be.  But this love must extend to more than just to our fellow human, but to life itself.  The planet.  Our home.  We must also be humble and lose our conceit.  It may have served us well in our evolutionary past, but now survival is not so difficult when we are working together.

Love for the humanity and the planet, however begins at the individual level.  It begins by showing compassion and love to those in our lives and those we meet.  Helping those who need help and also thinking about how best to help them.  Being personally responsible is a journey within our own lives and does not happen overnight.  It is journey that doesn’t end when you’re 30 or 40 or 50, but continues your entire life.  And it is everyone’s job to be personally responsible but always keeping in mind that some people simply don’t have the ability to contribute as much as you, often through no fault of their own, and when you help raise them up and show sincere concern for their well-being they are likely to reciprocate that generosity.  Finally we must value happiness over wealth.

And even after all that…it’s a struggle.  The great thing is though if we do a better job of keeping these virtues in our heart we will never struggle alone.