o say that capitalism has dominated humanity since the dawn of the industrial revolution is an understatement. This system of capital and wealth accumulation reshaped the world in ways that were unimaginable. Even the most learned 18th century scholar could not have conceived of the transformations that occurred in the 19th century. It is likewise with the 20th century and the same dizzying process of change has only quickened. Yet while capitalism is instrumental in creating the modern world, it now poses existential challenges. We no longer have the luxury of muddling through another century of wealth concentration and unsustainable resource exploitation.
Individualism, like capitalism, is a modern invention, and in a mutually supportive way this combination has produced wonderful, problematic, and terrifying results. The wonderful part of this pairing is easy to spell out – prosperity, liberties, and agency for a partial but significant share of people. The problematic dimensions are rising inequality, the associated political and cultural strife that come with extreme wealth disparity, and the destabilizing effect of oligarchy and monopolization. The terrifying prospects comes from the relentless denial that humanity must live within the confines of planet earth’s resources and ecological limits.
Capitalism has always managed to obscure this unwanted underbelly while taking credit for all of modern success. It is true that the material benefits of the contemporary world are in large part due to capitalism’s ability to create vast wealth, introduce efficiency and thereby reduce resource scarcity. The forces of capital themselves, however, did not grant the individual human rights we so cherish, it is liberal democracy that grants those rights through governments and civil society. These rights were first granted only to economic and cultural elites. Their expansion had to be long fought for through unionization and social movements. To check the power of capital, social democratic states eventually came to play a role in redistributing wealth and helping to meet basic needs.
The entanglement of wealth accumulation with individualism has engendered the belief capitalism is the instrument that created human rights and autonomy. This ideological merger has made it nearly impossible to mount any sort of effective challenges. Capitalism leverages the controlling hierarchies of the past (nationalism, racism, patriarchy, religion) to obscure its unwanted effects on society. In other words, all that is bad about capitalism is blamed on other things, and that keep capitalism in its preeminent place of power.
Capitalism is so deeply embedded in the modern psyche, for example, that it can dismantle the nation-state system (where individual rights are granted) while being cheered by the very nationalists who bemoan internationalism. The animosity is to globalization, but it is erroneously blamed on migration and diversity. What is hidden is the fact that globalization as an intrusion into sovereignty and the rights accorded by nations is global capitalism at work.
Perhaps the most dire example of the power of capital to manage dissent is the Global Climate Change issue. Not even the decades long threat of a coming climate apocalypse has yet to provoke the necessary reforms. Fossil fuel corporate stakeholders manage to obscure the issue through the manipulation of the culture war in America. As a result there has yet to be an effective response. A planetary environmental catastrophe is made possible by the relentless process of wealth accumulation.
Can humanity continue to organize itself through the constant augmentation of markets, concentrating wealth, and the exploitation of both human and natural resources?
The effect of capitalist totalization on the interpersonal takes the form of a postmodern cult of individualism that has created an epidemic of narcissism. The logic of individual self interest above all else manifests as sociopathic indifference at all human scales, from the intimate to the denial of global climate disruptions. It is a calculus that denies, or suppresses, the social dimension of existence and humanity’s relationship with nature, creating a situation where not even the threat of the destruction of the biosphere can provoke reform.
From its very inception millions of years ago, the nature of humanity has been communal, social. Individual humans have always been helpless to survive alone. The survival strategy that led to humans populating the earth is sociability and close-knit community. So how is it that individualism is posited as defining pillar of human nature? How is it that a system predicated on self-interest is “the natural order?” The defenders of the capitalist status quo, even those who are harmed by it, will vociferously argue that “Humans are inherently selfish. The world is a reflection of that nature. Hence, the social is dangerous… socialism, social democracy, social justice, social anything is the aberration, the danger.”
It’s very easy to believe one is an independent individual these days, because modern society creates the appearance of an independent state of existence. It is only an appearance. Developed nations have created a web of support and safety that is so pervasive as to be largely invisible, hence the euphemism “first world problems.”
Individualism would not have made it much past its infancy without a great web of safety that emerged in modernity alongside the nation-state system. The world before was highly communal and hierarchical, and individuals survived through close-knit, extended family units. Modernity redefined interdependence, making the welfare of the individual a responsibility of the national community. Much of human welfare became stewarded by the state and other large institution within civil society as part of the social contract.
Those who glorify the marriage of individualism and capital accumulation while condemning the social (the public good), have forgotten the great utility of modern, developed civilization, and they don’t realize that their individuality is predicated on all of the countless benefits they receive from society. In such a society, one can be an “individual” and “independent” because there are many key civil institutions quietly protecting each person from a great variety of dangers. If modern society ever were to collapse, whoever was left would fall back to a communal existence as a necessity. A lone person (or family) would be eradicated by marauding gangs or rampant disease.
All that individuality (those so-called inalienable rights) would wither away in the pursuit of individual survival. Humans require the social at all scales of existence, from the family to the entire global community.
What of socialism, then?
We are likely to see more socialism in the world to come simply because the process of modernity is a process of integration and it is ongoing. Perpetual and unrelenting wealth accumulation is now an existential threat, an impediment to our very survival. Socialism comes up as an alternative. And so, it is worthwhile to re-examine socialism from varying perspectives. A broad critique is required to understand the role of any political economy, particularly ones so laden with controversy.
Considering alternatives to capitalism became highly taboo in America during the Cold War and only very recently has challenging this system been a part of accepted political narrative. Socialism has come back into the political fray but in a way that is confusing as there are now various definitions of the term. The traditional definition of socialism refers to a fully state run economy as seen in the Soviet Union. Socialism, however, is not synonymous with the great Cold War menace the defenders of the capitalist status quo warn about.
What happened in Russia, China and other countries who called themselves socialist is a product of history. There are scores of nations in the world that call themselves democratic and are in fact authoritarian. One has to look beyond a country’s name given mostly for political purposes rather than descriptive ones.
In mid-20th century, socialism wove itself within capitalist developed nation-states and began to check some of the excesses of capital accumulation. This effort stabilized capitalism and increased democracy, through a more equitable distribution of resource and led to extensive middle classes. This form of socialism can be thought of a further extension of the modern conception of the public good and it is often referred to either social democracy or democratic socialism depending on the level of state participation in the economy.
The proponents of capitalism ignore this 20th century history of the growing public good, and instead decry the dictatorial regimes that flew under the banner of socialism. This is largely a political discursive strategy rather than a descriptive analysis, but it is still fair to ask the question… What are we to make of Stalinist Russia and Maoist China?
We can begin to answer this question by understanding this time in history was defined by a vast landscape of militarism and confrontation. Two world wars and a decades-long cold war, as well as their specific historic and geographical circumstances, shaped the course of the nascent socialist nations of that era. The excesses and abuses of countries that rejected capitalism and named themselves socialist occurred in an age of war that fostered totalitarianism of all forms.
Socialism has always been an existential threat to the larger and more powerful capitalist world. There is an immediate response to destroy it anytime it arises. From the Paris Communes to the Sandinistas, great effort was placed in stomping socialism down whenever it appeared. These suppression tactics were far more threatening in the colonies and in developing countries. The existential need to fight against this threat gave power to authoritarians. Worker democratic committees gave way to autocratic strong men.
The understanding of history and political economy weighs all of the conditions and variables of nations, their level of development, their institutions, political traditions, cultural dispositions. If one takes that approach, then the picture that arises is that socialism became dictatorial in places where there was scant economic development, no tradition or institutions of democracy… in places with a history of colonial rule. The principles of socialism led to much better outcomes in established liberal democracies and more advanced economies.
The democratic socialist/capitalist mixed nations of Europe have created peace, freedom, and prosperity for their people. The US saw it’s greatest period of shared prosperity as a social democracy, between 1945 and 1980.
The Primacy of Growth
Capitalism is a powerful wealth engine that helped lead the world out of feudalism and widespread extreme poverty, disease, excessive communal oppression (lack of individual rights). Its wealth-generating potential still has a critical role to play. An eighth of humanity is still living in extreme conditions of poverty. A growing population means the need for more jobs, and more children need services. An elderly population means more people need to be taken care of in retirement.
Nevertheless capitalism has failed in critical ways. First and foremost, it has failed in dealing with the greatest of crises we are facing, climate change. One key political reason why climate change action has stalled is because leaders of developing countries are extremely fearful of not continuing to grow to meet the needs of their people. The other is that the vested interests of fossil fuel companies, central components of the global capitalist in partnership with fossil fuel dependent nations, want to keep growing, expanding.
The deeper failure is embedded in the logic of capital itself… the need to always grow, create new markets. Sustainability necessitates less exploitation of resources. It requires an appreciation of the limits of our biosphere. What the world really needs to be doing is to dramatically reduce the number of cars, for example, not simply substituting electric ones. We need more fundamental change than simply replacing one market with another.
As growth as a central strategy is running into unassailable limits, the latest push for a purer capitalist world, neoliberalism, is coming to a sharp resolution. We are indeed in a point of inflection, which the pandemic has only exacerbated. The world is finally accepting the fact humanity is heading for environmental catastrophe because of unchecked growth. People are rising up against the contradiction of obscene wealth concentration while still so many have so little, despite our technological and logistical ability to provide all the basic needs necessary.
The necessity to reimagine ourselves as a creative part of nature and as interdependent with each other is why challenging the cult of individualism itself, not just capitalism, is an integral part of this change. The outcries of those who protect the status quo are deafening. The rallying cries about freedom and the accusations of tyranny come from the same actors who protect the fossil fuel industry and resist sustainable solutions.
Change will mean huge losses for key industries, such as fossil fuels, cars, plastics, packaging, long-range supply chains, agriculture and so forth. It will mean a shifting of geopolitical power. The political project we will face is how to overcome this resistance and deal with the socio-political upheaval engendered by transformation. It begins by challenging the fear mongering about social systems, social democracy, and socialism, and by reimagining the individual as interdependent with society and with nature while maintaining the rights and benefits individual rights have accrued.
As far as the economy itself, the challenge is to shift from growth strategies to systems-based ones that are focused on the common welfare of people. Transportation systems, food systems, the legal system, education, health care… all will need to change and adapt. This may look like state or state-private partnerships. It may employ more local worker cooperatives, more extensive community efforts. It may require more global cooperation and even governance on key global issues like climate change.
Systems should be reexamined through these broad terms. The practice of owning personal automobiles, as one example, is not without health and environmental consequences. Cars are only driven on average 1 hour per day, and the other 23 hours they sits unused, slowly depreciating in value, while many people go without vehicles altogether. As a better alternative, self-driving electric vehicles that drive directly from person to person increase dramatically. As an added benefit the need for parking in downtown areas would be greatly reduced or eliminated, opening up valuable urban space for urban farming, green zones, or other development.
What we decide to name this overall change is not really what is important. Making the social good and natural stewardship the logic of society, rather than profit and wealth accumulation, does not need to lead to the failures that we saw in the 20th century. It does not need to lead to a loss of freedom. This is not the 20th century. It is a new century with much less war, many more democratic countries, and amazing new technologies.
Ironically, if humanity is successful in this shift towards the social good, capitalism (wealth accumulation) will not disappear but reshape itself to fit it in a way that benefits far more people. Corporations adapt. Small businesses will fare much better, meaning that there will be far more owners (or if you like – small-scale, empowered stakeholders). The free market will flourish along with democracy as the power of mega corporations to shape policy wanes. Individual rights and dignity will extend to the workplace and to far more people.
The greatest social project of all is to return our biosphere back to health so that humanity has a chance to improve in these other ways. It is to finally understand that freedom and selfishness are not synonymous and that to make this world better for all people we must pivot towards the moral principles of the common good and ecological sustainability.