“Which is better, capitalism or socialism?” This is one of the most discussed political questions of our time.
While most understand what is meant by capitalism — an economic system in which the means of production are privately owned and operated for a profit — many Americans and other Westerners seem to misunderstand what socialism actually is. They hold to the common misconception that “socialism” refers to a regulated market economy backed by a generous welfare state, similar to the Scandinavian model. That’s not socialism and it’s certainly not Marxism, it’s what political scientists and sociologists call welfare capitalism and what European politicians call social democracy. It is still a form of capitalism — kind, gentle capitalism, maybe — but still capitalism nonetheless.
Socialism, at least under the Marxian definition, is an economic system in which the means of production are communally owned and democratically managed, classes do not exist, and production is organized democratically for the good of the community, with the principle “from each according to her ability, to each according to her need” as the guide. This definition is identical to communism; Marx intended the words to be synonyms.
On this definition, the United States and even Scandinavia are not socialist, neither is China, Venezuela, or other nations commonly considered to be socialist. Even the Soviet Union, which is the country that came closest to socialism, would not qualify as socialist under the above definition. No nation-state has ever been socialist, and the system has only been put into practice for short periods of time in Revolutionary Spain (before the fascists crushed it) and in the Ukrainian Free Territory (before the Bolsheviks demolished it). It’s essentially a theoretical concept that has yet to be proven to work in the real world.
Which brings us to the second question: is society better off under capitalism or socialism?
First of all, let’s deal with capitalism. The problems of unfettered, laissez-faire capitalism should be obvious, as such a system would allow the human tendency to greed to run amok, creating a system of massive exploitation and misery for the working class, non-human animals, and the planet as a whole. One must only look at the Industrial Revolution era (1800-1920), the time period that came closest to the right-libertarian dream of the unfettered free market, to see the devastating effects of such a system: chattel slavery (not just in the American South, but also throughout the Caribbean and South America), child labor, massive pollution, torturous bosses, starvation-level wages, and perilous, and often deadly, working conditions, made life miserable for the workers of the world (the vast majority of the population in developed countries at the time), and all of this backed by an ideology of racism, sexism, and homophobia designed to keep the proletariat in its subservient place. It was these conditions that inspired Marx to write his Manifesto, it was these conditions that inspired the Haymarket strikes, the massive trade union movement, and the Russian Revolution. A return to such a system would be disastrous for humanity and for the Earth as a whole.
What about regulated capitalism, that favorite choice of liberal Americans and Europeans? While it’s certainly less exploitative than laissez-faire capitalism, it still by its very nature produces a great deal of inequality (creating the need for a welfare state), poverty (as well as wealth), and environmental degradation, as businesses compete for ever-higher levels of profit. In addition to this, modern capitalism corrodes community by reducing people to mere commodities to be bought and sold and relationships (aside from immediate family) to cash-nexus dyads built around the exchange of goods and services for profit. It also takes away the productive power of the poor, encouraging them to sit on welfare and collect checks rather than positively contributing to their communities. Like unfettered capitalism, modern regulated welfare capitalism is also a soulless, violent beast that is ultimately damaging to humanity and the Earth.
So, what about socialism? Doesn’t it give us a way out of the morass of capitalism? In a perfect world, socialism — especially anarcho-communism as described by Peter Kropotkin — would be the perfect political and social system. No state, direct democracy, a moneyless gift economy, communal production, total social and economic equality — sounds like paradise. Indeed, if human nature were perfect, it would be a paradise. The problem, of course, is that human nature is not perfect. As a species of primate, we evolved to be competitive, greedy, violent, and conniving, and all the evidence from the social and biological sciences suggests these traits are immutable and unchangeable. This nature touches both capitalist and communist societies, as can be seen in the Soviet Union and its client states. What was intended to be a revolutionary venture that established a socialist society became an oppressive crucible filled with terror, gulags, dictators, and racial violence. This empirical evidence shows that revolutionary socialism, although starting out with noble goals, will lead to oppression and tyranny. It was true in the 20th century, and as a sociologist I don’t see any reason to believe it will be different in the 21st.
If capitalism and socialism are flawed, what is the other option?
It’s important to realize all political systems are flawed, and no ideology will lead to utopia. Politics won’t bring paradise. The goal of the political actor should be to maximize good effects while minimizing bad effects, keeping in mind the potential pitfalls of any action.
With that in mind, I see two options as viable alternatives to capitalism and socialism:
The first is political nihilism or apoliticism. Recognizing that all systems are flawed and human nature is irreparably greedy, one may simply decide to withdraw from the political sphere and accept that all political authorities are illegitimate and that support for or resistance against them are both equally useless. The political nihilist adopts a conscious attitude of indifference and resignation toward politics while taking individual, apolitical action to better the world around her. For instance, this person may volunteer at a soup kitchen, rescue stray animals in her neighborhood, help build houses for the homeless, or simply be a good friend or family member. While the political nihilist realizes that these actions are unable to make a difference on a global, national, or even local scale and that trying to politicize them would be an exercise in futility, she still does them because she knows they have a positive impact — however small — in the lives of others. The political nihilist engages in Sisyphean kindness, knowing her effort is useless and pointless on a large scale yet finding solace in the small-scale, temporary effects of her actions.
The other option to this political dilemma is communitarianism. Like the name suggests, this political ideology emphasizes the importance and centrality of the community, not simply the individual, the state, or the collective (the class, the tribe, etc.) in human life. Like socialism, communitarianism emphasizes the importance of democracy, equality, contribution, and need satisfaction (“ability to need” still holds), like capitalism, it recognizes the importance of incentive, success, and ownership, and unlike either it extols the importance of moral virtue, cultural tradition, localism, and civil society, as well as a generally prudent approach to the political realm. Communitarians generally support a locally rooted, regulated market economy — featuring both traditional businesses and worker-controlled co-operatives — as the best way to control for the human inclination to greed and individual ownership. They also support the state or community (civil society organizations, charities, etc.) providing certain necessities and social goods, including healthcare, education, infrastructure, unemployment, and poor benefits, independently of the economic market. Communitarians also tend to support laws promoting moral character, interpersonal and societal trust, public virtue, diversity within unity, and community life, such as drug and pornography bans, citizens’ groups, trade guilds, rehabilitative criminal justice systems, and vouchers for private community schools. In these ways, communitarians tries to incorporate both capitalism and socialism while transcending them by constructing a system that promotes human flourishing while being cognizant of the negative effects of our psycho-biology.
Which view do I support? Well, I’m still a recovering anarchist socialist, and I’d like to think a stateless, communalist, truly socialist society is possible. Unfortunately, my sociological training and my experience in life has let me know that is, unfortunately, almost certainly not the case. I’m also not yet ready to abandon politics and embrace apoliticism, though maybe I’ll get to that point someday. Right now, I think communitarianism is probably the best possible political system and the one policymakers should strive to implement in our society.