Why fixing capitalism is not enough

BY:Lorri Nandrea| January 16, 2019
Why fixing capitalism is not enough


For the third straight year, life expectancy declined in the United States in 2017. The declines are small, but the pattern is significant. It has happened only once before, in the years 1915-1918, the time of World War I and the Spanish flu. According to expert analysts, today’s declines are attributable neither to war nor disease but to “deaths of despair”: suicide, drug overdoses, and liver damage from alcoholism.

Capitalism has devastating moral, psychological, and environmental effects

From a capitalist perspective, these declines are confounding, because measures of economic success during the same period broke records. The stock market kept hitting all-time highs; rates of unemployment and poverty declined. The fact that “deaths of despair” rose alongside the Dow Jones Industrial Average troubles the glib assumption that a booming economy equals a healthy society, or that material prosperity brings a good life regardless of a society’s other shortcomings. It highlights the importance of a Marxist perspective in going beyond problems of income distribution to indict capitalism’s devastating moral, psychological, and environmental effects.

In recent years, the best known critiques of capitalism have focused almost exclusively on material deprivation Prominent liberals like Noam Chomsky and Robert Reich foreground statistics that demonstrate the dramatic escalation in income and wealth inequality. There is nothing wrong with this line of argument, except that it has been divorced from any discussion of non-material values. Thus, their proposed solution, a universal basic income, addresses material deprivation while doing nothing about hierarchies of prestige, freedom, opportunity, political power, social value, and so on.

Even the most progressive Democrats tend not to comment on the less tangible problems caused by capitalism per se: the ways it robs us of chances to fully develop our individual potential, to have satisfying relationships with each other and the natural world. Yet it is precisely the lack of such intangibles that “deaths of despair” make visible. Financial reforms, such as a universal basic income, might mitigate poverty but would leave untouched the deeper human problems caused by inequality and other forms of alienation endemic to capitalism.

Marx used the terms “alienation” and “estrangement” distinguishes a communist critique from even the most progressive liberal critique

Marx used the terms “alienation” and “estrangement” to describe the negative psychological effects of living in a class-stratified capitalist society. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/labour.htm Consideration of these negative effects distinguishes a communist critique of capitalism from even the most progressive liberal critique, and provides a basis for advocating revolutionary social changes.

Of course, this is not to say that communists shouldn’t fight to solve problems of material deprivation. We ally with liberals to win policies that would improve conditions for the working class: a living wage, affordable child care, access to education and health care. But for liberals, these solutions are the ultimate goals. To them, talk of communism or socialism seems to put the solutions at risk, by departing from a proven system that is pretty good on the whole and just needs to be made kinder, gentler, and more fair. Likewise, with racial and gender equality. Our capitalist democracy has made great strides forward in winning equality, liberals point out; ideals of equality are already part of our society and even our laws. We just have to beat back right wing forces who try to dissolve these protections.

Indeed, if solving the problems of discrimination and material deprivation are your ultimate goals, it makes perfect sense to join the progressive Democrats.

Discrimination and material deprivation are not the only problems. They are surface effects

But communists understand that discrimination and material deprivation are not the only problems. They are surface effects. For us, solving these problems is just a step (a very important one, to be sure) toward empowering the working class to reach the ultimate goal: a form of society that enables everyone to develop their human potential as individuals and live ethically together in healthy communities that value the contributions of each and all. In a communist society, communal relations will not be mediated by exchange relations, meaning that the interests of the individual will not be at odds with those of the group. These conditions of life will solve problems of material deprivation and discrimination. But they will also create the conditions for widespread life satisfaction (happiness, mental health), and for the conservation of natural resources essential to preventing our own extinction.

Work itself is the real object or end of human desire

What gives rise to life satisfaction? As Marx pointed out in his 1844 analysis of estranged labor, work itself is the real object or end of human desire: it is the process by which we can creatively fulfill ourselves. But under capitalism, “labor, life activity, productive life itself, appears to man merely as a means of satisfying a need—a need to maintain the physical life…. Life itself appears only as a means to life.” People spend their lives performing meaningless standardized tasks in order to earn a wage, which is itself a means to buy the necessities of life, to stay alive in order to go back to work the next day. This is not fulfilling.

Work should be the aim of desire, but in our society, this only holds true for a small number of people able to pursue chosen careers that engage their individuality in a socially beneficent context. Today, this number is shrinking even more as we witness the “proletarianization” of jobs that used to be less alienated, such as medicine and education. Now, the encroachment of bureaucracy puts the computer and the standardized test in between doctor and patient, teacher and student. Professional work is more and more mediated through the corporation and the state; professionals are less and less free in their work, less and less free to respond as one human being to another human being.

We should note, however, that the degree of satisfaction one gets from work does not necessarily depend on the nature of the task. Satisfaction may come from the sense of making a contribution to the community, for which one is respected, whether the activity is in the form of teaching, designing a building, or making part of a car. A sense of connection to a community that benefits from one’s labor brings the world of work in touch with the world of home, which under capitalism is the only designated preserve of love and individuality. A communist system restores a sense of connection to the material product, because what you make will become social, communal property and is thus “yours.” It restores a sense of connection to co-workers, in that we are working together for the common good, and a sense of connection to yourself, because what you do (for a job) is fundamentally connected to who you are (as a person).

Granted, today’s world is not totally devoid of such connections. Someone may enjoy their job in the retail sector, enjoy gaining knowledge of the products they sell, enjoy contact with customers and co-workers. But this enjoyment is always endangered by the awareness that on any day you may be fired, and by the need to compete with co-workers for recognition, promotions and higher wages. It is endangered by the customer’s tendency to recognize the salesperson only in a limited and subordinate role, not as a full human being, another individual who deserves respect. It is curtailed by hierarchies of status that give the manager power over the fate of the salesperson and the owner power over the fate of the manager. It is also curtailed by the fact that the individual has no choice but to work (is “a wage slave”), and probably cannot afford to buy the products s/he is making or selling, which are destined to be someone else’s private stuff.

All of these factors make the job into something I probably would not freely choose. I work for the wage, because I must, not for the benefit of the community and the expression and expansion of my abilities. Also, it may be difficult to feel good about the contribution I am making when so much of the economy is taken up by stupid useless things, things that exist solely to make a profit (for someone else), not because they have any other worth.

Under such strained conditions, many people spend their hours dreaming of the day off, the “free” time when we will be able to do whatever we choose. In their free time, some people manage to pursue satisfying work, such as art or thought. Indeed, the imperiled province of the arts, and other hobbies—camping, amateur athletics—offer glimpses of what unalienated labor is like. These activities provide a refuge from the brutal divisions of capitalism, and help preserve empathy and wholeness of spirit. But with today’s erratic scheduling and multiple part-time jobs, our “free” time is often fragmented, unpredictable, and closely hedged with other obligations: laundry, cooking, bill paying, shopping, housecleaning, car repairs, all the preparations that must be made to work again.

In this world, it is hardly surprising that so many people use mood-altering substances, or get addicted to—tellingly—painkillers (over-prescribed in the first place to profit Big Pharma). In 1844, Marx wrote:

… man (the worker) no longer feels himself to be freely active in any but his animal functions—eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling and in dressing-up, etc. … Certainly drinking, eating, procreating, etc., are also genuine human functions. But in the abstraction which separates them from the sphere of all other human activity and turns them into sole and ultimate ends, they are animal.

 His insight is distressingly pertinent to the U.S. today, where many people experience an unhealthy overemphasis on the pleasures of food, alcohol (or drugs), and sex, as preserves of freedom, and yet this overemphasis backfires and contributes further to dissatisfaction, because these activities have been distorted, abstracted from the sphere of all other human activity.

For many workers under capitalism, then, the activities (work and love) that ought to provide satisfaction do not provide it. Rather, work provides us with money. In our society, much more prosperous than the one Marx witnessed, work provides most of us with enough money to both survive and buy other things. That is, we use our wages to buy back our own lives by paying rent, buying food, heat, clothing, and so on, but also to buy things we think we want: commodities, i.e. things that promise to satisfy our desires but do not.

Capitalism generates a world of endless empty substitutes for what we really want

We seek the satisfaction that ought to be provided by work and human relationships in the things that we buy. This pattern is, of course, highly beneficial to capitalism, which must constantly revolutionize means of production and manufacture new desires in order to expand. In other words, it must make new things and make us want new things. Capitalism generates a world of endless empty substitutes for what we really desire.

It seems like a truism to say that if we were finding satisfaction in work, community, relationships and self-development, we wouldn’t want so many things. We wouldn’t be so prey to the belief that expensive new things would make us happy. Because of course, that is the great capitalist deception, endlessly foisted on us by the multi-million dollar advertising industry. Ads hold out the promise that things will satisfy. But because things cannot give us what we really want (only work and people can do that), we quickly feel dissatisfied with our new purchase, and try something else. This new car (dress, toy, appliance, necklace …) didn’t make me feel like a whole person. Maybe the next one will.

Today more than ever, capitalism depends on our having a perception of lack that we think can be satisfied by commodities. But we never are satisfied, not as long as capitalism blocks us from authentic community and good work. As long as we blame our despair on our choice of commodities, or, for example, modernity, religion, bad parenting, mental illness or violent video games, we delay the revolution.

And the clock is ticking quicker. Apart from the human damage caused by late capitalism, consider what it’s doing to the planet. The need for ever-expanding profits forces capitalism to generate an endless stream of unnecessary commodities. Social values on competition, status, hierarchy and self-presentation induce people to want unnecessary commodities, falsely believing they will bring happiness and satisfaction. Capitalism’s constant thirst for the new results in a culture of disposability, because it is more profitable, so waste dumps grow while forests shrink and oceans fill with plastic. Capitalism’s constant need for more resources and new markets fuels disastrous imperialisms, tragic wars, and the deep hatreds that drive terrorists to commit atrocities. Meanwhile, people are cut off from the authentic happiness that comes not from money or commodities, but from satisfying interactions with other people and the material world; from meaningful work, and contributing value to the community.

In a communist society, the use of 21st century technologies to plan economic activity will greatly reduce waste and redundancy. Production and distribution will be carried out according to rational, flexible plans that meet human needs while minimizing environmental damage. Social values on cooperation, community, equality, self-development and mutual respect will lead people to enjoy contributing to their communities, pursuing education and individual aptitudes, not just “employable skills.” People will share equally in work, produce, leisure, and governance. Without the need to create profit, we can re-engineer production so everything is made to last, using the most ecologically sustainable practices. (We know how to do this, but capitalism prevents it.)  A communist economy can create abundance for all. Unlike capitalism, it does not benefit from inequality or fears of scarcity. It is an international movement that will eventually dissolve nations and nationalisms, bringing lasting peace. Widespread happiness, equality, environmental ethics, peace, and justice will finally become possible.

Some might worry that such statements veer toward “utopian socialism” or “ethical socialism,” which was coined as a pejorative term. Yet it might be time to re-examine the notion that economics are opposed to ethics. A fundamental tenet of Marxism is the notion that people are not exclusively motivated by economic self-interest. Human actions are driven not only by “want” in the sense of lack, but by “want” in the sense of aspiration, wanting to live in a better world; wanting a better world for everyone.

Communists are uniquely well positioned to challenge the facile assumption that material prosperity, even when widely shared, simply equates to happiness and high quality of life.

We need to keep pointing out that capitalism is a problem in itself, not least because it stunts human potential and drains meaning from daily life. It thwarts us from forming satisfying relationships. It breeds profound and pervasive unhappiness that may seek relief in drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, and violence toward others. It feeds fears and resentments that express themselves in violent oppression, exclusion and wars.

Marxist theory values and aims at human wholeness and integration, the opportunity to fully express one’s human potential. People seek self-expression, satisfying interactions with other people and the material world. In other words, people want a good life. These desires are thwarted under capitalism. We strive for a society that supports them.

Image: Creative Commons 3.0




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