WARNING: For those with delicate political and economic sensibilities, this piece will make repeated references to a particular term. A dirty word in certain circles, to be sure. In fact, some may be unable to speak it lest they devolve into paroxysms of uncontrollable shouting and frothing at the mouth. He doesn’t mean what I think he means, you shudder. Oh, but I do, intrepid reader. You guessed it: that word. The “S word.”
Socialism. (Boo! Hiss!)
As we approach Election Day 2020, attacks from the right have been trying to frame any and all serious Democratic contenders as “socialists,” railing against the purported evils of suggested policy shifts such as Medicare for All, free tuition at public colleges and universities, the Green New Deal, and other tenets of a progressive or liberal agenda. Under this haphazard framework, legitimate elements resembling facets of socialist societies can and do get conflated with all sorts of things right-leaning individuals don’t like.
Political correctness? Socialism. The LGBTQ “agenda?” Socialism. Migrants crossing our southern border? Socialism. Democrats “coming for your guns?” Socialism. Electric cars? Socialism. Liberal indoctrination of our youth? Socialism. The sissification of manly men? You better believe your patootie it’s socialism!
Thrown around recklessly in this manner, socialism also gets confused with other economic and political systems people either don’t grasp or haven’t bothered to try to understand. In the minds of some, socialism, a theory of organization which favors social ownership of the means of production and of working to satisfy human needs, is synonymous with communism, which can be seen as the next step after socialism in a post-capitalist society, and which advocates for doing away with notions of class, money, occupational specificity, and private ownership.
As a Bernie Sanders supporter, I’ve heard the question numerous times, “Isn’t he a c-c-communist?” As if the person asking were a character out of Scooby Doo or something, staring down a ghost. No, he’s not. As other democratic socialists believe, he feels both the U.S. economy and society should be run democratically to meet the greatest public need and not just for the benefit of a privileged few. Especially when understood next to communism, some might even believe his proposed reforms don’t go far enough.
Let’s not get bogged down in discussion of specific political candidates, though. The larger point is that talk of socialism, in the hands of bad-faith actors and critics, becomes a weapon used to discredit anyone and anything resembling a leftist or espousing leftist ideologies. In this sense, socialism is understood as both logically and morally inferior to capitalism. Ah, yes, capitalism. The free market. A model of economic efficiency free from the tyranny of government control. A bastion of Western rectitude and a symbol of the industry of a proud country like the U.S. of A. Surely, the right’s embrace of unfettered capitalism puts it on the right side of history. After all, you don’t want America becoming Venezuela, do you?
Put aside any notions of Venezuela possessing unique features which have led to its economic disarray (e.g. an overreliance on oil as a source of revenue) as well as doubts about whether socialism as it is designed has actually been employed there by the likes of Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro (it hasn’t), though. If we are to invoke capitalism as a defense of why socialist functions can’t or shouldn’t exist in America, shouldn’t we be able to explain with a straight face why it is fundamentally better? To this effect, shouldn’t we all be able to speak to the wonders capitalism has done for all of our lives?
In a two-part video essay titled “What’s Wrong with Capitalism” for her channel ContraPoints, Natalie Wynn, ex-philosopher and YouTuber with a mind for social justice (and a great follow on YouTube and Twitter, by the by), addresses some of the potential shortcomings of a capitalist society like ours.
Beginning with a bit of context about acute feelings that something is wrong with our world as expressed by middle-class white males facing a changing population at home, an expanding global marketplace/exchange of ideas, and a commensurate loss of privilege, Wynn avers that while this sense of “getting screwed” is accurate, others are getting screwed worse. In this regard, and with respect to vague attempts to scapegoat other disenfranchised groups, the problem is not “the Jews,” nor is it feminism, the ghost of Karl Marx, people of color, trans people, vegans, or anyone else who might be labeled a “cuck,” a “snowflake,” etc. The problem is capitalism.
So, what’s wrong with capitalism? Wynn makes these salient points in service of her arguments:
Alienated labor: Or as Wynn simplifies it, “shitty jobs.” Because many workers have no stake in the profitability of the company they serve and are merely working to make money, ensure a path to other benefits, and/or not get passed over for a promotion or fired, there’s no sense of intrinsic reward from their efforts or a sense of camaraderie because they are being pitted against one another.
Depending on the situation, they might also be forced to engage in company retreats and other “team building” exercises or they might not even be identified as employees at all (i.e. independent contractors, who are liable for much of their own expenses and not privy to the same benefits). The pretense makes it that much worse.
Advertising: As Wynn defines it, the purpose of advertising is “to manufacture desires, which brands across the world spend nearly five hundred billion dollars a year doing.” In theory, if we are rational beings capable of making rational decisions in our best interest, as is an assumption of capitalism, we shouldn’t require such illogical pairings of, say, attractive women and luxury vehicles, or celebrities and expensive watches. That’s because the point of advertising in a capitalist system is not to satisfy existing needs, but to endlessly create new “needs,” leaving those original very real needs dangerously unfulfilled.
Inequality: Referencing BuzzFeed’s web series Worth It, in which Steven Lim and Andrew Ilnyckyj try more reasonably priced items against a vastly pricier counterpart to assess whether the high-end option is, as the name indicates, “worth it,” and putting a spotlight on Season 2, Episode 5, in which Steven and Andrew compare a $2.75 slice of pizza to a $2,000 24K-gold-covered pizza from Industry Kitchen comprised of various expensive items, Wynn highlights how by simply consuming the decadent choice, because they judge it to be inferior, this suddenly begins to weigh on their conscience. They feel, on some level, guilty for having been a part of consuming something of which the cost arguably could’ve been better used elsewhere.
As Wynn explains, morality has little to no bearing on this situation. Ilnyckyj and Lim are not bad people for eating a high-falutin’ pizza, nor are the makers of the pizza wrong for creating such a pricy entrée. It is, instead, the fault of capitalism that it fuels and makes so evident the divides in income and wealth inequality which promote feelings of guilt when the alternatives are juxtaposed together. Or, to phrase this in a concise philosophical argument:
Capitalism as we know it is a defective economic system, because, although it’s good at creating large amounts of wealth in an incredibly efficient way, it distributes that wealth in an incredibly inefficient way, where efficiency is understood not as the capacity to maximize total wealth but as the capacity to maximize human happiness.
This failure is therefore not necessarily a function of some dysfunction or inability on the part of those most disenfranchised by capitalism’s elaboration, but rather a systemic flaw.
Money buys happiness…but only to an extent
Within the American economic system, more income yields more happiness, presumably because individuals/their families have enough money to meet their basic needs and can live more comfortably. At somewhere between $65,000 to $95,000 a year, however, the reported happiness benefit plateaus.
According to this interpretation of socioeconomic data, then, the stark difference between the mean income (about $72,000, within the plateau zone) and the national median ($59,000, below the plateau zone) is vaguely startling, at least as far as the goal of maximizing happiness through the economy goes. Moreover, the top 1% of American earners make more than $389,000, well beyond the upper limits of the plateau zone. What good does that serve them or us?
To Wynn, what’s particularly galling for lower-income families is not just that they have trouble making ends meet or have to worry about money/what to sacrifice, it’s that they have to do so knowing full well there are other Americans who are obscenely rich. Their eventual anger, which she likens to the kind felt at the peak of the French Revolution, would therefore be justifiable.
This analysis comes from one person, who while being humorously self-deprecating about her acumen, is yet an ex-academic who describes herself as a “dumb-dumb” who “likes shiny things.” This is to say that while she did her research and presented her viewpoints in a very entertaining way, she is not an expert in this subject matter. Yet armed with a group of economists who specialize in researching and addressing widening equality, who knows what else we could throw alongside Wynn’s content. 40 minutes? Maybe 400 minutes is more appropriate given the potential complexity of this topic.
Capitalism, you’re getting off easy here.
For those of us sold on the perils of capitalism either as a result of Natalie Wynn et al.‘s discourse on the subject or based on our own feelings of dissatisfaction and alienation within a capitalist society, it is clear what the problems are, but not necessarily how we move past them. As Wynn indicates, the conditions for socialism to take root in the United States would require a failure of the current system. At the very least, that will take time.
In the interim, Wynn largely demurs on the actions she prescribes for her viewers to take to comic effect, suggesting among other things that we eat more vegetables, try not to be manipulated into waging war against other downtrodden people, tweet radically, vote Labour, and not cede more power to “the absolute worst dingbats our society has to offer.” Ultimately, she yields to the call to arms of Tabby, a cat-woman radical and one of her videos’ list of personas (fur-sonas?), who seeks to smash her way to revolution. Catgirls of the world unite! The idea has appeal, if for no other reason than the patent absurdity of it all.
I would submit that amid taking actions to benefit the planet and the world’s huddled masses yearning to breathe free, we should also keep conservations going about the long-term viability of our society as is and how well each of us are doing (or aren’t) within the confines of a capitalist framework. In my relatively short life span, I have witnessed a global financial crisis and the ensuing recession. Despite our apparent current economic fortune, there’s reason to fear we could be headed there again. An ongoing trade war with China. Widespread accusations of currency manipulation of allies and rivals alike. A slowdown in world trade across continents. And we still haven’t felt the full force of the GOP tax cuts or realized their implications. In other words, there are plenty of reasons to fear another recession, and Donald Trump’s White House is a key player in all of this.
Relatedly, and with a nod to Trump loyalists who have stuck by him amid the disarray, I urge his supporters and others sympathetic to his cause to think about, beyond his positions on immigration and other social issues, just how much they’re getting as a function of his presidency. You may have faith in him despite misgivings about his bully mentality, his fascist leanings, his misogyny, racism, transphobia, and xenophobia. Hell, you may actually like these things about him, and if you made it this far, thanks for reading. I’m not sure why you did, but thanks.
When it comes down to it, however, if you and your bottom line are what primarily concern you, keep thinking about what President Trump and the GOP are or aren’t doing for you. You probably are already watching the markets. But keep the tax cuts in mind and how you have benefited, if at all. Or how trade wars, which Trump boldly proclaimed are easy to win, may actually be hurting you when you’re picking up the tab. Or why, despite all the promises you’d be “winning,” things feel pretty much the same as before, if not worse. Barack Obama’s shift in the Oval Office is over, and when Republicans start coming for your social safety net to try to make up for their shitty policy goals, you won’t be able to blame him for it. Not terribly sincerely, in any event.
And by all means, amidst the doom and gloom depicted by conservatives and centrists alike about socialism, consider whether it is vitally important that we live in a world of unfettered capitalism. An end to capitalism wouldn’t mean an end to your ability to enjoy stuff as you might in our present materialistic society. It would, meanwhile, signify a shift away from a system that prizes profit over people and seeks to make money rather than satisfying human needs and happiness. Whether by regulating capitalism more heavily or by transitioning away from it, that seems like an end result worth striving for.