Is capitalism the best system on offer?

“In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” – Karl Marx

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This is the text of a talk given by David McMullen at the Monthly Argument on Wednesday October 19, at The Royal Oak Hotel, Fitzroy. David is the author of Bright Future.

Is capitalism the best system on offer?

As you are well aware we presently live under the capitalist system where the means of production are owned primarily by a small ruling class. Now is this system the best on offer? My answer to the question is no. However, the journey to the better alternative is going to be a tortuous process. This alternative is the very opposite of capitalism. It is a classless society where the means of production are socially owned, and it has usually been called communism.

Now how does this alternative claim to be better? It claims to be better than capitalism on the grounds that it would allow the individual to fully develop and thrive under conditions of mutual regard rather than the dog eat dog world of capitalism.

However, for such a society two things are required. These are (1) a very high level of economic development and (2) the successful completion of a rocky period of revolutionary transition during which we fundamentally transform ourselves and our relations with each other.

The first of these – a very high level of economic development – allows us to eliminate poverty and toil, and this is absolutely critical if we are going to dispense with the profit motive. This is because it opens up the possibility of people working because they like what they are doing and they want to contribute, while at the same time being happy with an equal share of an increasing prosperity. While it is possible to imagine people sharing prosperity and enjoyable work, it is not possible to imagine people sharing poverty and toil. The Middle Ages shows us that it only requires a small band of thugs who would prefer to have a lot more than everybody else and you have a very nasty class society. Also the experience of the Soviet Union, and the various regimes derived from it, shows what happens when you try and go beyond capitalism under backward economic conditions.

In the rich countries we have reached an economic level where it is possible to imagine everyone enjoying something approaching toil free prosperity. However, what about the rest of the world where most people live? What are the prospects there? The middle income countries such as China and India should start approaching fair levels of development in a generation or so if they maintain a reasonable growth rate. On the other hand the poorest countries where most people live will need to begin, and sustain, a growth takeoff similar to India and China in order to get to out of their present poverty later this century.

Many raise doubts about the possibility of achieving global economic prosperity. They either say that everyone having high and increasing living standards is impossible because of resource limits to growth or because capitalism’s disregard for the environment will lead to ecological collapse and a very bleak future.

The limits to growth view is based on a number of notions: (1) that minerals become too difficult to extract as we have to dig deeper or rely on lower grades of mineral ore. As a result capital becomes increasingly devoted to extraction and this leaves less and less for the rest of the economy. (2) Economic growth necessarily creates an increasing waste stream that the natural environment can no longer cope with. (3) Increasing food production will ultimately deplete the soil. I think there is ample evidence technological advances can solve those sort of problems. I dealt with this issue at length at the debate in June. It is available online as is this talk.

Now is capitalism going to completely trash the environment because of its shortsighted search for profits? I think we can expect quite a lot of trashing of forests and pollution of air and water as the poorer countries develop. However, countering that is the fact that newer technologies tend to be cleaner and as countries get richer there is increasing political pressure to reduce environmental damage and remedy past damage.

As for CO2 emissions. They are very unlikely to be brought down to the levels that people are talking about. We are pretending to do something while achieving very little. The Europeans have made a lot of noise but are reneging on all their promises. India and China are continuing to build coal power plants at a cracking pace. China is also building quite a few in other countries. Germany and Japan are building more coal power plants because of their stupid decision to get out of nuclear power.

There are two strategies for significantly reducing CO2. The first would involve a massive total switch to renewable and nuclear power in coming decades. However, because these technologies are far more expensive than fossil fuels it is not going to happen. Keep in mind that it would require massive subsidies to the less developed countries who have made it clear that they are not going to abandon much cheaper fossil fuels unless compensated. These countries are already consuming more than half the world’s energy and the percentage will soon be a lot higher.

The second strategy is to to implement a massive research and development program aimed at providing energy options that greatly close the cost gap with fossil fuels. This would be far cheaper than the first strategy. And it is a strategy that Bill Gates is promoting with only modest success. And it is the strategy I support.

For the moment I am noncommittal on the level of threat to the environment that is posed by capitalism’s failure to act on CO2 emissions. Views on the subject range from little impact to a runaway greenhouse effect that would put the human race in a very sticky position.

Now on that rather uncertain note, let’s move on to the second requirement if we are to achieve a classless, collectively owned society. As said at the beginning, we have to complete a very rocky period of revolutionary transition during which we fundamentally transform ourselves and our relations with each other.

While getting rid of the capitalists and installing a revolutionary government will be a protracted and tortuous business, it will not be enough. We also require an entire historical period of struggle to make the transition from a society based on profit to one based on mutual regard. This will have many ups and downs and may possibly include major defeats.

The central thing here is a struggle with a new bourgeoisie that is bound to emerge after the revolution because you can’t immediately eliminate the old division of labor. For some time society will still have a lot of hierarchy, and all levels of government including the very top will be full of phonies pretending to be revolutionaries and also revolutionaries who become corrupted by power. This new group proved irresistible in the Soviet Union and its derivative regimes. To counter this it will be critical to have a revolutionary mass movement that can push back against it.

There is also a struggle with people at all levels of society who are slow to adopt the behavior and thinking of mutual regard. This will require people to have the moral courage, self-confidence and social skills to stand up to problematic behavior. At the moment we tend to knuckle under or run away from a problem. The principle of mutual regard can be summed up as – I will go out of my way for others and others do likewise, and we all share in the better outcome that results. It is enlightened self-interest because our welfare depends on the welfare of others. And we mustn’t forget the direct satisfaction that we get from helping others and contributing to the general good.

I rather like this paragraph from the Communist Manifesto dealing with this subject:

In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

Finally, a very important point to make is that the less that capitalism has modernized societies the harder the task of transition will be. Pre-capitalist societies are really awful and people’s heads are full of even more crap than modern people. In these societies the average person is ignorant and uneducated. They are servile and accepting of the idea that some people are superior to others, and have a right to push everyone else around. There is no conception of democracy or individual liberty. The individual is tied down by obligations and loyalties to groups such as extended family, clan and tribe. And women are completely subordinate to men. It is virtually impossible to imagine creating a classless society on the basis of this kind of culture.

So to sum up.

Firstly, a society more advanced than capitalism requires a high level of economic development, what is sometimes called post-scarcity.
Secondly, this new society requires more than simply installing a revolutionary government and dispossessing the capitalists. There is an entire historical period when ordinary people will have to push back against the opponents of the revolution and thoroughly internalize the new morality of mutual regard.
And thirdly, on a more mundane note, there needs to be a massive increase in research and development spending in order to develop the new energy technologies that economic growth requires.