To many the socialist criticism of the capitalist system may seem like a crude act of oversimplification, if not a type of scapegoating.
If social ills are always blamed on the capitalist system, our critics complain, then there is no room for intelligent discussion about the varied reforms, leaders, governments, nations or policies that appear to be meeting people’s needs in quite radically distinct ways around the globe or at different times in the same country.
However, what the socialist is attempting to demonstrate is that the varied threads of social experience are intimately woven together in such a manner that they constitute aspects of a vast system that operates by particular laws and so is incapable of adequate reform. To perceive such a web of interrelationships is not at all a bad case of oversimplification. Rather, it represents an attempt to understand social and economic phenomena, much as natural phenomena are comprehended, as interactive parts of a system, which may be observed wherever the system exists, and predicted given certain defined conditions.
To understand social experience in socialist terms is to notice that all humans have certain requirements for food, shelter or safety, and that the varied ways in which they meet such needs produce different systems of relationships among them. This is often a difficult theory for many, especially for those used to comprehending social phenomena the way they were taught history in school, or the way events are reported in the media – in terms of distinct leaders, competing economic theories or degrees of corruption.
When material needs were met by ownership of people by other people (slavery), it followed necessarily that laws were required to protect that ownership, and that the fruits of the labour of slaves would be enjoyed by their owners. It also follows from this that with control of many slaves came accumulations of wealth that led some to live in abundance in palaces and others to be coerced to build and maintain these palaces at threat of death. Customs evolved in slave or feudal systems that led most humans to accept the legitimacy of this very unequal distribution of wealth and power. The experience of being dispossessed also inevitably led the majority to feelings of resentment, anger, helplessness, apathy, devotion, revolution, or ambivalent combinations of these at the same time or throughout the course of their lives.
To say that we all live in a system, the present one being capitalist, is in a sense to deconstruct the customs that we were all brought up to accept as normal, and by attempting to understand them, to open up the possibility that we may reject them. To comprehend all social appearances in terms of a system is also to remove the temptation to support another initially promising leader who everyone will hate a few years later, and to blame our problems on one who was found to be lacking intellectually, or morally, or found to be emphasising inadequate economic priorities.
When socialists seek to blame the capitalist system, they are promoting an important hypothesis that all social problems derive from the fact that a few individuals or states own the means of producing the things we require to live, which implies that the majority of us do not. It is, in the socialist’s mind, this fact of ownership that leads to war, to world poverty and hunger, to excessive stress, to murderous wastes of planetary resources and animal habitation destruction, or to our feelings of alienation that are often accorded psychiatric diagnoses.
Is it not obvious to most of you? If the metals were owned and controlled by the community, which of us would truly be mad enough to squander them to make tanks and bombs to blow up innocent children on the other side of the planet because of the industrial need for petroleum? If we all owned the farms together, do you think we would decide it reasonable to produce food packed with artificial preservatives and colourings, or to condemn millions of children to starve? I have never seen a parent of right mind consciously decide to let his or her children get sick — have you? Do you see people in your workplace regularly killing each other over a disagreement? Of course not. Wars are very well planned murders by those quite prepared to squander the planet’s population, clean air and topsoil to do the government’s bidding, and able at least during execution of the plan to tolerate gnawing sentiments that their behaviours may be morally reprehensible but extraordinarily rationalised as “in the national interest”.
Even when workers intellectually understand that they are part of a worldwide system, committing themselves to a radical alteration in the means of production guaranteed to provide a more enduring security to their lives has been difficult. This is due to the false perception that the greater possibility of a small change is preferable to the small possibility of a more significant change (even knowing that the small change may not be realised or may not last as long as a structural alteration). This type of cognitive bias has long been known to psychologists under the title of “hyperbolic discounting,” which produces a greater preference for an immediate payoff than a later payoff, even when it is not certain that either may be obtainable. In short, it is understandable for workers to put on hold any commitment to such a desirable end as socialism when the latter presents as likely yielding longer-term results (the achievement of a socialist majority). This is in contrast to working crazy hours now to achieve more tangible but lesser results such as saving up for a holiday or paying off the family home’s mortgage. Apolitical choices toward somehow improving the here and now likely play their part in competing with political ones toward the betterment of the future.
Scientific thinking over the course of the past few centuries has tended to encourage more systemic thinking. Medicine or ecology are examples of disciplines based on understanding phenomena as part of a holistic system. We use the word “system” all the time when we speak of the solar system, a grouping of planetary bodies and their satellites revolving around a sun. The same applies when we talk about our “computer system,” a collection of hardware and software that operate as one unit (and indeed, we become quite indignant when a new program will not be accepted into the system we are expecting it to become a part of).
What socialists are urging people to do seems at times like the impossible. We are asking you to put down preset assumptions about the way the world operates and urging you to do so in order to help create a new global system that will be as vastly preferable to what we have now as modern surgery seems over prayer, or psychology seems over phrenology. But to help realize such a world of freedom and security will require understanding all social phenomena that confront us today as inevitable effects of a capitalist system.
Let us list a handful of social problems that any of you are likely to consider in need of remedy: war, starvation, poverty, excessive stress, ecological destruction, worrying constantly about how we are going to make financial ends meet, the high prevalence of such emotional troubles as depression and anxiety, such medical problems as diabetes and cancer, or such lifestyle problems as addiction or obesity, or subjecting our children to this sickeningly violent and gadgety culture.
Socialists argue that a system of ownership of the means of life by individuals, corporations and states directly causes such problems, and also therefore that your continued political support of such a system will necessarily and inevitably support the continuation of such ills, and the unthinkable suffering that accompanies them. Have you not wondered why your experience of the society you live in, and the news on television about it, tend to repeat with predictable nausea, like a bad dream?
Socialists are not urging you to believe us uncritically, either. We are confident that overwhelming evidence will be found in both the experience of the day-to-day for most working people as well as in a study of history, to support the claim that today’s major problems are the results not of efficient versus inefficient politicians or policies, but rather of a worldwide system based on minority ownership of the productive machinery, and on production for sale.
To understand modern society as a system that operates by certain laws (for example, the laws of exploitation and profit-making) is not an academic pursuit but a way of empowering ourselves as members of the employed class. It is easy to feel helpless in our society, to feel that there is nothing we can do to make a better world for ourselves and for our children. But to understand that we live in a system is to give rise to a different behaviour than we have been accustomed to (voting for parties that support the wages system, voting for more progressive politicians, getting more leftwing, voting with our purse, and so on). It is also to generate an unbridled determination to fight for the better world now, for a different system which works in our favour (production for need and an all-inclusive democratic form of decision-making).
Change the system!
DR WHO (World Socialist Party of US)