1980s >> 1989 >> no-1014-february-1989

Capitalism and the individual

An often-heard criticism of the socialist case is that at times such an overwhelming emphasis is placed on economics that concepts such as individual liberty and fulfillment seem to be neglected. The fact, however, is that such concerns are central to our argument but cannot be separated from the economic critique of capitalism, as meaningful freedom for the individual is only possible in a society where provision of the basic needs of all human beings is guaranteed.

 

Capitalism markets many illusions, but perhaps one of its most grotesque claims is that it can satisfy our every need. In this respect western capitalism is compared to ‘’communism”. The former, we are led to believe, allows people to make choices, politically through the ballot box and economically via the market, while in “communist” society individuals are coerced by a state which regulates all political and economic life. Socialists do not dispute that in so-called communist countries there is a lack of individual freedom. However, we maintain that such societies are just another form of capitalism, where a state elite exploits human labour power for the purpose of capital accumulation. We argue that neither form of capitalism can guarantee individual freedom and fulfillment and that for real meaning to be given to such concepts the profit system in all its guises must be abolished through democratic political action.

 

In a free society each person would choose the means to develop his or her individual potential. Today, millions die of starvation or undernourishment when they could be adequately fed, and millions more are killed in wars which involve no working class interests. Even in “advanced” industrial societies millions are denied access to decent food, adequate housing and basic medical treatment. This occurs even though it is possible to produce enough to satisfy everyone’s basic needs. While such conditions exist, as they must in a system which gives priority to profit over human needs, individual fulfillment is nothing but a sick joke. Real freedom is only possible when the means for producing and distributing all goods and services are owned in common and subject to democratic control; where the sole purpose of all productive activity is to satisfy needs. Until that basic condition is established, talk about individual rights and freedoms is just that — talk.

 

Even for those who do not suffer the worst effects of poverty under capitalism, the ability to develop their full potential as human beings is still missing. To supporters of capitalism, money is the magic means of securing individual satisfaction. For the overwhelming majority, however, money is only obtainable by the sale of their labour power (capacity to work), and employment is precisely what prevents most people from developing themselves as individuals. They are in jobs that do not provide satisfaction but involve boring, repetitive tasks subject to control and long hours. Employment dominates peoples lives; most work between 35 and 40 hours a week for about fifty years. Time spent outside of employment has to be organised around work hours: an early start means getting to bed fairly early and shift or night work not only ruin a person’s social life but can also affect health. After working for something like eight hours, there is little time or energy left to pursue satisfying outside activities.

 

Individual choice is obviously dependent on the amount of money we have in our pockets or purses. The sheer monotony of work and the weekend spending spree go hand in hand: an urge to consume afflicts much of the working class, and is an attempt to overcome the frustrations of employment. Reality reasserts itself, however, and the gloss of the latest acquisition soon wears off when Monday morning comes around again. Employment clearly alienates the worker from her or his work — it is just a means to an unfulfilling end.

 

There are many other ways in which capitalism degrades people and forces them to conform. Norms of behaviour are drummed into us through the family and school. A “normal” person in their thirties should be married and have 2.5 children. Individuals are judged not for their human qualities but on the basis of surface appearance: the way they act, the car they drive, the house they live in or how much money they have in the bank.

 

It is possible to create a world in which the object of work will be to produce useful items for direct consumption, without the intervention of exchange and profit. With the creation of better working conditions, less need for control and production for need rather than profit, work will be more satisfying. With the full utilisation of modern productive capacity, people will work far fewer hours than they do at present and be free to engage in whatever other activities they wish to pursue. Education will mean just that; no longer will it be tied to the needs of employment.

 

The common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution on a world-wide basis — socialism — is not an end in itself but a means to an end. Becoming a socialist does not require you to read Marx’s Capital, although people may well become interested in finding out what he really had to say. Above all, it means liberating your mind from capitalism’s tunnel vision and seeing the potential of a society in which nothing has a price tag.

 

Ray Carr