A sideways glance at capitalism through some of its products. This month: the laptop.
One of the more vociferous cheerleaders for capitalism and the wonders of the market system (though he seems to have been a bit quieter on that score in recent years) is Thomas L Friedman . Most famously he is the author of the spurious Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention. This is the theory that no countries which both have a branch of McDonalds have been at war. (That this unlikely theory has – on numerous occasions – in fact been found to be false does not seem to have caused him to review the theory).
In his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Friedman exalted in the very piece of equipment he was typing his book on. His laptop then, was held up as the epitome of all that is wonderful about capitalism. After all, it comprised hundreds of different parts and sub-components – themselves the product of highly complex production processes and resources from five continents – all magically transported around the world and assembled together in a dozen countries before finally pitching up at his local store when he went to buy it to write his latest masterpiece.
The laptop I am writing on however is no less amazing. While opposed to capitalism, we socialists shouldn’t be afraid of acknowledging how massively complex, sophisticated and impressive is global production and distribution inside capitalism. Indeed it is thanks to the increase in the productive forces of capitalism that we can even consider socialism and production for use to be a practicable next step is human social organisation.
Many ideological defenders of capitalism (and not just Friedman) extol the wonders of the market system as it (apparently) enables all the right bits and pieces to be brought together with just the right timing, to be assembled and placed onto the store shelves. Indeed many members of the working class – who otherwise may have no real enthusiasm for capitalism itself – can feel daunted by the argument of socialists that we should do away with the market system as a means for matching supply with demand.
Of course this fear is to a large part a consequence of the great big convenient untruth that has underpinned debates about capitalism and socialism for almost a century now: specifically that the centralised planning of the soviet union is the only alternative to the market system, and somehow has something to do with socialism.
In fact, World Socialists have no time for central committees or 5-year plans. We are opposed to the market system whether it is supposedly “free” or restricted, and whether it is regulated or not. In many ways socialism will be far more responsive to real human needs and genuine preferences. Production decision-making inside socialism – both qualitative (ie how will this be produced?) and quantitative (how much?) – will be far less centralised than the soviet version of capitalism and arguably even “western” capitalism.
We would argue that we can retain much of the (apparently) chaotic, networked decentralised production decisions that are present within capitalism. We should not be daunted by the complexities of industrial production. We can do away with the overarching profit logic of the market, and at the same time have confidence that individual human beings will still express their self-defined needs by going to the local store and taking what they want without the rationing system of money and price. And thereby they – not some planning committee – will enable the dauntingly complex production arrangements that end up in the laptop I am writing this on. Rather than a tribute to the mysterious work of some “invisible hand”, the laptop – like so many products – is a testament to the ingenuity of real, co-operative human hands.
Next month: we shine a light on the crazy world of diamonds