A Capitalist Revolution

I recently had the pleasure of being welcomed into the home of a card-carrying communist. As an exceedingly progressive young liberal, I had hoped I might be able to glean some insights into what it is to be truly on the far left. Unfortunately, I left with only disappointment and reaffirmation in my capitalist ways.

As an introduction, let us first run through a quick summary of Marxist ideology. Karl Marx was one of the first prolific thinkers to look seriously at the growing correlation between social class and wellbeing. He witnessed the development of the working class, a phenomenon of the Industrial Revolution, and the growing divide between the workers (the proletariat) and the business owners (the bourgeoisie). He correctly identified the weakness of capitalist pursuit that required the continued growth and expansion of markets to sustain viability. Of course, to do this required an increase in productivity. When technological advancement was still slow, productivity and demand on the laborers was tightly linked. The bourgeoisie would continue to demand more of the proletariat until the subjugated laborers had had enough. Eventually, they would revolt and overthrow their bourgeois oppressors, creating a new society in which the workers owned what they produced. This new society would not connect money and livelihood. It would operate on the principle that all would give what they could and take what they needed. The October Revolution of 1917 saw perhaps the closest large-scale manifestation of this in what would become the Soviet Union. But then, Stalin. Marx’s ideas are noble and beautiful, but he overlooked a fatal flaw in the whole plan: this system required people to operate within it, and people are not so noble.

People are selfish. They look out for their own. Even the most generous preference their own need and those closest to them when forced to choose. I won’t pass a value judgment here. It’s human nature. The capitalist economy rests on this principle. As the father of capitalist thought, Adam Smith, wrote, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” In our pursuits to make a living for ourselves, we provide to society what it needs. Our income is then linked to the value we provide to society. As we sell more goods that society wants, we take a larger income. The more valuable our products, the higher price we can charge. If a vendor charges too much, another can compete and force the first to lower prices, a net benefit for all. In its simplest form, it seems ideal.

However, capitalism too is not without its problems. If a vendor gains a monopoly of a necessary product, they can extort the people, demanding excessive costs. Vendors can work together to achieve this aim and rob the masses. Without regulation, business owners can abuse and exploit their workers. If they can subvert the legislative process, they can get regulations to work for them, reducing competition and harming workers and consumers alike. This is the situation that has manifested in the United States. Business leaders now have a highly disproportionate amount of the attention of elected representatives, who in turn pass legislation that protects business leaders and disadvantages the laborer. Those with deep pockets can buy influence through massive campaign finance to elect “pro-business” candidates or through the informing and even writing of bills that legislators will vote on. This process made headlines last year when Citibank lobbyists wrote a provision of a bill that that rolled back some of the key provisions of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act designed to protect average Americans from another stock market crisis like the one in late 2008. This effect is compounded by the fact that a modern industrialized economy preferences capital gains over labor. French economist Tomas Picketty has gained world attention with his dense volume Capital in the Twenty-First Century which shows how capital investment now provides returns on investment on the order of 10% per year while increases in labor wages have largely stagnated over the past few decades. The result of all of this is that the rich get richer and more powerful while the rest of us suffer weakening power and declining potential for upward mobility.

As a staunchly capitalist nation, the United States expectedly is experiencing this problem the worst. Apparently, though, even the social welfare haven of Sweden is moving that direction as well. Opposing this movement is the current aim of Sweden’s Communist Party. It is, however, far easier to criticize than it is to solve the problem. Interested in their ideas, I began to probe.

The stated goal of this particular communist is a revolution that will lead to the utopian society that Marx predicted. The revolution will overthrow the capitalist leaders and instate a system in which the workers own what they produce. There will be no official “state.” The people will govern themselves. They will make what they need without needing to depend on the meager wages of the capitalist overlords. They will trade with each other fairly and equitably, assigning a reasonable value to the goods they produce. A centrally planned economy will make what the people need efficiently.

How exactly are the people going to do all of this?

Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer for you. When I began to pose specific questions about how the communist society will determine how much of each product people need, I received only further attacks on the current capitalist system, vague ideological ideals, and even a confession that the system that will arise out of the revolution is unknowable. Apparently these Communists will just plunge headlong into revolution with no specific plan for what lay on the other side. Somehow a utopian society will magically arise from the ashes of anarchy. It seems these people haven’t exactly thought this through. So, let’s do a little thought experiment.

Ideally, the people will come to own what they produce. However, one person can’t produce everything he or she needs. Especially in Sweden where growing crops can be very difficult and many resources are limited, people will need to trade for food and other necessities. Indeed, the Agricultural Revolution that took place ten millennia ago saw the specialization of labor, which led to technological innovation leading humanity out of its meager animalistic existence. Surely a utopian communist society won’t regress beyond that point. Particularly important for those in academic pursuits, a system of trade will necessarily arise. Given that farmers probably won’t value a lecture on philosophy as highly as new farm equipment, it would be difficult for philosophers to make a living. It would be better if they had a system of standardizing the value of labor to make trade more equitable. Perhaps people would trade small, easily transportable objects that have an assigned value. Of course, there would need to be someone trustworthy to distribute these objects. It is inevitable that some people would try to fake these objects, being dishonest about the value of their labor. Because the society would be too large for everyone to know and trust each other, a recognized regulatory body would emerge. There is certainly historical precedent for this. For many centuries societies have used small discs of precious metals, stamped with the seal of some verified authority. Today we call them coins. That regulatory body is the government. The value of those coins is called capital. The process of trading labor for coins and coins for goods is called capitalism.

So, what is on the other side of a communist revolution? Capitalism.

As discussed, capitalism is not without its faults, but it is the natural result of a society with specialized labor. The solution to these problems is not to overthrow the government; the solution is to reform it. Government cannot be the director of an economy to ensure fairness. The plight of the Soviet Union ought to act as stark example of the difficulty of a planned economy. There is simply too much information for any one organization to optimize the distribution of goods of a nation-state’s economy. The amount of time it takes any one person to process that kind of information is simply too long. Small isolated communes show that it is possible on a small scale, but beyond a couple hundred people (the size of a prehistoric hominid tribe) it is simply unsustainable. The solution is to decentralize, giving the individual control over his/her purchasing decisions.

I will discuss the issue of unequal influence in a later post, but a capitalist economy can in fact work fairly for the laborer and the owner alike. As long as the government plays the role of a just and effective referee, we need not vilify capitalism.

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To eat or not to eat?

The idea that eating animals is morally permissible rests on the principle that humans and non-human animals are fundamentally different. It is commonly accepted that to kill, much less eat, another human being is morally repugnant. This position is defensible from many perspectives, and I’ll explore one aspect later on. Despite this aversion to killing those of our species, the idea of killing a range of animals – excepting those we have identified as pets – for food seems to have no ill effect on the psyche. Much of the comfort of it can be attributed to distance and desensitization. Most wouldn’t even be bothered by the hanging chunks of animal body parts in a butcher shop even though the carcass of a dog or cat on the side of the road may be traumatizing. How is it that we can treat some animals with the utmost compassion while we slaughter others by the millions?

Certainly our instincts are no veritable guide for determining the way we should treat animals. We need only look at the way humans often treat each other to see that without moral guidance we are incapable of ensuring the well-being of those outside our immediate circle. We have defined moral codes that require us to treat other humans with civility even though they may be strangers. We have accepted that the differentiation of friend and stranger is not a valid reason for harming or being indifferent to the suffering of one. Is there a valid reason for our different treatment of humans and animals?

To find a verifiable difference, we must look to the deepest depths of our cells: DNA. Our genes are identifiably different from any other species. Though we share large amounts of our DNA with other species (98% with chimps, 84% with dogs, and even 14% with weeds), the structure and pattern of the human genome is unique. Though variations allow us to be unique individuals, we are all certifiably human. The instructions in our DNA lead to the formation of all our structures including the one that makes us most special, our brains.

The human brain is far larger and uses far more energy than an animal of human size should, and the number of connections in our brains is astronomical for its size. Our abilities for abstract thought and mental time travel have not been observed in any other species. The ability to grasp ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity are distinctly human. We can create entire lives within our brains, projecting our hopes, dreams, and ambitions infinitely into the future. The rest of the animal kingdom lacks access to these enlightened abilities.

One process we are particularly good at is putting things into categories. We take what we see and organize it into what is familiar and understandable. We often do this through anthropomorphism. We infer intents of non-intentional events because that is how we understand it. We give emotions and thoughts to the wind, the trees, and the waters because that is how we understand it. It doesn’t intuitively make sense for something not to have those things. We can also project these emotions onto animals. Though animals are merely responding to stimuli, we perceive their behavior as emotion. What appears to us as personality is only a scripted set of responses, developed through generations of self-preservation, in response to environmental stimuli. The idea of non-human emotion arises from our inability to understand a living being that lacks such a thing.

The processes of planning for a future, determining a fulfilling career, depicting life through art, and innovating new concepts are distinctly human. Though our modern lives have often become repetitive and sedentary, I suspect that most who live unvaried lives feel a longing for something more. Fortunately, we have the ability to change our situations. Some societies may be more conducive than others, but humans do have control of their future, and most will exercise it. By taking this power away from another human, we are committing a heinous crime. This is why subjugation, slavery, and murder cannot be morally justified.

Animals are different. They do not have this ability to design and realize a better future for themselves. They are incapable of the abstract thought required to form moral codes and improve themselves. They exist in the present moment and act according to what their instincts tell them the conditions require. They do not pursue ambitions or sacrifice in the hope of future improvement. They do not have the ability to comprehend death or the fear that comes with it. Given that they lack the capacity to assign purpose to their lives, particularly in the case of animals raised for food, their slaughter is, by definition, the realization of their life purpose.

 


 

I have been far from complete and not at all thorough in this investigation, but there aren’t many grounds left for continuing to eat meat. Personally, I’ve taken steps to remove animal products from my diet for environmental reasons. There is no debate there. On a per pound, per calorie, and per land use basis, raising livestock for food is vastly less efficient than eating a plant-based diet. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and energy use, current farming practices are simply unsustainable.

Those arguments do not require the absolute cessation of meat consumption though. Standing on a moral ground that anyone who can reasonably obtain their dietary needs without killing an animal does lead to the absolutist principle of never eating meat. On that front, I’ve almost been completely swayed, so if you can pull apart this last ethical argument, I may never be able to enjoy a real bacon-cheeseburger again.

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