Capitalism, Socialism, And Existential Despair

| Educate!

Above Photo:  Seth Jackson/ flickr

Decades ago, Edward Said remarked that contemporary life is characterized by a “generalized condition of homelessness.” Decades earlier, Heidegger had written that “Homelessness is coming to be the destiny of the world.” Around the same time, fascists were invoking the themes of blood and soil, nation, race, community, as intoxicating antidotes to the mass anonymity and depersonalization of modern life. Twenty or thirty years later, the New Left, in its Port Huron Statement, lamented the corruption and degradation of such values as love, freedom, creativity, and community:

Loneliness, estrangement, isolation describe the vast distance between man and man today. These dominant tendencies cannot be overcome by better personnel management, nor by improved gadgets, but only when a love of man overcomes the idolatrous worship of things by man…

Over a hundred years earlier, Karl Marx had already understood it was capitalism that was responsible for all this collective anguish. “All fixed, fast-frozen relations…are swept away,” he wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…” Home, community, the family, one’s very relation to oneself—all are mediated by money, the commodity function, “reification,” exploitation of one form or another.

And now here we are in 2019, when the alienation and atomization have reached such a state that it seems as if the world is in danger of ending. The phenomenology, the “structure of feeling,” of living in this society is that everything is transient and “up in the air,” human survival is in question, a hectored, bureaucratized anonymity chases us from morning till night, nothing really matters, no one gets their just deserts. Young people are refraining from having children. There is certainly no collective sense of belonging—that’s long gone. We’re les étrangers, passively consuming distractions as we wait for the other shoe to drop.

Meanwhile, we read of little else but agonized suffering, from children in cages to rainforests burning, from opioid epidemics to rampaging neofascists.

The case for socialism is usually made, rightly, from the perspective of its justice. It would be just to have economic and social democracy, for one thing because it is intrinsically right that people not be forced to rent themselves to a business owner who exploits them for profit but instead that they collectively control economic activities and distribute rewards as they see fit. Moreover, economic democracy, whether in the form of worker cooperatives or democratic government control, would essentially make impossible the extreme income inequality that corrodes political democracy and ultimately unravels the social fabric.

But it’s also worth broadcasting the message that even from an existentialist point of view, our only hope is socialism. Certain types of conservatives like to complain about the demise of the family, the community, non-hedonistic interpersonal ties, and the sense of meaning in our lives, a demise for which they blame such nebulous phenomena as secularism, “humanism,” communism, and liberalism. That is, everything except what really matters: capitalism, the reduction of multifaceted life to the monomaniacal pursuit of profit, property, and power. So these conservatives end up in the realm of fascism or neofascism, which promises only to complete the destruction of family and community.

The truth is that only socialism, or an economically democratic society in which there is no capitalist class, could possibly usher in a world in which the existentialist howl of Camus and Sartre didn’t have universal resonance. Mass loneliness, “homelessness,” and the gnawing sense of meaninglessness are not timeless conditions; they’re predictable expressions of a commoditized, privatized, bureaucratized civilization. Do away with the agent of enforced commoditization, privatization, and hyper-bureaucratization-for-the-sake-of-social-control—i.e., the capitalist class—and you’ll do away with the despair that arises from these things.

It’s true that the current suicide epidemic in the U.S. and the mental illness epidemic around the world have more specific causes than simply “capitalism.” They have to do with high unemployment, deindustrialization, underfunded hospitals and community outreach programs, job-related stress, social isolation, etc. In other words, they have to do with the particularly vicious and virulent forms that capitalism takes in the neoliberal period. But long before this period, widespread disaffection and mental illness characterized capitalist society.

Now, in light of global warming and ecological destruction, it’s possible that humanity won’t last much longer anyway, in which case capitalism will never be overcome and our collective existential anguish is perfectly appropriate. But nothing is certain at this point. Except that we have a moral imperative to do all we can to fight for socialism. “By any means necessary.” It is what justice demands, and it offers the only hope that even we privileged people—not to mention the less privileged majority—can know what it is to truly have a home.

  • Well written, overdue expression of the hopelessness and homelessness now spreading across this country. I’ve spent my life with Tibetans and then Navajos. Both Native Peoples are wonderful expressions of real socialism, where morality, sharing, helping, compassion and mutual support are the foundations of their cultures. This is what humanity was and is being wiped out worldwide now by greed, possessiveness, selfishness, cruelty, immorality, vicious pursuit of private wealth at any cost. This is why I’ve chosen not to participate any more than necessary in this failing state of the USA, and hide out with Navajos in the Four Corners. It will be safe here longer than most of the country when civil war implodes the country and all of our lives soon, sooner the better imo.

  • rgaura

    I basically agree with the article. Still, demonizing capitalism, or blaming one factor is not adequate. Small scale capitalism, in an intact, values based society, will be kept from extremes. The capitalism of our times is a new creature, an immoral, rapacious one, without restraint or bounds of common decency. It has finally, not been constrained by rule of law.
    I think the Mexican Revolution institutionalized the right to land, and kept it from being commodified and from speculation depriving the citizens of their lands, through the ejido system. It would be worth exploring the breakup of agri monopolies into family farms and small collectives. If you have a bit of land, you will not be homeless, and you can produce enough to feed your family. It provides autonomy, and a healthy, interesting way to take part in ones community, as a producer. Small producers are actually more efficient, and care for the land much better than corporations, who can loot and leave.
    Socialism is just as vulnerable to creeping totalitarianism as capitalism. Centralization and lack of transparency are the factors that lead to corruption and the dispossession of a people.

  • mwildfire

    I agree with the author and both previous commenters, even tho they may seem to disagree. That is, I’m not sure the problem is exactly capitalism, per se, or the solution socialism, for the well-described, enormous and universal angst and anomie and galloping destruction of everything. Capitalism and socialism are economic arrangements, and I think the problem is cultural, with roots long antedating capitalism. The essence is class, and domination: the idea that some groups of people matter more, are entitled to more, than others and that violence may be acceptably used to enforce domination over other groups, other genders and other species.

  • mwildfire

    Another thought. The universal angst and anomie that most people (at least in this country) suffer–tho most are very vague on the cause–is actually one reason for potential optimism regarding solving the climate crisis. We are always told that if we are “telling the truth” (per Extinction Rebellion’s first demand) regarding how severe the crisis is and the reality that we can’t merely Unplug/Replug, switch to solar and wind power and continue our greedy, unsatisfying way of life based on endless cancerous growth–then we will turn off the public, which doesn’t want to hear about sacrifice, about higher prices for fossil fuels or cutting back on meat-eating, travel, the rate at which natural resources are ravaged, turned into commodities that run briefly through our homes and then are tossed into a landfill. True–but maybe the assumption that modern people are selfish, lazy individualists is wrong. Maybe they simply can’t picture a different world, and if shown that possibility, they would swarm toward it with a feeling of great relief. I remember reading a line once which really resonated tho I wasn’t quite sure why, something about “going home to a place you’ve never been.” As an American, I am a part of the atomized culture and have a deep longing for genuine community–that’s what HOME means.

  • Attis

    Amen.

  • ANTONIO

    In capitalist society, the individual is estranged from self through the repressive injunction to “enjoy!” and “have a nice day,” which does not allow room for the recognition of alienation and, indeed, is itself an expression of alienation.Paulson repeatedly said on national broadcasts that the economy was sound in 2007-8 even as banks were failing, people lined up recover their savings which had disappeared, and the economy crashed. We must be bullied into being cheerful in this best of all passible worlds, otherwise, we might be enemies of the state. Similarly, the content and themes of Hollywood movies are misleading, resulting in a depersonification of humans and a personification of things. Human beings become stuck in a cycle of never ending wants which makes them strangers to each other. One such example is acquisition of useless consumer products which are all alike, or, endless texting to unseen strangers. Meaningless is not a matter anymore of whether one can assign meaning to incoming information, but it is the overburdening of information (choice), bombarding the population on a regular basis that is harmful to the psyche. Social relations are regarded as material relations between persons (you are what you own), and social relations are between things–the one with the most expensive car wins. Workers are used as pawns, disconnected from what they produce and why they produce. Workers inevitably lose control of their lives by not having any control over their work, with too many bills, of dubious origin, to pay.

  • ANTONIO

    The productive forces determine the level of economic development in a society. This is the BASE on which a variety of social relations, ideas and institutions rest. Social ideas include political, judicial, philosophical religious ideas, and their institutions and organizations (the government, the church, political parties, traditions, etc). These form the SUPERSTRUCTURE of society.

  • Greeley Miklashek

    Take it from an old retired psychiatrist, population density stress is the cause of Capitalism and all its psychological products. Just compare our culture with that of a traditional living hunter-gatherer clan/band and the picture will get clearer. For all our alienation from eachother and nature, they must support one another and live IN Nature, rather than in opposition to Her. Want to read a fabulous but little known history of the development of Capitalism in early villages, then read Denise Schmandt-Besserat’s “Before Writing”, Vol. 1.

    Population density stress is the underlying cause of ALL of our modern “diseases of civilization” which stresses us out and jacks up cortisol levels all day long in our stressor filled man-made physical environments, so unlike Nature without us. Want the gory details? Read “Stress R Us” from Amazon Books.

  • chetdude

    One major difference is that one can have Socialism without social classes (the haves and the have-nots) but it’s IMPOSSIBLE to have capitalism without social classes…

    So many who try to promote “friendly” capitalism or “capitalism with ‘socialism'” don’t understand that reality. Capitalism will always cough up its Gates, Kochs, Buffets, Waltons, Bezos, Zuckerbergs, Trumps and Pelosis…

  • chetdude

    May I suggest that we use the correct terms.

    You are talking about relatively “free” markets with fair exchange as their goals.

    Capitalism is anathema to that sort of market…capitalism ALWAYS tends toward monopolies.

    Whereas, they can be easily accommodated in a rational Socialist system.

    “Socialism is just as vulnerable to creeping totalitarianism as capitalism”

    Define “socialism”. I define it as a paradigm shift and major change in the goals of a socioeconomic system.

    The systems humans have been experimenting for a few thousand years have been designed to elevate a small group above the masses. We call that systemic pathology dominator hierarchies.

    With a little imagination, one could conjure up a vision of a society where folks cared about one another and co-operated enough with one another to successfully implement the following:

    ‘Socialism is Worker and Community (THE PEOPLE’S) OWNERSHIP of the means of production coupled with democratic processes for decision making that allows the people to achieve consensus about where, when and what to produce, how much and how to do it along with how to fairly and equally distribute what’s produced.’

    There are relatively small and localized examples to draw from if one cared to look.

  • rgaura

    My point was that historically, when any economy is large and centralized, a small group of insiders can game the system, especially if it isn’t transparent. There are lots of historical examples. Democratic process requires a free media and flow of information, and socialist and democratic structures as a template. Just socializing a war based economy is not enough.
    I think we need to break down the centralized and unaccountable structures for local control. Let locals decide according to their needs if they want small scale markets for some purposes, co ops for others, and socialism for libraries or such.
    My fear is that trashing capitalism scares off potential allies. Predatory capitalism is the problem. Social democracy uses aspects of both, when appropriate, and lets communities decide within a legal structure that outlaws exploitation and money laundering, etc. Right now we don’t have rule of law, the financial markets are rigged, governments can lie about financial statements, and propagandize the populace. Government agencies, lie, cheat, steal, and kill, and brag about it. I see all honest caring citizens as potential allies, and this analysis seems needlessly divisive.
    Yeah, I studied Marx at uni, learn the internationale in Chinese. Personally, economics is a pretty peripheral interest of mine. Still, the stench of injustice is the problem, and we shouldn´t throw any tools out of the box, we should consider these ideologies as tools appropriate for certain jobs, and not belief systems.

  • sabelmouse

    how can pop density be the cause of capitalism when there were so few people at it’s start, and the usa is of course thinly populated.

  • D Turgeon

    Exactly: well put.

  • D Turgeon

    “Predatory capitalism is the problem.” And always will be under a capitalist economy because capitalism is inherently predatory.

  • rgaura

    It need not be practiced in that way. It has more to do with the mindset of a very propagandized and poorly educated public. You may as well blame narcissism. Any social organization will reflect the populace to some degree. People who have a deep respect for others, and for life itself would never behave in such a way. Better to structure our systems in a more egalitarian and democratic-socialist fashion.

  • D Turgeon

    I quite agree with much of your comment. However, in my view you are still in denial re. the meaning and effect of a capitalist economy. To “structure our systems in a more egalitarian and democratic-socialist fashion” is precisely to leave the capitalist model of economic organization behind.

    While it is true that “any social organization will reflect the populace to some degree”, it is also true that any social organization will effect the populace to an even greater degree.

    Any organized economic system has specific effects upon human behaviour. These effects are profound, since since economic activity is the primary occupation of human society. Consequently, the education, propaganda and narcissism of which you speak are, themselves, products of a social system determined largely by its economic organization. In short, the practise of a capitalist economy is, well, capitalist, and there is no escaping its effects.

  • sabelmouse

    capitalism was designed this way. anything else is NOT capitalism.
    buying/selling/barter as such isn’t capitalism.

  • rgaura

    I disagree that economic activity is the primary occupation of human activity. The degree to which that might be believed is the degree to which we have fallen for a degenerate narrative. That narrative is ripe for analysis, and I thank you for the discussion.

    No one has answered to my point that vilifying capitalism, and demanding socialism will alienate many of our natural allies. A popular uprising could take electoral power, but my feeling is that a non partisan league, or populist coalition might be more palatable to libertarians, or an anti corruption movement. Part of that is due to a decades long ad campaign against reds, and also against empathy and solidarity. Words matter. Breaking it down into specific narratives may help. So, if you want to do some socially beneficial things in your town, it might be better to call them socially beneficial things. Using simple english can be divisive in the current atmosphere. Anyone advocating socialism is going to have to educate broadly, first.

  • KennyB

    Economic activity becomes the primary occupation of human activity as soon as we start to produce a surplus. Human populations that have not needed to resort to agriculture to survive have not produced written language, governments (or kings), clergy and all the other trappings of agrarian populations. Hunter-gatherer populations have retained a fairly pure form of socialism as long as they are isolated from populations that have resorted to agriculture to survive. As soon as people started to produce a surplus, the march toward capitalism began. Thus, commerce is not a given, but if the conditions are right, it is fertile ground for certain people to dominate others, i.e. the creation of ruling classes and peasants.

  • chetdude

    I prefer pushing Worker co-ops to take over capitalist “enterprises”…

    But yeah, capitalism isn’t going to disappear overnight…

  • I can see it. It’s basically our inability to live beyond Dunbar’s Number.
    Our technology that allowed us to live in dense populations, exceeded our understanding of what we are and therefore we never considered anything else.

  • Greeley Miklashek

    We are hard-wired for clan/band social life (Dunbar’s number), but we have adapted to crowding by replacing our natural territoriality with symbolic territoriality thus allowing for endless (?) reproduction and symbolic (culture) membership in massive groups. Of course, this is all spelled out in my book, “Stress R Us”. ( :)) The origins of symbolization, Capitalism, counting, language, and numbers is spelled out in the amazing book “Before Writing”, Vol. 1, by Denise Schmandt-Besserat. It is one of my favorites. Good Luck!

  • D Turgeon

    The primacy of economic activity in human society is hardly “a degenerate narrative”, as you claim. Economic activity is that which allows any society, whether hunter-gatherer, agricultural or industrial, or whatever, to survive and to thrive. From this point of view, economic activity is the bedrock of human social existence.

    As to your assertion that “vilifying capitalism, and demanding socialism will alienate many of our natural allies”, what can one say? It is not a question of “vilifying” capitalism; capitalism vilifies itself. Its failures can be observed and experienced on a daily basis. Pointing out capitalism’s inherent flaws (many of which you point out yourself) helps others to understand the connection between it and the evident social evils of our day. Assuming the advocacy of socialism requires one to “educate broadly”, a large part of that education surely involves educating others in the inherent failures of capitalism as a viable economic system, as well as in the viability of its alternative. However, the recent rise in popularity of socialist ideas, especially among the young, would lead me to believe that many have educated themselves in these regards.

    It would be nice to think that a “mixed” economy, controlled and regulated by a democratic socialist government (including a progressive taxation scheme) could be made to work in the broad public interest. However, it seems to me that history shows us capitalism, by its very nature, works relentlessly to subvert democratic government such that sustained control in the public interest becomes impossible. The workings of capitalism are such they inevitably result in the kind of ‘inverted totalitarian state’ in which we find ourselves today. As the saying goes: “You can have capitalism or you can have democracy, but you cannot have both”. Pretending it isn’t so won’t help matters in the long run.

  • rgaura

    China and Russia are today examples of mixed economies, with critical institutions and industries socialized, and capitalism with some restraints. They are doing quite well, both in economic terms and providing healthy communities.

  • D Turgeon

    Good observation! I hadn’t really thought of them as mixed economies, but they are that, especially China. It will be interesting to see if they become more capitalistic and more corrupt as time goes on or if they are able to resist the capitalist onslaught. They are early on in adopting capitalism. So far, labour standards in China seem pretty appalling.