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Socialism/Capitalism: Either/Or or Both/And?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2011-11-22 08:01:26
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Three personal events have inspired this article. This week-end  I watched two movies: Margin Call, and Hell on Wheel,  I read the Ovi article by Leah Sellers titled A Season of Anti-Trust , and I put the finishing touches to the lecture for my Monday class of Introduction to Philosophy at Barry University in Miami, specifically on Political and Social Philosophy.

Margin Call is set in the high-stakes world of the financial industry. It is a thriller entangling the key players at an investment firm during one perilous 24-hour period in the early stages of the 2008 financial crisis. When entry-level analyst Peter Sullivan unlocks information that could prove to be the downfall of the firm, a roller-coaster ride ensues as financial and moral decisions  catapult the lives of all involved to the brink of disaster. I was particularly struck by the kind of coarse, brutal, even vulgar language those people seem to use in communicating with each other. It somehow eclipses the language of the Harlem ghetto to shame. When language deteriorates so does a whole society and civilization.  Anther intriguing phenomenon observable in the movie was the relativistic approach to ethics perhaps best expressed by this statement: he is one can be relied upon, he has the same interpretation that we have on what is right and what is wrong. In other words, it is all a matter of interpretation and whether or not it is convenient. This is far as one can come from a deontological Kantian notion of ethics understood as duty based on universal principles of morality.

Hell on Wheel is a mini-series film which follows the building of the transcontinental railroad in the American prairie. As the title suggests, the train is a symbol of inevitable progress and manifest destiny for an exceptional nation. At one point one of its capitalist builders gives a counter sermon to that delivered by the priest about turning swords into plowshares and promotes instead the extermination of any recalcitrant native American who opposes the building of the railroad and stands in the way of progress and manifest destiny.

Leah Sellers’ article mentioned above is, as the Ovi readership already knows, a devastating expose and indignant condemnation of the rape of children in our schools, something that has surfaced recently at Penn State University and other places and has brought down seemingly untouchable social icons such as Joe Paterno. What we suspected for a long time has come to the fore: jocks and sports programs are by far more important than scholars in our schools.
My notes on the lecture on Social and Political Philosophy on the other hand examine the thought of Plato, Rousseau, Hobbes, Locke, John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, Nozik, John Rawl (those two already commented upon in a recent article on social justice for Ovi), and last but not least Karl Marx. As with the other lectures, there are several questions for debate at the end of the lecture dealing with ideal societies: Platonic-Utopian, Hobbesian-Epicurean, Lockean-Marxian, Rousseaunian-naturalistic, Mill-Smith utilitarian/ laisse faire, Rawl’s liberal state (in between Communism and Minimalism), Nozik’s minimalist libertarian state.

This time around, however, I’ll be adding one more exploratory question; namely this: are predatory tactics, be they sexual, financial, commercial or political, an anomaly in a social system—the Capitalist system—which by and large works well for the common good; or are they integral part of the system? And if that is the case, should we, on ethical grounds alone, stop promoting it as the best of all possible social systems? Should we not be devising a new more humane social paradigm?

Any of the above mentioned philosophers can of course be adduced to defend the pro and the con of such a  debate, but I suspect that the indispensable one will be Karl Marx, the discredited 19th century philosopher considered the father of an unsuccessful Communism utterly defeated in the Cold War (but don’t tell that to the Chinese yet…), someone who had utter contempt for professional philosophers who wished to change the world over a pipe smoke, a game of chess,  a cup of coffee and a conversation in a comfortable arm chair. Indeed Marx may be passé and long dead but he does not seem to have been forgotten; not yet. To the contrary, any Department of Philosophy worth its salt will carry a whole semester course on Marx. I distinctly remember taking a course on Marx and Hegel in the mid-sixties with the late Dr. Joe Carpino at St. Francis College in Brooklyn. I would wager that the college still offers that course.

Be that as it may, and given that the problem of justice is the key issue of social philosophy, let us attempt to briefly explore Marx’s philosophy vis a vis current capitalistic practices and see to what conclusions, if any, we may arrive at. Could it be that Marx’s critique has been valid all along independent of its successful or unsuccessful implementation? Let’s see. The first thing that needs to be explored in Marx’s philosophy is the notion of “organicism” which Marx derived from Hegel’s philosophy of history. It’s a notion that says that the whole is more real than its parts; that the whole is an organic unity and the parts depend on such a unity. Logically, the parts are somehow less real than the whole. The individual is a microcosmic mirror of the macrocosm or a reflection of the whole system. A philosopher who understood the negative implication of this notion and became an anti-Hegelian of sort was the philosopher of religion Soren Kierkegaard who pointed out that in such a philosophy the individual and his self is sacrificed to the collective and the state. Nevertheless, Marx maintains that what the individual does is the result of the efforts of many people, living and dead. As Vico asserted: man makes history but the opposite is also true, history makes man.

Marx goes on: historically societies have been unfair from the very aboriginal social arrangements and this is so because a minority of individuals managed to wrest power and material wealth from their communal sources setting up systems of privilege and social institutions guaranteeing those privileges (the police, the army, internalized guilt, etc.) This looked unnatural to Marx but looks quite natural to a Hobbes or a Machiavelli. For Hobbes the quest for material security gives rise to Leviathan or the super-state; for Marx this same quest for material justice gives rise to class warfare: the majority vs. a privileged minority. While both philosophers are materialists but Marx puts the emphasis on justice.

Moreover, for Marx humans are naturally creative, they express their being in what they produce, be it material, intellectual or artistic. Man is properly speaking homo faber rather than homo sapiens. As with Vico, all knowledge follows from what man makes. He can only know for sure what he himself makes. There is no doubt that Marx had read and reflected on Vico’s thought and philosophy of history. So, the selling of one’s work is an alienating experience since the individual does not produce as an outlet for his creative urge but rather he is forced to sell his labor. Marx calls this class the proletariat; people who own nothing but their children. His work is ultimately exploited for the accumulation of wealth of the upper classes and is stolen from him when it becomes part of an economic system that is hostile to his interests.

At this point the question arises: what exactly is the just society for Marx? Marx answers the question thus: in the first place the social production must be addressed to what are true needs rather than false needs as advertised by the producing capitalists whose wealth is based on the exploitation of the working class. Some of those true needs based on our nature are: food, shelter, clothing, medical care, love and education.  False needs are the artificial needs of the privileged originating not in need but in desires that are at the expense of the true needs of the majority. It is no secret that luxury goods are doing very well nowadays in American capitalist society, a society wherein 1% of the population owns some 25% of its wealth and the divergence is constantly increasing since the last forty years or so.
Secondly, the foundations of social production must not be privately owned but must be socially owned and democratically controlled. Thirdly, social production must be such that individual workers are not forced to enter into streams of specialization that constrain the natural abundance of the creative urge. No one ought to be objectified into a specific role. The Marxian motto is this: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Only thus, according to Marx, we have the recovery of true human nature, the release of the human creative potential, and for the first time in history individuality has a chance of  becoming true individuality. That in turn requires true consciousness, or a recognition that the needs of the individual are the same as the needs of the society. A new man is ultimately born with unconstrained creativity, to be handed to democracy to assure that power always proceeds from the bottom up.

Now, compared to the sad scenarios full of greed, selfishness and injustice one observes in movies such as There Will be Blood and Margin Call one has to admit that those social ideas of Marx look quite impressive, at least for those who bother to read and ponder them carefully and do not associate them with garden varieties Communist ideologies such as Leninism and Stalinism. Even Catholic social teaching as propagated by Papal social encyclicals now acknowledges that the concept of distributive justice is essential to any complete theory of the just society.

Of course one can call this Marxian vision extremely utopian, as utopian as Plato’s Republic, a delusion that simply cannot come to be anywhere on this earth, or perhaps something that can only be lived in communal cooperative societies of Franciscan or Dominican friars who own everything in common and love God and one another in God, since as per Hobbes and Freud man normally has a egotistical nature. Another critique could be the identification of one class, the working class, as containing the hidden meaning of human history, if indeed human history has a purpose and a goal. And lastly one could criticize the Platonism in Marx’s philosophy by which the interests of the individual and those of society are identical. And finally, Marx’s willingness to accept democracy but only after the revolution is also problematic. We have seen what happens after the revolution in the former Soviet Union and Maoist China; democracy is all but ignored. Nevertheless, Marx believes that if the game is rotten then any possible move in the game is rotten too. There is no piecemeal solution possible and it is fallacious to blame Marx of the Machiavellian principle that the end justifies any means. A paradigm change is needed.

After we have duly taken account of those various critiques, what if anything is left that can still be considered in Marx’s philosophy? Let me suggest a few of Marx’s notion that are worth a closer look and a possible dialogue among men of good will. In the first place we ought to envision a new paradigm of social justice that goes beyond the current bleak scenario of rampant greed and self-interest as shown in the movies There Will be Blood and Margin Call. Those who are protesting on Wall Street and other places globally are certainly clamoring for such a reassessment of the current capitalist paradigm which has so far produced much suffering for the poor and a decline of the middle class, at least at the economic level. 

Finally, consider this thought: can anybody identify a democratic capitalist country in the EU or the Us which is pure in its capitalism or its socialism?  Is it a question of either/or or of both/and? Is the reality rather that in each and every one of those democratic states (especially the Scandinavian ones) there exists a synthesis of socialism and capitalism which seems to work quite well within a democratic set-up.

In the US for example, there are free markets based on free trade and entrepreneurship is valued, but there is also Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and Health Care which are socialistic programs for the poor and the elderly and the sick. In every democratic country in fact, it seems to be an accepted norm that the main functions of the government are primarily twofold: defense of its citizens but also the securing of the welfare of those citizens who, for whatever reason, are unable to take care of themselves. 

So the urgent question persists on the table: rather than fixing a broken humpty dumpty which so far has only benefited the rich and comfortable of our society at the expense of the poor, rather than Robin Hood in reverse, ought we not be envisioning a new social order based on a more equitable distribution of wealth (distributive justice), a more fair and just paradigm? History will eventually determine the reply to that question but for now, taking a lesson from the history of evolution, it can safely be said that those who do not adapt to change finding the status quo more convenient to one’s interests and refuses to mutate, will eventually succumb to change and go extinct and the process will not be pretty as any process of decay and decline is not, for indeed the Romans had it on target: corruptio optima pessima: the corruption of the best is always the worst. 

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Emanuel Paparella2011-11-22 11:07:24
Footnote: I looked up on the internet the current catalogue of St. Francis College and the course offerings in their philosophy department, and took notice that Dr. Carpino’s course on Marx and Hegel is no longer there. There is however a course on political philosophy which undoubtedly includes the political-social thought of Hegel and Marx.

Prof. Bob Griffin2011-11-25 22:49:37
Quite an extensive, if brief, exposition. Marx, of course,liked to analyze capitalist society,but never really proposed a system for administrating a socialist community or nation. Lenin, we know tried to add the missing program. A few others have tried to fill the programmatic vacuum with mixed results, as we also know.Where do we go frm here in the effort to build a peaceful, as opposed to a militaristic and destrustive world?
Meanwhile,I have had the recent pleasur of reading Kant's lecture (from a student's notes) on "A short Outline of a History of Philosophy."(p. 31-37 in "Logic,"Dover Publ., 1974.Kant never published his "Logic," but a student did leave us some wonderful notes, and the "Short Outline" is a brilliant historical intro to the development of philosophical thought, even if it includes the mistaken opinion of Kant that the subject of logic was finished and not capable of further development.

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