Posts Tagged ‘Consumerism

03
Apr
10

Live Long and Prosper?

If you were to look up “Communism” in a philosophy book, you’d probably find it under a section dealing with “Materialism”. The problem with this is that the popular meaning of the word “Materialism” has changed radically over the years. In terms of philosophy, the original meaning of “Materialism” was a category of philosophies primarily concerned with the concepts of property and their effects on human society/history. If I were, however, to use the term “Materialist” today, it would commonly be assumed that I was referring to the idea that the end goal of life is to accumulate wealth (radical hedonism, essentially). This is a recurring problem with many terms connected to Communism- in Marx’s day, “Socialism” meant a society embracing shared property and rejecting the class system, today we use it to refer to a politico-economic system where the majority of property is owned and managed by a massive government- but perhaps that’s off topic.

The issue with trying to categorize Communism in philosophy is that Marx was rather critical of philosophy as a whole. He asserted that analyzing the world should not be an end but merely a means to bring about change and advancement (“Philosophers have merely interpreted the world. The point, however, is to change it!” -Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach”). While Communism definitely does offer a socio-politico-economic perspective, to claim that Communism is an all-out philosophy wouldn’t be quite correct. While most philosophies make some basic assumptions about the purpose of life (hedonism, as much pleasure as possible; Socratic philosophy, preparing for death;  aesthetic realism, finding harmony in life; the list goes on and on), Communism on the other hand functions more like a scientific theory than a code of ethics or an understanding of existence (indeed, one of the reason people find Marx so hard to read is the fact that he treats economics almost like a branch of physics). Don’t misunderstand me- Marx did have convictions. He saw the exploitation of the proletariat as the principal factor in the toppling of Capitalism and the class system and believed that the toppling of the Capitalism and the class system would propagate justice and equality. It’s like a scientist discovering that running electricity through a gas filled bulb not only creates light but it is his moral imperative to run electricity through a gas filled bulb and create light. As a result of all this, you’ll find no single, coherent Communist philosophy but rather a number of philosophies espousing Communist political theory. On one side you have philanthropic, altruistic humanist communists who have become Communist out of love for their fellow man. On the other side you have cynical and bitter antisocial communists who have become Communist out of a belief in morality rather than man (the author falls into this category). And between these two extremes you’ll find any number of other philosophies- religious Communism, green Communism, Anarcho-Communism, etc. If there’s a mainstream philosophy out there, you’d be safe to bet that there’s a Communist version of it (baring, perhaps, Ayn Rand-style Objectivism).

Now one might argue that the exact same rules apply to Capitalism. “Capitalism is a socio-economic theory too. You can hold any philosophy or worldview and still be a Capitalist!”.

Now this is partly true. You can indeed be a Capitalist and hold the purpose in life to protect and preserve the earth and all its natural wonders. The problem is that if you also accept Capitalism, you have to maintain that it is perfectly legal (and indeed, a basic human right) to purchase a mountain, to prevent anyone else from walking on it, and if the owner so chooses, to blow it to pieces.

“Alright, so Environmentalism and Capitalism don’t mesh so well- but there’s still a ton of other philosophies out there.”

Absolutely, and they too don’t seem to mesh well with Capitalism. If you hold the purpose of life is to live honestly and decently, then you’re presented with a number of challenges (the primary of which is that in Capitalism, the highest profits come from underpaying and overworking your employees and overpricing your products- not exactly honest or decent, is it?). If you declare that the end goal in life is to live long and prosper and see your family happy and secure then you have to deal with the fact that this is the wish of not only you but a large percent of humanity and since in Capitalism there’s only so much room at the top you’ll have to viciously compete with your neighbors for this lifestyle (unless you’re born into it, in which case you just have to worry about the huddled masses eying your house and pool. Even if you believe that the sole purpose of live is to live in decadence and luxury, you have to contend with the very definitions of the words. Do two houses in Monaco count as decadence and luxury, or should you get a yacht as well (or more importantly, will you be any more happy and fulfilled with the yacht than you are now?).

So essentially, no matter what your philosophy is, it has to be accepted that in all likelihood, you’d be able to pursue it better in a society free from Capitalism. You want peace and happiness for your family? Maybe you should opt for a system where a starving homeless man is going to gun down your wife/husband for her/his necklace/wallet. You want to be able to do whatever you love doing? Maybe you should opt for a system where you aren’t forced to take whatever job pays the bills, no matter how painful or bland. You want to be able learn everything there is to know about a subject? Maybe you should opt for a system where education is a high-priced commodity available only to some.

Maybe you should opt for Communism.

09
Jun
09

The Success of Capitalism

Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro commented “They talk about the failure of Socialism, but where is the success of Capitalism in Africa, Asia, or Latin America?”.

This is the topic that will be explored here.

At first, it would seem that Castro’s comment- made in 1991- is now outdated. After all, in Asia Capitalism seems to be doing extremely well. Japan has become a world superpower, China (a semi-Capitalist, semi-Socialist country) has one of the highest export levels on earth, and Thailand and much of South-East Asia has made massive profits off of tourism. All in all, it would appear that Capitalism has done wonders for Asia.

Or has it?

Japan, as the world’s second largest economy, has done very well for itself. In almost every respect, Japan has benefitted from Capitalism, depending on one’s definition of what is and is not beneficial- a question that will be addressed later. However, when compared with most other Asian countries, one might very well be led to conclude that Japan’s success is an isolated phenomenon.

Take China, for instance.

As previously mentioned, while China claims to be a Communist country, in reality China could be best described as a semi-socialist dictatorship with high levels of privatization. Quite simply, modern China, despite it’s cultural and political heritage, is Capitalist. And Capitalism has not been kind to China, as is clearly evidenced by the rampancy of sweatshops, child labor, and questionable marketing techniques (such as the notorious poisoned milk scandal in 2008, or lead-painted toy exports in 2007). While one might argue that this not due to Capitalism but to a lack of government regulations however one must keep in mind that Capitalism- pure Capitalism- is one without regulation, as repeatedly argued by Smith, Freidman, Rand, and so on.

And it’s not just China.

Sweatshops and child labor are present in most countries (though to varying degrees), but it doesn’t end at mere repeats of Dickensian nightmares. Though present in every country on earth, the sex trade is particularly bad in South East Asia, most notably Thailand. As described in the previous post, Capitalism is defined as the buying and selling of goods or services for profit- the emphasis on services being key here. Both voluntary and forced, prostitution is a widespread “industry”, for lack of a better term. While some might argue that prostitution is the “oldest trade in the world”, one must still question whether or not this makes it right. After all, it was once Roman practice to leave unwanted children out under bridges, but the fact that was practiced for hundreds of years doesn’t justify it. Or perhaps a person could argue that the sex trade isn’t a result of Capitalism, but if it isn’t, what is? Would these women be selling themselves for free? Would brothel owners auction off women and girls without the incentive of profit? Capitalism’s point is capital– profit. With the profit taken away, there’s not point in buying or selling goods or services- sex included.

And this is only Asia.

In Africa and South America, colonialism, or rather “neocolonialism” is still present, though in far more subtle ways. While sweatshops and sex-trade are present in both Africa and Latin America, Capitalists seem to be less interested in the profits they could make in the countries so much as the profits from what they take out of the countries. Ivory from Kenya, diamonds from Sierra Leone, minerals from Peru, wood from Brazil, and so on in an almost endless list. Corporations, mostly Western, suck Africa and South America dry of its resources in exchange for nominal pay. A person in the DRC could work in a mine for coltan ore in dangerous conditions for long hours and receive less than a dollar for his work- enough to keep him alive, but not enough to allow him to find better work. These conditions, if imposed on Western workers, would lead to riots, but in South America and Africa, corporations are capable of taking advantage of poor living conditions to create a almost limitless workforce of unskilled laborers and bleeding these countries of their natural wealth. An advocate of Capitalism could argue that a coltan miner being paid a dollar is better than the same person being paid less- that these countries are still better off with neocolonialism than without. To this I must ask whether a child is better off prostituting herself than starving. Just because a person, country, or continent is marginally better off doesn’t mean that its treatment is in any way justifiable.

While the world can talk of the “fall of Socialism”, I suggest that one cannot speak of the success of Capitalism either.

06
Jun
09

Capitalism Defined

While Communism may summon unbidden images of dictatorships, oppression, and poverty; Capitalism brings to mind images of freedom, wealth, and luxury. Like Communism, Capitalism does not deserve the reputation it has.

Capitalism, in its simplest definition, is this- a social system in which the end purpose of politics, labor, business (and indeed, life in general) is capital, i.e. money. When a person works, he or she works for the highest wages possible. When a business sells a product, the product is sold for the highest profit possible. When a government acts, it acts in such a way as to create the highest inflow of cash possible (though admittedly, Smith states that the best way for this to happen is for the government to stay out of economy altogether).

According to Capitalism’s advocates, this system creates a healthy, strong society where everyone is rewarded according to their individual efforts and intelligence. The inventive and hard-working move to the top while the stupid and lazy are left behind.

Now in theory this sounds like a good system, but how does it work when put into practice?

In reality, this system creates a survival-of-the-fittest that not even Darwin would’ve imagined possible. Individuals engage in brutal competition with each other for high-paying jobs, businesses war with each other to sell their products and services, and so on. Even Smith himself states that “But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and shew them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them… Every man is, no doubt, by nature, first and principally recommended to his own care; and as he is fitter to take care of himself than of any other person, it is fit and right that it should be so… Every man is… first and principally recommended to his own care… it is fit and right that it should be so.”. In other words, “let each and every person act in his own interests”.

“Harsh but fair.” you might argue, “it is a jungle out there and it’s only natural that the fittest survive.”

That’s all good if you’ve got a steady occupation and decent health- but what if that changes? If you suddenly were fired (maybe the company can make a better profit without you) then survival-of-the-fittest system doesn’t sound so great anymore. If you come down with some disease and the treatment is expensive, what are you going to do if you can’t come up with the cash? This is Capitalism- you can’t expect the doctor to save your life out of human compassion! Or worse yet, what if you’re born to a lower class? In that case, you’re stunted from birth- cursed with a worse education than your bourgeois and elite counterparts (after all, education’s a marketable service- the best educations go only to those who can afford it). You’ll be lucky to get a job at all.

Capitalism still sound great? It gets worse.

With all of this going on, now add on the fact that you yourself don’t count as a person in grander scheme of things. For the employer, you don’t exist as a person but as a source of revenue- a money-machine. If you “break down” or if an “upgrade” comes along, you can be replaced. That means in addition to struggling to keep your head above water in a system where you’re being squeezed for every penny, you have to fight tooth-and-claw with your fellow man for each and every opportunity. If you and a co-worker are competing for sales, what’s to stop the co-worker from lying about the product to potential buyers in order to ensure that the product is sold? He’s making money for himself and for his bosses and if the buyer’s a gullible enough to fooled, then that’s just Capitalism. The smart (or at least, those who could afford an education) and hard-working (or unscrupulous) move ahead and the stupid (or those who couldn’t afford college) and lazy (or those with mental/physical disabilities or those who simply won’t lie and cheat) are left in the dust. And what about cases where a profit can be made from direct exploitation, such as prostitution, pornography, sweat-shops, and pure and simple slavery? Since the end goal is money, is is justified to con a person or to bribe a public official for profit?

Does Capitalism still truly deserve its reputation? I submit that it does not.

05
Jun
09

Communism Defined

“Communism”.

The word will probably conjure to mind apocalyptic visions of Orwellian police states and brutal suppression of dissidents. Sadly, this was indeed true of the Soviet Union and- to this day- China and North Korea. However, before one judges Communism according to the actions of these countries, let us examine whether or not these countries met what the founding fathers of Communism defined their system as.

Both of these allegedly Communist countries have been known for being dictatorships, yet Marx defines a Communist country as a “dictatorship of the proletariat” (i.e. pure democratic rule). Both of these allegedly Communist countries have had clear social classes, with both the extremely rich and extremely poor. Marx, however, sets down in his Manifesto that a Communist society will be one devoid of any class other than the proletariat (working class). Both of these allegedly Communist countries have had individuals with large amounts of private property, particularly in China, where privatization is rampant. Marx, on the other hand, describes a Communist society as having abolished private property.

And the list goes on, ranging from political issues to economic subjects to questions of personal freedoms and responsibilities, and in almost every aspect, Marx’s description of Communism and the reality of so-called “Communist” countries are diametrically opposed. In short, these countries have merely masqueraded under the facade of Communism, while in reality functioning as semi-socialist dictatorships. For that reason, one could no more blame Communism for the atrocities committed by the Soviet and Maoist regimes than one could blame Christianity for the horrors of the Crusades or Spanish Inquisition. Despite its depiction, Communism was not the USSR. Communism is not contemporary China or Cuba or North Korea.

So what is Communism then?

Marx, in his Communist Manifesto, defines Communism as a society where (1) private property is abolished in favor of public property, (2) the class system is abolished and a single, democratic class system is created instead, and (3) each individual works according to his or her talents for the greater good of the community in exchange for the community taking care of the individual’s needs. No reference to totalitarianism, work-camps, or nuclear weapons, imperialist expansion, or brutal oppression or any of the things commonly associated with Communism is included.

Nevertheless, Communism is still widely feared. For some- those who have experienced the so-called “Communism” of the USSR, China, North Korea, and Cuba- it is quite understandable why they would look down on Communism and its advocates (though as understandable as it is, it still isn’t right).

For others, ignorance is the source of their fear, being unaware of the difference between the Soviets/Maoists/Etc. and Communists. Once again, without knowledge of the difference, their fear is understandable (though not right).

However, there are those who are fully aware of what Communism truly is and yet still fear it. But how can someone who is fully aware that Communism advocates democracy, equality, and the abolition of class and property be afraid? It can only be that these people have something to lose. The dictator loses his power, the wealthy and elite lose their position and luxury.

These people have every right to be afraid of Communism.