Thursday, October 23, 2008

Capitalism is Dead, and I Don't Feel So Good Myself

Suddenly, socialism is cool, at least in places that never had to deal with a Great Leap Forward or a Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

For the rapidly shrinking population of native English-speaking capitalists, I offer distressing evidence of the current state of affairs from the best English-language magazine in the world, The Economist:

If capitalism is dead, what will take its place?

There is undeniably something deep and ineradicable in human nature that longs for the kind of relationships found in healthy families and in close friendships. "If only the rest of the world was like this" we say to ourselves, "it would be a better place." This explains, at least in part, the persistent appeal of political philosophies like socialism, communism, and communitarianism, and the draw of religious fundamentalism. They all promise a world that offers the reassurance of familiar small-scale human relationships.

Unfortunately, it is also a world that does not work very well. The problem is one of scale. Intense relationships don't scale up. Eventually, we run out of something I call emotional capital.

Like every other form of capital, the emotional capital of human nature is a limited resource. We must use it carefully and with discrimination. No one can honestly claim to treat everyone the same way. Such a thing would be an abomination to universally recognized primary relationships like those between husband and wife, parent and child, brother and sister, or the special relationship between close friends. In different times and in different places, these relationships have varied in relative importance and in form, but they are everywhere the most important forces of small-scale, long-term social cohesion.

Things quickly get more complicated when we try to build a larger social order the same way we build smaller ones. It's like trying to be everybody's best friend. Beyond a small number of relationships, human nature simply cannot monitor things well enough to avoid neglecting the people who really matter; or avoid being exploited; or avoid being made a slave to someone else's desires.

What, then, prompts otherwise cautious humans to rush towards social theories that raise the awful specters of neglect, exploitation and slavery? I can think of three reasons this might happen. Or, more appropriately, we could say that there are three kinds of people who are drawn to the idea of a social order where everyone is family and everyone is a friend. I call them the Faithful, the Prince, and the Frightened.

The Faithful are those people who genuinely believe small-scale, primary relationships are the right model for large scale social order. The Faithful are a combination of well-educated intellectuals and secular mystics who genuinely believe the power of the state can bring to every human relationship the kind of empathy we experience in our closest ones. These people are not evil. They are often likeable, even lovable, and can usually defend their beliefs well. They cannot or do not want to believe that emotional capital is a limited resource. Beyond their vision lies mostly disappointment.

On the other hand, the Prince is cynical, calculating, and solely self-serving. He does not invoke primary relationships to improve the social order. He wears them like a garment of public virtue, even while he sins in private. He uses them to acquire, keep, and gain power over others. Once powerful, he lays claim to all emotional capital. He demands more than respect. He demands to be loved, even worshiped. Beyond love and worship lie fear and cruelty.

Finally, the Frightened are driven to this kind of thinking by a crisis. When a distinct population, identified by geography, race, political boundaries, or some other marker, is attacked or otherwise threatened, either from the outside or inside, the members of that population will draw together around what they have in common. If the threat is large enough, what they have in common will actually become their primary relationship, supplanting all others.

From the Frightened comes the brave, and dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Moments of crisis drive humans to make sacrifices they would not normally make, break human bonds they would not normally break, and submit to depredations they would normally resist.

But such a moment cannot last, not without a new crisis to sustain it, for human nature inevitably reverts back to the primary relationships that form the backbone of the social order. Humans can make stunning sacrifices, if they believe the sacrifices are necessary, and therein lies many noble acts and heroic moments worthy of our highest praise. But it is madness to expect endless years of such behavior. Beyond the vision of the Frightened lies the return to normal. Home. Hearth. Plow.

Capitalism is not dead so much as it has been abandoned. For their own reasons, the Faithful, the Prince, and the Frightened are driving us away from it. Before we go much further, we should ask, whose vision is likely to dominate? What lies beyond?

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