The Guardian • Issue #2102

Socialism versus capitalism – connection versus alienation

What makes a ten-year old child commit suicide? What makes a 17-year-old girl stab her younger sister? What drives someone to become a mass killer? What promotes racist abuse against taxi drivers? Why is there a tsunami of domestic violence and murder? Why is mental illness affecting so many? What has happened?

Capitalism has happened and it is driving us all mad. Alienation, anxiety, fear, oppression, inequality, poverty, are all driving us mad. We are social beings, and yet live and work in social isolation. Our world and the people in it have been reduced to commodities. Such is life under capitalism.

Capitalism dominates our lives. Everywhere we look we see despair and anger. Society and the bourgeois state can only survive when there is a degree of legitimacy, or at least a sense of legitimacy. We expect things and not necessarily big things from our state. We expect that our physical and social needs will be met. We expect a decent return for our labour. We expect that our children’s lives will offer hope. In return, the state governs. It is a social contract, of sorts, even if a minimalist one. People have a right to higher expectations, but the state and its sea of propaganda and ideology has limited people’s horizons.

It is a social contract but it has been broken. It has fractured because capitalism and its state is in such crisis that it can no longer provide even the most essential and basic rights of housing, health-care, physical and mental security. We have been set adrift.

All this is made much worse when we are encouraged to believe that this is all there is. But some big questions need to be asked. Another world is possible. It is possible, it exists and is delivering for well over a billion people. Socialism offers an alternative and not merely in the abstract. Socialism is being built in China, in Cuba, in the DPRK, in Laos, in Vietnam.

Only a fool or a utopian would claim that people in these states live a blissful life. Communists are neither. Just the same, stark differences between social and economic systems are obvious.

Why, for instance, are more than 600 mass shootings recorded each year in the USA? Why are 1,200 people shot and killed by US police every year and why are there almost no similar incidents in China? Why is Haiti in a state of near constant upheaval, verging on civil war, while their neighbours in Cuba live in peace, dignity, and relative harmony? Why is there an acknowledged housing crisis in South Korea, which worsens with every passing year, while thousands of new apartments are being built each year in the DPRK? There is no housing shortage. These new apartments are simply bigger and better than the ones they replace, provided at no cost. Why is there a growing mental health crisis in Australia and why, in China, do statistics point to a steady rise in social well-being?

There are two political and economic ideas; capitalism and socialism. One idea leads to crisis, alienation and pessimism. The other leads to freedom, connection, material and spiritual well-being, and to optimism. Alienation and capitalism are inseparable. Much is written and said about alienation but we need look no further than Marx for understanding. In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, he outlined the process of alienation that is so inherently a part of capitalist relations:

“What constitutes the alienation of labour? First, the fact that labour is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his essential being … The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself … His labour is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labour. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means for satisfying needs external to it … the external character of labour for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own but someone else’s … it is the loss of self.”

The working class under such conditions is inevitably estranged, not just by capitalist relations, but from capitalist society and from the state itself. The middle class, too, is more and more affected by this deep sense of alienation.

Alienation exists because an antagonistic class-based society exists. Marx’s work on alienation related specifically to the working class and its relationship to work and the production process. Work becomes a means to an end. That end is survival, in order to continue the cycle of exploitation. This becomes an unquestioned norm. Marx pointed out that we do not become this way naturally. We are social beings, but we are forced to compete with others.

If we look at our world, then the stress is palpable. We are all but completely alienated from society, from each other, and from the process of production that should exist to provide for us. We work longer and harder for less return. We are tired. We are compelled to consume the products of capitalism that are out of touch with our needs. We see our children’s expectations of life being unfulfilled. We see a world aflame with anger. We see unimaginable wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people and we see gross inequalities. Then, as if to rub salt into the wound, we are effectively blamed for the ills of society. Capitalism has all but destroyed the planet and is driving us to the brink of madness, and we are then burdened with personal and collective guilt. How could we not be alienated?

Capitalism creates the problem and then makes it worse.

Marx wrote about alienation a long time ago. Are things better now?

He insisted that when people worked for wages, they engaged in a transaction. They were selling their labour-power. They still do. They produce goods that are turned into money by the employer. Profit derives from surplus value. It proceeds from that initial transaction of the sale of one’s capacity to work; the sale of labour power.

For Marx, this meant that labour became just another commodity. A dehumanising effect was obvious. Life had no meaning apart from the process of work. What then is to be made of Marx’s theory today? We may not hear the siren calling workers to the factory bench, but things are still being made by workers. Everything we touch or consume is the product of exploited labour. Capitalism expands because it has to. It has no borders, no nationality, no allegiance. It exists to survive and to amass more and more profit; more and more surplus value.

Capitalism today is no less exploitative. Work, whenever there is an unequal relationship, and wherever that might be, is alienating. Whether you are earning third world, or first world wages is really beside the point. If you are uncertain as to whether you will be getting a wage this time next year, or next month, or next week, then you are living with unhealthy stress. If you are fearful of ill-heath, of paying the bills, of a keeping a roof over your head, of making sure that your children’s education is secure, then you are not enjoying anything like a full and enriching life. You are alienated from others and estranged from the mythologised society that capitalism presents as the good and normal life.

THE COIN CAN BE TURNED

Evidence shows that people living in states that are socialist or are developing socialist economies, are less stressed, less alienated, more engaged with society. The development of these socialist societies flows from the reality of life and the strength or weakness of the economies they live with. There is no neat formula that each Communist Party follows.

Socialist societies face problems, but people in those societies have a greater sense of self-worth and pride. 


What is ... ?

What is … ?

Class struggle

We are a class-based society. There are those who control the means of production and those who don’t. There is a capitalist class and a working class. Many have been encouraged to identify as middle class, but when economic crisis hits are often propelled back into the working class, from whence they came.

Classes have different aspirations. Capitalism can only exist by exploiting the working class. The interests of the two are contradictory. There is always an inevitable struggle between these interests – sometimes open, sometimes masked by the state. We are told that we are all Australians with one identity and one purpose. Gina Rinehart knows this is nonsense and so do we.

Class struggle can only end with the victory of the working class and the elimination of class antagonisms.

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