One of the pitfalls that lies in the path of those who try to gauge the outlines of the future in advance, and swallows no small number of them, is the assumption that today’s popular beliefs and assumptions are a good guide to tomorrow’s. Sometimes, to be sure, this turns out to be the case, and some widespread opinion or other remains glued in place for decades or centuries – though this usually happens to opinions that most sensible people think will soon be abandoned. More often, though, there’s no belief less popular at any given time than the most firmly held convictions of the recent past.
A reminder of this landed in my inbox a few days back, in an article about a recent survey of American opinion. According to the article, only 53% of the people who responded to the survey agreed that capitalism was better than socialism; 20% thought that socialism was better, while 27% weren’t sure which way to call it. The article caused a brief flutter in the dovecotes of the Left, and a somewhat larger one in the hawk-cotes of the Right, but I’m not at all sure that either side caught the wider implications of the shift this survey documented.
Some history needs to be surveyed to make sense of those implications. Ever since the rubble stopped bouncing in 1945, what used to be called political economy – that is, the way that human societies organize and direct their economic activities – has been defined by a choice between two unpromising alternatives. Calling them simply “capitalism” and “socialism,” popular as this habit is, misstates the matter, because they were much more specific than that.
The first might better be called corporate capitalism, as it recycled older forms of capitalism in the service of the weird social fiction of the corporation, a “legal person” that has more rights and fewer responsibilities than the rest of us, and serves today’s well-to-do in roughly the same role that the image of Oz the Great and Powerful did for the little man behind the curtain. The second might with equal justice be called bureaucratic socialism, as it translated the grand promises and stirring rhetoric of generations of radicals into dour totalitarian states that guaranteed every citizen an equal share of deprivation and repression.
In retrospect, it might seem obvious that there are many other ways to run a free market economy than relying on an arrangement that Adam Smith himself considered the worst possible way to run a business. (I wonder how many of today’s cheerleaders for corporatist capitalism have read Smith’s scathing comments about joint-stock companies, the proto-corporations of his own time.) It might seem equally obvious that there are plenty of ways to manage an economy of collective ownership that do not require vast sclerotic bureaucracies governed by dogmatic ideologies. Nor are some form of free market or some form of collective ownership the only ways to manage a society’s production and distribution of goods and services.
The fact remains, though, that since 1945 nearly everyone in the industrial world, and most of the nonindustrial world as well, has behaved as though corporate capitalism, bureaucratic socialism, or some awkward hybrid such as social democracy composed of spare parts from both, were the only possible forms of political economy. This is problematic now, because both corporate capitalism and bureaucratic socialism have not only failed abjectly to make good on their promises, but have turned out to be catastrophically failure-prone into the bargain.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and its client states, the massed failures of bureaucratic socialism are hard to miss. Still, corporate capitalism has demonstrated not once but twice that its results are just as bad. From 1896 to 1929, and then again from 1980 to 2008, corporate capitalism was allowed to take the bit in its teeth and run, and in each case the result was an accelerating cycle of disastrous booms and busts and the emergence of a culture of corporate kleptocracy that, between them, ended up devastating the global economy. Meanwhile the faith that a rising tide would lift all boats turned out, in both cases, to be completely misplaced; the benefits that were supposed to trickle down trickled up instead, beggaring the working classes and driving much of the middle class into relative poverty while funneling most of society’s wealth into the unproductive hands of speculators and financiers.
Neither system, in other words, works worth a tinker’s expletive at the basic job of keeping an economy productive and functioning, and both thus might reasonably be chucked into history’s recycle bin. The one difficulty is that very few people nowadays realize that there are other alternatives – and this, in turn, is a function of our collective blindness to our own history.
Until the Second World War, in point of fact, corporate capitalism and bureaucratic socialism were only the most successful of a dizzying range of systems of political economy that had a substantial public presence. Distributism, syndicalism, synarchism, guild socialism, and many others were discussed in a lively literature of books and periodicals, and each had its enthusiastic followers. Nor were these simply slight variations on the two systems left standing; some tended toward the free market end of the spectrum, others toward the collective ownership end, and some occupied positions in the middle, assigning some fields of economic activity to the free market while putting others in the public sphere, but each offered a distinctive system for managing the realities of human economic life.
What squeezed these alternative systems out of collective consciousness was the long era of the Cold War, when both sides turned their respective systems of political economy into ideological battle flags in the struggle over which of two empires – American or Russian – would dominate the world in the wake of the British Empire’s long retreat. (Yes, I know it’s unpopular these days to suggest that America is an empire, but given that we station troops in 140 countries just now, backing up a state of affairs in which the 5% of humanity that lives in the United States uses around a third of the world’s resources and industrial output, the term is hard to avoid.) The United States won that struggle, only to find – as every other empire in history has found – that getting to the top of the heap simply makes you target number one for an endless series of fresh challengers, one of whom will eventually win.
The disastrous narrowing of vision that was driven by the bitter rivalries of the Cold War years remains fixed in place, though, not only in the United States but – in large part due to America’s current role as the main manufacturer and exporter of the global culture industry – throughout most of the world. The problem with this state of affairs is not limited to the massive failures that afflict both corporate capitalism and bureaucratic socialism; neither system has shown the least trace of an ability to deal with the challenge of making human economics work within the fragile ecology and finite resource base of our planet, for example. Still, at a time when the world’s industrial societies are facing severe problems due to the steady depletion of fossil fuel reserves, relying on systems of political economy that have a proven track record of catastrophic dysfunction anyway is not exactly a good idea.
What the survey mentioned at the beginning of this post shows, in turn, is that a growing number of Americans have become aware of this last point. That opens up options that have been closed for the last two generations or so. Thus I’d like to offer a bit of advice to distributists – yes, there are still some out there – and proponents of any other alternative systems of political economy that may still be around after all these years: now’s your chance. If, as the survey suggests, 27% of Americans have already reached the point where neither capitalism nor socialism has any particular appeal, there’s a large audience waiting to hear what you have to say, if you make an effort to get the word out to them.
Now of course there’s also a place for newly minted alternatives, provided that those don’t start from the assumption that people can consume more goods and services than they produce, or that the Earth’s remaining resource base can support – two little difficulties that have been all too common in recent schemes of this sort. Even the most determined prophet of some new system, though, might benefit from taking a good close look at what has been done in the past; if you’re going to reinvent the wheel, it might be useful to make sure that your version is actually better than the last century or two of attempts at the same thing. Anything that can pop our collective imaginations out of the current and hopelessly sterile fixation on the relative merits of two abjectly failed systems is likely to be a good thing.
Will it be enough of a good thing to stave off the decline and fall this blog has been discussing for the last three years? At this stage of the game, with petroleum production already sliding and so many opportunities gone by the boards, that seems hopelessly unlikely. Still, the adoption of some less wildly inefficient and failure-prone approach to political economy would be a very sensible move as we begin to deal with the challenges of the long era of contraction and readjustment that is taking shape around us right now. Utopian schemes remain as useless as they have ever been, but efforts at thoughtful, constructive, and realistic change are quite another matter, and in the wake of corporate capitalism’s latest round of failure, there might just be an opportunity to accomplish a bit of the latter.