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Capitalism, Socialism, & Community

Still searching, still learning … I found these comments on a socialist site and I’m posting them for future reference. I think he is quite correct when he states that there are three reasons why capitalism has disrupted traditional communities: first, the destruction of rural villages and towns, second, capitalism’s emphasis on extreme individualism and consumerism, and third, the structure of the capitalist work place, a “realm of unfreedom and servitude. It is not a place of freedom, autonomy, or creativity.” The author is Glenn King.

Capitalism, Socialism, and Community

I want to add some additional comments to those I made at the last SD discussion on the issue of socialism, capitalism, and human nature. I would argue that while capitalism gives a full reign to the satisfaction of human competitive instincts for wealth and power over others, it does a very poor job of providing for the human instincts for community and solidarity.

In saying this of course I am aware that the word “community” is a very hard word to define. Currently community is used to refer to abstractions as large scale and impersonal as “national,” “international,” or “faith” communities.” The word “community is used to describe to the communal relationships that exist within small religious sects and the various village and clan communities of traditional agrarian societies. So in order to define what I mean I will use the classic definition of community given by the great German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies in his book Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft ( Community and
Society) written in 1887. Tonnies makes a distinction between “society” (gesellschaft) which tends to be the impersonal, large scale world of politics, economics, urban anonymity and atomized individualism and “community” (gemeinschaft) which are the tightly net, small scale, face to face forms of living which have characterized most early human societies. Early hunting gathering bands, early horticultural villages, clan societies, and traditional agrarian peasant villages were all forms of gemeinschaft. Latter forms of community within earlier forms of capitalism would be the working class, ethnic neighborhoods of 19th and 20th century America. Modern religious bodies such as churches, synagogues, and mosques at least to a certain degree recreate ties of community in the modern world with varying degrees of success. The wikipedia article on “gemeinschaft” characterizes it thusly.

Gemeinschaft (often translated as community) is an association in which individuals are oriented to the large association as much, if not more than, to their own self interest. Furthermore, individuals in Gemeinschaft are regulated by common mores, or beliefs about the appropriate behavior and responsibility of members of the association, to each other and to the association at large; associations are marked by “unity of will” (Tönnies, 22). Tönnies saw the family as the most
perfect expression of Gemeinschaft; however, he expected that Gemeinschaft could be based on shared place and shared belief as well as kinship, and he included globally dispersed religious communities as possible examples of Gemeinschaft…. Gemeinschaften are broadly characterized by a moderate division of labour, strong personal relationships, strong families, and relatively simple social institutions. In such societies there is seldom a need to enforce social control externally, due to a collective sense of loyalty individuals feel for society.”

Given that for tens of thousands of years humanity has lived in and in fact evolved within a matrix of small scale closely netted communities of the gemeinshaft type, I think that it can be said that life within such community is hardwired into the human gene pool.

What is also clear is that modern capitalism has developed a society which is increasingly unfriendly toward gemeinschaft forms of community. Modern society is increasingly a society of the isolated individual in which the largest community unit is the often dysfunctional nuclear family. Individuals of course over the course of their lives do attempt to establish communal ties through workplace friendships, clubs, and religious bodies, etc. It is clear however that most of these relationships tend to be fleeting and ethereal by nature. And certainly they are seldom characterized by any sense of common purpose or collective meaning.

There are of course a multiple of reasons why capitalism has been disruptive of traditional communities and unfriendly to the development of new forms of community. There are three that are the most obvious. The first and most obvious is that capitalism has disrupted the rural life of villages and small towns increasingly by concentrating rural populations within huge cities.

This movement of people out of rural areas, disrupting and destroying many forms of community, has not gone unchallenged. In the United States in particular and other nations as well, tightly net ethnic, working class neighborhoods developed within the large cities during the course of the 19th and 20th centuries as a means of maintaining some stability and community in people’s lives. Unfortunately within information age capitalism even these forms of community have began to breakdown.

The second characteristic of modern capitalism that has been disruptive to community has been the cultural production of an almost universal capitalist ideology of extreme individualism / consumerism. The supreme goal of life in this worldview is the enhancement of the individual and the meeting of his / her consumption desires. The second goal is that individuals must increase their economic status within the capitalist society. It follows that if these two cultural drives are primary then any need for community must be relegated to second or third place in people’s lives.

The third characteristic of modern capitalism which destroys community lays within the structure of the capitalist work place itself. The workplace for the vast majority of the world’s “employees” is simply a place in which one exchanges ones labor for a weekly or biweekly paycheck. The capitalist workplace is a place in which one must suppress ones real desires to serve the will of a hierarchy of owners, stockholders, CEO’s etc. It is the realm of unfreedom and servitude. It is not a place of freedom, autonomy, or creativity. Thus it is not surprising that the capitalist workplace itself is not the center of community in peoples lives.

It is of course easy to point out the evils of capitalism, it is more
difficult to show how a concrete socialist society might work and how some of the negative consequences of capitalism can be overcome. Certainly the Communist societies of the past were not successful and they did little to build viable forms of human community. In fact by their actions they openly opposed such communities.

The fact is that a real existing socialism on a national scale has never developed. However through the examples of worker cooperative movements such as that of the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation, a realist vision of what a future socialism might look like can be seen. A socialist society would be one in which the dominant form of property would be cooperative and one in which workers would simultaneously own and democratically control their places of labor and economic enterprises.

That transformation of the relationship of workers toward capital, the means of production, would also likely transform the life of workers toward the work place, work itself, and toward other workers. The workplace would become transformed from a place of unfreedom and repressive hierarchy to one of freedom, egalitarian forms of ownership and autonomous self management.

Within a society of free workplaces, it is easy to envision that, second to the family, the workplace itself would become the primary place of community in people’s lives. Instead of community being lived out primarily within the context of its earlier forms, it would develop primarily in relationship to the self governing workplace. Other forms of community would follow. Thus the residential pattern of cities would perhaps change to meet a desire of workers to live within closer proximity to their places of labor and each other. After all the workplace would be much more central to life than it is in its currently alienated form.

It is also possible that newer forms of democratic government perhaps of a more directly democratic nature will develop. This could stimulate new forms of face to face political organization which could form the basis of more communal lifestyles. Religious bodies may change. Of course Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and other religious faiths would continue. But society’s new forms of community would perhaps inspire religious revival in which the major faiths would reexamine older forms of religious community for example, that of Christian monasticism, the Sufi brotherhoods, or the close forms of communal life of the Jewish Hasidim. These earlier forms of religious community could be utilized by the more creative elements of the traditional faiths in order to develop new forms of common life. While competitive capitalist society sees any kind of real communal life as strange and bizarre, the newer forms of cooperative life that would develop within the matrix of socialist society would perhaps reinvigorate the life of religious faiths.

OK, of course socialism is not just around the corner. I do not delude myself that it is. Of course much of this writing has been a exercise in “wishful” thinking. However much of what we have on our side is “hopeful or wishful” thinking. The endless protests of the left, its bottomless hatred of the United States, its dogged obsession with direct action or on the “realism” of single issue politics will at its best produce results that hopefully may roll back some of the attacks of the tea party right. It seems to me that if we are to get any where we have to go back to radical thinking regarding basic human realities such as community, power, freedom, and justice. That is what I hope I have done in this article. If we don’t do this we will be simply running a race on a treadmill, a race that we can not win.


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