Altruism is an illusion. If I do have free will, then self-interest is the sole ruler of my decision-making. Moral obligations bear no more reality than God.
This conclusion is certainly not unfamiliar to the average member of a society in which the naturalistic worldview is as dominant as it is today. A generalized misunderstanding (or maybe semi-understanding) of the role of scientific research as an epistemological tool towards knowledge has turned a non-negligible portion of the “educationally Enlightened” into a religious group, in worship of this grand idea of an “All Knowing Science.” In their eyes, science is more than just a very elegant model attempting to give a mathematical visage to our experience of the world; it is God. A God whose blade of determinism shreds to pieces all forms of moral facts and normative claims. Only one normative claim survives the massacre, one that we have no choice but to follow: “Do as you please.”
You may have spotted my contempt for this phenomenon. However, despite my objections to the most popular hasty materialistic arguments in favor of moral nihilism, I have my own reasons to seriously consider something similar. These reasons are irrelevant for this article; my interest here lies in examining how holding such a worldview may impact one’s perspective in matters of political philosophy, and more specifically, socialism. This topic gains significance from the growing tendency of many moral nihilists to attack the standard forms of Socialism, basing their criticism on a claim that usually goes like this:
“Altruism is a myth. You cannot expect a socialist society to function, basing your claim on the assumption that its members will live up to none-existent moral obligations towards their less productive (or unlucky) co-citizens.”
The immediate counter-argument to this would be that altruism can exist as a “mirror” of self-interest: I help, because my happiness can be influenced by the happiness of others — I am compassionate. This, of course, leads at best to dangerous uncertainty, since it seems more than likely that this effect has limited potency when it comes to helping strangers whose happiness won’t become evident to you in a direct manner. However, can one really trust this mechanism as the foundation of a social structure, when it fails to motivate the average person to spend more for charity than on consumption goods (new phones, cars…), while being aware of the consequences of that choice? And more importantly, are there any alternative foundations for Socialism if the answer to the previous question is no? The latter question is equivalent to the following: Is it possible for an economically classless society to be preferable for the average citizen, if her only concern is her self-interest? We have accepted that “One does as she desires.” But what does she desire? Let us see.
A disclaimer: The frequent reference to the “average citizen” is intended to show that my intention is to provide adequate reasons for someone to consider socialism, without ascribing to that “someone” uncommon personality traits that would make her more likely to see the sense in my arguments. I would see no reason to proceed otherwise. The use of “average” might seem blurry, but considering the purpose of its use, this vagueness produces no problem. If “average” is used differently, it will be clear from context.
Why is money so desirable? Easy. It gives its possessor the ability to solve her problems and satisfy her desires to a great extent. Is that all? No. More importantly, it gives her the ability to solve other people’s problems and satisfy other people’s desires with unparalleled ease. As a result, the possession of money is, naturally, socially attractive. And being socially attractive is in turn, desired by most people.
It could be argued that many remain indifferent to one’s wealth status when selecting their attitude towards her, both consciously and subconsciously. Regardless of its accuracy, this claim is rather irrelevant. I would never argue that money brings love or honest appreciation de facto; but it certainly is a trigger of interest for members of one’s social circles and the general public. Money is, in many ways, a magnet of attention and since, non-surprisingly, people dream of being important, the potential of fulfilling such fantasies is very tempting. For the same reason, it is not hard to understand why people value the various forms of social influence that money buys. Nor is it peculiar, having considered the above, that the conceptual relationship of wealth and success in developed countries provides a strong motive to earn more than others. This last point will be of crucial importance later on.
I hope I have sufficiently demonstrated the “shininess” of money. By no means do I imply that everyone is motivated to earn money by every single reason I provided above. I won’t even go as far as to suppose that everyone desires to be rich. All I want to show is that in a social structure that allows the private ownership of capital, wealth imbalances are intrinsic. And even though this must not necessarily result in the existence of absolute poverty — since universal social welfare can exist within capitalism — widespread “relative poverty” is unavoidable.
At this point, I will make the fair assumption that the average citizen, who has neither received a large inheritance nor has acquired massive wealth at a very young age due to a successful startup or chance must make the choice of either specializing in a particular form of labor which she will have to practice full-time or fall into relative poverty. From this, it would follow that capitalism is very similar with socialism with respect to a characteristic for which the latter is frequently bashed; that is, the enforcement of limitations in choosing a working lifestyle.
If it is shown that relative poverty is inevitably tormenting enough for the vast majority of the population to give up leisure time to escape it, it becomes evident that many combinations of ‘job — working hours’ that may be enough to avoid absolute poverty are in reality out of reach for most people, since they lead to relative poverty. The analogy for this in socialism is that everyone is obliged to work more or less for the same time to accommodate society’s basic needs and is paid a standard wage for it. The option of working in a capitalistic private firm is obviously impossible since private ownership of capital is illegal. The above limitations may be applied to different aspects of the individual’s working lifestyle in each social structure, but their nature is identical. A supporter of capitalism may argue that in capitalism one’s options are not regulated by the State and thus, she is freer. But isn’t this as absurd as claiming that a prisoner is less free than a sailor abandoned in little island surrounded by sharks, simply because the former can’t move through a wall, but the latter is free to jump in the water?
In the same way the socialist state bans the functioning of the capitalist mode of production, the capitalist society subtly enforces the individual’s active participation in it. The only difference is that in the latter case, the source of the constraint is very well hidden whereas in the former, it takes the form of the Big Bad State. However, careful consideration reveals the superficiality of this distinction. In the case of capitalism, the individual is being restricted by the decision of other members of the society to acquire wealth. In the case of socialism, it seems that one is restricted by the State. But what is this State, if not the result of the collective decisions of the society that has formed it (assuming that the democratic majority has chosen socialism)? In either case, the individual is “imprisoned” by the dominant trends of the society she lives in. One cannot escape this. Her only choice is to realize as best as she can which prison best accommodates her desired way of living and then actively pursue its establishment. In order to substantiate the above claims, I will now seek reasons that explain why the vast majority of the population of a developed country is urged to passionately run from relative poverty.
How does one realize that she is relatively poor? She looks around. She notices how much she owns and what she can buy and compares these figures to those of the people around her. If she finds herself in most cases in a significantly worse position, she is relatively poor. Is this condition really that bad? What if being relatively poor just means living in a small apartment and owning obsolete versions of technological devices, while enjoying electricity, water, and decent healthcare services? How is this way of living unbearable?
It’s not, if considered in isolation. Proof of this is that these same living conditions would be considered luxurious some decades ago and would definitely not be displeasing for the vast majority of people. This reverse induction has, of course, a limit. Because when in past Western capitalist societies, as well as in current undeveloped ones, relative poverty coincides almost completely with absolute poverty, such living conditions are not considered “good” in any social context. Developed countries owe the possibility of eradication of this phenomenon to capitalism (I emphasize the word “possibility,” since absolute poverty certainly exists in developed countries). For the sake of argument, I will assume the best possible state of capitalism, which involves a welfare system that realizes this possibility. That way, I cannot consider the fear of absolute poverty as motivation to acquire wealth; I want to treat capitalism fairly.
Returning to the original point, I will now consider what else may lead the average modern citizen to be willing to sacrifice her precious leisure time just to escape this seemingly benign condition of relative poverty. I can think of two non-mutually-exclusive reasons.
The most obvious one is that the individual has come to the realization that out of all the domains of human competition — which accommodate our desire to prove our worth to each other — money-making is by far the most popular and thus the most socially rewarding. Because of its indisputable dominance, the degree of success in this “competition” can be easily transformed into the highest measure of self-value. The universality of money’s power makes the competition of its possession asymmetric to all other intellectual or athletic ‘competitions,’ in that there is little comfort in losing. If I am incompetent in music, I may find comfort in my competence in some other skill or combination of skills — even some quality of my character — simply because there is, thankfully, no human value that is not appreciated by some group of people.
But wealth competition escapes all comparison for a different reason. For even if one may have no admiration for the skill of “money-making” in itself, she is aware of the general public’s tendency to hold the products of such a skill — money itself — as the ultimate and most easily determinable measure of success. It is thus essential for her happiness to at least maintain some ‘dignity’ in that competition, regardless of whether she approves of the social trend that gives it significance.
Presenting the second reason requires a quick discussion of ‘need.’ Offering an absolute definition of this term is pointless. The definition I will now provide simply serves its use in the context of what I intend to explain: “You need those things whose absence produces a durational displeasure when you are conscious of desiring them.” It follows from this definition that the average person of our age needs a car but not a flying car. In circumstances of annoying traffic, one may momentarily desire the latter, but since this desire is a fantasy, any displeasure resulting from it is mild and very short-lived. But not owning a car could be the source of great displeasure for most people. Why is that? The car is superior to a horse-carriage in that it reduces the time of travel. The flying car again reduces the time of travel even more — possibly to a greater proportion. But that seems irrelevant to most of us for a very simple reason: problems with no attainable solutions are often not really problems.
It is thus essential for her happiness to at least maintain some ‘dignity’ in that competition, regardless of whether she approves of the social trend that gives it significance.
Of course, there are some exceptions, for instance, incurable diseases and all cases of immediate sensory displeasure (physical pain, bad smells, etc.). Similarly, suffering from an incurable type of cancer, does not disqualify the desire to be cured from being also a need to be cured. But the list of exceptions has gotten small due to capitalism. In a modern advanced economy, it includes primarily health-related problems (transportation and communication no longer qualify). The pharmaceutical industry profits by providing much needed solutions for health problems. But this process isn’t the rule for the majority of industries. Consider the analogous situation in other industries.
Were most people tortured daily by the non-existence of game-consoles, printers, or even televisions before they were invented? It is really hard for someone who is used to these luxuries to imagine the answer. If my television is taken from me, its absence would certainly bother me frequently. The same would be true to some extent if it was recently invented and I saw people around me possess it. In both cases, I would be in need of a television.
But what if it was not available for purchase in the first place? What if televisions were no less imaginary than personal robot-housekeepers? Let’s imagine that the latter becomes available in the market. Would cleaning your apartment ever be the same? Wouldn’t the magnitude of every negative aspect of this activity be multiplied significantly, knowing that it could easily be avoided? The solution seems so simple: ‘Just buy the robot.’ And that is exactly what people do. They go to work, earn, earn, earn, and finally get rid of the problem! What has been achieved? Are we in a better off position than before the robot was invented? One might say “Of course! Even though its existence made me dislike the process of cleaning even more, now that I own the robot there is nothing left to dislike!” Here I must ask: What about the cost inherent in the time and effort you spent to acquire the robot? “It is incomparable to the time and effort I would have wasted in cleaning!” But even though avoiding such tasks may allow us more leisure in our non-working hours, recent history suggests that it does not lead to any significant reduction in working hours. How is this possible? Simple — there is always more to buy.
We must accept an irrefutable truth: very, very few people would ever bother going through the design and time-consuming continuous production of housekeeper-robots purely because of the merits of such products to themselves and humanity. The irritation of cleaning, by itself, would not suffice to motivate people to use their time for such an endeavor, given the precious alternatives. Firms that produce products of such nature do so, only because they have realized that the materialization of a solution to an unsubstantiated problem, is what gives flesh to the problem itself. And once the problem is created, money is to be made.
Its most crucial manifestation in our lives is even simpler: a ceaseless alternating repetition of the mottos “Time is money” and “Money buys time.”
But wait. What’s so bad about this? Haven’t I already admitted that the final result benefits me overall? Yes, but only if I am shortsighted. As we all know, the capitalist market’s supply for products of such nature (at best), is no less inexhaustible than human imagination. In this gigantic variety of temptations, the average person will certainly end up craving a significant number of them, once he is aware of their existence. But why would people choose to exhaust their most valued faculty in thinking about what they lack? Because chasing money is irresistible. And why would anyone suddenly agree to buy their products if they didn’t need them in the first place? Well, why would you suddenly feel the limitations of your corporeal nature sting you the moment you saw your neighbor fly over your house, in his new jet-pack? Even if this specific example is not applicable to you, I trust that you are creative enough to find your own. After all, there is such abundance.
Evidence shows that most people see enough sense in one or both of the aforementioned reasons to dedicate the greatest part of their everydayness to performing the same job with very few breaks. The cost is clear. The dehumanizing nature of specialized labor in advanced economies has changed a lot since Marx. It has acquired a less brutal, more computerized form whose effects remain, nevertheless, devastating for those who want to see their own identity in the products of their efforts or spend the majority of their time pursuing their less “productive” passions.
But something is very different. Capitalism itself has provided us with a means to escape it: technology. The best argument against non-capitalist modes of production is that they cannot match its growth levels. That is still true. But why is growth so important for Western countries? If you are the average civilian, look around you and honestly answer this: What products are missing? Maybe a more comfortable sofa. Maybe the new iPhone — the one that has slightly better graphics and Siri. If you stretch your imagination, you may think of a couple of more. But this list rejuvenates.
As long as you live under capitalism, it will always silently replace its members. This is how capitalistic growth never fails to lose its glamour in our eyes. Its most crucial manifestation in our lives is even simpler: a ceaseless alternating repetition of the mottos “Time is money” and “Money buys time.” Combining the two we get: “Time is money to buy time, which is money and buys time…” This is the death of leisure and much more.
It is certain that many people are not fooling themselves in thinking that they would be miserable under socialism. They are absolutely right in opposing it. It is not my aim to show, that socialism is the universally “right” choice. I am not even certain about my own preference. Happiness is a blurry concept. Even if it wasn’t, it would still be extremely hard for anyone to be able to approximate its magnitude in imaginary situations. And that is exactly what is required, in comparing two social structures without the magical hand of some godly moral code.
In this essay, I have certainly left room for a myriad of objections. But is only natural to do so when attempting to discuss such a complex matter in such little space. My ambition is that the reader who has so far only pictured socialism as a colorful utopia opposed to human nature or as a Stalinist Hell will find enough reasons to consider how a democratically approved global socialism could rid her of many great burdens that will otherwise haunt her until retirement age and possibly beyond. I hope that she will be tempted to ask herself if she still sees any sense in running without rest from the animals of a jungle out of which she has long since escaped.
Images: Scott Remer, PC ’16