Fri. Jul 12th, 2024
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Capitalism, Socialism and Communism, and why they should matter to us.

Know your -isms and -ists, -als and -arians: A Historico-Political Primer

Confused about your -isms and -ists? Unsure of the difference between patriotism, nationalism and nativism? Uncertain about when a racist turns into a fascist, or why a liberal and a libertarian may not get on? Wondering when popularity turns into popularism or why socialism is a dirty word, and not socially acceptable in some quarters? Here’s a quick politico historical primer to untangle the plethora of terms we see today in the media. (This post will be one of a series.)

Let’s start with the basics: capitalism, socialism and communism, social Darwinism and Malthusianism, and why they should matter to you – especially if you are not rich.

Capitalism isn’t a capital idea if you’re poor:

Capitalism is an economic system where the means of production are not owned by the workers but are in the hands of private owners, either individual or corporate. The means of production are operated for profit, any of which over and above the operating costs is paid out to the owners, or people who hold shares in the business or means of production. The workers get paid, but not a share of the owner’s profit, the size of which profit is dependent, partially, on the extent to which the owners can depress the costs of production (the salaries or wages of their employees).

Capitalism is based on the principle of capital accumulation, which mandates that its devotees pursue profit, either by investing money or using a financial asset, so that the monetary value of the asset increases, and the capitalist obtains a return on the investment or use (such as rent, money, interest, or any other measurable gain). Capitalism believes in competitive markets, a price system, private property and the recognition of property rights, voluntary exchange and wage labour. In capitalist economies, decision-making and investments are determined by owners of assets in financial or commercial markets. Goods and services markets determine the prices of goods and services through a process of competition.

Capitalism can be further categorised as free-market, laissez faire or welfare capitalism. 

In free market capitalism, prices for goods and services are based on supply and demand, fluctuate according to those shifting forces, and are allowed to reach an equilibrium without any government intervention. 

Laissez faire capitalism is a more extreme form of free-market capitalism espoused by libertarians, who believe that there should be no state intervention at all, no government subsidies or regulatory mechanisms, and minimal taxes or tariffs. 

Laissez faire capitalists regard welfare capitalism, where the state provides either a basic, cut-to-the-bones, or more generous (as in the model of welfare capitalism common in the Scandinavian countries) welfare provision for those members of society who are less able to take part in the cut and thrust of competitive profit seeking, and who therefore need support, as little better than socialism: for a laissez faire capitalist, socialism is theft, because it takes away from their profit – paid over in taxes, for example – and gives their money to people who have not earned it. Welfare capitalists, can, however, also subscribe to welfare chauvinism – a belief that welfare can only be given to “worthy” recipients: their worth to be determined by the giver. They are capitalists, after all.

The Dickens’ character Scrooge (before his reformation) is the archetypal capitalist: his attitude, encapsulated in the statement “are there no prisons, are there no workhouses?” when asked to contribute to the charitable relief of the poor, plus his Malthusian and socially Darwinist statement that those who cannot make a living for themselves in a free market economy “had better die and decrease the surplus population” is that of a laissez-faire capitalist

Dickens also presents in his novella, the concept of welfare chauvinism: the Cratchits – good, religious, humble and grateful, will be the worthy recipients of Scrooge’s future welfare: the rogues who, shown to him by the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, strip Scrooge’s dead body and sell his belongings, who live in an area which “reeked with crime, with filth, and misery” will, presumably, not. 

So what is this socialism, which is regarded as theft, who or what is a Malthusian, and what is social Darwinism?

Socialism is about belonging to a mutually supportive society – in theory.

Socialism includes a set of political philosophies that originated in the revolutionary movements of the mid-to-late 18th century, and in the UK was largely motivated by the belief that there was something wrong in a political system which saw owners of industries in the burgeoning Industrial Revolution making huge profits off the sweated labour of people less fortunate than they were, people who were unfairly treated and not able to negotiate the terms of their working conditions. 

In essence, socialism believes in the co-ownership of the means of production between the producers themselves, and, in some systems which do not preclude private ownership, the owners of the means of production. It is thus distinct from pure communism, in which there is no private ownership at all.

By the late 19th century, mostly because of the work of Marx and Engels, socialism had taken on a political position as “the opposition to capitalism.” It advocated for a post-capitalist society based on some form of social ownership of the means of production, to be achieved, depending on the writer, the time they were writing, and their specific political bent, either by the politics of reformation, or the politics of revolution

Proponents of the politics of reformation, perhaps naïvely, believed that it was possible to retain private ownership and maintain a socialist state – usually regarded as an equitable system which saw a balance between the money earned by the producers and the money earned by the owners of production, such that there was not an excessive differential between them, plus an extensive social security network which protected and supported the weaker and less able members of society. Social democracy was, theorists argued, the means to achieve this.

Proponents of the politics of revolution  tended to believe that pulling the whole edifice down and building it anew would lead to the “perfectly just city, rejoicing in justice alone”: in practice where this was attempted, the formerly wealthy and powerful tended to rise to the top of the melting pot like scum, and immediately plunged the state into a more extreme form of inequity than previously – humans, being, unfortunately, given to corruption and greed. Communists tended to favour the politics of revolution.

By the 1920s, socialism had become the most influential secular movement of the 20th century: do not forget that the Nazi party was originally the “National Socialist” party. Communism and social democracy had become the two dominant political tendencies within the international socialist movement.


no man is an island, entire of itself: we are each a piece of the continent, a part of the main… therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”

John Donne

John Donne, quoted above, was by no means a communist, yet his statement encapsulates the purest ideal of communism, a philosophical, social, political, and economic ideology whose ultimate goal is the establishment of a communist society, structured upon the common ownership of the means of production and the absence of social classes, money and the state in a society of perfect equity and harmony. 

The principle is an admirable one which has, sadly, owing to the ineradicable tendency of privileged men to dominate wherever they can, been impossible to put into practice: humans have different aptitudes and intelligences, but they are, more importantly, born with a greater or lesser degree of privilege which it has been impossible, in the course of human history, to eradicate. Not nature, therefore, but nurture renders the communist society impossible. We may wish, as Omar Khayyam says

to grasp this sorry scheme of things entire . . .shatter it to bits and then remould it nearer to our heart’s desire

Omar Khayyam

but when communist regimes have attempted this, it has led to such atrocities as the killing fields of Pol Pot’s Cambodia where members of the proletariat (the Marxist-Leninist term for those members of a society whose only possession of significant economic value is their labour power, or capacity to work) were set at odds with the bourgeoisie, (that small minority who derives profit from employing the proletariat through private ownership of the means of production) and an estimated 2.2 million people died.

Capitalists regard both socialism and communism as antithetical to their beliefs and inimical to their pursuit of profit: given that both of these political systems entail distribution – or sometimes redistribution – of wealth, what is given to the worker is necessarily taken away from the owner. One of the biggest tricks in the capitalist system is how, by holding out the promise that you too can become a rich capitalist, capitalists reinforce the status quo which benefits them: it seems to have escaped most people’s notice that in order to have more, one has to have something with which to make that more in the first place. Many people who support capitalism and who would roundly denounce socialism are themselves those who will never achieve the wealth and power of a capitalist, but who will complain that socialists are those who want to take away what little they have, despite the fact that it is the capitalists in power who prevent them from attaining the wealth and power they seek . . . in order to become capitalists in their turn.

Social Darwinism and Malthusianism.

Social Darwinism is a discredited theory based on the concept of “survival of the fittest.”

Darwin propounded the theory of natural selection, in which those organisms best adapted to the environmental parameters of a habitat will reproduce most successfully, thus perpetuating organisms that will continue to succeed in that environment. He later changed the phrase to one suggested by Herbert Spencer, a fellow biologist: “the survival of the fittest.” Spencer was, however, a Lamarckian, (believing in the possibility that acquired, not just genetic traits could be passed on to offspring) and he wrote on evolutionary theory as applied to societies, which Darwin did not. 

Spencer supported laissez-faire capitalism on the basis of his Lamarckian belief that struggle for survival spurred self-improvement which could be inherited. Later an adaptation of his views became incorporated into the concept of social Darwinism, which holds that natural survival of the fittest means the strong will inevitably see their wealth and power increase while the weak see their wealth and power decrease. The corollary of this is that for there to be “the strong”, there must also be “the weak: it is every person’s duty therefore, to ensure that they are “the strong.” 

In laissez faire capitalism, the theory of social Darwinism supports the lack of a social security network. The “weak” must go to the wall as their existence is inevitably futile. Needless to state, the indiscriminately vicious biological competition that this posits is not supported by the original Darwinian theory; biologists repudiate the term “survival of the fittest” as it is tainted by association, and since some proponents of social Darwinism stress the rightness of competition between individuals in laissez-faire capitalism and others use it to imply an inevitable struggle between national or racial groups, it is a thoroughly discredited idea. Social Darwinism has been used to support nationalism, authoritarianism, eugenics, racism, imperialism, and fascism, and its ideology inspired the perpetrators of genocides including the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust.

Malthusianism is implicit in the attenuated welfare systems of some laissez faire capitalist societies, including the UK and the US. 

Thomas Malthus was an English economist and demographer. In his 1798 book An Essay on the Principle of Population, he noted that in human societies, an increase in a nation’s food production improved the well-being of the populace, but the improvement was temporary because it led to population growth: well-fed animals bred more, and more offspring survived. 

However, the main point he made was that people multiply geometrically and food arithmetically, therefore whenever the food supply increases, populations will rapidly grow to the point where they eat the excess, since it is impossible for food supply to catch up. He believed that eventually in the future, there would not be enough food for the whole of humanity to consume and people would starve. Until that point, the more food made available, the more the population would increase. He also stated that there was a fight for survival amongst humans and that only the strong who could attain food and other needs would survive, unlike the impoverished population he saw during his time period.

His theory that populations have a tendency to grow until the “lower class” suffer hardship, want, famine and disease, which wipe them out so that there is once again enough food for the diminished population, whereupon the whole process of increase, famine, death and crash repeats itself endlessly, is sometimes referred to as the “Malthusian catastrophe.” 

Malthus was also an Anglican clergyman, and he saw the “Malthusian Catastrophe” as a divinely imposed punishment to teach poor people not to breed, and to justify the sufferings of the poor. He wrote that “the increase of population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence”; “population does invariably increase when the means of subsistence increase”; and “the superior power of population is repressed by moral restraint, vice and misery”

Is this relevant to us today? Why should it matter to me?

The connection between Malthusian policies, social Darwinism, welfare chauvinism and the system of laissez faire capitalism in the UK today, is not accidental. The policies which the government proposes, which are put in place – increasingly by statutory implement rather than through the parliamentary process – and which the media seeks to divert us from noticing, do not spring from thin air: they are the outcome of the political theories which are designed to support the capitalist status quo.

The creation of ‘out groups” such as, variously, “the economically inactive” “immigrants” “travellers” or “single mothers on welfare” and the consequent “welfare chauvinism” portraying them as unworthy recipients of the very small slice of welfare payments they receive, is done for two reasons. 

The first is that it serves to focus our minds on the consequences of falling into the untender clutches of our attenuated welfare state – the smaller the pie, and the greater the number of people who need it, then the smaller the piece they can each have and the more they will fight for it like rats in a trap. The second is that it serves to divert us from the fact that these policies would be applied to us should we fall into any of the “out-group” categories: as long as we see ourselves as the “in group” we can feel safe – if we are prepared to forget how flimsy the dividing line between them and us.

The demonisation of socialism as a system which takes from you to give to him – or her – or them – and possibly a “them” whom you see as an undeserving ‘out group” is not accidental either. Socialism is not a perfect system – no system is, as all are subject to human error, human greed, and, to put it bluntly, the vice and bad faith of people who have, and who would prefer all others to have not: there are bad socialists and bad communists as well as bad capitalists: evil is not the prerogative of one political leaning, but can subvert any political creed to its use.

Currently, the theories behind our political system in this country have moved from the socially democratic welfare capitalism of the Labour party to the extreme laissez faire capitalism of the current Tory party. That party subscribes to the theories of social Darwinism and Malthusianism, as is evidenced by its systematic stripping of the welfare state. In order to make its actions more palatable to the electorate, it is using populism and nativism to swing the confused, ignorant and exhausted population behind it, and in order to support a move further towards a completely free-market economy, it is using authoritarianism to govern. 

The next essay in this series discusses the difference between patriotism, nationalism and nativism, how authoritarianism is used to bring in an extreme forms of government control whether right or left wing, and nativism is used to justify it, and why the National Socialist (Nazi) party in Germany (socialists regarded as being left wing) could end up being called a fascist (generally regarded as right-wing) party.

Future articles will look at the rise of the fascist right in Europe, and the historical background to that rise.

Image source

“Pyramid of Capitalist System (We Rule All. We Fool All)” by 50 Watts is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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