6. Capitalism or socialism? The only choice?

This piece was written two years ago and comments on the political situation in the United Kingdom at the time, but also on more general political questions.  We have included the piece essentially as a footnote to Post 5. There Hlatky writes that capitalism and socialism are misleadingly regarded as opposites of one another. Here the argument is put in slightly different terms from the more fundamental viewpoint that Hlatky argues from in Post 5. The emphasis here is on the absence, in either view, of any notion of basic likeness between human beings.
  1. The state of British politics in September 2016 serves as a microcosm of the great global debate of the second half of the 20th century.
  2. Namely, capitalism versus socialism: Theresa May’s Conservative party on the one hand, with its belief in the innate wisdom of the financial markets; and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party on the other, with its belief in workers’ rights and equality for all.
  3. It may lack the intensity of the Cold War in the days before Mikhail Gorbachev changed the game, but it is a familiar story nonetheless – and one whose familiarity serves to remind us of its essential futility.
  4. On the face of it, Corbyn’s plea for a more just society, in which the wealth is more evenly spread, is hard to contest.
  5. The most recent set of figures published by the Office for National Statistics, in December 2015, revealed that the wealthiest 10% of UK households owned 45% of the total wealth. Their share of the spoils is growing.
  6. For the Conservatives, this is an inevitable function of light-touch governance, of allowing – in their view – social strata to find their natural place. For Labour, the inequality serves merely to highlight capitalism’s ruthlessness.
  7. If, as Hlatky proposes, we are all basically alike (see Post 4), then it is clear that the Corbyn model of socialism – which is based on the premise that society should not be about economic winners and losers – has more to commend it than the dog-eat-dog philosophy inherent in capitalism.
  8. The problem, however, in trying to equate socialism with Hlatky’s view is that many socialists, when pushed for their views, admit that they do not regard the free-marketeers of the capitalist world as basically like them at all.
  9. Corbyn, it seems clear from his public statements and demeanour in the House of Commons, does not see himself as being fundamentally like the Conservative MPs across the floor of the chamber.
  10. In a surface respect, of course, he is right not to: their thinking is very different; he and they hold opposing and irreconcilable political views. It is an argument that, over the past 50 years and more, has gone back and forth, with the capitalists tending to hold sway (Labour’s longest spell in power, from 1997 to 2010, came about because Tony Blair moved his party’s policies to the centre ground.)
  11. But without common ground of a more philosophical kind, without the basic belief that we really are basically alike – and not just deserving of being dealt a roughly similar economic hand – there is little chance of capitalists and socialists coming together in any meaningful way.
  12. The pendulum will swing one way, then the other [1]. But we will be no closer to unearthing a truly harmonising political philosophy. And, if we did unearth such a philosophy, it would spell the death of conventional politics as the western world has come to know it.
  13. That philosophy, Hlatky suggests, posits the view that we are all basically alike. Capitalism, self-evidently, struggles to fit this mould, for it requires individuals to compete with one another. Socialism, equally self-evidently, comes closer.
  14. Yet without a logical belief in God – and history tells us that socialists, bound up in the class struggle, do not get on with any kind of God – and thus a common understanding of and agreement on the meaning of creation, socialism will forever identify itself merely as the antithesis of capitalism rather than as a world-view capable of uniting us all.
  15. The fact that Corbyn has ignited an ideological battle the equivalent of which has not been seen in British politics since the 1980s, suggests that the idea of a basic likeness between human beings – which is what more or less unconsciously accounts for the appeal of the notion of equality in the political sphere – is one that is still in some sense prevalent, even in a country weaned on the capitalism of Margaret Thatcher and, yes, Tony Blair.
  16. But we kid ourselves if we believe that Corbyn is capable of striking a more profound chord. This is not a comment on his skills as a politician, but a reflection of the fact that socialism lacks this genuine belief in the basic likeness of all.
  17. Moreover, if, as Hlatky argues, our fundamental need is to be recognized as basically like by other human beings, then our very purpose in life goes beyond material equality or wealth [2].
  18. As Hlatky argues in God or Mammon? (Post 5), the economic problem cannot be separated from the philosophical problem. This means that a revolt against today’s global capitalism in the absence of a consideration of the philosophical background will not improve the economic situation. Hlatky’s view is that society works: generally speaking, we get food and the other things we require to stay alive. But it works poorly. And the almost globally accepted idea of the ‘market economy’, based on the spirit of free competition and the desire to win, will only lead to deterioration of the situation. But it is not a switch to socialism, however attenuated a version we choose, that is required. What is required is that we develop a common interest in and agreement about the original cause and meaning of creation. Put simply: what life is about.

1. Hlatky referred to the rise of global capitalism, following the fall of the Iron Curtain, as the ‘last swing of the pendulum’, by which he meant it would be no longer possible for socialism to make a comeback.  Many modern writers believe the opposite (take, for example, the writings of Naomi Klein). And perhaps the current revolt against global capitalism – evidenced by support for Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the USA – represents the seeds of such a further swing. Either way, this does not affect our argument that neither capitalism nor socialism offers a solution to the political situation, to the question of how we manage our life together.
2. …the essence of Hlatky’s argument in Post 5, God or Mammon?.

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