Last week I was trying to lay out a stern capitalist view of the way the world works. It seems to me that a lot of Marx and Engels’ predictions in The Communist Manifesto are turning out to be accurate, but of course, the grand mistake in their philosophy was the idea that you could change human nature and the natural development of society with a capitalist awareness of economics. We have yet to see how a pure Capitalist society would look, and I pray we never will. It would be a cold and heartless place to live, but we have gone a long way towards it in the modern world.
But Capitalism has also made the mistake in its own way, of thinking human nature can be changed by economic, ethical or political means. Human nature is not about to give up its sense of community and the public service, or more specifically, public servants have not relinquished their belief in community, despite everything capitalism points to. There are many reason why people enter public service, but generally, or at least, in my experience, they are all conscious of serving their Society and all the people in it.
Mrs. Thatcher famously remarked that “there is no such thing as society”, but she was wrong in this (as in so many ideas she entertained), but not so wrong as for that situation not to threaten our futures. Capitalism has no justifications for maintaining a general system of social security or any particular adhesion of society. In fact, it often benefits from the alienation those two old misfits Marx and Engels anticipated. It has helped, for instance, in the destruction of the effective organisations of the labour source, the Unions, and it has channelled the wealth of nations into fewer and fewer hands. The Consumer as the source of Labour is being weakened, and only holds its own through its ability to purchase the products of labour. This is the dialectic as it currently stands, the struggle at hand.
Capitalism only needs to ensure the continuance of those systems that maintain its ability to operate, so health and education, the police and the rule of law (especially as it protects property) are useful to it, but maintaining the unemployable (for whatever reason they are such, from invalided to criminal and feckless), is not necessary to its purpose. And yet, at least so far, and thanks largely to the Consumer whose taxes pay for it, and to the public servants who watch over the system, capitalist societies still do sustain those otherwise non-Consumers, to a greater or lesser extent.
I’ve written about the Irish sense of community (and will again), but it is not unique except in the detail. Go and live in any Islamic society and you will see the sense of community at its most virulent and demanding, but also protective and responsible. Across Africa and in fact most of the so-called Third World, there is a strong sense of local community even if it is seldom assisted financially by government.
Part of the effect of capitalism on the sense of community in more or less Capitalist societies is that it is increasingly seen as the business of government and not the family or the local community to look after the needy. This is more obvious in cities than in rural communities, but it is happening everywhere, even here in Ireland. It is part of the alienation Marx and Engels wrote about. We owe more than we know to the Public Service in its insistence that there really is such a thing as society and they’re going to do their damndest to keep it that way.
Strive as we might, the Consumer will decide what it likes and what it doesn’t like, and the development of what is often abhorrently selfish individualism is a problem that is the result of the way we live and the system we live under. Modern Consumers cannot be led from above, they will not be morally guided by governments, they want as little interference in their daily lives as possible. They just want it all to work, and they can be pretty indifferent if anyone doesn’t like what they do or think. At present we still cling to the last shreds of the old system of close community, sustained by our acceptance of social protection and adhesion, and in some cases form new, more tenuously (technologically) connected groupings – social networks, sports fandoms and such – but unless we heed the warnings, I doubt life in the future is going to be cosy, though it may well be comfortable.