Capitalism, Communism, and Industrialization

Neither Capitalism nor Communism could solve the problems of industrialization.

I made this comment during a conversation I had recently with Vinay Gupta. He later tweeted the remark, and I was rather astonished at the amount of attention that the tweet received, and indeed continues to receive.

Given that this statement has grown wings, the time has come to unpack it a bit more.

Industrialization has seeded a number of toxic aspects into our culture. Long hours on the factory floor or in the cubicle. Hyper-specialization of roles (aka division of labour) such that an individual’s task is often rendered not only monotonous, but seemingly meaningless. An increased belief in “productivity” being among the chief measurements of a person’s value. These are but a few characteristics of industrialized culture that, we are slowly coming to realize, prove immensely detrimental to human mental and physical wellbeing.

Much of this began in the 19th century, when the advent of factories and mass production were gaining momentum. The ethos by which such operations were run made maximum efficiency and productivity the top priority. Communism emerged as a school of thought which claimed the ability to relieve the workers of their plight through shifting to them control over the means of production. The string of Communist revolutions in the early 20th century indicates that a goodly number of people were interested in giving this new model a shot.

The party was pretty much over in 100 years. The USSR collapsed in 1990, and what few lingering Communist states remained had become sufficiently hybridized with Capitalist policies, as a survival tactic, as to render them nearly unrecognizable from the states envisioned by Marx.

But the staunch defenders of Capitalism should not yet sound the horns in celebration of victory. Industrial capitalism as we recognize it only developed in the 1830s. With the current run of financial collapses, and the rapid emergence of alternate economic models that are being seriously considered in some political circles, consider the possibility that, when this has all played out, Capitalism may only have lasted a few decades longer. Which, from the viewpoint of history in another few centuries, will be a rather insignificant difference.

The problem seems to be that neither model offers a way out of our toxic industrial lifestyle and a means for improving general human happiness and wellbeing. The points mentioned at the beginning of this piece appear to be features, not bugs, of a Capitalist system for all but those at the very top. Meanwhile, the Communist system more or less maintains the same work ethic, but merely changes who is in charge and to whom the profits go. I have heard a number of apologists argue that there are schools of Communist thought that recognize this and offer solutions. However, until such a system actually shows up in a state, it cannot be judged alongside those previously or currently manifested in power.

The offer, then, seems to be ‘You will continue to work a shit job that slowly eats your body, mind, and soul. But you’ll be doing it for your own benefit, and that of your comrades, rather than for some magnate.’

Not a very enticing offer, frankly.

Communism as it has manifested at the state level seems to have overlooked the inherent toxicity of the industrial mode of living, choosing to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic rather than veer away from the iceberg. It sounded like a nice alternative, but gradually people realized that nothing fundamentally had changed in their lives save for who was holding the reins.

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