Note: This was really meant for my personal blog, but there is some political economy in here, so I can put it up here too. I will be finishing the thing about China, no matter how terrible it will be, soon.
In many ways I have been writing this document for at least many months, if not years. It has at its heart really only one question – what is to be done with life? I will be more direct here than I have been before. I seek not only to state my view but also to give support to the wavering and unsure, to those that have these thoughts in their infancy but have not yet been able to state them clearly. Those who stand contrary to my views on some fundamental are more than welcome to do as they wish. Such apparent freedom is after all one of the great features of our society.
Materially speaking, I exist in conditions that are not likely to be repeated at any other point in my life. The support of my honors program and of the Pell Grant enables me to carry out my education without having to worry about money. This is almost guaranteed to continue, unless the committee on the deficit decides to cut the Pell Grant, or a major economic crisis strikes. I must, however, have some basis for planning, and will assume that my funding will continue without interruption. In any case the loss of funding would only make my life more difficult, the character of my activity, which gets my heart and true attention, will not change. A final note on material matters – I, unlike too many of my friends and acquaintances, will graduate college without debt. This is essential because there is no minimum amount of money that I will have to start paying a bank 6 months after I graduate. I am free to earn as much as I will.
The question is, then, what am I to do with this freedom? I cannot choose the conventional option, which is the acquisition of education with the narrow aim of increasing my cash-generating capabilities. This greater generation of cash, so the model goes, is then somehow supposed to make my life more bearable, and maybe even fun. I could buy things. But at the end of that there seems to be nothing in for me. So I have nice things. But what does it matter if I gave my time to something I did not enjoy to get them? I have given the most precious thing, my time alive, for objects. Some people are able to have a concept of life exactly as limited as that. In that I find nothing for me, for my mind, for my true enjoyment. Therefore I cannot do it.
What is my idea of life? Today is an example. Life, for me, is meeting Yanni the Greek Georgist at a Platypus history lecture and afterwards having a conversation with him about the concepts of Henry George and Marx, and how the two are really looking at the same problem. I want, in other words, a life that involves eating only so that life may be continued, not a life lived to eat. In this project I do not require, nor do I enjoy or appreciate, the amusements and appeasements of my generation. I can commit myself almost fully, via a personal levee en masse, to the living of the above-described and soon elaborated on life. At 12 am I am content with riding the subway, writing these words, with the history lecture I listened to, with the conversations I had, the people I met and also with what I have read and written during the day.
I should no longer fear or hide the point of my work and struggle, why I read, write, discuss, often outside of my full understanding. I seek to understand the world because I find it deeply outrageous and very much in need of change. I think, most fundamentally, that we can do better than a system where nothing is done unless a profit is made. To far too many this manifests itself simply as some “selfishness” that is a part of an unchanging human nature. Let us examine this further.
I do not think that anyone can deny that capitalism would no longer exist without profits. The entire system goes into a tailspin whenever profits are not made. Also, why would a capitalist keep his capital in operation if losses will be made? Profit is thus the only possible motivation. So then this is the question: do people have some sort of internal selfishness that causes them to want “more and more” of everything, including profits, or are we born into a society the continued functioning of which (making the stuff of life, including food) requires that a profit be made by someone, which then, because it is a process so fundamental to society, is manifested socially as some sort of universal selfishness? Keep in mind these additional facts – food would not be produced and is not sold unless it is profitable to do so, and pre-civilized (non-agricultural) people have no real concept of selfishness. Their society, tiny as it is, would starve if someone hoarded food. But people today go on starving not because there is not enough food, but because they cannot afford it – they cannot pay a price that would be profitable to the seller. So what is true?
I am thus a communist in my ideological orientation, because nothing less than a socialist system moving towards communism can reliably remove this form existence. Granted that the capitalist system is the best system of social organization to date. It has wiped out, or is in the process of wiping out, all caste-based civilizations and has tremendously expanded the material powers of humanity, the means of production. Yet I do not see it as the end.
My work and study is thus fundamentally about examining the world in a way that seeks to do away with this system most consistently and to develop a system that is actually able to meet basic needs. Reform of all kinds, and overwhelming technical progress, both factors present with us for at least a hundred years, have not consistently lifted all of humanity out of starvation. From what I have heard children still go hungry in the richest and most powerful country in the world, and starve to death all over the world. You would have to deny objective reality to argue that this system produces and distributes food that is healthy. You say personal responsibility, consumer choice? A nice sentiment. How likely is it to even appear, let alone prevail, against what a child sees before he/she is able to formulate coherent sentences and ideas, and against the good work of the modern advertizing industry and consumerist culture? Some may be lucky enough to see through it – I care about the mass. If you think we are moving to some sort of post-scarcity society you must deal first with this very clear distribution flaw in capitalism.
So when will I be satisfied? At least when the foodstuffs (I sound like my grandmother now) of modern society are produced based not on what would be profitable, or what would be both profitable and nutritious (this deals away with all that social entrepreneurship nonsense), because not all can afford it, but based on what human beings nutritionally need. We have nutritional scientists to tell us what that would mean; I suggest we stop wasting that potential. I take this as a required bare minimum. Enter, the dictatorship of people’s needs, as defined by rational science.
When we have fed everyone it would also be a good thing if we could apply the same principles, rational planning, the evil of actual socialism, to close some persisting social inequalities. Or we can go on saying that people should take responsibility for having been enslaved, discriminated against, or otherwise kept down. It would also probably only benefit us to put into full practice, not only profitable practice, the ideas of environmentalists. Also, please note – socialism is not currently practiced in any country. The Europeans have social democracy, which is capitalism with a large re-distributive component. It works, somewhat well, so long as the capitalism works.
Mistakes were made, massive mistakes, when trying to put this into practice. The USSR was the first attempt. It was not welcomed into the world with open arms. All the usual imperialists of Europe, and the United States, send armies into Russia and supported counter-revolutionaries with all the materials needed for them to crush the revolution. Through enormous sacrifice it was successful. Mistakes were made that I will not enumerate here. Yet through all of that my great-grandmother was a chemist and my grandmother an electrical engineer, because education and the equality of women were priorities of the soviet state. I have also met, in an elevator in my building, woman who said that she was an economist in the USSR.
They tried something new, and made mistakes. It was the least advanced society in Europe that tried it first, and then China. No wonder they made mistakes – no one was in a worse position to do this, and there was no practical experience with it. The question, as I see it, is this: are we to ignore their experience entirely, and declare that our world is the best of all possible worlds? Or are we to see what we can learn from their mistakes? Is human society to be organized on a principle greater than profit, on the actual needs and desires of humans?
In this I find some sort of purpose. This is why I study economics – I want to wield it not to do what has been done but to see if something fundamentally different is possible. It would be a form of economic organization, managed by all of society, in a conscious and rational way. Being lead by a profit motive and the good work of advertisement departments does not count. Having socially agreed on goals, such as food and inequality reduction, does count. This is idealistic. This is not what most people think. Yet it was only in eventually that any large number of people moved – it started with a few.
And if this is just my youthful idealism, I do not think my adult life will be made worse by it.