Current Issue #488

Capitalism and collectivism in an age of angst

Capitalism and collectivism in an age of angst

It is perhaps time to think about how the flaws in the underlying value system of capitalism which governs much of our world has spawned current challenges such as climate change, extreme wealth inequality and hateful politics. To overcome these challenges, do we need to make big decisions on what we collectively choose to value moving forward?

Lately, it seems many of us are attuned to a collective feeling of angst that hangs heavy in the air. Perhaps this angst has arisen from a combination of factors – a sense of futility, as we face challenges seemingly bigger than ourselves, as well as repeated breaches of trust by the institutions that govern our societies and our lives. Whether it be our political institutions, the banks, the huge online companies that handle our data or countless other mega-corporations – all seem to be working against our interests as people, and for themselves in centralising their own power and wealth.

Though it can be disorienting and dizzyingly overwhelming to think about the cacophony of challenges this creates – like climate change, extreme wealth inequality and hateful politics – it seems these are all but symptoms of the same system. In seeking to connect dots and to create coherence in how we confront these increasingly threatening challenges, it is perhaps useful to think about the role of the underlying value system of capitalism that has helped to spawn them into being.

When Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto in 1848, capitalism was in its fledgling state. The two warring classes of their time were factory owners and peasants. Fast forward 170 years, and spurred by advances in technology, the bourgeoise and proletariats of our time are those who own the machines of artificial intelligence and automation, and the rest of us who own little to nothing and work for a wage. Marx and Engels foresaw that constantly evolving technology would transform “the whole relations of society” and create a “constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation”.

Today, we live and breathe this “everlasting uncertainty” as a riper form of capitalism extends its iron grip on almost every facet of our lives. Employment is being radically transformed, through further automation and the application of artificial intelligence.

With less and less work left for humans to do, what will we value and nurture instead? And what of education? If we don’t know what the work of the future will be, what skills do we teach young people now? And then there is the threat to a real and meaningful democracy in a new age of politics, which can be driven, as we have seen in the United States, by data and the manipulation of emotions using that data.

All the while, wealth stays locked away in the hands of private interests, to the extent that, even at the end of our nation’s mining boom, we feel poor as a nation. As economist Richard Denniss explains in the June 2018 issue of the Quarterly Essay, “Australia isn’t poor; it is rich beyond the imagining of anyone living in the 1970s or 80s. But so much of that new wealth has been vacuumed up by a few, and so little of that new wealth has been paid in tax, that the public has been convinced that ours is a country struggling to pay its bills”.

Our answers so far to the undesirable outcomes of a globalised capitalism have, disconcertingly, come from within it and are thus tainted by the same destructive and ego-driven ideology that constitutes so much of our present-day anxieties. We must learn to see the strong-man politicians and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs with their God-complexes for the faux-solutions they are – thriving on the fear and uncertainty created by the system of which they are the ultimate beneficiaries.

Perhaps it is not too much to hope that the irrationalities bred by capitalism, which are becoming increasingly apparent over time, including the different sets of rules for the wealthy compared to the ‘proletariat’ and all of the grief and suffering it has caused, could be the trigger for the birth of new systems and ways of thinking. Though, it must be said that principles of collectivism, sustainability and fair distribution of responsibility and reward are not necessarily new ways of thinking in the human story – the indigenous populations undermined and decimated around the globe in imperial and capitalist quests were long practicing ways of life based on such values.

While we can build upon and bring into our new world ancient human principles and ways of thinking, it is not to say that the answer lies in a rejection of progress in any way. Technological advances are not the cause of our problems, and strangely enough, nor is money. Equally, I would like to believe that the problem is not our inability to have empathy for our fellow human beings and the environments we live in. To me, the biggest problem of our time is that every effort we currently make towards goodness, is tainted, swallowed and rendered ineffective by the systems our technology, our money and our empathy are trapped in.

If we do manage to come up with answers to our ails, they are likely to present as a system that seeks to rebalance the hard-nosed individualist and profit-driven ideology that has now seeped deep into our psyches. Perhaps the answers will manifest through meaningful, organised and collective political will. Or perhaps as new, more holistic, ways of thinking about distribution in our economies.

Whatever our ways forward, our present age of angst feels promising and hopeful in at least one way – change, challenging the status quo and collectivism, feel riper and more inevitable now than ever. If for nothing else, then for some priceless peace of mind.


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