If the spectre of history has anything left to teach the western world, are we willing to learn?
Economic liberalism has become the incumbent world order over the twentieth century, with its logic so deeply rooted in our globalized culture that it has become difficult to imagine an alternative. Widening wealth disparities fuel skepticism about liberalism’s ability to equitably increase quality of life, and social welfare initiatives aiming to address this disparity often involve mobilizing the government in ways which may threaten individual economic liberty. Can economic welfare be promoted in a manner which does not compromise individual liberty?
Such a solution may involve private sector social welfare programs; that is, privately managed (qua non-governmental) non-profit and self-regulatory initiatives which systematically benefit the public good. This notion is not new, but it does challenge the assumption that the private sector is reserved for self-interested enterprise and private wealth accumulation, while systemic efforts to support the collective good must find expression in the public sector through legislation and regulation.
Here, I will elaborate on this idea, with the intention of reconciling the intellectual traditions of capitalism and communism into a new politico-economic praxis which aims to preserve the virtues of both.
The Dialectical Method
There exists a great body of philosophical discourse about the dialectical method, much of which remains so academic as to not pertain to the inquiry at hand. That said, the key methods and concepts are not only pertinent here, but useful at large in terms of navigating and reconciling conflicts between value systems.
The dialectical method has roots in actual dialogue between people holding opposing views who nonetheless wish to learn from one another, in order for each to develop a more informed understanding of the situation. This process was formulated and theorized extensively over the centuries, especially in the 19th-century school of thought known as German idealism. Here, it took on a more modern and abstract character, pertaining not just to literal dialogues between people, but to abstract interplays between ideas.
It is in this era that the model of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis was formulated. Here, a given conflict of ideas could be framed as an interplay between one position, the thesis, and a conflicting position, the antithesis. From here a dialogue would ensue wherein both sides would express themselves and attempt to identify a reconciliatory solution, the synthesis, which satisfies both sides’ values.
This model could apply to two debaters who are each consciously trying to reach a more informed argument, wherein the strengths of each of their individual arguments are combined, or it could be philosophically applied, as a conceptual framework, to the study of history. In the latter sense, the history of human civilization could be understood as an evolving dialogue between different value systems, representing civilizations with different societal models, with stronger and stronger civilizations emerging along the way, learning from their shared past.
This evolutionary trend could then be understood in almost metaphysical terms, as if guided by a spirit which encapsulates the era, seeing as this dialectical process is usually not consciously driven by world leaders seeking to satisfy each other’s values, but driven by a species-level force by which the synthesis naturally emerges from geopolitical conflicts.
In response to this worldview of idealism, wherein history is driven by a metaphysical interplay of ideas which manifest as geopolitical relations, Karl Marx (et al) developed a new theoretical framework for understanding history. Instead of history being driven by ideas, which were causally upstream of material reality, history was instead driven by material reality, with the role of ideas being more epiphenomenal, or secondary.
In other words, Marx understood the history of civilization as an economic interplay of class dynamics unfolding across various societies. Particularly, he framed this in terms of an interplay between the capitalist class and the working class, an interplay which would entail an ever-widening wealth disparity and inevitably lead to the proletarian revolution. This revolution would usher in a new, synthetic form of society which took the strengths of the thesis (namely capitalism’s industrial powers of production) and reconciled them with the antithesis (namely the right for all workers to receive the full benefits of their labor), to amount to a utopian synthesis, where the means of production would be collectively harnessed to share the wealth.
Marx’s theory of history is known as historical materialism, or alternatively as dialectical materialism, and is squarely in response to the theories underpinning German idealism. It became the foundational theory for communism, at least as Marx envisioned it, and by extension inspired the multi-decade movement which culminated in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. As we know, the dictatorship of the proletariat didn’t work out so well, and that utopian synthesis was never reached.
Regardless of how seriously one takes its theoretical application to history, one can understand the dialectical method as a means for arriving upon a practical solution for a given conflict. It can also be understood as a sensibility one may uphold when faced with the very concept of conflict. In this latter sense, one may approach conflicts we suppose to be eternal, natural, or otherwise larger than any particular scenario.
Recuperation and Détournement
Borne of the avant-garde Marxist culture of the situationists, these techniques pertain to the ongoing dialogue between an incumbent political force and a revolutionary political counterforce, with the former seeking to stabilize the status quo and the latter seeking to destabilize it. Where recuperation describes the dominant culture reappropriating the tactics of the revolutionary counterculture, detournement describes the reverse.
Within the context of art, an example of recuperation would be the industrial manufacturing of socks featuring Basquiat artwork - a pair of which I happen to own! - whereas an example of detournement would be Warhol’s subversive framing of consumer aesthetics.
Basically, these two techniques describe the methods by which culture and counterculture assimilate each other to further their dialogue, whether that be adversarial or constructive. Whether or not this furtherance constitutes some sort of advance in the status quo is another matter, and a subjective one at that. For the sake of this inquiry, let us consider how the Leninist praxis of vanguardism can be recuperated by capitalism, in the spirit of one world learning from another.
The Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party underwent a schism in 1903 at the party’s second congress, splitting into the Bolshevik and the Menshevik factions.
The Bolsheviks, constituting the majority and being led by Vladimir Lenin, believed the revolution should be led by an elite and professional revolutionary cadre, or a vanguard, to overthrow the incumbent bourgeoisie. The Mensheviks, constituting the minority and being led by Julius Martov, believed in collaborating with the incumbent bourgeoisie and going about the revolution in a more grassroots fashion.
Almost irrespective of its original communist intentions, the concept of vanguardism, despite it originally being conceived in opposition to capitalism and the bourgeoisie, can nonetheless be extracted and recontextualized within a free-market context. This would involve generalizing the concept of the vanguard beyond the particular context of communism, and then re-particularizing it into the context of capitalism. In other words, capitalism can recuperate the vanguard.
But toward what end could a capitalist vanguard be mobilized? In this recuperated context, the term ‘vanguard’ would no longer refer to an anti-capitalist revolutionary elite, seeking to steer the populus to overthrow some incumbent feudal or capitalist power, but rather an entrepreneurial elite pushing the bleeding edge of free market industry. More specifically, this capitalist vanguard may place a special emphasis on technological innovation, with such an emphasis perhaps being informed by macroeconomic theories of growth and disruption.
Technological and Related Innovation
Classical economics holds that the two essential factors for economic growth are labor and capital, and that economic growth requires at least one of them to be increasing in certain ways. For the purposes of this inquiry, let us use the classical definition of capital, and the Georgist definition of wealth. Wealth is the product of labor exerted on natural resources, such as the cultivation of corn or the building of a house, and capital is that wealth which is used to generate more wealth, such as if the corn is sold for a profit or if the house is rented by a tenant. Money is a liquid representation of wealth.
In the middle of the twentieth century was formulated a new model of economic growth, associated chiefly with Robert Solow and Trevor Swan, which incorporated technological growth as a third factor. Because labor can only be increased to such an extent, given natural limitations on worker-hours, and because capital can only accumulate so fast given these limitations, the role of technological innovation can be framed as the factor which enables exponential productivity increase and, by extension, economic growth.
Here, technological innovation chiefly consists of advances in industrial engineering, whether that involves improving an existing technology, developing a new technology altogether, or some combination of the two. As such advancements are made, free markets are disrupted insofar as yesterday’s best practices are rendered obsolete and new business models attain competitive advantages.
The competitive landscape of virtually every free-market industry is subject to the potential of such disruption, as if the ante of production is perpetually being raised by advances in our collective productive capabilities. This dynamic is central to the thesis of capitalism, namely that the free market is conducive to innovation and that such innovation results in the betterment of average quality of life. The uneven distribution of this betterment, however, is arguably the primary criticism of capitalism.
Synthesizing Capitalism and Communism
Other prominent criticisms of late-stage capitalism include the perceived unsustainability of globalized free market industry, and the alienating effects consumer culture can have on individuals and communities. However, seeing as economic equality is more central to the dialectic between capitalism and communism, that will remain the focus of this inquiry. The question, posed in dialectical terms, is as follows: how can economic liberty be preserved while also harnessing industrial innovation to more evenly benefit the public good? That is, how can the primary virtue of capitalism be reconciled with the primary (attempted) virtue of communism?
The working synthesis proposed here is that the free market foundation of capitalism be preserved, while building private nonprofit initiatives on top of this foundation to benefit the public good. More specifically, such initiatives should focus on emerging technology if such philanthropic efforts are to be ramified throughout society through technological disruption. The communitarian spirit of communism, as embodied by the vanguard, can be injected into this free market context, not to attempt to commandeer the government and enforce the common good via mandate, but to advance technological industrial frontiers in the interest of the common good without compromising the economic liberty of the free market.
In slightly more concrete terms, this vanguard would steer nonprofit initiatives, such as chambers of commerce, self-regulatory organizations and social welfare organizations, to organize stakeholders in emerging technology sectors, to promote standards and practices beneficial to the public good, and to generally act as philanthropic midwives of the actualization of technology’s potential.
As a post-capitalist praxis, this can be referred to by a number of terms, such as ‘free market collectivism’, ‘communitarian capitalism’, or ‘neo-vanguardism’. There remains a good deal of theoretical work to more meaningfully elaborate on the dialectical relationship between capitalism and communism, to ensure that this new praxis properly learns from geopolitical history and the western philosophical tradition. There also remains practical and experimental work to be done, in terms of organizing vanguard nonprofit initiatives at the cutting edge of industry, as well as the rearguard efforts of working with regulators and legislators.
Despite the vast bulk of work left to do, the chief aim of this short inquiry is to promote critical and solutions-oriented discourse at the level of societal systems, to provide theoretical context for existing initiatives of public goods technology, and to intimate, however vaguely, a step forward in the world-historical process.