In my last opinion piece, I identified the problem I believed confronted Americans at the present moment: capitalism. I asserted that Obama and Romney, aside from not being able to do anything about the problem, have very similar platforms. Okay. I ranted, I raved, I polemicized against the Man and capitalism like so many college students have before. Now, the question remains — if capitalism is the problem, then what are we to do about it?
That’s a tough question to adequately answer because it requires me to provide prescriptions for something that is much bigger than me, both mentally and physically, and whose facets and contours are simply beyond my full comprehension. But whatever. I’ll give it a try anyway.
Off the top of my head, there are three possible solutions to the problem of capitalism: welfare state, social-democracy, and socialism. Some are more possible than others, depending on how threatening they are to the status quo.
What most Americans would be familiar with when thinking of the welfare state is a system in which capitalism prevails but the ragged edges of which are smoothed over by ameliorative government programs, such as unemployment insurance for the unemployed, food stamps for the poor, and social security for the elderly. In other words, think of the “social safety net.” The welfare state, however, rests on a precariously thin foundation with a wrecking ball constantly hanging overhead. Capitalists, always thoughtful of potential investment opportunities, have recently targeted some welfare programs for privatization. The last Bush administration rode this hobbyhorse for years by trying to privatize social security along the lines of Chile’s model. His administration was, thankfully, unsuccessful in this endeavor.
Social democracy is better. Although, it also has a way of making me go, “Meh.” It reminds me of those people who get really excited about doing something important, but when comes time to actually doing it, only half the effort and half the enthusiasm are expended — so in that regard, you can think of me as a little social democratic entity in many ways. Actually, don’t. We’ll talk about that later. Anyway, social democracy adopts the ameliorative elements of the welfare state but makes an effort to equalize opportunities by providing everyone with free education, free healthcare, and generous maternity leave. The economy is market-based but mixed and riddled with various types of regulations. This system is more advantageous than the welfare state in that it attempts to subordinate capitalist values to other social values, like the social and physical wellbeing of the citizenry.
Another potential solution to capitalist conundrum is socialism. Oh my god, I said it, didn’t I. The “S” word. I might as well open the Gulags right now. Before I define it, please catch your breath. Socialism is usually defined as an economic and social system in which the primary means of production (e.g. factories and banks) are socially owned by way of the state. Centralization of economic affairs and some level of economic planning are characteristics of socialism. Good and fine. There’s your textbook definition. But that definition unduly restricts what can be accomplished by contemporary socialists. Socialist values of cooperation and equality and full human development do not necessarily require centrally planned economies. The late Paul Sweezy, notable American Marxist economist and founding editor of Monthly Review magazine, defined socialism in a 1999 interview as simply the opposite or alternative to capitalism. His admittedly broad definition gives breathing room to socialists like Michael Albert, whose participatory economics project stands in contrast to the rigid, centrally planned economies of the past.
As you fill your beautiful Alaskan summer hours in the classroom, grinding through math problems in the hopes of receiving a degree that will make you marginally more marketable in the labor market, all the while working a full-time job, at least try to imagine something different, a world where the bitter and humiliating frustrations of work are partially eliminated. Hopefully, my incomplete list of solutions will get the juices flowing.