Socialism Is No Cure For Alienation, No Economic System Is
I was intrigued by this latest socialist recruitment video, this time from the Democratic Socialists of America:
It’s got the usual hallmarks of socialist propaganda. What struck my attention the most was what it was appealing to. Here’s what so-called ‘capitalism’ is:
“Capitalism is a man-made system based on profit. It takes wealth and resources away from the public and puts it in the hands of private capitalists. A few become enormously wealthy on the backs of the many. This consolidated control of profit and political power leads to extreme inequality.”
Oh no! And what does this terrible system do to us?
“These factors all make capitalism profoundly alienating”.
The animation cuts to a sole figure trudging through endless snow.
“Which is why everyone and everything …”
We zoom out, the figure is tiny and alone.
“…seems so distant, so hopeless, so odd. Thanks capitalism!”.
What exactly is being described here?
This concept of alienation will not be new to any student of socialism and Marxism. Karl Marx used the word alienation to describe a feeling of dissatisfaction within the working class, or the proletariat, due to inherent injustices in the capitalist system. It’s an imposition on the spiritual satisfaction we get from the consumption from the product of our hard labour. Says Marx:
1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt. 2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature. … Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature.
It is both a literal alienation, where the workers are deprived of resources, and a psychic alienation, where their work is devoid of meaning by their product being appropriated. Workers are deprived of the enjoyment and aggrandisement of their work being appreciated.
In modern times, the socialists apply this to consumerist culture, where supposed obsession with material wealth leads us to desire things that we don’t need. It’s visualised by the Dawn of the Dead style population of malls, with zombies mindlessly trolling the stores. We buy the latest gadget to impress our friends, but then it’s almost immediately obsolete, either by plan or through social pressure to get the next new thing. This apparently leaves us perpetually anxious.
Plus, it’s cold. It’s empty. It’s shallow. At worst, it leads to depression.
Of course, Marxists may object to conflating Marx’s conception of alienation and any general feeling of discontentment. I respond: you were the one’s starting it! Watch the video again: “Everyone and everything seems so distant, so helpless, so odd”. Clearly, Marx’s theory is being used to explain a total dissatisfaction with life.
Speaking broadly, there is not a human in Western society that has not, at least once in their life, been struck by a sense of loneliness, meaninglessness, futility. I’ve had my own experiences with that, and for me it was particularly crushing. It’s the universal, unspoken disease.
We don’t address it directly, but proposals to solve this problem are everywhere. It’s not just the Marxists that have figured this out – there’s been a long term trend in commercial advertising that’s playing to this sense of spiritual dissatisfaction.
Notice any advert for Coca-Cola, Pepsi, or Budweiser. They’re not just selling the product on its own. They don’t try to persuade you that the product tastes good, or that it makes you drunk. What they are selling is an experience.
It’s usually set in some idyllic nature scene, shot at magic hour, the sunset bathing attractive people’s skin as they dance and drink, frolicking without a care in the world.
They’re trying to persuade you that their product is inextricably linked to these nirvana-like experiences. In a word, they say that it will make you happy.
These moments where time seems to stand still, where every stress and worry melts away, where you and your fellow humans sync into beautiful fellowship, are rare. You’d be lucky if such a time occurs once in your life.
A far more common experience with consumer products like this: everyone involved is playing a kind of game. Everyone knows that they’re supposed to be happy, and will try their best to portray that image, but inside, it’s a battle. Social events often devolve into vanity competitions where implicitly, everyone is competing against everyone else in the social group. Even if the surroundings are stunning, and the food and drink is good, nobody is swept away in the beauty of the present moment; they’re worried about how they look, whether that person is being funnier than they, who their crush is talking to.
Everyone craves that absolutely present-ness – peak human happiness. This is what both The Coca-Cola Company and the DSA are playing to: they want you to think what they’re selling will make you happy.
So let’s pivot to this idea of happiness, or the problem of happiness. The human condition basically. It’s plagued us since our species began.
I’m not claiming to have figured it out, but I have some idea.
What makes us truly, ultimately happy? I’m not talking about the brief moment of joy one can get whilst eating mushroom risotto, nor the schaudenfraude you felt when you first heard of the inconsolable, spitting, F-bomb laden rage of Hillary Clinton when it first became apparent that she had lost the election. I’m talking about that grounding, long-lasting contentment and joy that we’re all after. Don’t try to deny it.
I was grateful I happened across this talk by Father Robert Spitzer on this very subject:
He has a novel framework for thinking about happiness. The system consists of four levels, or sources of happiness.
Level 1 is the basic level, representing happiness that can be gained from the material world and carnal pleasure. This is the joy one gains from the taste of mushroom risotto, the warmth of a shower after a long day, the smell of the Belladonna flower, the ecstasy of orgasm, the relaxation from a joint.
These things definitely make you happy, there’s no doubt about it. Who can say that one isn’t happy when you wake up in the morning, and you catch the whiff of coffee from the kitchen? These things are wonderful, and an essential part of the human experience.
Further proof of this is in the case of depressives. One of the most common experiences of people with deep depression is that they no longer feel the motivation to engage in things that they previously enjoyed, even if it is as mundane as eating their favourite food or listening to their favourite music, or having sex. It’s devastating that the most basic of pleasures are denied to them. Material things can make you happy, and we shouldn’t feel guilty for seeking them.
Nonetheless, the anti-consumerists, the chastity proponents, the sober people are of course absolutely right when they say that material wealth in any of its forms cannot be the ultimate source of happiness. Material gain, however large, is fleeting. The happiness you gain from the world does not last long. Soon after you’ve eaten that mushroom risotto, you want something else.
Level 1 happiness is real, but it’s short. That’s why there are 3 other layers of happiness that Fr Spitzer gets into:
Level 2, which is happiness from enhancements to the ego, which lasts a bit longer than material happiness but is still fickle.
Level 3, which is the happiness that comes from doing good work for your fellow human. This lasts much longer than the lower two kinds of happiness, but can still be fickle (think of the despair you might feel on realising that regardless of how selfless and dedicated you are to your charity or cause, you cannot save everyone).
Finally, Level 4 is the ultimate source of all happiness: love and/or God (what else is being depicted in those Coke advertisements other than … heaven?)
Anybody that tries to make anything but level 4 their ultimate reason for being, and make either material things, ego aggrandisement, or works of charity their source of happiness, is bound for despair.
On the contrary, Coca-Cola and the DSA think that all you need is material wealth!
Marxism has always been a materialist worldview. Marx saw everything in terms of material forces acting against each other, an almost-determinist, denying free will, viewing the world and society as a battle between the haves and the have-nots. The people with the wealth have all the power, the those without very little. They are destined to war until equality has finally prevailed, and we can be happy.
The DSA has taken this idea and through their video have argued that socialism is the key to the human condition itself. Yet, according to them, it’s not a problem to be focused on material wealth, per se, that makes one unhappy. No, the only reason people are unhappy is that they have less material wealth than the rich. The answer: the egalitarian socialist society.
So let’s take this head on: imagine the cute little man depicted in the video, clearly alienated by his “surplus product” being “robbed” by his employers in this exploitative capitalist system. A socialist President has been elected and he implements a large-scale redistributionist policy and allows the workers to appropriate the means of production.
And let’s imagine something magical … it works. Each worker is allowed the full product of their labour. Incomes become a lot more equal. The wealth differences between people are negligible.
Is the cute little man happy now? Is he now living in a practical idyll, finally free from the chains of consumerism?
Of course he isn’t.
Material parity doesn’t solve the problem of want. Our level 1 happiness is inherently insatiable. Once we’re on an equal level to our peers financially, there will always be our physical differences, our differences in personality and charm, our prejudices. There will be something to compare ourself to.
If your reason for being is to be a level 1 master, there will never be that ultimate satisfaction.
I will still argue for capitalism and against socialism, because socialism is unjust, and it results in great unhappiness, even on Level 1. However, it’s not necessary to compare real life examples comparing capitalism to socialism. Whether we’re talking about the Soviet Union, Venezuela, the “socialism” of Sweden, or an imaginary society where all the aims of socialism are achieved perfectly, we’re still talking on Level 1 happiness, at best Level 2.
Thankfully, I’ve pulled through my periods of alienation and depression. I’ll tell you something though, it wasn’t through anything so dry as libertarianism or any other belief system that I recovered. It was really about analysing what really made me happy. It’s pointless to explain this phenomena purely on materialist grounds. It seems that in no matter which economic system an individual lives in, there is still the potential for feelings of alienation.
The DSA are exploiting the human condition. Coke and Pepsi are too, but at least they’re offering something in exchange. All socialism has to offer is impoverishment, and at worst, death. Don’t be taken in by such cynical tactics. If you are unhappy, there is no political economic system that has been thought of, or will be thought of, that will bring you the happiness you seek.
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