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Capitalism and socialism are virtually indistinguishable from the standpoint of being able to respond to the challenges facing the human prospect.

An Inquiry Into the Human Prospect: an Overview, Part Two

Continued from Part One

For all intents and purposes, capitalism and socialism are indistinguishable. That’s the gist of Heilbroner’s argument for the primacy of socioeconomic arrangements over the political ones in the post-industrial societies. For the remainder of this article I’ll try to unpack Heilbroner’s paradoxical argument and expose the underlying rationale.

From the get-go, Heilbroner forgoes making his case by arguing from any particular example of capitalism or socialism, past or present. On the capitalist side of the ledger, he lists such diverse variants of the economic system in place as those exhibited by the United States, England, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Japan. Although it may be tempting to single out the US as the typical capitalist nation, Heilbroner points out, and quite rightly, that certain contemporary features typically attributed to a capitalist system in general as endemic – for instance, racism, militarism and social neglect – “are not to be found in like degree in all capitalist nations…, [whereas they may well be] discoverable in non-capitalist nations such as the [former] Soviet Union.”

Likewise with the socialist nation-states. Aside from the former Russia (and many of its then-satellites), we could point to the former Yugoslavia or, however briefly, to Czechoslovakia as hosting another major variant of the socialist order, both featuring, as Heilbroner called it, a “socialism with a human face”; or even to the kind of socialist order that has already emerged or is likely to emerge (don’t forget, it’s the 1974 perspective!) in the underdeveloped world. (Latin America is the most fertile ground, and Chile, Venezuela and Bolivia are the prime examples.)

It is therefore unwarranted, Heilbroner argues, to look to the United States or to its presumed arch-rival, the Soviets, as representing capitalism or socialism either pure or proper, unless we do so strictly “by virtue of…[their] size, power, or global dominance.” To do so, however, would be to ignore the very considerations just raised: there’s just too much variance to go around to regard either dominant form as “typical”; it may well be an aberration, a caricature of what capitalism or socialism either could be or was meant to be, end of story. So no, concludes Heilbroner, we can’t argue with any degree of confidence by examining the individual cases, but only by considering the ideal types. Hence his rudimentary definition of capitalism as:

. . . an economic order marked by the private ownership of the means of production vested in the minority class called “capitalists,” and by a market system that determines the incomes and distributes the outputs arising from its productive activity…[and] a social order characterized by a “bourgeois” culture, among whose manifold aspects the drive for wealth is the most important…[and of socialism as] an economic system [which prides itself on at least partial] replacement of private property and the market with some form of public ownership and planning.

Since, by and large, the difference between the two systems seems to turn on the ownership of, and the rights to, the means of production, including the disposition of the accumulated surplus/profit, one would think that Heilbroner might consider it a relevant enough distinction to run with. It is all the more significant, therefore, that he does not, and so we must ask, Why not? What other consideration(s) could possibly weigh heavier for him than the act of implementing a dictum from what seems Marx’s own playbook?

One obvious answer must be that Heilbroner never really considers communism as a serious alternative to capitalism, only socialism (and there’s a world of difference between the first two, but more on that later). What’s more immediate, however, is Heilbroner’s express purpose and the resulting focus: it is, after all, the dangers to the human prospect, the humanity’s very survival, that he’s concerned with; more so at any rate than with the complex problem of attaining social justice; and from this particular perspective, Heilbroner is not to be faulted. Which is to say that from the standpoint of meeting and responding to the listed challenges alone, he thinks both socioeconomic systems virtually indistinguishable (in the long run). To his mind, they appear to have more in common in the aforementioned respect than whatever it is that separates them. Consider, for instance, the following excerpt:

. . . the economic success of industrial socialism, in and of itself, has not brought a corresponding rise in general “happiness” or social contentment, much as with the mixed record of economic success and social disappointment of capitalism.

And right after,

I do not make this assertion to claim that industrial socialism has therefore failed: on the contrary, I imagine that in the minds of the majority of its citizens is has “succeeded,” to much the same degree as capitalism. Rather, I call attention to the situation within the industrial socialist world to stress the surprising similarity of outcomes between two otherwise widely different systems. Each has been marked with serious operational difficulties; each has overcome these difficulties with economic growth. Each has succeeded in raising its level of material consumption; each has been unable to produce a climate of social satisfaction. This leads to the suggestion that common elements of great importance [equally] affect the adaptability of both systems to the challenges of the human prospect.

Aside now from the fact that Heilbroner’s claim concerning the relative economic successes of both systems (circa 1974) merits a serious revision, everything else he says is pretty much on target. More importantly, however, in the immediately following paragraph he carries the ball further by identifying “these common elements as the forces and structures of scientific technology on which both systems depend for their momentum.”

This suggestion [he continues] would least seem to need supporting argument in explaining the ability of both systems to achieve economic growth, despite the malfunctions of the market in one case and of planning machinery in the other. All the processes of industrial production that are the material end products of scientific technology have one characteristic of overwhelming effect – their capability of enormously magnifying human productivity by endowing men with literally superhuman abilities to control the physical and chemical attributes of nature. Once an industrial system has been established – a historic process that has been as painful for capitalism as for socialism – it truly resembles a gigantic machine that asserts its productive powers despite the sabotage of businessmen or bureaucrats.

There only remains to trace “the common disappointments of [both] capitalism and socialism with regard to the achievement of ‘happiness’…to the presence of scientific technology and the industrial civilization that is built upon it…” and Heilbroner’s argument is well nigh complete. And once he pays lip service to conventional wisdom whereby the social ills and dissatisfactions “may have their roots in the capitalist ethos” in one instance, and in “the repressive political and social institutions” in the other; notice that Heilbroner is being evenhanded here. He is equally unimpressed with deficiencies in the area of social/economic justice (see above) as with human rights and freedoms, presumably the exclusive province of western-style democracies! He closes his argument with this superb passage:

. . . industrial civilization achieves its economic success by imposing common values on both its capitalist and socialist variants. There is the value of the self-evident importance of efficiency, with its tendency to subordinate the optimum human scale of things to the optimum technical scale. There is the value of the need to “tame” the environment, with its consequence of an unthinking pillage of nature. There is the value of the priority of production itself, visible in the care both systems lavish on technical virtuosity and the indifference with which both look upon the aesthetic aspects of life. All these values manifest themselves throughout bourgeois and “socialist” styles of life, both lived by the clock, organized by the factory or office, obsessed with material achievements, attuned to highly quantitative modes of thought – in a word, by styles of life that, in contrast with non-industrial civilizations, seem dazzlingly rich in every dimension except that of the cultivation of the human person. The malaise that I believe flickers within our consciousness thus seems to afflict industrial socialist as well as capitalist societies, because it is a malady ultimately rooted in the “imperatives” of a common mode of production.

And so here it is in a nutshell: It is “civilizational malaise,” marked by “the [unprecedented] presence of science and technology as the driving forces of our age,” that defines for Heilbroner the common denominator of all post-industrial societies, be they capitalist or socialist, newly-emerging or still extant and decadent. It is the same civilizational malaise that serves as the crucible in which modern-day societies are shaped and molded, as the general environment from which, in the process of so forming, they derive their essential characteristics. It is civilizational malaise that is the great leveler here, irrespective of the kind of socioeconomic system about to emerge, with the result that capitalism and socialism are virtually indistinguishable for him when it comes to either system’s capacity to adapt and respond to the external dangers facing us. And it is civilizational malaise again, so defined and understood, that is the ultimate source of those very dangers.

I believe this dissolves the paradox with which we had started; socioeconomic arrangements (or relations) derive their primacy for Heilbroner by virtue of the fact that, regardless of what particular form they may assume in this case or in that, they’re pretty much fixed features of any post-industrial society, fixed in that they necessarily reflect the civilizational malaise just spoken of, the defining characteristic of our times. What role does Heilbroner assign to the political in his schema? What difference can politics possibly make? These are the questions we must ask next.

About Roger Nowosielski

I'm a free lance writer. Areas of expertise: philosophy, sociology, liberal arts, and literature. An academic at a fringe, you might say, and I like it that way.

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