- Capitalism and Alternatives -

If we are living in a society, we are dependent on it for our own success.

Posted by: J Victor ( United Federation of Planets, uuuusa ) on November 29, 1999 at 12:26:26:

In Reply to: Social Darwinism posted by bill on March 29, 1999 at 15:53:12:

Our value is determined, at least in part, by the society in which we find ourselves. Therefore, let's not speak of "self-reliance" unless we are on the outback, living off the land with no involvement with other people. If we are living in a society, we are dependent on it for our own success. In Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, the relentless forces of greed, corruption, and poverty crush the spirit of the working class. "Survival of the fittest" does not apply within human society. Today, for the most part, a far more fitting term is "survival of the richest." Oftentimes in human society those who seem the most likely to succeed, those whose abilities by far exceed the norm, are born into circumstances they cannot possibly survive, or succeed within if they do survive. In this respect the current state of human society is far more savage than nature itself. In nature the fittest survive, but in today’s society it is those who are born into the fittest surroundings that survive.
Usually, when one thinks of how the wealthy came to be that way, images Andrew Carnegie come to mind. He started out poor, worked real hard, saved his money, and invested it wisely, gradually making it to the top of the financial elite. Sayings like “hard work, initiative, and personal sacrifice” are popular statements for people like him, as if these virtues do not exist for anyone who is not wealthy. Many people who do exhibit these virtues do indeed succeed, but quite frankly, most of the time it doesn’t work this way in real life. Bill Gates, the wealthiest person in the United States, did not come from a poor family; he even had the opportunity to go to Harvard, but dropped out. Why did he drop out? Besides going out to start Microsoft, he dropped out because he was not in a situation where he needed to go there. His family was already rich, so he could afford to take a few risks. Not many of us have that luxury. The opportunities that were handed to him on a silver platter aren’t simply available to the average person. Many of our nation's largest and most famous fortunes, like the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilt’s, were built on the backs of ordinary people. Not for anything were these people called "Robber Barons."
In Sinclair’s novel, Jurgis and his family came to America with dreams of success and good fortune, but had no money, could not speak a word of English, and had relatively no education. And so they would go through many hardships and soon realize that the American Dream wasn't really what it seemed. The Jungle shows the corruption in the meatpacking industry and in politics as well. Jurgis’ fate was essentially sealed the moment he set foot in Chicago. Every time there would be some setback or another he would simply say, “I will work harder,” but it never really mattered because there was no way he could advance at the meat factory, there was just too much corruption. He worked hard, and failed. It’s no one’s fault; he was doomed to fail. Sinclair’s novel takes place during a time in American history when there were practically no workplace safety regulations, no social safety nets like welfare, worker's compensation, unemployment insurance, and so forth. Employers were pretty much free to dictate work conditions as they saw fit. When a person was seriously injured on the job and could no longer work, he or she was simply out of luck. Courts at this time were solidly behind businesses, and not receptive to worker's claims of employer responsibility for workplace accidents.
The fact that Jurgis was in a no-win situation is a prime example of Social Darwinism, the application of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, survival of the fittest, to human society. The Social Darwinists in our society would say that all you have to do to succeed is work harder. If you can't do that, it's your own problem. No one owes you anything. It is most often used as a justification for political, economic, and social elitism. Essentially, it is an excuse for doing nothing, an argument through which its supporters can both justify their upper status while maintaining the relatively lower status of others.
The first and clearest objection to this theory is that, by definition, the creation of human society is an attempt to escape Darwin’s "natural selection" inherent in nature. Society is not nature, rather it is specifically designed to avoid the danger of the natural world. In human society the collective endeavor is to protect the weakest members, those who would be vulnerable in nature, and allow them the same rights as the strongest. Society was not created to benefit the strong, to grant them mastery over the weak. Society was formed to protect all members of the collective from the perils of isolation, through the benefits of universal cooperation. "All men are created equal" is one of the defining doctrines of this country, but individual selfishness continues to redefine this statement. All people are created equal, but not all people are born equal.
It is clear that attempting to justify the suffering of others by claiming they do not have the proper ability to live at the same level of comfort (or even to live at all) as others do, is not right. Are the wealthy more deserving of plush leather seats and first class service than the poor are? Human beings, after all, are not animals. Within the perspective of human society the normal processes of the natural world often seem savage. It is this savagery that human society is designed to avoid. Regardless of ability, all human beings are equal and have the same right to life as all other human beings do. Competition is a savage circumstance. It is what all people, through social cooperation, attempt to avoid. While in nature every beast behaves in a manner that preserves itself and its offspring only, human society is meant to behave in a manner that benefits the whole of human civilization and recognizes the inalienable right of every human being to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
But in the pursuit of happiness we find the driving principle behind many people's decisions is self-interest. Examples can be found everywhere, at all levels in our society, and in all our activities. Older parents vote against school funding because their children are grown, not stopping to think that it was only with the support of childless people in the past that their own children had schools to attend. Nor do they apparently recognize the importance of education to the overall health and well being of the society. Students’ vote against referendums to increase funding for recreation centers because they either don’t use them or do not want to have an increase in their student fees. School officials want to realign school borders to only let people from wealthy families enter their school in order receive the most money, not minding that a student from a poor family might have to travel an extra distance to go to a crummy school. This self-centeredness is manifesting itself across the spectrums of our society and appears to be at the root of many of our problems.
Our reward systems have a profound influence on our values. And what is rewarded primarily is wealth. Capitalism is a good economic system that works. Capitalism is, however, not a good value system, which is what it has become for many of us. We became so focused on the ability to acquire material wealth that we let everything else go. The American Dream was to work hard and become rich. The problem is that capitalism only rewards one thing: the ability to make a profit. It doesn't reward caring or ethical behavior. Like any economic system, it only deals with the exchange of goods and services between economic units. The only time ethics are considered is when the lack of them becomes so offensive to a customer base that profit is lost. Then "ethics" are applied, but only to the point that market share is restored.
The essence of capitalism is competition. The fact that capitalism has become our value system has led us to adopt competition as our model for all behaviors. Some people would claim that this is a very natural model, based on the facts of Darwinian existence. Such competition improves the breed and will inevitably lead us to a better existence. But that application of natural selection is too extreme. In nature, animals only eat as much as they need to survive, and they rarely fight to the death among their own kind. They compete enough to establish a hierarchy, but no more. Only in mankind do we have examples of boundless greed. The accumulation of wealth is highly addictive, more so than any drug, and leads to even greater harm to the society. When you’re winning the game you keep on playing.
And if you aren't in the game, you don't count. In fact, you are made to feel guilty if you aren't playing. You aren't fulfilling your "obligation to society." A poor person convicted of robbing a 7-11 is likely to go to jail, after which he will find it even more difficult to get a job. He will be excluded from the game. On the other hand, if you are winning in the game, almost any transgression is forgiven. How many times are professional sports superstars caught with some sort of drug, only to be let of jail the next day? How many times has a big company violated some law or regulation in order to make a bigger profit, and then being punished by the government with a small fine?
If people bathe in the gutters, if children beg in the streets, if entire countries march down the path of extinction, it is not the result of the truth of Social Darwinism. It is, rather, the result of human selfishness. It is the selfishness of those who thought they had a greater right to live than those who lived beneath them, the same selfishness that prevents hard workers from ever advancing in life. If we have prospered in this society, it is partly because the society has allowed us the opportunity to do so.

J.V. (go bears)

Follow Ups:


The Debating Room Post a Followup