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The Human Prospect

There remains one concluding comment. At the outset I said that three elements of the current human predicament would be unanimously selected if we were to seek the sources of the pervasive unease of our contemporary mood. Now I must identity an unmentioned challenge that lies behind and within all of the particular dangers we have singled out for examination. This is the presence of science and technology as the driving forces of our age.

It is hardly necessary, I think, to spend much time defending the cogency of this proposition. The population explosion that threatens such horrifying possibilities is directly traceable to the consequences of new techniques of science and technology in medicine and public health. The responsibility of science and technology for nuclear armaments is self-evident, as is also their joint effect in bringing about both the rate of industrial expansion and the peculiarly dangerous nature of modern industrial processes. Thus the external challenges of the human prospect, with its threats of runaway populations, obliterative war, and potential environmental collapse, can be seen as an extended and growing crisis induced by the advent of a command over natural processes and forces that far exceeds the reach of our present mechanisms of social control. It goes without saying that this unequal balance between power and control enters into, or provides the underlying basis for, that “civilizational malaise” of which I spoke earlier, and to which we will return again.

III: Socio-Economic Systems

Do these dangers wholly account for the somber state of mind with which we look to the future? I think not. For the dangers do not descend, as it were, from the heavens, menacing humanity with the implacable fate that would be the consequence of the sudden arrival of a new Ice Age or the announcement of the impending extinction of the sun. On the contrary, population growth, war, environmental damage, scientific technology are all social problems, originating in human behavior, and capable of amelioration by the alteration of that behavior. Thus the full measure of the human prospect must go beyond an appraisal of the seriousness of these problems to an estimate of the likelihood of mounting a response adequate to them, and not least to some consideration of the price that may have to be paid to muster such a response.

The question is where to begin. I propose we start with an examination of the adaptive properties of the two great socio-economic systems that influence human behavior in our time: capitalism and socialism.

Our choice of approach requires us to begin with the seemingly simple, but actually very difficult, task of making clear what we mean by “capitalism” and “socialism.” I do not think there will be much disagreement over the necessary elements that must go into our basic definition of capitalism. Capitalism is an economic order marked by the private ownership of the means of production vested in a minority class called “capitalists,” and by a market system that determines the incomes and distributes the outputs arising from its productive activity. It is a social order characterized by a “bourgeois” culture, among whose manifold aspects the drive for wealth is the most important.

As we shall see, this deceptively simple definition has unexpectedly complex analytical possibilities. But it also calls our attention to the necessity of conducting our inquiry at a suitable level of abstraction. It is the behavior of general socio-economic systems in which we are interested, not the behavior of particular examples of those systems. This is a consideration that has special relevance for the political animus that we carry with us in an investigation of this sort. It is a common tendency, for example, for radical analysts to assume that the word “capitalism” is synonymous with the words “United States.” “The United States is a capitalist society, the purest capitalist society that ever existed,” according to Paul Sweezy, the foremost American Marxian critic.16

Serious problems arise from the choice of the United States, not as the richest or most powerful, but as the typical capitalist nation. The first is the assumption that certain contemporary attributes of the United States (racism, militarism, imperialism, social neglect) are endemic to all capitalist nations—an assumption that opens the question why so many of these features are not to be found in like degree in all capitalist nations (for instance, in England or Sweden or The Netherlands), as well as why so many of them are also discoverable in noncapitalist nations such as the Soviet Union.

Second, the selection of the United States as the archetype of capitalism raises awkward issues with regard to socialism. For the logical question then is posed: if the United States is chosen to represent “typical” capitalism by virtue of its size, power, or global predominance, must we not designate the Soviet Union as the “typical” socialist nation for the same reasons?

The radical critic recoils at this logic and explains the repugnant features of Soviet Russia as the unhappy legacy of its past, a tragic instance of the socialist ideal fatally compromised by the institutional and historical setting in which it was first achieved. But if we take this argument to be valid—and surely it has serious claim to consideration—are we not forced to extend the same apologia to the United States? That is, does not the United States then appear not as a “pure” realization of capitalism, but as a deformed variant, the product of special influences of continental isolation, vast wealth, an eighteenth-century structure of government, and the terrible presence of its inheritance of slavery—the last certainly not a capitalist institution? Indeed, could we not argue that “pure” capitalism would be best exemplified by the economic, political, and social institutions of nations such as Denmark or Norway or New Zealand?

The point of this caution, which applies equally to the conservative who singles out the Soviet Union as the incarnation of socialism, is that we cannot analyze the adaptive properties of capitalism or socialism by confining our attention to the merits or shortcomings of any single example of either system. The range of social structures, traditions, institutions of government, and variations of economic forms is sufficiently great for both socio-economic orders that generalizations must be made at a very high level of abstraction—so high, in fact, that one may seriously question whether an analysis along these lines can shed much light on the adaptive capabilities of, say, “capitalist” Sweden or Japan versus “socialist” Hungary or East Germany. Why, then, pursue at all the elusive question of the capacities of these socio-economic orders? First, the words “socialist” and “capitalist” continually recur in day-to-day (or in scholarly) discussions of the future, and therefore it seems worthwhile to examine the specificity that can be given to these terms, even if it turns out to be very small. Second, I believe a socio-economic analysis is warranted because, for all the variety in national forms, both systems must cope with common problems rooted in their economic and social underpinnings. That their responses may differ widely does not lessen the importance of singling out these common problems and examining the challenges that they present to related societies in which they appear.

Can we make a plausible prognosis with regard to capitalism as an “ideal type”? Can a system whose identifying characteristics are a small properties class, a powerfully determinative market system, and a social climate of acquisitiveness be expected to adapt to, or survive, the challenges that are now familiar to us? Our first answer must be a disappointing one. On the basis of the bare specifications of capitalism two major historic projections for that system have been constructed, both of which have been proved inadequate. The first of these projections lies along the lines of the Marxian “scenario” for capitalist development, a scenario foretelling its gradual polarization into two bitterly inimical camps, its growing inability to maintain a smoothly functioning economic process, and its eventual collapse through revolution. Central to that prophecy was the expectation that the dynamics of the system would create a working class “ever increasing in numbers,” and disciplined by its economic hardships into an instrument of revolutionary historic change.

Some of that prediction, it should be noted, has been validated. The dynamics of capitalism did bring about a steady forced migration of farmers and self-employed small proprietors into the ranks of wage and salary workers, and the pronounced instability of the system did generate recurrent severe economic hardships. What seems to have forestalled the final vindication of the Marxian prognosis, however, was a series of developments that offset the revolutionary potentialities envisaged by its author. One such offsetting tendency was the steady augmentation of per capita output, which effectively undercut the development of proletarian feelings of exploitation. A related development was the rise of “welfare,” which also served to defuse the revolutionary animus of the lower classes. Last and perhaps most important was the gradual discovery—a discovery both in economic techniques and social viewpoint—that government intervention could be used to prevent a recurrence of the near-catastrophic collapses suffered by the laissez-faire versions of capitalism characteristic of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

As we shall see, the Marxian conception of capitalism as a system inherently burdened with internal “contradictions” is far from being disproved by these events. But let us examine, first, the other major prognostication for the system. Unlike the radical scenario, the second prognosis has had no single major expositor. It is to be found, rather, in the generally shared expectations of such writers as Alfred Marshall and John Maynard Keynes, or indeed, of the main body of nonradical twentieth-century economists.

Their prediction, like that of the Marxists, was also based on the presumed behavior of a private-property, market-directed, profit-seeking system, but not surprisingly it emphasized elements that were overlooked in the radical critique. The basic prognosis of the conservatives was that the capitalist system would display a steady tendency to economic growth, and that the socially harmful results of its operations—poverty, social neglect, even unemployment—could be effectively dealt with by government intervention within the institutions of private property and the market. As a result, the conservative view projected a trajectory for capitalism that promised the exact opposite of the Marxian: economic success coupled with a rising degree of social well-being.

Yet that prediction has also not fully materialized. As with the Marxian prophecy, certain of its elements were in fact attained, in particular an increase in per capita output and an expansion of social welfare policies. But the social harmony that was expected to result from these trends did not follow along. In the United States, for example, the economic transformation from the depressed conditions of the 1930s to those of the 1970s—a transformation that effectively doubled the real per capita income of the nation—failed to head off racial disturbances, an explosion of juvenile disorders among the affluent as well as among the poor, a widespread decay in city life, and a serious deterioration in national morale. And this disturbing experience has not been confined to the United States. Unprecedented economic growth in France and Germany and Japan has not prevented violent out-breaks of disaffection in those countries, especially among the young. Nor have Sweden and England and The Netherlands—all countries in which real living standards have vastly improved and in which special efforts have been made to reduce the economic and social distance between classes—been spared similar expressions of an underlying social discontent.

  1. 16

    Paul M. Sweezy, “The American Ruling Class,” in The Present as History (Monthly Review Press, 1953), p. 126.

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