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The Human Prospect

How can we explain this? We can only hazard a few guesses. One is that poverty is a relative and not an absolute condition, so that despite growth, a feeling of disprivilege remains to breed its disruptive consequences.17 Another is that each generation takes for granted the standard of living that it inherits, and feels no gratitude to the past.18 Finally, the failure of the conservative prognosis may simply tell us that whatever its economic strengths, the social ethos of capitalism is ultimately unsatisfying for the individual and unstable for the community. The stress on personal achievement, the relentless pressure for advancement, the acquisitive drive that is touted as the Good Life—all this may be, in the end, the critical weakness of capitalist society, although providing so much of the motor force of its economy.

The lesson of the past may then only confirm what both radicals and conservatives have often said but have not always really believed—that man does not live by bread alone. Affluence does not buy morale, a sense of community, even a quiescent conformity. Instead, it may only permit larger numbers of people to express their unhappiness because they are no longer crushed by the burdens of the economic struggle.

Does this confounding of two prognoses leave us with anything on which to base a general estimate of capitalism as a system capable of meeting the problems of the future? We will be able to answer that question more easily after we have looked at the other side of the coin, and applied to socialism the same “ideal-type” scrutiny that we have so far applied to capitalism.

Here we must begin by recognizing a serious difficulty. In discussing capitalism as an ideal type, we had in mind a variety of “advanced” nation-states that, however different in many aspects, shared a roughly similar social setting. No such unified image presents itself when we consider socialism. We can easily recognize socialism as an economic system by its replacement of private property and the market with some form of public ownership and planning. But socialism is much more difficult to specify as a social order than capitalism. Indeed, we can identify at least two, and possibly three, social orders that rest on public property and planned economic activity.

One of these is typified by the industrial “socialism” of present-day Russia and imposed by it on much of Eastern Europe. Characteristic of this type of socialism are two salient features: an industrial apparatus closely resembling that of capitalism, both in structure and in outlook, and a highly centralized, bureaucratic, and repressive social and political “superstructure.” A second “socialist” order is represented by the societies that have arisen in the underdeveloped world, or that are likely to emerge there in the future. Here political centralization and social repression exist, but not the framework of industrialism characteristic of the first type.

A third type of socialism presents far more difficulties for our kind of analysis than the other two, because it exists mainly in the imagination. This is a socialist order that seeks to combine a high degree of industrialism with a considerable amount of political freedom and decentralization of control. This form of socialism has been perhaps most closely approximated in the brief tragic career of “socialism with a human face” in Czechoslovakia, and—to an extent difficult to determine—in contemporary Yugoslavia. Yet, because it exists in the minds of many socialist reformers as the kind of society toward which the West may hope to move in the foreseeable future, it exerts its influence as an historical force, even though its realization in fact is as yet very slight.

It will be necessary, therefore, to proceed with great caution in attempting to describe the dynamics of the family of socialist societies. Nonetheless we can at least start with a striking fact. It is that the two main prognoses with respect to actual industrialized socialism have proved as inadequate as did the corresponding prognoses with respect to industrial capitalism.

The first of these prognoses, frequently encountered only a generation ago, was that industrial socialism was “impossible,” and that socialist economies would break down by virtue of their inherent irrationality. The resemblance of this prediction to that of the Marxian expectations with regard to the malfunction of capitalism is evident, and so is the failure of the prediction to come true. Despite the inability of industrial socialist economies to work with the smooth efficiency expected by their partisans—indeed, despite the frequent vindication of their critics’ expectations of irrationality and malperformance—socialism did not break down. If economic discontent here and there reached threatening levels, the same can be said for the capitalist world in the 1930s. But in the one case as in the other, tendencies to growth overcame those of stagnation or crisis, so that by strictly economic criteria, industrial socialism proved as great a “success” as did capitalism.

But as the once confidently advanced prediction of a spontaneous collapse of socialist economies disappeared, there also faded the second prediction—the belief that the replacement of private ownership by public ownership, and the displacement of the market by planning, would usher in an age of high social morale as well as high economic performance.

Again in striking parallel to the disappointments that have attended the growth of economic output under capitalism, the “successful” workings of socialist economic institutions have not brought the hoped-for results. On the contrary, if we are to judge by the relentless campaigns in the Soviet or East European press against absenteeism, carelessness, bureaucratic tyranny, or “un-socialist” attitudes, or by the actual revolts of workers in Poland and Hungary against their working conditions, or by the widespread evidence of a sense of intellectual oppression in many of these nations, the social results of socialist economic growth have been very disappointing. If some of the more extreme forms of social disorder characteristic of the West, above all the anti-establishment mood and actions of youth, are much less to be observed, there seems good reason to credit this to the efficiency of the socialist police rather than to an absence of such tendencies on the part of the young. As for the growth of a communal spirit, one need only mention the continuous efforts of their citizens at all levels of society to emigrate to capitalist nations, and the equally damning refusal of their authorities to permit the free entry of ideas. Thus, at least so far as the existing type of industrial socialism is concerned, one cannot say that economic success has brought a corresponding rise in general “happiness” or social contentment, any more than in capitalist countries.

In saying this, I do not claim that industrial socialism has therefore failed: on the contrary, I imagine that in the minds of the majority of its citizens it 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 differing 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 affect the adaptability of both systems to the challenges of the human prospect.

In the light of our analysis, it will not come as a surprise if I identify these common elements as the forces and structures of scientific technology on which both systems depend for their momentum. This suggestion would least seem to need supporting argument to explain 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.

It is perhaps less self-evident that the common disappointments of capitalism and socialism in achieving “happiness” can also be traced to the presence of scientific technology and the industrial civilization that is built upon it. I have already pointed out the peculiar ills that may have their roots in the capitalist ethos; it is also clear that many of the socialist dissatisfactions arise from repressive political and social institutions. Nevertheless, if we look more deeply I think we can find a substratum of common problems in the industrial civilization of both systems.

For 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 nonindustrial 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.

I am aware, of course, that it is questionable to assert that technology has “imperatives,” for technology is no more than a tool in the hands of man. If the industrial apparatus has imposed its dehumanizing influence on capitalist and socialist industrial societies alike, there remains the possibility that in another milieu that apparatus could be turned to human account. It may be that extensive decentralization, workers’ control, and an atmosphere of political and social freedom could better reconcile a socialist industrial system with individual contentment.

I will not hide my doubts, however, that these reforms can wholly undo the dehumanizing requirements of the industrial process. Modes of production establish constraints with which humanity must come to terms, and the constraints of the industrial mode are peculiarly demanding. The rhythms of industrial production are not those of nature, nor are its necessary uniformities easily adapted to the varieties of human nature. While surely capable of being used for more humane purposes than we have seen hitherto, while no doubt capable of greater flexibility and much greater individual control, industrial production nonetheless confronts men with machines that embody “imperatives” if they are to be used at all, and these imperatives lead easily to the organization of work, of life, even of thought, in ways that accommodate to machines rather than the much more difficult alternative.

  1. 17

    See Richard Easterlin, “Does Money Buy Happiness?” in The Public Interest, Winter 1973.

  2. 18

    See Paolo Leon, Structural Change and Growth in Capitalism (Johns Hopkins, 1967), p. 23f.

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