Earlier today I was privy to one of those exchanges that seem particularly frequent on college campuses and Twitter about whether capitalism or socialism/communism is more soulless, deadly, oppressive, etc. I find this debate tiresome on the first pass because there really isn’t a contest on the death count; collectivism is king when it comes to racking up numbers killed.
I find the debate tiresome more thoroughly, however, because it ignores a key point as an assumption. Both of these isms can be soulless if they purport to provide meaning to life. That is, if their advocates promise soul, it’s an empty promise for either.
A remembrance of Barbara Bush by Weekly Standard columnist Andrew Ferguson reminds readers of this reality by focusing on a commencement speech that she gave to Wellesley University in 1990. “Mrs. Bush suggested,” he writes, that “the advocates of women’s equality… fell for the great lie at the heart of American business and professional life as men had lived it: that a single-minded pursuit of professional success was the surest source of personal fulfillment”:
The lie was well known to be a lie. By 1990, we had already accumulated a vast literature about the soullessness of the modern corporation, the emotional poverty of “the organization man,” the terrible spiritual price paid for capitalist conformity. The best of the 1960s rebellion briefly understood this. But then came Reaganism, the valorization of the all-conquering market, the glorification of material advancement. When Mrs. Bush spoke to Wellesley’s class of 1990, many self-declared feminists had fallen hard for the unforgiving materialism of a liberal society and the market economy. Feminism itself got tangled up in a wan and desiccated view of what life is for.
Ferguson is describing materialism, with which it is necessary to confuse capitalism in order to treat it as a source of meaning. Some term paper could profitably be written tracing the connections of feminism to both socialism and materialism, in Ferguson’s sense, but let’s return to the comparison of capitalism and collectivism as economic strategies.
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I’d suggest that the latter is more prone to the soulless and oppressive because socialism requires just one meaningful answer in order to give others control or (if you believe the talking points) by requiring much of our public involvement to consist of politicking over these questions. As much as society may err from time to time in conflating capitalism with materialism, at least it can be just a way of organizing an economy. Socialism requires too much control in a centralized power or too much community effort debating how centralized control should go to be just an economic principle. By its very nature, it must become all encompassing.