A Socialist life in a Capitalist world

Bryan Caplan has written an article about how he thinks ideologically consistent socialists should live, given the likelihood that capitalism isn’t going to end any time soon. His five step plan:

1. Live frugally

2. ‘Cheat the rat race’ by taking a low paying job/a career with lots of leisure

3. Approximate a commune by living with like-minded socialists

4. Delay child-bearing, and if you do have children, raise them frugally too

5. Avoid ‘capitalist vices’, like alcohol, sugar, tobacco etc

Caplan raises an interesting question, but I think his account is too broad-brush. There are almost an infinite variety of socialists and socialisms, with different objections to capitalism – and I think these lend themselves to different approaches to living with/against capitalism.

As a starting point, here are three different priorities a socialist might have when interacting with capitalism:

  • Keeping their hands clean: Ensuring that they personally are minimally implicated in the injustices of capitalism. A person whose priority is personal absolution is unlikely, as Caplan suggests, to shop at Wal-Mart. For them, the key is surely to minimise their interaction with the mainstream economic system – which means they are probably best suited to a real commune, or failing that an approximate commune
  • Setting an example: Being the change they want to see, and showing those around them how to build a better society. Of course, it isn’t immediately obvious what the example is that they want to set. Perhaps it involves living frugally and rejecting consumerism. Perhaps it involves ethical consumerism, and supporting organisations that most closely approximate socialist values. Perhaps it involves running a successful co-operative that out competes capitalist businesses. Note that these different activities are hard to pursue simultaneously. Moreover, note that setting an effective example might involve some short term compromise to reach a position of power and influence.
  • Ameliorating inequality: Seeking to help the poorest and most needy, even within the constraints of a capitalist system. This might involve public advocacy and political mobilisation. But it could also involve private charity. In which case, getting very rich (contra point 1) might be the socialist course of action.

I am sure there are other ways socialists might approach capitalism. Or they might be pulled in all three directions, and have to face the contradictions that entails. I suspect most socialists would have to sign up for some of Caplan’s suggestions. But I don’t think many would (could?) be committed to the whole thing.

One comment

  1. Tom Cutterham · · Reply

    This all seems very much in the “living with” vein rather than “living against capitalism”; I like the latter idea much better. For me the key things are about trying to build counter-power and counter-hegemony. Join a union, organise your workplace, share ideas, build solidarity, take part in disruption and protest, be ready for the revolution 😉

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