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Three Essays on the Social Question

Frank Thomas Smith

I. Beyond Capitalism and Socialism

Juancito is nine years old but looks six. He lives on the streets of a Latin American city and lives by the laws of the streets. He is already a criminal of sorts because begging is illegal and he is a beggar. In a year or two he will graduate to petty thievery and then on to violent crime. More than likely he will become a drug addict, thereby making his own violent end at the hands of the police or disease inevitable. Members of the middle and upper classes will shake their heads at the depravity of the poor or in commiseration, consciously or not will wish him good riddance and carry on as before. Juancito's name is legion; he can be found in virtually all regions of the world. He is a victim of social injustice -- a euphemism for greed.

Society is at a point in history where it must decide upon the path it wishes to follow. A crossroads is usually thought of as an either-or decision. One road goes in one direction, the other in a different direction. Modern history has, in fact, drawn two apparently different paths: socialism or capitalism. One part of the world chose one of these paths and came upon a dead-end, hurled itself forward and crashed into a wall, aptly symbolized in Berlin, drenched in blood and misery. The other part kept to its chosen path of Capitalism, only slightly modified, and fought to defeat or at least contain the hegemonistic ambitions of the Soviets. The Communists lost and logic seems to conclude that the other path was the correct one all along, and on which the whole world must now tread. The danger of this conclusion lies in the possibility that socialist criticism of Capitalism was and is basically correct and that the insistence on following this road will only lead to a repetition of the communistic - or some other ideological - experiment, with similar and foreseeable disastrous consequences. The fact that Communism has been found, in practice, to be worse than the evil it wished to supplant, does not necessarily mean that its criticisms of capitalism are not, at least to a large extent, correct and that the Juancitos of the world's suffering is indeed the result of capitalist indifference.

Capitalist theory is based on the belief in the goodness of greed. This is no secret. The father of capitalist theory, Adam Smith, said so in so many words. If capitalist man is allowed to exert to the full his egoistic yearnings to accumulate money and goods production will increase, society will be enriched and all will benefit. Stated in this way, the axiom sounds so simplistic and erroneous that one is astonished that virtually the whole world passionately believes it and tries to practice it.

Another great Briton, Charles Darwin, had much to do with humanity's capitulation to the theory of greed as goodness. Originally Darwinism applied only to the biological world: the origin of species and the survival of the fittest. However, what he observed in the plant and animal kingdoms was soon carried over, by others, into the human social realm and became "Social Darwinism". Both Smith and Darwin were religious men and believed that the hand of God was behind the observable phenomena in nature and in society. Adam Smith literally described the "invisible hand" guiding free market activities, a concept which was necessary to soothe his nineteenth century conscience. It was also necessary to cushion the jolt to common sense, for how else is it possible to accept the premise that such a complex activity as the economic one can simply run by itself like a perpetual motion timepiece when given the label "free market". The invisible hand image has been dropped in modern economic thinking, but the concept is the same when vague "market forces" are alluded to.

Karl Marx and his followers agreed that man is egoistic (or anti-social, as it were), but believed that this was the result of economic forces preying upon him from without. Given the opportunities inherent in the "free" capitalist system, one class - the propertied - would inevitably exploit the non-owners, the workers. Although production would indeed increase, its fruits would not accrue to all, but only to the owners. In fact, the workers would become even poorer than they already were at the time he wrote - which was poor indeed - until their condition became so intolerable that they would revolt, in a necessarily bloody fashion, and take over society in the name of the proletariat. But here Marx joins Smith and Darwin as a mystic: the dictatorship of the proletariat (the state) will cure humanity of its egotism and will itself eventually wither away, urged on, apparently, by some other-worldly, invisible force. Reality has proved this to be nonsense. Marx also predicted that economic power would be concentrated in few hands as the stronger capitalists absorbed the weaker ones. When one considers that 70-80% of world industrial output is accomplished by a dozen TNCs (transnational companies) it is hardly possible to assert that the prediction is far off the mark.

Essentially, both points of view are right and wrong at the same time, as all ideologies tend to be. Most will agree that man is egoistic, but when this is carried over into social science and called anti-social, the cries of outrage are immediately heard. "Man is a social animal, needs love and warmth, etc". I am inclined to agree with Smith in respect to the origin of this trait: that it is innate and not wholly negative. Individual human behavior is purely social only when the one strives exclusively for the well being of the other. This, however, is virtually impossible. Even Mother Teresa had to eat, and every time she did so she consumed what another could not. This is of course an extreme example, but deliberately so. What I wish to point out is that the satisfaction of one's own needs deprives another, if only to a minuscule extent, of that satisfaction. Yet we are obliged by the nature of things to provide for our own needs and for those of our children or we and they will no longer exist. In doing so we must ignore the needs of others, of those who are hungry. No moral criticism is implied; no moral question is involved because the alternative is meaningless suicide. It is only when the satisfaction of one's own needs becomes the satisfaction of one's own desires does this behavior become effectively anti-social, for it is then often necessary to exploit others in order to satisfy superfluous desires.

Another type of commonly observed behavior can be called asocial. This is usually deemed to be negative, and is indeed so when someone just doesn't give a damn and refuses to get involved. However, the desire to improve oneself through study or the need to get away for the weekend now and then, or even meditation, are essentially asocial behavior because they are done alone. They don't do any harm, nor do they help anyone except oneself.

To recapitulate, the three forces are:

* Social - acting for the benefit of others. Christ's message, Love thy neighbor as thyself, loses its meaning if it is understood to mean a passive feeling towards others, even if that feeling is called love and assuming that the lover knows what love is. Love must rather be demonstrated through acts, or it is abstract.

* Asocial - acting for self-benefit, without affecting others.

* Anti-social - consciously or unconsciously acting against the interests of others. The place where anti-social activity is most likely to have grave negative effects is in the economic sphere, for it is here that exploitation of the many by the few in fact takes place and is the main cause of social unrest.

The central question is whether the egoistic forces in society can be harnessed and their energy redirected towards social instead of anti-social actions. If it is possible to demonstrate this, it would indicate that the choices available are not only Capitalism or Socialism, but that another alternative may exist. If such a third way exists it must be found and acted upon.

This third way has, in fact, been described by Rudolf Steiner in his book “Basic Issues of the Social Question”1 (Kernpunkte der Sozialen Frage – 1919), in which he urges a "threefold" or tripartite social structure. There is no question that the book is dated. The essential concept is, however, valid.

1. May be obtained free of charge at the SCR: Ebook Library

Essay II: Is Slavery Really Dead?