Capitalism, Socialism, and Community

I want to add some additional comments to those I made at the last SD
discussion on the issue of socialism, capitalism, and human nature. I would
argue that while capitalism gives a full reign to the satisfaction of human
competitive instincts for wealth and power over others, it does a very poor job
of providing for the human instincts for community and solidarity.

In saying this of course I am aware that the word “community” is a very hard
word to define. Currently community is used to refer to abstractions as large
scale and impersonal as “national,”  “international,”  or “faith” communities.”
The word “community is used to describe  to the communal relationships that
exist within small religious sects and the various village and clan communities
of traditional agrarian societies. So in order to define what I mean I will use
the classic definition of community given by the great German sociologist
Ferdinand Tonnies in his book Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft ( Community and
Society) written in 1887. Tonnies makes a distinction between “society”
(gesellschaft) which tends to be the impersonal, large scale world of politics,
economics, urban anonymity and atomized individualism and “community”
(gemeinschaft) which are the tightly net, small scale, face to face forms of
living which have characterized most early human societies. Early hunting
gathering bands, early horticultural villages, clan societies, and traditional
agrarian peasant villages were all forms of gemeinschaft. Latter forms of
community within  earlier forms of capitalism would be the working class, ethnic
neighborhoods of 19th  and  20th century America. Modern religious bodies such
as churches, synagogues, and mosques at least to a certain degree recreate ties
of community in the modern world with varying degrees of success. The wikipedia
article on “gemeinschaft” characterizes it thusly.

Gemeinschaft (often translated as community)
is an association in which individuals are oriented to the large association as
much, if not more than, to their own self interest. Furthermore, individuals in
Gemeinschaft are regulated by common mores,
or beliefs about the appropriate behavior and responsibility of members of the
association, to each other and to the association at large; associations are
marked by “unity of will” (Tönnies, 22). Tönnies saw the family as the most
perfect expression of Gemeinschaft; however, he expected that Gemeinschaft could
be based on shared place and shared belief as well as kinship, and he included
globally dispersed religious communities as possible examples of Gemeinschaft.
….Gemeinschaften are broadly characterized by a moderate division
of labour
, strong personal relationships, strong families, and relatively
simple social institutions. In such societies there is seldom a need to enforce
social control externally, due to a collective sense of loyalty individuals feel
for society.”

Given that for tens of thousands of years humanity has lived in and in fact
evolved within a matrix of small scale closely netted communities of the
gemeinshaft type, I think that it can be said that life within such community is
hardwired into the human gene pool.

What is also clear is that modern capitalism has developed a society which is
increasingly unfriendly toward gemeinschaft forms of community. Modern society
is increasingly a society of the isolated individual in which the largest
community unit is the often dysfunctional nuclear family. Individuals of course
over the course of their lives do attempt to establish communal ties through
workplace friendships, clubs, and religious bodies, etc. It is clear however
that most of these relationships tend to be fleeting and ethereal by nature. And
certainly they are seldom characterized by any sense of common purpose or
collective meaning.

There are of course a multiple of reasons why capitalism has been disruptive
of traditional communities and unfriendly to the development of new forms of
community. There are three that are the most obvious. The first and most obvious
is that capitalism has disrupted the rural life of villages and small towns
increasingly by concentrating rural populations within huge cities.

This movement of people out of rural areas,  disrupting and destroying many
forms of community, has not gone unchallenged. In the United States in
particular and  other nations as well, tightly net ethnic, working class
neighborhoods developed within the large cities during the course of the 19th
and 20th centuries as a means of maintaining some stability and community in
people’s lives. Unfortunately within information age capitalism even these forms
of community have began to breakdown.

The second characteristic of modern capitalism that has been disruptive to
community has been the cultural production of an almost universal capitalist
ideology of extreme individualism / consumerism. The supreme goal of life in
this worldview is the enhancement of the individual and the meeting of his / her
consumption desires. The second goal is that individuals must increase their
economic status within the capitalist society. It follows that if these two
cultural drives are primary then any need for community must be relegated to
second or third place in people’s lives.

The third characteristic of modern capitalism which destroys community lays
within the structure of the capitalist work place itself. The workplace for the
vast majority of the world’s “employees” is simply a place in which one
exchanges ones labor for a weekly or biweekly paycheck. The capitalist workplace
is a place in which one must suppress ones real desires to serve the will of a
hierarchy of owners, stockholders, CEO’s etc. It is the realm of unfreedom and
servitude. It is not a place of freedom, autonomy, or creativity. Thus it is not
surprising that the capitalist workplace itself is not the center of community
in peoples lives.

It is of course easy to point out the evils of capitalism, it is more
difficult to show how a concrete socialist society might work and how some of
the negative consequences of capitalism can be overcome. Certainly the Communist
societies of the past were not successful and they did little to build viable
forms of human community. In fact by their actions they openly opposed such

The fact is that a real existing socialism on a national scale has never
developed. However through the examples of worker cooperative movements such as
that of the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation, a realist vision of what a future
socialism might look like can be seen. A socialist society would be one in which
the dominant form of property would be cooperative and one in which workers
would simultaneously own and democratically control their places of labor and
economic enterprises.

That transformation of the relationship of workers toward capital, the means
of production, would also likely transform the life of workers toward the work
place, work itself, and toward other workers. The workplace would become
transformed from a place of unfreedom and repressive hierarchy to one of
freedom, egalitarian forms of ownership and autonomous self management.

Within a society of free workplaces, it is easy to envision that, second to
the family, the workplace itself would become the primary place of community in
people’s lives. Instead of community being lived out primarily within the
context of its earlier forms, it would develop primarily in relationship to the
self governing workplace. Other forms of community would follow. Thus the
residential pattern of cities would perhaps change  to meet a desire of workers
to live within closer proximity to their places of labor and each other. After
all the workplace would be much more central to life than it is in its currently
alienated form.

It is also possible that newer forms of democratic government perhaps of a
more directly democratic nature will develop. This could stimulate new forms of
face to face political organization which could form the basis of more communal
lifestyles. Religious bodies may change. Of course Jewish, Christian, Muslim,
and other religious faiths would continue. But society’s new forms of community
would perhaps inspire religious revival in which the major faiths would
reexamine older forms of religious community for example, that of Christian
monasticism, the Sufi brotherhoods, or the close forms of communal life of the
Jewish Hasidim. These earlier forms of religious community could be utilized by
the more creative elements of the traditional faiths in order to develop new
forms of common life. While  competitive capitalist society sees any kind of
real communal life as strange and bizarre, the newer forms of cooperative life
that would develop within the matrix of socialist society would perhaps
reinvigorate the life of religious faiths.

OK, of course socialism is not just around the corner. I do not delude myself
that it is. Of course much of this writing has been a exercise in “wishful”
thinking. However much of what we have on our side is “hopeful or wishful”
thinking. The endless protests of the left, its bottomless hatred of the United
States, its dogged obsession with direct action or on the “realism” of single
issue politics will at its best produce results that hopefully may roll back
some of the attacks of the tea party right. It seems to me that if we are to get
any where we have to go back to radical thinking regarding basic human realities
such as community, power, freedom, and justice. That is what I hope I have done
in this article. If we don’t do this we will be simply running a race on a
treadmill, a race that we can not win.


6 thoughts on “Capitalism, Socialism, and Community


    True capitalism does give full reign to the satisfaction of human competitive instincts. But at what cost to the community? Competititve instinct breeds in some a sense of superiority and insecurity, in others inferiority and insecurity.

    Nowhere is this more evident than in our healthcare system. Many socialist countries have better health care delivery than ours.

    The idea, “I am a Dr., I’m important, you are a patient and you’re not important, does not benefit the community. Competitiveness at its worst!

    We are all equals with socialism.

    • Dr Kaufman, thanks for the comments. I agree with your thought about the some of the negative possibilities of competition. However I suspect that the competitive instinct is hardwired into the human species. I think that the best that we can do is to balance it out with the communal instinct which I think is also hardwired into humanity.

      Note. I believe that you called me on the phone about joining the SD about a month ago. Note we are having a discussion teleconference tomorrow on the issues of democracy and organization within the movements of the Left. Contact me if you are interested.


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