As an economic system, capitalism is both applauded and condemned by its supporters and adversaries with vehemence and passion on both sides of the divide. Without doubt, there is no more famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) critic of the system than Karl Marx, and since his writings in the 19th century, debate has raged over the pros and cons of his critique. Recently, I watched several TV documentaries about various so-called radical economic thinkers who have all posited different theories about economics and the way to manage money in society. First was John Maynard Keynes who advocated government interference in managing monies, second Frederick Hayek (who I must say I had never heard of previously) who was a bitter foe of Keynes as he propounded the complete opposite, a totally free market money system without any government interference. The third economic thinker was Marx. and while he appreciated some of the tenets of the capitalistic system, argued stridently that it would ultimately collapse completely because it was an innately unequal and unfair economic system that could not in the long term, sustain itself. I have never formally studied economics; so I am writing this as a simple laywoman intrigued, fascinated and it goes without saying, puzzled, even confused by the goings on around the world of our control, or lack of, of money. Yes, I read some of Karl Marx in my university days, pondered his philosophies and tried to explore how valid they were and as I got older, started reading a bit more broadly seeking a clearer understanding of the international conflict between capitalism and socialism. The latter always appealed as it seemed so much more just, equitable and humane than capitalism that seemed to pander to the rich at the expense of the poor; and making heaps of money was never a priority in my life. But what I did not only want, but need, moreover, what I believed in, was that a fair day’s work should earn a fair wage; enough to live a decent, healthy and comfortable life.
When I went to Israel at 19 in 1969 to live on a kibbutz (a collective and cooperative community traditionally agricultural, first established in the country in 1909) part of its appeal was that its residents, mostly workers on the collective, owned its means of production. Its raison d’etre was intrinsically socialistic. Kibbutz inhabitants were both boss and worker, labouring together as one unit and sharing the spoils of financial success among themselves equally. Health care, education and housing were all part of the deal of working and living as equals with food provided for all and a very modest income for individuals to buy a few personal items such as music, books etc they may have wanted. However, rampant materialism and luxurious indulgence simply did not exist; money earned by selling its agricultural produce paid for all health care etc mentioned above and what was left over, was invested back into the collective for expanding its potential. As an experiment in socialism, it seemed as close to the real thing that I had certainly ever experienced, let alone read about in books. It functioned and ran smoothly; with over 1000 residents, men, women and children, all contributing as they could. If you were elderly, or infirm, or unable to work, you were cared for and looked after in exactly the same way as if you were working. Respect, dignity and compassion were all quintessential principles upon which the kibbutz was based. Moreover, if you wanted to pursue a career not involving agriculture outside the kibbutz, you were free to work in the cities to return to your kibbutz home afterwards to live like other residents. I’m not sure how much of those individuals’ incomes went to the kibbutz; but most of it certainly did. Life seemed equal and fair; even those responsible for the kibbutz’ treasury management and decision making re rules and regulations about its operation, all lived in the same manner in the same sort of dwellings and ate the same sort of foods, enjoying the same health care and educational opportunities for their children. Moreover, while there was a democratically elected committee (one person, one vote) to run the kibbutz, all rules and regulations were openly discussed and debated with all interested adult residents. These rules and regulations were then put to a vote before becoming enshrined as part of the kibbutz’ political laws. What could be more just and reasonable? What better society was there? Certainly, the kibbutz was part of the broader Israeli society and subject to its laws, but on a daily basis, it operated as a fairly autonomous unit with its own internal practices. At their peak popularity in 1989, nearly 130,000 people lived on kibbutzim across the country, some developing beyond agriculture to build industrial plants and other high tech enterprises.
I lived on one kibbutz for three months with about 30 other young people from all over the world, some of whom were not Jewish. We were members of an ulpan on the kibbutz, working four hours a day and studying Hebrew four hours a day, six days a week, a practice on kibbutzim around Israel designed to help prospective Israeli immigrants. I shared a concrete floored bedroom with only basic necessities like an iron bed and a very small wardrobe with two other New York Jewish girls, with a washbasin, showerhead that dripped mostly cold water, and toilet in another tiny room alongside. It was the first time I had ever shared a room with anyone. I always had a bedroom of my own at home in Melbourne, so this was my first confrontation with something different. But so much more was to come. I wanted to learn everything and anything I could about how the kibbutz ran itself; I was an idealistic socialist strongly committed to its philosophies as I had read and understood them and now had the opportunity to live them all out for real. This was my moment of reckoning. It soon became clear work was the measure of so much on the kibbutz; how hard you worked, how productive you were and how much effort you expended in your tasks, however menial.
I was first assigned to the apple orchard; having to pick apples from rows of trees dotting the landscape. Up and down ladders with heavy bags for the apples on our shoulders in the sweltering heat; it was July and the middle of summer and the sun glared at us with relentless torment, sweat pouring across our bodies as we laboured for four long hours. We worked alongside kibbutz young people during their school holidays, affording me the perfect opportunity to question them about their lives on the kibbutz. Most of them spoke English (it was compulsory at school) and I soon discovered that for many of them, young boys and girls of 14, 15, and 16, the kibbutz and even Israel, left much to be desired. They too, inquired about life in Australia; (they knew very little), often expressing their discontent with their basic lifestyle on the kibbutz. They had city friends they met at school outside the kibbutz and wanted more money and more freedoms, dreaming of a future so very different to their parents on the kibbutz. A few even aspired to go to America; getting rich in that country and leaving Israel behind them. I was stunned to say the least.
While work seemed to account for so much, even this aspect clarified for me as the weeks unfolded. It wasn’t a question of how many apples you actually picked or how many times you traipsed up and down the ladder, it was about WHETHER you were doing your best at the job and not just being lazy or wantonly sluggish. That is, even if you only picked a mere handful of apples compared with another who tripled your output, as long as you had put in and worked as you were capable, you were rewarded with the same benefits as others. You were certainly not punished or even admonished because you were less productive or less capable, all workers enjoyed exactly the same lifestyle. It was purposely wasting time, being aimless and uninterested and not working to your full capacity that was castigated. And that attitude pervaded the whole kibbutz and all the adult workers. It was pointed out to me that people were not equal as such; they had different capacities, different stamina and different abilities for hard work, but they were ALL equal in what they deserved for their labour providing they all worked at their optimum level. It was a system I could only applaud as back home many people were too often regarded as useless, helpless and condemned to poverty if they were not as clever or capable or intelligent as their apparently, albeit superficially, more hard working and smarter colleagues. The inequality of income which of course predicated such a disparate inequality of lifestyle was sadly, only too glaringly obvious not just back home in Melbourne, but across Australia and in too many countries around the world. Why should doctors or lawyers or business people earn SO much more than domestic cleaners or secretaries or teachers when these workers may not have had the equal opportunity to benefit from a good education nor the money to accord them the chance to realise their intellectual potential? Moreover, they might have just not been interested in sitting in a sterile surgery all day listening to the heartbeats of their patients. How boring they might have mused as I often did. But what, I started to think about, was the basis for who earned what in our society, and why should having less intellectual ability or even interest automatically relegate someone to the dustbin of our society? Where was our sense of fair play, respect for humankind and the compassion for others less clever or less endowed with opportunity and drive? And was this state of such inequality and injustice just a natural consequence of capitalism? The bosses versus the workers, when to me, it seemed that we all worked, even doctors. Who were these workers Marx was talking about? This famous working class, the proletariat? It felt to me that we all belonged to the working class as I defined it; it wasn’t work per se or even lack of it that caused the all too pervasive inequalities and injustices, but the perspective in which we viewed work; the nature of that work, who does the work, the wage earned for that work, and the effects of that work. It was a far more complex problem than I believed Marx appreciated. Or so I thought perhaps naively, even ignorantly, after just a couple of months living on the kibbutz. As much as I embraced socialism or certainly what I had so far experienced, I was simultaneously reappraising it with renewed questioning. At night on the kibbutz, many of my ulpan friends from not just America but Sweden, Holland, Switzerland, Turkey, Russia, Britain and France et al discussed many of these issues; wondering about the merits of the two economic systems and the destiny of the western world. We were so young, so idealistic and really, so ignorant, though perhaps even arrogant in what we believed to be right, just and fair.
The weeks went by and while I continued to work hard, I moved to the kitchen because I had tired of the monotony of the apple picking. There was no air conditioning and the hot stoves and steaming water as we washed all the cooking pans and utensils without any discernible cool air flow through the windows, made it even more asphyxiating than the orchard. The heat was almost unbearable, making it just difficult to breathe; sweat running down my face and body and probably into the pans as I supposedly washed them. They were gynormous; big enough for heaps of food to feed hundreds of people in the front dining hall where we ate our meals morning, noon and night. That too became a ritual I soon tired of. The same food with the same people; a boring routine just stretching my socialistic spirit to the limit. Moreover, I was reflecting more and more at the young people’s yearning for the shiny lights of America and the streets paved with gold and my own growing discontent with my lack of privacy, personal space and freedom. I started to hanker for an elegant night out at a stylish restaurant, dressing up in fine clothes instead of slopping around in shorts, flimsy shirt and flip-flops, and a room to call my own. With little money to spend other than on toiletry necessities like tampons, soap and toothpaste, I just felt increasingly unable to accept my impecunious lifestyle, where I had no other choice but to spend the meagre savings I was keeping to extend my travels. Moreover, the apparent sameness of people’s lives seemed to stifle any individuality; all of us reduced to robots performing tasks we’d been programmed to undertake. But was I a hypocrite, espousing all the idealistic commitment to an ideology I simply could not live out? Was wanting my own money, and much more of it, so capitalistic? So evil? So immoral? Was I just too greedy, too selfish and too materialistic, wanting my own good clothes, my own home, my own space, and to make my own decisions about the work I wanted to do and how I would live my life?
There were no easy answers, no way out of the political maze I felt lost in. But after three months of much personal agonizing, and much discussion with others, I knew just one thing for certain; I just couldn’t live on the kibbutz any longer; not then or at any time in the future. I wasn’t the only one who departed for a different lifestyle. We had supposedly committed to the ulpan for six months, but at the end of that time, there were only a handful of the people left. And it wasn’t just us foreigners who were unable to accept the conformity of the collective. I researched the kibbutz recently on Google, only to discover, to no surprise really, that in 2010, only 100,000 people still resided on kibbutzim, and 72 per cent of these collectives – 188 of them in all – had converted their operation into what’s called a renewing model where individual inhabitants mostly worked outside the kibbutz, keeping their income for themselves. The impact of globalisation and access to television where residents were exposed to the ‘good life’ of the developed western world meant thousands departed the kibbutz to seek their own personal fortunes elsewhere and others who remained no longer wanted to participate in an equal distribution of income. What I pondered then, in context of what the Israeli youth told me of their dreams to go to America more than four decades earlier is, what did this mean for socialism? And of course after what has transpired since then, what are the implications for the future of this economic system? In 1969, after leaving the kibbutz, I spent another month travelling around Israel, then flew to London for a few months and once more walked back into the entrenched world of money (and or the lack of it) and capitalism, hoping to find some answers to my political and philosophical dilemma. But did I feel any better? And did living once more under capitalism alleviate my inner turmoil about my apparent lack of genuine commitment to the Cause? Or, I reflected more profoundly, did socialism fail too often because it refused to realistically account for human nature? Was the human race by its very nature, just incapable of real equality and justice where money was concerned? Were we all inherently selfish, self-centred and less caring for others than we might have believed or hoped?
The questions raced around my mind as some still do except now, with more knowledge about some economics, however simple, I have realised, without shame or guilt, without blame or hypocrisy that for me, there are some tenets of capitalism and some tenets of socialism that I still adhere too. I still don’t essentially comprehend how big government works when it comes to money; some of Keynes seems appropriate, some of Marx does too. Even a free market as Hayek proposed can work in some small ways. In the big picture, there is still so much I don’t know and don’t comprehend, despite continually trying to educate myself about this issue. When the global financial crisis hit in 2008 and we witnessed the collapse of Lehman Bros, banks, giant US corporations and government economies around the western world, and millions of ordinary people in the US and elsewhere became homeless, unemployed, and left to fend for themselves, it seemed like a global human tragedy for us all. Another Depression of the 1930s with all its painful and tortuous repercussions! But capitalism survived; most of us did too, however straitened our circumstances, and while life in many countries still resonates with the pain of austerity, poverty and heartache, the capitalist system is still intact. Certainly on the surface! In my modest opinion, what seems to be part of the problem is not capitalism per se as I understand it, but its massive excesses and the extreme exploitation of working people in many, many jobs. In Australia, that one woman, CEO of a multi-billion dollar profit bank, can earn more than $9 million a year to me just seems grossly immoral, even obscene. Can she really spend all the money on herself and family? Can she possibly need ALL that? And of course, she’s not the only one in this world earning such huge fortunes. I read recently in an American magazine about another businessman owning a $40 million apartment; and one of Australia’s leading media moguls had purchased an apartment in London worth close to $35 million. That’s not to say I believe in stripping them of all their money; not at all. But the amounts earned as an annual wage and spent on somewhere to live just seem SO very excessive as to be immoral! Be millionaires, even maybe multi-millionaires (though I’m still unable to affirm that one), but billionaire status is just an ugly anathema to me and an affront to my compassion when so many more people have so very little, some even unable to house, feed or clothe themselves at all. It is just far too much money for individuals or families to justifiably need, often paying too little tax compared to their earnings and contributing far less than they can easily afford to the financial management of the countries they live in. I’m not at all suggesting we should all earn equal wages, but the balance is so way out of kilter; where greed, ego and self indulgence have supplanted all semblance of compassion and care for others; be it in health care, education, housing, the law, et al. Of course for some, money is power; but are so many of the rich just Hitlerites more well disguised however, in their camouflage of Armani suits, Gucci shoes and Chanel bags, exercising what they farcically call their democratic rights to wield influence, even control others’ lives with their money? Yet, some who are megarich DO make many altruistic contributions to those far less fortunate; the philanthropists who regularly give their money to medicine, education, science and the arts et al without expectation except to do good and even those with not quite so many millions at their disposal, make charitable donations on an annual basis. Sports stars earning big money also establish foundations for orphans in India, kids with cancer and the homeless and disadvantaged. All are unequivocally to be applauded, but they are in the minority of their kind. And some people without their own personal wealth do work tirelessly for those in need; investing their own time and labour in volunteering for the benefit of others. Many doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, et al also offer their skills and expertise in voluntary labour with various organisations around the world so not all those with more money than they need are indeed selfish or greedy. But for many others, there’s no such thing as something for nothing! People too often demand something back for their efforts; as if helping others is not reward in itself.
Despite the kind, unselfish and charitable people who do fortunately exist, I contend that we and our governments urgently need to do far more to restore some balance on an all embracing social scale so there is equality of opportunity for all, to ensure no one goes homeless, hungry or unshod and furthermore, that everyone is able to receive the best health care and education they not only need but deserve. I still do believe that some competition can bring out the best in us; enabling us to reach our full potential and work to our best capacity but when it involves exploitation, humiliation, bullying and corruption, then it heralds its own demise and so too, its proponents. Lord Acton said more than a century ago that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely and for me, that’s the core of the problem. All absolutes are corrupt; extreme manifestations of the distribution of wealth are absolutes in themselves, absolute megabucks versus absolute poverty; obscene and corrupting by their very existence the whole process of earning money; capitalism at its most evil; distorted and degraded by the most heinous aspects of human nature. Socialism is not just a noble ideal and part of what it represents MUST become part of our societies more and more if we want to save the human race in the future. We don’t need to jettison either capitalism or socialism, but learn to moderate our extremes; to blend the best of both systems to benefit us all by learning to care for others as much as we care for ourselves. Maybe I’m still a naive idealist; maybe I’m still in denial about the real and inevitable forces shaping human destiny, but I do believe that as we function as social democracies we just need to get much better at doing what we say. Actions speak louder than words! We don’t want a wide ranging welfare state, we don’t want people who CAN and want to work lying idly and lazily by, half starving and often homeless through no fault of their own; we don’t want the elderly, the infirm or the disabled to suffer needlessly because we think we can’t afford to look after them better. We can and we must seize the initiative to do much better, in government and on a personal level; not everyone can pull themselves up by the bootstrap, shake off their depression or work and make lots of money. We all need help at times; no man is an island as poet John Donne wrote so very long ago, yet sadly, that’s how our so-called social democracies often behave; people isolated, marginalised and disadvantaged for a complexity of reasons that have at their root cause very often, a lack of money to do anything to change their circumstances and environment. It takes money to buy a cup of coffee in town, to go to a movie, to wear suitable clothes for an interview, even to buy good shampoo to wash your hair, to have a computer and use a mobile phone. Just like it takes money to put a decent warm and cool roof over your head in winter and summer as needed, healthy food on the table and uniforms for your children at school. A visit to the doctor or the dentist is expensive and hospital waiting lists are increasing all the time for urgently needed surgery to ease the pain and suffering of thousands of ordinary people. I just saw on TV a story about a man in his 70s waiting for years for an urgent hip replacement in the public hospital system; unable to walk and crippled with severe pain simply because there’s not enough money in the public health system. By contrast, a female friend of mine aged just 63, recently paid $30,000 for the same operation in the private system (she had only taken out private health insurance a few months earlier and by the time she was in severe pain, her insurance was not yet valid to claim against as 12 months had not expired) and her quality of life had so deteriorated that she didn’t want to wait for three months until she could access her private insurance. Yes, she was very fortunate to have the money to pay for the private operation; the man, presumably who’s worked all his life, is not so fortunate. What does this say about Australia and its values, beliefs and compassion? Of course, there are systems in place like Medicare to help meet some of these costs and allowances for young people to study, there are government benefits for the unemployed, the elderly, the disabled etc but these benefits are often so low that those depending on these payments live at basic survival level only, some not even at that! On the other hand, SO much wealth concentrated in so few pockets just seems so very wrong when the financial problems of so many people just seem to get worse and worse.
Growing up in Australia in the 60s, it seemed the gap between the haves and have-nots was reasonably narrow; work hard, save your money, and a decent, comfortable life will be your reward. In 2013, the gap between those with and those without is huge, and working hard is no longer any guarantee of much kind of reward at all. I don’t blame capitalism for this; I blame my fellow human beings for believing in the greed is good mentality. To say I’m horrified by what I see and hear in our society every day is an understatement. Oliver Stone’s movie Wall St encapsulated for me the rampant inequities and social ills pervading the world today with too many people getting richer and richer in the extreme at the expense of the majority who must struggle even harder just to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. More and more ordinary people, many of whom do work, are deprived of basic human needs, the working poor as they are oft called. What I have to say is this; simplistic as it may well be, that as human beings, we all need to examine our own conscience to recognise sharing wealth with others can put a smile on your face as much as theirs. Open your hearts and minds, and for some, their wallets, to care. (And I’m not referring to charitable donations; rather, total reform of taxation systems and distribution of wealth)! It’s that simple to get the best of all three of the radical economic thinkers Keynes, Hayek and Marx! Be it on a personal level or in government!