Socialism Versus Capitalism: The Cooperative Model

I have two favorite coffee-shops. One, is located around the corner from where I lived in Baltimore and it’s very special to me because I loved living in that city and still cherish all of its memories. This coffee-shop is run as a collective and its self-proclaimed goal is to “subvert the logic of capitalism.” A cooperative means that the people who work there own the place. This is a small cafe, which means that it only has a few owners.

This coffee-shop is very quaint and special. There are a few things you start noticing over time, though. The floors and the tables are always far from being clean. The service is extremely slow and the snacks are not very carefully prepared. The baristas / owners have a tendency to condescend. The cafe doubles as a progressive bookstore, which is great. However, the baristas enjoy making snarky comments about the books one tries to buy from them. (“Pshhh! This is totally old. Are you just discovering it now?”) They also tend to throw out customers who don’t look like they belong ideologically. N. and I were asked to leave when a public screening of a popular progressive documentary started. We were in the middle of our drinks and had to pack up and leave (I was also blogging) under the collective glares and loud comments about “those Russians.” I attribute this to the fact that N. had gone there straight from work and was wearing a business suit and a tie. There was also a general dislike of the “Russians” that, as far as I have been able to gather, stems from the Russian-speakers’ visceral dislike of the word “Communist.”**

The other coffee-shop I love is a capitalist enterprise. The owner, a.k.a a vicious capitalist who squeezes out profits from his employees, is a gentleman in his sixties who started decades ago as a waiter and saved up to open a business of his own. He now lives and breathes his cafe. He is always there, serving drinks, cleaning up, mopping the floor, talking to customers. The place is spotless, the service is extremely fast, the owner knows every customer by name and greets us even after we’ve been away for months like we are his long-lost relatives.

Mind you, the cooperative cafe I described is only owned by a few people. Just imagine this collective ownership model extended to a large enterprise. You think this system makes the workers happy? No, it doesn’t. Happy workers aren’t mean to customers and have no need to bicker endlessly about whose turn it is to serve clients.

This has been my experience with collectively owned businesses every single time. As we all knew only too well in the Soviet Union, if something belongs to everybody, it really belongs to no one. If you believe in the cooperative business model, be prepared to see the quality of goods and services plummet. If you are ready to make that sacrifice for the sake of “subverting the logic of capitalism”, you are definitely entitled to that preference. I, however, have to admit that I after spending the first 22 years of my life in a country with horribly scarce and low-quality products and abysmally poor service, I’m kind of over that. (The last years of the Soviet Union saw an explosion of cooperatives, as you probably know. This model was abandoned as soon as it became legally possible because – surprise, surprise! – it does not work.)

As somebody who possesses no entrepreneurial spirit whatsoever, I really admire people who start their own businesses, work hard and enrich themselves as a result while providing me with stuff I need. Undoubtedly, the capitalist system has a multitude of defects. The collective ownership of the means of production, though, (i.e. socialism) is nothing but one huge defect. I’ve seen it fail miserably time and again in different countries and in different economic and cultural environments.

I know that after I publish this post and come to work, colleagues will grab me by the arm and whisper, “You don’t really mean you like capitalism, right?” And then a passionate lecture on the evils of colonialism will ensue. People love lecturing me, a colonial subject, on how colonialism is not a good thing. Which makes as much sense as me telling a gay person in a hectoring voice, “Have you thought about the plight of gay people? Because I read a book about it. . .” But I’ve seen what I’ve seen and I know what I know. I can’t pretend otherwise because this is not a popular point of view.

** I want to remind everybody that the Communist genocide claimed lives of about 11 million Ukrainians in 1931-32. I think, as a result of that, Ukrainians can be excused for disliking Communism as much as the Jewish people abhor Nazism.

Through the Eyes of a Stranger: Discovering Inequality

The collapse of the Soviet Union was so traumatic for many of its citizens because people discovered very visible economic inequalities and didn’t know how to deal with that. Of course, since the closing years of World War II, really immense differences in the economic status existed between different groups of people in the Soviet Union. However, the Soviet ultra-wealthy never had a chance to mix with the regular citizens, which is why we could pretend that we were all equally poor and didn’t have to feel tortured by observing inequality on a daily basis.

In the 1990, the “wild capitalism” stage of the disintegration of the Soviet Union began. Now, anybody could make a fortune. Just as easily, anybody could become indigent overnight. Differences in the standard of living among neighbors, life-long buddies, former colleagues, sisters, brothers, etc. became striking and impossible not to notice. Many people didn’t find a way to process these changes and adapt to them. When the opportunities to live a lavish lifestyle had been limited to the chosen few who simply had the luck of being born into the right sort of family, one could tolerate that. However, the idea that one’s childhood friend could suddenly strike it rich right in front of one’s own eyes was intolerable.

Here is my question, though. People in the US never experienced any other economic reality than the fully capitalist one. Why, then, are they all acting like they suddenly discovered economic inequality two minutes ago? Haven’t the Americans had two centuries to adapt to the existence of glaring differences in the standard of living and find ways of processing them? I just read this article, and it reminded me a lot of articles that proliferated in the FSU countries between 1991 and 2001.

When I go on my daily walks, I first pass through my own middle-class neighborhood, then a poorer neighborhood, and finally arrive at an incredibly wealthy neighborhood. There are veritable mansions that I see there. As somebody who was born in the Soviet Union, my first reaction to these palaces is to feel joy that it’s possible for people to live this well. For me, it’s still something new and surprising. I always thought that for people who were born in a capitalist country this should be a non-issue and they should not have an emotional reaction of any kind to it because they must be very used to the great disparity in wealth. But then I read the articles like the one I just linked to and I feel like I’m back home, discovering capitalism for the very first time.

You’ll say this is because of the recession but, honestly, I don’t buy that. This isn’t the first economic crisis and neither is it the last. Capitalism by its nature does not exist without constant crises, shocks, and upheavals. It is not a static system and would not survive as such.

So here is my question: how do you react to the great disparity in economic status that you observe around you on a daily basis? Do the mansions of the very rich make you feel curious? Angry? Or do you fail to notice them because you are used to their existence?

Feminism and Capitalism

“Why don’t we hear more feminist voices criticizing capitalism?” a reader asks.

“Because there is no feminism without capitalism,” is my answer.

Before I explain why I say that, I want to clarify my definitions of both capitalism and feminism.

Capitalism is an economic system in which the means of production are privately owned and operated for profit, usually in competitive markets.

Feminism is a collection of movements aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights and equal opportunities for women.

I took both definitions from Wikipedia to make our lives easier with simple, unencumbered, unemotional definitions.

Women have historically been subjected to men for two physiological reasons:

1. Women are smaller physically and can be overpowered by the greater physical force of men.

2. Women are limited by the birth cycle. If you spend your entire life pregnant, giving birth, nursing, pregnant, giving birth, and so on, this will put you in a position of dependence towards somebody who is not similarly limited.

This is all explained in detail and beautifully by the great Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex.

Now, capitalism is a system where your physical bulk becomes completely and utterly irrelevant. A tiny, feeble, bed-ridden person can easily be the master of 10,000 giants who will follow the small person’s every command. This isn’t the feudal system where brute force rules everything and everyone. In capitalism, money becomes the decisive factor. As a result, the smaller size and the lesser physical strength of women becomes completely irrelevant. The liberatory potential of this is huge.

In a similar way, capitalism frees women from the dependence on the birth cycle. As a system driven by profit above all, it comes to fulfill the huge demand for birth control. Capitalism is always driven by competition. Which is why any product that is in demand, that can be potentially sold to a big enough group of people, will keep getting developed, improved, and offered for consumption. Birth control, formula, breast pumps, day cares, nurseries, etc. have all liberated women from depending on their physiology.

It is no coincidence that feminism and capitalism developed at the same time and at a similar pace. If the capitalism hadn’t come into existence, I am convinced that we would still see the feudal society where women had to be hidden and closely guarded or be raped routinely.

This is a topic where I welcome all kinds of disagreement because I want to see whether and how this argument can be taken apart.