There’s been a lot of debate about the merits of socialism and capitalism of late, much of it construed within the lines of socialism being scary and authoritarian, and capitalism being scary and exploitive. Both arguments have merit, and yet both, as often played out in the arena of national debate, tend to resort to hyperbole and reductionism — thus oversimplifying and distorting those elements of two highly complex economic and social systems that reflect literally thousands of years of human evolution.
I’ve considered myself a democratic socialist for nearly 20 years, and yet presently my position is shifting, not in the direction of capitalism but somewhere entirely different. My shift, which I would call an internal awareness of how people work and interact with one another, has its antecedents in what I find to be the futility of the present narrative for both systems, as the present narrative is missing the point entirely.
Reframing the Argument
I’ve always enjoyed basketball, but I’m short, White, and can’t jump. I’m also not that great of a shooter. So, if I was to play Michael Jordan in a game of one-on-one, it wouldn’t be a fair match. I use him as an example because he’s retired and we’re the same age, so one could consider our physical conditioning to be similar. Even still, I wouldn’t stand a chance.
But then you might say, “Let’s give Michael a handicap so I can have a fighting chance. Maybe we tie Michael’s dominant arm behind his back.” Sadly, I think I’d still lose. So then let’s say we put a splint on one of his legs so he can only limp around the court. Now I may be able to beat him, or at least have a fighting chance. That’s socialism.
Now let’s say there’s no handicap; it’s Michael and me on the court, and the stakes are high. Let’s even say I’ve spent three months in rigorous training for the match. I spent six hours a day on the court, and I hired a personal trainer and an experienced basketball coach. And then we meet on the court. Maybe I’m in better condition than Michael. Maybe he’s just been relaxing in retirement and now I can run circles around him, but I don’t have his years of experience in the game, his height, his reach, or his speed. In spite of my training I still lose miserably, but maybe people say, “Good try, Glenn.” That’s capitalism.
If we put 10 of the best basketball players in the world on a court together, battling it out within a given amount of time to determine who is better on that day — that’s entertainment. And yet, in order for it to be truly entertaining, we still impose a set of rules on the game and give a great deal of authority to the referee. The referees don’t always get it right, but most would agree that not having them would ruin the game.
And so it is: one system feels onerous and controlling, the other seems unfair and imbalanced. Were it this simple, it would seem logical to assume that neither is the best option.
The Appeal of the Underdog
I have leaned toward socialist because I like underdogs. When I hear stories of immigrants who come to this country with pennies in their pocket, who quickly learn English, work hard, find something they have a passion for, learn the business inside and out, eventually start their own business, succeed, and then put their kids through college to become doctors and lawyers, I say, “Right on!”
Some would consider this example a capitalistic dream come true, but I would argue that such success stories can only occur if we have firmly established rules to the game and fully empowered referees to call foul when unfairness prevails — and maybe even provided a support system that helps them along the way, like low-interest SBA loans, free business coaching, and inexpensive or free community college courses. To most who identify as democratic socialist, this model represents fairness and equality. To its detractors, this model is unfair to those who got where they are through hard work and grit.
The Appeal of the Hero
I also enjoy a good hero story. One in particular is Steve Jobs. Jobs was full of shortcomings. He was often rude, distant, unfair, and even ruthless. What I love about his story, though, is how full of vision he was and how, to a large extent, building companies was never about the money for him but about bringing change. The change Jobs sought was to do things differently, to challenge the status quo.
His rival Bill Gates is also considered by many to be a hero, and one could very convincingly argue that Gates has changed the world through his vision. But his vision was different. His change seemed to hinge more on market domination, as reflected by his tactics and strategies at Microsoft. Still, many celebrate his success as one who has brought change, no matter the nature of the change or the intention behind it. In this example, the hero is one who has accomplished great things, built things to last, made their mark — this is the appeal.
The Missing Element
What’s missing from the argument over which economic system is inherently better is what I’ve just hinted at in the examples of the underdog and the hero: the intention behind the effort.
The rise of conscious business is an effort to bring “intention” to the forefront. It’s saying that just doing things, accomplishing things, being successful in whatever way you qualify success is not what’s important. What is important is the way in which we achieve success. Do we achieve it through manipulation, bully tactics or deception, or through vision and a passion for bringing positive change?
What if the argument over capitalism and socialism is missing the point? What if neither system is better? What if both can work equally well, and fail just as miserably? There is certainly enough history to illustrate the failures of both systems, and enough anecdotes to point to their efficacy.
“Referees!” you might say. “We just need proper control mechanisms in place to keep things fair.” Maybe. It’s fair to argue that affirmative action legislation has helped to create more equity in the workplace, but it certainly hasn’t solved the underlying problem of racial and social bias and bigotry. It’s been a stopgap, a proverbial finger in the dike. The real solution lies somewhere beneath the surface of our collective consciousness and has yet to be fully embraced.
Much the same for determining which economic system will serve humanity better: capitalism or socialism. I say neither, and both, with the answer lying beneath the surface.
Ubuntu Contributionism is a new model that shows much promise and inspiration for a better world for all. Based on an ancient African philosophy of people working for the good of the tribe, it’s a system without money, similar to the Star Trek model where each person seeks to contribute according to their natural talents and passions. Its description contains a strong preamble for non-control:
“Ubuntu is not a mandate; it does not happen by force; it is not a centralized control mechanism at all. There is no one leader, no hierarchy, no outside forces telling you what to do in your community. No one will ever ask you to change who you are, to do anything against your will, nor will anyone ever violate your inherent freedom.”
Intrigued? How do you enforce it or implement it then?
While Ubuntu Contributionism may or may not hold the answer for a truly egalitarian world, what lies beneath its surface is exactly what is missing from the capitalism/socialism debate: a focus on a different way of being.
Being versus Doing
When we argue over the finer points of supply and demand, monetary systems, centralized markets versus decentralization, and so on, we are focusing on how we do the work of business and commerce. We are focusing on human doing, not human being. Ubuntu Contributionism, as well as the movement of conscious capitalism, is about focusing on something much deeper. It’s about who we are and how we choose to show up in the world. It’s about the being, the energy we bring, not the results we realize — the journey, not the destination.
Conscious business, social entrepreneurialism, Ubuntu Contributionism, B Corp, and many other forms of expression are just that: forms of expression. And it’s the forms of expression that have the power and the ability to transform a culture. Not by control or authoritarian governmental systems. Not even by Milton Friedman-styled evangelism or scholarly debate. But rather by appealing to the part of us that lies beneath the surface — beyond the day-to-day fear of making ends meet, or the ideological notions of having the freedom to accumulate wealth, but by the subtle and powerful driving forces that steer the course of our deepest feelings.
What we are most driven by is the need for connection and meaning, and yet when we cling to an ideology that says one “system” is inherently better than another we are focusing on our doing. When we tap into our inner need for connection and meaning, we are moving toward a state of being. And it is our being, not our doing, that will lead us from inequity, bigotry, and environmental exploitation to an egalitarian existence.
Idealistic, you say? Is it merely an ideal to tap into our innermost feelings and to align our working lives with an intention for positive good? Is it merely an ideal to seek work that fulfills our sense of purpose? Or is it irresponsible to merely try to do some good? I think not.
What it is, is an embracement and a movement from doing to being, from confusion to clarity, and from imbalance to balance. Most important of all, this movement from doing to being has the power for massive cultural change, not by control but by merely being.
The rise of the conscious business is itself a movement from doing to being. It’s saying we do this because we care, because we want to make a difference. Perhaps it doesn’t matter what economic nomenclature we assign to the method, but rather how we approach our work and our lives. Perhaps this approach is the only viable alternative — because it can work in either economic system.