Communism vs. Capitalism
Václav Havel was “the Czech writer and dissident whose eloquent dissections of Communist rule helped to destroy it in revolutions that brought down the Berlin Wall and swept Mr. Havel himself into power.”
The New York Times described him as “A shy yet resilient, unfailingly polite but dogged man who articulated the power of the powerless, Mr. Havel spent five years in and out of Communist prisons, lived for two decades under close secret-police surveillance and endured the suppression of his plays and essays. He served 14 years as president, wrote 19 plays, inspired a film and a rap song and remained one of his generation’s most seductively nonconformist writers.
All the while, Mr. Havel came to personify the soul of the Czech nation.
His moral authority and his moving use of the Czech language cast him as the dominant figure during Prague street demonstrations in 1989 and as the chief behind-the-scenes negotiator who brought about the end of more than 40 years of Communist rule and the peaceful transfer of power known as the Velvet Revolution, a revolt so smooth that it took just weeks to complete, without a single shot fired. . .
He continued to worry about what he called “the old European disease” — “the tendency to make compromises with evil, to close one’s eyes to dictatorship, to practice a politics of appeasement.”
In his book, Disturbing The Peace, Havel notes, “The traditional political debate between the right and the left revolves around the ownership of the means of production, to put it in Marxist terms: that is, around the question of whether business enterprises should be privately run or made public property. Frankly, I don’t see that that is the main problem. I would put it this way: The most important thing is that man should be the measure of all structures, including economic structures. The most important thing is not to lose sight of personal relationships –i.e. the relationships between man and his co-workers, between subordinates and their superiors, between man and his work, between this work and its consequences, and so on.
An economy that is totally nationalized and centralized (i.e., run by the command system) such as we’re familiar with in our country [Czechoslovakia], has a catastrophic effect on all such relationships. An ever-deepening chasm opens up between man and the economic system, which is why this type of economy works so badly. Having lost his personal relationship to his work, his company, to the many decisions about the substance and the purpose of his work and its consequences, he loses interest in the work itself. The company allegedly belongs to everyone, but in reality it belongs to no one. A worker’s activity is dissipated in the anonymous, automatic functioning of the system for which no one is responsible and which no one understands. All the natural motive forces of economic life, such as human inventiveness and enterprise, just payment for work done, market relations, competition, and so on, are scrapped. No one is properly paid, or properly punished, for the results of his work. People lose–and this is the worst of all–any contact whatsoever with the meaning of their work. Everything falls into the enormous pit of impersonal, anonymous, automatic economic functioning, from work done by the least hired hand right up to decisions made by the bureaucrats in the office of central planning.
All this is notoriously familiar. . . The point is that capitalism, albeit on another level and not in such trivial forms, is struggling with the same problems (alienation, after all, was first described under capitalism): it is well known, for instance, that enormous private multinational corporations are curiously like socialist states; with industrialization, centralization, specialization, monopolization, and finally with automation and computerization, the elements of depersonalization and the loss of meaning in work become more and more profound everywhere. Along with that goes the general manipulation of people’s lives by the system (no matter how inconspicuous such manipulation may be, compared with that of the totalitarian state). IBM certainly works better than the Škoda plant, but that doesn’t alter the fact that both companies have long since lost their human dimension and have turned man into a little cog in their machinery, utterly separated from what, and for whom, that machinery is working, and what the impact of its product is on the world. I would even say that, from a certain point of view, IBM is worse than Škoda. Whereas Škoda merely grinds out the occasional obsolete nuclear reactor to meet the needs of backward COMECON [Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, which dates from a 1949 communique agreed upon by the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania], IBM is flooding the world with ever more advance computers, while its employees have no influence over what their product does to the human soul and to human society. They have no say in whether it enslaves or liberates mankind, whether it will save us from the apocalypse or simply bring the apocalypse closer. Such ‘megamachinery’ is not constructed to the measure of man, and the fact that IBM is capitalist, profit-oriented, and efficient while Škoda is socialist, money-losing, and inefficient, seems secondary to me.
Perhaps it is clearer now what kind of ‘systemic notions’ I favor. The most important thing today is for economic units to maintain–or, rather, renew–their relationship with individuals, so that the work those people perform has human substance and meaning, so that people can see into how the enterprise they work for works, have a say in that, and assume responsibility for it. Such enterprises must have–I repeat–a human dimension; people must be able to work in them as people, as beings with a soul and a sense of responsibility, not as robots, regardless of how primitive or highly intelligent they may be. . . .
But it’s not just man as worker that we’re concerned about; it’s the general meaning of his work. And to my mind the criterion for that should be, again, the human quality of that work in the broadest sense of the work, not just production quantity, or an abstract ‘quality per se.’. . . For example, it’s important that man have a home on this earth, not just a dwelling place; it’s important that his world have an order, a culture, a style; it’s important that the landscape be respected and cultivated with sensitivity, even at the expense of growth in productivity; it’s important that the secret inventiveness of nature, its infinite variety, the inscrutable complexity of its interconnections, be honored;it’s important that cities and streets have their own face, their own atmosphere, their own style,; it’s important that human life not be reduced to stereotypes of production and consumption, that that it be open to all possibilities; it’s important that people not be a herd, manipulated and standardized by the choice of consumer goods and consumer television culture, whether this culture is offered to him by three giant competing capitalist networks or a single giant noncompetitive socialist network. It is important,, is short, that the superficial variety of one system, or the repulsive grayness of the other, not hide the same deep emptiness of life devoid of meaning” ( 13-16).
How’s the human quality of your work? Are you just a cog in a wheel for the company where you work? If so, what could you do to help change that work to be meaningful for yourself and your co-workers, and, of course, the company? Maybe the best action would be to find a company that appreciates its employees.
How are the workers treated where you shop? Are workers recognized for the many contributions they make? Or are they judged on if they wear the correct collared shirt and don’t take all their vacation days? Be aware of quality of life. It’s important.