You Probably Don’t Understand Capitalism or Socialism

Whenever you talk about guaranteeing a minimum quality of life in a society, inevitably people scream socialism, as if the "free market" actually exists in real life.  People get so riled up about capitalism and socialism without even understanding them.  

For the record, the United States is not a free market.  In a free market, oil companies would not get government subsidies.  But that's not the point.  I'm just tired of talking about this socialism vs capitalism debate.  I'm writing this so I don't have to repeat myself anymore and can just send people this link.

First, let's define the two terms.

Capitalism - an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit. 

Socialism - a range of economic and social systems characterized by social ownership of the means of production and workers' self-management, as well as the political theories and movements associated with them. Social ownership can be public, collective or cooperative ownership, or citizen ownership of equity.

Just look, socialism doesn't necessarily mean that the government owns everything or that individuals can't be obscenely wealthy.  It does, however, mean that ownership of productive assets should be more equally distributed.  It doesn't mean you can't have your iphones, starbucks lattes, and tesla electric cars.  It simply deals with who owns the productive assets, not the pursuit of profit or what "profit" even means.

That last point is very important and very underappreciated.  Capitalism does NOT define profit or tell you what to do with profits.

We can create a community where profit is defined by financial AND social/cultural outcomes.  You could define profit as the number of trees planted or tons of carbon removed from the atmosphere in a given time period.  Another measure of profit could be infant survival rates or children's health.  It could literally be anything measurable.  

Furthermore, even if we primitively define profit solely in financial terms, neither capitalism nor socialism give any guidance on what is to be done with the profits.  That is a cultural decision each society collectively makes on its own.  Nobody told us to allow rich white men to make obscene amounts of money and have no obligation to give anything back, and play around with rockets going to Mars instead of focusing any meaningful resources solving fundamental problems on Earth or advancing the wisdom of our society to be able to handle these rapid new technological developments.  This same situation could develop in a socialist society as well, although the wealth inequality wouldn't be as vast and there would be less absolute poverty.

In essence, the capitalism vs socialism debate is largely irrelevant on its own. The more important debate that people of African descent specifically need to be having is a cultural debate.  Culture drives economic outcomes (see the 3 C's of Economic Development).  Culture determines what capitalism or socialism actually look like in practice.  Capitalism implemented within a European cultural context is responsible for the situation we currently find ourselves in the global economy.  China is challenging this and we've already started to see how their culture has implemented a form of socialism with some similar outcomes in terms of the impact on people's lives and the environment.  

Our debate should dealing with the merits of African culture vs these other cultures and what an African-centered economic system looks like.  Luckily, someone much smarter than most of us has already done a lot of this work that we can build on.  Chancellor Williams in the Rebirth of African Civilization devotes an entire chapter to it.

So when I talk about focusing more effort on cooperative and collaborative businesses and economic models, please stop screaming "BUT THAT'S SOCIALISM" at me.  In an African-centered context, even capitalism would look totally different.