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What is AskPhilosophers? This site puts the talents and knowledge of philosophers at the service of the general public. Send in a question that you think might be related to philosophy and we will do our best to respond to it. To date, there have been 5026 questions posted and 6317 responses. [more]


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Is any society that uses money in some degree a capitalist society, even the ex-Soviet Union? I hear arguments everyday from others and the media that a free society must necessarily be a capitalist one but I think that is just an illusion because the government, business, and other institutions with power set out all the laws and norms for this unofficial ideology of capitalism to exist, not individuals. Most people in capitalist societies have no other choice but to spend their entire lives accumulating capital instead of doing more important things like being self-sufficient and reading philosophy. I live in a capitalist country that I don't want to be part of, so what should I do? I don't have enough time or power to change or overthrow my country's capitalist system and I don't want to leave to move to another country. Is the only solution to separate myself from society completely just like Thoreau did at Walden Pond and live off the land?

Response from Charles Taliaferro on September 20, 2014
Your questions and observations are fascinating. On the first matter about money and capitalism, the answer seems to be that the bare use of money in a society would not (by itself) make it capitalist, but when you add the qualifier "in some degree" I think one must admit that the boundary between capitalist or free-market economies and those that are not can be vague. So, perhaps a more subtle response should be that insofar as citizens have money (whether this is earned or conferred on the basis of need or some other condition) that they can use to acquire different goods at their discretion (having alternatives they can select) without state coercion then that society has ("in some degree") a free market (or, if you like, it is a society in which capital can or does exchange owners in non-coercive or free trade). But, as long as we are not being too committed to such nuances, a non-captialist society (such as a socialist society) might still be thought of as non-capitalist even if it did allow for some free market exchanges, and then there are cases like modern China which are becoming difficult to classify.

China seems to have increasing capitalist elements but within a single-party, state-controlled system that seeks to secure a semi-socialist control over wealth and a stern control over governance that reserves the power to control private and corporate property.

On whether a free society must be capitalist, I want to respond with something super-interesting and surprising that will repay your taking the time to send in this fascinating prompt, HOWEVER I suggest that this comes down to definitions, e.g. if we build into the concept of "freedom" the freedom for persons to engage in the exchange of goods based on their mutual consent (when the state only intervenes to punish fraud and to sustain the conditions essential for there to be a market, etc), then it seems that a free society will have to turn out to involve a free-market (or capitalism). But Marx and others have critiqued such a notion of 'freedom' and introduced competing concepts of the individual, our needs, capacities, and so on that would either eliminate or severely restrict capitalism.

I think you certainly are raising a frustrating matter: what does one do as an individual when one is in a society whose social and economic stature run counter to your own values? And while I am afraid I would not be very good at being "self-sufficient" I think we both would prefer to read philosophy on Walden Pond rather than work on Wall Street. You might be looking for a more radical counter-proposal but I think there is a middle ground in your situation and those like you (or us). One can protest or not participate in many of the capitalist or consumerist aspects of our culture and support cultural counter-measures (on some campuses in the USA some students set up free shops in which you can donate and exchange goods, pretty much on your honor), though opting out all the way would be difficult, as it was for Thoreau himself (who relied on some assistance and so was not racially self-sufficient in all respects --though I could be wrong on that). But I would add this bit: you write about "being self-sufficient and reading philosophy"....what about being part of a group of people who (working together) are self-sufficient and are philosophical? That may seem like a pipe dream, but historically the longest running tradition that was (internally) non-capitalist (or socialist) and focussed on shared work and study (theology and philosophy) is the monastic tradition (especially Christian and Buddhist). There have been very wealthy Christian monasteries, but there have also been those and Buddhist monasteries that were rigorously anti-private property. If you can find such a community that is focussed on philosophy and not far from Walden Pond, I think you may get quite a few visitors, including myself.

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