A string of articles that share a startling pair of words have appeared in the press recently: 'Capitalism' and 'Failed'. Communism, of course, is a word we easily associate with the word failure. Our gut reaction to the prospect of communism is similar to that that we might have to an over-enthusiastic choir leader rushing into the street and calling on us to spontaneously fall into perfect song. The result will, of course, be atonal, and we can rightly accuse the choir leader of having no understanding of human nature.
Capitalism on the other hand is more often presented as holding up a mirror to human nature. As Guy Sorman has written, “the free market is finally only the reflection of human nature, itself hardly perfectible.” Human nature can certainly be flawed, but it cannot fail -- it isn't a system that we artificially impose, we don’t have an assortment of other options. To say that something is in our nature is essentially to say that it's our base condition, our lot in life.
So, if capitalism can fail, then far from being in our nature, it follows that it is instead an ideological system that requires belief on our part. We may have thought that we were behaving as perfect cynics, ruled by our instincts, but in fact we were closet idealists. If capitalism has failed, then it means it never was in our nature. And that leaves us with a daunting and terrifying question: if the secret to economic and social harmony lies in living according to our nature, how do we routinely fail to live according to our nature?
Far from being fated to live by instinct, as sceptics or as cynics, it would appear that we are fated to live as idealists, dreaming and designing a new society just as our current model begins to reach its limitations. There is no perfect political system, but instead humans are involved in a process of imagination named utopia in order to uncover the values that they use to develop their political and economic systems. Human society runs into trouble when this process of imagination is discouraged and labelled avoidable.
Over the next few weeks, meandering through the philosophy of Walt Disney, le Corbusier, Plato, Orwell, Borges, and Ayn Rand, I will endeavor to show how our concepts of love, happiness, community, work, death, sex and family change shape as they pass from the hands of different social architects. Odds are that we won't find a single utopia that we would like to call home; but in visiting them, we may find the perfect therapy for a society that is undergoing great upheaval and change.
John Lidwell-Durnin is a writer and regular contributor to The School of Life.