Wanted: Capitalism With a Human Face


20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it seems like a good idea to ask people around the world how they feel about the system that supposedly scored a history-ending triumph over "really existing socialism" and all other possible challengers. That's exactly what the BBC World Service just did, and the poll's results are rather interesting.

As the accompanying article says, the results find "widespread dissatisfaction with free-market capitalism...only 11% of those questioned across 27 countries said that it was working well." A much higher percentage of respondents - 23% - said that capitalism "is fatally flawed" and needs to be replaced by an entirely new political economy. An astounding 43% of French respondents called for the replacement of capitalism, as did 38% of Mexicans and 35% of Brazilians. In only two countries did 25% or more respondents say that capitalism works well as currently constituted - Pakistan, which is surprising given the depths of socioeconomic misery most Pakistanis experience, and our own country, which is not so surprising considering Ayn Rand has probably become more popular here during the recession than Karl Marx.

A word of caution before we begin preparing the barricades. First of all, such widespread pessimism about free markets likely owes a lot to the grind of the ongoing recession. It would be interesting to see poll results on this question during a relative boom time. And second, a large majority of respondents in all countries, including our own, don't want to get rid of capitalism as such. Most people want capitalism with a human face - more government regulation, greater equality in income redistribution, perhaps some government ownership of key industries.

That's a sentiment socialists and other radicals can work with, as most people would readily concede certain flaws within capitalism and welcome political attempts to redress them in the interests of those at the receiving end of the system's failures. Perhaps in doing so, socialists can bring some people toward a deeper critique of capitalism as such. But this also raises a larger question - is capitalism with a human face really possible anymore, or is it a noble ideal destined to go the way of "socialism with a human face?" While I would do almost anything to live under a full blown example of it, the Keynesian welfare state model underwent a deep structural crisis in the 1970s, and I'm not so sure that that it can just be resurrected. If that is indeed the case, what's the alternative? I don't really know, and I don't think anyone else does yet either. Suggestions welcome.

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