An Innovative Look at Progress


A Progressive Look at Innovation

by Bob Maschi

I was speaking with another leftie about socialism. He mentioned that he didn't like most aspects of capitalism, but that he did like its innovation. The implication was that he wasn't sure that socialism was as capable of innovation as capitalism has proven to be. This, I presume, is a common thought among leftists who are flirting with socialism but haven't committed to it. Even more, it is an argument often tossed at us by members of the conservative flock.

Capitalism is, indeed, innovative. At a time when the large portions of the human race were leaving farm for factory, capitalism innovated many ways of assisting this process. Decades of capitalism have led us from horseback to car, walking to flight and from musket to nuke. A lot of these updated measures are considered 'progress' by most. Progress and innovation are closely connected. Innovation leads to progress which leads to more innovation and on and on.

Progress is generally viewed as a straight line. Moving from a primitive past humankind has progressed to its current state. Of course, there are some backslides. Like in 17th century Japan, when firearms were outlawed to protect the Samurai class from peasant-propelled lead. Or in 1633, when the Catholic Church banished Galileo to life-long house arrest for practicing the evil craft of astronomy. Or whenever a Republican is put in charge of birth control. But, basically, most people view progress as a line from the past that juts on into our future.

Capitalist Innovation

Capitalism is based on profit. Therefore, most innovation under capitalism is only as successful as it is profitable. Likewise, innovations that are not profitable are not encouraged.

While difficult to prove, this can best be seen in the current state of this country's Pharmacology. Pharmaceutical companies, the drug makers, have provided the world with a plethora of medicines. Many profitable drugs are the ones that have to be taken for a long period of time. In other words, it is more profitable to get people to take a daily dose of a drug than it is to provide a shorter period of treatment that would actually cure their ailment. As medicine cabinets grow ever larger and as consumers come to need in-home pharmacists to keep track of all their daily prescriptions doses, there is less and less effort put into actually curing anything. Instead, the big money is in treating conditions - forever! It's important to note that the actual profit isn't the only issue. The issue is what looks good to investors. Why invest money in a company that is producing a product (a drug that cures, for example) designed to make that very product obsolete? Better to invest in a product that guarantees a steady stream of clients, and income.

Another important aspect of capitalism is that it does not find issues that many people care about, profitable. There is little profit in saving the whales, keeping the polar ice caps from melting or in maintaining the quality of our air and water. Or, better put, there is more immediate profit in killing whales than saving them, more immediate profit in activities that melt polar caps than in restoring them and more immediate profit in polluting the environment than in protecting it. "Immediate" is an important word here as capitalism is inherently short sighted. It pursues short term profit, often at the expense of long-term common sense.

Redefining Innovation & Progress

Could socialism be less innovative than capitalism? It depends on what the purpose of innovation actually is. Is it truly innovative for the consumer of an industrial nation to have 60 different hair conditioners to choose from? Does innovation really have anything to do with how tricky the subject line of a spam email can become? Should our idea of innovation be whatever great luxuries the blood-born and blood-soaked super rich can amass?

Socialists need to redefine 'progress' (innovation can generally remain according to Webster). Progress, viewed within capitalism as a vertical line moving forward, should be seen more like a horizontal line - still moving forward but at (possibly) a slower rate. Progress should not be thought of as a missile, but as an all-encompassing ocean wave.

Allowing the great majority of people on this planet to face constant starvation while a few of us are able to choose between a greasy beef sandwich at McDonalds or a similar heart-clogger at Burger King, is not progress. Progress is feeding the hungry. All of them. Progress is not polluting the air and waters as quickly as our technology allows. Progress is a sustainable planet that produces in conjunction with what is best for far future generations.

At present, I assume that the innovation going into private luxury jets is astounding. Do socialists suggest that everyone should possess their very own private luxury jet (even if they were environmentally friendly private luxury jets)? No. So socialism can be viewed as less innovative when that innovation betters only the elite (always at the expense of everyone else).

Another way to view progress is on the environmental front. The world cannot sustain the planet's current industry and the accompanying needs of that industry. No amount of refitting or restructuring can reverse the devastation being forced upon our planet. No amount of corporate-government funded incentives or regulations can reverse this trend. And 'consumer choice' (the so called democratic aspect of a capitalist economy) will never be shifted enough to matter very much - especially when so many 'environmentally friendly' corporate programs are simply advertisements meant to trick consumers into thinking that something bad for the environment actually isn't.

Innovations come from people and groups of people. This is true of whatever economic system is in place. Capitalism promotes a certain definition of progress - a definition that fits only within its self-serving interests (which are based on profits, remember?). Socialism also promotes innovation and progress but progress for both the planet and its people - whether it is profitable or not.
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