Hipsters, Washing Machines, and the Materialism of the Socialists

Soviet_Poster_4In today’s Mises Daily article, Gary Galles writes:

There is also irony in accusations that freedom causes materialism, when obtaining increased abundance was the original argument for socialism. But when a socialistic organization has proven to create poverty and capitalism inconceivably greater wealth, that once-promised result now supposedly makes us materialists. [Emphasis added.]

It is unfortunately forgotten by many that socialists of the nineteenth century, and the first half of the twentieth century,  argued that one of the best reasons to adopt socialism was because it would produce more consumer goods and allow for much more consumption than the “inefficient” capitalist system.

It was maintained not just that socialism was morally superior, but that it was economically superior, and would produce more growth and more opportunities for leisure than the market system.

This view of socialism as producing better results was quite popular among left-wing intellectuals, and was even begrudgingly admitted by some-anti-Communists who did not know better. Thus, it was not really until the 1980s that it became generally accepted that consumer goods in the Communist world were shoddy, inferior, and more scarce.

This view even began to permeate popular culture, and some may remember the Saturday Nigh Live spoof commercial commemorating the opening of the first McDonalds restaurant in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. In the commercial, spokespeople for McDonalds happily pointed out that Soviet Happy Meals would include wonderful luxuries such as bars of soap and toilet paper.

Economics and intellectuals, however, were a little slower to catch on. Paul Samuelson, for example, in his influential economics textbook remained convinced that socialism would produce a more robust economy than the market system right up to the bitter end:

Samuelson’s influential textbook has been criticized for including comparative growth rates between the United States and the Soviet Union that were inconsistent with historical GNP differences. The 1967 edition extrapolates the possibility of Soviet/U.S. realGNP parity between 1977 and 1995. Each subsequent edition extrapolated a date range further in the future until those graphs were dropped from the 1985 edition. Samuelson concluded the economic description of the Soviet Union and marxism in 1989: “Contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed, the Soviet economy is proof that … a socialist command economy can function and even thrive.” The Collapse of Communism happened during the same year and the Soviet Union broke up two years later.

Much Cold War propaganda from the Soviet side during the 1950s and 60s had focused on how the standard of living of the average Soviet citizen would soon surpass that of the average working American, since the Soviet system was not hampered by the presence of capitalists who were sucking the life out of working classes to pay for the capitalists’ unnecessary luxuries. In the Soviet Union by contrast, citizens would soon be awash in automobiles and washing machines and other space-age amenities that the leisure class in capitalist countries were all just hoarding for themselves.

That was all never more than propaganda, it turned out, and it became abundantly clear that socialism indeed did not deliver more goods to average people.

In response to this, the left turned away from promoting the economic superiority of socialism to focusing laser-like on its moral superiority. Capitalist economies henceforth were regarded by the left as morally degenerate, and its citizens interested in nothing more than frills and immoral luxury. Over time, this developed into the hipster culture of ironic consumption in which young white people from affluent suburbs with advanced degrees engage in “working class” past times while actual working-class people continue to pine for the luxuries enjoyed by the more affluent.

The charges coming from the left about the “materialism” of the defenders of free markets reflect the fact that socialists are left only with the thin gruel of feeling morally superior than one’s intellectual opponents. It is of course easy to condemn consumer goods while one types furiously into one’s iPhone, but in most of the world, most people still dream of one day owning a washing machine, and it’s pretty clear by now that socialism won’t deliver the goods.


  1. It’s one thing to point out that communist experiments like the Soviet Union failed. It’s quite another to then say, “Therefore, Marx was wrong.” Is your point only to rehash the fact that the experiments of the mid-20th century were wrong? I agree that anyone attempting to defend those “versions” of socialism/communism is already backed into a corner.

    As someone has already pointed out though, there are really important differences between Soviet communism and contemporary European socialism. There are also really important differences between those two things and “marxism,” either orthodox, 19th century marxism, or more contemporary stripes. They’re just not the same. One example among many: a widely accepted reading of Marx is that he didn’t have any ethical problem with capitalism. It was simply the mode of production that existed based upon the material needs of society. Ethical standards for Marx are epiphenomenal of the mode of production, meaning that one actually *couldn’t* decry the exploitation of the labor force as unethical since it was necessary to the capitalist mode of production. Feudal practices, on the other hand, are ethically deplorable, but only because they would be if employed in the capitalist mode. As they existed in the historical period in which feudalism was practiced, they can’t be judged unethical from the standpoint of capitalism (Marx gets this brand of historicism from Hegel.) Your complaint about morality and socialism is somewhat justified, but it isn’t an argument agains marxism as such.

    Related to the moral question, I’m also curious about your criticism of “materialist criticism,” which I’m assuming is the general complaint against “being materialistic” or something. The more contemporary marxist complaint is not against simply wanting things. It’s against the *individuality* that says “I can have as much as I want if I’ve *earned* it because I’m a free individual.” Obviously, Marx himself was an historical materialist. He thought material things were all that existed and that they dictated the very course of history. To say that socialistis/communists in practice, historically, have been interested in the same “material” in the same way is probably true. But you’re equivocating on what “materialism” is when you say that socialists/communists/marxists have the same relationship to “material” *in principle* as free market capitalists do. That just isn’t the case. In principle, marxism questions the relationship between individual and “material” that capitalism asserts because it questions the status of “freedom” as a “natural right.” It’s not a general complaint against having things in general.

  2. It is easy to conflate socialism with communism. But who believes european socialism is communism? And who doesn’t believe communism failed in the Soviet Union? Who are you arguing with? The “left” in the U.S. does not argue for a communist socialist system, but rather for social justice and constraints on the excesses of capitalism–socially responsible capitalism and democracy. The “right” and far-right libertarians do not seem to think there are excesses or such a thing as social injustice or restraints are needed. They are wrong.

        • Saying someone is ‘wrong’ doesn’t make you right, either.

          The ‘excesses’ you speak of, and the “social injustice’ you mention, are the results of government policies. They are not bugs, they are features of the system. And you want this same government to restrain them? European socialism has left the continent as a collapsing relic, crumbling away with a massive debt and currency problem, so much so that formerly ‘socialist’ regions like Sweden are scaling back this supposedly great ‘socialism’.

        • And two posts don’t make a valid point.

          “The “left” in the U.S. does not argue for a communist socialist system, but rather for social justice and constraints on the excesses of capitalism”

          What percent would you suggest they will stop at?

          “The “right” and far-right libertarians do not seem to think there are excesses or such a thing as social injustice or restraints are needed.”

          Socialists don’t understand that the people working for the excessses don’t go away because we form a government. They just go work for the government.

          • To simply say something is wrong does not in itself make it wrong, this is true. But to imply I am wrong because I said somebody was wrong does not make me wrong either. I would like to draw your attention to my comments before I said the far-right and libertarians are wrong. This other stuff about the use of the word “wrong” and the number of posts I make puzzles me.

  3. For the record, I think Pabst Blue Ribbon is a tasty beer, and I like to shop at thrift stores. Consuming modestly-priced goods does not necessarily make one a hipster anti-capitalist.

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