Socialists have traditionally criticized capitalism for the ways in which it violates four central values:

1) Equality: Capitalism generates morally intolerable levels of inequality of material conditions of people. This is especially offensive in its impact on children, but more broadly the levels of material deprivation in a world of affluence generated by capitalism violates a wide range of principles of egalitarian justice held by socialists.

2) Democracy: Capitalism thwarts democracy. By placing the basic economic resources and conditions of investment in the hands of private individuals, the capacity of the democratic polity to make decisions about the fate of the community is significantly undermined.

3) Autonomy: Capitalism robs most people of meaningful control over much of their work lives. There is a deep meaning-deficit in most people’s lives because they are pawns in other people’s projects. Capitalism does not merely generate inequality and poverty through exploitation, it generates alienation as well.

4) Community: Capitalism destroys a sense of solidarity among people. As G. A. Cohen has argued, the forms of competition and conflict built into capitalism drive economic activities primarily on the basis of two motives—greed and fear.footnote1 Instead of social interaction in economic life being normatively organized around the principle of helping others, it is organized primarily around the motive of taking advantage of the weakness of others for one’s own gain. This underwrites a culture of selfish individualism and atomism.

‘Socialism’ was then posed as the way of rectifying all four of these negative features of capitalism. At least in its idealized form, socialists argued that a democratically controlled, centrally planned economy would eliminate poverty and greatly reduce inequality, enhance the democratic capacity of the local and national state, reduce alienation by giving workers greater control within the process of production, and strengthen values of community over individualistic competition.

The historical experiments in achieving this ideal—what used to be called ‘actually existing socialism’—failed to generate these results. In certain times and places, some progress on one or another of the four values might have been made, but nowhere did sustained and durable progress occur on all four. While the precise reasons for these failures are the object of considerable debate, few people who share socialist values now believe that a centrally planned economy based on state ownership of the means of production can achieve these values even if the state itself were democratic. As a result, for many people who share the moral indictment of capitalism, the idea of socialism itself has come to be seen as a fantasy. Capitalism may be rotten, but the best we can do is try to ameliorate its worst defects; there is no point in struggling for a radical alternative because none is feasible.