Is socialism a more emotionally intelligent economy than capitalism?
Albert Einstein argued that emotional maturity was much more a feature of socialism than it is a feature of capitalism. |

Have you ever noticed that we often talk about and even measure the effectiveness of our economy in emotional terms? The University of Michigan periodically reports on “consumer confidence,” producing that metric as a supposed indicator of the health of the economy. The metric itself can and does move markets because feelings have a reality.

We talk of stock market “panics” and “irrational exuberance,” of “economic anxiety.”

The feelings we have about our economy influence the functioning of the economy; our feelings are, indeed, an economic factor.  And the economy itself, at least as we talk about it, seems to have feelings of its own, as when we talk about “market jitters.”  We even refer to severe economic downturns as “depressions.”

But while we tend to identify our feelings about the economy, we rarely ever stop to think deeply and analytically about them, in a psychotherapeutic sense, the way we might seek, when living in the healthiest way, to understand our personal emotional states and how they drive us, precisely so we can work most effectively to manage these feelings most responsibly and think most clearly.

In psychotherapy, for example, the idea is that people become aware of the feelings driving their behaviors and influencing their relationships typically in ways not fully acknowledged so that they can confront and understand them. And the point of understanding them is so people can have a better chance of acting with greater consciousness and control and, especially, with a clearer sense of reality.  So, for example, a person who was abused as a child and repeatedly beaten might very well approach the world with fear and anxiety, flinching in anticipation of being hit even when someone else extends a friendly hand. The feelings have their own reality, but those feelings do not correspond to the reality of the external world. Nonetheless, the feelings, rooted in that abusive history, influence that person’s relationships with others and the world at large in a distorted way.  The point of the psychotherapy is to help individuals recognize the emotional history distorting their perceptions of the world so they can recognize the reality that the whole world is not hostile to them and approach and interact with the world without being controlled by fear.

This kind of awareness is part of what constitutes what we now term “emotional intelligence.”  When we are aware of our own emotional responses to the world as well as those of others, we can see and think more clearly, with a greater sense of reality, and respond more optimally in any situation.

As a matter of common wisdom and as a teacher, I can tell you that people cannot think clearly or learn effectively when they are afraid and anxious.  This is why teachers must work to create a safe learning environment and help students overcome their fears and anxieties in the classroom.

Now let’s translate these emotional dynamics and analyses to the economic level.

We can see quite clearly, for example, the role of fear and anxiety in our economy—how fear-driven our economic behaviors are, how susceptible we are to fear, especially in this day and age. Think, for example, of fears being stoked around immigration.  President Trump represents them as an invading force of rapists and drug dealers, threatening our social and economic life when studies show immigrants are a vital part of our economy.  Think about the dominant American fears of job loss and loss of healthcare, which studies show stifle creativity, mobility, and the overall productivity of the economy.

Have we collectively processed these fears and anxieties?

If economies have feelings and people’s feelings are a vital part of the economy, it might be wise to wonder if some economies might be more emotionally intelligent than others.

While I’m not sure this question is really posed in terms quite like this, we can find some guide for thinking through this question, I think, in Albert Einstein’s lovely 1949 essay “Why Socialism?”

In this essay, Einstein, I believe, identifies a chief and fundamental fear that perpetuates and is also generated by capitalism and that also keeps us emotionally stupefied and in a distorted relationship with the real conditions of our existence, of the reality of the relationships in which we live out our economic and social lives.

Let me cut to what I view as the core of Einstein’s socio-economic, and really humanist analysis, as it relates to our discussion of economic emotional intelligence.

At one point in the essay, Einstein writes:

“I have now reached the point where I may indicate briefly what to me constitutes the essence of the crisis of our time. It concerns the relationship of the individual to society. The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even to his economic existence. Moreover, his position in society is such that the egotistical drives of his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate. All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration. Unknowingly, prisoners of their own egotism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naive, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life. Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.”

Einstein here is really excavating the emotional basis of economic behavior.  People feel threatened by the reality of their dependence on others, as though it somehow undermines or weakens them.  While the feeling has its own reality, in Einstein’s analysis this feeling does not correspond with reality, as he identifies the fact and reality of our dependence on others “as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a protective force.”  The result of this feeling that distorts our perception of the reality of our relationships, he asserts, is that we get imprisoned in our own egotism, weakening our social drives and hence disempowering us, leaving us “insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naïve, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life.”

Another effect of this emotionally unintelligent approach to life and reality, for Einstein, is that people then engage in economic behaviors antagonistic to those very people, those very relationships, upon which they depend for their own existence, strength, protection, and, not least, enjoyment.

He writes, just following the passage I quote above:

“The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of the evil. We see before us a huge community of producers the members of which are unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the fruits of their collective labor—not by force, but on the whole in faithful compliance with legally established rules. In this respect, it is important to realize that the means of production—that is to say, the entire productive capacity that is needed for producing consumer goods as well as additional capital goods—may legally be, and for the most part are, the private property of individuals.”

Einstein describes capitalism as a system that fosters emotions that make us fear our dependence on others such that, fearing and denying our dependence on others—the reality of social existence itself– we compete against rather than cooperate with others for the resources we necessarily collaborated with each other to produce.  We find ourselves “unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the fruits of their collective labor.”

We then create socio-economic forms, such as private property, that normalize and legitimize an economic system rooted in a distorted perception of reality generated by an irrational fear of the reality of our necessarily cooperative existence, our dependence on one another.

In this sense, Einstein shows capitalism to be an emotionally unintelligent economy.

For Einstein, a socialist economy that honestly and even joyfully recognizes and celebrates our dependence—our inevitable sociality and the necessary reality of our reliance on our cooperative energies to sustain us—constitutes a more emotionally intelligent economy, one that conditions not fear-based behaviors but behaviors recognized in an honest evaluation and understanding of reality.

If we collectively create our world, shouldn’t we collectively enjoy that world, sharing what we create for one another as needed, instead of antagonistically seeking to deprive one another of life?

Maybe Einstein was not a psychologist, but he sure provided us with a complex and sophisticated—and yet in many ways oh so simple—psychological, and psychotherapeutic, approach to imagining a humane and reality-based political economy.

While we have used the knowledge his great mind produced to engage in mass destruction with atomic bombs, let me suggest it’s time we take wisdom to create a more emotionally intelligent economy.


Tim Libretti
Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti teaches in the English Department at a public university in Chicago where he lives with his two sons.