Protecting the Proletariat: Socialism and Game Theory

Game theory is used in many aspects of modern life, in many different types of competitive environments. While it can be used fields such as competitive sports, video games, or simpler hobby games such as chess or backgammon, the majority of the environments in which it is applied are capitalist institutions. After all, capitalism loves fostering ruthless economic competition, and game theory is all about understanding and exploiting the competition.

As socialists, it’s tempting to think that game theory would not be a necessary concept to study in any great detail, since we’re mostly not interested in any kind of libertarian ‘free market’ ideas, and the idea of forcing humans to compete with one another for survival is abhorrent to most of us. However, it is in fact necessary for us to understand the principles of game theory in order to progress towards achieving our aims for society, since a failure to do so will leave any future socialist society vulnerable to capitalist exploitation at the first opportunity.

What game are we playing?

A fundamental reality of game theory is that in any competitive system where two or more entities are in opposition to one another and one or more of them can be said to be ‘winning’ or ‘losing’, those who are ‘winning’ are exploiting those who are ‘losing’. Note that this definition of exploitation and its usage forms one of the primary liberal objections to socialist theory — liberals often conflate the exploitation of workers with mistreatment, and thus in their minds it cannot be true that all capitalist labor is exploitative by nature, because some people do have ‘good jobs’. Liberal objection to Marx’s ideas is often grounded in this one misunderstanding.

The sad reality of capitalism is that by the rules of the capitalist game, the bourgeoisie is ‘winning’ and the proletariat is ‘losing’, simply by virtue of the fact that the proletariat finds it impossible to ruthlessly acquire capital due to its inability or unwillingness to exploit fellow workers. The bourgeoisie is exploiting the proletariat, as we all know. The proletariat is playing an entirely different game — the game of survival, preservation of the self and family, and then maybe enjoying life just a little if the opportunity arises.

The inability of one class to play the other class’ game is based largely on their circumstances in their formative years — bourgeois children grow up with everything provided for them, and thus survival and the preservation of family are no concern, freeing the individual to pursue the accumulation of capital. The proletariat, however, having largely grown up without the luxury and security that come with extensive resources of capital to draw upon, is so focused on short-term survival (with tendencies towards emotional gratification to relieve the stress) that it becomes incredibly difficult to push oneself into a worldview whereby the accumulation of further capital becomes the primary goal.

Witness the behaviours exhibited by millionaires who go broke, or by proletarians who win the lottery — the millionaire will most likely get rich again somehow, since they will primarily orient themselves towards the accumulation of capital and will already possess the knowledge and experience (not to mention the slight tendency toward sociopathy) necessary to do it again, while the lottery winner will most likely either spend much of their money on short-term comforts and luxuries, or conserve it with the intent of enriching their life experience over a longer period. They will very rarely use their capital to accrue further capital, at least not with any great efficiency.

So, now that we know that the proletariat is largely playing a different game to the bourgeoisie, how do we use this knowledge to our advantage? How do we achieve our own goals — happiness, fulfillment, security, freedom from exploitation — without becoming capitalists ourselves? This is a fundamental question for socialists worldwide, and has scuppered many a revolution.

Protecting ourselves from exploitation

The first quandary of the implementation of socialism is a short-term issue — how do we counter the fact that each class playing different games creates space for capitalist exploitation? Proletarians desire food, shelter, clothing and other necessities, and thus their survival depends upon access to sufficient capital that they can afford these commodities whenever necessary. The desire of proletarians to sell their labor to capital is usually directly proportional to their need for these commodities, and yet their constant need for these commodities forces them to play the capitalist game, at the expense of their ability to win at their own game — the game of happiness and fulfilment.

How, then, can we ensure that we protect the proletariat, while we reorganize social power structures to reduce the influence of capital? It takes time for younger generations to open themselves up to a new social order, but society has been moving leftward for centuries, and thus we should assume that as time goes by, our goals will become easier and easier to achieve. It is necessary, however, to reduce our capacity for exploitation until a time when fewer people grow to adulthood in possession of a burning desire to exploit labor for profit.

Protecting the proletariat — protecting ourselves — requires several things. First, our dependence on capital must be reduced. Self-employment must be encouraged, as it would seem to be the only context in which a worker is allowed to determine the value of their own labor, and earn 100% of that value. Worker co-operatives should be promoted and fostered in instances where one person’s labor cannot get the job done, and even part-ownership of corporations by their workers is better than no ownership.

Secondly, efforts to create a less unequal capitalism (as ultimately futile as they may be in the long-term) remain important. High taxation on the wealthy, low taxation on the poor, and Universal Basic Income to overcome the impact of automation are all imperative. There are those within socialist circles vehemently opposed to UBI, but if we can’t end capitalism right away, UBI is at least a way to stall the process until the capital redistributed by UBI can be poured into worker co-operatives and other socialist projects.

It is naive to assume that global capitalism will end within our lifetimes, but it is cynical to believe that we cannot do anything to materially improve the conditions of the society within which we live. A nation like Norway, Sweden, Canada or New Zealand is a fundamentally more palatable capitalist economy than the United States, and those are the capitalist models we should seek to emulate in the short term. To suggest that those economies and their ‘compassionate capitalism’ are simply delaying socialist revolution to the point of being detrimental to the cause, would be akin to an accelerationist advocacy for American capitalism, which is surely distasteful to most socialists.

This, of course, assumes we are still operating within a democratic political structure — the entrenchment of such structures within Western societies in the 21st century is so deep that to challenge it directly would be to alienate those left-leaning liberals who have become so attached to it, and thus place ourselves in an unwinnable conflict. One only has to look at the reaction of some American liberals to the moderate violence and property destruction seen in some anti-fascist protests early in 2017. While turning the United States into Rojava might be the ultimate dream, it’s not happening any time soon.

Finally, achieving class consciousness on a massive scale is of paramount importance. Without spreading the word about socialism and overcoming the American propaganda of the past sixty to seventy years, genuine socialist policy will be impossible. Even if the American public at large never comes to embrace the word ‘socialism’ itself, it can at least be persuaded to continue distrusting the billionaire class, and the inevitable economic failure of the current Republican administration can be turned into an energy that will drive the country leftward in years to come. Once America shifts leftward and ceases intervening in socialist revolution worldwide, the cause of socialism will take a large step forward.

The bottom line: keep up the fight

In short, we have to push for equality — both social and economic — wherever we can, and spread our message at every opportunity. It is only by realizing that one’s labor is being exploited that one can prevent one’s labor from being exploited, and it is only by ceasing to aspire towards being a member of the capitalist class that one can be a part of its destruction. Protecting the proletariat from exploitation is the first step towards eliminating the social influence of the billionaire class and putting society itself at the forefront of all our concerns. If we want to be able to win at the game we’re playing, we need to make it impossible for the capitalists to win at theirs.