A few weeks ago, I went to a barber for the first time in my life. I was invited to host a panel at the annual SFL Israel conference and wanted my beard to look its best.
There are still a small number of old-time barbers in Israel. But in recent years, beards have been making a comeback and thus there is a renewed interest in barbers. As a result, new barber shops, staffed by young dudes and offering straight-razor shaves, face massages, and beard oils (some even offering beer and whisky) began appearing. I went to one of the latter kinds of shops.
Communism led to a strict and unmerciful management and supervision of labor.
As I sat in the vintage barber chair, looking at the wood floor and the not-by-design bare cement walls, I could not help thinking about Capitalism and bourgeois-ness.
Many people despise “unproductive” and eccentric professions, such as artisan carpenters, boutique cheesemakers, jewelers, and barbers. They are regarded as bourgeois, foppish, not “really” needed, decadent, and worse – overpriced.
Karl Marx argued that capitalism alienates man from the products of his labor. He admired the massive productivity of the capitalist system, which he called “the bourgeoisie”, but lamented the loss of small industry for industrial production aimed at satisfying the needs and tastes of the masses. Marx believed that in a communist system, people will be able to work in whatever they please:
Society will regulate the general production and thus make it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman, or critic."
It is unclear exactly how Marx thought that the “regulation of general production” by “society” would make this possible. As history proves, the total opposite happened. Communism led to a strict and unmerciful management and supervision of labor. Under comprehensive five-year plans, citizens became disposable cogs whose wishes were to be disregarded.
To be fair, the world Marx criticized was very different from the present one. The division of labor in industrial production in the 19th century meant that many jobs required mind-numbing repetitive physical action. These types of jobs began to gradually disappear due to automation. This trend continues to this day with the ever-increasing capabilities of robots and artificial intelligence. 19th-century jobs were not just hard – due to their relatively low productivity, these jobs paid little, meaning workers had to work longer hours and forgo leisure.
Capitalism provides for the widest range of people in terms of taste and spending ability. In the end, it was capitalism, not communism, which freed more people to work in their preferred professions and brought about an unprecedented proliferation of “fringe” professions. The bourgeoisie’s mass production and productivity, which Marx so admired, gradually made goods and services cheaper and working hours shorter. Thus, capitalism leaves more disposable income in the pockets of the masses, both consumers and workers, and makes the purchase of uncommon products and services more affordable.
Want a standard chair? You have Ikea. Want a special one-of-a-kind chair? There are plenty of independent carpenters in south Tel Aviv and snooty, ridiculously overpriced, designer furniture shops in north Tel Aviv. Even if you are poor and cannot afford to buy a chair, there are websites like agora.co.il (agora means “penny” in Hebrew) that matches people who need stuff with people who want to give stuff away for free. Contrary to the feudal and the socialist systems, capitalism provides for the widest range of people in terms of taste and spending ability.
My barber, a young man wearing a leather apron and too many metal chains, worked on my beard with a determined and focused expression. When he finished, he gave me a few insightful tips on how to grow the beard so it won’t lose its shape. It was clear that he loves his work and that he likes gaining professional expertise, implementing it, and sharing it. It was clear that he wants his customers to be happy.
What kind of social-economic system would have allowed him to choose this profession, this way of life? To turn a passion into a breadwinning occupation? When I shook his hand and said goodbye, I didn’t see an alienated person, nor a servant.