Capitalism as a Cave
A Brief Philosophical Allegory
Plato, in The Republic, proposed an allegory- the fabled Allegory of the Cave. It goes like this: there is a cave. In the cave there are a group of people chained to a wall such that essentially all they can see is the wall itself. Behind them is a fire, and in front of the fire a walkway along which objects are carried by unseen figures such that the fire projects their shadows onto the wall. For Plato, the metaphor was one for his idealist view of the world. The wall and the shadows upon it were the “reality” experienced by humans with our limited perceptions, while the objects of which the shadows are shadows of are the “forms,” the abstract ideals existing on a higher plane of which all apparent objects on this plane are mere projections. And as an object in motion projects many different shapes of shadows, so many objects on this plane are projections of a single form on their plane (e.g. all birds are projections of the single form “bird”). Furthermore, the cave itself was a metaphor for the society and its ideology: outside exists the real reality, but the majority of the people chained to the wall are content with their current illusory one. According to Plato it is only the philosophers, the true lovers of knowledge, who dare strive to leave the cave and taste the real reality of higher planes like that of the forms. Hence why, in his view, they should rule society.
This is all, of course, wrongheaded, subjective, and unscientific, as well as conceited and elitist. Plato’s idealism and his cause of the “philosopher kings” should be unapologetically thrown out. I propose, however, that the analogy can be re-interpreted with new meaning in order to become a useful tool for the teaching and understanding of Marxism, specifically Marxist Political Economy, specifically in the area of criticism of the capitalist cultural superstructure.
Suppose that the fire is capital, the beating heart of the capitalist mode of production. Suppose further that the objects carried before it and the mysterious figures who carry them are the institutions and enforcing powers of that mode of production and the social order of it, the Dictatorship of Capital/Dictatorship of the Bourgeoisie. Imbued with energy and power by the driving force of capital and its all-controlling investment, these institutions project their shadows- the cultural superstructure of capitalism- onto the minds of the masses (the wall). These shadows thus become all the masses may conceive of, their distorted version of the world the only one the masses know. This is, in fact, precisely how the capitalist superstructure functions! It appears to be reality, people mistakenly believe that bourgeois ideology is the full spectrum of human thought and contains valid perspective on reality, but in reality it is a mirage, a haze that obscures reality, a shadow.
Capitalism, then, is a Platonic Cave, an ANTRVM PLATONICVM. In the society and historical epoch of capitalism, inside the cave, the masses exist under the blinding and deluding control of the shadows of the capitalist superstructure, the ideological and cultural lies that keep us happy, stupid, docile, obedient. The communist, then, is like the philosopher in Plato’s version- striving to get out of the cave. But we are also quite different, for we do not seek selfishly to get ourselves out of the cave. No, we are the leaders who seek to get the whole of humanity out of the cave of capitalism, lead it along the tunnel upwards of socialism, and out into the open air of communism where reality can be seen and human life can be lived truly and properly without the spectres of capital’s cast shadows haunting it.