Saturday, April 10, 2010

Communism 2.0

An attempt to get at the kernel of communism, and what we might make of it today.

"In the individual expression of my life I would have directly created your expression of your life, and therefore in my individual activity I would have directly confirmed and realised my true nature, my human nature, my communal nature." - Marx, on free production

After studying the biography of Leon Trotsky, one question remained- what on earth actuated such sustained and apparently blind devotion? What was the motivating core of communism that could move so many to such sacrifice, even accepting that there were many opportunists who saw in this new religion (as is ever the case) a means to power?

An off-hand comment by Trotsky, mentioning the ruins of the slave civilization of ancient Greece, struck me as illuminating the whole question of what was going through their minds. Marx was calling his time to a new consciousness of iniquity, which we have yet to fully appreciate, as we still live within the tenets of the capitalism.

Slavery in antiquity was accepted as the natural course of affairs. If one's gods failed to keep the city, if one's army turned and fled, if one's debts rose over one's head, or if fate was otherwise unkind, slavery was one of the natural (and remorselessly Darwinian) consequences. Slavery was not individually an unalterable condition, as occasional slaves bought their way back out of slavery, or rose to high office and respect. But no one thought it was an unnecessary or optional institution. Even the Christians who took in slaves as fellow worshippers had no special animus towards the institution- because they didn't see it as an institution, but as part of the normal course of affairs, now and forever.

This tendency to take for granted the system one lives in is natural enough, and comes to mind now, after free-market-ism, Republican jingo-ism, and capitalist / managerial greed-ism has come under a cloud. Now that the various communisms of the twentieth century have definitively all imploded or petered out, perhaps we are freer to look around without fear at the warts of capitalism and consider whether there is a better way to live than this one we take as natural.

Communism in its original incarnation was a direct comment on the new slavery of Marx's time- the Dickensian horrors of early/middle capitalism, much like what China is experiencing right now, ironically enough. Marx decried the dehumanization, the regimentation, and the rank oppression of his day, and thought that the new concentration of labor engineered by capitalism was propitious for political and social action against that system.

Such action, whether taking revolutionary color, or the modest shape of labor unions, struck fear into the hearts of capital, prompting counter-revolutionary propaganda that continues to this day, celebrating the US as the home of freedom, contented capitalism, God, and apple pie. It led to substantial progress in working conditions and in wages, especially from the New Deal through mid-century; progress that is eroding continually.

That much is obvious. So where are we today? Is capitalism the natural and default condition, or is there there something better that we can imagine?

At this point, I was going to present a model of an equal-wage economy, where everyone was paid the same, eliminating much of the alienation and competitiveness, leading to greater workplace and cultural cohesion. Unfortunately, there are serious defects with such a model, especially in combining it with free buyer markets, capital mobility, and other freedoms, which is in some part what the Soviet Union found as well (though in a radically different context). Such a blanket form of egalitarianism, while an interesting thought experiment, has to be approached in a more gradual fashion, much as we have in the US through tax-based redistribution, and as the quasi-socialist economies of Scandanavia have come close to achieving.

The point, of course, is that salary pricing in the labor market is both grossly inefficient, (witness prices paid to spectacularly incompetent managers as a matter of course), fundamentally dehumanizing / devaluing, and also largely unnecessary, since positive human motivation arises mostly from other factors such as status, personal relations, and intellectual interest, not money. Places like Japan manage to have prosperous economies and civic cultures with far less monetary inequality. Indeed, in my ideal world, the people with the worst jobs (maids, garbage men, farmers) would be paid the most, and those with the most satisfying jobs (CEOs, academics) would be paid the least, while the labor market would be far more transparent and active than it is now, based on interest and working conditions, not pay.

In this way, wage slavery would be ameliorated and human values propagated, while preserving the many other freedoms essential to civic and economic prosperity. Such a broad program would be more interesting and effective than the labor movement, since labor routinely descends into simple greed of its own, whether it is the featherbedding of longshoremen who hold our ports hostage, or the staggering pension debt (estimated at a half-trillion dollars unfunded for California alone) of public employees unions extorted by their political clout. While they did "bring us the weekend", those days of general civic benefit are long gone.

So I see the true legacy of communism as living on in the gradual democracy-to-socialism spectrum of Western political systems, which have substantially corrected many of the deficiencies of early capitalism, (though not in the West Virginian coal mines, apparently), but still have a long way to go to reach a fully humane social system- one which allows people to express their talents and productive motivations in a truly free way.

  • Not to mention that prosperity and freedom promote atheism.
  • Regulatory postmodernism and Schrödinger banks. (My understanding is that the decline of Rome was far more gradual than portrayed here, indeed almost imperceptible to its subjects. Still, an interesting post.)
  • Relink on Krugman and the climate- absolutely imperative reading (and doing). With all the economic analysis, the even more important and deeper reason for resolving climate change is moral- to leave future humans (and other biosphereans) the kind of healthy planet that was left to us. 
  • Humans have removed 90% of large fish from the oceans. That is not decimation, it is extermination.
  • And the current sea level rise predictions.
  • Funny discussion of our energy future.
  • Feynman on the ultimate answers.
  • Republicans show their colors.
  • Still a long road in Afghanistan.
  • Bill Mitchell quote of the week:
"One could also argue that the introduction of a tax in the first place is oppressive. It all depends on how you define oppression. It is oppressive to have red lights at intersections and fine people who disobey them. But the benefits of safety and relative certainty on the roads easily offsets this invasion of our liberties. It is all about judgements we make about the “efficiency” of living together."
"I have seen no credible research that suggests that private rates of return in nations that have larger public sectors are lower than otherwise. But I have seen a lot of credible research that shows that reduced inequality in income distributions is a positive fillip to economic growth rather than the other way round. Nations that impoverish vast masses of their population waste the greatest potential they have – the capacity to work and achieve."
  • And another outstanding Mitchell blog takes the long view on financialization and intergenerational policy.
"The crisis has it origins back in the 1970s when the OPEC oil price shocks led to a change in the dominant macroeconomic paradigm from Keynesian to Monetarist (which has morphed into other schools of thought just as evil). In this broadly neo-liberal era, the fundamental changes to the distributional system – via the attacks on unions and the redistribution of national income to profits was a fundamental building block of the current crisis. For it presented the capitalist system with a realisation problem.
If you are going to cut workers wages and entitlements and keep real wages subdued while productivity growth was strong then how were the goods and services being produced going to be purchased and consumed? Answer: bring in the financial engineers who loaded the workers up with debt."


  1. I challenge you to offer, in plain English, the criteria upon which you seek to address the important issues you raise, and make the critiques you make in this article.

    Just the list if you would be so kind.

    Fr. Lazarus

  2. Hello, Lazarus-

    I'm note quite sure what you mean here, though I suspect you would maintain that for some reason I "can not" hold views that do not descend from some authority- supernatural, scriptural, or ecclesiastical.

    All I would say in response is that I certainly can so hold whatever such views I wish. If you ask what makes me think they are "good" ideas, I would say that this derives from a model of what makes humans happy, which may occasionally and individually be success and defeat of others, but on a more sustained basis is cooperative action and security in a community of mutual support. This seems to allow maximum individual development and expression.

    So my criteria are utility & happiness in a very broad view. Humans are very complicated creatures, and get happiness from mutually contradictory pursuits. Not to mention that individuals vary tremendously as well.

    When one looks at history, the default state of humanity is the war of all against all, as we saw recently in Iraq. We judge the success of more civilized cultures on how well they achieve the balance of individual freedom and expression with community support and institutional durability. The result of all this is long-term human happiness, on balance.

    The communists did not do well on these counts at all, while capitalism has done much better. Can we do better still? I think the Scandinavian countries stand as a sign of hope in that direction, achieving greater happiness through substantial egalitarianism, though not out-and-out communism.