Friday, October 31, 2008

Private property

An essential component of communism is the idea of "no private property". But this is simply a label, not a complete ideological or political position. We have to look at the issue more closely.

First, the idea of "no private property" is not best understood regarding the ordinary physical property that people typically own (or control in conditions similar to simple ownership): clothes, furniture, dwellings, cars, etc. The communist trope goes, "Communism doesn't mean we all have to share a toothbrush."

On the other hand, I've actually lived in a commune with no private physical property literally beyond my toothbrush and my underwear. And it was far and away the highest material standard of living I've ever enjoyed (even counting my current DINK lifestyle) despite the fact that only about half the commune was working in "straight" jobs and it was during the 80's recession. Not only did we have a high standard of living, we also had the capital to start several businesses and buy a house in San Francisco. So the idea of no private physical property is plausible.

The primary focus of the communist idea of no private property regards absentee ownership, such as a landlord renting a house, investors owning a factory, or bankers owning money. Specifically situations where people own things without having any kind of physical relationship to the property. For example, I physically possess my house, but my landlord owns it... at least on paper.

Fundamentally, the idea of abstract, absentee ownership alienates the work required to produce goods and services from the rewards of efficiently producing them. If a worker becomes more efficient, the rewards of that efficiency go not to himself but to the owner of capital. The only way, then, to motivate a worker on a long term basis is to keep him in conditions of "work (faster) or starve."

This fundamental long-term problem is masked to a certain degree in an expanding economy, because an expanding economy is chaotic and has local pockets of labor shortages. It is the local shortage, not the efficiency of the labor, that drives up labor prices. But, because labor is commoditized, the higher labor prices driven by the local shortage attracts more labor to the "pocket", driving labor prices down to the minimum cost necessary to keep the laborers alive and productive.

All markets, free or otherwise, always drive resources to the bottlenecks: i.e. those places in the movement and transformation of raw materials to commodities where demand exceeds supply. All markets either force prices down to the labor cost, or they drive prices up to the actual subjective use-value.

What capitalism does, by establishing and coercively enforcing absentee ownership (how else would you establish absentee ownership but with coercion?) is make ownership of capital a structural bottleneck, a bottleneck that cannot be resolved by adding more resources to it. It's a pure positive feedback system, with no corresponding negative feedback to prevent overload. It doesn't take a conspiracy or cooperation to make all the surplus resources go to the owners of capital, it's simply a structural feature of capitalism.

This structure violates our basic moral intuitions about fairness and deserts: Why should someone get more for no better reason than simply because they presently have more? It takes no skill, talent or work to use capital to make more capital; indeed capitalists actually boast about letting their money work for them. And when this system is enforced by actually making people starve or live in conditions of desperate poverty, we must engage in massive denial to uphold the system.

But there's not just a moral issue: there are pragmatic issues as well.

Because the positive feedback mechanism that causes the one-way accumulation of capital is structural, not planned, capitalists do not acquire experience or build trust to work together on a long-term basis. The competition within the capitalist class is fierce, pitiless and unrelenting. (Even so, this intra-capitalist competition does not act as a negative feedback system, because it merely moves resources around within the capitalist class; it moves only trivial resources back to the working classes.) No matter how many real, physical resources the capitalists acquire, there's always an enormous incentive to cut costs.

Since labor is commoditized, in addition to making production more efficient in a real sense, by reducing the socially necessary labor time to produce a given commodity, there's an additional incentive under capitalism to make production more efficient in a financial sense, by reducing the surplus resources allocated to the actual workers in exchange for their labor. Unless there's a temporary, local labor shortage, you simply cannot survive as a capitalist unless you do everything you can to pay your workers as little as necessary to keep them alive and productive, and spend nothing at all on their survival once they have aged past peak performance.

Furthermore, because capitalism intrinsically alienates the actual work from reward, it's psychologically and socially easy to alienate it a step further: to have money represent not physical productive capability, but financial capability; to remove the annoying step of actually creating commodities to transform money into more money. This second level of alienation is precisely what we see in the present global financial crisis. With the pure Ponzi schemes finally unraveling, the ruling capitalist class is simply paralyzed. And when the Gods fail, it is the humans who suffer.

Human nature being what it is, these pressures inevitably ends with the capitalists pushing the workers' standard of living so low that they have nothing to lose by open rebellion. It's not just a communist-driven phenomenon: we see these slave, peasant, worker and welfare-class rebellions in every society (cough Spartacus) where a ruling class commoditizes and dominates a working class.

In the past, no military technology was able to withstand a deep-rooted working-class rebellion. A million starving peasants could just spit on the king's army and drown them. Today, perhaps, not so much: with biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, and an army willing to use them unquestioningly on their fellow human beings (even on their own countrymen!), it's entirely possible that the capitalist class, when pushed to the wall, will simply engage in genocide and mass murder on a scale that will make Hitler look like a humanitarian.

The cure for these problems is socialism. And not just any old kind of socialism, but socialism that intentionally and explicitly acts as a transition to communism: an end to all class relations, an end to all economic and political exploitation, and an egalitarian society sharing the abundance of material wealth we have the capacity to produce today.

Socialism starts with the state directly being the only (or the dominant) absentee owner: Ownership of dwellings, ownership of capital and (as we're doing right now) ownership of money.

You might object, "But I don't want the state to own the capital!" Too late, it already does. More precisely, the owners of capital own the state: our present government exists primarily to protect the interests and private property of the owners of capital. Any sop to the working class results only from dimly enlightened capitalists (i.e. Democrats) who understand the danger of open rebellion. But even now, with the economy in ruins, a quagmire in Iraq, and eight years of the stupidest president and ruling party since... well... ever, the Democratic party still cannot garner 60% of the vote, and they're rushing as fast as (or faster than) the Republicans to transfer real material wealth from the working class (taxpayers) to the capitalist class (bankers)... to prop up the system; to rescue capitalism and the capitalist class from their own incompetence and egregious stupidity.

Regulatory/welfare capitalism, a la Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson (and to some extent Richard Nixon, surprisingly enough) is a good idea, at least on paper. Use the government to set a "floor" for financial labor costs, thus ensuring that labor commoditization does not drive the price of labor to the bottom, to ensure that at least some of the surplus value of labor goes directly to the laborers. It actually worked, kinda sorta, for 40+ years.

But regulatory capitalism is inherently unstable, because it leaves too much power in the hands of the capitalists, and the vicious intra-captialist competition means that every capitalist has an enormous incentive to find some way around the regulations... especially if he can ensure that the regulations still apply to his competition. All you need is one exception (cough Mariana Islands) and the whole system starts to unravel. Add that to the obvious strategy of using money to dominate the mass media, and as we have seen in present-day history we see that the power of capital overwhelms the power of an uncoordinated, isolated and alienated population.

The problem is that capitalism makes ownership, especially absentee ownership, completely unaccountable to the public interest. We simply cannot take away Bill Gates money in anything even resembling the same way we can take away George W. Bush's political power as President of the United States. Next January, Bush will simply be just another citizen, but Bill Gates will always have the economic power to decide what is valuable. This power is inalienable: No matter how incompetently he tries to create value (cough Windows Vista), he will keep his money.

The problem of keeping a socialist state accountable to the people — without a nongovernmental capitalist class acting as something of a counterweight — is presently unsolved. But we know that having a capitalist class with an inalienable right to absentee ownership provides minimal accountability, and they eventually erode what little accountability that can be established politically.

It's a scary thing: I'm proposing abandoning the devil we know, capitalism, for the devil we don't know, socialism. But I don't think we have much choice: The devil we know has every incentive to kill most of us and enslave the rest. I don't see how socialism could be worse.


  1. Jasmine- the Pakistani Heretical Girl10/31/08, 11:35 PM

    Larry, this is great cos we can look at political philosophy in depth now.
    Now here's something i want to tell which is dispell of myths and stuff. In the Islamic world- u know what's the translation of Communism? It's Shuweie' and this means something terrible- it means someone who rejects "moral laws", so there is a myth in Pakistan (spread by America and a myth that finds a happy home in Islamic teachings)- that Communism means the communal ownership of women. Bad. This accounts for why Communism is really feared.
    And of course this is just slurs and rubbish talk, cos Communism just means equality, no one owns anyone else, not privately in repressive way of father over his daughters, not in any other way also like barrack room society like SPARTA or the Paris Commune or some North Korea style thing.
    All it is equality of opportunity without chance for exploitation, we are all equal in the sense that no one has a privelage to exploit other persons for gain or whatever. Is that rejection of moral laws like what the mullahs is telling?
    I saw within poplular Islam, the seeds of Communism in certain aspects, very important for example in some sects to look after the poor (meskiin), orphans (ya'tiim) etc, and this is true generally in me (former) religion. So? So Communism is ethical, it's just the good stuff in religion, this is why Communism has a book, like Holy Qu'ran, this is the Communist Manifesto, must of all the bad stuff that happened in the name of Communism, is it wrote up in the Communist manifesto? No.
    Very ironic that incorrect understanding of Communism assists fascist patriarchy in crushing any kind of resistance against the mullahocracy, when Communism actually meets the needs of millions- in fact the vast majority of Muslims who is mostly poor and in need. All they are getting instead of help is religious opium.
    So we should more and more discuss what we are meaning by Communism on this blog and see the world thru this prism of understanding.

  2. Jasmine- the Pakistani Heretical Girl11/1/08, 12:40 AM

    Larry, u done links o the Socialist Workers' Party, i was in that group, it's in the UK and active in me area of London so i joined and stuff, but then it had fundies there also who was just along to spread their bad stuff and when i got threatened and stuff (they told it to me in Urdu so no one at the meeting could understand) i start to shout and all that and to call them terrorists and losers and the result- I got kick out from the SWP.
    Then i was to UAF, this is Unite Against Fascism and was ok, cos they said to any fundamentalists- "Behave cos we got zero tolerance if u bully any person cos they are not hijabi or not practicing or cos of their gender."
    So UAF was great, they set good ground rules, SWP, no it's another.

  3. Jasmine-The Pakistani Heretical Girl11/1/08, 2:46 AM

    All what Larry iw writeing and style and stuff, what does it sound like?
    Exactly like, "The Principles of Oligarkiyal Collectivism."
    Who wrote that then? Emmanuel Goldstein.
    Larry is like Goldstein to me.
    I contacted Goldstein and got hold of his stuff.
    I am thrilled.
    Scared also maybe.

  4. Some relatively minor points.

    The Paris Commune — as I understand it — should not be lumped in with Sparta and North Korea. The Paris Commune has an extremely democratic, non-authoritarian government. Delegates were elected directly by small groups of the population and could be recalled at any time.

    Communism is quite immoral, I suppose, by Islamic standards. Almost all socialists and communists are at least secularists (and many are outright atheists), and the emancipation of women is a critical component of communist ideology.

    The communist manifesto (one of Marx's earlier works, preceding Das Kapital) talks about "free love", meant in its plain meaning: women, hitherto forced by society to marry, and usually marry for money, should be free to express their love and sexuality as they pleased; women should marry only if they want to get married for the sake of being married, with no other considerations. That is, at least, how I read the original Communist Manifesto.

    Another point: Nothing in communism functions as "holy writ". Communists at least describe themselves as scientists, and nothing written can ever be authoritative to a scientist in anything resembling the same sense that scripture is authoritative to the religious believer. Communists philosophers and statesmen, even the "big three", Marx, Lenin, and Mao, have made mistakes, sometimes profound mistakes, and put out their fair share of bullshit. No one can honestly call himself a scientist and then say, "Marx (or Lenin or Mao) said it, so it is therefore true." Communists, like all scientists, can only keep their eyes open and test their theories against reality and observation.

  5. Excellent article / post. I wish I had the time to write something more thoughtful (as the post certainly warrants), but I must away to my daughter's birthday celebrations.


  6. How come no one ever told me this before?

    I've never thought socialism/communism were the abject evils portrayed by the government. What's always mystified me is why so many of those at the bottom don't see that they'd personally be better off with a different system. I guess that's why the elite keeps pushing conservative fundamentalist religion. Faith is good in politics, too - for the politicians.

  7. How come no one ever told me this before?

    You answered your own question:

    I guess that's why the elite keeps pushing conservative fundamentalist religion. Faith is good in politics, too - for the politicians.

    That's correct: because the elite, which controls the dominant media and culture, is lying to the masses to perpetuate their own privilege.

  8. All economical ideologies are perfect on paper and they all lack the inclusion of the "human factor". As you said: "The problem of keeping a socialist state accountable to the people — without a nongovernmental capitalist class acting as something of a counterweight — is presently unsolved."
    Once you have a pyramid of power the people on top will protect their privileges. There is only one solution for this: educating the people to understand that the value of life comes from its quality. People should understand that justice is in their own hands, not the system, not God. When someone votes for a politician that is accused of getting a bribe but not convicted the people should do the following: kill the judge and the politician. After 2000 years of christianity, wheere we were taught that ultimate justice is in the hands of god and we should pray for the wellfare of our enemies we need at least 3 generations of this kind of reeducation. Who should do the justice? The "old and wise". The young have too much to "loose", potentially (they risk speding 2/3 of their life in prison). But I'm saying that because I'm not old and wise :). Why should my father do the justice, when the unjustice is not big enough to make me perform the justice.

  9. Once you have a pyramid of power the people on top will protect their privileges. There is only one solution for this: educating the people to understand that the value of life comes from its quality.

    You're correct. This is precisely what communists typically mean as a critical part of the "dictatorship" of the proletariat. The proletariat must not only have power, they must educate themselves in its use.

  10. nice essay -- I will fwd it to friends who are unfortunately Americanized by the media and believe that socialism/communism are evil things. Keep the good work!


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