Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Should the government own everything?

Isn't communism the idea that the government should own everything?

The real question is: who owns the government?

Under capitalism, the capitalist class (the bourgeoisie) owns all the capital, the physical tools, machines and buildings required to produce stuff (constant capital) and the ability to feed workers before they've actually produced anything (variable capital). The capitalist class doesn't "own" the government outright, but they exert a dominant influence — by choosing who can run for office, and by disseminating an enormous amount of propaganda — that they might as well own it. Since the capitalist class dominates the government, the government on the whole acts in the interests of the capitalist class.

Even though the people are occasionally asked to vote on which faction of the capitalist class to give official state power, our present government can justly be termed a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

The goal of communism is to (somehow) implement a government dominated by the people who work for a living (the proletariat), and that thus acts in the interest of the workers: to implement a dictatorship of the proletariat. When the government really is dominated by the workers and acts in their interest, the government then can "own" all the capital.

(While there will probably be some changes to how we construct ownership of ordinary personal property, they need not be as profound and radical as the changes to ownership of capital. You might not "own" your house in the sense of accruing an increase in value, but your rights of tenancy — to stay in the house and live in it as you see fit (with responsible limitations) — would be strengthened.)

A lot of people consider the model of a monolithic one-party central government that micromanages the entire economy as the sine qua non of communism. It seems true that both the USSR and PRC employed this model to some extent. Whether or not this model was correct for the USSR and PRC, it is just one model among many, in the same sense that fascism is one model among many for implementing capitalism.

It's important to understand the specific historical circumstances surrounding the implementation of communism in the USSR and PRC:
  1. Both the USSR and especially the PRC lacked even basic industry
  2. The people of the USSR and PRC were mostly illiterate and lacked basic education
  3. Before their revolutions, the USSR and PRC were subject to severe imperialist domination by the West
  4. Both the PRC and the USSR were facing unrelenting violent hostility from the West; the USSR accurately believed they would be invaded by the West.
None of these circumstances apply to the West, nor would they apply even if the capitalist "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie" were to collapse in the present depression.

There are good arguments that a monolithic government has severe limitations and there are better models compatible with the fundamental principles of communism. Still, we have to give credit where it's due. The monolithic one-party governments of the USSR and PRC developed industrial societies in decades; the capitalist West required centuries to achieve the same. Not to engage in apologia — injustice is always wrong and mistakes should always be corrected — but the injustices perpetrated by the communist governments of the USSR and PRC as well as the catastrophes resulting from their mistakes are mild compared to those of the capitalist West.

If we communists must squarely face up to the injustices and mistakes of Stalin, Mao, Castro, et al. as communist errors — and we must — the capitalists must squarely face up to the injustices and mistakes of Hitler, Pinochet, Somoza, Pahlavi, et al., capitalist governments all. If we communists must squarely face up to the famines of the USSR and PRC, the capitalists must face up to the Irish famine and the 1918 flu pandemic.

The comparison is especially favorable to communism if we compare the USSR and PRC to the capitalist monolithic one-party governments: Germany, Italy and Japan of the late 1930s to early 1940s. Compared to less than a decade of Nazi or Japanese imperialist rule, Stalin, Mao and Castro come off as exemplars of grandfatherly kindness.

I do not intend an apologia for the errors of communist governments; it would be a tu quoque fallacy to excuse these errors by noting equally or more severe capitalist errors. I merely note that all human endeavors are fraught with peril, and egregious, catastrophic errors at worst fail to differentiate capitalism and communism; at best — if we count two world wars, centuries of imperialism and colonialism, and the hyper-exploitation of women and minorities in the West — they show communism in a better light than capitalism.

In any event, a monolithic one-party central government that micromanages the economy is simply not warranted for the specific economic, political and social circumstances that obtain in the West. With a pre-existing industrial base, a literate and relatively well-educated population, and a tradition of individual relatively responsible liberty, we in the West can move much more quickly towards the guiding slogan of the communist revolutions of the early 20th century — All power to the soviets! — true grassroots participatory democracy and true self rule by a responsible, compassionate citizenry.

8 comments:

  1. I will try to get back to this after school (I have too little time between classes), but I wanted to address the main point I'll be focusing on.

    I tend to think the best argument against implementing communism, is that pure communism just won't work. Not only do we have examples of grass-root, ground up communism that failed miserably, we also have the striking example of pure (or nearly pure) capitalism that was also an abysmal failure. (defining failure as the vast majority of citizens living at a significantly depressed standard of living)

    I think it is very obvious that pure ideology will never manage a reasonable society. So ultimately we're going to be dealing with hybridization anyways. I believe that the dismantling of the current system, to build from the ground up, will cause far more chaos, than allowing the current system to continue moving in a progressively more socialist direction.

    I will be back to further address this in more detail, but I wanted to give you an idea of where I'm going. Put simply, moving away from where we are now to quickly, will inevitably lead to a further concentration of real power, into the hands of less, and less accountable individuals.

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  2. i just printed this out for my children (years of public school requires more than a little bit of deprogramming).

    One minor point:

    Compared to less than a decade of Nazi or Japanese imperialist rule, Stalin, Mao and Castro come off as exemplars of grandfatherly kindness.

    Many people (myself for one) that Stalin abandoned Marxism-Leninism with his 'socialism in one country' policies (he was a de-facto national socialist at that point). Many people (again, including me) also see Mao as a petty bourgeois dictator by default, since he never came to power with a mandate from the working class (see Krushchev's memoirs for more on this). I realize these are debatable points, and I'm not attempting any apologia for these scumbags, just thought I'd interject with another opinion.

    anyway, excellent article. thanks.

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  3. DuWayne: What are you smoking? And why haven't you offered me any?

    Not only do we have examples of grass-root, ground up communism that failed miserably

    Do we now? Present them, please.

    ... pure ideology will never manage a reasonable society.

    Precisely what do you mean by "pure ideology"? I think this is a specious, lazy concept that people use to justify bullshit selfish expediency.

    I believe that the dismantling of the current system, to build from the ground up, will cause far more chaos...

    This is a straw man objection. We cannot simply "dismantle" the current system -- such an endeavor is physically impossible. What we can do is refuse to apologize and support the current system, wait for it to collapse of its own internal contradictions, and use that opportunity to implement something better.

    ... than allowing the current system to continue moving in a progressively more socialist direction.

    Excuse me? Allowing the current system to continue moving in a progressively more socialist direction? Have you been paying attention for the last 40 fucking years?

    First of all, what passes for "socialism" in the current system is nothing more than the citizenry being bought off by the fruits of imperial oppression and exploitation. More importantly, even these modest bones thrown to the working people in this country have been since Richard Nixon progressively eliminated in favor of more laissez faire conservatism and bourgeois despotism.

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  4. I don't understand why you insist on merging communism with state capitalist regimes such as the PRC and Stalinist USSR. These have nothing to do with Communism. No we don't have to take the fault for the mistakes because they were not mistakes of Communism. Stalin had to wipe out all the old school Bolsheviks in order to get the power. Workers did not own the government or the means of production. The USSR and PRC were Communist as much as North Korea is a democratic republic, ie, not very.

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  5. Do we now? Present them, please.

    The Soviet Union. Cuba. North Korea. Yugoslavia. Mongolia.

    Precisely what do you mean by "pure ideology"? I think this is a specious, lazy concept that people use to justify bullshit selfish expediency.

    Not bullshit selfish expediency. More like five minutes to flog off a comment, when I would have been better off waiting, coupled with the assumption that you would have a pretty good idea what I meant.

    Most ideology looks sexy as hell on paper and sound great from the mouths of charismatic philosophers. But when it comes to real world application, it starts falling apart. On paper, it is inevitable that the one factor repeatedly ignored, is human nature. There is some default assumption that humans will transcend millennia of our evolution and make it all fit together like so.

    Trying to implement a singular ideology will never work. At best, we will muddle along, using some of this and a bit of that, until maybe humans evolve to the point of functional anarchy. As long as we depend on governance, we must accept that we will be tweaking an imperfect system that is, overall, slowly improving.

    What we can do is refuse to apologize and support the current system, wait for it to collapse of its own internal contradictions, and use that opportunity to implement something better.

    I see. Sorry for equating you with most of the communists I've known, who aren't so keen on waiting for another century or two. And that is what you are looking at for collapse, if nothing is done - if we can actually manage to work things out.

    Two issues.

    One, this is sheer laziness. In essence, it leaves you free to ignore the world around you, instead of working to improve it. While I would tend to agree that it is impossible to dismantle the system, at least the communists who seek revolution are trying to proactively do something.

    Two, it is not necessary to be an apologist for, or supporter the current system, to fight to change and improve it. This is the problem I have with those who are calling for radical reconstruction, whether through revolution or attrition; Very few of us are keen on the chaos that either will bring.

    Make no mistake, we are facing intense challenges. We have been driving an economy based on sustained growth, with finite resources. This can't and won't go on forever. But it is quite plausible, that if we start making serious changes now, we can avoid a sharper collapse in the future. I'm more than happy to foster and take some of that hit now, rather than have it hurt my children, or their children even more, because we feel the need to push it to the bitter end.

    I am not an apologist for the current system. I want to work on changing that system now, so we can fend off the collapse you want and in the process create a better standard of living for everyone.

    Excuse me? Allowing the current system to continue moving in a progressively more socialist direction? Have you been paying attention for the last 40 fucking years?

    Yes I have, have you? Have you been paying attention for the last hundred? Two hundred?

    Over the past forty years (since it appears this is all that matters), we have seen a pendulum swing back and forth, from backlash to backlash. And with every swing, it moves inexorably to the left. It is painfully slow, but it is going where it needs to go. And given the current economic situation, coupled with a significant shift in government, it is likely we will see some improvement again, in the midst of the pain we're facing.

    Ultimately though, none of this is remotely relevant, except as a thought exercise. You have effectively removed yourself from the game altogether.

    Under capitalism, the capitalist class (the bourgeoisie) owns all the capital, the physical tools, machines and buildings required to produce stuff (constant capital) and the ability to feed workers before they've actually produced anything (variable capital).

    In a very basic level this is complete and utter bullshit.

    When I was working in the trades (as apposed to being a full time student and working very little) I owned most of my own tools. Still do as a matter of fact. And my clients paid for my tools, several times over.

    And there are an increasing number of employee owned companies, whether through partial profit sharing, or outright management and ownership. It works too. Some of the most successful companies follow this model.

    In essence, this is a blending of outright communist principles in a capitalist context. Remember what I said about ideological purity? We don't need and ultimately really don't want an all or nothing proposition. That's chaos and a guarantee that we will end up with totalitarianism. It happened when we were as close as we've ever been to pure capitalism and when we were as close as we've ever been to pure communism.

    The goal of communism is to (somehow) implement a government dominated by the people who work for a living (the proletariat), and that thus acts in the interest of the workers: to implement a dictatorship of the proletariat. When the government really is dominated by the workers and acts in their interest, the government then can "own" all the capital.

    That's a huge fucking "somehow." But even assuming you can, all you're really doing is trading one dictatorship for another.

    And assuming the somehow is worked out, what the hell makes you think the proletariat is going to do something different than any other government in history? At some level, there will necessarily be a concentration of power. It is impossible for billions of people to take a direct, non-representative hand in government. And we see how well that representation works now.

    What makes you think that the representatives are going to continue to represent the will of the people? Why should they? You are talking about giving those representatives control over the means of production. Do you honestly believe they're going to relinquish that power once given?

    At least in the current system, power is more dispersed. Yes, money rules. But there is a wider dispersion of the money that rules. And people are invested in their government through their taxes.

    Sorry, but the bottom line is that it begins to sound more like pay-backs, than any sound foundation for governance and economy.

    Best case scenario, it ultimately looks much as it does right now. But instead of the old bourgeoisie, for a new elite, that in the long run will be the new bourgeoisie. The elite will make the decisions and the sub-elite, the bureaucrats, will implement those decisions, often throwing their own little twists onto the mix.

    Worse case scenario, the power concentrates further and further, until it requires martial rule to keep the populace in line.

    (While there will probably be some changes to how we construct ownership of ordinary personal property, they need not be as profound and radical as the changes to ownership of capital.

    How does that work exactly? Why does the asshole, less than a mile away from me deserve that massive house, several acres of property and six horses? I've actually spent most of my adult life using my hands to transform loose materials into something functional. I've fixed homes that needed repairs, nearly always improving upon the original in the process. He just shuffles other people's money around.

    So why should I live in a tenement, while he lives in the lap of luxury?

    The monolithic one-party governments of the USSR and PRC developed industrial societies in decades; the capitalist West required centuries to achieve the same.

    First, both nations had the innovations of the west to build with. The plans were already available, they just had to put it all together.

    Second, PRC is still mostly backwater. Their industrialization didn't really take off until they freed the fucking markets. It doesn't really count as industrialization, when you have a few factories that are run by workers who live in conditions that would get a person thrown in jail here, if they treated their pets that way.

    If we communists must squarely face up to the injustices and mistakes of Stalin, Mao, Castro, et al. as communist errors — and we must — the capitalists must squarely face up to the injustices and mistakes of Hitler, Pinochet, Somoza, Pahlavi, et al., capitalist governments all.

    The problem with that, is that there are plenty of examples of capitalist states that are quite functional and don't commit the sorts of injustices you're examples have. There is yet to be a single example of a communist state that can say the same.

    With a pre-existing industrial base, a literate and relatively well-educated population, and a tradition of individual relatively responsible liberty, we in the West can move much more quickly towards the guiding slogan of the communist revolutions of the early 20th century — All power to the soviets! — true grassroots participatory democracy and true self rule by a responsible, compassionate citizenry.

    Which would be much more convincing, if we weren't able to watch Venezuela and Hugo Chavez, right now.

    The bottom line, no truly representative government is going to become functionally communist. The best you can expect, is a socialist/capitalist hybrid, with some communism emerging in industry. I would even go as far as to claim it's likely that a sustainable business model will require worker owned companies. That's the model of the most sustainable businesses out there now. But collectivist communism is never going to flower in democracy, any more than big L, extreme libertarian capitalism would.

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  6. Dammit - I missed the very most important part.....

    What are you smoking? And why haven't you offered me any?

    If I had anything to offer, believe me I would. Especially if I could offer some of the hash being discussed at my brothers blog (I used to make the best fucking blond hash). But alas I am no longer a toker and hope to soon no longer be a tobacco smoker.

    I do rather wish I could share my tobacco though. I have some of the Peter Stokkebye, Turkish Export. Excepting their London Export, it is the finest tobacco in the world (unless you can find and afford pure Turkish). I am about to smoke a cigarette rolled with some of the Turkish, blended with some Jester (Lane Limited), which is a truly exquisite smoke.

    The only better smoke, is a mix of Three Castles and Gauloise dark, which thanks to the fucking Frogs, is no longer (don't get me wrong, I love the French - I'm just mildly embittered by their decision to basically force Gauloise out of business)

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  7. Hi,

    Nice topic!
    Thanks for posting and giving information.

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  8. DuWayne, you and I obviously have different opinions about certain things.

    To the extent that we have different opinions about complicated historical truths — whether or not the USSR, PRC, etc. really were grass-roots democracies, whether or not they "failed" and how they failed — there's not much I can do. I'm not an historian or scholar; I can't cite you chapter or verse.

    I consider the position that the USSR, PRC, Cuba and Yugoslavia were grass-roots democracies — and that they failed because they were grass-roots democracies — to be a fantasy. This position is in accord with neither pro-communist nor pro-capitalists scholarship and propaganda, both of which hold that the drawbacks of the first socialist countries were due to a lack of democracy.

    I might be wrong. You're free to express your opinion, either on your own blog or — as long as you don't lie outright or act like a dick — on the comments here. If you just want to express your opinion, you've done so. If you want to persuade me, you'll have to give some actual facts.

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