Sunday, October 25, 2009

Communism for Dummies

I want to articulate the case for communism as clearly and simply as I can.

Anyone who wants to make changes, especially radical, revolutionary change, must first answer the question: what's wrong with the status quo? Why not keep what we have, or at most fix what we have, instead of making radical changes?

We are in the middle of a world-wide depression. Unemployment is almost 10%, counting only those people actively looking for work, or about 17%, counting everyone un- or under-employed except voluntarily (e.g. retirees). Millions of people are facing poverty and the ruin of their productive lives. This poverty and hardship has clearly not been caused by some catastrophe — earthquake, hurricane, plague, drought, war, insurrection — that has somehow diminished our real wealth. We still have the same factories, the same farms, the same skills, the same labor power that we had just a few years ago when we all (at least people in the professional-managerial middle class, and a substantial percentage of wage-laborers) thought we were doing pretty well.

Nothing has changed between then and now except the behavior of the owners of capital.

There are also more persistent issues that any person who cares about the well-being of all human beings must label as at least objectionable, and often intolerable.

Tens of millions of people, most of whom work full time, have no health insurance at all, no access to routine health care; they have access only to emergency care, the most expensive form and least efficient mode of health care. Millions more have inadequate health insurance: three-quarters of all people who go bankrupt due to medical bills have health insurance.

Billions of more people around the world live in abject poverty, with hundreds of millions of people (perhaps a billion) facing malnutrition and starvation right now.

We are currently engaged in two wars of aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the United States our ordinary political liberties, supposedly enshrined in the Constitution have been drastically curtailed, by both Republican and Democratic presidents and legislatures, with cooperation of the Supreme Court. Even president Obama, with historic popularity and a creepy, almost religious adoration among liberals and progressives (but nowhere near as extreme as the very creepy, explicitly religious adoration of George W. Bush among conservatives), has done little to restore habeus corpus, halt indefinite detention without trial, punish torturers, or extricate us from our wars of aggression. And the "war on (some people who use some) drugs" has made a mockery of the Fourth Amendment for the past thirty years.

(And how did a capitalist "democracy" ever elect a fool such as George W. Bush, a monster such as Dick Cheney, and a bunch of heartless bastards such as the Republican congresses of the early 21st century?)

There are many other problems, both here in the US and abroad: racism, sexism, a ballooning prison population, religious fundamentalism both Christian and Islamic, genocide in the Sudan. The list is depressingly long.

And, of course, with global warming we are staring an imminent world-wide ecological catastrophe right in the face.

Clearly the status quo is broken. It must at least be fixed, somehow. Can it?

The "conservative" answer is: capitalism not broken. 10% nominal (or 17% real) unemployment is just not a problem. It's right and just that tens of millions of working people are without health insurance. These people do not deserve jobs, they do not deserve health care, they do not deserve life itself; why can't they just lie down and die? A billion people starving is perhaps regrettable, but it's not the fault of capitalism or the capitalist ruling class, and they can't fix it. And there's nothing at all wrong with wars of aggression; after all, as Michael Ledeen famously asserted, "Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business."

The "liberal" and "progressive" answer is: capitalism can be fixed. After all, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democratic congress fixed it once in the 1930s and 40s, n'est-ce pas? But if we fixed it then, why didn't it stay fixed?

The socialist and communist answer is that the same structural and systematic features of capitalism that made it valuable in the 18th and 19th centuries, and even (if you hand-wave over two world wars and multitude of other sins) valuable in the 20th century are precisely the features that are either causing the problems of today or blocking effective solutions.

I have to make two cases: First that capitalism is not just implemented imperfectly, not just subject to human foibles, but inherently and structurally flawed. Second, I have to offer a reasonable and systematic alternative that addresses the inherent structural flaws in capitalism. Furthermore, this alternative system must have plausible mechanisms in place to prevent the potential of catastrophic failure in any radically new plan. I believe I can make both cases persuasively to any intellectually honest and caring person, without requiring either a "religious" conversion or massive historical or theoretical study.