Sunday, February 14, 2010

What is communism?

Communism is to capitalism what democracy is to monarchism and feudalism.

The bourgeois revolutions of the 18th an 19th centuries introduced a political paradigm as revolutionary as the economic paradigm of capitalism: the idea that political power (i.e. how we use police and soldiers) ineluctably and immutably belongs to the people. They can delegate that power, but it "cannot" be taken away or expropriated. This principle is directly stated in the preamble to the US Constitution: "We the people... do ordain and establish this Constitution."

Before the bourgeois democratic revolutions, political power was owned by the royalty and nobility. They "earned" it, and it was theirs to use as they pleased, for their own benefit. Any concessions they made to the people were concessions made to the substantial difficulty of keeping and exercising power in the real, objective world. To the extent the good of the people was any kind of goal, the good was supposed to emerge from the interplay of privately owned political power in the conflicts and struggles within the feudal hierarchy.

Essentially, bourgeois democracy socialized the private ownership of political power.

(Of course, nothing really changed except the ideas in people's heads and their distribution; people just changed how they thought about political power. But a human being is nothing but the ideas in his or her head, and our societies are nothing but the distribution of those ideas.)

One of the interesting features of bourgeois democracy is that the ownership of capital is specifically exempted from democratic control. A person may be deprived of his life or liberty on the due process of law, but according the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution, he may be deprived of his private property for public use only on "just compensation". I'm not a Constitutional scholar, but I'm confident that the Supreme Court has consistently held that absentee ownership of capital does indeed constitute Fifth Amendment private property, and is exempt from socialization, even by due process of law.

The communist* project entails socializing the private ownership of capital, for precisely the same reasons that the bourgeois democrats socialized the ownership of political power. (More precisely, for the reasons the people threw their weight behind the capitalist class in their struggle with feudalism.) This principle and only this principle is the fundamental distinction between communism and capitalism.

*One important reason I call myself a communist and not a socialist is that too many people who call themselves socialist are not committed to the fundamental socialization of capital, preferring alternative fundamentals such as improved government regulation of privately owned capital. For all their differences and conflicts, most people who call themselves communists stand firm on the socialization of capital as a fundamental principle.

Everything else, including the concept of the "planned economy", are particular tactics and strategies to acquire capital from its private owners and to use it once it's been acquired. In much the same sense, a bicameral legislature and a distinct executive are particular tactics and strategies to implement democratic political power.

Communism makes the same argument takes the same position regarding the private ownership of capital that democracy makes takes regarding the private ownership of political power: It is not false that the King "deserves" or has somehow "earned" his political power (and that someone else does deserve it or has earned it), but rather that political power is not the sort of thing that we want people to deserve or earn in the first place. Our capital is the common property of all humanity, to be used for the common good.

How should we actually socialize capital? How should we actually use and administer socialized capital? There are a lot of different ways to do so, from the extremes of anarcho-syndicalism on one hand, where individuals and small groups have more-or-less complete ownership of the capital they actually use; and on the other hand monolithic state communism where One Big Bureaucracy administers all the capital. I have a lot of specific ideas, but I do know: we're going to start off not just by making mistakes but by being half-assed; if we're smart, wise and lucky, we'll be able to correct our mistakes over time.

If we're not smart, wise and lucky, we'll fail, and someone else will have to try again later. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, communism was just as new as democracy was in ancient Greece or the Roman republic; and communism is just as new today as democracy was at the founding of the American republic. The ancient Greeks and Romans — for a variety of controversial reasons — failed; the American republic did not. (Whether we succeeded, if one defines "success" as something other than avoiding catastrophic failure, is a matter of no small controversy.) Likewise the Soviet Union and China failed to socialize capital — again for a variety of controversial reasons — and descended back into capitalism.

The failures of ancient Greece and Rome did not prove that democracy was impossible, they proved only that particular strategies and tactics did not work under specific circumstances. When, seventeen centuries later, the structure and organization of feudalism — the private ownership of political power — became inconsistent and contradictory to material economic reality, the time was again ripe to make another try.

Similarly, the failures of the Soviet Union and China prove that specific strategies did not work under specific circumstances. Communism — the socialization of capital — is no more a panacea than democracy, and, like democracy, not all strategies consistent with the principle will be effective. We still have a real world to deal with, which imposes its own constraints independently of our political principles.

I have no intention of stopping here.

I do not want to say that socializing capital is essentially or by definition good, and that any and every society that socializes capital is therefore good -- or at least essentially better than any and every society that privatizes capital. I do not believe this principle any more than I believe that any and every society that socializes political power is essentially better than any and every society that privatizes political power. How we socialize capital is as important as that we do so.

I maintain, rather, that a society that efficiently and effectively socializes capital will, under present and foreseeable circumstances, be better than a society that efficiently and effectively privatizes capital. Furthermore, I maintain that we can independently determine this comparison: we do not have to embed socialization in our criteria to make this comparison.

11 comments:

  1. Not that I wish to engage in a shouting match with someone who reserves the right to verbally abuse commentors, but your analogy between power and capital doesn't hold true: people decided power should not be centralized because power is the control of sapient beings; capital is the control of things which work must be done to acquire.

    The private control of capital is just a way to attempt ensure that people get the products of their labor in a form desirable to them. Likening private control of capital to private control of power, the ability to compel a thinking, feeling person to do something they don't want to do, is disingenuous.

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  2. Not that I wish to engage in a shouting match with someone who reserves the right to verbally abuse commentors...

    Not to worry, I abuse only jackasses. The problem is that jackasses never think that they actually are jackasses, so it's easier just to reserve the arbitrary right than to descend into the hell of legalism.

    You're not a jackass (at least not yet <wink>) so you have nothing to fear.

    I do, however, disagree with your position, which I will get into in more detail at a later time.

    Likening private control of capital to private control of power... is disingenuous.

    I do not think you are using the word disingenuous correctly here; disingenuous means "lacking in frankness, candor, or sincerity". I think you might mean "mistaken" or "loony".

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  3. Chris, (I am a different one)

    You say we should not centralize power because we are sapient. Why do you believe this, other than that is your preference? I happen to agree, but for different reasons. In any case, one could (and throughout history, in fact, people did) argue that since everything that we do in the world we do through the exercise of power, therefore we should leave it to those who have shown the talent to accumulate power to exercise it in the way they wish.
    The exact same argument is made today to excuse the excesses of capitalism. Even if you are one who holds that a true free market will work against an unfair accumulation of capital, all you have to do is look at how, throughout history, power accumulates in the hands of the few to understand why capital will always tend to accumulate in the same way. We control the raw power that individuals or groups might accumulate through the socializing of political power. There is no inherent reason we cannot do the same thing with capital.

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  4. You say we should not centralize power because we are sapient.

    I didn't say we shouldn't centralize power, I said we did in fact socialize it: we changed our ideas about what it means to own political power. And I didn't say why we should or should not do anything about power because we are sapient. I said we would be better off if we were to socialize the ownership of capital.

    I will of course discuss in more detail why I think it would be better.

    We control the raw power that individuals or groups might accumulate through the socializing of political power. There is no inherent reason we cannot do the same thing with capital.

    Well said! We are in close agreement on this point.

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  5. Yeah, "mistaken" would have likely been a better choice but I was in a hurry (if you didn't notice :-P).

    To Chris #2: I never even said power shouldn't be centralized; the point I was trying to make was simply that wealth and power are two different things and you should not treat them as one and the same. You can use either one to get the other, but they are not the same.

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  6. Chris #1: No worries. I just wanted to be sure I understood your intended meaning correctly.

    Chris #2: I see you were addressing Chris #1, not me. My mistake.

    Chris #1: Note that I do not treat power and capital as if they are identical. Rather, I draw an analogy: I claim they are similar in a meaningful and important sense.

    Naturally, I intend to argue the point further, but if you have any specific questions, now is a perfectly good time to ask them.

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  7. I think Chris Kline was addressing Chris Jackass (I jest; I will refer to him/her as Chris Burro). IMO the the case for socializing capital is once again the fact that economic oppression is just as potent as political oppression and often even more cruel and unjust.


    Likening private control of capital to private control of power, the ability to compel a thinking, feeling person to do something they don't want to do, is disingenuous.


    I won't call this disingenuous, I'll just call it wrong. I think the two are nearly equivalent.

    Also, IIANM "capital" in the sense of communism means capital goods, e.g., factories, the means of production, not the idea that others have the right to the carrots you just pulled.

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  8. I think Chris Kline was addressing Chris Jackass

    He was indeed. But Rule #1, Hunt, is that only I get to abuse my commenters.

    I won't call this disingenuous, I'll just call it wrong. I think the two are nearly equivalent.

    They are very different. Additional evidence might change my mind, but Chris #1 appears to be entirely sincere. As long as he remains polite and not egregiously stupid, I'm inclined to give him at least the benefit of the doubt.

    Also, IIANM "capital" in the sense of communism means capital goods, e.g., factories, the means of production, not the idea that others have the right to the carrots you just pulled.

    You are not too far off the mark, although in modern capitalism, capital is mostly financial. Keep in mind, though, that the amount of lies and bullshit promulgated in the West about communism, capitalism and even basic economics is truly staggering. As long as someone is moderately polite and appears to show a modicum of good will, I would prefer to educate rather than condemn or insult.

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  9. But yes, Hunt, Chris #1 is indeed very much mistaken, for the reasons you point out.

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  10. He was indeed. But Rule #1, Hunt, is that only I get to abuse my commenters.


    Don't sweat it; I was actually trying to be humorous but obviously missed the mark. Chris, hugs and kisses. In reality, I understand "where you're coming from, man" You don't want other people to steal your coconuts, especially after after you've shimmied your butt up successive trees to get them. To completely socialize the product of your labor leaves you with few alternatives, either 1) submit to sharing your produce. 2) willfully truncate your effort. Neither of these are congruent to human nature, and this is the vulnerable spot where capitalists have always sought to throw the spear -- because greed and the will to dominance actually DO seem to be part of human nature. Or to put it a bit more charitably, we see incentive in furthering our own interests.

    At the same time, I do believe we have a better nature. Psychologists have found the desire for mutual wellbeing even in human infants. It's the ravages of social inequity that hardens us to seek gain solely for ourselves. So the wellbeing and welfare of others has intrinsic value that can even be indexed on an economic scale. People don't donate money to Haitian relief because it will further their own interests but because it's the right thing to do.

    The only remaining hurdle to counter is the predictable claim that to codify this sentiment politically requires coercion. Not necessarily; it only requires the mutual (democratic) realization that at times people require a little push to do good. They require a reason to act to their mutual best interest. Review our host's posts on The Prisoner's Dilemma. Rationality will only take society so far. To reach the optimal state (which is not an equilibrium) requires an extra push -- and that push is provided by government, the state.

    Luke, beware the Pareto suboptimal Nash equilibrium...always.

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  11. Thanks Hunt. I apologize for misconstruing your remarks.

    To completely socialize the product of your labor...

    This is a huge element of propaganda. It's mostly bullshit, but some actions and statements of communists, socialists and especially liberal capitalists have contributed to its relevance.

    Extremely briefly: liberal capitalists typically want to perform income redistribution. Now, it's definitely the case that a lot of the surplus labor that capitalists collect as rent is distributed to the middle classes, and taxing the middle classes is, in a sense, socializing rent on capital. However it feels like one's labor is being distributed. And what our actions feel like really is important. It's ironic that the liberal capitalists use income redistribution to gain the benefits of socialism (some of them, at least) while still preserving capitalist privilege.

    The communist project is to cut out the middleman: stop socializing the products of labor and start socializing rent on capital.

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