Monday, October 21, 2013

Standing on one foot

I was asked to explain democratic communism while standing on one foot. Here it is:

No one is subject to another's arbitrary, undemocratic, economic power. The rest is commentary.

The bourgeois revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries implemented the idea of popular sovereignty: Political power, the power of the state to use violence, belonged to the people, not the king. Before, political power could be owned by individual people just like individual people today own cars and houses. The republic is not just a different kind of government structure, it is a different way of thinking about political power at the most fundamental level.

Democratic communism extends that way of thinking to economic power, the ownership of money, credit, and productive assets like factories and stores. These objects of economic power are to be owned not individually, but socially and democratically.

Communism does not abolish the notion of personal property. By definition, personal property does not allow the owner to exercise any kind of control over another person. That someone owns her house, her car, her furniture, and her savings for personal use does not give her any kind of control over anyone else. No one else needs her property to live or work.

Instead, communism abolishes the notion of absentee ownership, especially over land, labor, and capital. No one but the tenant, or the democratic state, can own the land; no one but the worker, or the democratic state, can own the means of production; and no one but the worker — not even the state — can own his labor.

Capitalism requires the "individual liberty" to have economic power over other people, and as best it can, protects this "liberty" from regulation, control, or abolition by popular government. Communism, perhaps counter-intuitively, is more individualistic than republican capitalism. Communism abolishes only the "liberty" to use economic means to infringe the liberty of others; it takes an unjust liberty away from a small group, the owners of capital, and restores a just liberty to a large group, the tenants and workers.

If the protection of property in the Fifth Amendment and Article 17 is interpreted as the protection of personal property, democratic communism is entirely compatible with the United States Bill of Rights and the the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights*.

*Assuming a delegated democracy is considered to employ "equivalent free voting procedures" per Article 21, section 3.

The democratic commune protects economic liberty in three basic ways. First, it borrows from capitalism the institution of constitutionally protected individual liberties upheld by independent courts. To the political liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, a communist constitution centralizes Article 23 of the Universal Declaration, guaranteeing the right to work without employment or wage discrimination at an living wage. Second, it uses the state's power to create money to capitalize businesses and employ people directly. It also uses the power to create money to directly capitalize businesses of any kind. If people have an alternative, it is much more difficult to control them using the threat of unemployment. Finally, it uses democratic legislation to regulate how businesses are run, ensuring worker — not government or capitalist — control of ordinary businesses. The commune also extends these means to regulate tenancy as well as employment, the other primary way capitalists exert economic power over workers.

Democratic communism does not forbid absentee ownership outright, nor must it do so; it merely regulates absentee ownership and provides alternatives. If some workers want to privately capitalize their business, if some individuals want to rent a house or apartment from a private individual, they are free to do so. The critical point under democratic communism is that individuals always have a public, democratic alternative to private contracts. They may vote themselves capital and housing, and control that capital and housing democratically.

Although people exercise democratic control of capital and housing, democratic communism does not offer a free lunch. Workers must pay for the capital they vote themselves by productively employing it; and tenants must pay to build and maintain the housing they vote themselves. Democratic communism merely gives people the legal right to work for what they themselves want; they need not submit their economic will to the arbitrary will of the owners of capital.

How to actually implement such a scheme is non-trivial. Implementation is very complicated and, to a large extent, must be negotiated socially. But it is useful, I think, to have a good understand of the general principles of democratic communism.


  1. I will offer right off the bat that I may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, particularly when it comes to imagining political/economic systems in toto without real world references.

    I know you have admited that describing the implementation of such a system is non-trivial but I am wondering if you might be willing to have a crack at it in small scale. What I mean is, would you be willing to attept to describe the daily goings on of an entrepreneur (ignoring, if necessary in this case, the profit making connotations of the word) under such a system. Things like the process of starting a business of some kind. Aquiring housing, transportation (private and for the business). I just can't grok how this is all supposed to work and an example, even a considerably imperfect one, might help. Perhaps this has been attempted by others. If you are aware of such attempts, could you direct me to them? Cheers.

    1. Excellent question. I don't know of any attempts by others. I will answer your question as soon as I can, which might be a while, as I have three midterms coming up in the next week.


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