Seeing Like a Communist

I read this:

I picked up Inventing The Future… because I feel bad that I’ve never been able to get my head around the communist paradigm. In the past, I’ve learned new paradigms by reading a lot of books from within that paradigm (and hating them) and debating people from within that paradigm (and thinking they’re crazy). Then fifty books and a hundred debates down the line, I finally get some kind of inkling of where they’re coming from, and then after a while I can naturally make my mind shift into that mode and my only differences with them are at the high-level generators of disagreement. I was born into the Woke California Liberal paradigm, I managed to force myself to understand the libertarian paradigm in college, I managed to force myself to understand the right-wing paradigm a few years ago, and I would really like to be able to understand the communist paradigm too.”

And it got me thinking, is there some way that the process of grasping a weltanschauung could be sped-up? I could of course just write a debater’s case for communism. However, such a case would just be another one of the fifty things that Scott would have to read before groking communism.

To grasp a weltanschauung is to rearrange what we always knew into another pattern. Once we’ve grasped, it should seem surprising to us that we didn’t see it. To that end the easiest way to make the communist weltanschauung graspable seems to me to present a series of propositions that many would find at least plausible, which taken together gesture at another way of thinking. Rather than going for quality by trying to prove something really difficult and significant, let’s go for quantity by presenting a series of fairly modest ideas that jointly gesture at something more.

I say ‘gesture’ rather than ‘explain’ because I suspect that when it comes to grasping a model of the world on this scale, part of the experience has got to be putting the pieces together for yourself. Some ideas always lose something if they are explained, to be properly conveyed they must instead be rediscovered by the student.

Perhaps the best model for this sort of thing is Wittgenstein’s the Philosophical Investigations. There’s not a great deal of arguing going on there, but the ideas form a sort of haunting constellation. Or for another analogy, it’s less a lecture, and more a kind of meandering stand up comedy set without the punchlines “what’s the deal with language games eh?” It was after all Wittgenstein who said a serious and good philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes.

In what follows, I try to do that for communism, arranging a sort of blancmange of ideas that don’t so much argue for a communist world view as swarm into it. It would be an interesting exercise to perform a similar conjuration for other world views, and if anyone gives it a try, please link me to it.

Method and social epistemology

1.1 The ideas on the table are a reflection of the kind of society we live in. The ideas that were on the table in AD 1019 are very different to the ideas on the table today. This is due to the interests of the powerful, but also due to the sheer difficulty of imagining your way out of your own society.

1.2 In all areas, but especially the areas that really, truly matter to the powerful (predominantly economic policy and foreign relations), the dominant ideas will disproportionately reflect the interests of the powerful, although of course there will be counter-narratives.

1.3 Even if all you want is an accurate view of the world, you need to be aware of this skew in the evidence that is being presented to you- a skew towards power. You need to work to overcome this skew.

1.4 Because power isn’t absolute, the dominance of the ruling ideas is never absolute, and power comes to reluctantly compromise on matters that were previously off the table. For example, discussion of universal healthcare in the US used to be regarded as a fringe position, but though the policy hasn’t been adopted, room has been made at the table to, at least, discuss it.

1.5 You are not intrinsically smarter than a medieval scholar arguing that the great chain of being validates the divine right of kings. Don’t think you can’t be duped by ideas that will one day seem laughable. If those ideas favour one set of interests over another, the odds are that they will be powerful interests.

1.6 The pervasiveness of ideology leads to a kind of circularity, or unseeing. Consider the argument ‘capitalism is good because it’s built on voluntary exchanges’. Remember that capitalism is only built on voluntary exchanges insofar as you accept that the people who society presently regards as the legitimate owners of goods really are the legitimate owners. Suppose that you didn’t accept this. Suppose, for example, that you held that a family who has lived in a house for generations has a better claim to own it than the landlord. In that case it would seem to you that there is nothing voluntary about their tenancy- rather they are being extorted for something that should be theirs by right. Thus we come to the absurdity of the slogan ‘capitalism is voluntary’ it only works if you believe the capitalist distribution of property is right, but this is the whole of the topic under dispute! Ideology makes us engage in this kind of circular thinking, because it becomes tricky to suspend our belief in the existing system even long enough to argue for it!

1.7 Is communism primarily a theory about how things should be, about what should be done, or about how the world is? All three, in a difficult to describe and uneasy tension. They sort of loop into each other, and you could start that loop at different points. For example, we start a dream for how things should be, we ask why did that dream arise, and why is it frustrated, and so we come to ponder how things are at the moment, then the combination of a goal with a theory of the present conditions leads to thinking about a method to get to that goal.

The material organisation of society

2.1 Resources have always granted power and power has always granted resources, in turn, power and resources have always structured society. There are tight links between social structure, the interests of those who are in power, and the way a society produces and distributes resources.

2.2 Capitalism is a system under which people make investments for the aim of maximising return, with the return being reinvested (at least in part) into making more money, and so on. It can be seen as a growing spiral.

2.3 The process isn’t entirely a matter of free choice. Rather, something like evolution is in play- if you don’t try to maximise your returns, in the worst case you’ll go bankrupt, and in the best case you’ll become increasingly irrelevant. As we will discuss later, it starts to seem like capital has developed an existence, motivation and cunning all of its own, not fully reducible to what is in the head of any one person.

2.4 The pseudo-agency and intelligence of capital might fruitfully be compared to the pseudo-agency and intelligence of natural selection- a dumb process that, through the discipline of selection, thrives.

2.5 Under capitalism, capital is the motor of production. As a result, capital begins to discipline everything, because if you get in the way of smooth production, you’re getting in the way of a lot of very powerful interests. Any social institution- formal or informal- can thus be potentially subject to the discipline of capital. Historians have argued that things and concepts as important and diverse as religion, education, the family, and of course, politics and the state, have been relentlessly altered and rewoven by capitalism.

Pumping intuitions about fairness

3.1 Above we made the point that the voluntary status of capitalism depends on the legitimacy of a certain framework of property relations. Let’s consider what the world looks like sans that framework. People often complain that chief executive officers make a huge amount disproportionate to the work they put in- but wait till you hear about shareholders! Under capitalism, extra money is owed to certain individuals in view of their ‘ownership’ of certain assets, and this starts to like a kind of unearned privilege backed up by state power. That is- if you don’t buy the legitimating narrative that the ownership of the productive assets is rightful.

3.2 The defender of capitalism will often try to argue that the order of property ownership under capitalism is legitimate and not arbitrary- it reflects a sequence of voluntary exchanges following legitimate initial acquisition of property from nature. There are two main sorts of problems with this. A) Technical philosophical problems about the Lockean or Nozickean account of distributive justice, which we won’t go into here, and B) a simpler and arguably more decisive problem. History did not happen like that. It’s simply not true that if you go back through the chains of ownership and exchange this is what you will find. It’s war, theft and the state all the way down. The Lockean and Nozickean accounts of distributive justice have a peculiar fragility to them- it doesn’t take much to render a chain of acquisition illegitimate, and there is much, from state subsidies to genocidal land-grabs.

Human Nature, hierarchy and markets

4.1 If we take human behaviour in the evolutionary environment as definitive of ‘human nature’, then human nature is not just passively egalitarian, but actively anti-hierarchical. (See the note in the appendix for elaboration on this point.)

4.2 The market economy is not atemporal. Other kinds of economies have existed. The notion that the market economy is ‘human nature’ would be very surprising to the vast majority of human societies that have ever existed (hunter gatherers).

4.3 But is it always the case that ‘naturally’ arising non-market based societies are too poor for trade to be very important? Hunter gatherers, medieval subsistence farmers and the like? No. Consider for example the Inca, who had a complex system of production managed through a ‘naturally’ occurring non-market economy without money or currency, in which households were issued with the goods they required from storehouses.

Technologically advanced non-market economies

5.1 Some non-capitalist economies existed relatively recently and using modern technologies. It is far from obvious that such economies were, in economic terms, failures. You may rightly doubt whether the Soviet Union is a good model for a communist society, but it is a very different model to contemporary capitalism, and its productive achievements were often impressive. This is somewhat odd because to listen to some people talk you’d think that societies not dominated by markets couldn’t exist, but didn’t some exist just thirty years ago? Everything that is actual is possible.

5.2 But if a completely different kind of economy to our own can fly, why assume the ideal looks anything like this amalgamation we inhabit? Since Soviet style command economies were viable, even superior in some ways, and among capitalist countries the variation in economic structure is vast, the space of possible ways an economy can be designed is large, and models quite different to our own can work quite well. That should shake your confidence- at least a little bit- that the economy you live in is optimal.

A Note About Weighing Costs

6.1 Never forget: we ignore the atrocities that are going on all the time around us because we regard them as a default state of affairs.

The Dialectic of Use and Exchange Value, and related social tangles

7.1 Our society produces things for exchange, not use, but this weirdly indirect way of servicing our needs has its downfalls. Producing things for exchange, not use, can fail to maximise utility for many reasons. Two of the most obvious are inequality (a person might desperately need a good, but not be able to afford it) and externalities (two people might happily buy and sell a good, without consideration for the positive or negative effects that seemingly private contract has on others. This will tend to lead to overproduction or underproduction of goods with strong externalities, relative to the social optimum).

7.2 Consider also the effects that producing for exchange, not use, has on the producer. Anyone who has worked as a telemarketer and gone home wishing they could do something that matters has felt this. There’s a lot of jobs that just don’t need doing.

7.3 Let’s double back to ground we’ve already covered briefly- the eerie seeming ‘self-moving’ agency of capital. The operation of individual behaviour in a society with a given institutional framework gives rise to emergent phenomena that may have been intended or desired by none of the participants, or by only a very few of them. Capitalism has a logic all of its own, that logic arises from our individual actions, but ends up controlling them.

7.4 This self-moving logic of capitalism will always work to subvert principles, legal and moral. Every institution faces the imperative ‘serve the goal of profit’, and everything and everyone that exists in the social world is warped by it.

7.5 But aren’t these goals just human goals- weighted by purchasing power? Weighting by purchasing power would be bad enough, given that it makes the desires of some hundreds of millions of times more important than those of others, but the problem is deeper than this. The self-expanding loop of capital doesn’t really care much about externalities.

7.6 As Gerry Cohen pointed out, it also has a peculiar preference structure regarding leisure- it would always prefer societies to work more and consume more, rather than use additional productive power for leisure. Why? Because capital owners would prefer for their capital to be employed for as large a portion of the day as possible, so as to maximise profits (it’s not as if the capital owner has to be working all the time their capital is being put to work). It will push for this through means cultural and political- although it won’t always get its way.

Planning? Yes, but.

8.1 Planning a better world is important, but don’t mistake the absence of complete plans for the futility of transition. No one planned capitalism out of feudalism, but struggle and dreaming helped get us there. Plans are necessary, but they will never be complete. (Editorial note here: Showing my market socialist sympathies I recommend “Economics of a Feasiable Socialism” if you are interested in detailed plans for a socialist society.)

Intentionally or not, people are lying to you

9.1 It’s a childish delusion that you just so happen to live in the only civilisation without propaganda.

9.2 Propaganda is rife. Consider public debate about just about any policy position. You’re constantly being told that even the slightest steps towards the subordination of exchange value to use value (e.g., universal healthcare) will maybe cause the economy to keel over dead and definitely rip ragged human economic activity in the sphere in question.

9.3 In many cases you know for a fact this can’t be true, because even in the capitalist world there are many countries where any policy that might be under debate has already been adopted. In the healthcare debate, people will tell you that the economy will suffocate, or at least that healthcare will bloat and become ineffective, if universal healthcare is implemented, even though anyone can drive to Canada.

9.4. In the US minimum wage debate, people will tell you that unemployment would spiral if minimum wages were raised to $15 dollars an hour. Meanwhile, in thoroughly capitalist Australia, a 21 year old fast food worker in Australia who is casual (without guaranteed hours) is entitled to $26 an hour (and no, Australian dollars don’t go much farther, or much less farther, than US dollars). At every turn, capitalism is presented as at once essential to human activity, but also very fragile and in need of the velvet glove treatment even though you can see it just isn’t true by buying a plane ticket.

The State

10.1 On no topic is the communist at more danger of being misunderstood than the state. It didn’t use to be this way- in the past it was fairly easy to understand that the existing state is no friend to the communist, but with the advent of the post WWII welfare state, people began to associate the state with communism.

10.2 From the communist viewpoint, the welfare state can be seen as a sort of commons that has been won as a concession from the ruling class- an exception to the usually strictly individualistic property order the state typically administers. Because communists do not regard capitalism as natural, for the communist the welfare state is not an unnatural ‘exception’ to the general order of things, it’s just one more way the state organises property rights, a steam valve to prevent the existing state’s real purpose- the maintenance and improvement of private property- from exploding.

10.3 There are three factors that act on the state to pull it towards the interests of capital. The first is the least significant, but the most noticed- it costs money to run an election campaign, and money can buy lobbying. The second is that the most important people in the state, politicians and senior civil servants, tend to be rich, have rich friends and have gone to the same cliques of schools, universities and jobs as other rich people, forming a well connected power-elite. The third is the power of the purse strings- states are disciplined in supporting capitalism through the threat of capital strike and diminishment in investment.

10.4 This critique of the state can go in two directions for the communist. One either thinks that the state can be done away with entirely (anarcho-communism), or, regarding the state as a body of armed people for the defence of property relations, one concludes it is necessary to replace the capitalist state with a communist state (main-line communism). Optimists in the latter camp might hope that the need for such a state might one day whither away, a more pessimistic view (which I favour) is that complex societies probably inherently require standing armed bodies for the enforcement of social order.

Workers: Is there a protagonist to lead us through these brambles?

11.1 How interesting that the very people who have the least stake in the system (wage labourers) are also the very same people without whom the system would grind to a halt!

11.2 To be more explicit, think about things like a murder case in reverse. If capitalism is going to be killed, the question is, who has means and motive. From this point of view, proletarians- people who sell their labour for a living- would seem like the perfect suspects for the pre-crime of murdering capitalism. They gain the least from capitalism, yet oddly they are absolutely essential to operating it. Proletarians have means and motive. The method? Ah, well that’s a very hard question.

Appendix: Reader questions and miscellaneous

It’s a busy week for me, and while I’ll read all the comments posted here, I haven’t read all comments posted in response to this article on other websites like Reddit. I feel irrationally guilty about this- I’m not trying to be an aloof author, it’s just that things are busy. I got a lot of questions about the details of how a socialist society would work, but I’m going to save my exposition on that for my book review of “Economics of a Feasible Socialism” by Alec Nove.

I got an excellent question for a reader named Jack about why I say that human behaviour in the evolutionary environment was anti hierarchical. Here’s my response:

Hi Jack

It is largely uncontroversial among academics that study the subject from a variety of disciplines (primarily anthropology, but including diverse disciplines like economics and evolutionary biology) that early hunter gatherer societies had very little in the way of internal hierarchy, based on inference from existing and recently extinct hunter gatherer societies.

It’s important not to romanticise these societies too much, just because they were egalitarian does not mean, for example, that they were peaceful. They weren’t always peaceful, either in relation to their neighbours, or internally.

What is interesting is interesting about their egalitarianism is that it wasn’t simply a ‘passive reality’, it was rigorously enforced by pressure on those who were seen as a threat to the egalitarian order through their popularity, charisma or success. Methods used ranged from teasing successful hunters to muderering individuals who were seen as domineering (at least in some societies, the murder of such individuals was expected to be carried out by close kin.) In the literature these strategies are called ‘ reverse dominance’.

Do I think relentlessly dragging down successful individuals and vicious reprisals against pushy individuals would be a good way to run our society? No, but thinking about it is an antidote to the idea that humans are inherently hierarchical. The truth is complex- probably it is fairer to say that humans are simultaneously hierarchical and anti-hierarchical- these are warring tendencies within us that express themselves to different degrees in different societies. During the critical formative years, the anti-hierarchical element dominated.

Here’s one of many classic papers on the subject if this has captured your attention:

One thought on “Seeing Like a Communist

  1. I’m having trouble seeing how any of these arguments distinguishes a communist from, say, Elizabeth Warren. I’m guessing Elizabeth Warren agrees with almost everything you’ve said here – the historical distribution of property is unjust, money warps politics, et cetera. And yet she’s a liberal / welfare capitalist. Is a communist just a liberal who’s unusually optimistic about alternative economic structures?


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