Friday, March 13, 2009

Communism 2.0? More like 0.2 alpha.

Bruce Sterling's post, "Communism 2.0" over at WIRED caught my eye today. He talks about a new resurgence of communist ideas thanks to the global market meltdown -- Marxist philosophers are meeting in London this week with the thesis "from Plato onwards, communism is the only political idea worthy of a philosopher."

When the Soviet Union "fell" down many people thought this meant that Communism utterly failed (according to our vastly simplified propaganda). Well, now that the global market meltdown is laying waste to the economy, many people are saying that Capitalism has utterly failed (according to their vastly simplified propaganda).

This is dangerous talk, and not simply because of "our side" vs. "their side"... it's dangerous because irrational debate of utopia/dystopia is still volatile enough to end millions of lives in this century just like it did in the last century. Capitalism is just as loaded a word as Communism thanks to the Cold War, but if you strip away all the rhetoric and attached meanings, there is a simple fact at the core of Capitalism that is testable and proven:

Capitalism has a means for generating income, not simply dividing it.

Communist theory is oddly silent on the subject of generating income. The idea is that everyone will simply do the right thing. Marx neglected to say anything specific about how his Communist ideal would be attained... the underlying mechanism is left for the reader to "feel" as would a 19th century Romantic. Marx says that in the perfect Communist society, resources are distributed exactly where they need to go and people do exactly the work they need to do since they work for each other.

But how? How does a resource distribution system just magically know how to work? The 20th century answer to this was that an "appointed" leader makes the decisions for you. However the whole period from the 18th to the 20th centuries was about showing the flaw and futility of top-down aristocratic rule. Even when the ruler is kind and "works for the people", it doesn't work. Things change faster than a central authority can react -- if you can't react, you don't adapt -- you die.

Some would argue that matches the evidence of what happened in the USSR and nearly happened in China before Deng Xiaoping's reforms. Or what is still happening in Cuba. There should be little doubt at this point that top-down communism (like any aristocracy) simply does not work. It's not because we didn't try hard enough, or weren't selfless enough.

So, is there another way that Communism might work without being top-down? Something closer to Marx's ideal, rather than some of the transition states he described? Well, think seriously about how that ideal would work... it's a difficult problem to solve.

The only underlying mechanism I can think of is a distributed network of technology and humans that can make their own decisions and adapt locally to changing situations. But this sounds an awful lot like a democracy... there's no one to "enforce" that you do things for someone you don't interact with. And if you follow that idea further, you ask how will resources be optimally distributed in such a network and you come straight back to something that sounds an awful lot like a market driven economy.

But the Communist philosophers haven't gotten unstuck from the 19th century to answer these difficult questions. They are still arguing that you should believe them because of their passions. Until they can describe an underlying mechanism of Communism they are simply promoting unfounded speculation as a socio-economic theory and playing a very dangerous and foolish game with our lives in the process.

This crisis is real. The millions who died in the name of 19th century utopian ideologies were real. It's time to "set aside our childish things" and face these problems rationally or embrace utter destruction as a species.


Larry Kyrala said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Larry Kyrala said...

Just an additional thought: The current economic crisis is being used as an example of why Capitalism doesn't work.

But is it really Capitalism that failed, or the result of massive corporate and government fraud under the pretense of a "level playing field" and "fair market"?

For example: the "shortage of american workers" stunk in 2007: +

Any successful system of government depends on integrity.

American Anti-theist said...

Communism failed because, as you say, it didn't recognize the role of production in economy. It assumed that as long as the means of production were distributed to the workers, that production would continue at the same pace of advancement. What it failed to recognize was that ultimately those "means of production" rest in the minds and hearts of individual human beings.

A mind cannot be ordered to produce at the point of a gun. Its natural response is to recoil in terror. If ability is what draws the attention of the guns, most people will instead try to hide their ability as much as possible from attention. Competition reverses and becomes competition to be the least remarkable, least noticed.

The current crisis has little to do with a collapse of laissez-faire principles. It was generated out of gross manipulation of interest rates and the creation of a home loan subsidy which encouraged sub-prime lending and repackaged it as government "secured" instruments.

The underlying reality that loaning money to those who can't pay is suicidal was muted under the driving moral imperative that we must sacrifice ourselves for the good of those who supposedly innately deserve loans regardless of their ability to pay them back. This evasion of the rational consequences of such a course of action lay the foundation for the collapse, as Ron Paul and many Austrian school economists predicted well before.

Government interference creates the business cycle, and it cycles in frequency and duration in direct proportion to the frequency and intensity of government interference. Economists generally recognize this, which is why a lot of prescient financial decisions usually involve estimations of mass psychology.

Ultimately, the only way to "organize" the economic system is for it to be self-organizing. No person, or group has knowledge which supersedes the aggregate knowledge of all those who participate in the market. The market functions only when all participants are free to work for their individual long term rational self-interest in accordance with their own judgment. They must also be free to reap the full rewards and full penalties of the consequences of that judgment.The aggregated results of those infinitesimal interactions are what generate price fluctuations and guide the flow of capital. (cont)

American Anti-theist said...

(cont) Attempts to force the flow one way or the other by injecting the threat of government coercion into the system only serves to provide incentive to work against one's long term interests for the sake of short-term security. This is why irregularities usually can be traced back to legislation which encouraged a flow in one direction.

However the behemoth of government cannot respond agilely enough to the changing business environment and so the knee-jerk reactions are always time-delayed. The gap is what we feel in unemployment, chronic inflation, devaluation of the currency, and the generation and collapse of economic bubbles. In real terms, that means the suffering of individual human beings.

What we have seen is the inherent instability of managed economies centered on central banks. I would have thought that the examples of the Cold War would have been enough to teach us all that lesson.

But I suppose that with the government actively taking ownership of companies at the expense of bondholders, we'll have ample opportunity to see Communism 2.0.

If the strengths and benefits of laissez-faire capitalism were ever more necessary or apparent, I can't think of a time. Except perhaps the first 100 years of American prosperity which led into the industrial revolution. Even then there were abuses and loopholes which led to slow steady consolidation of power in the hands of the political class.

More than resurrecting communism as a so-called "ideal", I think we could spend our time more constructively by resurrecting liberty as the ideal and individual responsibility as the measure.

Regardless of the argument from efficiency, the moral argument still stands. It is immoral for the government to claim supremacy to the right of an individual to their own life and the fruits of their labor. It is immoral to demand the sacrifice of human life for any goal. The only moral system is capitalism, where each lives according to their ability and charity exists by choice and not coercion.