Tag Archives: communism

The Books I Read in 2017

Every year, I participate in the Goodreads Challenge, which is where you challenge yourself to read a certain number of books over the course of the year and then track your progress. Most years, I challenge myself to read either 25 or 30 books, and most years, I come close to achieving that goal, but for the last two years, I read 35 and 36 books respectively, so  I challenged myself to read 35 books in 2017.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t succeed. Instead, I read 21 (my lowest number since the annual challenge began in 2011). There’s no real reason for this, except maybe that some of the books I read were pretty damn long (my wife, who read Moby Dick and Gone with the Wind this year, thinks Goodreads should change it from number of books read to number of pages; she’s not wrong). But long books or not, I didn’t reach my goal. Thankfully, a new year’s begun.

Now, to the books!

Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy (528 pages) This non-fiction book attempts to capture nearly two-thousand years of papal history. The author, John Julius Norwich, skips a large percentage of the popes to focus on the more interesting ones, such as St. Peter (the first bishop of Rome), Innocent III (the first to put forward the principle of papal infallibility), Leo X (the first Medici pope and the man who excommunicated Martin Luther), Clement VII (the second Medici pope and Leo X’s cousin and best friend, not to mention the pope who wore the tiara when Protestantism became a separate religion, Rome was sacked by Charles V, and the Church of England broke away), Pope Joan (a legendary female pope who Norwich argues did not really exist), and others.

The subject of almost every chapter in this book could stand as a book on its own, and several chapters could have whole libraries dedicated to them. As a history of the papacy, it’s also a history of the political and economic life of the Roman Catholic Church, the Holy Roman Empire, and Europe in general.

Because of that, some of the book is a slog, and you need a machete to cut through all of the repetitive names followed by Roman numerals, but if you give up the idea that you’re going to remember the differences between all the Leopolds, Ferdinands, Clements, and Alfonsos, the book becomes a fascinating flood of corruption, intrigue, and empire.

If you have any interest in the actual history of the Roman Catholic Church (rather than the theology), Absolute Monarchs is a great place to start (the other, of course, is A History of Christianity: The First Three-Thousand Years).

Norse Mythology (304 pages) Neil Gaiman wrote this collection of Norse mythology because, in a lot of ways, mythology comes not from the tales we tell, but from the retelling of them. Thor did not exist in Asgard, but in the magical space between the storyteller and the listener, each fireside tale in Scandinavia adding to the strength of his hammer.

Gaiman’s desire to share tales that have already been shared millions of times is to be commended,  and (as I wrote in my review on Goodreads), he “writes these familiar tales in an authentic feeling way, letting loose only in those moments when the narrative requires it, but never straying too far from his source.”

When I picked up the book, however, I was hoping for more Gaiman and less Snorri Sturluson. While I didn’t necessarily want a modern take on the tales (e.g., Gaiman’s novel American Gods), I had hoped for Gaiman to take me inside the stories to provide a new perspective. Instead, I got a remarkably faithful version of these well-told tales.

I don’t hold that against him. My desire as a reader and his desire as an author may not have matched up, but the end result was still an enjoyable read, making this book as good as any if you’re just hoping for an English version of traditional tales.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (414 pages) I wrote a piece about this book when I read it back in March. I hadn’t finished the book when I’d written it, and so I left the question that motivated the piece unanswered at the end. The author, Yuval Noah Harari, essentially argues that Homo sapiens are no different than any other biological force on the planet in that we are subject to the same laws of physics, chemistry, and biology as ants, anteaters, and single-cell parameciums.

The story of our history, then, is the story of our attempt to universalize the powers of the human animal — whether through politics, economics, or beliefs — in order to overcome the laws the universe has subjected us to.

Harari ends his book with a chapter that presages his next book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. The chapter explores humanity’s attempt to overtake natural selection with intelligent design, discussing biological engineering, cyborg engineering, and the engineering of non-organic life (i.e., Artificial Intelligence).

The end result is not exactly pessimistic, but also not exactly hopeful. As he writes in the book’s Afterword, “Despite the astonishing things that humans are capable of doing, we remain unsure of our goals… We are more powerful than ever before, but have very little idea of what to do with all that power… Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one… Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”

The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers (368 pages) I gave this non-fiction book a rating of three stars when I finished it back in April, which is probably why I barely remember reading it. I started reading the book because I wanted to understand not only economics, but also the mindset that leads to insatiable greed.

I don’t think this book satisfied either of those desires, but if it did, it certainly didn’t make a lasting impression when on me. That’s why, when writing this post, I went back to the book to rejigger my memory, and in the book’s introduction, I found this great quote from John Maynard Keynes, “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men…are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

That’s why I wanted to read this book. To better understand the ideas that essentially rule our world. Maybe this book helped me (because I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time this year thinking about economics), but if it did, I can’t say exactly how.

The one thing I do remember about this book is how much of a bad-ass John Maynard Keynes was. I mean, the dude made his personal fortune by only dedicating a half-hour a day, while still in bed, to his own financial doings. The rest of the time, he was writing books on mathematics that impressed even Bertrand Russell, doing public service in Britain’s treasury department, socializing with Virginia Woolf and the rest of the Bloomsbury group, editing the Economic Journal, participating in (and then critiquing) the Treaty of Versailles, running a theatre, becoming the Director of the Bank of England, and so much more. Keynesian economics may have its detractors, but Keynes himself was pretty damn cool.

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East (577 pages) This non-fiction book tells not just the story of the famed Lawrence of Arabia, but also of the unheralded (and generally inexperienced) men and women who also played a huge role in the shaping of the Middle East.

I picked up this book following The Worldly Philosophers because, in reading that book, I realized just how little I knew about World War I. The only book about the Great War I’d  read previously was The Guns of August (which is fantastic, by the way), but that mostly covered the European theatre, and focused mostly on the first month of the war. I wanted to know more.

I chose Lawrence in Arabia because of the anecdote the author, Scott Anderson, shares in the introduction to the novel. Basically, Lawrence is called to the palace for what he imagines will be a consultation about the postwar borders of the Middle East, but instead, King George surprises him with a knighthood ceremony. He’d once written that his greatest ambition was to become knighted before the age of 30, and now that ambition was about to be realized. As Anderson writes, “Except Lawrence didn’t kneel. Instead, just as the ceremony got under way, he quietly informed the king that he was refusing the honor [and] under the baleful gaze of a furious Queen Mary, Colonel Lawrence turned and walked away.”

I might not have known anything about World War I, but after reading that intro, I had to know more about the bad-ass mofo who turned his back on a king.

The book was fantastic, and it reads like a novel. I really can’t recommend it enough.

Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World (570 pages) Lawrence in Arabia did a great job of covering the Middle Eastern theatre of the war, but it didn’t do a great job of explaining what happened at the end of the war. Paris 1919 dedicates 570 pages to the subject.

I really enjoyed this book (four stars!), but I also had some issues with it. The author, Margaret MacMillan, organizes the book by geography, focusing on the story of each region. For example, the third part of the book tells how the Balkans were divided following World War I, while chapter six focuses on Russia.

This makes the individual stories of the regions easier to follow, but the jumping back and forth in linear time makes it difficult to understand all the moving parts and how they influence each other. I don’t begrudge MacMillan for the difficulties — her subject is extremely difficult to organize, and she had to make a choice somewhere — but by the end of the book, I felt she had lost some steam.

The New Testament: King James Version (~550 pages) I started reading the New Testament in concert with Absolute Monarchs, but as anyone can see who looks through my Goodreads, I tend to read a lot about Church history. Last year, for example, I read Elaine Pagels’ research on Revelations and James Tabor’s The Jesus Dynasty. It had been several years since I’d last read the New Testament in its entirety, so I figured I’d get on that.

Mostly, I wanted to read the books that come after the four Gospels: the book of Acts, the various letters “written” by Paul, James, Peter, John, and Jude, and Revelations. Because I’d recently read an entire book on Revelations, I skipped that section in this year’s reading, but outside of that, I read them all.

And as always, I thoroughly enjoyed them. They don’t call it the Good Book for nothing.

Aftermath: Empire’s End (423 pages) The final book in Chuck Wendig‘s Aftermath trilogy, Empire’s End provides the canonical explanation of what happened to the Empire following the death of Emperor Palpatine during the Battle of Endor. The trilogy takes place between the Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, clearing up some loose ends from the original film trilogy.

I enjoyed the overall plot of Wendig’s novels, but I got pretty annoyed with his habit of writing “Interludes” that had nothing to do with the main story. At first, I found them interesting — they’re like mini-stories that take place throughout the Star Wars galaxy, and they give readers an on-the-ground experience of what it is like to live through the death of a tyrannical empire — but after a while, they just got in the way of the story of Wendig’s main characters. This was an issue with the entire trilogy, but by the third book, it was even more of a problem. We’d been with these characters for two whole books now — it’s time to leave off the Interludes and simply cut to the chase.

With that being said, if you’re a Star Wars geek like I am, these canonical books are a must read.

Max (473 pages) I came across this book in the children’s section of our local library. It’s a young-adult novel written from the perspective of a child created through the Nazis’ eugenics program.

I picked the book up because the opening chapter was written from the first-person perspective of a fetus, and frankly, I’d never come across something like that before.

The rest of the book played out well. The titular character is the epitome of Nazi eugenics, but even he comes to realize that tyranny is a malevolent force that cuts away at the sanctity of the individual. A well-done book that I’d recommend for both young and regular adults.

This Is Not A Novel (190 pages) The late David Markson is one of my favorite authors. His books, while similar in style, expand the possibilities of literature, challenging reader expectations while also delivering on the emotional promises we require from literature.

This Is Not a Novel focuses on the birth, life, and death of various artists, including the narrator, who calls himself “Writer.” The text is essentially a 190-page collection of anecdotes about artists (again, including “Writer”), but the anecdotes build up and play off each other, allowing the reader to make the kinds of connections we desire in our reading.

I picked up the book during the week my family was in Chicago, and I read it in just a couple of hours. There are no chapters to the book, and each anecdote is very short — sometimes no longer than a few words — so it’s easy to tell yourself, just one more, just one more, and next thing you know, the book is over.

If you have any interest in art and artists, definitely pick it up.

The Communist Manifesto (288 pages) As I’ve mentioned a couple of times, I taught a high-school course on Communism & Socialism in 2017. To prepare for that class, I read several books and essays from the original leaders, including the grand-daddy of the texts, Marx & Engels’ Communist Manifesto.

I’m a big fan of this book. A lot of it is Inside Baseball type-stuff, where Marx & Engels argue with other communists and socialists about the real aims and meaning of the international movement, but you can breeze over that stuff to get to the meat of the essay.

Between the two blog posts I’ve linked to above, I’ve said pretty much all I want to say on the topic for now, but I will add that I truly believe every informed American ought to read The Communist Manifesto. Marx & Engels are both strong writers, and the ideas they present in this little book become more apropos with the growing power of the American oligarchy.

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (170 pages) I picked this book up while reading several books on Communism & Socialism. I needed a break from all of the political theory, and this meditation on the meaning of life fit the bill.

The author, Elisabeth Tova Bailey, was suddenly struck by a painful illness that prevented her from getting out of bed for close to a year. In her bedridden state, a friend gave her a wild snail that they picked up from outside of her apartment. While lying in bed doing absolutely nothing, Bailey begins to meditate on the lived experience of the snail, on humanity’s need for companionship, and on life’s ability to be resilient in the face adversity.

This short book did not quite live up to my hopes for it (it reads like a poor man’s version of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek), but at 170 pages, it fulfilled my need to alleviate the political anger aroused in me by Marx, Engels, and Lenin.

Lenin: A Biography (561 pages) Another book for the Communism & Socialism class, this one took me most of the summer. I started reading it in mid-July and finished it in late August.

As the bona-fide leader of the Communist revolution in Russia and the founding father of the Soviet Union, Lenin has been the subject of hundreds if not thousands of scholarly books over the past 100 years. Choosing a single book to read can be daunting. I chose Robert Service‘s biography because he is a professor of Russian history at Oxford and the author of several others books on Russia, including a biography of Stalin and a history of 20th century Russia.

I also chose the book because it was one of the first biographies to be written after Mikhail Gorbachev “unsealed” the central party’s archives and various files and meeting minutes became declassified. It also contained research from more recently acquired correspondence from and memoirs of Lenin’s family, furthering our insight into Lenin’s motives and actions.

I was not disappointed. What results is a full and complex picture of a uniquely driven and highly focused individual. We see him playing with his neighbor’s children and feel his own loss at never having children himself. We see him raging in his deathbed as Stalin proves himself to be an unworthy successor. We see him foaming at his fellow intellectuals and inspiring the actions of crowds in a square. We follow him on nighttime walks and relax with him in the countryside. We see, in a word, a man.

Socialism: Utopian & Scientific (86 pages) Like the Communist Manifesto, Socialism: Utopian & Scientific is less of a book and more of an extended essay. Written exclusively by Engels (rather than Marx & Engels), the essay breaks down the concept of socialism, looking at it through first a utopian lens and then a historical-material one, with a long section in the middle, “Dialectics,” establishing the primacy of the latter over the former.

For Engels, when Socialism evolved from Utopianism to Historical Materialism, its “task was no longer to manufacture a system of society as perfect as possible, but to examine the historico-economic succession of events from which these classes [the proletariat and the bourgeoisie] and their antagonism had of necessity sprung, and to discover in the economic conditions thus created the means of ending the conflict.”

In other words, Socialism is not an attempt to create the perfect society. It’s the attempt to end the original conflict between humans: economic oppression. Subsequently, the dominant mode of production (capitalism) manifests as the pure expression of that oppression, one in which the only goal is the creation of surplus value, which Marx demonstrated can only arise from the exploitation of another person’s labor.

In still other words, according to Engels (one of its founding fathers), Socialism is not a positive political program but an attempt to free the vast swath of humanity from capitalist oppression (which, it will be argued elsewhere also frees humanity from the tyranny of the State, itself a mode of capitalist defense).

For a relatively short introduction to Socialism, you could do a lot worse.

State & Revolution (116 pages) Written by Lenin, The State & Revolution is Lenin’s attempt to clarify the language and ideas of Marx and Engels to better communicate what he saw as the revolutionary requirements of Communism and Socialism, especially as it relates to the proletariat, whom he defines as the spear tip of the working class, the leadership group that is most capable of directing the workers’ revolution through and into its ultimate phase, the withering away of the state and humanity’s first real taste of freedom.

If you’re interested, I put together for my students some notes on the first few chapters. It’s basically quotes from the text, but arranged so as to provide a clearer through-line for each chapter.

Lenin is not as good a writer as Marx or Engels, but his tone and his authority definitely come through. After reading the biography of Lenin I mentioned above, I found my first in-depth experience with his writing to be enriched by my understanding of him as a man. I definitely enjoyed the experience.

On Bullshit (67 pages) A small treatise written by a Princeton Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, On Bullshit has a funnier title than its content would suggest. The author attempts to analyze the difference between bullshit and lying, coming to the conclusion that while lying must have some relationship to the truth (since its function is to conceal the truth), bullshit‘s only goal is to get its audience to be impressed by the bullshitter.

Because it is generally apathetic in regards to the truth, bullshit is more dangerous than lying: lying at least acknowledges the value of the truth, but bullshit is nihilistic.

A Song of Ice & Fire (4,972 pages) Following the conclusion of the latest season of Game of Thrones, I decided to re-read George R.R. Martin’s original books: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, and A Dance with Dragons.

I loved these books the first time I read them over a decade ago, and I loved them even more this time around. I had forgotten how many changes the HBO series had made, how many characters left out and how many subplots left unopened or unexplored. I forgot that the HBO series was not only erasing minor characters or changing the locations and timing of various scenes, but it was radically altering Martin’s novels, to the point where the events of the past two seasons of television simply can’t develop over the next two or three books.

In other words, I’d forgotten that what I was watching on television was so far from Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire that I’d essentially forgotten A Song of Ice & Fire. I couldn’t be happier to have Martin’s vision be the last one I’ve experienced.

Now if only he could publish the next book (The Winds of Winter) before the final season of Game of Thrones can be released.


And that’s it. Those are the twenty-one books I read in 2017. All told, we’re talking roughly 10,660 pages worth of fantasy, history, philosophy, experimental literature, mythology, religion, and politics.

Not to mention way too many articles about Donald Trump.

God damn it, 2017.

A Communist Sympathizer

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I’m currently teaching a class on Communism & Socialism. That crazy left-wing teacher that the Republican right seems so afraid of? Yeah, that’s me. I literally spend my days teaching high-school-age students about the ins and outs of communism (as best as I understand them).

But I’m not sure if I’m a communist. I definitely have communist sympathies, which is to say, I try to sympathize with those who are oppressed, and through my daily teaching, strive to prevent the next several generations from being as oppressive as the previous ones.

I don’t do this to make money. It’s true, I make money doing it, but like most Americans, I struggle to make the money I need to keep my creditors at bay (among whom are my employers: everyday, I owe them my lunch money, and even that debt is creeping up).

This is why I am not a capitalist: I don’t have enough money to be. In order to be a capitalist, one must spend money in order to make money. In other words, your goal must be to make money.

It’s true that money is only a method of exchange, so if one wants to engage in a specific kind of exchange with another person, one must somehow acquire money. But I’m not talking about that. What a capitalist does is engage in an exchange where the goal of the exchange is for the capitalist to end up with more money — not more goods, not more services, but more money.

The economic purpose of the capitalist, then, is to make money; unfortunately, in an economy based entirely on debt, money is always in demand. Where the economic purpose of a clockmaker is to make just as many clocks as the market demands, when it comes to money, the market only demands.

Think of the economic crisis of 2008. When all that money disappeared, where did it go? It’s not like it existed in the real world (money no longer equals gold, remember); it literally must have went poof! and disappeared, like an icon you delete off your laptop. When virtually all the capitalists say they lost their money, they were not being metaphorical: they lost it — they literally could no longer find it; their wealth on the screen kept going down, and there was nothing they could do to stop it.

So what did they do? They convinced our government to give them money for free. The government reduced the interest rate on money to zero, and let anyone who understood how to ask for it, receive it. I’m not talking about the loans Pres. Obama executed to the motor industry; roughly 90% of the money loaned out through that program has been paid back.

I’m talking about the banks who “bought money” from the government when it was being offered at zero cost, but who then turned around to the rest of the economy and sold it at significant interest and with a robberbarons’ wealth of fees attached; and when they didn’t do that, they hoarded it to themselves. As Matt Taibbi explained for Rolling Stone:

“Banks used their hundreds of billions for almost every purpose under the sun – everything, that is, but lending to the homeowners and small businesses and cities they had destroyed. And one of the most disgusting uses they found for all their billions in free government money was to help them earn even more free government money [through interest on their reserves].”

In other words, during the economic crisis of 2008, the government of the people, for the people, and by the people voluntarily, through their elected representatives, chose to power our entire economy through an increase in the weight of our debt to the banks.

Debt is a struggle, a weight on our backs. We all of us crawl hunched over, moving from experience to experience with the weight of all our bad decisions as a country on our back, our economic dependence on slavery being foremost among them, but also our continued decision to channel the majority of our energy into an aggressively postured and aggressively acting military, itself the equivalent of a scared and angry child stealing the oxygen out of a seemingly held-hostage classroom, crying out for all the world to “Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!”

We see it everywhere: the economic cost of our “independence.” We see it in the size of our student loan debt. We see it in the size of our credit card debt. We see it in our past due notices and in our healthcare debt. We see it in the increase in our incarceration rates.

Someone has to carry all of our debt. It started with slavery. While it’s true you had to be rich to own a slave, everyone who wanted to get rich had to, sooner or later, become dependent on a slave. The economic engine that drove everything was and still is slavery, oppression, and exploitation.

It’s just now, we slave for something called wages. As David Graeber explains:

“Throughout most of recorded history, the only people who actually did wage labor were slaves. It was a way of renting your slave to someone else; they got half the money, and the rest of the money went to the master. Even in the South, a lot of slaves actually worked in jobs and they just had to pay the profits to the guy who owned them. It’s only now that we think of wage labor and slavery as opposite to one another. For a lot of history, they were considered kind of variations of the same thing.”

The wages we earn today don’t release us from our debts to our masters. If we work hard enough on whatever it is they tell us to work on, we might be able to postpone our deaths for at least another week, and maybe even a few months if we’re lucky. But it’s still the same thing as slavery. We work for our masters in order to, literally, survive.

When I say “the masters,” I’m not talking about the small business owners. Those motherfuckers work as hard or harder than everyone else, and they earn every penny. Most of them carry even more debt than the rest of us, but they’re able to carry it in a different way — small business owners are not only hard workers, but they’re pretty damn good at managing a balancing act.

No, when I say “the masters,” what I’m talking about are the financial investors. The capitalists. The ones to whom the small business owners are also indebted.

This group is the bourgeoisie that the communists keep talking about, the ones who literally have no economic masters above them. These are the fuckers who make the rest of us carry them around on our backs so that their goddamned golden feet don’t have to touch the dirty, dirty ground. They are a class of human beings who just seem to be getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and who just keep stuffing themselves with more and more food, and more and more oxygen, and more and more clean water, and more, and more, and more, until finally, the weight of them is so goddamned heavy that the rest of us have no choice but to have our knees buckle with each and every step we struggle to take, knowing that at any moment, and through no real fault of our own, it could all come crashing down on us — the entire system just too fucking big for anyone living under it to survive.

That’s what the communists are talking about. They’re trying to get everyone to realize that all of that weight — all of it, the entire weight of our history — has found its apotheosis in the capitalist.

Apotheosis literally means the turning into of a god, as in, the process of deification, the making of a deity.

The communists are trying to show us that all of human history — all of the wealth that has ever been created from the time before we were cave men until now — has been created through an act of oppression; our history begins — and it will end — on the question of oppression: who oppresses who, how long will the oppressed be able to take it, and what will be the manner of its revolution (how and when will all of those oppressed people turn the tables on their oppressors).

The communists imagine that there must be a better way to survive. They mean this on both an individual and an international level.

There must be a better way to survive the daily struggles of human experience, a way where the struggle at least seems more worthwhile, a way where all of us can be as creative as we’re able without worrying about whether we can put food on our plates or roofs over our heads.

And goodness knows that there has to be a better way to survive internationally than simply waving our nuclear-missile dicks in everyone’s faces, telling them that if they don’t contribute to an International Monetary Fund that only our best friends have access to, then there’s a damn good chance we’re gonna shove our bullets and bombs down their throats.

From what I’ve been able to gather in my limited readings, Marx wasn’t a communist in the sense that he gave us a clear vision of what communism would look like; he was a communist in the sense that he wanted something better for humanity than what he had found.

He saw the system for what it actually was (and what it continues to be). He didn’t blame anything on God. He looked at what humanity had wrought over its time on Earth, and he judged it not worthy of us. He saw in us something better, something grander, something worth more than the relentless pursuit of money, driven by a minority of masters riding on the backs of a majority of slaves, every clean dollar acquired at the top spit out brown and nasty from below, leaving in our wake a cesspool of dirty money.

When humanity is gone, Marx asked us, what will we have left behind? What will be materially different thanks to us?

Where capitalists have made an idol of money, communists make humanity their golden god. They don’t want humanity’s story to be dictated by the production of money; they want it to be dictated by the goal of improving humanity, both in a material and in a moral sense.

Communists look at the problems facing the Earth right now and acknowledge that humanity is overcrowding the rest of the Earth’s population, and they see in that a form of oppression: humanity’s oppression of the rest of Earth’s creatures. This is what leads them to the legalization of birth control, and eventually, to strict regulations on the possible number of births. This is not radical; it’s the basic reality of whatever future humanity wishes to exist in. The only question is, what is the acceptable limit? Unfortunately, if we go over a certain point, the Earth will no longer negotiate with us, and it will rain down a hellfire the likes of which we can only read about in our Bibles.

But regulating the number of births does not mean abolishing them altogether. It means respecting life in all its forms, and only wishing for it to continue (the question as to where life begins, of course, being among the most tricky of the ones still facing us).

This is not harsh ideology. It’s basic math. We can quibble over the methods we use to get from the problem to the solution, but the solution will always remain the same: we have to control the rate of our births. The Earth is a finite resource, measured in soil, water, and oxygen, so we have to limit the number of people putting pressure on that resource.

Okay, the communists say, so we reduce and/or abolish the ways in which we oppress the other creatures on planet Earth. Then what?

The answer is to reduce the incarceration rate. Those who finds themselves inside of a prison are often there through no real fault of their own. Something within the existing system failed them. Because they do not actually belong in  a prison, we ought to re-imagine the system that placed them there.

I’m not talking about jails right now. While we absolutely have to reduce the incarceration rates of our people — jails are the toilet bowls of our current economic system, filled with dark bodies that just spin around and around and around until they finally disappear — I’m not talking about that right now.

What I’m talking about is an entire system that depends on the oppression of a majority by the strength and weight of an ever-increasing and ever-more oppressive minority, where the majority is made up of those of us struggle to survive on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, and the minority are the rich men who just won’t ever seem to go away and who are constantly poking at us through the tiny little holes we leave open in our front doors, and who are calling us up at all times of the day and night to harrass us, and who sing to us on the stage of our living rooms about the lives we could be leading if we were only someone else, somewhere else, with someone else, a dream they’re willing to sell us a simulacrum of for the low, low price of a never-ending series of easy monthly installments, a simulacrum that can only be created through a series of exchanges that ultimately end in someone else’s oppression (e.g.), someone other than, but no different from, you.

How do you reduce the incarceration rates? It’s simple. You provide adequate education and healthcare, and you treat every social ill as a disease that can only be cured with better education and better healthcare. You ensure healthcare includes concepts for both birth control and mental health, and you ensure that educators act as an early warning defense system, giving them the training they actually need to do their jobs well and the microphone to sound the alarm whenever it seems an individual’s humanity is at risk. You create a nimble and effective task force that is both large enough and supported enough to address each individual case as it arises, and you address it with wraparound measures that work to support the individual at home, in school, and eventually into whatever style of meanginful life they are capable of both creating and enjoying on their own. You look at abuse as a systemic issue and not as a moral one. You stop it when it happens, and you offer to help everyone involved, including the abuser, who (after all) is almost always a victim of abuse, the prevelance of which is symptomatic of the system, which is itself based entirely on the ever-present and ever-growing weight of the rich men’s continuous abuse of the rest of us.

If the vast majority of incarcerated individuals are victims of a systematic abuse that stretches back in their family tree for generations and generations, where every person’s father and/or mother and/or guardian was not only an abuser but also the victim of abuse, an individual who received from a very young age the historic blows of whatever representative of humanity happened to be in charge of them and who had pounded into them from the start a low sense of human worth, often by a family member but always, at the end of the chain, by their economic master — if such a vast majority of those people end up incarcerated in the prison of their own sociopathic ignorance, then wouldn’t it make sense to invest our energy in eradicating the channels through which abuse continues to be generated, the ultimate source of which can be traced back to the minority’s oppressive need for the majority to live in debt, usury being the world’s most lucrative form of abuse?

I don’t know if I am communist, but it seems to me that Marx’s interpretation of all the ills of society finding their ultimate origin in humanity’s economic dependence on slavery and oppression is correct. It’s the origin of our healthcare crisis, our education crisis, the crises within our families, and the crises that effect us on an international level.

The entire system requires us to live our lives with our backs broken by the weight of humanity’s debts, but until we recognize that those debts are held not by a God or by ancestor, but by a living and active class of capitalists whose desire to rape and pillage the Earth and all of its inhabitants seems to know no bounds, until we recognize that they are the actual, material cause of all of our troubles, then we will never be able to find the solution.

Communism at the Door

In the fall, I’m teaching a course on Communism & Socialism, so if you’re a regular reader of this blog, be prepared to read some posts on those subjects in the coming months. Plus, you know, the Patriots, God, video games, Heidegger, music, politics, the writing process, and other stuff like that. Anyway…

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx & Engels present, in effect, ten measures that the masses will take when effecting the Communist revolution. This post explores those ten measures.

1. Abolition of property and application of all rents of land to public purposes.

Marx & Engels are not being coy. The first measure taken by the Communist state will be to abolish private property. It’s important to understand why.

The Communist Manifesto is not a political platform. Reading it is not like reading Hilary Clinton’s policy prescriptions for the United States. It’s more like reading an essay on climate change. It aims not for prescription, but description: this is what is happening; this is why it is happening; and this is what will happen if things keep going the way they are.

The first measure abolishes private property not because someone from the government will knock on your door with a piece of paper and take your house from you, but because an angry horde of unwashed men and women who you’ve long forgotten existed will soon be smashing down your picket fence and taking your house and all of your belongings (which is exactly what happened to the last Czar).

The horde that takes it from you will not have their best interests at heart. They will not send you packing and then settle into a calm and peaceful repose in your living room, where they soon discuss the division of labor when it comes to accomplishing the chores of the house. Instead, they will come and go as they please, taking or pissing on whatever they like, and the property will be owned by no one. In this way, it becomes the property of everyone, piss and all.

2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.

With the abolition of property, the horde of unwashed men and women, and now you too, are going to need someplace to live. The world already has enough structures, so you’re free to make yourself welcome in one of them. But if you want something that feels secure, you’re going to have to pay for it somehow.

There is only one way to pay in a Communist state: with your labor. In Das Kapital, Marx makes clear that whenever we discuss an exchange value, all we can ever be talking about is the value of human labor (see Das Kapital for more). If you want your home to be secure, you have to either make it secure yourself or pay someone else to do it, but if you pay someone else to do it, you are now in debt to them the amount of labor that they have provided to you (see Debt: The First 5,000 Years for a great analysis of how most exchanges between humans in society eventually reduce to debt).

You could enter into an equal exchange where you do something for your security staff that they can’t do for themselves or you can pay them back by contributing your labor to the State. With an equal exchange of labor throughout the economy, your security force will know for sure that their labor will eventually return to them in some recognizable form.

The State, however, only exists to regulate this exchange. If people contribute more labor than they have coming to them, the State controls that excess of labor at a graduated rate to the laborer. The unwashed men and women don’t want anyone working too hard just to earn a wellspring of their labor.

This is not to say that people can’t work hard. But it is to say that people who are able to work hard need less support from their fellow men and women, and as they contribute in greater proportions to the development of society, so should they contribute in greater proportions to the security of that society; after all, who among us would not want to protect the society in which we’ve invested so much of our hard work?

3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance.

The unwashed horde will not give a shit who your father is. Your inheritance is not property owned by your father; it is the carried debt of our extraneous labor. You don’t earn the right to lord over our debt just because you spewed from his seed; our debt to your father dies with him.

4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.

You think you can run? You think you can hide? That’s no problem at all. Take your body wherever it wants. But your property — the embodied form of our extraneous labor — that stays with us.

5. Centralization of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.

Again, for Marx, capital reduces to human labor. Credit, then, is a surplus in human labor. If you have ideas for how to use some of that surplus human labor, we the people who contributed it (i.e., the State) want some say in what gets done with it.

Want to use our surplus labor to dump nuclear waste into one of our rivers? Not going to happen.

Want to use it create your own private exchange where others would be able to get capital (i.e., surplus labor) without having to deal with those of us who actually contributed it? Yeah, no.

Want to use it to reduce the costs and improve the exposure and distribution of regional artisanal beers? Well, hey now, that’s something we’d be happy to put our backs into.

6. Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.

The great unwashed come, take your house, and tell you how much you’re worth. They don’t want to kill you (per se) and they don’t want to sell you to some slave trader. You are free to live in the world on your own, completely isolated from everyone else, but the moment you want to enter into any kind of economic relationship with anybody, the moment you want to exchange goods and services with your neighbors, then extraneous labor is worth what extraneous labor is worth, and after the great unwashed got done with you, you now possess no one’s extraneous labor but your own.

That’s the scene. So why the centralization of communication and transport?

Simple, a lone human individual wandering atop the surface of the Earth possesses no extraneous value beyond its body; it can only walk as much as it can walk, and it can only yell as loud as it can yell. The moment the human body attempts to move more efficiently than its physics allow or tries to reach an audience beyond those who can physically see and/or hear it communicate, it enters into a material relationship with its environment, depending on resources provided either by nature or the efforts of another human body (or of a thousand human bodies).

When you ride in a car, you ride on the backs of those individuals who contributed their labor to its existence — the drillers who retrieved the fossil fuels, the shippers who transported it, the miners who dug in the caves, the secretaries who coordinated schedules for such massive projects, the programmers who designed the GPS system, the engineers who rocketed the GPS satellites into space, the scientists who developed the polyester that forms your seatbelt, the factory workers who connected the bolts to the nuts, etc. .

The State (re: the rest of society that you depend on for your existence) wants to make sure that everyone in that process receives a square deal. In addition, it wants to make sure that those with capitalist intentions (i.e., with the intention of hoarding the extraneous value of everyone else’s labor) do not have two powerful weapons with which to dominate the economy: the roads and the communication network.

It is true that the centralization of communication and transportation opens the State to the horrors of propaganda and martial law, just as it would if they were centralized under the Capitalists. No one doubts this. The difference is that the State is not trying to steal society’s extraneous labor and use it for the benefit of individuals in a small and privileged class; the Capitalists, however, aim to do just that. Instead, the State wants to harness the power of that extraneous labor for the benefit of all those who contributed it.

7. Extensions of factories and instruments of production owned by the state; the bringing into cultivation of waste lands,and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.

Without private property or a private exchange of human labor, the State comes into abundance and all may apply to receive their due. However, as a State that doesn’t reach utopia as much as conclude the economic slog of human history, the State (in the form of the people whose labor makes a real contribution) must prepare to survive beyond the current moment. It must invest some of its stored labor into improvements in the instruments of production: the factory that needs to stop polluting, the road that needs to be repaired, the river that needs to be dammed, the machine that needs to be invented, the medicine that needs to be researched, the field that needs to be tilled, and yes, the art that needs to be encouraged.

8. Equal liability of all to labor. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.

I have a student who is a dishwasher, and his interest in Communism is the main driver behind why I’m even offering this class in the Fall. I have another student who is a hostess, and she’s the only other student who signed up for it. Both of them are in their late teens, and both of them, in different ways, are some of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met.

But they are a dishwasher and a hostess.

Do you think you’re better than them? Then why is the time you contribute to society worth more what they contribute? After all, we need dishwashers and hostesses more than we need, for example, financial sales agents. According to the latest data available, the U.S economy employed 506,450 dishwashers and 404,360 hostesses to 353,780 financial sales agents. We have more dishwashers and hostesses in our economy because there is more of that kind of labor to be done on behalf of society.

Unfortunately, very few people like to wash dishes. Plenty of people will give you a load of hooey about the meditative nature of the exercise, but most of us would prefer to spend our meditation time resting in a peaceful garden under a fruit-filled tree than we would standing in front of a steam-filled sink with slop on our aprons and gray water in our shoes.

With so few people wanting to wash dishes and so many dishes to be washed, we either need to draft an army (an industrial army) or invest some of our surplus labor into the development of a more efficient way to clean the dishes our society generates each day…and until our investment pays off, we may need to do both.

Luckily, with everyone receiving an equal value for their labor, those who come to the rest of us (i.e., the State) for employment will have plenty of tasks to choose from, with everything ranging from CEO of a mining operation to the lightbulb purchaser for mining helmets to the dishwasher who soaps the pots and pans in the cafeteria where the mining executives eat their lunch.

But just like how the Army doesn’t give you a final say as to where you go and what you do, so it will be when you apply to do a task for the State. As with the Army, individuals are responsible for recognizing the relative worth of each other, and we truly hope that you end up exactly where your talents ought to take you, but we also realize that sometimes a task that needs to be done and all that’s needed to do it is a body (in some forms of agriculture, for instance), and for those menial tasks, your body is no better and no worse than anybody else’s, so when you apply to do a task for the State, you have to realize that you may, in fact, end up with one of those unforgiving tasks, at which point, we trust you’ll soon prove your worth.

9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country.

In Marx’s time, there was a vast distinction between town and country. The town had the factories; the country had the food. They entered into a tense economic relationship with one another, with the country producing and selling its raw materials in exchange for commodified goods produced in the factories. The town made the toaster, while the country mined the metal, dammed the river, harvested the wheat, milled the flour, and transported it to the baker.

With all of that investment of human labor in a single piece of toast, it’s a wonder anyone can afford a slice. But if someone was able to, they’d be delivering the entire cost of that slice to the last person in that chain, who, after paying off the guy in line behind him, is left with any extraneous value created by that labor. As the first person in line at the payout and the person most responsible for overseeing the equity of that payout to the rest of the laborers who contributed to the ultimate form of that toast, the retailer is able to pocket most, if not all, of the extraneous value of that labor, keeping the others’ work for himself.

With more and more of the retail markets moving from the country to the town (don’t believe me? try getting good ethnic food out in the country), more and more of the extraneous value of labor makes its way there as well, allowing the people in the town to increase the value of their local community through investments in education, entertainment, transportation, or what have you, the effect of which is to draw more members of the country into the town in the hopes of living an improved lifestyle.

This ultimately drains the country of its labor, which then starves the town of its raw materials, which forces the people of the town to enscript an army to march into the country to till the fields, cut the forests, dam the rivers, and mine the mines, all of which will still go towards the benfit of the town (think District 1 vs. District 12 in The Hunger Games; also think of the army of scared slaves [aka, “undocumented workers”] we now depend on to harvest our fields).

Marx & Engels think the only way to stop the cycle is to distribute the factories out among the agriculture, to reduce the differences between the town and country. The only way to ultimately reduce the differences, however, are to eliminate them entirely. Since the differences between them are ultimately measured in population, Marx & Engels realize that an equable distribution of the population is necessary. No red states and blue states; just a uniformed and united State.

What Marx & Engels perhaps didn’t realize is that are other ways to unify the town and country. If the unfairness begins with the final exchange between the laborers and the purchaser of their extranerous labor, then perhaps all that needs to happen is to move that retail market out into the country: make the sons and daughters of farmers into retailers, give them a market to exchange the extraneous value of their labor with their neighbors, and create outlets and transportation routes to distribute the extraneous value of other people’s labor from one community to another.

This reveals the isidious nature of Amazon’s and Wal-Mart’s relationship to society. They’ve both contributed, by design, to the death of local retail markets. Both Amazon and Wal-Mart aim to become the sole retail market of the world. But Amazon and Wal-Mart exist nowhere; they are local to no market. That means a significant portion of the extraneous value of all of the world’s labor ultimately flows from a local material reality out into trans-local space: for Amazon, cyberspace; for Wal-Mart, multi-national space. They both bully the local retail markets out of existence, robbing the country of the opportunity to keep the extraneous value of its labor local, where it can be put to good use by those who contributed that extraneous labor in the first place.

10. Free education for all in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labor in its present form (1848). Combination of education with industrial production, &c., &c.

If everyone’s body is worth exactly the same until it proves otherwise, then everybody’s mind should be as well. The only way to tell if one person’s mind is worth more than another’s is to put them both through the same forms of training, allowing each of them to discover their unique talents through the way they apply them to the problems of society.

Education should not just be a catching up on what society has discovered and created. Our youngest and most energetic ought to put their energy towards solving the greatest problems facing our society. We should not use them to accomplish menial tasks that only require a body (with its army of workers, the State has plenty of bodies to dedicate to any task worth its labor).

At the same time, education must also prepare members of society for life within that society, and so students should dedicate some of their time to the means of production, in both body and mind. They should understand how production works, test their aptitude for different modes of it, and apply their passion to reforming it for the good of all.

Remember, too, that education is not just for the young. It includes professional education and training for adults who seek to improve their worth to society. Communists call for free education for all in public schools; not just free education for kids who can’t work yet.

~~

So…those are the top measures to be effected by the Communist revolution. Some sound pretty good, and most sound, I think, eminently defensible; but they all rest on the very first one: the abolition of private property and the application of all rents of land to the public purpose.

Without that, the Communists have nothing.

But as I said above, when you read Marx & Engels, it’s less like reading an op-ed and more like reading a report on climate change. It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when.

Knock knock.