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.

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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.