Communism Today: Distribution According to Need
What is communism? What is socialism? Americans today are increasingly asking themselves these questions as they seek answers to the poverty and violence of daily life in a capitalist economy. Is it true that there is simply no alternative to the mind-numbing destruction and waste of modern capitalism? Do the communist and socialist experiments of the past have any lessons or solutions for people today? Is it even possible to build an economic system organized around our most treasured moral and spiritual values, instead of private gain and social mayhem? History tells us that yes we can – under certain conditions – conditions that are increasingly becoming present today.
Webster’s dictionary defines communism as a “theory advocating elimination of private property” and “system in which goods are owned in common and are available to all as needed.” According to this definition, communism has been around for virtually all of human history, both as a practical way to organize human societies, and as a value system or “theory.” All primitive hunter and gatherer societies were communistic because collective ownership corresponded most efficiently to the tools and skills they used to survive. Since there was no agriculture, the concept of land ownership never even occurred to them. And with no ability to store perishables, and limited capacity to transport possessions, there was literally no use for or concept of what we today call private property.
Charles Eisenstein described the situation in Sacred Economics: “When a primitive hunter killed a large animal, he or she would give away most of the meat according to kinship status, personal affection, and need … .It was much better to have lots of people ‘owe you one’ than it was to have a big pile of rotting meat, or even of dried jerky that had to be transported or secured. Why would you even want to, when your community is as generous to you as you are to them? Security came from sharing. The good luck of your neighbor was your own good luck as well. If you came across an unexpected large source of wealth, you threw a huge party. As a member of the Pirahá tribe explained it when questioned about food storage, ‘I store meat in the belly of my brother.’”
Origin of Private Property
The prevalence of communist or so-called “gift economies” in human pre-history throughout the globe is now universally acknowledged. Although hunter and gatherer tribes frequently warred with one another, they never took slaves. They literally had no use for them. Captives were either killed or simply integrated into the tribe. It was only with the development of herding and agriculture that some societies found they could create and store a surplus product above and beyond the needs of immediate consumption. People found they could then increase the surplus by “privatizing” it and using it to force others to work for them. This created the demand for slaves, and the division of society into masters and slaves became the first great class division in human history.
As it turned out, they created a monster. The growth of private property – whether slave, feudal, or capitalist – then established economic systems that developed laws of their own. These laws governed the maximizing of exploitation, and sharply contradicted the customs of the earlier communist societies that fostered gifting and sharing. In fact, in virtually every instance since then, where a private property society has encountered primitive communism, the result has been the total, violent destruction of the latter.
Most of the world’s great religious and spiritual traditions evolved from the communal value systems of the primitive gift economies. These values persisted well into the development of early agricultural societies and are clearly evident in many of our ancient sacred texts such as the Torah. The clear communist trend in early Christianity was influenced not only by these ancient traditions, but also by contemporary sects such as the Essenes, who consciously set out to practice communist sharing of the social product in the Dead Sea area of Roman Palestine.
The resiliency of these cooperative spiritual ideals has characterized the history of class societies every bit as much as the class struggle alluded to by Marx and Engels, especially in the times of great social upheaval. The struggle to organize society to conform to a moral vision has been the great intellectual challenge of every revolutionary in every epoch.
The communist movement of the 19th and 20th centuries – in the main based on the science of Marxism – was the attempt by leaders of that era to reorganize society during its transition from agriculture to modern industry. They sought to construct economic and political forms to manage that transition and put society on the road toward the classless, communist ideal that we have always traditionally aspired to. Generally they called these transitional societies, socialist.
Socialism is defined by Webster as a system or theory of “government ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution.” The experiences of the socialist countries were mixed. There were stirring political victories over fascism and stunning advances in industry and living standards. However, most of these systems were ultimately overthrown or economically subverted by a capitalism that had clearly not yet used up all of its capacity for innovation and expansion.
The term socialism is frequently confused, however, because many who call themselves socialist (or social democrat) do not advocate a socialist economy at all. They advocate a “mixed economy” that is partially capitalistic and partially government owned, such as in some Western European countries today. The problem with mixed economies is that the market is still subject to the economic laws of capitalism. One of those laws is that wealth inevitably concentrates and polarizes. Capital then uses its political muscle to weaken or eliminate the government sector and force the population to submit to austerity programs, with “socialist” parties all too frequently acceding – the very process unfolding in Europe today as we speak.
The Age of Electronics
The world today has changed completely. Since the Great recession of 2008, the replacement of industrial production with electronics has now in fact brought capitalism to the end of its ability to grow or even function. Capitalism cannot coexist with means of production that no longer have a use for human labor.
On the one hand, this technological productivity creates so much wealth that it mocks the very concept of scarcity. Even today, if the U.S. Gross Domestic Product were evenly distributed, every family of four would receive an income of $200,000 a year right now.
On the other hand, in a private property system, computer technology causes the emergence of a rapidly growing class of people that cannot access even the most basic means to survive. Escalating poverty and unemployment mean people cannot purchase their basic necessities. The system cannot circulate commodities, and poverty and unemployment escalate further. This new class becomes a revolutionary class. It is forced to overthrow the system or die trying.
The need for 20th Century socialist transitional societies no longer exists. All that is needed today is the political power to organize and equitably distribute the social product.
Private property began and became powerful because it advanced humanity’s rudimentary early means of production. But by definition it cannot exist without scarcity. The very word “private” connotes deprivation. When the means of production have advanced so far that scarcity is no longer an issue, private property becomes historically obsolete. Instead of advancing technology, it starts to impede it, engulfing us in unnecessary, endless social turmoil.
We have an historic choice to make today. Will we continue to allow the world to be pillaged by the powers and principalities of private property? Or will we take this opportunity to establish a communist system where distribution is based on human need, and conforms to our most cherished ideals and ancient spiritual principles?
September/October 2013. Vol23.Ed5
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011