Saturday, September 4, 2010

More Musings on Communism

Postcard from an Alternate Future
Postcard from an Alternate Future, Berlin, 2010

This post builds on my earlier musings about Communism and the batch of recent neo-Trotskyite science fiction and fantasy authors.

The central problem of Communist utopia is resource allocation. Not so much production, I think. We people tend to like to produce. As a society, we spend incredible amounts of resources trying to turn everyone into passive consumers on the one hand, and obedient wage slaves on the other, yet even so, lots of us produce stuff simply because we want to.

Take this blog, for example. In economic terms, it is a "good." It has a certain amount of "utility," because a few people like to "consume" it. Yet, bafflingly from the point of view of most economic models, I "produce" it simply because I want to. I would continue to "produce" it, even subtly altered, if nobody else wanted to "consume" it. My main incentives to produce it are the pleasure I derive from the act of producing it, and the effect it has on clarifying my own thoughts about any number of things.1

Most people are like this. My grandparents, after they retired, did not stop producing all kinds of things. My grandmother knitted sweaters and socks until arthritis locked up her finger joints. My grandfather was constantly whittling wooden spoons, machining fishing lures, growing potatoes in his kitchen garden, and so on and so forth. My mother spends most of her free time doing volunteer work for a yoga association.

I have no doubt that if deprived of passivating "entertainment," people would quickly get bored of lying under a tree eating nuts and start looking for stuff to do, even without any economic incentives to do so. Adam Smith's baker would still show up to bake, just because he wants to.

The problem is that what people want to produce does not necessarily accord with what people need, or want to consume. Adam Smith's baker might suddenly decide to explore the subtleties of puff pastry, when the people around him want rye bread. This blog, for example, is an incredibly wasteful use of my time, compared to other things I could do with that time to produce things more people would want to consume. I could, for example, collect my old photography articles, rework them into a book, market that, and publish that, either for free or for money. I know from Google's statistics that many, many more people would want to read my thoughts about photography than about Communism, Zen, or what I did last weekend.

We humans probably evolved in bands numbering a few dozen individuals. If anything, a group this size represents the "natural" social environment for us. In some circumstances, the resource allocation problem can resolve itself within groups of this size. If there is a sense of shared purpose, a sense of community, and a sense of shared responsibility, people will tend to notice things that need doing, and then do them. Marxists called this state of affairs "primitive Communism."

A social order approximating this state of affairs tends to arise in groups with a clear, shared purpose and a self-selected membership. The sangha with which I practice is a fairly good example—nobody gets paid for anything, yet a quite a few people do a quite a lot to keep the thing going, simply because they want to, or because they want to keep the thing going, for themselves and for others.

However, once above the scale of a few dozen to maybe a couple of hundred people, we run into problems. Individual members of the community can no longer have a good grasp of what's going on in the entire community. The group will start to fragment; cliques with divergent interests will start to emerge. The power struggles that were always present will start to be amplified by the larger population base. The sense of community that kept the thing going and kept people willingly doing what needs to be done will start to fade. Self-interest will become unaligned with the common interest.

A technological society needs a very large and very diverse population base to keep going. There is simply no way a band of a couple of hundred individuals could produce an artifact much more complicated than, say, a bicycle, from raw materials. To go beyond that level, we need some mechanism of resource and labor allocation—some way to get large groups of people to coordinate their actions so that everybody gets what they need.

One way around this is to pull an Iain M. Banks and posit a magical way to just wish stuff into existence. Functionally, this amounts to a slave class (of artificial intelligences and robots, in Iain M. Banks's case) willingly serving the needs of the anarcho-Communist utopians. That is an unsatisfactory solution in many ways, primarily ethically—in my opinion, any substratum of AI's intelligent enough to do the job should be entitled to choose to do whatever they want, just like every other member of the Communist utopia, and Iain M. Banks's solution of simply stating that they want to produce everything the utopia needs strikes me as something of a conjuring trick, even ignoring all the (very likely insuperable) problems of ever making such a technological substratum a reality.2

The best solution really existing societies have come up with is money and the market. The market can allocate resources pretty efficiently: the very existence of the computer you're using to read this post is a mind-blowingly huge demonstration of that fact. Yet the market is a painfully and obviously flawed mechanism. Many of its flaws were described with great clarity by Karl Marx. By now, economists have accumulated a quite a bit of knowledge about how it behaves—what conditions are required for markets to produce social utility, and how they fail when these conditions are not present. They never are—no market can ever match the "complete and perfectly competitive" ideal models of classical economics posit.

Really existing markets are never perfectly competitive nor complete, and I think it would be possible to make a pretty strong argument that competitive and complete markets are inherently unstable. That means that they start to have side effects. We get externalities like pollution, and internal contradictions such as the tendency for markets to concentrate power and wealth in fewer hands, and the tendency for the ones accumulating the power to shape the rules under which the markets operate to their own ends.

The redistributive state worked pretty well to correct some—but not all—of these flaws, for a while. Specifically, it was fairly good at siphoning accumulated wealth away from the top of the income distribution and spreading it back down toward the bottom. This spread the fruits of economic growth fairly evenly across the income spectrum—from Roosevelt to Carter, all the income quintiles in the USA saw their prosperity grow at roughly the same rate. It wasn't as successful at dealing with externalities such as pollution and ecological destruction, of course. Once this state was dismantled, the internal dynamics of capitalism reasserted themselves, and the USA went right back to having the top 1% of the income distribution reap the lion's share of economic growth, even as the great majority stagnated while seeing things like job security collapse. Many European countries have seen similar patterns, albeit less dramatically.

Attempts to substitute central planning for the market mechanism have failed rather dismally; the USSR's system only really worked at the level of infrastructure and heavy industry (which are centrally planned even in most "capitalist" societies, at least to some extent), with an illegal and informal black market and a system of queueing and hoarding plugging the holes in the rest of it. Not least, the whole thing needed a massive system of violence and coercion to keep going in the first place.

I do not believe that any utopia that involves massive coercion is worthy of the name. Nor do I believe that coercion now is justified in the hope of a utopia tomorrow. I am a great believer in freedom. If I had to pick a single indicator of how "good" a society is, I would look at the resources it expends on mechanisms of coercion—the police force, the legal system, the penal system, and the military. By this standard, even the best of our existing societies are hard to call really successful, and most of the ones that we regard fairly highly are dismal failures, with the mostly defunct Really Existing Socialisms among the worst of all.

If Communism is ever to succeed above the level of the primate band or benevolent society, it must find a way to solve the resource allocation problem, and it must find a way to solve it in a way that does not involve even more coercion than the market mechanisms we're currently stuck with. I have yet to see a credible solution to this, either fictional, factual, or philosophical.

If somebody does solve it, though, sign me up. I'd love to be a Communist.

Recommended reading

Alfred de Grazia: Kalotics
Ken MacLeod: The Cassini Division
Iain M. Banks: The State of the Art
The Venus Project


1Yes, you do matter too, dear readers, and you certainly inform what I write about and how, but you're still a secondary driver to why I write.
2I won't even get into discussing human slavery, since that is so obviously abhorrent.


  1. Utopia means "nowhere" and it is hard to feel affectionate about a nowhere, whereas people can feel affection for a place. With affection for a place and with community membership as a value (as opposed to starring in our own movie all the time), it is possible to do things differently, maybe coordinate production based on needs, maybe distribute wealth more democratically, without coercion.

    But that would not be perfect. In the American debate, or what passes for it, utopia is always the enemy of reform. Because doing things differently would be problematic, we stick with the oppression we've learned to call freedom.

  2. That's true, and it's why "primitive communism" observably works. The problem is that it doesn't scale well. When you scale up community identity beyond the village level, things go pear-shaped fast.

    If somebody manages to figure out how to solve the resource allocation problem better than via the market at a city level, or beyond, now, that would be something.