Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Commune

It’s not often you come across intelligent, eloquent, considerate, moderately expressed, libertarian communists but, via a man I read for his science, not his politics, I’ve come across one. Or probably a group of them.

I intend to engage with them, and this post is in a sense a bit of throat-clearing, an ordering of notes before I start making a few comments over there.

Unlike the spite-filled stupidity of the SWP, the Spanish communist party, many trade unions and others, they sound like people you could get on with, have a drink with, argue deeply about ideas with, and go amicably on your way, agreeing to disagree.

They are still wrong, of course, despite all the above. And for the usual reasons. They speak of the obvious and essential morality of redistributing wealth equally among everyone. But in order to redistribute wealth, someone has first to create it. And no, it doesn’t grow on trees. Apples grow on trees, but to eat them someone has to pick them. The picker will want the bulk of the apples, or at least the option of satisfying himself, before letting others eat. If people have no motive for creating wealth there will be very little indeed to redistribute. And we know this not only because we know what people are like, but because it is observably true.

Who will police this equality? And how will they be equal, when they have power over others? If people had been designed by communists, we would be very different, and it might even work. Mind you, I wouldn’t like to have been designed by communists, and neither, I suspect, would they.

Oh, and primitive tribes do not lead an idyllic life in harmony with nature. There is great variety of form and structure, but they have certain things in common. Their lives are a constant battle to avoid being poisoned or eaten by nature. A battle we have won, to the great advantage of all of us who live in developed societies. They tend to be very unequal indeed. Women have almost no status at all, and so no rights. If they have adult sons they may be accorded a form of respect, but where food and shelter are the difference between life and death the best is taken by the leaders. Young men are a threat to be controlled. They are in constant and imminent danger of starving, being killed by wild animals, or by the neighbouring tribes with whom they will be in a more or less constant state of war (resources are scarce, and people are human), most of them will die young of preventable diseases and easily curable wounds. Their entire life is controlled by the leaders, who are themselves constrained by tradition, ignorance, circumstance and the world about them, which isn’t interested in harmony. It isn’t some hippy summer of love. They are able to be as happy as we are, by using the same mechanisms, but it isn’t, objectively, fun.

Communism cannot work. The idea that it has never been properly imposed, that Stalin, Castro, Mao, Sung, Pol Pot and many, many more got it wrong, and that it can be done properly and everything will be wonderful, is widespread, and wrong.

Decades of bloodstained misery in dozens of places around the world have convinced almost everybody else that it cannot work, but the true believers will continue to construct an impossible logic to justify it, because rational gymnastics, however complicated, are much easier to perform than the apparently simple act of recognising a belief to be false and exchanging it for another. It’s part of being human.


James Higham said...

I couldn't be bothered engaging with them for this reason:

"Communism cannot work. The idea that it has never been properly imposed, that Stalin, Castro, Mao, Sung, Pol Pot and many, many more got it wrong, and that it can be done properly and everything will be wonderful, is widespread, and wrong."

Vincent said...

Your paragraph about primitive tribes is misleading and unnecessarily dismissive, but there's no point in arguing with it point by point. It's clear that you are merely expressing an opinion all the way through.

One has to concede, with a certain reluctance, that capitalism works better for it is the more 'natural', i.e. laissez-faire way, in which fairness and equality are to some extent sacrificed. But then again in British & European capitalism, the free market is to some extent sacrificed to ideas of fairness and equality.

You may notice that I separated Britain from Europe above. It was deliberate. But that too is an opinion.

CIngram said...


The paragraph is necessarily over-general and over-simplified, and lacks context because it's responding to an argument made elsewhere, but I don't agree that it's misleading, and it certainly wasn't intended to be dismissive.

Nor is it opinion, but a distillation of facts obtained from extensive (for an amateur) readings in anthroplogy. The insertion of them into political debate might count as opinion, but in themselves they are broadly true, and the argument that we would live better, purer lives if we lived as such societies do is false. The people who want to force the rest of us to live that way must be fought, by making them and their intended victims aware of what they have planned for us.

Poverty is crippling to every aspect of comfort and well-being, and makes life itself much harder to preserve.

Aside from a mention of happiness at the end, I spoke exclusively of freedom and material comfort, because that was the thrust of my argument. I gave little weight to the importance that personal satisfaction has in well-being, quite possibly outweighing material comfort. Many people- including whole societies or groups of societies, like the North American Indians, the Australian Aborigines, the Bushman of southern Africa- who have been exposed to both a hunter-gatherer existence, and life in a wealthy, western society, have chosen, or would have chosen if they could, to return to the life they were brought up in, because they were happier there. Many others have renounced, partially or completely, the comfort of the world they grew up in to live in a cabin in the hills, or a monastery in the back of beyond, and are happy with their choice. I am not suggesting that material comfort is the only measure of goodness in a society, just that to remove it arbitarily has very serious consequences, which are ignored when these extremist arguments are made.

The unhappiest people and societies seem to be those which are forced by a human agency within them to live in relative poverty and iron control, rather than those who circumstances have not given much material comfort.

CIngram said...

Oh, and I focused entirely on the negative aspects, again because they were the ones that were relevant.


It's a tired old argument, and if they haven't learned yet that it can't work, they never will. If I comment there, I am depressingly sure they will have a pat answer, and then another for my answer to that one, and so on. They will go, politely, I imagine, through the steps they have learnt, and at no stage will they think about what I am saying.

I should go over there and find out, of course, and if I do, I shall report.