November 20, 2009

Commuting for communism

Like a traffic jam, capitalism unintentionally constricts freedom.

Communism was (choose one):

(a) the failed and bloody attempt to force utopia on the crooked timber of mankind;

(b) the ideological prop for murderous, Slavonic totalitarianism;

(c) the only possibility for man’s self-emancipation.

You probably didn’t answer (c), but if you did, stop reading and head to the nearest Capital discussion group. If you answered (a) or (b), read on. Everything you know about communism is wrong; and that’s to be expected, because you probably don’t know much to begin with. Or so claimed Raymond Lotta, of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), in a November 11 lecture on campus. This is a big claim, especially at the University of Chicago, and it attracted attention. About 200 students crammed into the Kent Auditorium to get themselves some reeducation—or at least witness a fight. Could Lotta convince the Chicago Objectivist Society to fight for the emancipation of the proletariat? Would he make a dent in the prevalent political apathy?

Not really. Most of it was loquacious praise of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Instead of explaining and arguing the importance of communism as a vital political movement, Lotta used his lecture to explain how historians have misrepresented Chairman Mao’s words and deeds. We came for a revolution and got fact-checking.

This will not do.

Lotta is right to defend the communist project. But he’s going about it the wrong way.

It turns out that there’s something you (really) don’t know about Communism: It was all about freedom, liberty, and emancipation. Just as American and French revolutionaries fought for freedom from the despotism of the ancien regime, socialism emerged out of these struggles as revolutionaries sought to overcome capitalist domination.

But our Objectivist friends are yelling: “Capitalism is just the name for the economic system respecting the free actions of mankind! Louis XVI directly violated the liberty of the French; who violates the liberty of the workers?” There is no direct source of oppression in a perfect capitalist society, they reason, therefore there is no oppression.

Permit an extended analogy, to reply: Nobody causes a traffic jam, but the traffic jam restricts your freedom. Traffic arises, like capitalism, from many uncoordinated “free” actions. If all the drivers gathered together to build a train, they could get to their destination faster, and stop wasting their lives in traffic. Everybody complains about the traffic, but no one can get that train built. Some benefit from the status quo. They build the roads, the cars, sell the oil. Others try to design reforms to make the traffic more efficient: carpool lanes, tolls, reversible lanes. Whenever anyone suggests building the train, they’re shunned as utopian. The question thrown back at them is always the same: Where is all that money going to come from? But no one ever counts the cost of the tedium and pollution of innumerable individuals, all sitting stuck in traffic.

Replace traffic with wage labor, and you have capitalism. Nobody forces you to get a job, but you’re going to have to get one if you want to go anywhere, do anything, or continue to breathe. Now, some of us don’t have to face this choice. We have access to money from elsewhere. But most of humanity is not so lucky: They have to sell their time in order to survive. No individual agent forces them into servitude. The whole system—capitalism—compels them.

Nevertheless, you can admit that there’s compulsion, but still claim that capitalism is the best of all possible bad options. How can we be sure a post-capitalist society would be better? Aristotle once argued that if machines could accomplish their own task, there would be no need for work. Make a loom that runs on its own, and you don’t need anyone to sit there and work it. To achieve this state of affairs would mean humanity’s self-emancipation from drudgery and toil, our realization of freedom and all the values we take to be most humane. A critic can object that a communist society, like any human society, would involve means of coercion. Perhaps, if by coercion you simply mean regulated human activity. But coercion under capitalism—the domination of life by labor—is not simply regulated, it is unfree. And it is this very unfreedom that communism would abolish, in order to actualize the conscious domain of individuals over their own lives.

So to return to our multiple-choice question, the answer is (c). Write that down in your copybooks. Under capitalism, we created that automatic loom, in tandem with greater and greater wonders of automation. But work did not end. If you don’t own the means of production, you still need to get a job. To revert to our analogy: The parts of the train have been built, and the energy courses through the power lines. But building the train would require a complete reorganization of social resources. And it seems as though the attempts to achieve this necessarily resulted in (a) or (b). Appearances here can be deceiving: There were utopian communists and opportunistic ones, and the history of the 20th century is the historic tragedy of the latter’s victory over the former. Lotta’s presentation obscured this issue, filibustering rather than confronting the root of his audience’s misgivings. There is no single recipe, no plan for the future; we can turn to the past only for negative examples. But the struggle for emancipation, if it is to continue, must learn all it can from its communist legacy. No one said freedom came easy.

Greg Gabrellas is pursuing a degree with the Master of Arts program in Social Sciences. He graduated from the College in 2009 with a degree in anthropology.