Posts Tagged ‘public property


The Alienation of Labor

A common question asked during the aftermath of every great industrial disaster is “Could all of this have somehow been avoided?”. It’s an important question too- ‘those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it’ and all that. Marx, who grew up and lived during a time when industrial accidents happened with tragic regularity, saw this and developed from it his theory of the ‘alienation of labor’.

Marx states that as businesses develop, those profiting from the sale of a product/service become further and further removed from the actual creation and creators of that product/service and as a result cease to see the workers creating the product/service as humans and instead merely see them as resources. When one starts seeing his fellow man as ‘profit-versus-cost’ rather than as human beings, it becomes a lot easier to exploit them.

If the owners of GAP actually had to meet with the child laborers in their sweatshops, it wouldn’t be nearly so easy for the owners to pay a mere forty-four cents as a day’s wages. It’s that basic human connection makes us see ourselves in the places of others. Maybe if things were different I’d be the one making t-shirts for forty-four cents. Maybe if things were different I’d have lost a hand working with dangerously outdated machinery.

Of course I say “it wouldn’t be nearly so easy”, because the simple truth of the matter is that better worker-owner relations aren’t the solution to the problem. You don’t get to be a leader of industry by being honest and generous and kind- relying on the benevolence of those who got to where they are in the world being more cunning, deceitful, and brutal than their fellow man doesn’t strike me as the wisest choice. The sad truth is that people will always be selfish and willing to take advantage of others.

And this is the crux of the matter. How do we deal with the problems of the alienation of labor and still deal effectively with the selfishness we find in human nature? The answer is public ownership.

Now we’ve discussed the issue of a Capitalist ignoring the plight of his workers even if he is (somehow) forced to meet with them on a regular basis, but what if we remove the element of private ownership? Suppose the factory is owned collectively by those operating it (and who better to run it than they)? Even if there are those there who, despite working alongside their fellow laborers- sharing the same burdens, the same rewards- still attempt to work solely for their own benefit, they’re not about to say “hey, we could be making more of this product/service if we work fourteen hours a day rather than ten!”. In a collective setting, the only way to benefit oneself is to benefit the whole- cooperation, not competition.

Imagine that the Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig hadn’t been owned by BP but by the workers of the rig. Considering that they’re the ones who will be the most affected by a spill or accident, would they pass up an inspection to ensure their place of work is safe for them? How would they benefit by cutting corners? The same goes for any field of work.

Now no Marxist is going to claim that public ownership will bring an end to all avoidable industrial accidents or similar disasters. What we can state for certain is this:

Public ownership is (1) a more just system, (2) a more democratic system, (3) will give the power to avoid accidents to those who have the greatest potential to be affected by such accidents, (4) will shift focus away from profit to the welfare of the workers and the quality of the product/service, and lastly (5) will be infinitely more effective than either private or government ownership (why should someone who’s never set foot in a factory make decisions on how to best run it?).

It might not be a perfect system, but the pros definitely outweigh the cons.


The Communist World

A few years ago, I was attempting to obtain a permit at a government organization that will not be named here, and after waiting in line for a good hour and a half I finally got my turn to take the test required. As I entered the testing room I was informed that I could have circumvented this entire process by mailing this office some paperwork earlier in the year. Now before I had the chance to inform the low-level civil servant in charge of the testing that I had been traveling and unable to send in the paperwork, he snorted and called me ‘stupid’.

Now I generally dislike being called that, but I had just waited in line for an hour and a half and all I wanted was to take the test and be done with it- chewing the guy out wouldn’t have gotten me out of there any faster. But more importantly than all that, I couldn’t help but pity the guy. He was in his late fifties, seriously overweight, in all likelihood suffering from a heart condition, and stuck- day in, day out- processing paperwork in a stuffy, crowded office.

I can’t help but feel that this wasn’t what he had planned on doing with his life.

Sure, there’s the off chance that when his pre-school teacher asked him as a child what he wanted to be when he grew up, he cheerfuly gurgled “I want to be a low-level civil servant doing a dull and repetitive job as I develop health issues while reeking of stale sweat and despair’, but I doubt this is what happened. And I can’t help but think to myself, maybe society could benefit more if this guy only processed paperwork every other Thursday, and spent the rest of the work week doing whatever he’s talented at. Maybe he’s brimming with raw, artistic talent- maybe he could be a concert musician who takes a couple days out of the month to process paperwork. Wouldn’t that be better not only for him but for all of us?

And then I think to myself, what if we applied that to everyone working a repetitive, dull, unskilled job? What if everyone took a turn filing papers, mixing cement, sweeper the streets, stacking boxes, or serving coffee? Wouldn’t thousands- no, millions of people suddenly be freed up to pursue what they were born to do- be it writing or teaching or studying medicine or astronomy or the like? Wouldn’t we be healthier, physically healthier as a society if we all did a share of manual labor? Wouldn’t we have a greater respect for each other if we understood what’s it’s like to scrub a mountain of dirty dishes or pick litter off the sides of the highways? The simple fact of the matter is that with everyone contributing, we would have a happier and more efficient society.

And this is what Communism is- the sharing of menial labor so that everyone can pursue the profession of their choosing. Classism, the separation and segregation of people based on wealth, falls to pieces. The need for an oppressed and exploited working class to support the luxuries of a decadent minority is gone with the creation of this new classless society. This, combined with the abolition of private property, creates a society free from the struggles between the haves and the have-nots- poverty and pointless excess become things of the past. In short- we have Marxism, a society of shared wealth, shared work, and a shared future.

And is it perfect? Of course not. People will always be people- greedy, xenophobic, deceitful, lazy, and irrational. There will always be crime, there will always be war, and there will always be corruption.

But hey- it still beats the system we have now.


Socialism vs Capitalism vs Communism (and a quick note about the tea-party)

According to some pundits the US is currently locked in a struggle between its so-called Capitalist, free-market heritage and the looming threat of Socialism. Keep in mind that the term ‘Socialism’, while once synonymous with ‘Communism’, is currently used to describe a country where the majority of property lies in the hands of the government. Now as you can see by simply looking at some of the policies being enacted by the current administration that the US isn’t moving towards Capitalism or Socialism. Property isn’t being privatized or nationalized to any major extent. What has happened is that the federal government has been increasing in size and power, leading some elements on the right (namely the “tea-party”) to begin making dire predictions of an oppressive Orwellian future.

Now before I start, I feel that I should comment a bit about the tea-party:

Now I don’t have a problem with people protesting big government. As a Communist, I’m as opposed to a powerful central government as much as the average member of the tea-party, perhaps even more so. The problem is that the tea-party isn’t protesting big government! Where was the tea-party when the Bush administration pushed through the Patriot Act? The simple reality of the tea-party is that it’s not about resisting big government, it’s about resisting Democrat big government (in the same way, many of those who protested the Patriot Act have failed to complain about the increases in Government power under Obama- yeah the rule applies to Democrats too).

Now back to the point.

Despite the typical, melodramatic slap-fight between the Democrat and Republican parties, it can’t be denied that every once in a great while, the issues of privatization versus regulation of the markets comes up. On one hand there are the Libertarians who state that government involvement in all areas of life should be minimized. The markets should be allowed to boom and crash of their own accord and government interference only exacerbates existing issues and prevents natural growth (an argument Adam Smith first came up with). On the other hand, there are Socialists and Progressives who point out that history has shown businesses to be corrupt and dangerous if not regulated.

It seems more and more that the public is seeing this debate as an either/or dilemma- free market Capitalism or government regulation?

The sad truth of the matter is that both options are equally awful. Consider this: if there’s no government regulation of business (or as anarcho-Capitalists and objectivists would have it, no government at all), what’s to stop the meat industry from selling dangerously unclean meat? What keeps the pharmaceutical industry from selling us untested cough medicine, or even flavored sewer water labeled “cough medicine”? It is true that history has shown us, time and again, businesses have only one goal in mind- profit. Child labor, slavery, dangerous working conditions, chemical dumping, pollution- what would the state of our world be in if there were no laws against these things? If there were no regulations or watchdogs?

At the same time, regulating the free market has serious side-effects as well. Corporations will do anything to get around labor laws or environmental regulations and the like, and the government will find itself forced to constantly increase the number of regulatory departments and their power and extent of jurisdiction. The result is an inevitably gargantuan, bureaucratic government. State capitalism- as the USSR has demonstrated- is inefficient and oppressive.

But despite what the proponents of free market Capitalism and regulated Capitalism would have you believe, it’s not an either/or situation! Communism advocates the abolition of both Capitalism and the state, offering instead a system based on public property and public choice.


Communsim, the Environment, and the BP Oil Spill Disaster

While the BP oil spill nothing short of an ecological tragedy, I can’t help feel a tiny bit grateful for it. Like any disaster, despite the overall harm, there’s still a lesson to be learned from it. In the case of the oil spill, the lesson is this:

Capitalism and Environmentalism mix about as well as oil and water.

As has been discussed many times before in this blog, Capitalism’s primary function is the acquisition of Capital– money. It’s not the greater good of humanity, it’s not the advancement of one’s nation, and it’s certainly not the defense of the planet. It’s about cold, hard cash- nothing else. Of course one could argue that there’s money to be made in advancement of one’s nation or the defense of the planet, but precious little compared to that of the simple exploitation of the earth.

Now this is not the first time BP has been implicated in faulty safety measures that have resulted in an oil spill. In 2006, in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, over a quarter million gallons of oil was spilled as a result of BP maintenance cost-cuts. Why cut maintenance costs? To increase profit of course. The higher the profit, the more the Capital– the entire point of Capitalism. So what if it’s dangerous to the local ecosystem? Capitalism is about profit- it’s about keeping the investors happy and the product(s) flying off the shelves. Now one might argue that people want to buy from eco-friendly companies (the entire issue of participatory economics will be dealt with in another post), but in general the trick is simply not getting caught damaging the environment. Really all the same principles behind the exploitation of the laborer apply to the exploitation of the earth. Making sure one’s equipment is up-to-date and functioning safely is costly, you want higher profits, cut back on clean waste disposal for cheap, (and almost inevitably) environmentally damaging) options. Rather than worry about the long-term implications of the effects of one of your products (herbicides, let’s say), make sure people just focus on the fact that it kills weeds in seconds rather than the fact that it does serious damage to the soil. As I’ve said before, it’s about the money, not the potential damage.

Now I’m not trying to argue that every product on the shelves right now has been made in such a way to maximize profits at the expense of environmental welfare. I’m pointing out that the potential is there, that Capitalists have no real reason to attempt to make their products environmentally safe (other than higher profit, of course), and that there are many, many instances of this happening- the BP oil spills being prime examples.

A strong-counter argument to this would be that, to an extent, the same rationale of “profit-before-environment” can be applied to a situation where a factor/mine/rig/etc. is owned by the local public (a major tenet of Communism), rather than a handful of individuals (the foundation of Capitalism). Sure, if the public living in and around the Bay of Mexico owned and operated the rig themselves, there’d still probably be the temptation to cut costs/manpower/time in ensuring the rig is environmentally safe, but if there was an oil spill as a result, the local communities controlling the rig would be the ones chiefly affected by the disaster and would have no one to blame but themselves. But instead of this fair and just ‘you-do-it-you-clean-it-up’ system, we have Capitalism. A man or company can own a rig on the other side of the world, profit off it, and never have to worry about waking up to dead seagulls and black tar in their yards. Now you can call me idealistic, but I can’t help but feel it a bit unjust that someone can be responsible for a major ecological, economic, and sociological disaster and never have to deal with the consequences. The reason I said “there’d still probably be the temptation to cut costs” earlier on was because one tends to have a differently mentality when dealing with something like this. Imagine you’ve been given the job of keeping bears off of an acre of land hundreds, no- thousands, of miles away. Chances are you’re going to be a lot less careful about keeping bears away than if you actually had to live on that acre and would be directly affected. Marx talks quite a bit about the estrangement of labor, but he mentions the estrangement of property as well.

Let’s face the facts. Capitalism is not going to solve our environmental problems (and even if you’re among the few who don’t believe in global warming, you have to acknowledge we’ve got some serious pollution and deforestation issues), and in all likelihood, Capitalism and Environmentalism are going to be at odds. The way the Communists see it, we can’t live without the environment- we’re more than happy to live without Capitalism!


Anarchism and Communsim

Communism is often depicted as a political system in which a faceless, oppressive state exerts almost unlimited control over the lives of the impoverished citizens. This of course isn’t even remotely close the society Marx (and other founders of Communism) called for or the sociopolitical-economic system Communists strive for. Such depictions are a result of generalizing Communism as a whole based on the actions of a certain group (imagine claiming Christianity calls for the ruthless extermination of those of differing religious views based on the participants of the Spanish Inquisition or crusades).

In much the same way Anarchism is commonly considered to be a political system (or lack thereof) in which riots take place in the streets, looters run free, and so forth. In reality Anarchy is a sociopolitical-economic system that attempts to do away with the concept of rulers and the state as a whole. The vilification of Anarchy is a result of propaganda that depicted Anarchists as dangerous maniacs. In reality, both Communism and Anarchism call for similar goals, the creation of a classless, stateless society based around the concepts of public property and community organization. In fact, during the mid 1800s, the terms “Communist” and “Anarchist” were interchangeable! Until 1872 Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin (the leading figures of Communism and Anarchism respectively) worked together.

So what went wrong?

The Communist/Anarchist split occurred as a result of differences in the opinion of which was the greater enemy, Capitalism or the state. The Anarchists argued that the primary goal of the revolution ought to be the abolition of the state, as opposed to the Communist argument that Capitalism was the true oppressor. Now these points of view were (and remain to be) by no means mutually exclusive. Anarchism, like Communism, calls for the institution of private property and community organization- just look at Russian Anarchist Peter Kropotkin who, in essay Economic Views of Anarchism wrote “…The Capitalist exploitation of labor, we must work for its abolition.” Communism, like Anarchism, calls for the abolition of the state- just look at Marx’s essay The Origin of Family, Private Property, and the State in which he claims “…The state… becomes also the politically dominant class, and thus acquires new means of holding down and exploiting the oppressed class.”

So what’s the big difference?

Well the problem that Baukin and his followers saw with Marx’s theory was that focusing on the abolition of Capitalism may lead to the establishment of a new state in which the leaders of the revolution simply replace the overthrown state. Marx and the communists took issue with the fact that focusing on the abolition of the state would simply allow the wealthy and ruling classes to fill the void the state had left.

So who’s right, the Anarchists or the Communists?

Interestingly enough both sides’ concerns have been proven to have equal merit. Without abolishing the state, the Russian revolution quickly devolved into state-capitalism (what we would today call “Socialism”). Without abolishing private property, Capitalism, and the class system, abolishing the state is pointless- Capitalist oppression remains and may even be strengthened by the lack of a regulatory system.

So what it really comes down to isn’t a question of who’s right and who’s wrong. The Communist/Anarchist split shouldn’t be an either/or choice. Both sides are struggling for the same goal and both sides agree that both Capitalism and the state should be wiped out (though there different opinions about which to target first). Should this be something worth bickering over? Absolutely not. This is an opportunity to ensure that the mistakes of early Communist and Anarchist revolutions are not repeated. We worked together at the Paris Commune, we can work together today.

Long live the revolution.


The Political Spectrum

It seems that today whenever a right-wing or conservative pundit wishes to criticize the left they use the buzz word “Socialist”. Socialism is, of course, associated with big government and extensive (and invasive) government control of the general public (à la George Orwell’s 1984). Now the issue of simply calling something one doesn’t like about the political left “Socialist” (whether or not said something is actually Socialist or not) is that people have a basic misunderstanding of the socio-politico-economic spectrum. Just take this video by conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck, for example.

As you can see in the opening of the video, there’s a common misconception about the relationship between Capitalism, Socialism, and Communism. Despite the fact that Communism is often portrayed as a more authoritarian version of Socialism, the reality of the situation is that Communism is as detached from Socialism as it is from Capitalism. While both Socialism and Communism reject the Capitalist tenet of private property, Socialism espouses the concept of state property and Communism calls for the institution of public property. Allow me to illustrate.

In a Capitalist world everything is owned privately. “Item X” belongs to you and only you and cannot be taken away from you unless you give it away or trade for something better (though considering the purpose of Capitalism is to get as much “Item X” as possible, it isn’t very likely that you’d just hand it off). In a Socialist world everything would be owned by the state. “Item X” does not belong to you but to the government and only the government and how much you get of it is purely at the whim of the politicians. In a Communist world nothing belongs to anybody (or rather, everything belongs to everybody). “Item X” belongs to you as much as it does to your neighbors and must therefore be shared equally.

Now to this one might argue that while Socialism may advocate state property and Communism may demand public property, since both wish to bring about massive government control the results are the same. Again, the issue with reducing the political spectrum to a linear graph is that political control and economic control simply aren’t the same thing. You can have massive government and state property (Socialism) or massive government and Capitalism (Fascism) or no state control and Capitalism (Objectivism/Libertarianism/Anarcho-Capitalism/etc.) or not state control and public property (Communism/Anarchism/Anarcho-Communism/etc.) or anything in between.

In short, while making the connection between Socialism and Communism is a common mistake, it has be understood that it’s a mistake nonetheless, and only serves in propagating a false understanding not only of Socialism and Communism, but of Capitalism as well.


This Land is Your Land…

There’s an old Native American proverb which states “We do not inherit the land from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” What this means is that land doesn’t belong to any one person, but rather land exists for all people. The concept of land-ownership among the Native Americans existed solely in a territorial sense. That area belongs to (or rather, is being used by) that group, this land is being used by us, and so on. Indeed, this concept is almost universal to all hunter-gatherer, pastoral, nomadic, and horticulturalist people groups.

This all contrasts very sharply with our modern, Capitalist belief in private property- especially in regards to land. For some odd reason, humans enjoy being able to state “this land is my land, it sure aint your land”. We take pride in our ability to put up fences, barbed wire, and “no trespassing” signs.

Now this is a concept I have difficulty grasping. We somehow imagine that we can divide the world up into little plots of land, separate them by borders, and claim that we own them. How on earth (yes, that’s a pun) can we do this? We don’t own land, the land owns us! To pretend that everything within points ABCD is ours and ours alone is ridiculous. Now if we created the land, then the concept might have some (and only some) weight to it. The fact of the matter is, however, that the land was here millions of years before some person got it into his head that these twenty square acres belonged to him and no one else. Yet the vast majority of our planet is sliced up into neat parcels of land which most of the time aren’t even being utilized by the so-called “owner”. If he isn’t living on it, then why shouldn’t you be able to enjoy it? Have angels descended from the heavens and proclaimed that by divine mandate, this mountain exists solely for the use and pleasure of a single man? No. All that happened was one man decided that these twenty-or-so square acres were going to belong to him and that if anyone disagreed, he would fight them.

So how is that right? Carving out a stretch of land by simple superior firepower (which almost always eventually translates into legal justification) for sole purpose of satiating greed (which incidentally, isn’t satiable) – is that ethical? No matter what your politics, you have to come around the belief that this land is as much yours as it is mine. This land was made for you and me!