Non-Egalitarian Communism (Libertarians Believe in Too Much Government, Part II)

"Home Brews" by J. Mark Dodd on Flickr.

“Home Brews” by J. Mark Dodd on Flickr.

Or, “not-necessarily-egalitarian communism,” perhaps. Basically, I hate to say it, but the hipsters making home brews and artisinal pickles and knitting socks and whatnot have a lot of it right.

Let me explain/thoroughly confuse the matter.

Lots of people who comment on communism – both those who criticize and those who praise, in my experience – and its practicability or lack thereof focus, understandably, on the famous slogan from the Critique of the Gotha Programme:

From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!

In a perfect world, it would say “his or her” or “hir,” but, well, it’s not a perfect world.

I can see why there’s a focus on this, but it’s deeply problematic for understanding the communist argument, I think. And especially problematic for understanding what challenge communist and socialist ideas pose in the current US context.

Focusing excessively on this slogan distorts the conversation because it puts our emphasis on consumption. It makes it sound (to many) as if the communist utopia is defined by the second clause, as a world where everyone can have whatever they want. This raises obvious questions about how we secure the first clause – why will I work if I can get everything I want (or at least everything I need) by sitting on my butt all day?

But that concern reflects a concept of human good that is, I think, alien to Marx, and to most who find his ideas attractive. In particular, it assumes that work is essentially onerous, and so to be avoided whenever possible.  Marx had a different perspective, attested to by something he says just before the more famous quote. He claims that the slogan can only be implemented “after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want.”

In a nutshell, the argument is that each will contribute “according to his/her abilities” not in the hope of some further reward, but just for the sake of making the contribution. In fact, work that one does not see the point of is characteristic of alienated labor, which Marxists hope will disappear in a well-organized society. In other words, we shirk when we don’t see the point of what we’re doing.

Lots of folks will claim evidence of “human nature” on the side of the view that all we want to do is selfishly consume. But the evidence strikes me as sketchy in the extreme.

First, there’s just the anecdotal. What are your hobbies? Me, I’m sitting here writing a blog post when I take breaks from my paid work. I’m not getting paid for it. All I get to “consume” out of it is the satisfaction of creating something that seems halfway worthwhile. I bet you have similar hobbies. Maybe you make model airplanes, or get really good at a sport, or cook, or garden, or prep each year for NaNoWriMo. Even seemingly “passive” activities, like playing video games and whatnot, are often enjoyable because they provide ersatz accomplishment.  You’re not playing the guitar, or shooting terrorists, or growing food, but it’s almost like that. I mean, this is the answer to the seeming paradox of games like FarmVille – why would someone spend their free time doing a simulation of repetitive labor? Because at least it’s repetitive labor that gives you a sense of creating something, and so many people seem to be desperate for that in their real lives.

As shocking as this sounds, a whole lot of the “guy who failed all of his classes because he was playing WoW all the time” horror stories are really just about a dude who simply didn’t like his classes very much. This was never some dystopian mind control scheme by Blizzard. The games just filled a void. 

In fact, part of the distortion of the whole consumption-focus might be that it’s not at all clear that there’s a such thing as pleasurable consumption on its own. Rather, I think Aristotle got it right – pleasure is part of an activity which develops or exemplifies a human excellence (1174a15-1176a30/X 4-5).  Or, another way to put it, we always take pleasure in production, not consumption – things that seem like consumption (just listening to music, say) are really a kind of production (refinement of our appreciation of music) and treating them as a separate category distorts and degrades them.*

Practical upshot: if we think of consumption as its own thing, we’re going to get human nature very wrong. We’re going to look at the fact that people need certain kinds of material goods to keep their bodies working, and see increasing material goods as a means, rather than an end. We’re going to give people only some kinds of means of production: mp3s and not music education. We’re going to fetishize the product rather than the production: why would anyone want to tell stories around a campfire when the plots are likely to be derivative re-hashes of great works?

It’s not that what we call “consumption” is not production at all – it’s just that it’s a very thin slice of it. But we have a society in which is very easy to mistake that part of pleasure for the whole, and then end up unsatisfied. And it leads to two mistaken ideas about the economy. The first is that people will only produce if you give them the means to consume as an incentive. So, “human nature” means that we have to have gross material inequality. Bzzt. Human nature may well be – probably is – at least moderately self-centered and pleasure-seeking. But it’s a distortion of a world of alienated labor to think that being selfish means seeking only consumption. The pleasures of creating, including creating things that are of value to others because they can build their own creations on them, are very real and powerful.

The second is that, even when we try to help out the less fortunate, we risk conceiving our help very narrowly. Consumption is the slice of production that requires us, the powerful, to cede mostly some food and cheap plastic physical objects, but very little in terms of freedom, control, and respect. It’s a lot easier for me to say, “here’s $10, go buy some mp3s” than it is to say, “let’s democratize this workplace so you get a say in what kinds of things we produce instead of just which products you’re going to buy.”

It’s this misunderstanding that, e.g., leads Yglesias to grossly misunderstand class warfare.** In a nutshell, Yglesias argues that it’s class warfare when Obama wants to redistribute some income towards the poor and the GOP wants to redistribute some income towards the wealthy. Sure, if you’re poor, and those are your only two choices, Team Obama.

But that’s not class war. Maybe it’s an intra-class war, between two factions with different ideas of how to keep control. But the basic power structures remain the same: the means of production are privately owned and subject to more or less unlimited accumulation, concentrating decisions about what kinds of production are to be undertaken in the hands of a relatively small elite. We do call internecine fights among the folks who control those things “class war,” but it’s about as meaningful to do so as if we looked at the African theatre of World War I and called it “decolonization.”

This is where, I think, people tend to get misled by Marx’ slogan. “Communists want to take your hard-earned consumption and give it to the lazy!” That sounds horrible, and that’s how it sounds if you think of a) the point of work to be to gain the means of consumption and b) communism as basically about changing who gets the means of consumption.

But it’s not. In principle, I think, we might have a non-egalitarian communism. What’s central to communism is not the pattern of distribution of consumption, that very narrow kind of human activity going under the name. Rather, what’s central is that decisions about how to deploy the various material necessities for production available to a society are made in a way that involves broad social participation.***

It could be, that if we were all getting together as a society (or a syndicate, or whatever), we would decide to distribute various physical products in an inegalitarian way. Nothing would stop someone from saying, “look, I don’t want any of this stuff, let’s give it to that Bill Gates guy.”

An egalitarian or needs-based (let’s bracket arguments about whether they’re different) way of distributing physical goods isn’t, conceptually speaking, the only way that a social conversation about how to use the means of production might go. But I think Marx is led to his slogan because he thinks we would be stupid to have it go any other way.

If everyone was making the decision together, why would we give someone more power over decisions of what we should produce when he didn’t work any harder than anyone else? If we didn’t see ourselves as in competition for the only kind of production/consumption we were allowed, why would we, as human beings, decide to let someone starve or go without medical attention or dignity, just so we could produce things we don’t even care about very much? I think Marx is optimistic enough to think that we wouldn’t. If we were freed from the antisocial and stunted pursuit of “consumption” by being allowed to be full partners in production, we wouldn’t have to give according to our abilities and take only according to our needs, but we would.****

It’s only a combination of the (maybe true) thought that human nature is eternally somewhat self-centered with the (completely false) thought that self-interest consists in maximum consumption that makes our current way of doing things look free, and something like libertarianism look like an increase in “freedom.” That’s a swindle – the current system employs huge resources on one side in a class war (that’s largely triumphant), securing power in the hands of a pretty small elite and giving them unlimited rights to perpetuate that power. Pretending that more “freedom” lies on the side of your relatively powerless consumption being more determined by your individual worth to those who control the means of production (or, for that matter, lying on the side of your relatively powerless share being a more equal slice and less dependent on that individual worth) and that there’s a big fight over it hides how limited much freedom actually is.



* This may be related to Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “desiring-production,” but I’m not sure I fully understand that, so don’t take my word for it.

** Yglesias, if he gave two shits about what I thought, would probably (sincerely) say something like, “it was kind of a joke, dude.” But I’m not inclined to let him entirely off the hook – he seems to basically have liberal egalitarian intuitions, but be under the impression that you can satisfy them by post hoc redistribution by a welfare state. But Yglesias was a philosophy major, and so he should know that Rawls, father of contemporary liberal egalitarian philosophical thought, realized that laissez-faire capitalism was incompatible with justice, no matter how much redistribution you do after the fact.

*** State vs. non-state communism/socialism arguments, it seems to me, start here. The question is basically whether there could be anything recognizable as a state that reflected broad social participation or not.

**** He’s also maybe sneaky. What’s a need? Some are obvious, but I think he’s smart enough to realize that once everyone’s belly is full and nakedness covered, what you “need” is going to be defined in terms of the social system of value you participate in and help create. The liberties of the ancients and the liberties of the moderns have to be integrated all the way to the base of the system. Or, if that’s impossible, we’ve got a big problem that we need to face head-on instead of pretending it away.

Varieties of Inequality

I can think of at least six kinds of inequality:

Clothes are seen hanging outside a bus which has been converted into a dwelling for Lu Changshan and his wife near newly-constructed residential buildings in Hefei, Anhui province in China on November 12, 2012 (Jianan Lu/Courtesy Reuters).

Hefei, Anhui province in China  (Photo by Jianan Lu.)

  1. Inequality of income: different people receive different wages, either for different jobs or for the same job, as profits from capital investments, or as government subsidies, transfer payments, or private charity.
  2. Inequality of consumption: different people consume different products (i.e. the generic widget) in differing amounts and of varying quality. Some people have cell phones, computers, and tablet computers; some have just a cell phone; some people own no electronics. Some people have two homes, some are homeless, etc.
  3. Inequality of liberty: some people are subjected to more threats and interference than others. Some people can break the law, for instance by using illegal drugs, without consequence, while others are imprisoned and subjected to the whims and demands of institutional forces and individuals with strength or authority.
  4. Inequality of security: some people live more precarious lives than others. Some people are systematically subject to more frequent risks of loss, or have less assistance or fewer resources to fall back on should things go badly.
  5. Inequality of status: some people get more respect than others. Some people are treated with disdain and denied the prerequisites of basic human dignity. Some people are ignored and invisible, while others get more attention than they want from paparazzi and news media.
  6. Inequality of capabilities: some people have more beings and doings than others. Rather than more widgets and gadgets, some people have better access to the things that make a life go well: work, play, love, health, safety, an opportunity to be heard and make a difference, etc.

Now, potentially all of these inequalities might be troublesome, but when I think about political economy, I tend to think that inequalities grow in importance (and injustice) as they move away from nominal measures like “income” and towards real measures like liberty, security, status, and ultimately capabilities. Of course, the varieties of inequality are interrelated, but not always in a clear way. For instance, some people have high incomes but low security, like military contractors, some fishermen, and oil rig roughnecks who can all make six figure salaries by taking on inordinate risk of death or crippling injury. A wealthy person suffering from crippling depression might be consumption-rich but capability-poor. And we’ve probably all met or worked with angry low-level bureaucrats whose low status is combined with high liberty and security, which allows them to act capriciously and lazily without consequences.

In the famous aphorism of the “rising tide which lifts all boats,” John F. Kennedy suggested that it was possible that as the US progresses, the rich, middle-class, and poor states might all be better off in absolute terms even if they maintained their respective places. Subsequent use of the aphorism has generally added “even if they do not improve equally.” In the “rising tide” case championed by Kennedy, “relative” inequality would increase as the gap between rich and poor increased, while “absolute” inequality (i.e. poverty) decreased, as the poor became wealthier. But this suggests a seventh kind of inequality:

7. Inequality of growth: when a company or a country grows, some people get a larger share of the growth than others, either as a share of income, consumption, status, liberty, capabilities, or security.

Americans currently confront a situation domestically where the rich have made disproportionate gains in income and consumption compared to other classes, while the very poor experience severe losses in every category due to absurdly high rates of incarceration, lost life expectancy, increaased labor contingency, loss of meaningful participation in the political process, and many other factors. Yet while this inequality grows domestically, other inequalities are shrinking: Africa is growing again, and the the number of children who die each day from easily-treated poverty-related diseases has shrunk to half what it was a decade earlier. Some of the same factors that increased relative domestic inequality have reduced absolute global poverty. So this suggests that there are (at least) three different ways to measure inequality:

  1. The scope of the inequality: there is a difference between local inequalities and global inequalities, and on some measures and inequalities (for instance, status) the local matters more than the global, while sometimes it’s the domination or colonization of one place or group  by another that creates the problematic element in inequality.
  2. Inequality over time: for most of the world, each generation has been able to boast improved lives over the generation before. But there are times and places when this is not the case, and it may well not be the case in the future.
  3. Relative Inequality v. Absolute Poverty: Another important issue is that inequalities can be measured in relative or absolute terms: the “relative” measure is based on the difference between the most-advantaged and least-advantaged, or in some metrics between the extremes and the median. The “absolute” measure focuses on the actual levels of income, consumption, security, liberty, etc. which can rise independently or orthogonally to the difference between the best and worst.

In the literature, the last kind of inequality is often just referred to as “relative v. absolute inequality” but what really ought to concern us is when folks at the bottom face profound and multiple disadvantages. So when I think in terms of absolutes, here, I think we generally share the Rawlsian maximin intuition that we should confront and work to raise whatever the lowest-level of experience is, the floor or “bottom” that has become known as the situation of the “least-advantaged group.”

Civil-rights-leaders-want-Obama-to-talk-more-about-racial-inequalityAs for temporal and spatial inequalities, these are difficult issues indeed. Certainly there are Chinese cities where the environmental degradation is so bad that previous eras of lower consumption were actually better off; much the same may be true of European and American cities during our industrial growth spurts. We can think of the the inequality of growth as a problem that is primarily measured in terms of differences over time, but we also have to confront the profound differences between the growth levels in the US, Europe, and Japan, and the growth levels in Africa, South America, and Asia. There is growing confidence that these differences must be laid at the feet of poor institutional designs (hampered by colonial meddling) and cannot simply be explained by some form of exploitative expropriation of the developing world by the developed world.

There are broad measurement and aggregation problems with the more important kinds of inequality: it’s much harder to figure out how capabilities increase and decrease over time and populations than it is to measure income and consumption, even though measuring those is a very hard problem all on its own. Still, some theme have emerged. While there are some theorists who would not be ready to agree to the hierarchy of inequalities I’ve listed above, many justifications for libertarianism and classical liberalism rest on the assumption that the policies they advocate are best-able to achieve the maximization of the most important capabilities, securities, and liberties that I mention. After the work of Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, there may well be disagreements about measurements and priorities, but there really are fewer folks who doggedly hold to the view that consumption alone is the key to the good life and ought to be maximized. Strangely, even as more people pay lip service to pluralism, there is more and more agreement on matters of fundamental metaethical goals. I take that to be a good sign.

But various versions of the problem of inequality that circulate strike me as potentially mistaken. For instance, it’s true that, in terms of wealth and income, the very rich lost more in absolute terms than the very poor: individual investors lost billions of dollars. But they did not lose a corresponding amount of consumption, security, status, or capability. Those losses play an important role in suggesting that the very rich were as surprised as the middle-class and poor by the structural problems in the shadow banking system and mortgage-market, however: after all, you expect a fraud or a crook to have enriched himself, not immiserated himself. On the other hand, differential inequalities of growth and security suggest that a very rich investor might be willing to make a bet that will double or halve her income even if it will do the same thing the very poor for simply because of the way one calculates gains and losses when you are very rich. (This goes back to Charles Karelis’s work on the differential rationality of wealth and poverty.)