Ah, the sea of red that must be flooding your imagination: images of red flags intercepted by golden stars, shining hammers, crossing sickles, mixed in with flashes of Mao, Stalin, Che, Castro, bread queues and cold wars. Communism has become a hugely loaded word, most widely associated with political ideologies and regimes that we (UK, Europe, US and beyond) deem to be communist countries of Russia, China and Cuba.
Yet, as Anthropologist David Graeber points out in his recent book Debt: The First 5,000 years*, even the leaders and ruling parties of these nations never actually called their arrangements communist. Rather, they see themselves as socialist, with communism representing a distant, utopian, stateless ideal.
This distinction is crucial as the word “communism”‘s bad rap is perhaps underserved and if we really look at our lives, cultures and societies, we begin to realise that, in fact, communism is everywhere. It can be seen to be the basis of all human relations and systems of being, including capitalism itself.
As just mentioned, communism, the way most of us see it, is in fact more accurately described as socialism, that is: a system where goods are owned by the state or the public and the created pool of wealth is redistributed equally to everyone. Compare that to capitalism, which is a system where goods are produced socially (i.e. it takes the work of hundreds, thousands or even millions of people to produce the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the daily necessities of our lives), but which are appropriated and owned privately by individuals; moreover, where everyone works for his own individual wealth. Whereas capitalism is founded on the belief that competition brings out the best in people, socialism, on the other hand, believes that cooperation is the best way for people to coexist.
So if we stop to redefine communism away from its ladenpolitical economy definition of essentially an ideology or a tried and failed utopian, state directed socialist society, then what does it mean? Let’s take David Graeber’s definition** of communism as:
“Any human relationship that operates on the principles of ’from each [giving] according to their abilities, to each [receiving] according to their needs’”.
Communism is thus a concept not centred on property rights (who owns what and how), but a way of conducting affairs. Whether we like to admit it or not, this principle exists to some degree in every society*** and even if two people interact in this way, then communism can be said to be present. This is Dr Graeber’s argument as a challenge to the economics view of human relations as primarily rooted in exchange (economic or otherwise).
Take family life, for instance. Although much of a child’s life is rather authoritarianly directed by her parents, bringing a family up is very much a communistic activity. Parents generally would not pitch their kids against each other in competition for survival, but allow them to develop their skills wherever they lie and provide them what they need to get there (food, shelter, clothing). Nor do parents compete with their kids for resources or expect all their investments to be paid back.
In the same light, schools and education systems, in principle, work best when they are very communistic; that is pay attention to each child’s abilities and provide them with whatever they will need to realise those abilities in a classroom setting.
More and more, communistic relations of cooperation and collaboration (in line with needs and abilities) are even seen as the way to drive success in partnering organisations, whether they be private corporations in one off partnerships or non-profit organisations in joint ventures for good; having different organisations bring their unique skills, abilities or capacities to collaborative projects and using the resources they need to actualise them being the main point.
In addition it can be said that communistic principles form the very foundations of well functioning businesses themselves. That is, in a work setting, rarely would bosses expect results beyond the capabilities of individual workers and they will always strive to provide them with the tools they need to achieve maximum results. Meanwhile, everyone’s contribution to a final work project is not made on the basis of presumed gain and exchange:
“If someone fixing a broken water pipe says, ‘Hand me the wrench’, his coworker will not, generally speaking, say, “And what do I get for it?”, that is if hey actually want it to be fixed. ”This is true even if they happened to be employed by Bechtel or Citigroup”, wrote Graeber in an essay in his 2008 book Revolutions in Reverse.
The reason for all this? According to Dr Graeber in Debt, simple efficiency:
[Corporations] apply the principles of communism because it’s the only thing that really works. The reason is simple efficiency (ironically enough, considering the conventional wisdom that ‘communism just doesn’t work’): if you really care about getting something done, the most efficient way to go about it is obviously to allocate tasks by ability and give people whatever they need to do them”.
He further argues that a sort of baseline communism**** underpins all human relations, whether they are mediated through exchange (capitalist-market or otherwise) or not:
“This is why in the immediate wake of great disasters—a flood, a blackout, a revolution or economic collapse—people tend to behave the same way, reverting to a kind of rough-and-ready communism. Hierarchies, markets and the like become luxuries that no one can really afford. Anyone who has lived through such a moment can speak to the way strangers become sisters and brothers, and human society itself seems to be reborn.”
In essence, you know that you are in a communistic situation when no one is keeping score, as they would in a situation of exchange (e.g. keeping track of who owes what to whom), and, moreover, when it would seem ridiculous to be doing so. This goes for much of the interaction between family, friends and colleagues, and between strangers in situations of need:
“We are not just talking about cooperation. Communism is the foundation of all human sociability. It makes society possible”.
Looking at it this way begs the question: is it me or is communism everywhere? Perhaps it is time to give the term, defined as a process of human interaction and not an ideology or a system of governing a country’s resources, a bit of credit.