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Sunday, May 13, 2012
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I read an interesting piece regarding Communism, Occupy Wall Street and Dave Graeber recently on the American Enterprise Institute web site (of all things). You probably know that the AEI is a think-tank with a right-wing political and philosophical bias. So, you would guess that this article, written by political writer Lee Harris, would not be not very positive and enthusiastic about its subject matter. And you would be correct, more or less.

But on the “lesser” side of your correctness (the politically correct side?), Mr. Harris gives Professor Graeber credit for his concept of “natural communism” (the phrase taken from Mr. Harris’s statement that “communism in short was natural to us”) . To back up for just a moment, David Graeber is an academian and writer who was involved in the formation of the Occupy movement and is credited for giving it a catchy motto: “we are the 99 percent”. As to natural communism, Graeber’s writings assert that in all human societies, even the highly greed-driven American landscape of the 21st Century, there is a natural tendency for people to act communally (or “communist”). In other words, not everything in our collective live is about barter and payment; not everything is subject to the market economy. (Although a recent article in the Atlantic laments that too many things today are considered “for sale” these days and available only to those who can pay the price. Things such as the right to talk to your doctor when you need to, and the duty of grammar school students to do their reading, were once thought of as an unspoken right or obligation. They were not put up for auction — but now they are).

Even in today’s America, though, people still help strangers in need without thought of repayment. People still give up their time to join school boards or volunteer at a local hospital (yes, there is some psychic reward for this, but much of that reward stems from an inner notion of communal obligation, an acceptance of the responsibilities of maintaining a strong community). People will be late to a dinner party so as to stop and help a lost traveler. Harris’ favorite example is the little box near some cash registers saying “give a penny, take a penny”. Oh, the irony of it all — the cash register is the high altar of the capitalist market system, and yet directly in its shadow lurks a form of “give according to your abilities, take according to your needs”. Yes, communism is alive and well, right here in America! At least on the penny level.

Harris feels that this form of communism is real, not just a curious illusion. But like a flower growing in the wild, it cannot be taken home and transplanted. I.e., whenever a political system or social movement has tried to “bottle” the natural communist sympathies of humans so as to create a new and encompassing order out based upon them, it kills that which it intends to promote. Harris’s prime examples are Bolshevism in the Russian Revolution and the Jacobins in the French.

Religious organizations have had somewhat greater success in creating communist-like communities (e.g. Catholic and Buddhist monastic communities and religious orders; interestingly, Graeber takes a positive view of religion’s role in promoting a more communist world). But even those religious communities generally resort to bureaucratic rigidity and can only be tolerated for more than a year by a small portion of the population. Many are called to the monasteries and convents, but ultimately only a few choose to stay. As such, it is not surprising that throughout history, whenever a movement wished to impose communistic theories on the population at large, it ultimately resorted to force and violence.

As such, Harris sees some danger signs in the current Occupy movement, which expresses a lot of communistic sentiment even though it has not put forth a plan to implement a new world order. Despite the lack of strong leadership and a clear plan, some people have been inspired by the idealistic visions promoted by the Occupiers as to commit violence against the non-enlightened., e.g. incidents in Cleveland and Oakland. So far that violence has been relatively petty, confined to breaking windows and other property damage; and it is arguable how closely tied the most egregious perpetrators were with the movement (although they all certainly did have some connections and interests in it). Still, violence doesn’t encourage the average man or woman on the street to think selflessly about the commonweal. Violence has a way of focusing all of one’s concern on self-preservation, and not on group sharing. Violence is one way that the “revolutionaries” kill the spirit of natural communism, while ironically trying to make it blossom in all walks and aspects of our lives.

Another thing that corrupts natural communism is the freeloader. The natural human tendency to take advantage of an offer of free help, without making any attempt to return that favor when able, is expected up to a point. But when freeloading becomes rampant, the enthusiasm on the part of others to provide according to their means takes a nosedive. When the revolutionists raise the stakes and make the roof over one’s head and one’s next meal subject to what the group decides, people go on high-alert for any signs of cheating. Big-time communism (i.e., encompassing all forms of living and production, as was tried in Soviet Russia) becomes inherently unstable, and requires lots of force to make it work. Or make it appear to work, anyway. People stop trusting the enforcers of the communist vision and become freeloaders in mass. Before long you have a world of enforcers and freeloaders — devoid of any true communists!

(Harris argues that the Occupiers themselves are freeloaders, as they have incurred costs on the part of local governments who have to protect them and clean up after them; and such costs will ultimately be borne by the taxpaying public, not by the kids in the parks.)

Professor Graeber claims that Occupy Wall Street and other grassroots movements are “the opening salvo in a wave of negotiations over the dissolution of the American Empire.” Somehow, I don’t think this will be the case. I’m not even confident that Barack Obama will be re-elected in November (which would reflect a small step to ‘soften’ the American Empire, but not to dissolve it). About the best that can be hoped for, IMHO, would be to recognize and acknowledge the “natural communism” in the American public, and do whatever possible to foster and extend it, without snuffing it out in its frailty. For the most part, our communal instincts don’t go too far beyond our own families and local communities. We still have trouble transcending boundaries of nation, gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation (although America clearly has made progress in this regard over the past 50 years; e.g., in 1960, no one would have dared to speak in public about homosexual marriage, and they rarely spoke favorably of inter-racial marriage either).

Thus, given all the changes and uncertainties in the modern economy, many people have gone backwards with respect to acquiescing to communal obligations such as paying taxes and supporting governmental operations (and providing the interest and oversight needed when government goes astray into inefficiency and corruption, as any human organization sometimes does — just ask the big Wall Street banks and financial firms, maybe even JP Morgan with its recent $2 billion bad bet).

I took a little walk today and saw some street signs for the local city council races, where one candidate’s motto is “Stop Taxes”. Stop taxes, and thus stop government — I don’t think that would be a pretty sight. I think that we need a ‘new communism’ going back to the natural communism of old, where people recognized the need for geopolitical leadership and action carried out through a form of organization supported by contributions from the public — i.e., government. This new communism from the past also asserts the citizens’ responsibility to stay interested in what government is doing with its money, and to complain and demand reform when it isn’t governing very well. That’s a lot harder than joining the modern Tea Party and demanding that all government and taxes be thrown into the waters. But a watchful acceptance of government and taxes was once part of the duty of being an American, and it should become such a duty again — in keeping with our natural communist instincts!

I wish that David Graeber and the Occupy movement would set their sights on such a difficult but practical goal, and not babble on about how “another world is possible”. Hey people! How about trying to make the present world work as it should, despite an environment that is changing and spinning in all sorts of new and different ways? Perhaps you could really change the world for the better under such a scenario.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:33 pm      
 
 


  1. Jim, Suffice it to say, I agree with you almost totally on all of this. I think of back in the 16th century it was most the “chuch” who did all the things we today call “social justice” issues. Then Henry VIII came along, destroyed all the churches, took the money for himself, and there was nobody left to help the poor at that time. Nowadays it’s the gov’t (and some organizations affiliated with churches and some just plain non-profits) who take over the social justice problems in society.

    I wonder about the people today. They are getting somewhat like they think the world has already ended and they must survive for themselves; step on everybody else. It becomes every man/woman for him/herself. Truly a nonsensical position as cooperation is basically much more useful for oneself and others.

    Already yesterday we had some problems with those who are protesting the upcoming meeting of the nations here in Chicago. It was easy to see that some of a group, who I hear are called the “Black Blockers”, (they dress in all black) were simply destroying things for the “fun” of destroying them. It’s really pitiful to see. What kind of sense does that make? It seems that this group has taken over the genuine protestors and are using them for their own ends. It’s heartsickening. And for me to say something like that is not the usual kind of thing I say. I tend to stand with those who want to peacefully protest and stand for social justice. It’s obvious some of these individuals are NOT working for social justice; it’s difficult to say what they might actually be working for, if anything.

    I agree with you that “stopping taxes” is ridiculous. But I do think that it is only fair that everybody pay their share–not that those who can less afford pay more than those who definitely belong to the group one might call the “haves”.

    It amazes me that so many of these protest groups have never learned from Ghandi and Martin Luther King–that the only true way to achieve real social justice is through non-violence. Violence gets nobody anywhere.

    I am beginning to wonder if the Occupy Movement started out with good intentions but, not having a real, solid goal has been co-opted by a group that means no good to anyone. What a pity that the real issues get so sidelined. And the problem then becomes that most people become unable to distinguish what’s good about an issue and what the bad part is. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — May 16, 2012 @ 1:01 am

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