A Case for communism in the twenty-first century
The image of Democrats and Republicans one gets from the media is that they are polar opposites and will never agree on anything. The media has a vested interest in maintaining this image. Conflict sells. That said, I want to suggest that behind these disagreements there is a more fundamental agreement: Democrats and Republicans agree that the best form of social and economic organization is capitalism.
Of course, Democrats and Republicans have different attitudes regarding this agreement. Republicans are confident that capitalism is the best form of social and economic organization and are proud to say so. Democrats, on the contrary, are usually a little embarrassed about this issue, since it is one of the issues on which they are conservative. Even though Democrats recognize that capitalism has negative aspects, the only change they see as possible or desirable involves using the government to temper some of these negative aspects, making capitalism more tolerable. For both parties, capitalism is here to stay.
I have two theses. The first is that capitalism, as our current form of social and economic organization, defines the horizons of what is possible in terms of social change. There are certain limits to how good and just — and, to be fair, in another way, how bad — our society can be; and in the last instance it is capitalism which fixes these limits. The second thesis is that it is necessary to insist upon the possibility of an alternative to capitalism. The name of this alternative is more or less unimportant, but for a number of reasons I hope will be clear I will call it “communism.”
First thesis. The notion that profit is king in capitalism is too often taken to mean that selfishness and greed run rampant. But this notion must be understood in a more technical sense. The centrality of the profit motive means that those who control the means of production — in capitalist society they are “business owners,” or “capitalists” — employ the means of production in order to gain more than they put in. Problems arise when society has needs related to production other than profit. What do we do when those needs contradict the goals set for those in control of the means of production?
When social change is profitable, capitalism seems fine — but what about those times when it is not? For instance, food, housing and clothing are produced for profit — how does one guarantee that all people are provided with these essentials? How can one avert environmental catastrophe when concern for “sustainability” is eclipsed by concern for profit? What if some things are incompatible with profit?
It is not that we need more compassionate CEOs. Making profit is what businesses do; a business that ceases to make profit will soon cease to exist. This is about the system within which profit is the essential part. And as the centerpiece of capitalism, the profit motive cannot be entirely “domesticated,” and it cannot be forced to go along with social change.
So long as it is taken for granted as being permanent, the system will predetermine the answers to that old question, the question that immediately arises when one learns about the horrors of our current situation: “What is to be done?” Unfortunately, if our problems have to do with things inherent to the system, part of its functioning, then the system’s answers are unacceptable.
Second thesis. Any hesitance in explaining what exactly communism would look like is usually taken as evidence of some flaw in argumentation. But I do not think communism should be insisted upon as a “plan” for how society should function. “Communism” is, rather, a name for the outside-and-beyond of capitalism, an outside-and-beyond that remains to be created. The demand for communism is the demand for something new.
I retain the word “communism” for two reasons: it is close to the word “common” and suggests the tradition of radical egalitarianism to which I think any outside-and-beyond of capitalism belongs. Yes, I am aware it was used to justify horrible crimes in the past — but I see no reason why the name could not be appropriated for different purposes. Stalin didn’t copyright “communism,” nor could he.
The possibility of living otherwise is correlative to the fullest critique of the present — one cannot accept the existing order as absolute and critique it for being what it is. One must insist upon the necessity of developing communism if one seeks answers to the question, “What is to be done?,” that have not already been prescribed by the existing order.
To paraphrase Slovenian philosopher and avowed Marxist Slavoj Zizek, it is easier for us to imagine the apocalypse than to imagine a change in social and economic organization. We all spontaneously agree with Democrats and Republicans that capitalism is here to stay. What limits to social change do we accept with this agreement? Are we satisfied with these limits? or are they too constricting? If the answer to the latter question is affirmative, then perhaps the place to begin is to break our agreement: we refuse to accept the terms set by capitalism, and out of this new possibilities arise.