Chad Perrin: SOB

28 May 2008

Communism and Mediocrity

Filed under: Liberty — apotheon @ 02:49

People have been arguing constantly in the seventeen years since the collapse of the Soviet Union over whether socialism, per se, played a significant part in the ultimate failure of the state. On one hand, people may point to the rusted-out remains of tractors mouldering in the fields, neglected and uncared-for by farmer collectives whose members all played the “not my job” game. On the other hand, people may point to the disastrous social and legal policies of a tyrannical, dictatorial regime that killed millions of its own people.

The purges and mass repressions carried out in the USSR, as described in excruciating detail in The Gulag Archipelago, have been ascribed by some to Stalin, and by others to Lenin, as noted in the Wikipedia article about the book:

Despite the efforts by Solzhenitsyn and others to confront this shameful Soviet system, the realities of the camps remained taboo into the 1980s. While Khrushchev, the Communist Party, and the Soviet Union’s supporters in the West viewed the GULag as a deviation of Stalin, Solzhenitsyn and the opposition tended to view it as a systemic fault of Soviet political culture — an inevitable outcome of the Bolshevik political project. This view, politically unpopular inside and outside the USSR during the Cold War, because it ascribed to Lenin the theoretical and practical origins of the concentration camp system, has become the prevalent view of informed writers and scholars since the USSR’s demise.

Such purges and repressions are blamed by many for some of the economic failings of the Soviet Union, and with good reason. Solzhenitsyn himself said:

Subsequently, after 1917, by a transfer of meaning, the name kulak began to be applied (in official and propaganda literature, whence it moved into general usage) to all those who in any way hired workers, even if it was only when they were temporarily short of working hands in their own families. But we must keep in mind that after the Revolution it was impossible to pay less than a fair wage for all such labor — the Committees of the Poor and the village soviets looked after the interests of landless laborers. Just let somebody try to swindle a landless laborer!

This sort of policy pretty much guarantees the industrial failure of a nation. Keep in mind that being called a kulak — essentially, a “miserly, dishonest rural trader who grows rich not by his own labor but through someone else’s” — made one immediately subject to being swept up by the Gulag system. In the following paragraph, it gets worse:

But the inflation of this scathing term kulak proceeded relentlessly, and by 1930 all strong peasants in general were being so called — all peasants strong in management, strong in work, or even strong merely in convictions. The term kulak was used to smash the strength of the peasantry. Let us remember, let us open our eyes: only a dozen years had passed since the great Decree on the Land — that very decree without which the peasants would have refused to follow the Bolsheviks and without which the October Revolution would have failed. The land was allocated in accordance with the number of “mouths” per family, equally. It had been only nine years since the men of the peasantry had returned from the Red Army and rushed onto the land they had wrested for themselves. Then suddenly there were kulaks and there were poor peasants. How could that be? Sometimes it was the result of differences in initial stock and equipment; sometimes it may have resulted from luck in the mixture of the family. But wasn’t it most often a matter of hard work and persistence?

That’s really the key point. “But wasn’t it most often a matter of hard work and persistence?”

Consider the Communist slogan, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” This is, in direct translation from concept to action, what happened to the most productive farmers under the Soviet system. Farmers were granted lands according to quantified need (the number of mouths per family), but in the end this was not deemed to be good enough. Some farmers still ended up more prosperous than others, violating the universal balance of wealth envisioned by collectivist economic theories.

This imbalance grew thanks primarily to hard work and persistence, of course. The greater one’s talent and invested effort, the greater the returns. The only way to eliminate this problem is to eliminate all privacy entirely — private ownership of anything, including a little space to call home, must be forbidden. All, beyond basic survival requirements, must be equalized — which requires eliminating anything that proves too problematic to equalize. How, after all, does one enforce equality of reward for any efforts from anyone when someone has a bedroom to call his or her own — a private space that can be cared for, cleaned, decorated or even furnished through application of talent and effort?

One can always collectivize everything, of course — ensure that all leisure activities are carried out in common rooms, that private spaces are solely for sleep, sex, and hygiene activities, and that all rooms (common and private) are cleaned by specifically tasked crews. None but the most minimal privacy required. The only way to achieve equality in this regard is to ensure that everyone’s space gets cared for by the same people — that all sweeping of floors in private spaces must be done by the same person, for instance. Otherwise, someone might end up with a cleaner space than someone else. Even if you take a lax enough position that it need not be the same person sweeping all rooms, though, you certainly can’t just let every person do his or her own space maintenance, because you’ll end up with a filthy hovel next door to a fancy, well-tended, cozy home. Wealth must be redistributed.

There are three flaws in this collective solution to the problem of individuals in a collective economy:

  1. Collectives don’t scale well. Say you have two million people in a given population. You would need to break it down into communities, and organize tasks within each community. The end result would be disparities in wealth between collectives, as the social culture of one lends itself to greater care for, e.g., the decoration of private spaces, than another. Wealth must be redistributed, again.

  2. The motivations for the individual induce him to never exceed the norm. In fact, one should always be careful to live below the norm. If one cannot do so, one will always be the next to have one’s quality of life “redistributed”. Ultimately, instead of inducing people to work hard for the good of the people, communism and all its socioeconomic children (including state socialism) induce people to engage in a race to the bottom, each always trying to undersell the others by as little as possible. Communism, in essence, motivates one toward mediocrity graded on the curve: mediocrity, as compared with the average. As everyone seeks mediocrity, the average drops, forcing the standard of mediocrity ever lower.

  3. Once you’ve turned a community into a collective where only minimal private space and facilities are afforded, where one does not tend one’s own space and has no security against others wandering through, where one has no possessions of one’s own, where any “leisure time” is spent in common areas, and where nobody has any motivation for pride in work or engaging any talent or effort, you’ve destroyed any freedom. You’re now living in a Gulag.

. . . but this is what is mandated by the communist slogan. This is what true, enforced economic egalitarianism means. In practical terms, successful communism is the Gulag system. The two are roughly interchangeable.

2 Comments

  1. I’m not convinced your analysis of the meaning of the communist slogan is accurate. For instance my temptation is to immediatly assume the slogan applies only to economic goods. Thus it doesn’t reflect some plan to force pretty woman to sleep with ugly men but only a description of how economic goods will be allocated.

    Indeed taking a look at the wikipedia page about Marx’s slogan we see that it was actually intended as a description of how society would function once mechanization had rendered physical labor unnecessary. In other words Marx is basically describing how modern open source projects work where people choose to work to challenges themselves and gain respect from the community.

    Ultimately I’m not so much disagreeing with your conclusion as suggesting you aren’t actually making a coherent point. There is no such thing as “communism” that can fail or succeed any more than there is “capitalism” whose success we could measure by giving the Objectivists their own state. Just bashing the word communism isn’t really productive, you need to specify a particular conception of economic order that you are arguing is flawed.


    In particular if you want to include the idea that economic reward will be replaced by social reward under the umbrella of communism not only will that system work but it is inevitable. In industrialized societies now people really only pursue money because it brings them status and as the level of roboticization increases material wealth will become less and less significant.

    Comment by TruePath — 29 May 2008 @ 12:37

  2. I’m not convinced your analysis of the meaning of the communist slogan is accurate. For instance my temptation is to immediatly assume the slogan applies only to economic goods. Thus it doesn’t reflect some plan to force pretty woman to sleep with ugly men but only a description of how economic goods will be allocated.

    I don’t recall ever suggesting it applied to anything other than economic goods. Did you misunderstand something in particular in what I said, or are you setting up straw men here?

    In other words Marx is basically describing how modern open source projects work where people choose to work to challenges themselves and gain respect from the community.

    Being personally involved in open source development communities, I can tell you from personal experience that there’s a lot more of a free market aspect to the process than a Marxist/communist aspect. People contribute because they feel they get something of value from it, not because they have the talent to do so and don’t give a crap whether they get anything back. Oh, sure there are a few self-styled altruists in the mix, but open source development models actually work because of the people who get something out of it — personal recognition that can contribute to better job opportunities, software they themselves can use to improve the quality of their own lives, or even practice at a skillset they will later use for their own gain.

    In general, even people who think they only work for community respect or a personal challenge, if you dig deeply enough, are looking for something more.

    Ultimately . . .

    That whole paragraph makes me think that you either didn’t read and understand what I actually wrote, or you read it with a closed mind looking for reasons to disagree. This line in particular:

    There is no such thing as “communism” that can fail or succeed any more than there is “capitalism” whose success we could measure by giving the Objectivists their own state.

    . . . makes me think you are reading an awful lot into what I said that simply isn’t there. For instance, I don’t believe that capitalism is necessarily good. I do, however, believe it’s the best thing we’ve come up with as a means of making free market economics scalable. Too bad people who think they’re championing the free market focus their attention on the word “capitalism”, and end up being taken in by their own misuse of the term.

    For instance, the real value of reading Atlas Shrugged isn’t in being “converted” to the cause of capitalism, even though in many ways that’s what it seems to be advocating above all else when one gives it an only cursory read. The fact that it gives that impression to some extent when you don’t read it carefully enough, but only skim the important bits, and the fact that Ayn Rand herself may well have thought that was the most important lesson in the book (as is too often the case — people with profound things to say often think the conclusions they draw from their profound insights are more important than the insights themselves), contributes to a pretty widespread problem. People read it, and come out of it focusing on the wrong thing, on the superficial characteristics of an economic system — on “capitalism”.

    Focusing on the capitalism in the book leads one to all kinds of errors in judgment, where the underlying principles aren’t really applied with strict logic, and one ends up supporting all kinds of nonsense that is actually antithetical in some way to the principles upon which Rand’s arguments for capitalism were built. Both friends and foes of Rand’s philosophies, of Objectivism, and of capitalism, come to much the same conclusions — leaving those of us arguing for the principles of free markets with a very difficult row to hoe.

    If you think I’m “just bashing the word communism” you aren’t really paying attention. Same problem as the above, with regard to capitalism. Communism is basically just a stand-in for the principles that undergird it — principles of enforced economic egalitarianism, which are in a sense the very opposite of a free market.

    In particular if you want to include the idea that economic reward will be replaced by social reward under the umbrella of communism not only will that system work but it is inevitable.

    You’re going to have to quote something (like Marx) at me to convince me there’s any merit in that interpretation of what he said — and, if so, you’ll quickly find that what Marx said and what communism encompasses are pretty much entirely unrelated, under the hood.

    In industrialized societies now people really only pursue money because it brings them status and as the level of roboticization increases material wealth will become less and less significant.

    Poppycock. Seriously. Status? The only people fighting for status over “material wealth” are the 2% at the top, at most — the people already wealthy enough that further wealth is redundant, in and of itself. Most of them aren’t even fighting primarily for status, per se, because they still have excellent ways to put that wealth to good use — as demonstrated in cases such as Charles G. Koch.

    Comment by apotheon — 29 May 2008 @ 10:02

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All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License