communism, simplified
2007-02-27

People ask me to explain things to them sometimes, and so I do. My friend Felicity asked:

So i’ve been researching North Korea lately, and trying to learn stuff. I never really did understand communism…i mean i understand the idea of it…but it just seems really complex. So i’ve always been kind of unmotivated to learn more about history because it just gets more and more complicated the more you know.
So my question is, why is it that the only Americans i know who think communism is great are these free-thinking, anarchist type people? When, if you lived under communism, like in North Korea, you wouldn’t be able to think for yourself at all…you’d have to submit to the government way more than we have to here in a capitalist society. I don’t get it. I know they say that communist governments like NK aren’t “true” communism, but they also admit that “true” communism doens’t really exist. So…why are they all about communism, if it’s not even possible? I don’t get it.
What do you think?

I answered off the top of my head, rather than checking facts, so I might be totally dead wrong. I’m also throwing in some opinions, and not pointing out which are which. If you want the truth, go read Wikipedia, not my blog. Caveat lector.

The problem is that you, and they, are mixing two different ideas up.

Communism is an economic system. Well, a social one, too, but let’s sort of leave that out. It is an economic system where people can’t really own businesses. All businesses are owned by the government, which is (supposed to be) owned by the people, and is (supposed to be) run without taking a profit, giving all the money back to the people. The good thing about it is (supposed to be) that there are no rich people wasting money on stupid things like gold plated Mercedes’, and the people get all that money for better health care, schools, etc. The bad thing about is that some people want, and perhaps deserve, more than others, so there’s either no inspiration to work hard (why bother?) or else a huge black market. Ideally, communism means 100% taxes, but everything is free, and everyone is equal. “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need”

Capitalism is another economic system, where people can own businesses, and are free to run them however they please, and do whatever they want with the money. The good thing about it is that when people have to compete for resources, they try their best to do things as efficiently as possible. The bad thing is that some people get rich, and other people get poor, though I don’t think that’s actually a bad thing. But of course I think that, I’m a capitalist. “Every man for himself”

Are we good so far? OK.

Democracy is a form of government, not an economic system. In a democracy, everyone votes on stuff.
Dictatorship is another form of government, not an economic system. In a dictatorship, one guy says what goes, usually backed by a strong military and a VERY strong police force.

The problem isn’t so much that North Korea is a communist country. The problem is that it’s a communist DICTATORSHIP, with one guy (Kim Jong-il) deciding things for everyone, mostly to his own personal benefit, and throwing anyone in a prison camp if they don’t agree with him. Communism/Capitalism and Democracy/Dictatorship are like X and Y axes on a graph, they don’t actually have that much to do with one another, though as we will see, there are pressures that push things one way or the other.

Sure, it’s a true communism – no one can own a business, the government controls all the money, and gives the people what they need – or, rather, what Kim Jong-il thinks the people need. He seems to think they need to spend 90% of their money on the army, and he thinks that they need for everyone who disagrees to be imprisoned, tortured, shot, or all three.

The problem is simply that Kim Jong-il is a total dickweed. If he was a nice guy, North Korea would be a pretty cool place. That’s called a “benevolent dictatorship,” and in some ways that’s a really great government.

Cuba, for example, is a communist dictatorship, but the difference is that Fidel Castro is actually a pretty cool guy. Oh, sure, he imprisons, tortures, and shoots a few people, but you have a break some eggs to make an omelet. For the most part, he appears to be an intelligent sensitive person who has the best interests of the Cuban people in his heart. He stood up to the United States, for example – without that, Cuba would be like Puerto Rico, a US possession whose people would be second-rate citizens losing their identity. He ensured that the Cuban identity would be preserved. Cubans have good schools, a really decent quality of life, and they’ve invested heavily in biotechnology research. They’re actually ahead of us in some areas – Cuba has a really good vaccine for meningitis, which we do NOT have in the USA, and we can’t import it because of the embargo. All my friends in Europe go to Cuba all the time, they love it there, it’s like going to the Bahamas or Jamaica, a beautiful island paradise with cheap drinks.

Ideally, of course, a communist country should be a democracy – if the people “own” everything together, they should vote on things. The problem is that when the government has to control all the business, this requires central planning, and tends to knock itself into a dictatorship, or at least a nasty bureaucracy (“rule by committee” more or less) with a lot of corruption like Russia was.

China, though, is doing a pretty good job. They’ve started from a dictatorship under Mao Tse-Tung, transitioned to a fairly decently efficient bureaucracy, and they’re not just becoming more democratic, but they’ve mixed in a few bits of capitalism to push things along, which has turned them in the last few years into a power to be reckoned with. With 5? times our population, they’re growing by leaps and bounds, their economic growth right now makes us look pathetic in the last 10 years. Their part of the internet, for example is (I think) bigger than ours, with more users, and is growing faster, in spite of the fact that most of the country is STILL rural farmers who plow their field with animal power.

Watch your back and learn Chinese, because they WILL kick our asses in the next two decades.

Blame that mostly on Wal-Mart, and I am not joking. That one company is acting like a money pump, sending billions of dollars there. It’s like if you had two lakes with different water levels and you built a channel between them – water (money) is rushing out of one lake (the US) into the other (China) through the channel (Wal*Mart) until the levels equalize. Which will take a long time, and our level will drop quite a bit. Very irresponsible company from the US point of view, though from the global point of view it’s quite nice of them.

Of course, in principle, communism can be mixed with democracy, which usually results in socialism. You can think of socialism as “communism lite.” Finland, where I lived from 1999-2000, is mostly socialist. The democracy is more free and more successful than ours, but the taxes are insanely high, at least double the US taxes for what I made, and double the sales tax, but if you get rich you might pay 80% or more taxes. I am totally not joking. If you make $10 million, the government will take like $9 million. It’s almost impossible to get rich there… but you can’t really be poor, either. Health care is free for all, school is free for all, and the social programs make homelessness almost unheard of; you have to WANT to be homeless there. Everyone is stuck into a sort of middle class.

By way of example, if you get a speeding ticket, the cop looks up how much you make – he can check the verotoimisto (Finnish IRS) on his cell phone – and writes you a ticket that will hurt just enough. If you’re broke, that might be $20. A famous Internet millionaire there got busted speeding in his Ferrari and got something like a $100,000 speeding ticket.

Correction, the new record is $224,000 dollars for doing 50 in a 25. No, I’m not making this up.

England is slightly socialist (cheap health care and schools, extensive welfare program) as is France.

So my question is, why is it that the only Americans i know who think communism is great are these free-thinking, anarchist type people?

That’s mostly a historical artifact. It’s simply because at the end of WWII, the US was capitalist and wound up holding most of the chips, whereas the rest of the chips were held by Russia, a communist country. They were the only other “superpower” so therefore communism was bad and capitalism was good. It’s like the Cubs vs. the Sox. If you were against the US, you were bad. If you were for communism, you were for Russia. If you were for Russia, you were against the US. So, if you were for Communism, you were bad. QED.

If Russia happened to be a capitalist democracy at the end of WWII, then “normal” people wouldn’t care one way or the other about communism.

So…why are they
all about communism, if it’s not even possible? I don’t get it.
Partly, they’re all about it just to be contrary, counter-culture, and cool within their group.
Partly, because they’re pissed off that someone else is making more money than them, and they’d rather sit around or have a McJob or make third-rate art or music and get paid the same as Bill Gates. Even if that means that Bill has to live in a two bedroom.

As for the “not possible” part… Well Karl Marx tried to get the point across, which no one paid much attention to, that communism could only really work AFTER capitalism had run its course. You need capitalism at first the build the roads and factories and stuff, and then communism would kick in and take the ‘means of production’ (factories and stuff) from the ‘bourgeoisie" (rich people, or at least middle class) and give it all away to the “proletariat” (workers and poor people) and we’d all live in a happy shiny future.

Point being, it’s possible, but most of the world’s communist countries jumped the gun. It wasn’t time yet.

What do you think?

Two main things.

First, I think Marx was right, we’ve just got at least 25-50 years more to go. There is a whole new stage in human development called nanotechnology where you can make anything you want straight out of atoms, the same way God makes wood, leather, and people. Things are moving fast in this department, and (I hope) before the turn of the century, you’ll have a sort of microwave-oven looking gadget (a “nanoassembler”) in your house that runs basically for free and makes anything you want. Want a scarf? Download the program, pick the colors, wait 20 minutes, and you have a scarf. Or a lamp. Or a table. A steak. A Chik-fil-a sandwich and a coke. A monopoly game. A car. A house. Whatever.

Nanotechnology will make the entire computer revolution into a tiny footnote in history. It will make money a thing of the past. It will bring about communism in a trivial way. It will also cause some really nasty wars and social upheaval, but oh well, that’s just because people are stupid.

In the meantime, I’m basically a libertarian, which is like super-capitalism. I believe that the government should get the heck out of almost everything. Really every man for himself. At the extreme, for example, taxes shouldn’t pay for the police – you should have to pick out a police department and pay them a monthly bill.

I strongly recommend two science fiction books, both by Neal Stephenson, to explain my points of view

1) The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer – a beautiful tale about nanotechnology, told from the point of view of a young girl from the poorest part of town who accidentally gets a “magical” nanotech book that was meant for a spoiled girl.
2) Snow Crash – which has a lot of libertarian stuff in it. The main character gets arrested and the cops make her choose which jail they take her to, the Clink or the Hoosegow. They’re brands of jails, like McDonalds and Chick-fil-a, and of course, she has to pay for it herself. One is cheaper, but the other one has better chicken nuggets.

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