hunting and gathering to herding and settling
Things haven't always been this way and things won't always remain this way. Much like our underlying knowledge we will someday be no longer, we all understand this but don't particularly care to dwell on it. While we can physically see many of the more tangible things change- like our jobs, friends, homes, physical appearances- we sometimes don't see, or maybe even refuse to see, our institutions, our political realities, our "world," so to speak, change.
For much of the 200,000 years us homosapiens have been around, we've been communists. Now, as far as words in the English language with baggage attached to it go, communism must be close to the top of the list. Let me explain. Of course I'm not talking about the "Communism" we all learned about in school with its gulags, its Stalin, its dreary sunless and Godless skies; I'm talking about hunter-gatherer societies where every able bodied person went to find food and share it with the rest of the group. It took several of us slow, clawless, dull-teethed humans working together with our big brains to catch anything substantial to eat. Everything that was collected was consumed and the few tools and other items crafted were held in common. This went on for a mind-boggling amount of our existence. In fact, modern humans lived this way until the Neolithic Revolution, which is dated around 8000 to 12000 years ago. (So we were communists, albeit primitive ones, for at least 185,000 years!) The Neolithic Revolution ushered in agriculture, which made it possible for us to stop chasing food. Soon (at least historically speaking) the taming of animals provided another much more reliable source of food. From hunters and gatherers, we became herders and settlers.
Eventually we got pretty good at growing food and raising livestock. We became so good that we produced more than we needed. A surplus started piling up. It didn't take long before someone figured out that if they controlled that surplus, they ruled the roost. This was the beginning of class society. The men who could talk to God argued it was God's will they control it; the warriors demanded they control it or they'll cut your head off; the Royalty argued it was God's will and they'll cut your head off; and so on. Inevitably, power sharing deals were made. Different modes of production brought different ruling classes, with their power still resting on their control of the surplus that was created. This was the case even during times of famine, whether natural or created, when there was no surplus. Once that power was taken, society was built around those relations as if things had always been that way, surplus or not.
But who created the surplus? For much of history, this was a fairly straight forward question. In a slave society, for example, clearly it's the slave who is creating the surplus for the slave owner. During Feudalism, it's the serf who works the land for the nobleman, who in turn is loyal to his King. In both these cases the exploitation, and brutal dehumanization, is clear. But there is also a growing of the productive forces. Both the slave owner and the nobleman were interested in increasing their own wealth and this created rivalries, wars, old Gods dying, new Gods being born, etc. But it also created an ability to produce more of a surplus, that is as mentioned, a growth in the productive forces.
don't tread on me
Eventually a ceiling is hit. There tends to be a lot more slaves than slave owners and sooner or later they often decide they are sick of being worked to death against their will. (Who would have thought?) And as the folks below the Mason-Dixon Line in the United States found out, there is a distinct limit of technological advancement that can be achieved under a slave economy. Technological innovation requires an educated work force and the last thing a slave owner who is attempting to breed tranquility wants is a tech savvy slave. Not to mention the fact that the slave would have exactly zero motivation to use the machines in a way that would be of use for the slave owner. The ruling class also used socially constructed racism, a huge issue still a problem today, as a way to divide the surplus creators and many slave owners no doubt believed their own rhetoric and thought their slaves weren't capable of learning anyway.
We saw a ceiling get hit in economies dominated by Feudal relations as well. A straw, as is said, broke the camel's back. A period of heightened class struggle seemingly erupted out of nowhere, but really was there all along buried under layers of contradictions. Even then the world was getting smaller. Kings from there were consolidating land by marrying queens from here. Skilled craftsman were making much better quality goods and new inventions were making production easier. Along with more goods came more selling of goods, and with that the rising of people who sold them. The merchants that did this found themselves in a historically important role. They also found themselves gaining more and more power. But they still were operating under the economic laws of Feudalism. From village to village within the same kingdom there were different currencies and taxes, creating an obvious nightmare for someone trying to sell goods. The land was tied to the nobility and passed on through birth as opposed to being up for sale. There was no urban work force to speak of as most worked the land as peasants or were craftsmen who specialized in one craft. Things needed to change in order for society to move forward.
Obviously, I'm being brief, but the general direction of where I'm heading leads us to where we are now, with the merchants owning industry through a system of market exchange and private ownership of the means of production. This is called Capitalism. Our idea of what a country is was also developed in this period. Capitalists needed uniform currencies and laws in certain areas to govern trade, buying and selling, etc. That isn't to say, however, we made a clean break with times past. History certainly doesn't flow uninterrupted in a straight line. In France, the idealistic fervor of the rising bourgeoisie led to the French Revolution trying to go much further than was historically possible. This ushered in Napoleon, who was the right person at the right place and time (at least from a certain power structure's point of view). In the United States, on the other hand, the pragmatic ideals of many of the leaders allowed a backwards slave society to exist well into the middle of the 19th century, until the Civil War (which would be more accurately called the finale of the U.S. Revolution) finally secured a victory for Capitalism.
Capitalism is tricky. It takes something that is relatively simple- production and consumption of goods- and confuses it to the point of creating complex financial instruments, such as derivatives, that no one seems to really understand. Those very few individuals who own industry are constantly looking for new ways to turn money into more money, and again, as those of us in the U.S. are keen to, this means a shift away from manufacturing actual goods.
Despite the lack of transparency, we can gather that Capitalism isn't any different than other modes of production in the sense that a surplus created. But it is different regarding how it's created. Capitalism needs free laborers, that is people who are free to sell their labor power on the open market. When we go look for a job we are advertising ourselves as someone who can make our employer money. We often give this little thought as it has been our reality our entire existence. But what are the greater implications of the profit motive? And where does profit come from?
Because we distribute goods on the basis of creating profit for private individuals, some things are inevitable. There are those with great amounts of wealth and those with little to none. This is certain so long as we operate under the profit motive. There is no getting around it. It is an endless source of misery and death for millions upon millions of people. We are told much of this comes down to how hard people work. And to some extent, there is truth in this. Certainly Capitalism allows a degree of social mobility. It would be too obvious, like the slave and Feudal systems of old, if it didn't. Within certain contexts people can gain more wealth by putting forth more effort, knowing how to position themselves favorably within certain structures, and so on. This is the same in many organizations- from organized crime, to a multinational corporation, to a totalitarian government. But even a tacit grasp of reality quickly dilutes the significance of this argument. Surely know one can disagree that if I was born a female in the slums of Kinshasa I wouldn't be sitting in an air conditioned room right now with a fridge full of food, car in the drive way, and HD satellite TV in the living room. This is not because of my "work ethic," but because of the environment I was born into. That obviously is an extreme example, but the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" argument conveniently fails to account for even this, let alone the more subtle environmental differences within our own personal communities.
So what about profit? Capitalism demands profit in order to stay in business. But who creates the profit? We are told profit is created by a company selling a commodity for more money than it cost them to acquire or produce it. In other words, profit is made during exchange. Profit is solely dependent on the price of a commodity. This effectively shuts production out of the equation. Production is a mystery, not to be talked about during our economics classes. There is a distinct reason for this. In reality, profit is based off of a commodity's value. Not only its exchange value, but also its use value. (For example, a hammer's exchange value is how much it costs at the Home Depot. Its use value is its ability to pound a nail into the wall.) When we look up the Wall Street Journal's dress, we see that value is actually created during production. Labor, from research and development to the actual transformation of raw materials into a exchangeable commodity, adds value to a substance. A pile of cotton has a certain amount of value. It isn't until labor transforms it into a comfortable yet fashionable t-shirt that its value increases. The price reflects that value. Of course the price is also affected by stuff like supply and demand, marketing driven fads, etc. But in the final analysis, despite how distorted the relationship between price and use value can sometimes be, there's a definite amount of value created by definite amount of socially necessary labor time. (Socially necessary means exactly that. Even if it takes you a day to do something that takes someone else an hour, tough luck, the socially necessary labor time to produce that good is an hour.)
the secret that shook the world
The implications of this are astounding. If labor is what adds value to a good, how come labor isn't reimbursed fully for this? Why is it capital treats labor as just another expense, like a machine or a building? This is the primary contradiction Marx exposed in his famous works entitled "Capital." Because the Capitalists have ownership over industry, they are able to take the surplus value created home for themselves. This allows them to accumulate vast amounts of wealth, wealth that they didn't create. This is how workers are exploited under Capitalism. They are exploited, not only in the moralistic sense, but also in a very scientific sense. Even those who are paid relatively well have to be paid less than the value they create or else there would be no profit for the Capitalist to usurp.
This secret was enough to alter the very foundations of economics. The labor theory of value was scrapped. You won't hear any mainstream economist talk about it today, even though Adam Smith, the father of Capitalism, firmly understood it as a basis of his theories. This is not surprising. During other modes of production there were also loads and loads of charlatans who made quite comfortable livings convincing people things today are how they have always been and how they'll always be. Any sort of real change is to be "unrealistic" or "radical." Today, ours write for the NY Times and talk on CNN.
There is no alternative. After the collapse of the totalitarian distortion of "socialism" that existed in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, this was the answer we got if we dared question the omnipotent wisdom of the market. I always thought this was a bit strange given it was coming from the same message machine that also told us we can "be anything we want." The words "anything" and "no alternative" seem to clash a bit. In fact, it's pretty much the exact opposite. We can't be anything we want, a sentiment I believe most children can grasp, and there is an alternative. There always is.
And the alternative isn't the failed example of the Soviet Union, as so commonly is said. There are many reason why Russia turned out the way it did. When the Bolsheviks took power, they intended to be the flicker that started the flame of a world revolution. Just like the Capitalists had done away with Feudalism, they expected the Socialists to do away with Capitalism. But when the spreading of the revolution failed, primarily because of the working class leadership in the developed countries, we saw it degenerate. Similar to the French Revolution allowing a situation in which Napoleon was able to take power, the objective situation following the Russian Revolution allowed Stalin to rise. Without the spreading of the Revolution into the more advanced countries, it would die. The original Bolsheviks knew this, which is why Stalin and his rising bureaucracy had them all executed.
The Stalinist bureaucracy's power was, however, based on a certain economic structure. This was something that went largely unpredicted by Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, the founders of scientific socialism. While the state was in effect a workers' state, meaning the commanding heights of the economy had been nationalized and were potentially able to be controlled by the people who actually did the work, political power rested with a bureaucratic elite. Much like Napoleon charging through Europe abolishing serfdom and replacing it with the economic structure that benefited his rule, the Stalinists shored up as much influence as they could post WWII. There were the more subservient bureaucracies throughout the Eastern Bloc, but there also were some who became independently powerful while adopting a very similar structure. China's peasant revolution, for example, took Russia's ready made degenerated state and basically started where they left off. But this hardly meant the Chinese were pawns of the Soviets, nor were the Vietnamese Stalinists pawns of the Chinese. If they largely owed their liberation to themselves (Tito's Partisans in Yugoslavia are another example) they earned a degree of independence. This was something the Capitalist west failed to understand, and it showed, particularly in Vietnam, put also in various Latin American countries. Given Stalinism, carefully portraying itself as "Socialism" or "Communism," was the only major alternative to the imperial domination of the colonialist countries, most of the anti-colonial struggles ended up adopting some form of this distorted ideology. This confused, and continues to confuse, many of the left in the developed countries.
You suck, but so do you
During the Cold War the Soviet Union and the United States were engaged in a war of propaganda, among other things. What's so interesting about this war of ideas is the glaring fact that both sides really didn't have to make that much stuff up. It's true, the United States was, and is, an extremely financially polarized society that despite being the richest in history fails to provide even basic living standards for many of its citizens. It's also true that the United States is perpetually at war in an attempt to maintain its post-WWII worldwide dominance. This has cost millions of people their lives. In contrast, it's true the Soviet Union was a ruled by a totalitarian bureaucracy that regularly murdered and jailed citizens that dared question the privilege of the ruling stratum. It's not surprising those who benefited from this arrangement had no desire to highlight the fact that U.S. Capitalism at one time, and even more so in western Europe, gave enough concessions to allow a fairly stable standard of living to a sizable chunk of its population. (This period, however, is now over. These are the "good old days" we see the "Tea Party" movement today yearn for in a sad, historically ignorant way.) Nor is it surprising U.S. imperialism had no desire to highlight the enormous gains of the planned economy. Russia went from a backwards peasant country to producing the first satellite to orbit the earth, all within 40 years. That's simply incredible. That would be like Pakistan today placing the first human on Mars a couple generations from now. It's almost unthinkable. But such is the power of humanity harnessed with a rational plan of production.
The Soviet Union failed because they lacked democracy. It's one thing to plan national space program bureaucratically from the top, but it's quite another to produce people's favorite pair of jeans or the toothpaste most would prefer to use. But just as Capitalism shows us the enormous productive power we hold, the "Communist" countries showed us how we could potentially harness that power to make sure every single human has the basic necessities to shape his or her life in the way they see fit. Democracy provides a check and balance to planning. It's needed at every level.
This is the primary concern of those with power. Democracy threatens power. This is why they demonize government, even though our current government governs a state that's primary purpose is to keep current property relations intact. The idea of "big government" is translated to the average person as a long wait at the post office. In reality, the ruling class isn't real concerned with mix-ups at the DMV. They are, however, very much concerned with the theoretical possibility of government being used to take away their privileges.
This is why we must engage in the political process, no matter how corrupt and ridiculous it may be. Right now in the United States we have no political party, but this will have to change. The working class will be forced to enter into politics as Capitalism no longer has the room to offer as many concessions as it did before. (I'm involved in a campaign that calls for a mass party of labor which I urge you to check out.) Apathy is not atrophy, and American workers will move. And when they do, the world will shake.
It's extremely simple, but also unforgivingly complex. For me, and perhaps this isn't so flattering, reshaping society isn't about "the common good" so much as it's about individual freedom. I want a world where much of my life consists of me doing what I want, not what I'm financially compelled to do. If we allocate the world's resources based on need as opposite to profit, we are actually providing the only possible way to have true individual freedom. It simply can't be done so long as the economy is controlled by a few people; be it kings and queens, state bureaucrats, or domineering capitalists. We have got to take power. This is our historical task.