Monday, February 23, 2015

Marx Was Right

            First, let me start with the obvious: Communism did not pan out the way Marx and Engels expected it to. Not only that, but the bourgeoisie are still mostly in power. So, contrary to my title, Marx was wrong. Right? Not necessarily. Marx made his predictions from a time before much of the current technology was invented. He had no clue about, for instance, the internet. He did make one big mistake, however: his prediction assumes that the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat will go basically the same way as the previous class struggles have gone, expect that he predicts that they will end with the end of all class struggle. Marx assumes that the stage in the supposedly final class struggle where the oppressed rise up and become the rulers will be just like any other. The problem with that idea is that the conclusion of this class struggle is supposed to remove class struggle. It is supposed to end in there being only the one class. Thus, it must end without the oppressed overthrowing the rulers and taking their place, but by making the rulers obsolete. There can be no transitionary period where the previously oppressed class legislates communism, since that would require a further class struggle to remove the new rulers.
            Marx’s assumptions here lead to problems later on. He speaks of centralizing credit, means of communication, and providing free public education—all centralized around the state. Here, the problem is, again, that Marx is thinking in terms of classes fighting each other in the open. The centralizations around a state require a ruling class which provides these things to a ruled class, which would maintain the division of two classes, and so retain the possibility of class struggle. Instead, Marx should have expected the total decentralization of credit, means of communication, and education. Instead of a centralized bank, direct peer-to-peer financing and investments, like Gofundme and Kickstarter; instead of centralized communication, universal access to and power over personal communication, like the internet and cellphones are becoming; instead of public schooling, highly flexible shared educational resources, such as co-op groups and online education.
What Marx should have expected was that the economic forces which would fuel the final overthrow of the bourgeoisie are not so violent and obvious, but, like that of the bourgeoisie, arise from “a series of revolutions in the modes of production and exchange”.[i] The political advance, then, would likewise be able to take a different form than Marx expected: not violent, but subtle, almost unnoticeable.
            The point of this paper is to argue that, while Marx got some things wrong, these were primarily errors in filling in what kind of conflict, political power, communication, or other concrete details, and not errors in the actual direction things would go: the structural results. I will argue, in fact, that some of the unexpected innovations around us now are the baby stages of what Marx was talking about, although they look remarkably different than one might picture from reading The Communist Manifesto.
            The internet is of massive importance in how our world looks to us from the USA right now. It also did not exist when Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto. In that manifesto, Marx refers to how the bourgeoisie required contact with each other, union, in order to succeed in their revolution, and how “that union, to attain which the burghers of the Middle Ages, with their miserable highways, required centuries, the modern proletariat, thanks to railways, achieve in a few years”.[ii] Now, read “the internet” there in the place of “railways.” This should make sense without showing how it has actually done the same things, simply based on the common talk of how the internet allows one to talk to someone on the other side of the world. Most of the remainder of this paper will rely on examples of people using the internet to do things which look like the baby stages of something quite similar to what Marx envisioned as the final stage of communism.
            We have libraries, but we also now have the internet. The internet is a repository of free information to which anyone may add. The producers here are largely not paid, but voluntarily produce content for sites like Wikipedia. This is a, if partial, refutation of the belief that we will all get lazy if the communist ideal is realized.
In The Starfish and The Spider, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom describe how peer-to-peer music sharing (or stealing) services keep cropping up.[iii] The early ones were sued out of existence, but later ones got clever. There are some out there without a sue-able entity to shut them down. There are just the open-source downloadable files going from one person to the next. Basically, the more of that there is, the less one will be able to speak of private property, at least in music. As Marx could have expected, the bourgeoisie sueing the proletariat only made the problem worse: that is why there is no sue-able entity for some of the peer-to-peer services. The whole book is about leaderless organizations and how they just get harder to beat the more you fight them, which sounds like the end point of communism, and yet none of socialism, communism, or Marx get tagged in the index.
Then there are those sites which let you rent a room or get a ride from some stranger, with little sight of a corporation. As these develop, if they can figure out how to do so, private property will slowly disappear. No fight involved except from big corporations suing and getting legislation passed—that is, the fight will be between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, via legislation, taxes, etc., for at least a long while yet. If there ever is a violent conflict, which there might not be, it isn’t likely to be anytime soon. Instead, the proletariat makes itself untouchable, unfindable, by decentralizing its institutions and making those institutions unrecognizable. The institutions of communism are leaderless, they lack countable members, and they therefore cannot be brought down, since there is no one to bring down.
Political power is also revolutionized. It is more likely to be achieved via tools like Youtube, Twitter, and blogs than via violence. These are tools which allow anybody to get their name and agenda out there. They are tools which people running for president in the past election realized they needed to use—even the pope is on Twitter now. Soon, I suspect, the only way to get elected will be by an ad campaign with viral media, rather than TV advertising. This will reduce the amount of sway that large organizations have over politics, since money is much less valuable when working with viral media than when buying air time. It also increases the power of the common person over politics, since it is up to the individual whether to share something with others or not.
Note how in each of these examples the value of money is reduced and profit is not the aim. The point of Wikipedia is that it is free, it relies on fundraising from the users. Peer-to-peer file sharing is motivated by the desire to get music and other files without having to pay for them, largely removing money from the equation. Renting rooms and seats in cars makes the supply of housing go up, reducing the cost. Indeed, since there is little or no cost for the one whose home or car it is, the cost to the renter can be very low without removing the incentive to lease. The political example shows how money loses much of its influence in power struggles, which is very helpful, if not required, if the outcome is to be a society where power is diffused, where society is leveled.
I mentioned that Marx kept thinking of the proletariat as a class, and that this is problematic insofar as its conclusion is the end of classes. This thinking results in his expected centralization to occur around the proletariat. Since this is wrong, as accentuated by the fact that spider organizations, i.e., organizations without centralization, are what is leading the communist revolution, so, too, is the centralization which Marx speaks of. I suspect that this centralization is also much of the what causes the problems which communist governments have encountered.
This means that where Marx says “centralize in the hands of the proletariat” or “…in the hands of the state” where the state is run by the proletariat, we should think “decentralize.” Thus, when he speaks of centralized banking, we should think quite the opposite. Education, too, should be decentralized—and this is happening with sites like eduPOW, where anyone can create a lecture-style course, upload it, and then anyone can download it for $5. There is a sense in which I don’t expect these sites to get much traction, however, since one can find much of the same material covered on Youtube. Nevertheless, whether by eduPOW or Youtube, educational materials are out there which allow anyone to cobble together courses to reach through at least highschool. Eventually, I expect this to broaden out through college, and thus, eventually, our whole education system will be restructured. This means that degrees of various sorts will no longer be necessary, because no one will have them. I do not know how such a revolution will prove to be possible, but insofar as one does not need a degree to start something up, it will likely be possible for a growing number of people. The ability to self-publish books, sell crafty things, and whatever else, means that anyone can generate income by selling their own products.
This also helps with Marx’s alienation problem. This alienation, according to Marx, is due to the fact that the worker does not get to enjoy the fruits of his labors. If the problem is that people are alienated from what they produce, the solution is not to alienate them further, by making them work for some greater good—this is, in fact, a classic argument against communism. The solution is, instead, to enable them to sell their products directly themselves.
The only question to be asked is, “what will become of factories and farming?” These are necessary for our life as we now know it, but it is hard to see how, say, an automotive assembly line, could be crowdsourced. As these become more and more automated, though, who knows? We might not need too many workers, and we might be able to make some viable start up auto companies. It all depends on what kinds of new technology come along.
One prediction of Marx’s that I have not shown evidence for is his prediction that women would be shared. However, this is not out of the question, given the current state of marriage and attitude toward sex. This is the point which makes me most wary of these developments, and which should remind us that not all the results of such a revolution are likely to be good. Indeed, in this fallen world, shifting from one society to another is often merely trading one set of acceptable sins for another.
Note, finally, how all of this is the result of capitalistic tendencies. This, too, should have been expected by Marx. As an economic determinist, Marx believe that the sociocultural and religious environment of a society was a result of the economic substructure. He believed that what happened was determined by economic forces. If we construe “economic forces” as the forces of supply and demand: the force of greed, then this supports the usual capitalist contention that people cannot be forced to live the communist life because they are greedy. However, they may slip into a communist life on account of their greed.
It should go without saying that, if I am right about these things, then the Church needs to figure out how to speak to the world which I am describing. We must figure out where such people will feel their need for a savior, and how the Church must be both careful to be distinctive and open to adaptation. What is good in this development and what is bad? What will the transition be like, and how do we navigate it? What are the values of such a society, and how do they relate to Christian values. How do they either oppose or support what Christians have always claimed?

[i] Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto: A Modern Edition. London: Verso, 1998., p. 36
[ii] Ibid., 48
[iii] Brafman, Ori, and Rod A. Beckstrom. The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations. New York: Portfolio, 2006.