Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Making communism work

With no solution in sight to the ever worsening economic crisis, the talking heads with a leftist bent have suggested Marxism or communism as the answer to the unfolding crisis fostered by the widening income inequality gap. But communism has been discredited in many former communist countries and anything that has failed deserves to be banished for good. If we go by Karl Marx's vision of a true communist society, actually there have been no communist states; most that once claimed to be communist states were really an extreme form of socialism.

To Marx, a communist state will evolve from a socialist state. Under socialism, the role of the state is central since the state owns the means of production and direct economic activities. As the socialist state transforms into Marx's utopia of classless communist society, the means of production will transfer from state to society. As the state disappears, power from above is replaced by universal cooperation. However as cooperation is predicated on mutual trust, it can only be possible if society is small, that is, not more than Dunbar's number of 150. I guess for a tribe this would count adults only, so a tribe membership could double this.

Dunbar's number is the maximum number of people that each of us can maintain stable social relationships with. That limit is imposed by the size of our brain neocortex. If the society members exceed 150, a new group will form and split off from the original group. That's why communism cannot work in a modern state with population numbering in the millions; it's only suited to small groups.

There's also a reason why so-called communist countries stopped evolving into real communism once they reached the stage of the extreme socialist state. In a socialist state, power is heavily concentrated with the state because economic wealth and means of production are owned by the state. Once the state governing class has tasted vast power, power becomes addictive and impossible to let go of. The state has reached utopia, for the ruling class, that is. Actually this conforms to Marx's own authoritarian disposition that brook no dissenting opinion.

So-called communist states have foundered but real communist societies still survive. It's insightful to understand the factors that contribute to the survival of communist societies. We can glean them by observing societies that truly practise communism. For this, you can find no better example than the !Kung San Bushmen, aka Khoisan, or zhun/twasi, who live in the Kalahari Desert. Of course, no such tribes would claim that they are communists simply because they predate communism.

Marx's thoughts seemed profound in the context of the industrial slums of 19th century Britain; had the intellectuals and philosophers of his day been aware of life of the hunter-gatherers or foragers in the Kalahari Desert, his ideas wouldn't have been thought provoking. All those mathematical formulas he wrote to prove that his thesis would've worked would've been meaningless. Quantitative analysis is ill-suited to modelling human social behaviours as such behaviours do not lend themselves to being quantified except if the time frame is short or the geographical space is localised.

The zhun/twasi who survive in an environment of scrub forests and open plains provide important lessons in making communism sustainable. To understand the basis for their survival, we will rely on our usual 4Cs of Capacity, Consumption, Communication and Currency/Credit but this time we have to ignore the 2Cs of Communication and Currency. Communication in terms of physical transport is not needed because a forager society lives off the land; in hunting for food, the men only walk or run which means they do not stray far from their camp. As for information communication, it is mainly oral typically manifested when they gather around a nightly campfire and relate stories of hunting experiences, spiritual beliefs, daily going-ons, legends and music and dance. The other ignorable C, Currency, has no relevance when there is no surplus to be exchanged.

Even the 2Cs that are relevant, i.e., Capacity and Consumption, have to be tempered because of the sparse environment in which the Bushmen live. In a wealth accumulating society, the object of capacity is to intensify production, not only to cater for own consumption but also to produce a surplus that can be exchanged with others. That is true for both agrarian and industrial societies. As they put much effort in intensifying production, they need to have ownership or usage rights to the factors, such as land, labour or other resources, that contribute to the increased production. In contrast, a forager society has no permanent claim to assets, not even land — they need to move around as the availability of food sources and watering holes depend on whether the season is dry or rainy.

It is precisely this reason that communism failed in both the former USSR and China. Marx believed society must be industrialised before communism could take root while Mao thought Chinese agrarian peasantry would be sufficient for the transformation to communism. Reality has proven that without ownership rights, neither the industrial working class nor the agrarian peasants have the incentives to produce. Even if they produce, the output is not what the consumers demand. The Bushmen do not face these problems: whatever they hunt or gather, they will always consume and not hoard for the future.

In the dying days of communism, Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping each was faced with a government that was almost broke. The USSR split up yet Russia the supposed successor to the USSR remains dependent on natural resources as did the USSR despite the transformation from communism to capitalism. Its oil dependency has made the other sectors uncompetitive making it politically as shaky as the old USSR. Now that oil and gas prices could no longer move up given the coming excess supply, another turmoil is in the cards. Its revanchist policy is a cover to suppress its internal weakness — Putin's approval ratings dropped to a low point in 2013 — much as Hitler invaded Poland to cover for Germany's weakening economy and politics which were being threatened by the strain of ever increasing fiscal deficits.

The Chinese has taken to capitalism like a duck to water. However, capitalism provides only a temporary fix. Yes China has grown rich but it has now produced more than the world can consume and it does not know how to get out of this conundrum other than to keep on producing. We are witnessing a massive disappearance of this surplus wealth. Its predicament is however different from that of Russia.

In Russia, for now, the state is strong because the wealth is from oil and gas, which flows to the state. In China, the wealth is owned by many economic players, so power has dissipated beyond the grasp of the central government. Social harmony can only be maintained with non-stop economic growth, which under current conditions can only be had with runaway credit growth. Like Russia, the Chinese government is whipping up nationalist furies to divert the anger that not only may bring down the ruling class but also fracture the state once economic turmoil sets in.

The Bushmen have no such worries of the ruled class overthrowing the ruling class because there's no formal leader of a camp. Decisions are reached by consensus. It's truly classless. There's only a core of older people for which greater respect is accorded. A camp consists of between 20 and 30 people who are related by blood or marriage. If tempers get frayed, some of the members may leave to join other camps. Moving between camps is not a problem because they love visiting other camps which fosters relationship ties. Revolt therefore is pre-empted.

A classless society doesn't come naturally. Humans are natural wealth accumulators, and it takes tremendous effort to wean them off this unyielding piece of their nature. The Bushmen have to constantly cultivate the sense of egalitarianism into the camp members. They deliberately belittle one another's hunting achievements so as to prevent such feats from going to their heads. Expressing gratitude for gifts is avoided because to do so would create a feeling of indebtedness to the bestower of gifts. Mocking others is systematic in the Bushmen society that even Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods fame was on the receiving end of a parody as can be observed in the video clip below. You can also see their egalitarian way as displayed in the sharing of the meat of a 5-ounce bird among 12 people, each one getting a morsel of bird meat.

To fulfil their economic capacity, the Bushmen employ two methods of food production: hunting and gathering. For long term sustainability, their rate of food production cannot exceed the natural rate of animal and plant reproduction. The surprising thing is they do not work harder than the average person. Their average workweek is about 42 hours per person and that includes toolmaking and housework. The rest of the time is spent on leisure, in relaxing, playing with children, telling stories, and participating in ceremonial activities. Their diet, rich in protein and without any starchy staples, surpasses internationally recommended levels of nutrients.

The Bushmen have exceptional tracking skills. Based on the spoor of animals, they can identify the number of animals, their travel direction, how long ago the animals passed by, how tired they are, whether there is a wounded animal among the herd which they will use to follow. They also can reconstruct the events that actually transpired based on the track marks. In tracking game animals, they rely on the cactus-like plant, Hoodia Gordonii, to suppress their appetites and thirst for up to 24 hours. Big game animals are not a usual treat, the more usual fare is the giant porcupine and the springhare. In the four days that Andrew Zimmern spent with the Bushmen, they managed to catch only one 60 kg porcupine.

While the men from the camp hunt, the women's task is to gather wild food plants. In fact, more than half of their diet comes from gathering. The protein-rich mongongo nut is a common food resource.

To be able to enjoy the luxury of working at a moderate pace, their population density is kept relatively low. The Bushmen rely on physiological means to control their population growth rate. By extending the number of years in which the mother nurses her infant, she delays the onset of her menstruation cycle. A woman needs around 20-25 percent of her body weight consisting of fat before she starts menstruating. The high protein and low carbohydrate diet also contributes to the delay in getting pregnant which can be more than four years after each birth.

For an egalitarian society, like the Bushmen, despite appearing to live in harmony with nature, it is vulnerable when coming into conflict with any wealth accumulating society. Even though the Kalahari scrubland is ill-suited for intensive agriculture, it still can support cattle herding, an activity carried out by the Bushmen neighbours, the Herero, a member of the Bantu people. The Bushmen used to be hunted down by the Herero and the Dutch Boer. Likewise, communism, if put head-to-head with capitalism will falter much earlier because it is weak in intensifying wealth generation. Capitalism's failure comes much later when its wealth distribution comes unstuck.

A comedy film, The Gods Must Be Crazy, is an excellent parody of how an eligatarian society is almost threatened upon being exposed to capitalism. It tells the story of Xi, a Bushman, who chances upon a Coca-Cola bottle thrown out of an aeroplane. The Bushmen have many uses for it but since there is only bottle, it is a cause of friction and much unhappiness among the camp members. It has introduced a sense of ownership in a society where there are no ownership rights. Despite the bottle providing some economic benefits, Xi takes the trouble to return the bottle to the Gods in order to bring back harmony to the camp. The same goes for capitalism. If the massive wealth has become a cause of many troubles now plaguing the world, shouldn't the world destroy the wealth to restore harmony?

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