There are two organizing principles that self-sufficient communities can rely on in order to succeed: communist organization of production and communist organization of consumption. Both of these produce much better results for the same amount of effort, and neither is generally available to the larger society, which has to rely on the far more wasteful market-based or central planning-based mechanisms, both of which incur vast amounts of unproductive overhead—bankers, traders and regulators in the case of market-based approaches, and government bureaucrats and administrators in the case of centrally planned approaches. History has shown that market-based approaches are marginally more efficient than centrally planned ones, but neither one comes anywhere near the effectiveness of communist approaches practiced on the small scale of a commune.
Leaving aside the question of religion and its role in organizing communist societies, it should be sufficient to point to the example of the Dukhobors in Canada to demonstrate the economic superiority of communist labor over individual labor. Having arrived in Canada penniless, they were forced to settle in an as yet unoccupied, cold part of Alberta. Due to their lack of horses, their women would hitch up to the plough 20 or 30 at a time, while the middle-aged men worked on the railroad, giving up their earnings to the commune. However, after seven or eight years all 6000 or 7000 Dukhobors achieved a level of well-being, having organized their agriculture and their life with the help of all sorts of modern agricultural equipment—American mowers and bailers, threshers, steam-powered mills—all on communal principles.Moreover, they were able to buy land on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, in British Columbia, where they founded a colony devoted to growing fruit, which these vegetarians sorely lacked in Alberta, where apples, pears and plums do not bear fruit because their blossoms are killed off by May frosts.And so here we have a union of 20 communist settlements, where each family lives in its own house, but all field work is done together, and each family takes from the communal stores what it needs to live. This organization, which for several years was supported by their religious idea, does not correspond to our ideals; but we must recognize that, from the point of view of economic life, it has conclusively demonstrated the superiority of communal labor over individual labor, as well as the ability to adapt this labor to the needs of modern mechanized agriculture.
A similar, contemporary example is provided by the Hutterites, who tend to be up on all the latest trends and techniques in agriculture and make productive use of industrial resources.
It stands to reason that communist production methods would outperform capitalist ones. On the one hand, you have a group of people driven to work together out of a sense of solidarity and mutual obligation, cooperating of their own free will, free to switch tasks to keep life from becoming monotonous, free to do what they believe would work best, using work as a way to earn respect and improve their social standing, knowing full well that their fellows will take care of them and their families should they ever become unable to work. On the other hand, you have commoditized human beings pigeon-holed by a standardized skill set and a job description, playing the odds in an arbitrary and precarious job market, blindly following orders for fear of ending up unemployed, relying on work to keep them and their immediate family from homelessness and starvation, and discarded once “burned out” on the set of tasks for which they are considered “qualified.” The result of all this is that 70% of the workers in the US say that they hate their job, putting a gigantic drag on the capitalist economy:
Just 30 percent of employees are engaged and inspired at work, according to Gallup's 2013 State of the American Workplace Report, which surveyed more than 150,000 full- and part-time workers during 2012. That's up from 28 percent in 2010. The rest … not so much. A little more than half of workers (52 percent) have a perpetual case of the Mondays—they're present, but not particularly excited about their job. The remaining 18 percent are actively disengaged or, as Gallup CEO Jim Clifton put it in the report, “roam the halls spreading discontent.” Worse, Gallup reports, those actively disengaged employees cost the U.S. up to $550 billion annually in lost productivity. (link)
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Having shown the superiority of communist production methods, let us turn to communist consumption. Kropotkin again:
In addition to these successful attempts at communism in agriculture, we can also point to numerous examples of partial communism having as its goal pure consumption, and which takes place in the many attempts at socialization taking place in the midst of bourgeois society—among private persons as well as entire cities (so-called municipal or city socialism).What is a hotel, a cruise-ship, a boarding house, if not an attempt in this direction being made within a bourgeois society? In exchange for a certain payments—so many rubles per day—you are allowed to choose what you like from ten or more dishes, which are offered to you on board a ship or a hotel buffet, and it does not occur to anyone to account for how much you eat...The bourgeois have understood perfectly well what a huge advantage they gain from this sort of limited communism in consumption, combined with full independence of the individual. And so they have arranged things so that, in exchange for a certain payment—so much per day or per month—all of their needs for food and shelter are satisfied without any additional worry. Luxury items, such as richly appointed rooms or fine wines, have to be paid for separately, of course, but for a payment which is the same for all, all the basic needs are satisfied, not caring how much or how little each person will consume at the common table.
Putting both production and consumption together, let us consider the case of a small farming community that grows, among other things, corn. If it were organized along communist lines, it would grow the corn, and then distribute that same corn, cook it, and eat it. If it were organized along capitalist lines, it would grow the corn, then sell it to a processor at $5 a bushel and then buy it back from a supermarket at $1.69 for a 15-ounce can (of mostly water). Disregarding the weight of the water, what they get back is around 80 times less corn. By participating in the market economy, they would effectively be allowing their corn to be taxed at a 98.75% rate.
What all of this adds up to is that communities organized along communist lines can become self-sufficient in a handful of years and quite affluent shortly thereafter. And it is affluence (along with lack of persecution from the outside) that is often at the root of their undoing. Affluence creates too many temptations, makes it difficult to distinguish needs from wants, and allows systems of mutual self-help to atrophy from disuse. But there are many ways to avoid the trap of affluence, provided its dangers are recognized early enough. One is to work less, by coming up with a long list of days during which one is not allowed to work, starting with Sunday and/or Sabbath and expanding the list from there. With a bit of effort the work schedule can be brought down to around 100 days a year. Another is to eat up the surplus by upholding certain unproductive but satisfying community standards, such as requiring fresh cut flowers on the table at every meal, high quality of polish and varnish on exterior woodwork, and intricate hand-woven banners flying at festive occasions. Yet another (popular with the Mormons) is to proselytize, recruit and spread the revolution. Yet another, popular with the Hutterites, is to have lots of children and spread out over the landscape, gobbling up and reclaiming farmland, splitting whenever a colony outgrows Dunbar's number of 150 in order to remain anarchic and to continue to self-govern by consensus. One more example: the Roma like to burn through fantastic sums of money by throwing lavish wedding feasts that last three days. The ways of burning off excess wealth can range from music festivals to theatrical productions to historical reenactments complete with authentic-looking props. The threat of affluence is a nice problem to have, and provided that money isn't allowed to pile up, creating a big temptation to re-privatize, it does not have to be damaging.
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Those who chafe at the use of the word “communist” should feel reassured that no military or political “communist menace” is ever likely to reassert itself: state communism is as dead as a burned piece of wood. The one remaining, ongoing attempt at unreformed state communism is North Korea, and it is the exception that proves the rule. On the other hand, regardless of your opinions, you too are a communist. First, you are human, and over 99% of their existence as a species humans have lived in small tribes organized on communist principles, with no individual land ownership, no wage labor, no government, and no private property beyond a few personal effects. If it weren't for communism, you wouldn't be here. Second, if you have a family, it is likely to be run on communist principles: it is unlikely that you invoice your children for the candy they eat, or negotiate with your spouse over who gets to feed them. The communist organizing principle “From each according to abilities, to each according to needs” is what seems to prevail in most families, and the case where it doesn't we tend to regard as degenerate. From this it seems safe to assume that if you are human and draw oxygen, then you must be, in some sense, a communist.
None of this has anything to do with the communist style of government or with state communism. That state communism is an oxymoron was recognized from the outset, and it only existed as an aberration of state socialism, which can be made to work—just not very well. Nevertheless, we can learn something by looking at the principles embraced by the great International Worker's Movement of the 19th century. Here they are, as spelled out by Peter Kropotkin:
1. The elimination of wage labor, which the capitalist pays to the worker, since it is nothing more than a contemporary form of slavery and serfdom
2. The elimination of private property for all that which society requires for the organization of socialized production and distribution
3. The liberation of the individual and of society from that form of political enslavement—government—which serves to support and maintain a system of economic enslavement
These tenets may seem quaint and idealistic; after all, what has come of the efforts to implement them? A globalized economy of labor arbitrage that sends the work to the lowest-paid sweatshops... a population abjectly dependent on uncertain wage labor and government hand-outs... Thus, it is nothing short of remarkable that the abiding countercultural communities I have looked at all seem to embrace these tenets to a fair extent.
All of them do their best to not work for wages, refusing to be “proletarianized.” Let us look at some specific examples.
The Roma, also known as the Gypsies, are the largest abiding separatist group in existence, with their numbers known only approximately (since they usually refuse to be counted in a census and hide their identity) but are generally believed to be well in the millions. They will contract to do work as work groups (called kumpania) but never as individuals, and all the earnings are given to the Rom baro who is the self-appointed leader with the responsibility for distributing these earnings according to merit and need. This system is extended to every other type of good that is taken in from the outside; for example, aid workers are often displeased to find that their handouts don't necessarily go to the person they designated as the recipient but are distributed based on merit and need as they are perceived by the Roma themselves.
The Hutterites, an Anabaptist group which has its origins in 16th century Tyrol and which has since traversed many countries including Russia, eventually settling in the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan, as well as in Montana and the Dacotas, and number in the tens of thousands. They are growing rapidly because of their very high birth rate (highest of any human group by some estimations). They live in agrarian communes of between 75 and 150 adult members, and are entirely communist, practicing the doctrine of “everything in common.” While the Hutterites are at one end of the spectrum with regard to private property, the spectrum extends to other groups: other Anabaptist communities (Amish, Mennonite), the Mormons and the Roma all unconditionally pledge a large part of their private property to the common cause, in order to support an extensive system of mutual self-help. For example, the Amish have successfully lobbied the federal government in the US to be exempted from the Social Security system. They did not mind paying into it, seeing it as the work of charity, but they did not want their members individually receiving checks from the outside, seeing this as detrimental to their internal system of mutual self-help. Likewise, the Mormons and the Orthodox Jews run internal welfare organizations that make their communities independent of government hand-outs. Among the Roma, the social unit within which mutual self-help is practiced unconditionally is the vitsa, or clan, and within it the free sharing of individual wealth takes the place child support, insurance and retirement.
In addition to having as little as possible to do with the government, all of the above groups refuse to have anything to do with the military. The Roma escape military conscription by virtue of being nomadic and not having an address to which a conscription notice could be sent. They also make it a point to make it hard to identify them individually by maintaining an internal, secret name and an external, public name which they change frequently, especially when moving from place to place. The Hutterites are likewise pacifist, and have been forced to flee Russia for the US, then the US for Canada, to avoid conscription. The Dukhobors, who faced persecution in Russia due to their pacifism (one of their founding episodes involved gathering and burning all of their weapons) relocated to Alberta, but then were forced to relocate to British Columbia over their refusal to pledge allegiance to the provincial government. It makes perfect sense that such small, widely dispersed groups would find no use for weapons or for militarism: should they ever try to stand up to the majority militarily, they would be wiped out. Instead, their defenses include posing no threat and being willing to flee. The Roma in particular are often ready to flee on a moment's notice.
Although all of these groups (with the exception of the Dukhobors, who have all but dissolved in the surrounding Canadian society for reasons we will take up later) have done well to curb wage labor and private property and to remain free of the tentacles of the government, such independence is sometimes impossible to maintain: the need to pay property and land taxes forces these groups into trade with the outside, and sometimes even into wage labor. Taxes are these groups' Achilles' heel, and tax avoidance (along with avoidance of military service and compulsory public education) must be a prime objective of all groups that want to maintain their independence. Peter Kropotkin has this to say on the subject of taxation:
This is how, quietly and gradually, control of the people by the aristocracy and the rich bourgeoisie—against whom the people have once risen up, when confronting them face to face—is now exercised with the consent and even the approval of the people: under the guise of tax!Let's not even talk about taxes to support the military, since by now everybody should know what to think of these. Was there ever a time when a permanent army wasn't used to hold the population in slavery? And was there ever a time when the regular army could conquer a land where it was confronted by an armed populace?Take any tax, be it direct or indirect: on land, on income or on consumption, be it levied to finance government debt or to pretend to pay it off (since, you know, these debts are never repaid, but only grow). Take a tax levied to finance war, or a tax levied to pay for public education. If you study it, and discover what it leads to in the end, you will be stunned by the great power, the great might which we have relinquished to those who rule us.A tax is the most convenient way to hold the population in poverty. It provides the means to bankrupt entire classes of people: land-owners, industrial workers—just when they, after a series of tremendous efforts, finally gain a slight improvement in their well-being. At the same time, it provides the most convenient means for refashioning government into a permanent monopoly of the wealthy. Finally, it provides a seemly pretext for accumulating weapons, which one fine day will be used for the suppression of the people should they rise up.Like a sea monster of ancient tales, a tax provide the opportunity to entangle all of society and to redirect the efforts of individuals toward the enrichment of privileged classes and government monopolies.And as long as the government, armed with the tax, continues to exist, the liberation of working people cannot be achieved through any means—neither through reform, nor through revolution.
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A couple of months ago I was part to a conversation that included Albert Bates of The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee, at one time one of the largest hippie communes ever, and Orren Whiddon of the Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary in Artemas, Pennsylvania, a sprawling campground that is also a church, a monastery, winery, a precision machine shop and a school. The discussion centered on ways in which small communities can avoid becoming entangled in the tentacles of officialdom, and the conclusion was that the community stands the best chance if it is simultaneously all of the following things:
- A church
- A nature preserve
- A historical society
For those atheists who dislike the idea of church, please look into Pastafarianism. I am happy to report that the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has just been successfully incorporated in Russia. Ladies and gentlemen, please don your pasta strainers! In the name of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Ramen!
This is a lot to think through in one week, so I will leave it at this. Next week we will take up an equally important topic of that without which no community can ever abide: children, youth, and how some of them manage to bring them up, educate them and give them the freedom to run away and come back—so as to keep them.