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I hate to tell you, but we’re all partly Communists

You probably clicked due to the click-baiting nature of the title to see what kind of trickery lies behind it. However, for once, this title means exactly what it says.

Communism, due to its catastrophic historical application, has been directly associated to a brutal Totalitarian State, causing the death and suffering of millions of its people. In this short piece however, let’s try to distinguish the original idea from it’s application.

In order to avoid writing an overly long-winded essay, I’ll try to condense Marx’s intention into one of his most quoted slogans (even though he was not the first to use it): “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Marx posited that under Communism, enough goods and services would be produced to satisfy everyone’s needs and so you could simply contribute what you can (work to the best of your ability) and take whatever you need.

You might say: “sure, that sounds nice, a bit like the Smurf village, but what does this have to do with me?”

On a “micro” level, many parts of our lives actually abide by this very principle. Here is one example: every now and again, a neighbour would issue a proposal to organize a neighbourhood party. You would all meet in the street, bring some chairs and tables, bring some food, sit down, eat, socialize, collectively clean up and then go home.

This type of event is organized on the basis of Communist ideals. Each person shared whatever chairs and tables he/she had at their disposal, each person brought food/drinks in accordance with their ability (if you were good with main dishes, you’d bring a main dish, if you were good at deserts, you’d bring a desert…), and then you’d split up the chairs/tables according to the need. For instance, say an elderly person in the group had a bad back and you brought the most comfortable chair, chances are you’d let that person sit in that chair. You would also put the food on the table and let everyone serve him/herself according to their personal needs (no rationing or control). Finally, you would collectively clean up until such time as the clean-up was done (that is, you collectively satisfied the need to restore the tables and chairs to their original state, without looking at who ate like a pig or who was cleaning up the slowest or least effectively during the cleaning process).

Under a Capitalist logic, you would have to analyze each of those steps in terms of initial investment (costs) and revenue. For instance, if you cooked a desert, you would have to evaluate the initial cost to produce it (raw materials, energy, use of your capital such as your oven, and labour - that being the time you invested in doing it). Let’s say that for the sake of simplicity, you would not try to make a profit but at least to make sure that your revenue would cover your costs and you would make a neutral transaction. I won’t even go into how you would assess the sharing of your chairs and table under Capitalism, I wouldn’t want you to pull your hair out. I also skipped an initial step to avoid giving you a headache right off the bat: under Capitalism you wouldn’t cook whatever you’re best at, but based on your estimate of other people’s culinary preferences (demand) to maximize your potential profits (more demand for a scarce good would drive up it’s price, maximizing your profits).

So you bring your desert to the party. Now, you have two options:

1) You decide to play it simple and put everything on the table and share, in which case, you would only “break even” if you could somehow estimate, in the food you chose to eat, its initial cost (raw materials, capital use, energy and let’s say that the labour is equal, otherwise it’s again a nightmare) and make sure to eat the equivalent of your initial investment (for instance, a quarter of a pie, half a chicken and a small salad).

2) You decide to play it “free market” style. Each person places their item on a stand and sit in a circle. They are now simultaneously buyers and sellers (let’s assume everyone took their wallets). Each person would have to place a “bid” on the food he/she would like to buy and a floor price at which he is willing to sell his food. Free market mechanisms of offer and demand would balance the bidding process. If no one offered a bid high enough to purchase your food, you would lower the price to the highest bidder, if several people wanted to buy the same food above of the floor price, they would outbid each other until one would end on top. After that lengthy process, you could finally sit down, eat/drink the cold food in the dark and count your earnings to see if you were fortunate enough to turn a profit, or unfortunate enough to make a loss (it is indeed, very unlikely that the bidding process would equally compensate people for their initial investment given the unique needs/preferences of people).

Oh, wait, you though you were done? You still need to clean up! Under Capitalism, you would need to gauge each person’s willingness to clean up compared with their willingness to pay someone else to do it with another round of bidding. Each person would be at the same time an employer (but only for the mess present on his table) and an employee (willing to clean up the mess of others) and would issue two bids: one bid that represents how much you are willing to pay someone for cleaning up the mess on your table, another bid that represents how much you would ask for cleaning somebody else’s mess. Should there be no match between the different bids issued, a process of under bidding, over bidding between employers and employees takes place until you get a match. This is assuming that each person made an equal amount of mess, otherwise the process might be even more complicated. Finally, you will notice that I spared you the whole process of advertising which is central to Capitalism. Normally, each person present at the party should have printed all kinds of propagan… sorry, advertising material as a sales pitch to the other neighbours: “The best spaghetti sauce you’ll find, authentic Italian receipt”, “Tasty brownies, like you’re grandma used to make”… You’d also have to sell yourself when the time came to clean stuff up: “5 years of experience with cleaning material, scrubbing, whipping, polishing, your table will be as good as new”…

Now that you have laughed a bit, let’s return to Communism. Another example where Communist values manifest themselves very clearly are the family. Yes, you heard me right, the family. Take the example of a family dinner. Each family member would contribute according to his/her ability (the children not knowing how to cook, they could prepare the table), then sit down, and share the meal according to each person’s needs. Let’s assume however that the children did not help in setting up the table. Does it matter? Not really. A further interesting consideration is the allocation of bedrooms. How would you decide to allocate them assuming that they are all unique? You would have to be the judge of which child needs it the most. Under Communism, you would never seek to differentiate between your children on the basis of merit (for instance, giving more food and the bigger room to the child which has the best grades at school), but based on need, even if it may be deemed unfair from a “merit based” system (like under Capitalism). Say, for instance, that one of your children, the one with the worse school grades, suffered from chronic obesity. If the larger room was situated downstairs, based on Marx’s principle, you would reserve that room for him given his greater difficulty to go up and down the stairs.

You know it was coming… Let’s see what would happen if you would treat your household like a Capitalist run society. You, the parents, are the rightful owners/managers of the household corporation. Your children may be your rightful heirs, they will only inherit after you die. In the meantime, your right to access any good in the household is based entirely on whether they wish to act as a charity or a Capitalist entreprise. A Capitalist owner would see two hungry low skilled unemployed workers, looking to sell their labour in exchange for money, to purchase the food that you have just finished cooking. For the sake of simplicity, lets say that there are no other such Capitalist run households in the surrounding environment, making it impossible for the children to seek labour elsewhere. Since there are two of them and the task of setting the table is very simple, you would force them to under bid each other until one of them would not be willing to go any lower. You would then pay that child a miserable salary thanks to offer and demand mechanisms of the free market. The child with the money would now ask to purchase part of the food you have cooked to eat. Having evaluated the total cost of production, the parents split up the food into small portions. The size of the portion they would exchange against the child’s money would be dependent on market forces: the child is in a position of inferior bargaining power since he is hungry. The parents, on the other hand, are in a situation of Monopoly: they are the only Capitalist entreprise in the surrounding area and can therefore reduce the size of the portion until the point where the child would prefer keeping his money than to buy the crumbs that are being proposed to him (postulating that he is a rational economic agent, maybe he figured out that the nutritional value of the paper on which the money is printed is more nutritious than the crumbs)… So once the child has exchanged his money against the crumbs + 1, the other child is left to starve. The Capitalist household corporation does not seek any new employees at this time.

To finish, I would like to point out that this essay, although building on principles and values of both Communism and Capitalism, is mostly humorous. It’s main purpose was to show that depending on the situation, a seemingly horrible ideology like Communism constitutes what is “normal” human behaviour at a micro level, while a familiar ideology applied to nearly every aspects of our daily lives like free market economics or Capitalism, could be a nightmare if extended to relations with friends and family.

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