Saturday, September 9, 2017

No, actually, it is both sides

Sometimes, I get into brutally one-sided fights with individuals who want to argue that capitalism is better than communism. I say one-sided, since they are interested in arguing and I'm not, and I shift the brunt of the emotional labor involved in keeping an argument going squarely upon them. This is a patently unfair move, to be sure, but if you seek me out specifically to reiterate a high school debate, it's an unfairness brought upon yourself; unlike both communism and capitalism, it is within your individual power to avoid this particular structural unfairness.

A more interesting approach to the capitalism/communism divide is to see them both as possible manifestations of modernity, with shared roots, shared symptoms and shared absurdnesses. Modernity could go either of these ways (possibly others as well), and we are now armed with a century of empirical data to study and learn from. Declaring either alternative to be 'better' and ending one's analysis there is a failure to engage with the data; it's ideology.

Sometimes, my non-participation in these fights is interpreted as an ideological proclamation. Since I refuse to partake in these small moments of grandstanding against communism, I must be on team communism. And thus, they unleash the killer question, the question to end all questions:

Do you want to live like they did in the Soviet Union?

Funny you should ask.

There are a non-trivial amount of stories emerging from the US right now about how the current megastorms (Harvey, Irma) are impacting ordinary everyday citizens. Some are about price gauging, which is to say the process predicted by neoclassical economics wherein it becomes more expensive to survive the worse things get. Those stories are not surprising; economists have long referred to this as the cost of doing business. More surprising, however, are the stories of individuals fleeing the oncoming megastorms - and subsequently getting fired for not showing up to work.

If your frame of reference is that capitalism is better than communism, then you will be ill equipped to discuss this state of things. It makes no sense on the face of it to penalize workers for evacuating in the face of a storm encompassing whole states; the words force majeure spring to mind. No reasonable person would expect ordinary people to have to stay and die in the face of overwhelming natural forces for the sake of a contractual agreement. Those kinds of suicidal heroics for symbolic causes are the stuff of war legends, not of everyday workaday business as usual.

To be sure, die-hard ideological capitalists would probably not be surprised to hear of these things if they were told it happened in the Soviet Union. But it is happening now, in the United States, the self-avowed bastion of capitalist free enterprise. Why do we see the same disregard for individual liberty in both instances?

If you view communism and capitalism as two possible variations of the same overarching historical tendency, then these stories become less confusing. Seen in the light of increased bureaucratization and the insistence that formal rules trump informal actualities (e.g. megastorms), it makes sense. We may not agree with the practice of expecting employees to stand and die for companies that spend more money lobbying against increased minimal wages than it would cost to simply pay those minimal wages, but we have a framework for understanding that these demands do not spring from nothing. There are historical trends and forces at work, and you do not have to have read Kafka to understand them.

But it helps.

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