Alright, so this is something I started thinking about a while back. And the basic idea here could probably be expanded into book length, if someone were to do the necessary research – for all I actually know, there might have been books written about this already – but the basic idea is pretty simple.
Here’s the basic idea: capitalism and communism are not actually opposites, as common wisdom tells us.
Let me repeat that: capitalism and communism are not actually opposites.
I mean sure, in terms of ideological justification, they are opposite. But let’s strip away all the ideology and instead look at how these two seemingly opposed economic systems actually function, in a purely material sense.
Capitalism, in a nutshell, functions through the accumulation and subsequent dispersion of capital.
Some people accumulate large amounts of capital – i.e. money – through various means.
As a sidenote, it’s important to keep ideology out of the language I use here. For example, use of the term “the free market” in place of “various means” would be borrowing an ideologically-loaded term from proponents of capitalism. Likewise, substituting “exploitation of workers” for “various means” would be borrowing a term from proponents of communism.
To be clear, in my opinion, “various means” includes both of those terms, and both of those terms have a certain amount of validity, in terms of material reality.
“The free market” does determine many different things, in any society with any type of market. But to be sure, there is no completely “free market” anywhere on the planet, due to the fact that people (and entities like corporations) have varying amounts of capital with which to influence the market and direct it in such a way as to benefit their interests. Nonetheless, consumer choice – what “the free market” generally refers to – does play a role in how markets turn out, even if there are a limited number of choices, and even if only a select few people and/or entities have access to this market.
Likewise, “exploitation of workers” is, at the end of the day, what drives all profits in any economic system. Quite simply (e.g.) without workers to flip burgers and sell those burgers to customers, McDonald’s Corporation would not pull in tens of billions of dollars every year. This material fact cannot be denied, and at any rate, any objection to it is irrelevant to the overall point of this essay.
Getting back to the point: capitalism and communism are not actually opposite, when you strip away all the ideological justification for both systems.
And again, to repeat: in a capitalist system, some people accumulate large amounts of capital through various means.
In a capitalist system, people and/or entities who have accumulated large amounts of capital can then invest that capital in other people and/or entities that need the capital for some purpose.
If person A has 50 billion dollars, and person B has an idea for a business that would cost 1 million dollars, for example, person A can invest 1 million dollars to help person B get that business started.
The machinations of the whole process (usually) involve many more people, and the accumulation of 50 billion dollars is rarely done without generational help, i.e. “old money” being passed from generation to generation.
But in a very basic sense, person A has a lot of capital, and decides to invest it in person B’s business idea. This is always – *always* – done because person A believes they will benefit from person B’s business in some way. If not for a direct cut of profits, then as a tax write off, or simply for the satisfaction of helping someone they like succeed. There’s always an element of self-interest involved in any investment, is the point.
So, in a very basic sense, this is how capitalism works: some people accumulate lots of capital through various means, and they distribute that capital as they see fit to other people, based on self-interest of some type.
Ok, fine, we all know that, so what does this have to do with communism?
Remember, for the purposes of this essay, ideological justification for both systems is irrelevant. So, this essay will briefly describe “communism” in terms of how communism has actually been implemented in the actual real world, as opposed to how “communism” has been dreamt of by leftist thinkers like Marx, Engels, et alia.
The ideal version of communism involves the minimum amount of “exploitation of workers” and so on, but the reality of it requires a lot of actual exploitation with very little recompense.
Workers under communism still have to work, but instead of working for a boss/company/corporation/whatever, they work for the state.
To be clear, to my view, this is not inherently bad. But in actual fact, workers under communism have to answer to a state apparatus that determines whether their work is good enough for them to keep working, or if they should be replaced by someone else, or if their job is even necessary at all.
The “state apparatus” consists of other people, obviously. A lot of other people. Functionaries, pencil pushers, “yes men,” economists, experts on various things, and so on, all the way up to an elite executive class of government workers, most often with a single leader at the very top who has the ultimate say-so over everyone else.
What has become apparent to me is that this basic structure of a communist regime is not fundamentally different from the structure of a corporation.
In the example of McDonald’s, burger flippers have to answer to store managers, who have to answer to regional managers, who get their directions from the corporate office, who base their decisions on the input of many different experts, from marketing/PR people to nutritionists to economic experts (as well as plenty of functionaries, pencil pushers, “yes men” and so on), all the way up to an elite executive class of McDonald’s employees, with a single leader – a CEO – at the very top who has the ultimate say-so over everyone else.
To reiterate: on paper, the vision of “communism” that Marx wrote about is a (more or less) egalitarian sort of society. Everyone is assigned work based upon their natural abilities and/or interests, and nobody has enough “capital” to subjugate anyone else, enslave anyone else, etc. The whole thing was presented as a “revolution” against capitalism, empowering the working class and eliminating the bourgeoisie, and so on and so forth.
On paper, “communism” as such does not sound all that bad. I mean, nobody likes being enslaved, subjugated, or anything like that, and (it would seem) to give everyone more or less the same amount of political and social influence would be a good thing.
But in reality, no communist government has ever achieved anything remotely close to this. What communist governments have actually done – without exception – is produce authoritarian regimes where one person has the ultimate say-so over everything, who is supported by an elite group of executives, who follow and enforce everything the leader says, and delegate further enforcement duties to lower-level executives, who delegate enforcement duties to the next level down, until, at the very bottom, you have soldiers pointing guns at workers, who are forced to do what the soldiers tell them.
To be sure, there are elements of communist economies (such that they are) that are not “enforced” directly by the state apparatus. But they are closely monitored by it, and prevented from gaining too much capital or influence over the economy and/or society.
For example, under a strictly communist regime, there might be restaurants where people can exchange what little money they have for a meal, or a place to sit and talk for a while, or what have you. But these restaurants must follow strict guidelines as to what they serve, and no restaurant owner would be allowed (without government approval) to open up a second restaurant, or to sell franchise rights to somebody else, etc.
For a capitalist example, let’s return to McDonald’s: each and every McDonald’s must abide by a strict set of guidelines as to what they can serve, how much they can charge for it, and so on. These guidelines – excluding health codes imposed by the government – come from the corporate office, and are strictly enforced, so that the McDonald’s brand and the customer experience of the brand is the more or less the same across all restaurants in the chain. A Big Mac in Hollywood tastes the same as a Big Mac in Peoria, for example.
Since Hollywood was mentioned, I want to mention a relevant example from one of my favorite movies, “Coming To America” starring Eddie Murphy. In this movie, Murphy portrays an African prince who moves to Queens, NYC in the hopes of finding his own queen, who he can marry and return to his kingdom with.
His love interest Lisa McDowell (portrayed by Shari Headley) is the daughter of the owner of an independent fast food restaurant called “McDowell’s” that in just about every way tries to mimic the menu and atmosphere of McDonald’s. At various points in the movie, representatives from McDonald’s try to prove that McDowell’s is infringing on their copyrights, resulting in some humorous scenes.
Point being, in real life, you can’t just go open up your own McDonald’s and start selling Big Macs without buying franchise rights from McDonald’s corporate office, and once you do, you have to abide by their guidelines, otherwise they take away your right to sell Big Macs.
These franchise rights are enabled and (to a degree) enforced by the government of the USA. If there were a real-life McDowell’s, McDonald’s could sue them for copyright infringement in a federal court of law.
Re “communist restaurants,” there is an actual chain of actual restaurants called Pyeongyang, named after the capital of North Korea, and controlled by the government of North Korea. If a franchise location fails to adhere to the strict guidelines for these restaurants, the restaurant will be shut down.
Similarly, if a McDonald’s franchise fails to adhere to the strict guidelines set out by McDonald’s corporate office, that franchise will be shut down.
“So,” you may or may not be asking, “what exactly are you trying to say here?”
To answer that, what I am saying (to repeat) is that capitalism and communism are not actually opposite systems. And to explain that statement a little further, what I am saying is that capitalism and communism are – in material reality – two forms of the same system.
In a nutshell, modern capitalism has evolved to the point where a relatively small number of corporations more or less own and control most aspects of the economy. At this point in history, it’s pretty much impossible to participate in the economy without interacting with corporations at every level of the economy.
To be clear, I’m not saying this is inherently bad, or that we should abolish corporations, or anything like that. I am just saying that a relatively small number of corporations more or less own and control most aspects of the economy.
As mentioned, these corporations are run in a “top-down” fashion, with a CEO at the top and workers at the bottom.
Likewise, communist economies are also run in a “top-down” fashion, with a “great leader” at the top and workers at the bottom.
The chief difference is – as I see it – that in communist economies, there is essentially one “corporation” running everything, that “corporation” being of course the government.
Modern capitalist economies have multiple corporations vying for influence, is the chief difference as I see it. But as time wears on, and corporations merge and take over each other, the number of corporations vying for influence will grow smaller and smaller. Eventually – it would seem – it’s possible that one corporation will own and control all the other corporations.
And if that should happen, what then would be different about this (imagined) future single-corporation capitalist economy and any communist economy that has ever existed?
Of course, there’s no way to know. Maybe an all-encompassing single corporation would not be as strict as a communist dictatorship. After all, the CEO and executive class of this capitalist corporation got their position through “the free market” and the subsequent accumulation of capital, and so on, whereas communist executives got their positions through non-democratic appointment, or (as is the case with the Kim dynasty in North Korea, for example), through being born into power.
What I have come to realize is that while “money” is the predominant form capital takes in a capitalist economy, and while communist economies limit the ability of individuals and/or non-governmental entities to accumulate enough capital in the form of money to threaten the state’s grip on the economy — read that again if necessary — communist economies/states nonetheless function using another form of capital: social influence.
Whether it’s being born into leadership, or brown-nosing one’s way into a position of power, this “social influence,” I suggest, is, in essence, a form of capital.
To be sure, in a communist system, certain people do ascend the sociological ladder based on their actual knowledge and/or ability. Scientists, doctors, and so on most definitely are chosen for positions based on their abilities.
But this knowledge and ability (also a form of capital, I would argue) only goes so far: if the most knowledgeable scientist in a communist regime speaks against the great leader or his “executives,” this scientist can be sent to the gulag or executed. For example.
Likewise, if someone at SpaceX were to (for example) say “Elon Musk is a grifter and a charlatan,” regardless of this person’s ability, they would not be working at SpaceX much longer.
The similarities don’t end there. Many corporations have maintained genealogical dynasties across generations, just like the Kims in North Korea. And just like the Kims (presumably) many promotions and appointments within these entirely capitalist corporations have been made based on friendships, loyalties, and other forms of “social capital” that have nothing to do with actual ability.
And again, I am not saying this is inherently bad, or even unfair. I am just saying that “social capital” can be accumulated and cashed in on (so to speak) in both capitalist and communist systems.
Looked at in this light, “communism” as it has existed in material reality is not a “revolution” as such against capitalism, it has merely been a restructuring of it.
The proclaimed purpose of the “revolution” is to liberate the worker from an entrenched social hierarchy that exploits labor; the reality of the “revolution” is an even more deeply entrenched social hierarchy that also exploits labor, often to much more extreme ends.
And “capital” per se has not been eliminated under real-world communism, it’s just been transmuted into a form that’s much more difficult to obtain.
So, in short, my assertion here is that communism is not fundamentally different from capitalism at all, it’s just another form of it. To reiterate, the accumulation of “capital” is still a fundamental part of how communism actually works, it’s that the “capital” is social influence as opposed to money.
Anyway, that’s what I have been thinking about lately. Thank you for reading.