I recently completed reading The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Max. At only thirty-two pages long, it was a long and grudgingly boring read. I thought I was reading a book ten times the length, but I do believe I have imparted the general idea of what he espoused. While communism in its many forms that were tried in the 20th century, have failed, often disastrously, with the exception of China (which by opening up ever more aspects of its economy to free-market principles, essentially forestalled the political ramifications a central-command government eventually faces). I don’t believe that communism, as attempted so far, is the communism that Karl Marx proposed. In this post, I am not defending those 20th century communist regimes. In fact, after reading the Communist Manifesto, I do not think they were very communist, and if they were, they may have started out with the best of intentions, but the results, at least in the short-term, were anything but.
The end-result, or logical progression, of Karl Marx’s communism, in essence, was the abolition of government, and by extension, money, and equal status to all people in terms of opportunity (not possessions). What he saw, and wrote, must be understood in context of his time, and realized that the future he envisioned, would not come within his lifetime (though maybe he didn’t know this, I can’t tell). He lived at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and saw the rapid industrialization that occurred, and was right to say that capital would flow upwards in the antagonistic struggle between capital and labour, as those lower on the totem pole would eventually be replaced and relegated to a smaller subsection of the populace in an anarchic free-market system, and correctly extrapolated that this trend cannot continue indefinitely. But, he was unable to extrapolate that new jobs would be created to replace old jobs, but the jobs engines that has been continually creating new jobs is finally showing signs of its mortality, and it probably won’t last forever.
In those nations that tried on communism, the age-old dilemma of mistranslation and misappropriation of ideas, coupled with the rarely changing mindsets of people, led to poverty, and sometimes tragedy, where ever communism was exported, as well as in the free-market also (working workers to death, slavery, and unequal pay between the sexes etc.).
But I think that Karl was ahead of his time (perhaps a little too far). Consider where we are now with our current trends racing relentlessly into the future. We are moving towards an increasingly automated future where jobs will become more and more scarce as the law of diminishing returns rears its ugly head (new technologies now are creating fewer jobs than they replace), which will grind away at social stability. Soon, machines and artificial intelligence (AI) will do human jobs better than humans; without lunch breaks, smoke breaks (or any breaks for that matter), insurance, distractions, sick leave, and so many other factors that retard human output as well as increase the cost of labour, and thus goods and services.
We are moving into a future where potentially everyone will have a 3D (additive) printer in their homes, replacing the need for factories and factory workers. You need a new mug, you’ll print it. If you need a new phone, you’ll print it, and if you’ll need a new printer, you’ll print it, and so on. Materials will be assembled into the feed for these printers most likely; inside the countries themselves by automated processes, reducing international shipping and all the jobs it provides. Indoor farms combining aeroponics, aquaponics, and hydroponics will be capable of growing any food from any climate anywhere and everywhere, further reducing trans-city-country-continental transportation. Portable medical devices are on the horizon that will replace your general practitioner (GP) in identifying what type of illness you have, as well as articulate in detail the remedies for the proper healing taken in consideration of your genetic makeup, all analysed in the blink of an eye with 99.99% accuracy (predicted), and the drugs will be printed on an additive printer no less! Nanotechnology is on the up and up, and in the coming decades, may release the awesome potential of building everything, anywhere, anytime using any input, at the atomic level with zero-waste. You will literally be able to turn anything into anything else!
How could something as medieval as money survive in a future like this? Money is a physical manifestation of scarcity. Replacing the ancient tradition of trading goods directly and acting as a medium of exchange between all goods, and evolving along with society. In the beginning, predominantly taking the form of gold and silver, as well as dozens of other forms (cheese in some parts of ancient Italy, and tea in Siberia way back when). Then constantly oscillating back and forth between gold standards, silver standards, paper standards, and combinations thereof. Now we find ourselves in the midst of a global paper standard. But because money evolves lineally, and our technology has in the last hundred years, begun evolving exponentially, money will, by necessity, eventually shed the characteristics that necessitated its original conditions because everything else in its environment will evolve beyond a need of it. This is a core concept of evolution, and since technological evolution is an extension of biological evolution: we can think of money in a resource-scarce environment as random mutation in a naturally selecting environment (society). But technological evolution continues, and now, exponentially increases in capacity and capability. Thus the conditions that selected the monetary-mutation are beginning to move beyond scarcity, i.e. money is losing its value (and hopefully will die), and into abundance, soon afterwards, perhaps infinite abundance (nanotechnology, anything becomes everything and trade essentially ceases).
To side-track to biological evolution to try to further the point. We humans evolved with enzymes that could process and digest raw meat, yet we no longer have them because we invented fire and the frying pan; an external stomach that replaced raw-food enzymes (and which by the way, allowed the necessary conditions to grow our brains far in excess to other primates and become the dominant ape by out-eating them). Within just a few tens-of-thousands of years (an evolutionary second), we could no longer eat raw meat (if you ate only raw meat for 90 days, you’d die). Money evolved, i.e., was bought into being as an improvement to the previous paradigm of direct trading, facilitating a division of labour, which amplified co-operation, increased specialization, resulting in technological progression, and societal advancement. Yet in evolution, it is very rare for a trait to outlast for long the conditions that necessitated its creation and subsequent survival, and such will (hopefully) be the case for money soon. Money is subject to the same laws of diminishing returns as everything else. Much as the faltering, or sputtering of the jobs engine of our current economies as they are replaced by technologies that far out-do people in terms of cost, speed, and reliability, in the process, creating fewer jobs than they replace. Yet due to the stigma of 20th century communism, I fear the necessary discourse will never occur, or perhaps occur too late in updating capitalism to keep pace with the continually evolving and accelerating change of this technological century.
Only a simple understanding of ‘Supply and Demand‘ is required to understand this point. If the demand and supply of a product stay constant, then the price remains stable. If demand increases without a comparable increase in supply: that is, demand outstrips supply, then the price rises and vice-versa. If a product has a large unrefined supply, but requires expensive tools of production to bring it to market: then the price is high and vice-versa. So in this future we find ourselves barrelling towards, where both supply is bountiful, or its use so exceedingly efficient as to nullify it, or where any resource can be used to create any other resource as is done with additive manufacturing and nanotechnology, then what possible use will money have? This is not to say it will disappear overnight, more than likely, it will deflate and continue deflating as our technological progress accelerates until we come upon a day where we find it is no longer necessary. Whether that takes 20, 40, or 100 years remains to be seen. That process will create economic pain, even if exponential in nature, because if people still need money to buy food, water, and shelter, and if the majority of the population is out of work; how does taxation, government, redistribution, and public benefits work so as not to antagonize class differences? (The end result of this exponential technological progress is that there are no more class differences or haves / have-nots, but the ramp-up is where the concern lies as the system which will eventually benefit everyone might be dismantled by shortsighted doom-and-gloom thinking)
Providing we can circumnavigate such problems, and arrive to the other side in one piece. In such an economy, where supply and demand become irrelevant, and individual needs and wants take precedence, where government is no longer required as an ‘impartial‘ arbiter, and where people are simply given everything they need to survive and thrive since it costs nothing to produce in terms of human labour, does not the ideal of communism ring true? I don’t mean the central bank that it demands (we still use them anyway), or the agricultural army it stipulated, or any other requirements that served more as a transitory approach, but the overall meaning. That everyone is equal, and we all deserve opportunities, all men and women are given the ability to shine, if they so choose.
I do believe that the essence of the message rings true, despite what other subjects he waxed on about, or didn’t, which seem obvious to us now in hindsight, but which wouldn’t have in his time. A lot of meaning is lost in the translation between German to English, and I imagine even more so, between the 18th century and the 21st. He did live two-hundred-years ago, so the allure of projecting todays moral and ethical framework on to his thinking is tempting, but which, at the end of the day, is only a shortcut to ignorant thinking. To truly understand it, we must flip the polarity of time and study it in that sense, which is what I have attempted to do in this post and distil what he may have meant (of course, I may still wrong).
Looking to history and projecting into the future, we find that most of our descendants views on several issues as immoral. Slavery, segregation, extreme classism, rules of war, as well as acts of war among many others. I see no such difference in today’s morality looking forward and fully expect those in the future to look back upon our own morality as incrementally better than the generations before us. Perhaps they will be as quick to judge us, as we to those that came before us. From our Keynesian fantasies which prolong, expand, and exacerbate the misery of billions (via a central bank and extraction of wealth), along with its isolation, consolidation and subsequent corruption of a few elite bankers who hold monetary power over billions, to those down the lower end of the monetary totem-pole being unable to afford certain necessities; healthy food, healthcare, and shelter, which would otherwise increase quality of life by removing the negative influences that affect mental and physical wellbeing (often diet-related), and which, when removed result in increased cooperation, knowledge-creation, which in our modern society makes it healthier for all involved, rich and poor alike and those who fit snugly in-between.
To use a real example of the potential problems down the road. Studies have shown that it cost society far less money to house chronic homeless people; that is, give them a free home, income benefits, and health insurance, than it is to leave them on the street, or even put them in a shelter. A Boston Health Care study tracked one-hundred-nineteen chronic homeless folk, and found that over five-years, they were admitted to emergency care 18,834 times, and that’s with thirty-three of them dying, and seven placed in a nursing home. A study in San Diego found that putting homeless people in an actual home resulted in a 61% reduction in emergency room benefits, and a 62% reduction in inpatient days over two years, with each visit costing at least $1,000. Putting chronic homeless people in a shelter costs $24,000 per year per person. And during the day, they are roaming the streets and increasingly likely to end up in jail, so that $24,000 does not include the cost of jailing, guarding, and feeding them when they are put in jail, which often occurs as a result of depression, and substance abuse that often accompanies their wandering street-life. What will we do in the future when joblessness is increasingly common, and the tools to create high-quality automated homes, automated medical care, and food are a tiny fraction of todays cost? Will we turn our back on them, because of out-dated free-market-principles? Besides, you can’t have a society that neglects a majority of its citizens without decay and eventually revolution (or in the case of an advanced force against those with nothing, mass-jailing or genocide).
People are created equal, not genetically, nor in their physical or mental ability, but morally in the context of our societies. If we allow any (unfair) inequality to creep in (which for now is inevitable), it slowly but surely grinds away at the fabric of society, only for the potential of violence to rear its ugly head. In this regard, one of the great moral achievements of humanity is the slowly increasing minimally acceptable status one can have by providing help to those unfortunate enough to be at the lowest of the low (both by free-market economics driving the prices down and public assistance in the form of welfare, which was inspired by communistic thinking). Of course, as many will rightly point out, the latter is easily abused, mostly by political pandering and selfish voting, and we’ve seen the indulgences and problems inherent in an overburdened welfare state, but that in no way undermines its validity in the correct doses.
Nothing is perfect, much as we live today in a bastardized version of the free market, the communism of the USSR in the 20th century turned into a bastardized version of communism (though I’m glad I live in the former). With that being said, what many people overlook, or completely neglect to take into account is both socioeconomic systems are context-specific. In environments of scarcity, the free-market reigns supreme (though without a moral framework, it goes horribly wrong, i.e. slavery). In environments of limitless abundance, money, government, and classes have no place. And in the transition period between the two, ideological and emotionally based, shortsighted thinking tends to outweigh reasoned and objective analysis, potentially turning otherwise fixable periods into disaster due to the nature of democracy and political pandering. In the future when we have the technological marvels that will arise out of today’s inventions, bought into being by the capitalist workings of scarcity, will not the ideal of communism ring true in an age of abundance? (Not its 20th century misappropriations).
The rigidity of our political and economic institutions is what is at issue here; it must evolve and adapt in response to the self-changing environment we created, instead of boxing us into the past. In human history, we have example after example of people and societies holding onto tradition and frameworks for far too long after their usefulness has evaporated, and being unable to let go of the past, they often paid the price, some the ultimate price. Capitalism will be in a similar position soon.