Friday, August 18, 2017

State capitalism, anarcho-communism and the appeal of incrementalism

A few weeks ago I had the rare opportunity to try North Korean beer.  To my great surprise, it was excellent, and certainly far better than any South Korean beer I’ve ever had.  This paradox amused me enough that I made a lighthearted Facebook post pretending my tasting experience had shaken my capitalist convictions to their core.  The post received dozens of likes, approving comments and “Haha” reactions, thus validating my quick wit and clever commentary on global affairs and making me very pleased with myself.

It also received a comment from a friend of mine who describes himself as anarcho-communist.  This friend reassured me (playfully) that I needn’t question my beliefs after all, because North Korea was in fact a “state capitalist” regime.  When a second, staunchly capitalist friend took issue with this, the first friend distinguished between “real” communism in which ““the public truly shares in common the means of production and directs their use through direct democracy” and what he calls state capitalism, in which the state “maintains (and exacerbates) the existence of an exploiting class and an exploited class.”  He continued:

“A communist society is based on federalized, directly democratic control of economic and social decisions. There is no exploiting or exploited class, no vertical authority or stratification…

I also don't believe any state will *ever* dissolve itself. That's where Bakunin and Marx, Makhno and Lenin, the CNT-FAI and the USSR, etc differed in their analysis. The anarchists argued (correctly, history would show) that a revolution must be prefigurative because no state would dissolve itself, as states inherently amass power and entrench themselves. Coupling the state so closely to the economy just exacerbates the issue and, in turn, exploitation.”

My response is reproduced below.

“Just got time to chime in here – sincere thanks for the clarification, [communist friend].  I have two follow-up questions, if you’re interested: one abstract and one pragmatic.

First, what happens in a stateless, federalized direct democracy when some people inevitably refuse to abide by the vote of the local majority?  Are the decisions of the majority enforced on them against their will?  If not, how is it a democracy?  If so, isn’t that a state?  Are you assuming universal consent among the governed, such that enforcement won’t be necessary?  If so, for how many generations do you expect that to last?  And for so long as there is universal consent, isn’t that fully compatible with libertarian-style anarcho-capitalism?

Second, pragmatically speaking, what does it say about the wisdom of attempting communism that it is necessarily an all-or-nothing proposition?  If
“revolution is prefigurative” and “you can’t have communism with a state,” then the only way to get to communism is to BOTH overthrow the existing state AND prevent any other state (either internal or external to the revolutionaries) from replacing it.  By your own confession, nobody has ever successfully done this for long.

Furthermore, the consequences of falling short of this “real” communism have repeatedly proven tragic: famine, Gulag, killing fields, etc.  So now we have a high risk of failure + severely negative consequences for that failure.  In order for attempting communist revolution to be rational, the potential marginal improvement in quality of life for humankind must be so large as to outweigh a cataclysmically high risk of dystopia; literally “give me the complete dissolution of class inequality, or give me millions of deaths.” Is that a noble gamble?

From my view, libertarians (and most other enemies of the existing political order, for that matter) can offer a much more appealing sales pitch, because our ideology is compatible with incrementalism.  I’m anarchist too, in a sense – but for the time being, I’ll settle for ending the drug war and isolated deregulation of some economic sectors.  Liberty exists on a spectrum, and we can make things better in our lifetime by gradually nudging in that direction.  If our kids and grandkids can keep doing that, great: the final transition to anarchy will go almost unnoticed.  But if they fall short somewhere along the line, and the state proves too stubborn to dissolve entirely, we’ll at least have made things better for the effort.  We can erode and contain the state by stages without resorting to bloody revolution; and, if we erode it far enough, there’s nothing stopping *truly voluntary* communist societies from forming anyway.  Isn’t that a more promising model for enacting social change?