Monday, February 19, 2018

Capitalism is better than communism, part I

About a month ago I picked a fight with a handful of communists in an online forum devoted to political discussion.  The ensuing the conversation was wide-ranging, with several loosely-related offshoots, but I'll try to reproduce it below in as organized a manner possible.

I began with the sentence "Free market capitalism is vastly superior to communism," and then supported it with three primary arguments at the outset.  These arguments are shown in bold, with "My OP" (internet slang for "original post") in parentheses.  My OP presented all three arguments simultaneously, but here I've interspersed them with the communist rebuttals to make the conversation easier to follow.

My words are in black, and the words of my various communist interlocutors are (fittingly) in red.  Names are changed as always.  The discussion wound up being very long (about 35 pages when you put it all on a Word document!) so I've broken it up into four parts.  This is part I

Me: First, I'm arguing that in the abstract, the ideal (hitherto-non-existent-on-any-large-scale) version of free-market capitalism is superior to whichever ideal (hitherto-non-existent-on-any-large-scale) version of communism you ascribe to.
To clarify, I admit that neither ideal Marxist communism nor ideal free-market capitalism have existed for long in their pure form. As I see it, both have been hijacked by powerful governments enacting bastardized, state-centered versions of those respective ideologies. Accordingly, I don’t think it’s fair to compare the idyllic free market capitalism I envision against the brutal communist regimes of the 20th century; nor is it fair to compare the idyllic communism some of you have a soft-spot for against the worst excesses of Western imperialism. I promise to refrain from doing the former if you promise to refrain from doing the latter.

Daniel: I don’t really see the point of discussing which one of two perfect, non-existent, utopic and unattainable worlds is better.

Erica: off the bat I take issue with this:

"To clarify, I admit that neither ideal Marxist-Leninist communism nor ideal free-market capitalism have existed for long in their pure form."

No marxist-leninist would argue that communism has existed [at all] on a definitional basis. socialism yes, communism no.

Me: Ok, so I confess I'm not an expert on the differences between Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Bakunin, etc.'s respective versions of the ideology, besides that Stalin was the most statist and assassinated Trotsky, and that Lenin thought revolution was necessary while Marx thought capitalism would naturally dissolve (right?). In any case, this is why I wrote "whichever ideal (hitherto-non-existent-on-any-large-scale) version of communism you ascribe to." Specify what you're defending and we'll move from there.

The last two communists I debated (here) were an anarcho-communists who said verbatim "you can't have communism with a state" and wriggled out of attacks on USSR, NK, etc. by denying they were communist at all. I'm taking from you and Steve's comments that you're not that sort of communist at all, which is refreshing tbh.

Steve: ...I reject your dismissal of historic and present socialist states. The "not real communism" argument is really meaningless and largely a way for people to demonize socialist states (the distinction between socialism and communism is usually important to clarify though).

To your first point, I also don't accept your attempts to dismiss the actually existing capitalist system as "not real free market capitalism". While it is certainly true that free competition has been overtaken by monopoly, this is the natural evolution of "free market capitalism", evidenced by its independent emergence in every capitalist economy in the late 19th and early 20th century. Concentration of production is both more efficient than having hundreds of independent companies and the necessary condition for monopoly capitalism. I'm uninterested in arguing the Platonic Form of economic systems. We either discuss these systems as they exist/existed or we're wasting intellectual effort.

Me: Excellent. Basically, you think point #1 is absurd and want to compare actually existing/historic capitalist systems against actually existing/historic communist systems. So when I start criticizing the low-hanging fruit of North Korea and Cambodia, you won't fall back on the "but that's not REAL communism! Those communisms were corrupted by a totalitarian state and are really more like state-capitalism" excuse, right? It's communism as it's actually existed in the real world, and a tendency towards totalitarian states must be an inherent flaw in the ideology then.

Tony: Pol pot was literally supported by CIA and overthrown by actual communists. North Korea isn't as bad as you believe, and obviously it's not under perfect conditions because America destroyed their structure, killed 5 percent of their citizens and continue to put sanctions on them.

Steve: I uphold the DPRK yes, but not Cambodia, for the reasons Tony mentions. "Totalitarian" is a buzzword that only serves to draw a false equivalence between socialist states and far-right ones.

Me: Okay…“Democratic People’s ____” are buzzwords that only serve to draw false distinction between different flavors of totalitarianism.

We can play the semantics game all day long, but the point is ruling Communist Parties have essentially zero internal restrictions on what they may legally do, and characteristically abuse that power in ways most people agree are bad.

(here began an offshoot conversation about North Korea in particular)

Me: I’m honestly a bit dumbfounded that the obviously intelligent people in this group are “upholding” the North Korean government. Many issues we discuss in this group are nuanced with good arguments on both sides. The abject evil of the North Korean government does not strike me as one of them. This makes my job easy.

Yes, the US did drop a lot of bombs on North Korea from 1950-1953, and yes, we have imposed sanctions (though those haven’t stopped them from trading with/being propped up by China and Russia). Neither come close to justifying the tyranny, oppression and impoverishment of the North Korean regime. Recall that the Korean war ravaged the North and South alike: 1950’s Korea was equally desolate on both sides of the fence. The largest difference between those two nations’ evolution over the 70 years since has been that one pursued a primarily capitalist system, while the other pursued a primarily communist one. The disparity in outcomes is astoundingly stark.

South Korea is a beautiful country with a rich culture, an advanced economy, modern entertainment, and tasty and abundant food. It is only size of Indiana and has just 51 million people – the 27th largest nation by population – but has the 11th largest economy in the world. It has a robust tech sector, world-class car manufacturers, and a growing entertainment industry. It’s education system is tops in the world. Its people are happy, friendly and multilingual.

The North Korean state is the hemorrhoid on the ass-cheek of humanity. It conscripts its people for a decade of their lives. It terrorizes its people with the ever-present threat of labor camps and familial-punishment for multiple generations. It starves its people until they resort to using human feces as fertilizer. It deceives its people with an increasingly absurd state-media. It assassinates political challengers. It prohibits open media and kills any family found in possession of Western movies. What you amusingly coin as “universal healthcare access!” is not a redeeming quality when it remains among the least healthy, least wealthy, most malnourished places on Earth.

The DMZ is the clearest divider on earth between success and failure; wealth, and poverty; culture, and depravity; good, and evil. The difference between capitalism and communism could not possibly be more clearly illuminated.

 In you mind there is no difference between a country with sanctions imposed by the US and a country being actively pumped full of capital by the US? I'd also dispute most of your claims, though I'm really not interested in getting into a discussion about the reliability of defector testimonies.

"most malnourished"...

Erica: it's important to note that South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world and also due to the national security act, it is actually illegal to be a socialist/communist in ROK so the line of happiness and freedom of expression is not as clear as it's made out to be.

Me: Why is that important to note, Erica? Are you suggesting that capitalism is the main reason South Korea has high suicide rates? If so, where is that replicated in Western capitalist nations? Is there a study somewhere comparing suicide rates as a function of government involvement in the economy, which might have more than anecdotal evidence for such a claim?

Or, might South Korea’s suicide rates also be influenced by its patriarchy, and religious beliefs, and the litany of strong social pressures and stifling expectations typical of conservative cultures? Your own article says “The special combination of factors that has led to this situation includes traditional cultural beliefs and the social stigma around receiving treatment for mental illnesses.” Those are cultural idiosyncrasies, not universal flaws in capitalism.

If all you meant is that wealth is not a necessary condition for happiness, point taken. It sure helps, though. And in any case, suicide is a peripheral issue for comparing societies at large, and a red herring compared to the broader quality of life differences I’ve explained at such length. How to reduce suicide rates among groups of people who already have all their material needs met is a conversation reserved for prosperous nations. If we combat the stigma against mental health and those seeking help, South Koreans could enjoy the many benefits of a wealthy society without feeling so stressed out. North Koreans would still lack that opportunity whether or not they’ve combatted the stigma.

(now back to my first claim about pure free-market capitalism vs. pure communism)

Jack: Poverty is a necessary condition of all capitalism, including pure capitalism, because poverty is capitalism's method of motivating people to do undesirable jobs. You may disagree with the proposed alternative motivations under communist systems but at its core, people shovel shit in capitalism because if they don't work they are killed, by poverty. 

Most jobs are undesirable, relative to leisure. I know from experience that you don’t need to be poor to accept compensation in exchange for doing an otherwise undesirable job.

And, prior to capitalism, people also shoveled shit (literally, in the case of subsistence farming) because if they didn’t work, they were killed by poverty. That people may starve if they don’t go hustle to feed themselves is not the fault of capitalism; the most you can accuse it of is failing to (fully) eradicate that problem.

If anything, capitalism has invented machines that help reduce the number of gross or physically uncomfortable jobs human beings must perform.

Jack: If you plopped down a society with a free market, 100% employment, and livable wages for every worker, it would recreate the conditions of poverty in just a few years, as managers seek to optimize profits (which involves layoffs) and worker productivity (which involves making the still-working people compete with the unemployed for the job.) Soon, the society would again have its poor, and the presence of these poor would drive down worker wages and expand the poor to include both the unemployed and the menially employed.

Me: That certainly runs contrary to what mainstream economics says would happen, and is from my view inaccurate. Optimizing profits only involves layoffs if people are employed unproductively (in which case those layoffs are good, because unproductive labor is a waste of time and energy, and transitional laborers can find more productive work elsewhere). If layoffs did happen, there would need to be a massive number of them to offset the wage-inflating tendencies of full (or near-full) employment. Market competition works both ways; workers seek to maximize wages just as managers seek to cut costs. If there’s 100% employment, the leverage is with the workers, and maximizing profits means enticing the most productive workers to stay or join you, instead of joining your competition.

This leverage can be increased when there’s voluntary collective bargaining in place, like the sort engaged in by the non-NLRB-certified Coalition of Immokalee Workers down in Florida (

Jack: The whole point of capitalism is "wealth moves up and centralizes." It's literally NAMED AFTER that concept. It's not a static system - it always moves towards exponentially increasing wealth centralization, yes, including in its pure form. Claiming that it doesn't is claiming that capitalists are bad at their jobs - their entire job is to acquire capital and keep it. The best capitalists will acquire capital from the so-so capitalists, and so on and so on until the concept of a "millionaire" is invented, then the concept of a "billionaire," and so on.

Capitalism is, by nature, a TRANSITIONAL economic system. There's a reason the world economy has changed so much in just the few hundred years capitalism has existed - it's working. What it's working to isn't clear - Marx believed it was working to its own destruction, and the capitalists at the top of the chain probably believe it's working to them replacing the state.

Your Marxist definition of capitalism as “wealth-centralizing in its pure form” is purely semantic: capitalism is not “literally named after” that concept outside of communist writings. As I see it, “the entire job” of the profit-maximizing capitalist is to create things of value and sell them, thus dispersing wealth, and it capitalism has done that pretty well. It’s working to is the same thing it’s been working to for the past 200 years, which is the steady enrichment of everyone not deprived of its benefits by power-hungry states.

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