Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Primitive Communism’s Appeal

“In the end, as virtually every serious political thinker from the dawn of time has agreed, republics do not long survive without virtue — in the people as a whole, and among the powerful.”

 --Walter Russell Mead, American Interest  

“to each according to his need”

--Karl Marx (1875)  

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, along with many other conservative commentators, is intrigued by the Obama campaign’s propaganda slide show “the Life of Julia.” Douthat says “Julia’s” life offers a
sweeping vision of government’s place in society, in which the individual depends on the state at every stage of life, and no decision — personal, educational, entrepreneurial, sexual — can be contemplated without the promise that it will be somehow subsidized by Washington. The condescension inherent in this vision is apparent in every step of Julia’s pilgrimage toward a community-gardening retirement.
Of course nothing in the slide show even hints at how all these government programs will be paid for. But, Douthat warns,
in an increasingly atomized society, where communities and families are weaker than ever before, such a vision may have more appeal — to both genders — than many of the conservatives mocking the slide show might like to believe.
People—voters—long for security, and government is ready to promise it, whether or not it can deliver.

More surprising, perhaps, than Douthat’s sympathy for “Julia” is Lee Harris’ defense, in the pages of the conservative American Enterprise Institute’s journal American, of David Graeber, dubbed the “Anti-Leader” of “Occupy Wall Street.” Harris calls Graeber a “brilliant economic anthropologist;” the author of Debt: The First Five Thousand Years. Harris says the central idea in Graeber’s book is his claim that
communism should not be seen as an alternative system to capitalism[,] but rather as a mode of social life that has always been present and that is a fact of life even in the most advanced capitalist nations, such as the United States. Or, to put it as Graeber likes to: We are all communists already.
As Graeber writes,
People of all cultures, including our own, invariably practice the communism of everyday life when dealing with their family and close friends. A mother does not expect her child to pay her for her baby-sitting services. A brother does not rent out his baseball glove to his brother on an hourly basis. If a friend is sick and needs something from the store, we pick it up for her and would never think of asking for gas money in return. . . during a crisis, such as a natural disaster. . . people will voluntarily, even cheerfully, extend a helping hand to those who are most in need of one.
Harris notes two big obstacles should prevent voluntary communism from actually working. One is criminals using violence to seize what they want. Graeber recognizes violence does exist, but so too do laws and police to control criminal behavior. The other obstacle is freeloaders taking what they are offered, but giving nothing back in return. Freeloaders are beyond law’s reach—they commit no crime, but ultimately, their actions bring down a system based upon voluntary reciprocity. Graeber’s book unfortunately fails to grapple with the freeloader problem.

The answer, ironically for Communists who believe religion is the opiate of the masses, may be religion. Graeber is the unusual radical who is positive about religion. He recognizes religions rely on individuals who live the spirit of everyday communism, with their own shining example inspiring others to do the same.

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