Communism Is Not About Luxury

If communism means equality, we need each other, not laboratory burgers

Diego Rivera, “Pan-American Unity Mural,” 1940, City College of San Francisco.

On June 11th, The New York Times published an advert, titled “The World Is a Mess. We Need Fully Automated Luxury Communism,” for Aaron Bastani’s new book. Bastani suggests that communism is about giving everyone a luxurious lifestyle, which includes eating burgers with patties made from “cultured meat” grown in laboratories.

But communism is not about excessive consumption — that’s capitalism. Bastani is confused about the difference between these two economic systems. Or he is being disingenuous. For example, take this sentence:

The case of cultured food and drink, far from a curiosity, is a template for a better, freer and more affluent world, a world where we provide for the needs of everyone — in style.

America, including the world, is already producing enough for everyone to eat, sleep and dress. Walk into any mall in America and we are accosted with an outrageous variety of goods available, from fast-fashion, $10 H&M shirts to $100 J-Crew polos. Capitalism can give us many choices because it has to. Other than being obedient workers, we are only useful to the owners of capital as consumers. Because of the economic imperative to generate profit, overproduction is a common, recurring problem. Capitalism needs us to consume more and more.

So, giving us fancy burgers or life-prolonging technology just extends the logic of capital. This doesn’t lead us to communism. Now, of course, the kind of communism that we all know well is, what I call, big “C” Communism, which has been known for its one-party political system and state-controlled economy. This is what was practiced in the Soviet Union. But the economic system under Big C, as shown by the People’s Republic of China, can also be driven by the capitalist logic which places bosses over workers and accelerates accumulation. And communism as an ideal, where the state is abolished and the means of production is controlled by the workers, was always something in the ideal utopian future, something the Soviet Union failed to achieve.

The other kind of communism, the small “c” communism, which isn’t utopian. I’m borrowing this understanding of communism from David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, a sprawling history about our relationship with debt. Graeber defines communism as:

any human relationship that operates on the principles of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.

This definition allows to think about about what others need. Our social relations with each other move away from a transactional basis. In our times, by reducing our moral obligations to commercial or economic debt, we divorce ourselves from each other. Debt makes us think in terms of reciprocity, as in returning the favor, and this debt must be repaid. But certain kind of debt, like our debt to our parents for raising us, cannot and should not be repaid. Once we repay our debts to our parents or community, we cease to be part of the family or community. So, in communism, we have the moral obligation to see that what others need based on their abilities and needs. We are responsible for those in our community. We don’t expect them to repay because our social relations are not transactional.

In our labor market, which is based on economic individualism or liberalism, we need to acquire skills that are wanted by those who own the means of production. In the tech industry, for example, this means obtaining computer programming or graphic designing skills, regardless of one’s abilities. And our wages are determined by our employers who assess how much to compensate based on our skills, not based on our needs, for example, the number of dependents or the disabilities we might have.

We all practice some form of communism in our daily lives, Graeber argues. When we help our neighbors, we don’t necessary expect them to repay. In fact, we feel insulted if they insist on repaying us for our effort. But in the whole of America, we seem to have lost the moral obligation to each other. We think too much of ourselves as individuals. When others fail, we tell them to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. Welfare, as understood by Americans, has been racialized to a point that we often associate welfare to the lazy and blacks. Under Trump, public assistance to the poor and unlucky has been hemorrhaging severely.

But the communism of the rich has been quite evident. In the 1960s, pharmaceutical firms and professional doctors in America organized together to defeat a proposed legislation that would reduce the effectiveness of drug patents and make it mandatory for doctors to prescribe generics. More recently, in 2010, the Justice Department found that tech companies colluded to not recruit and hire each other employees, thereby preventing free-market competition of workers and reducing their wages.

I agree with Bastani that capitalism is a problem. Inequality is a problem. But we’re not in a crisis. The world is not a mess. In America, it may seem like one because Donald Trump occupies the White House.

But there will likely be a real crisis if we stop eating burgers. All the cows bred for slaughter will be left to rot and their excrement will release more methane into our atmosphere, changing the composition of the ozone layer, trapping more heat, exacerbating global warming. But we are not so used to look at such a big picture. And it is the economic crisis that will overwhelm us. McDonald’s will go out of business, closing tens of thousands of stores and firing hundreds of thousands of workers. Lacking the demand from cattle owners, Cargill, one of largest producers of animal feed, will likely to suffer profit losses.

In the op-ed, Bastani says many things, but nothing meaningful about communism or equality. The language is superfluous and banal, aiming to baffle the readers rather than explicate complex and controversial ideas. The author is part of a larger trend, in which people are grasping for ostensibly radical ideas without really knowing their history and underlying complex social relations. If we are talking about communism because we want to talk about equality, then focusing on luxury lifestyles and new technologies is at best distracting, and at worst deceptive.

PhD candidate of politics and philosophy at ECNU.Shanghai | Of Rivers and Mountains @