There are a few singular events in time that have altered the course of human history. At the time of the transpiring, few could see the impact the events would have on the future of the world, but in hindsight, we are where we are today because of them. On August 20th, 1940, Leon Trotsky was killed with an ice pick, thus probably ending the only chance the world would ever have to develop a truly democratic socialist state.
The American history of our childhoods records the Russian Revolution as a single event that began with the October Revolution in 1917 and ended with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In standardized U.S. history, all Soviet leaders are tarred with the same “communist” dictator brush. We are taught that communism and totalitarianism are synonymous, and no condition of communism is compatible with democracy.
The truth is the Russian revolutionaries, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin all had vastly different ideas about how the revolution would play out, and unfortunately, as is the case with most events in human history, the most evil, unscrupulous and violent of the three men, Stalin, was the one to ultimately achieve dominance. Lenin died, a mere 7 years after the October Revolution, having spent most of his time as the Soviet leader navigating the lengthy Russian Civil War. As a leader, he participated in some heinous crimes, including the Red Terror which brutally culled all of his political detractors. The Red Terror is believed to have been carried out at Stalin’s urging, and it is difficult to speculate the direction the governance of the Soviet Union would have taken if Lenin had not met with his untimely demise.
Trotsky had a different vision of what a socialist state would look like than the one we are presented in school. Until the day he was murdered, he was an unrelenting advocate for global social democracy. His vision: a global economy based on equitable distribution of wealth with publicly elected democratic states. The world has never seen such a democracy, and Stalin’s subsequent development of the most atrocious kind of totalitarian state has subsequently given capitalist countries all the propagandist ammunition they have needed to deter their masses from ever attempting the development of a socialist state again.
One can only speculate about what the world may have lost with the demise of Trotsky. Undoubtedly, the United States and the other capitalist interests benefitted greatly from Stalin’s takeover of the Soviet Union. If Trotsky had prevailed, the world may have seen an example of a country in which all people are truly equal both politically and economically, and that would have been a great danger to the dogma of capitalism.
Advocates of neoliberal capitalism have argued that the world had such an example with the British Labor years of the 1960’s and 70’s and that the example failed. During that time frame, many of England’s industries were owned and operated by the state. First, in order for this argument to have any weight, one must overlook the fact that the United Kingdom was still very much a classed society complete with a monarchy and noble class. But apart from that, the argument is that Britain’s labor unions at the time were so powerful that they were weighing down the profitability and feasibility of the state owned industries. The working class, so the story goes, engaged in strikes in order to have their every whim placated. The easy life made workers lazy and thereby less productive.
The lack of incentive for labor to be productive in an economically equitable system is a common theme among proponents of privatization. We are told that public enterprises are inherently non-productive, wasteful and inefficient. Private industry, on the other hand, is more profitable, innovative and productive.
The same has been said of the management of communally-managed resources or “commons.” The now disproven theory of the “Tragedy of the Commons” postulated that if regular people are allowed to share a common resource, like a pasture or woodland, for example, they will degrade that resource because everybody will act on behalf their own selfish interest. The Tragedy of the Commons has been used extensively since it was first postulated by Garrett Hardin in 1968 as a justification for the privatization of communal assets (1).
Using the neoliberal justification, Thatcher sold off her country’s railway, steel and petroleum industries to name a few. Thatcher was simply following in the footsteps of her British predecessors who once kicked peasants off the very land they needed to sustain themselves, forcing them into miserable lives in deplorable factory conditions during the Industrial Revolution.
The Tragedy of the Commons has long since been debunked. When people must collectively manage their resources, history shows that greedy behavior becomes a social pariah, and people are more likely to work together for the common good. The problem for capitalists with the commons is that commons allow people to be independent, to work for themselves and therefore not be available to be exploited as menial labor. If one has access to adequate land, forest and water resources to raise enough food for his family, why would he want to go work in a factory?
Similarly, if one looks objectively at the neoliberal capitalist argument above, it begs the question of profit and production for whom? Under state ownership, the British industries provided good, living wages for a huge number of people. The same is true of the industries in the United States when the labor unions were strong. The industries were profitable, and profits were being more equitably shared among those who earned them. With the demise of the labor unions, corporations have indeed increased their profits in many instances, but this increase in profits to shareholders simply represents a redistribution of wealth upwards. Now, the labor that produces the goods, and by extension the profit, get a lesser proportion, while shareholders, who play no part in production, skim off the cream.
Thatcher sold off the vast majority of Britain’s industries to the private sector and busted the powerful labor unions. At the end of her tenure, she indeed had produced an economy that registered growth in GDP; however, at a significant cost. Under her administration, unemployment in the U.K. tripled and the number of people living in poverty doubled (2). The Thatcher example is by no means unique. The same economic evolution transpired in the United States under similar neoliberal economic policies first imposed under the Reagan Administration and expanded upon by each successive President both Democrat and Republican.
With the global failure of totalitarian communism, the mantra of free market capitalism goes largely unchallenged. Any alternative economic models are dismissed as tried and failed. But this condemnation of alternatives is clearly propagated by those who benefit the most from the status quo. In contemporary U.S. politics, voters chose between two candidates, but each of those candidates embraces neoliberal free market capitalism. Our system is no different than the Stalinist Soviet system under which people could only vote for the Communist Party. We have two political parties and they are both the Capitalist Party. We put up with it perhaps because our lives until recently were relatively good. But it must be apparent to most people by now that conditions for the average worker have been in steady decline since President Reagan decided to let prosperity trickle on us.
What constitutes a good life? A good life requires that healthy food, clean water, clean air, shelter and healthcare are in adequate supply. A good life does not require copious electronic toys, multiple cars, private jets, private islands or multiple homes. 49.1 million people in America do not have enough food (3) and almost one billion worldwide do not have adequate food or access to clean, safe drinking water (4,5). 45 million Americans do not have health insurance. Many people both in our country (the richest on Earth) and abroad do not have the simplest basic necessities for a reasonable existence.
Capitalism replaced feudalism around 400 years ago with the promise that free markets and private property would bring prosperity to all, but the basic status quo of an elite class exploiting the rest of society hasn’t changed. In today’s world a small fraction of the world’s economic elite are controlling all of the resources while the rest of the population toils in wage labor that is largely unpleasant and menial. The world we live in now is the world that neoliberal capitalism has made. The capitalists and their political accomplices tell us that if we give the rich and the powerful free reign to control markets they will act in the interest of all of us and prosperity will trickle down like rain upon our heads. This is a lie.
Who deserves a good life? By the basic definition above, every living being, both human and non-human deserves adequate resources for survival. Our unchallenged global neoliberal economic model tells us that the wealthy people of the world have worked hard for their riches and that they deserve them. The wealthy have more than just the basic necessities, many of them have enough riches to feed a small country, but as capitalists, they are entitled to their disproportionate wealth.
If we accept this insanity, then we have been successfully brainwashed. In no paradigm of morality is it okay for so few of the people to have dominion over so much while so many go hungry. Free trade capitalism has had its run. The results are devastating inequality and a ruined planetary environment. The system is not just broken, it does not and has never worked. The Earth belongs to all of us, and it is time to demand an equitable and responsible redistribution of Earth’s resources to all of the planet’s human and non-human inhabitants.
1- Read the entire text of Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons on the World Wide Web at http://www.sciencemag.org/content/162/3859/1243.full
Thank you for your informative and well written post. You have inspired me to learn more about Leon Trotsky.ReplyDelete
Thank you for your positive feedback Happy Phil. Although it is framed as fiction, I recommend Barbara Kingslover's new book "The Lacuna," which incorporates the real history of Trotsky's life in Mexico into the framework of the narrative. Kingslover is always a good read anyway.ReplyDelete
"The Tragedy of the Commons has long since been debunked. When people must collectively manage their resources, history shows that greedy behavior becomes a social pariah, and people are more likely to work together for the common good."ReplyDelete
...are you aware of the cause of the collapse of just about every major fishery humans have ever approached? This alone proves how silly your statement above is.
@Anonymous, are you aware that every major fishery in the world that humans have approached for much of history has been sustained up till the modern era? Like many who only see the world through the eyes of capitalism, you are confusing the communal management of a resource with the economic exploitation of it. The former is almost always sustainable, while the latter almost never is.ReplyDelete
I think we are on the same page then, but you should have specified that the Tragedy of the Commons is debunked when placed in the context of communal management. Perhaps that was your intent and I misread you. The sad reality is that it is very very hard to prevent capitalism from invading many communally managed resources. Let us hope that one day this can be overcome to a larger scale.ReplyDelete
I agree with you – and Garrett Hardin – that we will “...precipitate our own extinction, which is what we are doing with continuing to populate a planet that is already overpopulated”. It seems to me that population growth, and maldistribution of wealth and income, are among the results of the Tragedy in the world today. Mr. Hardin stated that “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon” was necessary to prevent the Tragedy. In practice, our laws and regulations, and the enforcement thereof, affect the severity of the Tragedy. Perhaps he should have entitled his essay “The Tragedy of the Unregulated Commons”.ReplyDelete
I enjoy writing limericks. Here is one to summarize my position:
The "Tragedy of the Commons" is true,
and solutions are long overdue,
...through mutual coercion,
enlightened enforcement will do.
@Rhymer, your comments are very insightful, and I could write a whole blog post responding to them, I think. My opinion stands, but I do agree with you that the economic exploitation of the commons coupled with a lack of regulation of such exploitation is a recipe for disaster. This sentiment is the opposite of what the exploiters spout as their justification for enclosure. They, incorrectly, insist that commercial management is superior to communal management.ReplyDelete
I believe that nature does not play with accumulation. The natural economy is a lean one with times of plenty and times of scarcity, but every instance where an organism attempts to sequester resources for itself causes systemic collapse. Communal management of resources was and is a more sustaiable model for management because each takes according to his need and nobody is allowed to skim cream off the system for personal gain.
Thanks for the limerick, too. Great conversation.