Are You a Communist?

This question comes up more often than expected when speaking about the commons. Let me let Slavoj Zizek's comments at Occupy Wall Street in 2011 answer the question.

"We can see that for a long time we allowed our political engagement also to be outsourced. We want it back. We are not communists. If communism means the system which collapsed in 1990, remember that today those communists are the most efficient ruthless capitalists. In China today we have capitalism which is even more dynamic than your American capitalism but doesn’t need democracy. Which means when you criticize capitalism, don’t allow yourselves to be blackmailed that you are against democracy. The marriage between democracy and capitalism is over.

"The change is possible. So, what do we consider today possible? Just follow the media. On the one hand in technology and sexuality everything seems to be possible. You can travel to the moon. You can become immortal by biogenetics. You can have sex with animals or whatever. But look at the fields of society and economy. There almost everything is considered impossible. You want to raise taxes a little bit for the rich, they tell you it’s impossible, we lose competitivitiy. You want more money for healthcare: they tell you impossible, this means a totalitarian state. There is something wrong in the world where you are promised to be immortal but cannot spend a little bit more for health care. Maybe we need to set our priorities straight here. We don’t want higher standards of living. We want better standards of living. The only sense in which we are communists is that we care for the commons. The commons of nature. The commons of what is privatized by intellectual property. The commons of biogenetics. For this and only for this we should fight.

"Communism failed absolutely, but the problems of the commons are here."

Now don't think that the failure of communism somehow signals the success of capitalism, 'cause it ain't so. To relate more of Zizek's thinking on this, consider that the crimes of communism--the purges, famines, gulags, and so on--are easy to identify because we can connect them to a personality of evil, like Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot. But given capitalism's record of laying waste to those territories colonized and pillaged and sometimes enslaved, we cannot tie the atrocities in Belgium's colony of Congo, or Britain's India to a person who represents evil, and because the corporation is simply a legal artifact that operates mechanistically to do one thing, no matter what, namely return profit to owners, we cannot ascribe "evil" to it.

Thus, all the wars, colonization, exploitation, slavery, prison-industrial complex, labor exploitation, and so on, we never seem to call "evils of capitalism." They are treated as unfortunate side effects of the quest for the greater good--European good, American good--but greater good nonetheless. And those who have benefitted most, like Bill Gates, the Koch Brothers, George Soros, etc. magnanimously create institutions to do good in the world, with the awful paradox that the suffering they are trying to ameliorate is what has enabled them to accumulate such wealth in the first place.

Here's a simpler model, one that may soon boil up into a direct lesson on the evils of wealth concentration that nevertheless doles it back out in a fairly benevolent mode. In Saudi Arabia, the rule has been, "we will rule absolutely, but we will also provide for you completely." By virtue of what seemed to be endless oil wealth, the royal family could maintain power by subsidizing a pretty comfortable existence for citizens who obeyed their rule.

But in December 2015 it's been announced that many subsidies will be cut, and gasoline will go up in Saudi Arabia for its driver by 50 percent! With a $90 billion deficit this year and oil prices at terrible lows, the royal family is recognizing that the old party may be over.

The question is for them, can they turn the country around fast enough to shift the population into another economic model that can keep power where it is (extremely unlikely) or at least keep liberalization constrained enough to escape with their lives. After all, their less than subtle support for fundamentalist radicals like Islamic State and Al Qaida was essentially bribe money to keep their activities away from the palace gates. What happens when the recruiting pool in the Saudi kingdom begins to enlarge rapidly because its citizens are no longer on easy street economically and yet so strictly governed?