November 30, 2010

An Analysis of the Viability of Small Communes

By Prairie Fire of the APL

            Utopian ideologies that reject the revolutionary model are plentiful on the political left-wing. One theory in particular, one that states that class struggle is not necessary and that capitalism doesn’t need to be overthrown, has made itself widespread. The answer, according to this theory, is for masses of people to simply walk away from capitalism and choose not to participate in the capitalist system via commune living and small-scale sustenance farming. By doing this, proponents of this theory of small commune living believe that they will be able to form a movement which will grow to be quite large in numbers, one which the capitalists will then not be able to resist. There are many different forms of this brand of thinking, and it thus does not have a proper name. Likewise, there is no particularly label given to the ideology or movement behind such thinking. In light of this fact, and because the commune theory centers around a common theme of “escaping” from, or “walking away” from, capitalism, for lack of a better term we will refer to this tendency as “social-escapism.”

            Frequently, social-escapism and commune living is presented as a method of organization and a way to rally political forces, but more often than not it is also presented as a viable alternative to capitalism. This is a widely prevailing tendency that is dangerous in that it leads otherwise well- informed, politically active comrades away from class struggle and into the rural areas to grow beets and carrots; in other words, away from revolution and into the abyss of this social-escapism. In reality, the theory that small communes could pose a threat to the capitalist system is nothing more than a petty-bourgeois pipe dream. To demonstrate this, we will give a fictional example of a commune-dwelling scenario in order to counter notions of small commune economies as being a viable alternative to capitalism. In this scenario, let us say that some of these like-minded people got together, went out to the rural areas, acquired some land and shelter and started growing their own food. Perhaps they also raise bees for honey, possibly livestock, and perhaps even have obtained electricity from the use of solar panels. In this scenario, a form of anarchist councilism has prevailed as the organizational/legislative model and the people are blissful—this is the vision of “social-escapism.” Now, here are some of the flaws with this theory.

            First of all, under a system of capitalism it is not possible for an individual, or even for a collective of individuals, to purchase a single plot of land in perpetuity. Even if this group of Utopians “owned the land” that they were cultivating and living on they would still have to pay property taxes. This insight by itself throws a stick into the machinery of this dream already. The taxation levied by the capitalist government on these “social-escapists” is the first of many jarring realities they would have to face, a blunt reminder that they are most certainly not “withdrawn” from capitalism as they might think they are. They are not separated from the system, no matter how rural their surroundings. Although property taxes can be quite low, especially for uncultivated land, this introduces a new variable into the lives of those who are trying to avoid participating in the capitalist system: expenses. These expenses give rise to a necessity for currency in order to continue the upkeep and operation of the commune and farmlands. The social-escapists may deal with this problem in many ways. In the event that some or all of their membership have to resume wage labor employment to raise funds, their whole attempt at walking away from capitalism becomes moot. If this does become the case, the commune dwellers are as dependent on selling their wage labor as before and are still firmly tied to the capitalist world and system.

            More than likely the commune dwellers will sell part of the fruits of their labor. For the sake of argument, let us say that these commodities would include vegetables, honey, unique crafts and fresh bakery products. Now we can see the rise of another fatal error of the commune: commodity production. All of the sudden, rather than selling their surplus at their own leisure and discretion, the social-escapists start to produce products and designate entire sections of their garden produce as commodities to be sold for profit, supposedly to help keep the commune going. So, now that the commune dwellers sell some of their fruits, perhaps at local farmers markets, they have acquired a limited income for the commune.

            With income comes income tax. Once again, the capitalist class, whom the social-escapists didn’t think it was necessary to defeat, levies taxes from the commune dwellers. More taxes become more expenses and more expenses lead to the commune dwellers being forced to sell more of their produce, which was formerly geared towards the needs of the commune, to continue the upkeep of the commune. Perhaps to accomplish this, the commune dwellers purchase advanced machinery to help increase the harvest. This turns out to be yet another expense, especially when fuel and insurance are concerned. The commune dwellers are forced to expand gardens and produce more homemade products solely for the purpose of commodity production. The materials needed to produce these may bring another expense. They are also forced to find more outlets to sell their wares, to increase commodity production and expand into as many markets as possible. More and more, the communal economy acquires symptoms of capitalism.

            It is reasonable to assume that the commune would have a vehicle of some sort, almost definitely gas-powered. Even though social-escapists are typically lifestylists who prefer bicycles and other emission-free modes of conveyance, bicycles are impractical for long-range travel (especially to and from a rural area) and for the transportation of goods. Bicycles are especially impractical in the winter in most of the northern hemisphere. Because of these factors, they are most likely to have a vehicle to start with, or the commune will purchase one when the necessity of commodity production forces them to adopt one. The very act of purchasing a vehicle may place more weight on the budget of the commune. Vehicle ownership, of course, leads to more expenses, including fuel, repairs and auto insurance. The commune dwellers will require a legal vehicle to use, even if they only have one. Ergo, they will accept all of the costs that go with it. More costs mean more expenses. The strain on the commune may force a member to have to take on a job, in which case it is quite clear that they have not escaped capitalism. At this point also, the commune dwellers will need to perform actions for the capitalist authorities, such as registering and possessing a valid driver’s license. How can any individual or collective claim to not be reliant on the system when they are subject to its rules and regulations?

            It is very difficult to feed an entire family only on what you produce, let alone provide for a group of people, large or small. By this time, the commune is producing largely for profit, trying to juggle the needs of the membership with the demands for currency. The availability of food becomes more and more scarce, as it has to be sold to pay for upkeep; this leaves commune members hungry. How are they going to feed their members? They must buy groceries from the outside, which means yet another expense. Take into consideration also that human beings regularly become sick. If one of the commune becomes sick or seriously injured, what do they plan to do? Herbal teas and home remedies only go so far—if a human has appendicitis, he/she will need serious surgery. Assuming that everyone on the commune has the possibility to get sick or injured, that would mean that every person would require a health care card, which is yet another monthly expense. If they don’t live in a country that had socialized medicine, it would be even worse, because they would have to pay even more for an HMO or insurance. More expenses means more demands for currency (health care for upwards of ten people can add up to quite a sum), and yet another bond is forged between the commune and the very world and social system that they are trying to escape. In reality, the sheer weight of the contradictions and financial demands on the commune would have forced the social-escapists to either become wage slaves, defeating the whole purpose of the commune, or devote the overwhelming majority of their productive forces to commodity production for profit. Even if hypothetically they are able to maintain a level of commodity production in exchange for currency and cover their operating costs, by that time capitalism has triumphed. The goal of the commune has shifted from self-sustenance to profit, and the commune members are not only completely subject to all of the rules and regulations of the capitalist state, but they are tax-paying citizens of it. What began as a self-sustaining commune has become a commercial farm; the social-escapists, in the eyes of the capitalist state that they reside in, are simply farmers, economically indistinguishable from other farmers enthralled by the system.

            Keep in mind that this is a very austere estimate; we didn’t factor in any miscellaneous expenses or ”habits” that the commune members may nurse, all of which lead to miscellaneous demands upon the commune for currency. The above estimate assumes that the social-escapists do not smoke, drink or engage in any other form of leisure that would require repeat purchases of commodities. A cigarette habit alone consumes ten dollars a day from most smokers. If the commune has ten smokers out of the whole, that’s one hundred dollars a day. Even assuming that these social-escapists live a minimalistic, utilitarian lifestyle, they are still doomed. In the event that the social-escapists abandon the law-abiding road, they may prolong their existence in a valiant “Robin Hood” style, but they are still doomed. Whether they evade taxes, poach wildlife, squat on property, grow illegal crops like marijuana (for profit and/or personal use) or engage in any other type of illegal activity, they guarantee that their commune will be stamped out by force and that their membership will be arrested. Even if they initially manage to evade notice of the illegal activities committed by their commune, it makes little difference—the longer that they continue the existence of the commune and the illegal activities along with it, the more certain the reality is that they will be caught. Eventually the day will come when capitalist police forces will remind these Utopians who is really in charge of the system; capitalists do not fool around when it comes to tax evasion. Aside from this, being a bandit upon the system is still a form of reliance and dependency.

            There you have it: from the best of intentions to probable dissolution within less than a decade. The commune economy is doomed to failure. Not a single one of these communal social-experiments attempted in the past have survived. The most important point to expose about the flawed nature of this social-escapism is that it does not actually aim to escape capitalism; it aims to co-exist with it. Perhaps this is the fundamental flaw of the entire notion. What the social-escapists aim to do is occupy a plot of land/geographical area, which is already claimed by capitalists, and try and survive there without being bothered by any of the forces of capitalism. For their part, the self-stated ambition of the social-escapists is not to make any effort to defeat capitalism, so therefore the true aspiration of the social-escapists is hermit-like co-existence of their own socio-economic system with that of the global capitalism. This is a large part of where the theory falls flat, as historically speaking, at no point in history has capitalism ever co-existed with a separate economic system.

            Capitalism brought about the defeat of feudalism in the advanced colonial countries (the American and French Revolutions, etc.), swept away tribalism in colonial nations and fiercely sabotaged all past experiments in the building of socialism. By their very nature, with their lust for new markets to expand into as well as new sources of capital and resources to exploit, capitalism can never coexist side-by-side with any other system, and from its place of global dominance it will allow no upstarts. In addition to this naive and erroneous desire to coexist and be left in seclusion as social hermits of this Earth, among all left-wing political tendencies this social-escapism is a current that is the bringer of revolutionary defeatism. The commune system is not inherently reactionary or always doomed to failure, but we cannot escape, walk away from  or coexist with capitalism. The only way to end the tyranny of this capitalist system is to cast it down from its perch, and the only way to do that is, and always has been, to have a revolution by the masses to assume political power. Utopian escapism and naive hermit individualism will only lead in circles, back on your knees to the very system you tried to escape.