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It’s Worth Remembering That We Started All As Communists!

“It is hard to overstate the importance of free trade in the economist’s mind.

“In the beginning, there was just you, a pig, your family and your hut. Then your mother went to market and traded your pig for a cow and two chickens. All of a sudden, you could have milk and eggs. Your cow produced plentiful milk, your chickens plentiful eggs, and each week your family was able to trade these for other useful products, such as grain, cloth and soap.

“The history of humanity is the story of disparate communities getting together and increasing opportunities for trade, in turn driving increasing opportunities for consumption and rising living standards (and yes, periodically, provoking major wars).

Jessica Irvine,

Why Free Trade Is Good For You,

Sydney Morning Herald, 10th September, 2015

Strange that such balderdash is published in a major newspaper. The suggestion that “In the beginning”, families were living alone in a hut. Then suddenly the next step was going to a “market” where it was possible to trade a pig for a cow and two chickens. For an inexperienced trader, it seems that Mum sure managed to get the better of that deal.

I’m not just being pedantic about the absurdity of the trade that Irvine mentions, I’m more concerned about her peddling the myth that markets arose very early and that trading was the natural state. While it’s true that markets did develop over time, the early congregations of humans were tribal and the tribes were more communist in nature than traders.

When we talk about communism these days, we immediately think of those totalitarian regimes like the USSR. We rarely actually think of the meaning of the word, and how often we adopt “communistic” principles in our everyday life.

Let’s start with the meaning of the word:

  1. a theory or system of social organization in which all property is owned by the community and each person contributes and receives according to their ability and needs.

Tribes tended to look after one another and the spoils were shared. If you had a good hunt, you didn’t demand that your less successful neighbour traded you his bow and arrow in return for sharing in the feast. Neither did you keep a tally and suggest that he would need to pay you back with interest. And while markets developed over time, these were to enable trade to occur between people without tribal relationships. The idea that people started trading with their next door neighbour – while it sounds plausible to someone whose lived their life in a society where we’re encouraged to think of our obligations as ending at the door of our “hut” – is just a fiction that helps economists perpetuate the concept of trade as the only way that societies have functioned.

And even today, if you think of the average workplace, some things will be “traded”, but often people work of communistic models. When someone asks to borrow your stapler, you don’t check the number of staples used and demand their repayment. Neither do you suggest that because you helped out that person by holding a ladder, then they need to sign a form granting you five minutes help from them.

I would suggest that if that’s the way your workplace functions, then you’d be better off out of there.

However, it’s the bastardisation of the capitalist model that most intrigues me.

Recent years have seen a privatisation fetish from various governments. As I’ve said previously, it seems a rather strange proposition for governments to argue for the sale of assets on the grounds that someone else is much more competent at running them than they are. “Vote for us because we know that we can’t build things on time and under budget”.

Not that private firms have a great track record in that area.

So we have successive governments selling off our assets to private industry. Which, in a capitalist world, should mean that private industry is on its own and should sink or swim by its own competence.

Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works. And we can see that most clearly through the disruptive innovation which is taking place within the energy generation industry.

Disruptive innovation, in case you haven’t heard the term before, is when an innovation changes the business model of the particular industry in such a dramatic way that the big players are no longer the big players. Perhaps one of the best examples is how many of the giants in the computer industry thought of the personal computer as a toy which would have no effect on them. Another example is the streaming of movies making video stores virtually obsolete.

Usually the big players continue to service their customers, ignoring the new customers until it’s too late.

So while once going off the grid would have been prohibitively expensive, with the growing ease of installing things like solar panels and technological improvements in things like battery storage, the energy giants face enormous challenges.

What’s their solution? Well, some companies have suggested that people should be required to pay them even they’re not using their product, which is an interesting concept. But surely no government would be game to argue that one, if the assets were still in public hands.

Of course, a better solution would be to embrace the new technologies and to become a distributor and user, but that’s the thing about disruptive technology, it disrupts those who fail to see the need for change.

Yeah, those wind farms are ugly and Joe’s not Treasurer any more. I don’t know why I mentioned that.

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  1. Steve Laing

    I am still waiting for a proponent of privatisation explain to me how private health funds are more effective and efficient at providing health care for all, whilst being able to afford the cost of retail establishments selling health insurance at shopping centres…

  2. Old MacDonald

    this is stupid.. only an idiot would swap a cow and two chickens for a pig.

  3. Kerri

    I am at a loss to comprehend how anyone can think handing a business over to a company, that by it’s charter as a business alone, is compelled to make a profit over and above the goods or services they provide?
    I am no economist and failed maths at year 10 but it sure sounds like a dumb proposal to me!
    And yeah! Ms Irvine’s brief history kind of leaves out about a couple of hundred years of social and merchant development!

  4. Kaye Lee

    Friedrich Engels, an associate and close friend of Karl Marx, investigated the ways in which family life has been changed as we moved from hunting and gathering societies, to horticultural, pre-industrial and finally industrial societies. His study The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, first published in 1884, suggests that during early stages of human evolution there was no concept of private property and everything was owned collectively, thus ‘family’ did not exist. Engels states that during this era of ‘primitive communism’ provisions and possessions were shared by the entire tribe in a largely matriarchal society. There was a large amount of promiscuity, virtually making an entire society a family.

    The making of tools and the eventual domestication of animals contributed to the rise of the idea of private property and, as sexual relations became more restricted throughout time, the present idea of a monogamous relationship came to be the norm, guaranteeing the father’s paternity, so his private property can be passed on through his biological children from generation to generation.

    Engels contended that the origin of private property first put economic power into men’s hands and resulted in “the overthrow of mother rights” or the “world historic defeat of the female sex”. A patriarchal society emerged in which women and children were dependent on the father who assumed the responsibility for providing and who also became the authority figure in the family.

    Engels concludes that monogamy was the basis for the rise of patriarchal capitalism.

  5. Kaye Lee

    Joe Hockey is apparently going to replace Kim Beazley as the next Ambassador to the United States.

  6. bobrafto

    I’m sure someone will correct me, but in an obscure opinion I have is that if you have water or gas running past your property and if you don’t use those utilities you still pay an ongoing connection or supply fee.

    Rip off merchants include our Councils.

  7. Richard Schmidt

    A (long) while back, I penned an open letter to our President Obama. It applies here: “In economic matters, extremes do not work. Under Bush, we shifted dangerously in the direction of a fascist state—that is, a state in which private owners of businesses dictate government policies. The inevitable result is Enron, et al, as well as the collapsed financial system. We have been drifting in that direction for quite some time now, even under Clinton. Everyone has been so concerned with government regulation that they failed to notice that unregulated business is as dangerous as unchecked government. One gives you fascism; the other socialism. Private business interests must always be checked to assure that the public is protected. So too must government overseers. Balance in everything is the answer. But balance requires mental agility. The public has little patience—they want the world to operate on autopilot. They need to be convinced that a world in which competing interests are balanced is both an efficient world, and a world that is worthy.

    2. We need to pay for what we need. The Republican Party has been, almost as a matter of policy, fiscally irresponsible. They practice “charge and spend” politics. We will now have to pay for their profligacy. The public—the thinking public—needs to understand that we cannot continue on the course they charted and followed. Mainly the rest of the world will not allow us to continue on this course. They will simply stop buying our debt and then it will end, badly. Taxes are the way we pay for our policies. Taxes are neither good nor bad, in the abstract. They represent the price of operating our country, or, perhaps, the glue of a civilized society.

    3. We must pursue policies that are aimed at preserving the Earth. We need to conserve. We need to pursue alternative energy policies. We need to use economic forces to create a demand for energy-efficiency and energy independence. Under Bush and Cheney, we have pursued policies promoting wasteful energy consumption, mainly because he and his advisers represent the extractive industries. We need to tax wasteful energy consumption, so as to encourage wiser use of Earth’s limited resources.

    4. We must pursue a policy of economic independence for all our citizens. During my career, I worked for seven organizations over a 45 year career. For 20 of those years, I worked for several large and small companies that contributed nothing beyond Social Security for my retirement. Bush and his republican allies have attempted on numerous occasions to threaten that reserve. If indeed we wish to get rid of Social Security, we do not need to “privatize” it. We need to pass legislation that forces every economic entity in the country to pay into a portable retirement system. TIAA-CREF comes to mind—the system used by most universities and non-profits. If the private sector would begin to live up to its responsibilities by a mandatory contribution system, we would not need Social Security. Take the system used by universities and non-profits and replicate it throughout the whole of the private sector. Do not allow companies to wriggle out by use of part-time workers. If they employ part-time workers, they still pay full retirement benefits. Otherwise, leave Social security alone.

    5. Republicans, continue in their zeal to scuttle public education. We need to begin working with the states to repair the currently deplorable state of public education. In our area of North Carolina, they seem comfortable with a dropout rate of 35%. Think of that. We can do better. Indeed, we are losing ground to the rest of the world, and we are at risk of becoming a country of stupid people. Charter schools, especially for-profit charter schools, and worse, fake private schools that are on-line, are not an answer.

    6. We must examine carefully the structure of government. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security was an absurd idea—a solution in search of a problem. Think of it. The CIA and the FBI wouldn’t communicate and were demonstrably inept, so we forced the Coast Guard, FEMA, and the rest to become one entity. An idea only a truly stupid person could embrace. Structure is not the answer when the problem is an absence of thoughtful consideration of available evidence.

    There were a few other points that need not be repeated here. What we continue to need is watchful citizens—citizens who are willing to question both private commercial interests and public government interests. Corruption is a problem that will always be with us, so long as we have serious economic imbalances and so long as we have citizens who are basically dishonest—remember both the corrupters and the corruptees are dishonest. Both need to be exposed and punished. It is why, by the way, that we continue to need whistle-blowers. Say what you will of the Assange-Manning-Snowden groups, but they have informed us of some very unpleasant things about ourselves. Transparency is key here, and we definitely do not have transparent systems in either the public or private realms (thanks again Supremes).

    We all need to stand up and be counted. And that means we need to vote, regardless of the efforts by the GOP to prevent folks from voting. If you don’t vote, you will get the government you deserve.

  8. David K

    “Well, some companies have suggested that people should be required to pay them even they’re not using their product, which is an interesting concept. But surely no government would be game to argue that one, if the assets were still in public hands.”

    Local Government argue just that. Anyone who owns a bare block of land and yet still gets to pay a water “access fee” will attest to that. I’ve been thinking for some time that big power will try that one on sooner or later.

    Edit – Apologies to Bob Rafto. I’ll have to learn to read prior comments before posting 🙂

  9. Zathras

    The family unit is basically a socialist collective where all resources are shared and used for the common good. It’s the only way of assuring mutual survival.

    The same principle extends to smaller tribes but seems to change when the tribe reaches a certain size.

    Suddenly there are some people who produce little or contribute nothing and new roles are created to accommodate them.

    The major problem with todays society is there are far too many people who produce nothing but live soley off the output of others.

    Unfortunately it is those people who are in charge of the rest and won’t be going anywhere.

  10. Keitha Granville

    Joe Hockey as ambassador, oh please NO. You need a statesman for that job and he is certainly not.

    In a truly communist society we wouldn’t have any politicians, they produce nothing and contribute nothing. They would be redundant.

  11. Paddy Forsayeth

    The inherent principle of Capitalism is simply to acquire capital and thereby exert power, usually to ensure the continuing acquisition of capital. To my mind a system of plunder…pure and simple. The rich in this world are simply sophisticated thieves. Part of the propaganda of Capitalism is the denigration and elimination of the notion of communism. So if a Government attempts to promote material equality among its citizens it is decried as Socialist and or Communist.. Our recent experience of Communism is one of Fascism not communism. Even I hear from ordinary folk that they are better off under Capitalism than the other systems (the BOHICA principle). I wonder how many are aware the the top two or three well off (and happy?) countries in our world are openly Socialist. As to the privatisation of public assets – simply a further effort of capital to screw the public. In Queensland the Bligh Gov. was soundly thrashed for selling public assets. The stupid Newman Gov. tried the same thing and got a hiding. The NSW Gov. is trying to do the same. Are the pollies simp[ly being driven by the Capitalists to do their bidding in the face of public antipathy to these sales.
    I recall a comment from a visiting American, when told that the CFA firefighters were unpaid, which was (an incredulous) “How do you get a hundred thousand people to work for nothing?” Communal self interest that’s what!

  12. totaram

    Steve Laing:
    I am also waiting for someone to explain to me, how it is more “efficient” for the government of Singapore to be a part owner of Victoria’s electricity assets, than for the state government of Victoria to own those assets.

    I am also trying to understand how “privatising” a natural monopoly like an airport, or electricity transmission network, or the metro rail, makes it “more efficient”. The same applies to “toll roads” and other such infrastructure.

    I think both of us will be waiting a long time, because as far as I can see, no explanation is possible. These “privatisations” are based entirely on ideology and the real reason for them is to allow rent-seeking by capitalists. Many of these privatisations “guarantee” a certain rate of return on the investment, which is “rent” paid by the state.

  13. Kuhr

    I had a similar argument with a Tory friend of mine. He is a Thatcherite who believes there is no society, we strong should survive, the weak should perish, etc. al.

    Somehow the discussion got around to what would happen if there was a holocaust and society and governments collapsed. Then, according to him, it would be clear which point of view would prevail, those who were self-reliant, while the parasites of society would quickly die off without a host to feed upon.

    I had to point out that the self-reliant he championed would survive in the post holocaust only because of the latent support of those from the society before. Would these champions cut their log cabins with hand made flint axes, or would they use a modern saw created by the workers of the previous society in a mechanized factory? Would they light their cabin with a central fire pit, or would they use factory made lanterns? Would they protect their redoubt with modern manufactured weapons, would they wear clothes made by those who went before? When they were sick, would they not use medicines they had scavenged, researched and created by others who went before?

    On and on this went, and logical argument only made him more stubborn and argumentative. I feel anyone who believes a society cannot exist without communistic tendencies is living in a complete fantasy world. Without some measure of cooperation and support, our species would not be the masters of the world today.

  14. Terry2

    Joe won’t be happy in the USA – they have wind farms there !

  15. Matters Not

    Kuhr re the word ‘society’, Your friend may have a point. However, you may like to ask him what ‘name’ he gives to: a group of people involved in persistent social interaction and typically subject to the same political authority and dominant cultural expectations.

    If he is unsure, you might like to inform him that most people use the word ‘society’. It’s a shorthand for the above. (Not that it’s the only definition. But it’s a reasonable starting point).

    Now your question might not ‘win the day’. He may not ‘see the light’. Your friend may respond by claiming he doesn’t believe in ‘culture’. You might (again) choose to ask him what name/word he uses for: that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.

    Again he may be hesitant. You may then (perhaps) let have the day and ask him to provide his definition for ‘group’, ‘people’, ‘interaction’, ‘political’, ‘authority’, ‘knowledge’ ‘belief’, ‘art’, ‘morals’, ‘law’, ‘customs’ and if he really wants to be honest let him define ‘people’.

    Perhaps you should choose different friends?

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