Those of us who have read or are interested in the history of economic thought identify communism as the last and the most advanced stage in the evolution of societies. It is considered to be the Utopian stage which is defined by collective ownership of means of production as opposed to capitalism where means of production are privately owned and there exists a class which does not have access to these means of production and is, therefore, forced to sell its labor to survive. As pointed out by Marx, Capitalism, which precedes communism, is rife with inherent contradictions which are responsible for the imminent collapse of the system. On the other hand, communism is supposed to be the panacea which will bring an end to social evils like inequality and poverty. One can find various debates in the intellectual sphere about which system is superior but one hardly witnesses discussions where communism can coexist with capitalism. David Graeber, in his book Debt – first 500 years, proposes one such theory which links capitalism and communism. Through this post I wish to share the main insights of his theory.
According to Marxist theory, every society has a base and a superstructure. The definition of base includes the economic relations between labor and capitalist, the division of labor, property rights etc whereas the superstructure includes the ideas and relations between individuals – culture, institutions etc compatible with the base. Base and superstructure of a society will depend on its stage of evolution. So economic relations in a society are formed on the top of moral relations in the superstructure. Graeber says that communism is one of the three moral principles on which economic relations can be founded (the other two being hierarchy and exchange). He calls the conventional definition of communism (collective ownership and management of resources) a myth and defines communism as ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs‘. According to this definition, communism can be looked at as a symbiotic relation between individuals; a system where people help each other (excluding their enemies) constrained by their own means. Examples of such communism can be seen in everyday life. Graeber gives the example of a worker who is fixing a broken pipe and asks his coworker for a wrench. His coworker will not ask what he would get in return for handing him over the wrench. Graeber emphasizes that communism is not mere cooperation, it is beyond that; it is the foundation of all human societies. All societies have witnessed how strangers become brothers and sisters in the wake of a disaster- floods, famines etc. This is communism. It explains why people are generous enough to give directions to strangers. It’s because they expect that others will also behave in the same way when they need help. Although the magnitude of such generosity might vary across societies. It is crucial to understand that communism does not imply a perfectly reciprocal system of exchange. Not all actions are reciprocated but it’s the expectation that one’s favors will be returned which defines the system.
Communism is also reflected in small courtesies like asking for a light or for a cigarette. He says ” if one has been identified as a fellow smoker, it’s rather difficult to refuse such a request. In such cases – a match, holding the elevator, a piece of information- the “from each” element is so minimal that most of us comply without even thinking about it. Conversely, the same is true if another person’s need is extreme – if he is drowning, for example. In such cases, we assume that anybody who is capable of helping will do so.” Graber calls this baseline communism. He says that in impersonal urban communities this might go no further than asking for a light or directions whereas in smaller communities it goes much beyond small courtesies. In small communities it is impossible for people to refuse a request for food. The obligation to share food becomes the basis of everyday morality. He cites examples where mothers would scold their children if they receive a gift and do not share it with their siblings.
This system can also explain why small communities do not have formal credit markets. People generally take credit form their relatives in such societies, which is often interest free because it is expected they will also lend to others when others are in need. In such societies, sharing is one of the greatest pleasures of life. People share not only in bad times but also in times of plenty. As Graeber writes – “the more elaborate the feast, the more likely one is to see free sharing of some things (for instance, food and drink)…the giving and taking often takes on a distinctly gamelike quality. The shared conviviality could be seen as a communistic base on top of which everything else is constructed”. In communism, sharing is not only a moral value but also brings pleasure to human lives. For most human beings, the most pleasurable activities involve sharing something – music, food, liquor etc. There is communism in all the fun things that we do. We can also find traces of communism in commerce as well. In small communities, shopkeepers often do not keep accounts and find it difficult to ask money for things sold to the people in their community.
Although the kind of communism described by Graeber might not exist in contemporary world, we do find shades of it in our everyday life. The exchange of gifts which sounds so innocuous in a small community might take an evil shape in a hard core capitalistic society. It is also not surprising that festivals like Diwali, Holi, Id or Christmas go hand in hand with a surge in economic activity. The tradition of giving each other gifts on such occasions has now become intertwined with the contours of capitalism and is often responsible for pushing the deprived section of the society into a spiral of debt.