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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Breaking Assumptions: Communism = Totalitarianism?

People have been speaking out against the nation’s wealth disparity, requesting things like better wages, socialized health care, and maybe some precautions against allowing corporate money to dominate politics.  Maybe some extreme protestors are pushing for socialism, and perhaps some very extreme protestors are pushing for communism.  And yet, it seems that many people are tempted to respond as if the protestors were pushing for totalitarianism.

Now don’t get me wrong.  In words, they say “communism.”  But the picture they paint to make us hesitant is one of totalitarianism.  Responses like “Communism eh?  That worked real well for the Soviet Union,” or, “Maybe we should go communist.  That way we won’t have any more protests.  Ever.”

These kinds of responses make at least two distinct leaps of strawmanship.  First, they misrepresent the push for a more socialist economy as a communist government for a communist government. Then they misrepresent the already-misrepresented request for a communist government as a request for a totalitarian government.  And only once these strawman leaps have been made do their responses actually make any kind of sense.

Here’s a brief discussion of the first leap.  Socialism is a type of economic system in which a significant number of things are funded through taxes, with costs kept largely separate from use.  In a socialist economy, everyone gets to use as much healthcare as they need, and the amount they pay for the healthcare depends not on how much they use but on how much they pay in taxes (which is typically income based to some extent).  Communism is a type of government system in which the government controls the production and distribution of goods and services.  In a socialist system, you may go to a privately run hospital and have your bill paid by the government.  In a communist system, there are no privately run anythings.  You go to a government run hospital instead.

While all communist governments have a socialist economy, you can have a socialist economy without having a communist government.  You can also have a mixed economy, in which some industries are socialized and others aren’t.  A push for socialized health care is a push towards a more-socialized economy, but this is not necessarily a push towards total socialization, nor is it necessarily a push towards communism.  It may just be a push for a different “mixture level” in a mixed economy.

With that out of the way, I will spend the rest of this article addressing the second jump.  Why focus on the second jump?  It’s not because I’m a communist.  I don’t actually advocate a communist system of government (though I will present some ideas on how to make one work reasonably well if that’s your thing).  Rather, I’m going to focus on the third jump because it’s the one nobody focuses on.

And I don’t just mean in the media or in verbal arguments or on the internet or anything.  I mean even in their own heads, people rarely even notice the third jump.  There are plenty of people who realize that socializing health care is not the same thing as communizing our government.  But when someone says communism and makes a connection to the fall of the Soviet Union, everyone else is sitting there thinking about how there wasn’t any free speech or fair trials in the Soviet Union, and nobody even realizes that all the flaws their thinking about come from totalitarianism, not communism.  So in the interest of getting people to think more, I’m going to focus on the leap nobody seems to think about.

Now in the past, the most notable examples of communist governments, the ones everyone thinks of when you say “communist,” were also totalitarian.  In fact, most of these governments achieved communism through totalitarianism.  In communism, the government controls production.  In order to achieve this, past communist regimes have taken control of everything.  Not just the production and distribution of goods, but also the media, the justice system, the legislative system, and so on.  They’ve achieved communism by using a system where a small number of people maintain significant control over all aspects of life.

But we have to ask ourselves if this is the only way to achieve a communist government?  We have to get creative here.  Is it possible to have a government that is both communist and democratic?  How about a constitutional communism?  Can we have a communist system that also has a bill of rights?  After all, communism is all about controlling the production and distribution of goods and services.   There’s nothing about this that requires us to forbid people from petitioning the government, or going to church, or blogging on the internet.  I don’t see any reason why such a thing can’t be done without leaving most of our currently agreed upon human rights intact.

It would be weird, sure.  It’s something that history doesn’t really have many major examples of.  But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.  And to illustrate this, I’m going to come up with a very rough sketch of a government system that is communist but not totalitarian.  I want to stress that I am completely winging this.  I am making it up on the fly, just to demonstrate how easy it is separate communism and totalitarianism once you aren’t automatically linking them in your mind.  I also want to stress that I am outlining the government at the federal level.  I’m not going into how the local stuff would work, because I don’t really have the time.  Picture this as an outline or rough sketch of a new “constitution” for a socialist government.  So without further ado, here we go.

First off, the system needs to have a separation of powers.  This, I think, is one of the keys to avoiding totalitarianism.  We split the government into different branches, with checks and balances and whatnot.  Yes I am completely stealing this idea from the American government, but it’s a good idea so let’s run with it.  We’ll have three main branches, and each main branch will have three parts.

Legislative: The legislative branch makes laws.  We’ll call the legislative branch the House, and it will have three subgroups within.  The first subgroup is the Prohibition Committee, which is the part of the House that proposes laws that govern crime (What acts are criminal?  What punishments are appropriate for these crimes?).  The second subgroup is the Budget Committee, which is the part of the House that proposes laws that govern what the government produces and how it is distributed (How much money goes into healthcare?  How much food do we distribute to each family?).  The third subgroup is the Labor committee, which is the part of the House that proposes laws that govern labor (Who gets hired for what jobs?  What regulations do we place on work environment?)  Each law has to pass a vote from the entire House, but can only be proposed by members of the appropriate committee (if a law doesn’t fall into a committee, it can be proposed by any committee.  If a law falls into multiple committees, it can be proposed by any committee it falls into).  This way the legislation will be focused.  We won’t have legislators voting on bills that do multiple disparate things, some the legislators approve and some they don’t.  Each Committee will have its own chair, and the three chairs will cycle through chairmanship of the House meetings.

Executive: The executive branch executes the laws.  However, the subgroups are not simply aligned with the legislative subgroups.  The first part of the Executive branch is the Fiscal Bureau.  The Fiscal Bureau is in charge of organizing the work force and distributing goods and services in accordance with the House’s prescription.  They only organize services not covered by other aspects of the government (e.g. they don’t organize the Courts, nor do they control the Courts’ budget).  This subgroup is the communism part of the government.  It builds power plants and hospitals, runs farms and schools, and handles the distribution of these goods/services.  The Criminal Bureau is in charge of catching and apprehending criminals.  They have to follow all the laws passed by the House that protect people’s rights, and they do not hold their own trials (trials are done by the judicial branch).  The third subgroup is the Foreign Affairs Bureau.  This bureau is in charge of maintaining a military and conducting diplomacy.  They are not allowed initiate action against the country’s citizens even if they suspect those citizens of treason or terrorism or whatever.  If they have such suspicions, they pass them to the Criminal Bureau.  However, if the Criminal Bureau faces a significant domestic threat, they can request support from the military.

Judicial: The judicial branch judges violations of the law.  The first subgroup is the Courts.  The Courts pass verdict over criminal cases and arbitrate civil disputes (lawsuits that don’t involve criminal charges, for instance).  Their function is mostly the same as America’s current judicial branch, except for warrants (see below).  The second subgroup is the Keepers.  The Keepers have the ability to bring a potentially-unconstitutional law to the attention of the Courts.  The Courts are still the ones who determine constitutionality, but this would allow the judicial branch to stop unconstitutional laws before those laws become entangled with criminal charges.  The Keepers are also in charge of issuing warrants.  The third subgroup is the Defenders.  The Defenders are in charge of providing legal defense to anyone facing criminal charges.  They can also press charges against members of the executive branch who violate the rights of the citizens (though these charges are still tried by the Courts).

Checks and Balances
Veto:  The executive branch has the ability to veto legislation.  Each Bureau has its own veto power.  If only one veto is used, it can be overturned with a 3/5 majority vote.  If two vetoes are used, they can be overturned with a 2/3 majority vote.  If all three vetoes are used, they can be overturned with a 3/4 majority vote.

Constitutionality:  The Courts can determine a law to be unconstitutional.  They can only do this when a case involving that law has been brought to them, or when petitioned to pass verdict by the Keepers.  Amendments to the constitution can be passed by a 4/5 majority vote in the House.

Impeachment:  Each branch has impeachment ability over one of the other branches.  The judicial branch can impeach members of the legislative branch, the executive branch can impeach members of the judicial branch, and the legislative branch can impeach members of the executive branch.  In any case, the decision on whether to remove an official from office is made by the un-involved branch (the one which is neither impeacher nor inpeachee).

Human Rights:  Included in the constitution (see Appendix A) is a list of rights the citizens retain (including a precaution noting that this listing does not preclude the existence of other rights).  Among these would be pretty much everything in the Bill of Rights, as well as equal access to government services.  The right to own property would have to go, as we are talking about a communist government here.  But people would still have free speech, freedom of religion, rights to a trial and a government provided defense attorney, the right to privacy and so on.

Elections:  The constitution (see Appendix A) also sets out the election process.  Every member of the highest body of each group (the federal-level House, the heads of the Bureaus, the members of the Supreme Court, and the leaders of the Defenders and Keepers) are elected.  Appointments for lower-level members are made by a mixture of higher-level members in the same branch and higher-level members in the branch that does not have impeachment power (legislative appoints judicial, judicial appoints executive, and executive appoints legislative).

So there you go; a sketch of a communistic but not totalitarian government system.  It took me all of, like, 90 minutes to pull this stuff out of pretty much nowhere.  Mostly I was just trying to figure out how to make a robust government that wouldn’t devolve into totalitarianism, making sure to throw communism in there somewhere as an afterthought.  In fact, the communism is only one of three parts of one of three branches, making it a tiny part of the government as a whole.  The key point, though, is that the power to distribute goods and services doesn’t have to be linked to the power to execute political opponents, police the streets, pass the laws, or command the military.

The point here isn’t to advocate some random government system I just came up with on the fly.  The point is to demonstrate the absurdity no one notices.  Once you stop making the subconscious mental connection, once you stop automatically jumping from communism to totalitarianism without even thinking about it, you’ll notice all sorts of ideas just kind of present themselves.  Most Americans would never come up with a system like this, even though it’s remarkably similar to the one they have.  If you ask them how they’d build a communist government, they’re going to call up some memories about how communist governments have worked before (maybe they’re memories of classes, rather than the governments themselves).  And then they’ll give you a description of the Soviet Union and ask why you’d ever want to live in that kind of place.

You have to question the assumptions.  Sometimes, even most of the time, you’ll break out this new idea that flies in the face of conventional thinking, chase it down, follow it out, and it will crash and burn.  You might question relativity and end up with false predictions, or you might question some bit of math and end up with a contradiction, or you may question a political move and end up at an indefensible and abhorrent position.  And when that happens, you’ve learned something.  You’ve learned why the previously unquestioned thing is worth keeping.

But every now and then you’ll get a completely different outcome.  You’ll question something and see where it leads and it will keep on leading.  It won’t die down in a mess of impossibility.  It will lead to something new and exciting, like non-euclidean geometry or communist democracies.  And when this happens, when you question the assumption and think and test and reason and the new idea just keeps working, then you need to update your worldview.  You need to toss the old assumption and expand your horizons.  You need to realize things like “Euclid’s fifth postulate isn’t obvious,” or, “Communism and totalitarianism are totally different things,” or, “Women should be allowed to vote.”

So go out there and think things through.  Find an assumption you’ve made, break that assumption, and see where it leads.  Maybe it will go nowhere.  But maybe, just maybe, it will let you realize things that you would never have even conceived before.  Something creative and original completely functional.  And if you’re really lucky, one of those creative and original and completely functional ideas will be absolutely amazing.

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