The Vice of Amateur Communism

This time, Teen Vogue’s Tom Whyman published “So, What Actually is Communism Then?” which is the latest in a long line of pro-communist pieces that don't really argue anything, relying on novelty rather than substance.

In response, I could link to Will Wilkinson’s “Public Policy After Utopia” and call it a day. It’s a great critique and defense of libertarianism, but we can do better than that. We can have an essay that breaks down amateur communism pieces in general through breaking down the issues with this specific one.

1. Blaming Capitalism For Everything

Capitalism has been responsible for things like the international slave trade and World War I, and created the conditions in which Nazism could emerge. Capitalism has destroyed whole cultures and civilisations; it has spread killer diseases, profited from child labour. Today, capitalism is drowning refugees in the Mediterranean, separating children from their parents at the Mexican-American border. It prevents people from accessing basic services such as healthcare, puts lead in the drinking water, sells guns that are used to shoot up schools.

The first issue is that the author plays a double-standard. Whyman redefines communism as to disavow everything done in its name, but at the same time blames everything on “capitalism” without actually explaining what it is.

It saves Whyman the trouble of having to admit that his definition of capitalism is “people acting selfishly.” That’s not fair. It would be like a conservative saying that communism’s definition is “giving free stuff to people.”

So it’s hard to criticize Whyman’s argument about capitalism because there’s no real argument. All there is, is a laundry list of bad things being tied to “capitalism.” Which part of capitalism caused Nazism, and how? Was it the capital accumulation? Was it private property? That logic should have been explained already, because that’s how arguments should work.

2. Blaming Capitalism For Climate Change

Conservatives have always had the tendency to always blame China and the USSR’s atrocities on communism without actually knowing how they caused it. One could argue that Whyman was merely referencing that in irony.

But it turns out Whyman is serious: He blames climate change on capitalism, without explaining how.

Perhaps most urgently, capitalism is choking the planet, causing the climate to change in ways that could lead to the end of all life on Earth.

And again, it’s hard to counter that argument, because there’s no actual argument. What part of capitalism causes it? How? What would have been better if we had communism?

 

By the way, in an attempt to reach communism, communists in China and the USSR centralized a lot of power. That made it easy to carry out and support large-scale murders. Centralization and authoritarian power are a common theme among many of the worst atrocities in history: think Mao, Stalin, Hitler, and King Leopold II.

Also, because Whyman doesn’t provide a real argument, it’s hard to actually address the idea fully. Here is a link to a Twitter thread by Andrew Damitio. It covers the main arguments about how capitalism is in fact compatible with environmentalism. It’s not perfect but at least there’s actual evidence cited.

3. “Time is of the essence, so let’s try [my ideology]”

Whyman fundamentally says two things:

  1. Climate change is bad

  2. We need to do something about it

As a result, the argument is that we need “radical” change (communism) to deal with this problem, implying that the world has run out of capitalist solutions to it. However, he ignores the existence of solutions that don’t involve fundamentally reshaping the economy. Briefly, we have a carbon tax, cap-and-trade, and nuclear energy.

4. Not actually proposing any policies

A lot could be forgiven about this manifesto for “radical” change if the term “radical” was clarified at some point.

You can present an issue all you want, but what’s the solution? Take this hypothetical that Whyman’s essay proposes:

You serve 25 pints in an hour. Your boss pays for the (admittedly big) overheads, gives you a shiny £7.83 and takes the rest of the £125 handed over by boozing punters as your feet callus and your patience snaps.

His solution to make things better is “communism.”

But what does that mean? What should people try to do to approach this communism?

People who call themselves communists while being in the Labour party tend to make the case for incremental advances in social democracy, with the possibility of something more radical hinted-at in the future.

It’s a good starting point. But that still doesn’t get into specifics, and without getting into specifics*, you can avoid having to answer for the flaws of whatever you’re proposing.

*Like a basic income (which we support)

Objections

It’s reasonable to assume that because we’re neoliberals, we’ll automatically criticize anything promoting socialism or communism. But hear us out:

Nathan J. Robinson’s 3 Arguments Against Socialism And Why They Fail is informative. It corrects misconceptions and bad arguments against socialism. Whyman’s piece repeats misconceptions.

Dani Rodrik’s criticism of neoliberalism defines what he’s criticising. Whyman’s piece doesn’t.

Both Dani Rodrik and Nathan J. Robinson explain what specific changes they support. Whyman’s piece doesn’t.

Prince Kropotkin, an infamous reddit user, wrote an explanation of how his brand of anarcho-communism would work. He explains his logic, step-by-step. Whyman’s piece doesn’t.

If you want to promote socialism or communism, you have to explain at least a little bit on how it’ll be better than what we have now. You can’t just say, “maybe it will” and leave it at that.

In Conclusion

The worst kind of criticism is criticism that descends into vague, hazy utopianism. Sometimes that’s a sports fan who criticizes the coach without being able to articulate what he would do differently. Just coach better! Sometimes it’s a manager who criticizes an employee’s performance while not understanding how she works. Just work harder! And sometimes it’s a writer who blames every bad thing under the sun on capitalism, without articulating how socialism would make anything better.