Tuesday, February 4, 2020

A commie worth reading

Dear H,

I have great respect for Peter Kropotkin, not so much for what he preached as for when he preached it.  He was born an aristocrat in 1842 but ended up an activist by 1872.  He went from a gilded cradle to a filthy prison.  His landmark treatise on anarcho-communism, The Conquest of Bread, is well-written and innovative.  It's worth a read, but not before you've read Rand or Mises or Bastiat or Hayek.  It would have made a commie of me, but it's too late -- I've seen how the trial runs went, and I prefer to not die in a gulag. 

But consider when he wrote it.  This was before the Russian Revolution and the Cultural Revolution and Nazi Germany and Communist Romania and North Korea -- so why not give it a shot?  One look around him at the ragged masses working seven days a week, sun-up to sun-down, women and children, for starvation wages -- people who couldn't afford a warm home, or new shoes, or a doctor, or a Christmas ham; who never got vacations; who could never get an education; who could never climb up, or out, or even look out a window during the workday; who had no safety regulations to protect them; who were mangled and thrown away the moment they were injured; widows whose children were stolen from them the second they applied for welfare*; women and girls who died screaming and trampled and choking on smoke and on fire because somebody didn't want to pay for emergency exits -- !!

Then take a glance at the robber barons.  These fat cats making money hand over fist, millions on millions; who got rich buying land from struggling farmers without telling them there was coal or oil on it; who bought virtual monopolies with state intervention and then rammed up their monopoly prices; who squeezed honest businessmen paying honest wages out of business and then strangled women slowly in years of mindless drudgery; who made cigars out of hundred-dollar bills; who owned wine cellars so big the government classified them as bomb shelters for thousands; who gilded their ceilings; who had solid gold toilets; who owned thousands of acres and never bothered to walk them; who had hundreds of servants and barely decided to pay them; who lobbied for lower taxes for their own kind; who controlled the city officials and state legislatures; who built manor houses with a hundred rooms while crowding their employees into rat-infested hovels -- take this glance, realize that at that point this was called capitalism, and there was no safe way out in sight, and then consider the economists with their graphs and charts and models of life expectancy and logical arguments and pleas for patience and decide which side you'd stand on.  It would be a tough choice for me, at least.

Peter Kropotkin was wrong, but from his view what did he have to lose?  He had too much faith in the masses, but what faith could he put in the elites?  His starry-eyed predictions about workers making whatever products they want, and everyone working voluntarily without threat of force or privation, and nobody arguing over who gets the best once-landlorded properties, and cities of millions bartering with farmers in the country, and production happening willy-nilly without any real fears of overproduction, or of underproduction, or non-production -- all these ideas are silly to us now.  At least to those of us who read Hayek.  But were they more ridiculous than what Kropotkin saw in front of him?

I agree that there's such a thing as an obscene amount of wealth.  I don't agree that we should grab it.  I believe a sweatshopper who smokes a hundred dollar bill ought to be h----d; but for the sake of society, not that he should be robbed**.

Your father,
-J

*Robert A. Caro's The Power Broker has some harrowing passages about slum-life in New York, including a section on how new widows who asked for welfare would have their kids taken away from them.  I've read lots of left-wing literature, but for some reason none of it hit me so squarely as his chapters on the robber barons, or the reformers.  I'll never take Labor Day the same way again.  I might not be a leftist, but overall I agree with the spirit of the old Progressives; and I think most of us do, however much Republicans complain about them.  We like governments with budgets***, and clean water, and working sewers, and safety standards, and clean air, and weekends, and workers comp, and parks to play in, and good roads.  We pretend to believe in minimal government, but Thomas Jefferson is too radical for our taste.  Most of us would be considered commies by our ancestors, and we forget that a hundred years ago this place was run like a shanty-town and a Chinese sweatshop.

H.L. Mencken says his teacher was fired, around 1888, for saying eight hours for sleep, eight hours for work, eight hours for what you will.  Personally I consider that a mild form of protest.  If I had to work 12 hours a day and seven days a week, I'm pretty sure I'd end up a highwayman, or a terrorist.  Or as Mencken also put it, Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.  How much more the man whose wife burns to death making people millionaires for pennies?
.
**They say that billionaires don't make money, they take money, and they're right -- sort of.  But I ask myself where we'd be if they didn't keep it from the people who work for them, and furthermore if we didn't sanction it.  In fact I speculate that if everyone had split the profits evenly with their employees, no advancements would have ever been made in business whatsoever.  Nobody would have gone on to make Amazon, or Microsoft, or Costco, or Exxon, or Ford what they ended up being, and each of us would be immeasurably poorer.  We would have felt fairer but nobody would have gotten out of a log hut.

I agree with JP Morgan that he owed the public nothing.  He had already given to the public -- and that's why they gave to him.  I like the idea that a man can't get rich unless he offers people something first, and offers it better than the rest of us.  I like it even more that a man will go poor if he offers his neighbors nothing.  A rich man may not be generous to his employees, but he has to be generous to a much larger number of his customers.  The argument of communism lies primarily in the struggle between bosses and underlings.  It ignores the relationship between the businessmen and the masses.

***When I say we like governments with budgets I mean it.  Robert A Caro states that before 1907, no major American city had an itemized budget, and the people's money, taken from them at the point of a gun, was usually mismanaged by officials -- who had little idea what was actually going on in all the agencies, and thus had no control over the situation.  Unlike European cities, American cities were built by settlers on the fly, and there was little accountability aside from the ballot box.  When budgets would fail and essential services would get slashed, some "hero" would show up and promise to make things better, only to find himself in the same situation, and get run out by some other new hero -- oftentimes the guy he just ousted.

This is one thing the Progressives did for us: giving us control of our money and our cities; and it makes me sad that their name, which is rightly tied to actual progress, has been taken over by clown-shoes -- who incite black people to riots, who hog-tie our policemen, who give free money to junkies, who spend tens of thousands on rainbow cross-walks, who allow criminal aliens sanctuary simply because they're aliens, who believe successful businessmen are a burden to the city, and who ban plastic straws because they're a "danger" to the public.

PS: Some interesting quotes from The Conquest.
The house was not built by its [landlord]. It was erected, decorated, and furnished by innumerable workers — in the timber yard, the brick field, and the workshop, toiling for dear life at a minimum wage. The money spent by the owner was not the product of his own toil. It was amassed, like all other riches, by paying the workers two-thirds or only a half of what was their due. Moreover — and it is here that the enormity of the whole proceeding becomes most glaring — the house owes its actual value to the profit which the owner can make out of it. Now, this profit results from the fact that his house is built in a town possessing bridges, quays, and fine public buildings, and affording to its inhabitants a thousand comforts and conveniences unknown in villages; a town well paved, lighted with gas, in regular communication with other towns, and itself a centre of industry, commerce, science, and art; a town which the work of twenty or thirty generations has gone to render habitable, healthy, and beautiful. A house in certain parts of Paris may be valued at thousands of pounds sterling, not because thousands of pounds’ worth of labour have been expended on that particular house, but because it is in Paris; because for centuries workmen, artists, thinkers, and men of learning and letters have contributed to make Paris what it is to-day — a centre of industry, commerce, politics, art, and science; because Paris has a past; because, thanks to literature, the names of its streets are household words in foreign countries as well as at home; because it is the fruit of eighteen centuries of toil, the work of fifty generations of the whole French nation.
And this,
Open any book on sociology or jurisprudence, and you will find there the Government, its organization, its acts, filling so large a place that we come to believe that there is nothing outside the Government and the world of statesmen. The press teaches us the same in every conceivable way. Whole columns are devoted to parliamentary debates and to political intrigues. The vast every day life of a nation is barely mentioned in a few lines when dealing with economic subjects, law, or in “divers facts” relating to police cases. And when you read these newspapers, you hardly think of the incalculable number of beings — all humanity, so to say — who grow up and die, who know sorrow, who work and consume, think and create outside the few encumbering personages who have been so magnified that humanity is hidden by their shadows enlarged by our ignorance. And yet as soon as we pass from printed matter; to life itself, as soon as we throw a glance at society, we are struck by the infinitesimal part played by the Government.
Right or wrong, there are many more where these came from, and I recommend The Conquest, if not for instruction, at least for a fun challenge.

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