The Utopian Ideal

3/15/13 The Utopian Ideal

Karl Marx once famously wrote that the culmination of Communism would be a society which could “inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”

Wikipedia tells us that Marx didn’t originate the phrase, but regardless, it has become a popular summary of the ultimate socialist or communist ideal.  To most people, it sounds like a good idea, but most people don’t have the time or inclination to think about it.

If they did, they would recognize it for the nonsense that it is. The only thing this phrase gets right is it places the “from” before the “to”, i.e. production must precede consumption. Other than that, it is a prescription for total dictatorship.

Take the word “needs”:   “ — to each according to his needs.”  A second’s reflection and all of us would agree that “needs” is a highly subjective term. How do we draw the line between wants and needs?

It’s been a cold spring, and you say you  “need” a week in Hawaii. Your wife loves cats so she “needs” to buy cat food.  (Don’t you think all the money society spends on pet food could be put to better use?) You “need” an iPad?  A 3-D color TV? A four-wheel drive? Roquefort dressing? etc. etc. ad infinitum.

It’s obvious we can’t leave the definition of an individual’s needs up to the individual.  We will require a group of intellectually and morally superior people to come to disinterested judgments on what each of us “needs”.  I know some people right here in Silver City who would be good at this job.

One is a very nice lady with whom I was talking one day about locally grown food and “sustainability” here in Silver City. I said that if I were to put up some greenhouses and grow bananas at $5 a pound, we wouldn’t have to rely on $.50 per pound imported bananas that come all the way from Guatemala. Well, she said, people don’t really NEED bananas.

On another occasion, I was at a “Local Food Forum” meeting and mentioned that WalMart and Albertson’s have a fantastic array of foods from all over the world, one of my favorites being stuffed olives, difficult to grow locally.  To which one of the attendees replied, jaw firmly set, that people will have to learn to live without some things. (This was another lady. Does a lot of church work.)

At the other end of Marx’s dictum, we have the word “ability”:  “From each, according to his ability — ”. While this may seem to be a more objective characteristic, i.e. either a person has or does not have ability, it too, is a very subjective concept.  Certain selfish people, for instance, may not want to exercise the full extent of their abilities if they resent the value of their efforts going to someone else, someone with greater “needs”.

How can society motivate such despicable people? Put their names in the paper? Long, arduous prison terms?  How about firing squads?

Then there are unfortunate people, like myself, who just don’t have any abilities. I can’t carry a tune, swing a golf club, or do any other thing of possible value. However, if I lived in Cuba, that brilliant judge of talent, Che Guevara, would have immediately seen that I had the ability to harvest sugar cane. What a guy.

Finally, if we look at the whole phrase, is this “from” and “to” going to be a voluntary process? Will those with abilities gather every Saturday in the town square to give to those with needs, or will there have to be some external motivating factor? How about a police state?

In fairness to Marx, this society he envisioned would come after the proletariat had thrown off its chains and where “labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want”.  People would work for the good of society, not out of compulsion, but because, according to Wikipedia,  “ — work would have become such a pleasurable and creative activity”.

One wonders, in such a society, who would collect the garbage.

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