50. Communist hysteria as a projection

The routine accusations that center left politicians are communists is an interesting symptom of a deeper problem. This essays discusses how this not only reveals profound ideological illiteracy, but also the projected insecurities of capitalist society in decay. 

Every now and then in North America center left governments and politicians are accused of being communists or spreading communism, in particular to the youth. These words have some shock value and tend to make headlines in newspapers, but in substance usually mean very little. A well-publicized Mexican example of this was how at the beginning of the 2023 academic year both the conservative opposition and the media in general panicked over the release of new free schoolbooks. These books made soft mentioning of things like class consciousness and adjusted some deeply neoliberal notions in the previous generation of books. Predictably, now that first semester has ended there is no revolution (sorry communists!) of toddlers, and most schools carried on as normal without further drama.

     So what is going on here? One half the answer is a general ideological illiteracy, typical of a society where people see politics as a competition of personalities rather than ideas. More so, there is a fear not just of communism, but any –ism (socialism, nationalism, neoliberalism, conservatism). Not only does Mexico’s socialist president (in contrast to his Brazilian or Bolivian colleagues) avoid the label of his own ideology, even the conservative opposition mysteriously refuses to be called conservative these days. Can we blame people for being confused?

    The other half of the answer cuts deeper, and relates to what part of the dreaded communism you are scared about. Could it be an image of people living in poverty, experiencing a lack of opportunities, being ruled by corrupt politicians and thousands living in the exact same bad housing? In other words, a description of Estado de Mexico anno 2015? Because this is exactly what it comes down to: the fearmongering of communism usually relates to a projection of the flaws in our own system. Projecting commonly means accusing another of your own flaws and repressed problems. The people most concerned with exposing centrists (Joe Biden!) as communists usually have no clue of what communism – in theory or practice – is, and are thus rather projecting the sum of their fears. Our examination in this essay will not center around defending (or even explaining) ‘communism’, but on using the stereotype itself to explore some of the cracks in our society.

This theme of projection is not new, but goes back to the actual Communist Manifesto, written in 1848 by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In this they point out the irony that people who have nothing are scared of the abolition of property: “You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenth” (1848). Two centuries later we can still recognize this projected fear of missing the material wealth of capitalism, while ignoring the difficult actual social conditions of the majority under the latter system. One example of this is the fear of raising taxes in a country where the majority does not have the formal employment it would take to pay taxes. Communism is further often associated with poverty and low wages, while in Mexico ironically the ‘fourth transformation’ government accused of this is the first in decades to actually raise real wages and reduce poverty.

    Another common objection to communism is the loss of individuality, both in a material (consumerist) and personal sense. In the former the current practice of housing thousands of people in identical low grade ‘Infonavit’ housing at first sight seems more communist than Cuba. Unfortunately it is not, since these service deprived dwelling are not even free government housing, but mass real estate gambles paid by getting the working class in debt. More generally, North American is full of mass (and often common) consumption of identical or quasi identical products – blame those damn communists at Costco  foodcourt! Regarding the loss of individuality and identity, it is true that our current society heavily leans on identity (mainly through consumption and taste) formation. Yet in an economic sense there seems to be little respect for the ‘complex nature’ of humans that communism is allegedly incompatible with, since advertisements and social media content constantly tries to manipulate us as if we were idiots. In a similar light, a society that is already corrupt to the core is somehow still concerned that ‘communism’ (and socialism) might fail because of corruption.

It thus seems that the problem with this projection is not just that the imagined communism isn’t communism; but that our dear capitalism isn’t capitalism as intended either. Late capitalism in its concrete manifestation has long moved beyond the ideal examples of economic text books. Some brief illustrations of my line of thinking:

– The so called free market, which in Adam Smith’s days was made up out of hundreds of producers, is at the distribution level in Mexico often monopolistic or ruled by cartels in key areas, such as telecommunications, natural gas or corn.

– As I have written about repeatedly, the core assumption that people can make themselves useful in a competitive context is increasingly threatened by the ability of robots and artificial intelligence to replace people. The meaning of both skilled labor and labor contracts is constantly changing, while capitalism itself is becoming more feudal with its focus on renting out or taxing the means of production (Uber, Amazon, Youtube).

– It has  been argued by conservatives since antiquity (from Aristotle to John Locke) that private property is more productive than common means, since people care more about the things they own, with farming as the key example. This might be true in abstract, but holds very little relevance for our society, where millions of people work in places that they don’t own (or even know the owners). Ironically, giving workers a bigger voice in their companies (indeed a communist idea) would give the generally disinterested workers of Subway more ownership-motivation than they have now.

Could it be that what conservative opinion makers are really afraid of is not communism, but class consciousness within a decadent capitalism? That people would become aware of the decennia of onslaught on the working class? If making minor changes to (in case of the textbooks: the description of) the system leads to ‘red’ panic, maybe this is more an admission of guilt that the current system would inspire such ideologies.

So what to make of all this? What does this projection mean?

    First, the fact that late capitalism has all these ‘communist’ properties, leads to the fundamental question if our capitalism just isn’t ‘good enough’ (because we failed), or, if the core assumptions of what capitalism would realistically become are wrong. Long time readers known that over the span of the last 50 essays I have argued on almost any subject (from porn to scientific knowledge) that our current mode of capitalism sets the conditions for the distortion of society. In this sense, Mexico is  the perfect case of what happens if capitalist greed and short sightedness roam free. Ironically, only governments accused of spreading communism seem to make this society live up to at least some of its capitalist pretentions.

     Second, that if this is what we fear about communism or (more realistically) socialism, maybe it is not that scary or unfamiliar. A former PRI politician that moved to Morena once told me that when he made the move, some of his poorest supporters asked if he was not concerned that ‘we would become like Cuba’. He recalled telling them not to worry about people in Cuba, for those people at least have free healthcare and shelter, and they should worry about themselves first. It would be good if people would get over their fear of ideologies and accept actual plurality: humans can  – at least on the short term – successfully organize in multiple forms.

    Third, that we should call things what they are. Following the European political spectrum, it is time to once and for all see socialism and socialist parties as their own thing. In particular Latin American socialism is not only a legitimate ideology, it is a powerful force that doesn’t need constant reference to far away events to define itself. Calling center left leaders communists is a useless and meaningless insult, that is only painful to the communists themselves.