Sunday, July 15, 2012

Egalitarian vs Communal Principles

I was reading an interesting book on my flight called 'Why Not Socialism?', by G. A. Cohen. It tied in nicely with the concepts that I discuss here on this blog so I thought I would share two principles that Cohen discusses: the egalitarian and the communal, or community, principles.

The title of the book is not meant as a rhetorical question - Cohen discusses the idea of a socialist society from a logical and realistic view point. He also touches upon the feasibility of implementing a socialist system, but in this blog post I will not delve into whether socialism is feasible or not - you can read the book if you would like to find that out.

The Camping Trip

Let's start off with an analogy that Cohen uses throughout the book: 'the camping trip'. 

Imagine that you and I and a whole bunch of other people go on a camping trip. There is no hierarchy among us; our common aim is that each of us should have a good time, doing, so far as possible, the things that she or he likes best (some things we do together, others we do separately). We have with us facilities which we can use: pots, pans, oil, coffee, fishing rods, canoes, deck of cards, etc. And as is usual on camping trips, we use those facilities collectively: even if they are privately owned things, they are under collective control for the duration of the trip, and we have shared understandings about who is going to use them when, and under what circumstances, and why. Somebody fishes, somebody else prepares the food, and another person cooks it. People who do not like to cook but enjoy washing up may do all the washing up, and so on. 

On this camping trip there are plenty of differences, but our mutual understandings, and the spirit of the enterprise, ensure that there are no inequalities to which anyone could mount a principled objection. There is a clear sense of 'fellowship'.

Now imagine a camping trip where everybody asserts their rights over the facilities, or pieces of equipment, and the talents that they bring, and where bargaining proceeds with respect to who is going to pay what to whom. For example, to use a knife to peel the potatoes, and how much they are going to charge others for those now peeled potatoes that were bought in an unpeeled condition from another camper, and so on. 

On this camping trip there are also plenty of differences but these differences are based on the principles of market exchange and strictly private ownership of the required facilities. On this camping trip there is a clear sense of 'inefficiency' in the sense that too much time would be spent bargaining, and looking over one's shoulders for more lucrative possibilities. 

Which camping trip would you be drawn to? 

Now imagine that 
Harry, Sylvia, Leslie and Morgan are your fellow campers. 

Harry is very good at fishing, and so consequently he catches more fish than others do. Harry would like better fish than the others when he dines because he feels that it is unfair that his good fortune is not rewarded. Sylvia upon returning from a personal exploration period returns to the campsite and announces that she found a huge apple tree full of perfect apples. But in order to allow the other campers to have the apples she would like a reduction in her labour burden, more room in the tent and more bacon for breakfast. Leslie, endowed from birth with many knacks and talents is the only camper on the trip who knows how to crack nuts, but she wants to charge for sharing that information with her fellow campers.  Morgan's father camped in the same spot thirty years ago. Thirty years ago Morgan's father dug a special little pond and stocked it with exceedingly good fish so that when Morgan went to camp he would be able to eat better. Morgan says, "Now I can have better food than you guys have".

How would you react to your fellow camper's expressions?

Two Principles

From the two trips above, two principles are highlighted: the principle of community, evident in the first trip; and the principle of egalitarianism, evident in the second trip and in Harry, Sylvia, Leslie and Morgan's expressions.

It is also evident that the community principle, by default, constrains the operation of the egalitarian principle by forbidding certain inequalities that the egalitarian principle permits. 

There is also a sense of communal caring that is instantiated in the community principle - a communal form of reciprocity which contrasts with the market form of reciprocity evident in the second camping trip. Where starting points are equal, communal reciprocity is not required for equality, but it is required for human relationships to take a desirable form. 

Thus, communal reciprocity is the antimarket principle according to which: I serve you not because of what I can get in return but because you need or want my service, and you, for the same reason, serve me.  On the other hand, since the market motivates productive contribution not on the basis of commitment to one's fellow human beings and a desire to serve them while being served by them, but on the basis of cash reward - market reciprocity is not the same as communal reciprocity.

This immediate motive to productive activity in a market society is typically a mixture of greed and fear.      

Greed and Fear

It is true that people can engage in market activity under other aspirations, but the motives of greed and fear are what the market brings to prominence: greed on behalf of, and fear for the safety of, one's family. Even when one's concerns are wider than those of one's self, the market posture is greedy and fearful in that one's opposite-number marketeers are predominantly seen as possible sources of enrichment, and as threats to one's success. 

Goes without saying that these are horrible ways of seeing other people, however much we have become habituated and inured to them, this is a result of centuries of capitalist civilization. Of course capitalism did not invent greed and fear, they are deep in human nature, but capitalism does celebrate them.

Within communal reciprocity, one produces in a spirit of commitment to their fellow human beings: a desire to serve them while being served by them.  

Within market reciprocation, one is willing to serve only in order to be served: one would not serve if doing so were not a means to get service. Accordingly, one would give as little service as they can in exchange for as much service as they can get: I want to buy cheap and sell dear. I serve others either in order to get something that I desire - that is the greed motivation; or in order to ensure that something I seek to avoid is avoided - that is the fear motivation.  

A marketeer, as such, does not value cooperation with others for its own sake: the conjunction, serve-and-be-served is not valued.

A non-market cooperator relishes cooperation: what I want, is that we serve each other; and when I serve, instead of trying to get whatever I can get, I do not regard my actions as a sacrifice. To be sure, I serve you in the expectation that (if you are able to) you will also serve me. My commitment does not require me to be a sucker who serves you regardless of whether (if you are able to do so) you are going to serve me, but I nevertheless find value in both parts of the conjunction: I serve you and you serve me. I do not regard the first part - I serve you - as a means to my real end, which is that you serve me. The relationship between us is not the market instrumental one in which I give because I get, but the non-instrumental one in which I give because you need, or want, and in which I expect a comparable generosity from you.

So, Can Communal Reciprocity Work?

Albert Einstein once said that socialism is humanity's attempt to "overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development". Every market, is a system of predation and so far, our attempts to get beyond predation on a national scale, have failed - but that doesn't mean we cannot apply the principles of community, or communal reciprocity, in our every day lives.   

Communal reciprocity can link chains of people together: I can serve you, and you her, and she him, and he me. In a sense, communal networks that are in some ways structurally like market networks, can form. The difference would be that reciprocity would operate under different motivations than market reciprocity but in essence, they would be like market networks in the way that no one does anything for anyone without getting something in return.

Because motivation in market exchange consists, to a large degree, of greed and fear, a person does not care, fundamentally, within a market interaction, about how well or badly anyone other than their self fares. You cooperate with other people not because you believe it's a good thing in itself, not because you want yourself and the other person to flourish, but because you seek to gain and you know that you can do so only if you cooperate with others. 

In every type of society people perforce provision one another: a society is a network of mutual provision. But, in a market society, that mutuality is only a by-product of an un-mutual and fundamentally nonreciprocating attitude.   

In our effort to advance beyond predation we must realize that we are up against entrenched capitalist power and individual human selfishness. But these are not reasons to disparage the ideal itself. If we focus on the aspiration to extend community and justice to our every day dealings, we can make a change. It is now, more than ever, imperative to defend community principles - especially that healthcare and education are currently under aggressive threat from the market principle.   

Is it just to live in a society where human life is valued by a monetary ROI?


Part II: Global Economy - 21st Century Style

International trade and investment is not actually a new phenomenon in itself. The growth of trade and investment across borders began over five hundred years ago as part of European imperialism. 

In this day and age though, it is becoming increasingly easier for corporations to move investment from one country to another, in many cases this also involves national governmental support. For example, in the Mexican financial crisis of late 1994-early 1995 where American interest rates rose seven times in 12 months, caused billions to flow out of Mexico in response to the good news of higher interest rates in America, causing Mexico to run out out of foreign exchange reserves (US$6bn by December 1994). This caused the Mexican government to devalue the peso, causing this time foreign capital to flow out of Mexico in fear of greater devaluation! Eventually a US$52bn rescue package accumulated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for Mexico, meant that Mexico lost control over its own economy. The outside world, the IMF and the USA began to dictate how Mexico would run its monetary policies (Thurow, L., p.31).

This is just one example of how global economics affect nations worldwide. But increasingly so, in the last fifty years the size of overseas investment by European, North American and East Asian corporations has seen a dramatic surge. This dramatic surge has seen corporations grow more powerful and increasingly playing a commanding role in international economic policies. Their products are now able to dominate consumer markets across the world, helping to rename these establishments as 'transnational corporations' (TNCs).

In the mid-1970s, business corporations in industrialised countries faced an energy crisis which threatened their increasing profits, in order to overcome this they started to take advantage of nations with cheap labour where they in turn, increased their investment in. Exploitation of cheap labour overseas was key strategy to produce even cheaper products enabling them to dominate consumer markets worldwide. Also during this time, international trade barriers such as tariffs, subsidies, import controls and taxes on imports were successfully removed. Hence the creation of the 'free market'; free in the sense that corporations had more freedom to accumulate profits.

In countries where workers did not have social rights in the first place, their governments and the 'free market' refused to recognise these rights which lead to violent worker's repression, loss of social protection, cuts in government spending on welfare and education, privatisation of public services and utilities, and cheaper unprotected labour for exploitation.

With reference to the acclaimed documentary, 'The Corporation', TNCs have actually been classed as mentally insane if one was to take their status as a legal 'person'. This is why globalisation is sometimes also defined as 'capitalism is the age of electronics' (Greenfield, G. and Pringle, T.; 2001).

Change. Today. Fast.

'Half of humanity has never made a phone-call' (Thabo Mbeki, G7 summit [1])

Not all developing countries have been fortunate enough to experience the great advancements in information technology this global revolution has bestowed upon us. Despite the rapid expansion of the Internet, information technology inequalities do exist, and a great portion of the globe are still bereft of its benefits. One of the main obstacles is the lack of a modern and robust telecommunications infrastructure. Forty-nine countries (thirty-five of which are African) have less than one telephone per 100 people. India has eight million phone lines for over 900 million people (Al-Suwaidi, J., p.2).  This indicates that the information gap between developed and developing nations is in fact, increasing.

Another factor is that the network society is dominated by natives and ethnic majorities. For foreigners and ethnic minorities who lack the skills and do not speak or command the dominant English language, they are alienated even further from joining the global revolution (Van Dijk, J., 1999).

Information is not, in itself, power, but it aids those who possess power and the mass media plays a crucial role in the maintenance of information levels both for citizens and governments. During the 1950s, structural-functionalist thinking was dominant and sought to explain the developing world's need to move from a 'traditional' to a hegemonous 'modern' set of attitudes and behaviours. The basic psychology of the traditional individual was needed to be altered to one that veers away from religion to secularism with emphasis on acceptance of scepticism, risk-taking and personal efficacy, social trust and the environment. This shift rendered traditional values as deficient and hindering to the mobilization process. The consequences were mass media operated for the interests of the dominant elite, a rise in numbers of criminal/disturbed individuals suffering from psychological disorientation, increased drug use, crimes, and fraudulent spirituality (Morgan, D. p.93).  

This dominance of elite's version of modernity brought up in 1966 by Barrington Moore, was also echoed in 1971 by Antonio Gramsci who spoke of the concept of 'hegemony'. Gramsci conceptualized hegemony to be stemmed from the notion that the most dominant social group in society has the ability to influence direction, intellectually and morally, over a society not by mere military force but by creating consent through ideological control of 'cultural production and distribution'. And that such a system exists through the control of mass media, schools and religious bodies. Whereby authority is bestowed by the government, this consent is 'organised' and those that are consenting are 'educated to do so' (Thussu, D., 2006).   

Despite all this globalization hype, according to the Human Development Report (UNDP, 2003) per capita levels declined in 54 countries in the 1990s and 1.38 billion workers across the world lived on less than $2 a day (ILO, 2004); poverty elimination and inequalities between 'haves' and 'have nots' is clearly not a major issue on the 'elitist' agenda.


Although the age of globalisation has brought many changes in its tide, some positive and others negative, instability in this phase of transition to an increasingly global world, is imminent. But instabilities are not created by the technologies though, they are only exasperated by them. Unless all nations become full participatory actors in this global revolution, the gap between the rich and the poor will widen; increasing marginalisation in tow. And this gap will increase cultural, religious and ethnic conflicts inter-regionally and across borders.

Kofi Annan at the World Bank conference said that, '[w]hat is so thrilling about our time is that the privilege of information is now an instant and globally accessible privilege. It is our duty and responsibility to see that gift bestowed on all the world's people, so that all may live lives of knowledge and understanding [2]' (Global Knowledge Conference, June 1997).

The future is truly in our hands.   


Al-Suwaidi, J. The Information Revolution and the Arab World: It’s Impact on State and Society, The Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research, 1998, p.2, 3

Morgan, D. Mass Media and the Policy Process, 1996, p.93

Thurow, L. The Information-Communications Revolution and the Global Economy, (1997) p.11, 31

Thussu, D. International Communication: Continuity and Change, 2006, Hodder Education, p.53, 97

Dijk, J. The Network Society, 1999, Sage Publications, p. 148

UNDP, Human Development Report 2003: Millennium Development Goals: A Compact Among Nations to End Human Poverty, 2003, Oxford University Press

ILO, World of Work Magazine No. 50, March 2004: Toward a fair globalisation, Global Employment Trends, 2004

[1]    Quoted in Al-Suwaidi, J. The Information Revolution and The Arab World, p. 2
[2]    Quoted in Al-Suwaidi, J. The Information Revolution and The Arab World, p. 3