I watch the keywords that lead people to this site, and one from this week caught my attention. Somehow through the magic of search engines, someone looking for the phrase “cashless communism” was directed here. I’m not sure how that happened, but I thought I would expound on the topic for fun.
So first, lets define the two words in question. Per the Macmillan Dictionary cashless is defined simply as “done without any exchange of cash“, and communism is “a political and economic system in which individual people cannot own property or industries and in which people of all social classes are treated equally“. That sounds like a great concept, and I can think of an excellent example of where we can see this principle implemented today: a graveyard. I can’t think of any other examples of where this has ever existed. There have been cashless societies that were not made up of equals, and there have been communist societies that have always had a method of exchange.
Cashless. There have been a few societies in history that have came close to this concept, but even then there was always a method of bartering. Hunter-gatherers don’t have a lot of need for cash, but I don’t see how cultures agrarian and onward can function without money. If you don’t have a direct one-to-one transfer of goods, then there has to be some medium of exchange. I do not consider myself to be even a novice economist, so at this point, I will direct you to the Ludwig von Mises Institute for a proper education in sound economics. Their approach may sound a little contrarian at first glance, but doesn’t simple truth usually run contrary to popular wisdom anyway?
Communism. I am unaware of any pure communist state that has ever succeeded. As I stated above, a great concept, but unfortunately, humanity gets in the way of all that equality. Take the Soviet Union for example. Everyone was equally poor except for the oligarchs driving the state apparatus. Equality is an idea that can only be met by the lowest common denominator. Those who want to excel will not be interested in holding themselves back for the betterment of their fellow man. I’ve heard of a concept of Christian communism that is purported to have existed in the 1st century Church. Proponents of this concept usually quote Acts 2:44-47:
44 Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, 45 and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. 46 So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.
First, note that while they had all things in common, they did not sell all their possessions and goods, and the did not divide them equally amongst all, they divided the goods based on need. Now note that they still broke bread from house to house. It is fair to assume that they were still working and buying bread. I think the rest of the book of Acts will bear that out. Also look at the account of Ananias and Saphira from Acts 5:
1 But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession, 2 and kept back [part] of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3 But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thy heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to keep back [part] of the price of the land? 4 While it remained, did it not remain thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thy power? How is it that thou hast conceived this thing in thy heart? thou has not lied unto men, but unto God. 5 And Ananias hearing these words fell down and gave up the ghost: and great fear came upon all that heard it. 6 And the young men arose and wrapped him round, and they carried him out and buried him.
7 And it was about the space of three hours after, when his wife, not knowing what was done, came in. 8 And Peter answered unto her, Tell me whether ye sold the land for so much. And she said, Yea, for so much.9 But Peter [said] unto her, How is it that ye have agreed together to try the Spirit of the Lord? behold, the feet of them that have buried thy husband are at the door, and they shall carry thee out. 10 And she fell down immediately at his feet, and gave up the ghost: and the young men came in and found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her by her husband. 11 And great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all that heard these things.
I do not think that the concept that early Christianity was communist stands of its own accord when honestly analysed. But back to the concept of communism itself, I would direct you to the Marxist Internet Archive for a more in-depth study. Caveat emptor: I have not spent much time on this site, so don’t count this link as an endorsement of anything contained on it.
So how would a cashless communist state operate?
First, it would have to be robust enough to sustain itself without any external commerce. All production would have to be accomplished internally. There would have to be a rigid division of labor. One could not be free to fulfil his own ambitions that might be contrary to the role that society needed him to play. This strict control would only be able to be maintained by a central authority and dissenters would have to be dealt with harshly. Those controlling the apparatus would of necessity not be producers: you can’t work the farm and run the country. King Saul tried this early in his career, but was pulled in full time shortly thereafter. This then gets into one of my favorite Orwellian quotes: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others“.
Second, we’ll now stick with whimsy and assume that everyone’s labor will be rewarded equally. To do this, only products that yield consistently and in great quantity can be produced. That rules out the consumption of meat for the most part. It is inefficient to produce, consumes other usable resources, and output is variable. That leaves only the most robust and bland foodstuffs for consumption. Storage would have to be a concern, so only foods that can be stored long-term at ambient temperatures can be utilized. Man cannot live by bread alone, but grains and root crops would be the staple foods of such a society. Much entertainment would not exist, it doesn’t have a value add in such a society. Religion, a core tenet of humanity would either exist in the form of a state religion, or no religion, which is not a-theist, but the god is the state.
Third is how goods are distributed in this cashless society. The central authority would have to track everyone’s output to determine distribution. There would have to be 100% accountability of all citizens/serfs/miserable wretches in this culture. What would stop those controlling distribution from skewing allocations? How can you have checks and balances in favor of the workers when the oligarchs are the only ones in overhead positions? It is in their interests to serve themselves first. How would the workers mandate an accurate audit of records? I don’t know. NB: I’m a little biased against communism, as you may have ascertained.
What might work?
There is a way that this could work possibly, but it involves devolving to the most stable (in my humble estimation) form of government: small scale tribalism. It won’t work in “advanced” societies. Things just don’t scale that well. With tribalism, you revert back to extended family groups in small geographic areas that can be self sustaining. Everyone does have a vested interest in being their brother’s (or cousin’s) keeper. Those who have experienced life the most (elders) are given opportunity to lead. Honor holds ambition in check (See Brett McKay’s great series on this topic). Those who shun honor are cast out. Tribalism is the closest to a functioning cashless communism that I can perceive.