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Marx was transfixed by the Gemeinwesen, a German word meant to grasp the essence of human community, the state of human relations. Marx did not think a world of exchange built around the relation of labor to capital made for the healthiest Gemeinwesen, and he wanted a different one. He dreamt of a future horizon where we could one day declare “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.”
What if we lived in a world where people only expected from each other what was in line with their abilities and desires? What if we lived in a world where the needs of everyone were a first priority and everything else came after?
However, there already are some places in our lives where we expect from others only what is in line with their abilities and desires, and where we strive to provide people with everything that they need. That hopeful horizon can be found in miniature in the way I relate to my children. I do not give my kids food and shelter in exchange for work. I don’t expect anything from them in exchange for what they need.
Similar islands of miniature communism can be found in different love relations with others, with partners, family, friends, or anyone with whom we are happily connected for other reasons than money. We are not only there for a friend in despair if that friend pays us fifteen dollars an hour for our time and attention. Such a requirement would nullify the friendship. If you and your partner measure every chore and favor you do for one another on a spreadsheet to ensure an equal exchange, you’ll both be on a fast track to resentment.
So what is going on there? Why do we have these precious no-go zones for capitalist exchange relations? It is because love relations motivate actions and commitments in a different way, and these differently motivated actions and commitments matter to us greatly. Our aspirations to love reveal a deep yearning for something greater than exchange relations.
To know what love does for real people in the real world is to grasp its communism, and to reconcile ourselves with a communist aspiration in all of us. However, why that particular move? Why bother relating any of this to “communism?” Why not just enjoy love as the private experience of family or friends? Do we really need a different society?
The global pandemic of COVID-19, among many other things, teaches us that we do.
It has been a brutal lesson, and at the time of this writing, it is still underway. Millions upon millions variously left alone, evicted, deprived of food and financial security, cut off from relationships that give their lives meaning, left without the jobs that were a prerequisite for the satisfaction of their everyday needs.
Studies already show that people are unequally impacted by a pandemic. Wealthy countries are first in line for the vaccine, which they can stockpile, but even within wealthy counties, the poorest communities and communities of color bear disproportionate pains.
Money cannot be allowed to determine whether or not one’s basic needs are satisfied, whether or not one receives necessary care. We don’t want money to decide the enduring responsibilities and commitments of a healthy love relation, and we should not allow it to do so in society more broadly. This must be one of the lessons of the pandemic. Learning from it may be necessary for surviving the next catastrophe.
For example, the message of the ecological crisis is not to keep extracting more from the natural world and to competitively seize the finite resources of our very small planet. What we have to do, if it is at all possible to do so, is shift urgently from competition to cooperation, from wealth to needs. That is the Gemeinwesen we need.
A pandemic does not end class society, it happens within it. For those with some privilege, the preceding reality could become unreal without terrible consequences. However, consider those stuck in homes where there was already neglect and abuse, those who cannot leave for temporary emancipations from those abusers who, suddenly unemployed, are full of fresh frustration and anger. For many, the collective action of staying put intensifies preexisting violence and vulnerability, including the financial violence and vulnerability of the “normal” capitalist society.
As the horror stories make their way into the light, let’s hope they make the journey with the help of the attentive love of other people. A good theory of love recommends a clear comportment and practical actions in the face of any crisis. A communist theory of love demands that we do our best to attend to the frailties and despairs of our beloveds. Love materializes in active relationships of attentive care, relationships that are not governed by money, and that cannot be governed by money without becoming different relationships.
But what is the fate of active relationships and attentive care in a socially distanced society? Indeed, pandemics require a passage of “asocial solidarity.” One of the paradoxical lessons of the virus is that, in order to overcome it, people have to break with the logic of capital that organizes so much of our lives. In a pandemic, the terrible and the good coexist in a complex unity. Not exchange value, but other values are necessary for finding our way.
Is it too hopeful to think that the virus revealed the necessity of at least a little bit of communism?
A major conclusion of my most recent book, The Communism of Love (AK Press, 2020), is that human well-being cannot be maintained according to the logic of capital. For our health and well-being, we need relations beyond exchange relations; we need those nonmonetary human relations that make our lives worth living.
Love is as close as we may get to a universal communist aspiration, to the human aspiration for a set of commitments and relationships that help us create little precarious communes. Little communes of family, friendship, comrades, artists, and colleagues shield us from the worst realities of life under the dictatorship of capital. The “little precarious communes” I refer to are not produced by—nor are they a feature of—COVID-19. In fact, they are challenged by the experience of the pandemic, which highlights and reveals their urgency. The pandemic strengthens old arguments about capital and human life. That we must defend and expand our already-existing, too-small, and often precarious communes beyond their narrow limits is the purpose of communists like us.
Richard Gilman-Opalsky is Professor of Political Theory and Philosophy in the Department of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Springfield. He is the author of six books, including The Communism of Love, Specters of Revolt, Precarious Communism, and Spectacular Capitalism.