Monday, November 7, 2011

OpenSky, and Why Communism Failed

Lainie Petersen of Lainie Sips wrote a blog post about a tea coupon special through a website called OpenSky. This was the first time I had heard of the site OpenSky, so I decided to check it out. Apparently, tea is one of the products that this site occasionally has deals on.

But when I visited the site, it reminded me, among other things, of Communism, which inspired this post.

My memories of Communism:

I've never lived in a Communist country, but I was born in 1980, when the cold war was still very much alive, and I remember, as a child, the rhetoric and public talk of Communism, with the unified "Eastern Bloc" of Communist countries from the USSR through Eastern Europe. And I remember the fall of the Berlin wall, and the breakup of the USSR. My mother, being a German professor, felt that we had to get over to Germany after the wall came down, and I remember going to Germany in the summer of 1990, after the wall came down, but before reunification. We arrived in East Berlin on the day that East Germany was changing their currency to the West German Deutsche Mark; shopping on that day was chaotic and confusing, but to an American at the time, prices were dirt cheap. I was only 10 at the time, but this experience left a lasting expression on me, and I think it helped fuel my propensity to think critically about economic systems.

I did not take any photos on the first trip, but I returned to East Berlin in 1996, and stayed with a host family. The photo above is from this trip; it depicts a Strassenbahn, meaning Street-train, a trolley much like the ones I ride now in West Philadelphia. The pictured trolley is a modernized one, an upgrade from the decrepit trolleys that I saw during my first trip, and occasionally during my second trip.

Even in 1996, East and West Germany were like night and day. East Germany had construction everywhere, although it still looked poor and falling apart. And even to an American like me, it was easy to spot and distinguish East and West Germans by their body language and dress. There was considerable evidence of cultural tension, and I saw the toll that Communism had taken on East Germany and its people.

Learning about Communism:

I've also heard about Communism through other means. My roommate during my first year in Oberlin was Armenian, and talked about his experiences during Communism. I also have known, less closely, numerous Russians, East Germans, and others who grew up in Communist countries, over the years. One thing I learned was that East Germany was by far the most prosperous and functional of the Eastern Bloc Communist countries, and that the level of poverty and dysfunction in other areas was far greater. Add on top of this the authoritarian control of the government, punishing any sort of dissent, and overly paranoid to the degree that it employed people to spy on just about every citizen, and you have a culture and society that created such depressing but beautiful works as Shostakovich's 8th String Quartet. Shostakovich, by the way, was contemplating suicide while writing that work. Have a listen:

Besides listening to Shostakovich, I've also extensively read the works of Marx, not just The Communist Manifesto, but also some of his earlier works, in which he takes a more metaphysical approach, talking about how people are spiritually connected to the product of their labor, and how capitalism results in alienation of people from the product of their labor, through paying for labor. And I've read enough Marx and know enough about Communism to know that Communism in the Soviet Union would have been absolutely abhorrent to Marx.

Why did Communism fail?

I think I have a pretty good idea of why Communism failed. It failed because it was based around the idea of a small core group of people micromanaging an entire society, specifically, micromanaging its economy. This phenomenon is called a planned economy or a control economy. And it doesn't work.

Societies are too complex...they're more like an ecosystem than a machine. And a group of people, no matter how intelligent, simply cannot centrally plan everything needed to make an economy function at all, let alone function well. Even in a smaller country, some sort of decentralized system, like the free market, is necessary, or eventually, massive economic failure results. The only way for a government to be successful at managing its economy is to shape and guide the economy by setting up good incentives, rather than by trying to micromanage it. China realized this, and embraced a market economy and this is why China's economy did not collapse like the USSR did.

Now to OpenSky:

My first impression of OpenSky was not positive. The site immediately displays a squeeze page, a page with little content and few links, which prominently leads you to sign up for something. I wrote about squeeze pages and how they are a common feature of spam / scam sites on my post Tea Spam: Starting With The Most Blatant. This screenshot shows the squeeze page:

What exactly is this site about? Here are two quotes from the site:

"Our tastemakers don't just curate your shopping experience..."


"They'll discover the best products for you."

Really? This is starting to sound a lot like Communism to me, not to mention that it takes the fun out of shopping (I love searching around for a bargain, love evaluating the quality of different products, and I love the process of comparing different stores or sellers against each other!). And also, it's been my experience that there are only three people who know my tastes better than anyone else, and who are consistently best at picking out products that are best for me, and these people are me, myself, and I. And it also has been the case, for the most part, that retail businesses themselves also play an important role in the selection process.

I don't need or want celebrities or specially appointed people (who aren't directly involved in running the business) picking out products. I'd rather just operate as I do...find sellers or businesses that seem consistent in their quality control and fair in their pricing, and buy from them. Didn't Communism establish that having a team of people trying to do a better job of this doesn't work?

What do you think?

Did you live through Communism? What do you think about Communism? How about OpenSky? Have you used it? Do you think it has a spammy-looking squeeze page? Do you think it's a Communist conspiracy to make our economy collapse through central planning?


  1. Based on Carl Marx's definition of communism and socialism, no country in the world has ever been a communism or socialism country yet, although a bunch have been self-claimed socialism country. China is still claiming itself a socialism country, but in many senses it's much less socialism than Canada or European countries, although the latter never claim themselves "socialism country".

    Carl Marx predicted that the primitive stage of socialism should slowly initiates from the richest capitalism country. Sounded like America :-p This is kidding... But I think Northern Europe is somewhat living part of Carl Marx's prediction now in a smooth way.

  2. I saw this earlier today, and think it looks much better than OpenSky

  3. The streetcar in the picture is an old KT 4D from Czechoslovakia, just painted in post-unification Berlin yellow and with modernized lights (and probably modernized interior), which makes it look more modern.

    In West Berlin they ablished streetcars in the 1960, following the philosophy that subways and busses are better because they don't impede the car traffic as much as trams. The ideal of that time in West Berlin and West Germany was the "autogerechte Stadt" (car-optimized city). This ideal has come out of fashion, so in that respect East Germany was actually superior - not because of ideological reason, but because of lack of money, lack of cars and the COMECON plan which said that East Germany would get so and so may trams from Czechoslovakia - busses would have come from Hungary, and their number was also fixed the COMECON plan. So the planned economy extended even beyond national borders. Ultimatley Moscow decided.

  4. Thanks for all the info!

    I also agree that I like that video on Vimeo more than OpenSky. I still, however, am not a big fan of the term "consumption". Economies are not strictly about consumption, they're about a combination of production, consumption, and organization...I think focusing on consumption is a reflection of the consumerist mindset, and to some degree encourages / legitimizes it. I'd rather shy away from that word to describe economic activity in general...and only use it to refer specifically to consumption, and not other types of activity (production, sales, exchange, etc.).

  5. Eastern Euopean countries were socialist in so far has the means of production were socialized. It may or may not have been what Marx had envisioned, but it makes sense to call this system socialist. It wasn't Communist accoridng to Marxist or Marxist-Leninist terminology.
    It was Communist according to a certain Western usage which calls every country ruled by a party claiming to be Communist a Communist country, regardless of the economic system (and China proves that Communist Parties can even preside over Manchester cpaitalism). This usage is not about the economic system at all.

    I'm not a Marxist-Leninist, but when talking about the economic system of countries dominated by Marxism-Leninism I think using the Marxist-Leninist terminology makes sense.

  6. I agree with your analysis, Volker...I'm using the word "Communism" (i.e. Communism with a capital "C") as it is widely used. In a sense, it's a lot like the debate over whether to call herbal tea "tea", and you can read how I settle that one.

    I'm an idealist, but there are some battles of language and termination which I just don't prioritize. I'd rather focus on, say, should.