Years ago, I wrote a long post which aimed to describe the plight of the white working class by talking about some incidents in the life of my old friend Psycho Dish. Looking back on it, the piece turned out to be a bit too long for this format, and never quite got the readership I was hoping for. That’s a shame, because there were some anecdotes I quite liked in it. Today I’ve decided to share one of them again, in which Psycho Dish found out firsthand why communism just doesn’t work. Here it is.
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In 1979, when he was 18 years old, Psycho Dish left home and hitchhiked to California with nothing but the clothes on his back, a hundred bucks saved up from a summer job in his pocket, and the address of one of his grandmothers – a woman he had barely ever met and who lived somewhere just outside of Berkeley. Once he got there, he set himself up on her couch and started looking for work. He found it with Taxi Unlimited.
Taxi Unlimited was one of the communally-run businesses that had been founded in Berkeley during the hippie era. There were no bosses or employees at Taxi Unlimited, it was all just members of the collective – everyone had an equal say in how it was run, with decisions being made by consensus at all-hands meetings. The original members were people who had been part of the Berkeley Food Co-op and the Free Speech Movement, but despite their hippie leanings they were still mostly bourgeois middle-class white kids who had some understanding of things like good financial practices, the need to follow local laws, and basic business ethics. By the time Psycho Dish joined a dozen or so years later, things were very different. People had naturally drifted in an out of the place, and the change had not been for the better. The fact that it was a collective and there were no bosses meant that nobody could hire or fire anybody – people just sort of showed up if they wanted to and started working (It should be noted that Berkeley was and is what’s called a “free city” for taxis – it does not require cab drivers to get a hack license, a fact which which further lowered barriers to entry for employment at Taxi Unlimited). The quality of the people involved started going down until, by the beginning of Psycho Dish’s time there, it was essentially a collection of burnouts, addicts, and petty criminals (many of which used their cabs as delivery vehicles for their main business of selling drugs).
For the first little while he was there, Taxi Unlimited was (barely) functional. The real breaking point came when it became obvious that the business had become big enough that it needed someone sitting behind a desk full-time doing the kind of paperwork that businesses need to have done. In the early days, each driver had taken a little time away from driving (which earned them money) to do some share of the paperwork (which didn’t). The free labor they donated was a form of what’s called a “tax paid into the commons” – a sacrifice that each individual makes for the good of everybody. The original bourgeois hippies who’d founded the place understood why this was necessary. The burnouts, addicts, and petty criminals had a harder time wrapping their heads around it. They tended not to do the paperwork at all; or if they did, it would be a mess precisely because they were burnouts, addicts, and petty criminals – the kind of people not known for their good business management skills. Without any bosses in the company, there was nobody who could make them do it, or make them do it right.
This situation festered until finally, after overcoming some objections, the saner cohort of the workers managed to win the vote necessary to hire Ginnie, a lesbian ex-hippie with a brand-new degree from San Francisco State in Management and Accounting. The first thing she found was that nobody had paid Taxi Unlimited’s insurance bill in long enough that if it wasn’t paid right away, the insurance would expire, effectively putting the company out of business. She paid it, and the money had to come from somewhere, so everybody’s next check was light. Not a good way to start, popularity-wise. The same members who couldn’t wrap their heads around why they should do any paperwork started to speak up at meetings questioning why a person who did do the paperwork ought to be in the company at all. Somebody who sat in an office all day while they were out driving and whose work wasn’t directly bringing any revenue into the business seemed a little too much like a boss to them. Some even accused her of secretly being an agent provocateur sent from the government to sabotage the collective. It was a stupid thing to say, but again, there weren’t any bosses, so nobody had the authority tell them to shut the hell up, which was really the only reasonable thing to do.
Things got worse, especially for Ginnie. She’d do something responsible, checks would be lighter than expected, and the usual suspects would complain louder. And that wasn’t all. A few of the drivers made crude passes at her that were inappropriate even by early 80s standards. Ginnie broke down in tears at a meeting and asked the more responsible members of the collective to back her up, and some wanted to, but there was really nothing they could do about it. Nobody was the boss, so nobody could discipline or fire anybody else, no matter how badly they behaved. Factions developed – roughly, pro-Ginnie (i.e. people who wanted the business to be stable so that they’d still have a job in the future) and anti-Ginnie (i.e. people who wanted to take every cent they could get, right now, and to hell with the future). People denounced each other at meetings instead of making decisions. Getting anything done became impossible.
“I understand why communism always ends up with a tyrant in charge”, Psycho Dish once told me, “I was just about ready for a Stalin to come in to Taxi Unlimited, kick some ass, and put things back in shape.”
But no tyrant ever came to save Taxi Unlimited. Ginnie soldiered on for about a year and a half, but when the economy started picking up and she could get something better, she left. Over the next few months, more people followed her out the door until one day Psycho Dish realized there was nobody sober or sane left in the collective. He knew a sinking ship when he saw one, and made for the exits himself. Taxi Unlimited foundered on for a couple of years after that before finally closing down for good. Today all that’s left of it is a Facebook group open to all the ex-employees who didn’t end up eventually overdosing on something or other. Psycho Dish is on it. So is Ginnie, so I guess that not all of her memories of the place were bad ones.
The lesson that Psycho Dish took away from the whole experience was that communism works fine at the scale of about ten people who all know and trust each other. Get past a dozen people, and problems start to appear; beyond about 25, it gets totally unmanageable, and either collapses or ends up in tyranny. Trying to run a big enterprise or even a whole country like that – well, that’s just a non-starter.
P.S. If any of you would like to hear more of Psycho Dish’s most colorful (and frightening) taxi driving experiences, I had a long conversation with him about them which I recorded and posted to YouTube a while ago. You can find it here.