Repost: Psycho Dish vs. Communism

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.

* * *

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.

The Parable Of Joy

I wouldn’t say that Joy and I are very close friends, but for a long while – from my later college years until I left California – we ran in the same social circles and saw each other fairly often. A friend of a friend, you could say; we’ve been happy enough to see each other whenever we have, but it has always been in some group activity or another rather than one-on-one. Still, we’re well enough acquainted that I was on the list to be notified when she sent out word that she’s in trouble. The circumstances are worth relating, as it occurred to me that it sheds some light on a lot that’s wrong with our Modern world.

Joy is a second-generation Chinese-American, a native of the S.F. Bay Area who grew up on the edge of Oakland’s Chinatown, and although I have enough sense to never ask a woman her age, by the length of time we’ve known each other, she must be squarely on the north side of 40. She is not married and never has been, and has no children. She is neither rich nor poor, with a job as the shipping manager of a furniture wholesaler’s warehouse, where long service has given her seniority and a salary that is respectable if not spectacular. She is careful with her money – not so much of a miser that she’ll never go for a dinner out with friends, but not luxurious in anything. She is sensible and level-headed, and at an age where that should begin to pay off in a certain degree of comfortable stability in one’s life.

But not so for Joy, it seems. That’s what I found out last week when I read her message. Joy is being kicked out of the house where she has rented a room for the past couple of years. The reason is personality conflict, or perhaps more accurately, cultural conflict. There are five or six roommates in a large house that long ago was designed for the kind of big families people used to have. Being the modern Bay Area, the roommates are all quite diverse – white, black, Latino, and Asian – in the way that we are assured is “our strength”. But Joy has found otherwise. She didn’t share the details of the particular disagreement that started things, but the situation progressively got worse and worse. And the most important reason for that was, according to Joy, that her non-Asian roommates just couldn’t understand the Asian style of conflict resolution. To her, all of them, but especially the Latina roommate who she was most directly clashing with, were extremely aggressive toward her – shockingly so, compared to the people she had grown up with. Joy said that she felt “bullied, teased, picked on, and tormented” to the point where it caused her to sink into a depression. It didn’t take long before it was obvious that the situation was unsustainable and somebody would have to leave. The homeowner made her choice, and gave Joy until the end of this month to get out of the house.

The first thing that Joy thought of was to move back in with her mother. But that was impossible; the high cost of housing, and even property taxes, in the Bay Area meant that as soon as her children had moved out, her mother had to take in boarders of her own in order to make ends meet, and they now filled every available room in the house, including the one that had once been Joy’s. It just wouldn’t be fair to evict one of them over a problem Joy was having that was no fault of their own, so that idea was rejected. Finally, with the deadline looming, Joy was considering the option of sleeping in her minivan until something better came available. There would be room enough to set up a semi-comfortable bed, the mild California weather meant there wouldn’t be any danger from freezing temperatures, and she could still shower, eat, and do laundry at her mother’s house. It would be a genteel form of homelessness, and (with any luck) only a temporary one. But it’s homelessness all the same – not a happy prospect for a woman in her 40s; a senseless humiliation for someone who has worked steadily and been frugal all her adult years. When I received the story, it was in the form of a last-minute plea for anyone in her orbit who might know of a more permanent place for her to stay to get in touch with her ASAP. And that is where the situation stands.

Of course, having left California for Southern Appalachia three years ago now, I don’t have any way to help in her search. The only thing I can do is to reflect a bit on all the ways that Modernity has failed Joy – and they are many indeed.

For one thing, while there has always been a small percentage of spinsters in our society, the phenomenon of women who are unmarried, well past prime marriage age, and in many cases are outright unmarriageable, has reached crisis levels in our society. I would by no means call Joy “unmarriageable” (that would involve factors like an extremely disagreeable and entitled personality, an excessive attachment to career over everything else, showy expressions of trendy leftist politics, a very high “notch count” springing from an extended Sex and the City phase, and perhaps single motherhood as a souvenir of it as well), but the fact that she remains unmarried at her age is proving to be a problem for herself and for those around her. Both the traditional Asian culture of her ancestors and traditional Christian Western culture understand this issue, and either of them, working through the circle of friends and family around her, would have intervened in her life 20 years ago in order to find a suitable husband for her and to pressure her into marrying him. This sounds abhorrent to the post-feminist Modern, and yet we must ask: feminism has loosed women, but from what, and into what? In her 40s, Joy deserves to have a husband and children of her own, which would give her a stable home and a large support structure around her. Instead, with the sole exception of an aging mother whose ability to help singlehandedly is limited, Joy is alone and without resources that the Modernist promise of the “independent woman who doesn’t need a man” apparently cannot actually provide her. She is left having to send out appeals to every minor acquaintance for help in avoiding homelessness.

But beyond this, even if Joy remained single her whole life, she deserves some greater measure of stability than this. She should at least be able to afford a small apartment of her own instead of having to perpetually live like a college kid, renting out a small bedroom in what amounts to a boarding house, never having real privacy or control over her fate in a place to truly call her own, well into what should be anyone’s most prosperous and secure years. There’s a lot behind why even this small measure of dignity has been denied to her, basically none of which is her own fault – she has never been a stoner or a slacker or a wastrel. One important factor is the economic squeeze on the middle class that’s been happening everywhere in the country, and most especially in California, over the past 20 years. California’s taxes, housing prices, and cost of living are legendary for all the wrong reasons, and are driving its middle class out of the state by the millions. (It is an exodus that I myself joined, in deep sadness, three years back. I could perhaps have tried holding on a bit longer – even in the face of increasingly intolerable laws and decreasing quality of life – if I’d been willing to keep living the way that Joy has been. It worked in my 20s and 30s well enough. But in my 40s, I found it harder and harder to live like that. Now, in Southern Appalachia, I have a small cottage of my own, with a workbench, a kitchen where I can cook anything I like at any hour of day, and a closet that I can stuff with a prep stash. I couldn’t go back to not having them.)

On paper, California is a fantastically rich state, but this hides the fact that it is increasingly a place with a Third World economic profile – one populated by the very rich and the very poor, with very little in between. Communists and socialists seem unable to understand that a certain amount of wealth inequality is actually the sign of a healthy economy; mainstream conservatives and libertarians seem unable to understand that too much of it is the sign of a deeply unhealthy one. In the real world, Silicon Valley money, which we are told is the envy of the globe, has been the second-worst thing (after mass immigration) to ever happen to the Bay Area. For those making six figures or more in a high-level tech job, the astronomical cost of living is an annoyance; for the established middle class that was there long before the tech boom, it has been ruinous. Beyond that, Big Tech long ago closed on its purchase of the state government, so no reforms of which they might disapprove, coming from either the left or the right, have any chance to pass. Things won’t get better for the middle class, because the ruling class – both inside and outside of the formal government – has little interest in that. No one in power wants to stand up for Joy, nor for anyone like her.

Then there is the issue of immigration and its attendant diversity. First, the former: it is of no small consequence that since Joy was born, the population of the United States has risen by 50%, and the population of California has doubled. The sheer presence of that many new people needing housing and using resources would make the cost of living skyrocket and turn the prospect of having an adequate place of one’s own on a middle class salary into a pipe dream, making life miserable, even if the curse of tech money wasn’t a factor, and even if diversity caused no problems. The fact that diversity does cause deep problems that are simultaneously ever more impossible to solve or to even talk about honestly in the open only makes things worse.

Unlike many others on the Dissident Right, I am not an absolute purist when it comes to diversity. I see nothing wrong with, say, San Francisco having a Chinatown or Miami having a Little Havana. But as with income inequality, a little diversity under the right circumstances may be healthy, but too much can only be disastrous. Even in the days before the post-1965 immigration flood, when we had diversity in more reasonable proportions, the social arrangement that made it work was based on the old ethnic neighborhood system, a form of voluntary soft segregation which created the kind of intangible-but-very-real good fences that make good neighbors (and that Chesterton warned us against dismantling). But then that system broke down; it was simultaneously overwhelmed with sheer numbers and deliberately dismantled by utopian busybodies who made it their mission to ensure that any remaining vestige of non-diversity be destroyed. What had existed before was a humane, respectful, and sustainable unspoken agreement by which ethnic neighborhoods were largely left to self-govern, so long as they caused no trouble to outsiders and passersby. Everything from anti-discrimination laws to overreach by the official organs of government put a forcible end to it. It is nothing to the busybodies and utopians that the old system created a sense of community; that it fostered informal support structures and an environment where like people could live by long-established rules that suited their unique characteristics. And it is nothing to them that its passing has led to the reality that Joy faced in a micro sense, and that we all are doomed to face in the macro sense: that diversity + proximity = conflict.

Here I should note that, despite the complaints that Joy has about her soon-to-be-former roommates, I doubt that any of them, even her Latina tormentor, is an evil person at heart. It’s more likely simply that there’s a Latin way to handle things and an East Asian way to handle things. It’s not that one is better than the other in any objective sense; that they’re different and incompatible is enough on its own to exacerbate any conflict to the point that it’s intolerable to all involved. This is an important reason why, whether it is through the mechanism of hard borders or soft fences, it is nearly always in the best interests of everyone for like to be with like. Though utopian egalitarians would be horrified by the idea, it would have been better for Joy if her search for a place to live had taken place within the soft limits of an Asian ethnic neighborhood, or even just a housing development or apartment building that was legally and socially permitted to restrict itself to accepting only like people in order to reduce conflicts such as the one that has Joy on the edge of homelessness. Perhaps that would have put some choices off-limits to her, but she would not now be facing living in a van.

Keep Joy in your prayers, as she will be in mine as well. She deserves better, and let’s hope she finds it soon. On multiple levels, she has been brought low not because she failed, but because she has been failed by Modernity and all of its unworkable promises. As have we all.