The Venmo Generation
Under COVID-19, we’re all communists. As we emerge from the pandemic, amidst everything we’d rather forget, this might be worth remembering
Amidst the pandemic, I embraced communism.
At the risk of losing readers immediately, I’ll clarify that I am not referring to the communism that has “failed every time it’s been tried,” but rather the communism that the late anthropologist David Graeber proposes is the basis for human social life in his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years.¹
He calls it “baseline communism,” defining it as:
“[The] understanding that, unless people consider themselves enemies, if the need is considered great enough, or the cost considered reasonable enough, the principle of ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’ will be assumed to apply.”
Everything from holding the door for a stranger to pressing an elevator for someone illustrates the human tendency to come to each other’s aid if, as Graeber says, “the need is considered great enough, or cost considered reasonable enough.”
That said, we have a tendency to act more “communistically” with some people than with others. If a friend asked me to help them move, I would. If a stranger asked, though, I probably wouldn’t. (More likely is that a stranger wouldn’t ask, which is exactly the point.) The same holds true for picking up a tab.
Elaborating on the assumptions that give way to communistic relations, Graeber writes:
“What is equal on both sides is the knowledge that the person would do the same for you, not that they necessarily will. [What] makes this possible [is] that such relations are based on a presumption of eternity. This is why no accounts need to be taken.”
In certain contexts — like, say, romantic relationships — that eternity is presumed is undeniably true. I’m not married, but can see that in the context of “‘til death do us part,” squaring up makes little sense. (It is telling, of course, that when couples divorce, this is exactly what they try to do.) I’d argue eternity is also presumed among especially close friends, who, even if they spend years apart, would always find it…