White Collar Sweatshops and Communism for the Rich: The View from Vietnam

Image credit: Odyssey

There is something deeply right and beautiful about the principle, “From each according to her ability, to each according to her need.” To the extent that this principle encapsulates the doctrine of communism, I’m a communist at heart.

I see this sort of economic arrangement in the following passage from the New Testament Book of Acts (2:44-45): “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” The picture here is of a community in which people give what they have generously, property is considered communal, and everyone’s needs are met.

The trouble with living out this sort of example is that living securely in this sort of arrangement requires an extraordinary amount of trust and concern for one’s neighbors. You might say it requires that we really love our neighbors as ourselves. And, of course, even Christians who understand themselves to be filled with, and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit generally don’t love or act this way, often for good reasons. (There are some amazing exceptions, however, such as certain groups within the anabaptist tradition, like the Hutterites).

In general, attempts to live out the communist principle are foiled by sinful people who want more than they need, and who refuse to contribute according to their ability. Deep down, most of us are greedy and lazy.

To counteract these tendencies, historical communist movements have instituted governing bodies to police what people give and receive, to make sure they don’t cheat on either front. But, of course, there’s no one to police the police, and these governing bodies have inevitably become corrupt. Those who are supposed to ensure fair giving and receiving themselves take too much and give too little, and they commit further injustices (e.g., killing, suppressing, censoring, etc.) to ensure their continued privilege. So, we end up with the pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

“Communism for the Rich, Capitalism for the Poor”

Recently, while I was in Vietnam—a country that is at least nominally communist—a Vietnamese friend told me stories of this kind of problem. For example, I heard about a woman who wanted to be a police officer (a secure government job) but who was six inches too short to meet the height requirement for the job. What did she do? She paid the right person $25,000 and landed the job anyway.

But, why would she do this? After all, the monthly salary for a job like this is only around $250. She did it because it opened up a world of opportunity to her. As one of the roughly three million government employees in Vietnam (out of a total population of roughly 97 million), the education of her children would be paid for through university, and she and her family would receive free healthcare.

In contrast, the other 94 million Vietnamese only receive free education through age eleven, and they must pay for their own healthcare. Also, she landed a husband with a prestigious government job. As it was recounted to me, governmental employees are generally encouraged to marry only those who also work within the government. So, now she is rich and drives a car. (Cars are taxed up to 200% in Vietnam, making them more expensive than they are in the U.S., and thus they are huge status symbols. This also explains all the scooters and motorcycles, which I wrote about previously.)

According to my Vietnamese friend, this sort of corruption is quite common in Vietnam. My friend summarized the economic system as follows: “In Vietnam, communism is for the rich, and capitalism is for the poor.” By this he meant that those lucky enough to be part of the communist government elite ended up rich, while the vast majority of others ended up poor, hustling for a difficult and insecure living in the marketplace.

The Vietnamese system seems obviously unjust to me—a form of oligarchy in which the rich hold the power and the powerful cling selfishly to their riches. But, what is the alternative? As it happens, I also had a first-hand view of the evils of contemporary American capitalism during my time in Vietnam.

America: Home of the White-collar Sweatshop

Before traveling, I had been informed that in Vietnam I would be working twelve hours each day, six days a week. What I was not prepared for was that, in fact, my shortest day would be thirteen hours and my longest fifteen. And, of course, as a salaried employee I do not receive any additional compensation for these long hours. Making matters worse, I was sick for the first five days, and there was a clear unspoken expectation that you don’t take sick days on the project unless you literally cannot get out of bed. Effectively, I was working in a white-collar sweatshop.

I don’t recount this story to stir sympathy, or even to induce ire toward my employer. Rather, I tell it because I think it is merely an extreme example of a very common phenomenon happening all over the U.S., every day: smart people with a lot of education are expected to work very long hours, they are often discouraged from calling in sick or taking vacations (or maternity leave for that matter), and the resulting quality of their lives is poor. Just ask any lawyer, banker, or corporate executive.

Yes, these people are often paid extremely well for what they do. But, when can they actually enjoy the fruit of their labor? Most nights I returned home from work at 9:30pm, and it was all I could do to shower, eat a quick room-service meal, and flop down for a six-and-a-half-hour nap before doing it all again. On my one day off I slept until noon, just to recover.

And, of course, it is not just the people at the top of the heap in the U.S. who work like this. If anything, the people at the bottom work harder—working two and three jobs with minimal security, just to scrape by. I would see them every day on my public transit trips to UCLA, sleeping on the express bus before cleaning houses in Beverly Hills. As unions wane and corporate power waxes in America, it seems we have forgotten the lessons of the industrial revolution. (“At least there is no child labor,” I hear someone say. But, have you seen, lately, the work and anxiety we load on the back of the typical public high school student?)

Sadly, the divide between rich and poor, and between powerful and powerless in the U.S. is essentially the same as it is in Vietnam. The powerful use their power to become rich beyond imagining—beyond what any human being would ever need—and they use their wealth to maintain their grip on power, influencing the rules and policies of government by financially backing the campaigns of elected officials. We Americans also live in an oligarchy, not a democracy, despite our democratic trappings.

Some would counter that at least in the U.S. we are free in ways that people in Vietnam are not. However, for many in the U.S. I’m not sure that is true in any substantial sense. The level of economic freedom seems no different to me. Yes, an American white-collar slave holds his particular job out of choice, and can quit any time. But, what alternative does he really have if unrelenting work hours are the norm throughout the economy or his industry? In that case, it’s the sweatshop or the street.

In theory, Americans at least possess more freedom of speech than the Vietnamese. But, again, not as much as we like to think. For example, I do not feel free to confront my employer over the working conditions I experienced in Vietnam. If doing so wouldn’t necessarily get me fired, it would at least reduce my prospects with those in authority over me. Speaking up would threaten my economic well-being, so I keep quiet.

Whispers of Heaven

Given the flaws of these two alternatives—Vietnamese communism and American capitalism—am I completely hopeless about the prospects for a fair and just society? Not completely.

I see in European (and Canadian) societies economic and governmental models that strike a better balance between the two systems I’ve described. Governments in those countries regulate and redistribute goods in what seems to me a fairer manner, while still leaving room for essential freedoms and more genuine democracy. Though they still allow people to enjoy excessive wealth to some degree—thereby failing the principle “to each according to her need”—at least they do a better job of addressing the needs of those on the low end of the economic spectrum. These systems are not perfect, but I would much rather be poor in Europe than in the U.S. or Vietnam. And I think the condition of the poor is the primary criterion against which we ought to evaluate a socioeconomic system.

In the end, the beautiful communist ideal I hold in my heart is but a whisper of heaven—a principle that will be realized only when God’s Spirit holds sway over the human heart in a way more complete, even, than we see in Acts 2. Then I will truly and completely love my neighbor as myself; only then will all of us have what we need and be content with our portion. Until then, we can only limp along, coping with some degree of injustice in our socioeconomic arrangements.

What do you think?