1980s >> 1985 >> no-968-april-1985

Commodity production and its abolition

In July 1979 we published extracts from a pamphlet published in France Un monde sans argent: le communisme (“A World Without Money. Communism”) — as evidence that the spread of socialist ideas does not depend exclusively on our own efforts since capitalism itself generates the idea of socialism as a classless, stateless, moneyless society. We publish below a chapter from another pamphlet published in France last year, entitled Communisme: éléments de reflexion, as a further confirmation of this view (though in this case, as certain references in the text show, the authors were clearly aware of our existence). As in 1979, we are once again compelled to record our difference with the views expressed elsewhere in the pamphlet as to how communism (or socialism, the same thing) should be achieved.


In traditional societies, whatever the status of their members, the hierarchy, rules and norms which divided human beings into rulers and ruled were counterbalanced by a whole collection of rights and duties and were regularly transgressed by social practices (festivals, etc.). Further, the relationships of dependence and authority which bound people together were essentially personal relationships. Oppression was real but it was transparent. On the other hand, from the moment that commodity relations became widespread and extended to the buying and selling of labour power through the wages system (an extension which both allowed and accompanied the establishment of capitalist relations of production) it was no longer the relationships between persons that was decisive but the production of commodities.


With the domination of capitalism, human relationships seem no longer to depend on men and women, but are realised and determined by a symbol: money. As all human activities can be represented and transformed by money they become a collection of objects subject to laws independent of the human will. Relationships between people take place through produced things and through the relations between these commodities.


In capitalist society all goods are produced for sale, for profit. They can therefore only exist as commodities, defined by their value. Thus the millions of different kinds of objects produced by human activity are reduced to a common denominator — their commercial value — measured by a common standard: money. This allows them to be compared and exchanged, to be entirely dominated by the market.


Money becomes the universal abstraction through which everything must pass so that people are most often led to see themselves as potential competitors whose absence of relationships finds compensation in the fetishism they have towards commodities. By a proliferation of objects which have no other use than to bring in money, and which are at the same time substitutes replacing human activity, the commodity and the desire to own present themselves as expressions of a person s individuality. Capital responds to human needs by a profusion of artificial satisfactions: to individuals who want to “rediscover” nature capital offers it to them functional and mechanised; to individuals stifling under the weight of constraints capital provides leisure; the individuals seeking love as a refuge for their emptiness are submerged by capital under a cheap eroticism. Never has any society so united, so linked human beings to each other, to the extent of making their activities depend on those of others; yet never has any society made people so indifferent to other people, and more hostile to them too since the links which join them the market. competition — also divide them.


The logic of commodity domination is also a system of widespread waste and destruction: goods are made not to last and to lead to other sales, natural resources are plundered, food is no longer natural, the “surplus” agricultural products of one part of the globe are destroyed while the other part is kept in a state of shortage, the war economy becomes general, etc.


The internal logic of capitalism is such that the goods it produces cannot be considered independently of the commodity process. Commodities are not “neutral” goods (use value) which it suffices to rid of their subjection to money (exchange value). Commodity exchange and use are only two aspects of the same social relation. Capitalism has fused production, sale and use into a coherent whole. People prefer to deprive themselves of what might logically appear to be essential rather than deprive themselves of the latest gadget which makes them be “in fashion”. Through consumption a process of distinction takes place with regard to those who do not buy such and such a product, and a process of identification with the group of those who have bought the same product, whose use is supposed to let us live the moments we don’t live and to allow us the relationships we don’t have. The important thing is that the advantage should be apparent and it matters little that it is only apparent.


The point has been reached where the necessary degradation of objects is calculated and decided. The market must not be clogged with products that last too long. These represent money that is tied up. The faster capital turns over — the faster it resumes the form of money to lose it once again in becoming a concrete commodity again — the more it brings in. It is reinvested increased by a profit. Everything must circulate quickly.


For this, the commodities offered on the market form an extremely hierarchised whole. There is not one or several commodities for a given need but a whole multitude of them of the same or of competing marks. This diversity claims to respond to the variety of people’s needs: “the customer must have a choice!” In fact, customers only have the choice allowed by their financial means and social roles. Many commodities respond to the same need but are differentiated by their quality and price. Different products may correspond to different uses, but these different uses are not available to the same individuals. Like production these uses are socially determined.


In order to disguise the alienation of the human being, reduced to the role of producer and then of consumer, capitalism has to maintain the illusion of a separation between production and consumption. The separation between production and consumption thus appears as a natural division between two quite distinct spheres of social life. Nothing is less true. First, the frontier between what is called production time and what is called consumption time is moving. Into which category come cooking and a number of other activities? Secondly, every act of production is also necessarily an act of consumption. It is only matter that is being transformed in a certain way and for a certain purpose. In destroying, or if you want in consuming certain things, other things are at the same time obtained, or if you want produced. Consumption involves production; production involves consumption.


The concepts of production and consumption are not neutral. The capitalist use of the concept of production obscures the fact that the human being is a part of his milieu and of the whole of nature. A chicken becomes an egg-making factory. Everything is then interpreted in terms of domination and use. Man the producer—supposedly conscious and master of himself—sets out to conquer nature: he wishes to be his own master just as he is the master of the object he fashions, but in fact he does not cease to be an object himself, his own object.


As communism is the creation of new social relationships between people which would bring about a quite different human activity, it must be understood that production would not be what it is today without money. If we can, for want of a better term, still speak of production to express the process by which a part of human activity would be devoted to reproducing existence and in which would be expressed the human ability to create, to innovate and to transform, the disappearance of exploitation and the abolition of money would mean that this production would not involve the subjection of people to it since it would be they who would decide its aims, its means and its conditions. It would therefore be an expression of their humanity and would not strip them of their other dimensions (love, play, dreaming, etc.). Within the co-operative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers would not exchange their products, just as little would the labour employed on the products appear as the value of these products, as a material quality possessed by them. These goods, not having the quality of value, would not be able to be hoarded nor exchanged (in accordance with this value, whatever its method of measurement), nor, even less so, sold. They would have no other role than to satisfy human needs and desires as these would be felt in a given period.


With the elimination of commodity production would disappear the domination of the product over the producer. People would rediscover the links with what they make. With the disappearance of money goods would be freely available and free of charge. It would no longer be a question of having to have a certain amount of money in order to have the right to obtain such and such a thing. But communist society would not be an extension of our “consumer” society. It would not be an immense supermarket in which passive human beings would only have to help themselves. There would no longer be a scramble for exploitable resources without concern for the future, nor a rush for useless gadgets which give the illusion of inventiveness and newness. If it was decided to save one or two well-made articles from this pile of rubbish, human activity would be both simpler and richer. Thus would be eliminated a number of the consequences of production linked to the “necessity” of profitability and competitiveness: the decrease in the importance of human activity in the production of things, waste, pollution, the international division of labour, etc.


Communism is not an appropriation of value by the producers but its negation. The fact that a product had been produced by such and such a person would not at all imply the persistence of the principle of property, not even “decentralised ”. Productive activity would no longer be linked to the idea of ownership, but to individual and collective creativity, to the consciousness that human needs, individual and communal, have to be provided for.


With the substitution of common ownership for exchange, goods would cease to have an economic value and would simply become physical objects which human beings would be able to use to satisfy some need or other. In this respect these objects would be fundamentally different from those (even those of the same appearance) which capitalism has created and developed. It would not be a question of simply taking over the goods of the past, but of rethinking them, sometimes replacing them, according to the criterion of enjoyment rather than that of profit. To this change of aim would correspond just as profound a change in the productive process and thus a rethinking of technology involving in addition to the use of the “achievements” left by capitalism, the rediscovery of technologies previously abandoned as unprofitable, and innovation which does not subject human beings to machines.


This new organisation of productive activity would not eliminate the need to estimate the needs and possibilities of the community at a given time. But these would no longer be reduced to a common denominator measured by a common unit. It would be as physical quantities that they would be counted and would interest people. But once again communism must not be reduced to problems of calculation. If this were to be done, this would be to substitute a technocratic ideal for the perspective of a human community, to perpetuate work as a social activity external to men and women.


In the past communists have put forward the idea that the distribution of products could be settled by the introduction of labour vouchers corresponding, after making certain deductions for the common funds, to the average social labour-time undertaken by the individual. In fact, the existence of a common standard to measure products and work cannot amount to a real abolition of the wages system and exchange. and so not of value. Further — to be “fair” — variations (which, besides, would be quite arbitrary) would have to be introduced in respect of the difficulty of the work, its degree of interest, etc. So there would be a return to an “economic calculation”, requiring a “unit of value” whether this was expressed in money or directly in labour-time. Communism, as a moneyless society, would, on the contrary, not need any universal unit of measurement but would be able to calculate in kind. The attraction of such and such an object would then come from the object itself and no longer from a value attributed to it more or less arbitrarily. Its production and use would be determined according to what they implied for human beings and nature.


Along with the disappearance of commercial value would disappear the division of the human being into a producer and a consumer. In communist society, consumption would not be opposed to production since there would be no contradiction between being concerned with oneself and concerning oneself with someone else. The group or the individual would express themselves through what they did. Unless this was imposed by the very nature of a product, people would no longer need to hurry all the time as they would no longer be constrained by the necessity to produce commodities. The “consumer’’ would not be able to blame the “producer” for what he or she did by invoking the money that had been paid since none would be given in exchange, but simply to criticise from the inside. not from the outside. What would be at issue would be their common effort.