Is a free-access society possible?
‘Without money we would all be rich’
‘It is not money that produces and distributes, but human organisation and knowledge’
It’s always heartening when the idea of a society of free access without buying and selling gets voiced in quarters other than our own and in countries other than Britain. We already of course have companion parties and groups in Canada, India, New Zealand and the USA and members and sympathisers in countries such as Denmark, Norway, Italy, Spain, Poland and Japan. But, just as the best ideas seem to arise spontaneously and independently in many different places when the time is ripe for them, so now we also have writers in the French language putting forward the idea of a moneyless, wageless, democratic world society – the society that we call socialism. Two writers in particular have recently published their own substantial studies explaining the need for this kind of society, the reasons it is eminently feasible and how it might be organised. Their book, Description of the World of Tomorrow. A World Without Money or Barter or Exchange: a Civilisation of Free Access (Description du monde de demain. Un monde sans monnaie ni troc ni échange: une civilisation de l’accès) by Jean-Francois Aupetitgendre and Marc Chinal (Editions Réfléchir n’a Jamais Tué Personne, Lyons, 2021, 288pp), is divided into two long essays, one by each author, mapping out their own particular ‘take’ on why the current society, based on commerce, exchange, competition, hierarchy and production for profit (ie, capitalism), does not suit human beings and why it must urgently be superseded by a different kind of society based on mutual cooperation, real democracy and production for need.
Both writers begin by examining the multiple problems prevalent in a money-based society (eg, poverty, social inequality, insecurity, corruption, homelessness, war, environmental degradation, misuse of technology) and then go on to detail how they see a ‘post-monetary’ society overcoming such problems, or indeed how most of those would simply not arise in a post-money world. The two then discuss in more detail how the solutions they advocate would play out. And in this they differ somewhat from one another. So, in Aupetitgendre’s vision, while we see an insistence that the means, technological and otherwise, already exist to provide a comfortable life for all if the focus is placed on producing for need (‘a mental rather than a technical problem’, he calls it), at the same time he emphasises the difficulty of being able to forecast the precise details of how the moneyless system will be organised once established. He is likewise somewhat vague on how the changeover from a commercial to a free-access society will take place, simply describing it as ‘a great upheaval’ which might last ‘two or three decades’ and talking about a ‘step by step’ transition.
Chinal, on the other hand, proposes detailed scenarios of how a society based on production for need might establish itself and operate as a worldwide system (his final chapter is even given over to an imagining of ‘My day spent in a society of free access’), but he sees it as coming most likely via ‘oases’ of people espousing and practising the idea to the greatest extent they can and then spreading the idea to others who will come to see its benefits and advantages until the vast majority are reached. And he theorises that, even when a post-monetary society is set up, in the early stages a system of labour-time vouchers might need to be used. Neither writer seems to share (or perhaps even to have considered) our view that socialism can most easily be established once the majority of the world’s people are ready to take democratic political action to do that via the ballot box, and, once they are, no transition period will be necessary since the plans for organising the new society will already have been amply discussed and agreed by that majority and free access for all can be established immediately. However, both writers are clear that socialism must and can only be a wholly democratic society at all levels (a ‘real direct democracy’) and that it will not work under any other conditions.
The dirty work
They are also both expert in demolishing the various myths about the ‘impossibility’ of people living cooperatively in a situation of economic equality. They line up the most common objections one by one and show how flimsy they are. So arguments about ‘the lazy person’, ‘the greedy person’, ‘the violent person’, ‘the competitive person’, the person who will want luxuries like a personal swimming pool, all these are patiently considered and expertly put to bed. They are shown to be rooted in the behaviours and mentalities intrinsic to a society that both alienates and rations people via money, wages and the pursuit of profit. As Aupetitgendre puts it, ‘Rather than engage in the futility of looking for humans to become “better” people, rationality dictates that we establish a new form of society which will inevitably bring with it new mentalities’.
The ‘who will do the dirty work’ argument in particular is exceptionally well dealt with by both authors. They outline how, in a society in which work isn’t done on the basis of people cooperating to do what’s socially necessary but to make profit for the owners of capital, people have to sell their physical and mental energies to an employer in order to earn the money that will buy them the necessities of life. Then once they have contracted to sell their energies as, say, dustbin collectors or teachers or bank workers, they have to carry it out for much of the time they are awake and perhaps for the rest of their active lives. The imposed daily stretch of work and the lack of variety make most work unsatisfying, as does the hierarchical organisation and potential precariousness of that work. In these unattractive conditions most jobs become objectionable and ‘dirty work’ can become positively offensive. They contrast this with what conditions will be in a ‘post-monetary’ society where people will no longer work for an employer or for a wage or salary but simply to achieve a socially desired result. All the completely negative work that has to be done today — a prime example is the production and use of armaments — will disappear. So will all the useless non-productive work associated with money and production for profit — insurance, banking, sales promotion, taxation, legal contracts, etc. All work will be equally useful and necessary to society and no stigma will be attached to any of it. People will be free to create conditions that will make any task pleasant and interesting, and in the process they will be able to put technology — no longer ensnared by the profit motive — to its best use. They conclude that people don’t mind getting their hands dirty or their bodies tired. What they do mind is having to work under conditions that have taken the pleasure out of work. Change the system, they argue, and then the very concept of ‘dirty work’ will disappear.
Post-capitalism with money
They also counter the arguments of those who claim to be ‘post-capitalist’ yet still cannot tear themselves away from the idea of money, exchange and buying and selling. Even if efforts are made to organise this in a more ‘moral’, a more benign way than now, they argue, it will still inevitably be ‘a primitive way of organising society’. In this context the writers point out, as the Socialist Standard has in a number of recent articles, that ideas like ‘Universal Basic Income’ and the so-called ‘Green New Deal’ can do little to resolve the overwhelming problems inherent in a society based on the profit imperative and are doomed to failure even as ways of significantly alleviating the pressures that capitalism puts upon its wage and salary workers. Campaigners who involve themselves in well-meaning reformist activity along these lines on the grounds that we need to be ‘realistic’ are seen as just ‘prolonging the agony of buying and selling society’ and effectively delaying the growth of consciousness among many. In other words their task is a futile one, as what they are doing is trying to ‘repair the very thing that is destroying us’. Another writer, Anselm Jappe, is quoted in this book for the way he reverses the ‘realism’ argument and, in The Self-Consuming Society (2017), writes: ‘The abolition of money and value, of exchange and wage labour, of the State and the market needs to happen without delay. It is not someone’s “maximalist” programme” or utopia but rather the only true form of realism.’
Chinal too has a novel way of framing the futility of reformism: ‘As soon as you move a domino piece, that just pushes another or other pieces elsewhere and in the end you can never reach a solution that is equitable and stable’. And Aupetitgendre has a different but equally effective formulation: ‘Wanting to create an egalitarian, ecologically sound and peaceful society without free access is like wanting to build a car without inventing the wheel.’ So, they argue, avowed anti-capitalists should not, as they often do, seek to find ‘a way of managing capitalism better, of giving it a human face’, but rather ‘seek to abolish it’.
Absurdities or abundance?
These writers’ patient exploration of the incurable ills of current society offer striking insights into the many absurdities and paradoxes of the money system. Chinal points to how the very existence of money, far from creating wealth and abundance for the many, actually creates uncontrollable penury and, no matter how much of it is in circulation, it never ceases to be seen as in short supply (‘Money is a tool of exchange, but also a tool of exclusion’). He illustrates the many unpredictable and unforeseen consequences of the money system and its knock-on effects. How, for example, the supply of such basic necessities as food and accommodation is constantly subject to the destabilisation brought about by the working of the market – something that can seriously affect those on both the buying and the selling side. So, for example, ‘If food becomes more expensive, it sells less well, meaning that buyers have to make do with less and that local producers may “disappear” since their market is reduced’. There is also much commentary on how today’s money-based society has the effect of setting human beings against one another rather than bringing them together: ‘In a money society we are at war with one another to get money and even our neighbour may be competing with us for a job that we both need.’ Again: ‘If the work environment or the wider system is aggressive, human beings become aggressive to survive, even if in their hearts they would prefer to seek harmony and cooperation.’
So what we have overall in the commentaries of these two writers is an impassioned plea for a society of ‘comfortable abundance’ organised via a system of ‘real direct democracy’, where available resources provide for essential needs and reasonable desires and there is not the constant need and pressure to grow and innovate that capitalism experiences as an essential feature of its profit imperative. As the kind of arguments that the World Socialist Movement has been putting for a long, long time, it can only be heartening to see them coming from others too and so appearing to be taking root and spreading.
‘A society of free access would give freedom of choice to all those who currently find themselves in intolerable situations… In the current system of society moving house to escape from a violent partner, for example, is a real battle if the person cannot show they have gainful employment and does not have money for a deposit on new accommodation. Such victims, without the capitalist ‘get-out’ of financial independence, find themselves trapped. The same thing applies to all the situations brought to the public gaze by the “Me too’ movement. Why would a woman give in to the unwelcome advances of a boss if she did not fear losing out in some way? What pressure could the predator exert if his prospective victim already had free access to everything he might have to offer?’ (p.23).
‘Let’s imagine that there’s no longer any ownership of the means of production, no more patents, no more “intellectual property”, that every innovation is immediately commonly owned, that there are no longer any brand names to be defended against others, no more fancy advertising. If we take what’s best in every make of washing machine, car or computer, would we not be able to make all manufactured objects wholly practical, indestructible and resource-light and at an environmentally minimal cost, and to manufacture only the number we need as we need them? How much less destruction and waste if we can finally make money obsolete!’ (p.36).
‘A society of free access by its very nature is a society without commercial imperatives or economic competition. And even the most able will be aware that they need the cooperation of the less able. If conflicts of interests do arise, new methods will emerge to resolve them, with conciliation rather than confrontation the order of the day’ (p.63).
‘The problem is not solved if we aim at the wrong target, at the wrong enemy, if, in thinking we are fighting against capitalism, all we are doing in fact is alleviating some of its worst effects. The point is not to somehow manage capital better but to abolish it, and at the same time the exchange mechanism which is fundamental to it’ (p.65).
‘[Free access society] will have no state with governments having overwhelming power for the length of their mandate but, instead, representatives elected for specific purposes and readily recallable by the majority. We are often told that such a system would be certain to be long-winded, confrontational and slow… But a slowly taken decision involving consequences for millions should be a guarantee of quality. And the fact that there will no longer be “professional” politicians but rather delegates elected or appointed for a specific purpose and with a particular mandate will guard against power being taken by individuals or parties’ (p.82).
‘We are not talking about returning to a “pre-monetary” world but about using our current knowledge to build a “post-monetary” world, transcending the primitive system of exchange, and getting to a world of comfortable abundance and free access’ (p.129).
‘Real direct democracy does not consist in giving power to those who speak the most eloquently or the loudest. Nor does it open the door to armed or deranged groups of people. The only political arrangement possible for a post-monetary system is to give to each person equal responsibility and equal access to knowledge and training as well as to decision-making’ (p.187).
‘Think of all the occupations directly or indirectly tied to the use of money: banks, insurance, accountancy, taxation, financial administration, commercial law… All these occupations will disappear immediately in a post-monetary system’ (p.205).
‘When in the society we are aiming for we will have finished repairing the mistakes of the past, then we will no doubt turn towards what we still do not have and we will go further. But we will do this in respecting the environment and the planet’s living beings and without forgetting that we do have limits but that respecting those is no real problem’ (p.283).