Cooking the Books 2 – Communism is socialism

To promote his book, Mute Compulsion, A Marxist Theory of the Economic Power of Capital, Søren Mau contributed a piece to the publisher’s blog last July in which he asked ‘What should the communism we fight for look like’?

He starts by defining communism (what we call ‘socialism’):

‘The fundamental condition of communism is that the basic conditions of the life of society are brought under democratic control. The state would be abolished, all private companies would be dissolved, and all privately owned means of production—land, buildings, machines, etc.—as well as the wealth of the upper class would be expropriated’.

Like land originally was, they would ‘belong to no one, and thus to everyone’.

He envisages this society being divided into a ‘public sector’ and a ‘private sector’, the latter being productive activities that people carry out in their free time after working in the public sector.

He argues: ‘Everything produced in the public sector would be distributed without the use of money. Housing, healthcare, medicine, education, childcare, public transportation, and meals in public cafeterias would be free of charge and available to all, without control’.

That sounds like socialism. But then: ‘Consumer goods associated with varying individual preferences … could be “purchased” with digital coupons’ which everyone would receive ‘each week to use for services and products available from public warehouses’.

But why? If enough of what people might want can be produced, why could these consumer goods also not be made ‘available to all, without control’? Does he share the popular prejudice that people would otherwise take more than they needed?

It is conceivable that in the very early days there might not be enough of everything to permit this and that some sharing-out system might have be devised (by those around at the time) for any goods in short supply, but this would only be a temporary, stop-gap measure. It wouldn’t need to be a permanent feature of a communist society; free access to consumer goods would be the norm. In any event, to set up and run a coupon system (which would have to include putting a coupon price on consumer goods) wouldn’t be the appropriate answer; in fact it would divert resources that could be used to overcome the problem.

Mau says that technically the coupons wouldn’t be money as they wouldn’t circulate. When, however, it comes to his ‘private sector’ he does envisage money as such:

‘Here, everyone would produce and trade as they wish, keeping within certain democratically determined limits (no production or exchange of humans, weapons, or hard drugs, for example). [They] would also be able to create institutions and technologies that could ease and regulate exchange—for example, creating some sort of money’.

Once again, why? No doubt in communist society people, after having contributed to production ‘according to their ability’, would produce some things in their ‘free time’. They might want to grow vegetables for instance but why would they want to sell them? Why would they not simply give them away without asking for anything in particular in return, as happens even now under capitalism? People would continue too to do things for each other but why would this need to involve money?

Mau seems to realise that he is on shaky ground here as he himself asks ‘But isn’t this private sector merely another form of capitalism?’ His answer is that it wouldn’t be since ‘land, housing, and labor power would never become commodities. Money would exist purely as a means of exchange and couldn’t be used to give certain people power over others’. It wouldn’t be capitalism, but it sounds suspiciously like that contradiction in terms known as ‘market socialism’.

Inadequate as Mau’s contribution is, it at least shows that the idea and implications of a communist (socialist) society are beginning to be discussed seriously as the alternative to capitalism.

Next article: Obituary: Ron Elbert ⮞

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