It is the main job of socialists not to theorise about the exact workings of a future economy, but to educate people on the main principles that might underpin a future communist society in its lower and higher phases, and then give them the tools – in the form of socialist democracy – to do the work themselves. Unless we say more about the goal we are striving for, we relinquish the future to those who insist that all there is an eternity of capitalism. If you don’t have an alternative to capitalism you are stuck with capitalism. It is all very well to criticise capitalism – that’s easy! – but the really hard thing is to put forward a viable alternative to put in its place. It’s only through speculating about alternative in more and more details that we can begin to put more flesh on the bare bones on the idea, that we can invest with more credibility.
It is important not to confuse two quite different things:
- A basic statement of the core features of a future socialist society
- Speculative commentary about the finer details of life inside such a society.
Free access socialism is the shortest and most effective route to meeting human needs. It immediately cuts out all the kind of work that performs no socially useful function whatsoever but only keeps capitalism ticking over. If anything, given current levels of productivity, We can even envisage there being a shortage of socially useful work for people to do in free access communism. It will be able to produce so much more with so much less
Free access socialism, or higher phase communism as Marx called, it is not some futuristic science fiction scenario bit has existed as a potentiality within capitalism itself from at least since the beginning of the 20th century.
It is not predicated on some “super-abundance” of wealth being made available to people but rather on the very real possibility of being able to meet our basic needs. We don’t say free access socialism will be a world without scarcities. Free access socialism is not based on the assumption that we stand on the threshold of some kind of comsumerist paradise in which we can all gratify our every whim.We refer to the very real possibility of society being able to satisfy the basic needs of individuals today, to enable us all to have a decent life.
The elimination of capitalism’s massive structural waste is the prime source of productive potential; it will make huge amounts of resources available for socially useful production in a society in which the only consideration is meeting human needs, not selling commodities on a market with a view to profit. In higher communism there is no exchange. None whatsoever. Consequently there is no “bartering” of each other’s abilities or needs. You freely give according to your abilities and you freely take according to your needs. It is as a simple as that.
Scarcity in the technical sense, in the notion of opportunity costs, will of course always be with us, by definition. If you decide to use a particular resource for a particular end that means you fore-go the opportunity to use it for some other end. You cannot satisfy both ends and you have to chose which end you will satisfy. But opportunity costs would be incorporated in the very process of resource allocation in a socialist society.
Despite what the bourgeois economists and sociologists assert, our demands are not insatiable. They are conditioned by the society we live in and in a free access society much of what we falsely consider to be essential to our well-being – the pursuit of status via conspicuous consumption – will be rendered totally meaningless.
Scarcity (or abundance for that matter) are a function of both supply and demand and these are both influenced by the kind of society we live in. In capitalism the logic of competition and the self expansion of capital without limit is reflected in the bourgeois notion that as individual consumers our demands are “infinite”. This notion serves as an apology for capitalism, in other words. In free access communism the only way logically you can gain the respect and esteem of your fellows is through your contribution to society and not what you take out of it. Nobody should ever underestimate the potency of this particular motive. It is astonishing that some on the Left seem to have discarded altogether the idea of free access socialism and what is even more astonishing is the grounds on which they do so. They have bought lock stock and barrel into the bourgeois myth of “human nature” to defend their anti-socialist position.
Marx and Engels, used the terms socialism and communism to mean the same thing – a money-free, wageless, state-free society – as did numerous others, including the early Social Democrats. People have seem to have forgotten about this in their ill-informed attempt to dismiss free access communism. They have failed to see just how much their own perspective is imprisoned within narrow horizon of bourgeois rights and bourgeois behaviour patterns It is perhaps difficult now to appreciate but, in the late 19th century/early 20th century, when people talked about a socialist society they meant basically a communist society. In fact, earlier on, when Marx and Engels drew up their “Communist Manifesto”, they explained why, at the time, they did not call it the Socialist Manifesto – because of the association of the term socialism with certain political currents they did not favour – but increasingly over time they shifted over to using the term socialism rather than communism – particularly Engels. Large numbers of writers in the late 19th century-early 20th adopted this practice. One thinks of people like William Morris, Hyndman, Kropotkin, Kautsky and many others. Even the Russian Social Democrats before they split into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks used the term “socialism” in this way and Stalin wrote a pamphlet in 1906 in which he defined socialism as a money-free society without wages. In fact, this is how these terms were generally understood up until the early 20th century – as synonym. The distinction between socialism and communism primarily emerged with Lenin – it was never found in Marx identifying the former with what we would call “state capitalism” but even Lenin was not consistent in this and in an interview with Arthur Ransome in 1922 reverted to the old usage.
In the Critique of the Gotha Programme it is clear that Marx was equating the higher stage of communism with free access communism (No, we do not forget that the Critique of the Gotha programme is a primary source of theoretical support for the advocates of labour vouchers). In the Critique he talks of the right of producers being proportional to the labour they supply; and how these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society. Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.
“In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”
That last phrase did indeed originate with Louis Blanc but as a revision of Saint Simon’s argument that individuals should be rewarded according to their labour input. In other words it specifically repudiates the notion of payment for work – whether in cash or labour vouchers or whatever
People who argue against the “Impossibilist” perspective on the grounds that we cannot really know what a socialist society will be like until we live in it are taking up a rather absurd and extreme position which incidentally traps them in Catch-22 situation – how are we ever going to get to live in a socialist society if we don’t know what it is in advance of creating it? Indeed, how would we even know that what we created was socialism at all! Socialism is obviously impossible without workers having some idea of what socialism is beforehand but all that is needed is a basic idea, a rudimentary mental model of a class-free, state-free society. It does not require a theoretical grasp of the organic composition of capital or the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.
Lenin talked quite explicitly of a communist society without labour vouchers:
“Communist labour in the narrower and stricter sense of the term is labour performed gratis for the benefit of society, labour performed not as a definite duty, not for the purpose of obtaining a right to certain products, not according to previously established and legally fixed quotas, but voluntary labour, irrespective of quotas; it is labour performed without expectation of reward, without reward as a condition, labour performed because it has become a habit to work for the common good, and because of a conscious realisation (that has become a habit) of the necessity of working for the common good—labour as the requirement of a healthy organism.
It must be clear to everybody that we, i.e., our society, our social system, are still a very long way from the application of this form of labour on a broad, really mass scale.
But the very fact that this question has been raised, and raised both by the whole of the advanced proletariat (the Communist Party and the trade unions) and by the state authorities, is a step in this direction.” [From the Destruction of the Old Social System, To the Creation of the New]
We have the evidence of ABC of Communism by the Bolshevik Bukharin that he was not alone.
“Distribution in the communist system:
The communist method of production presupposes in addition that production is not for the market, but for use. Under communism, it is no longer the individual manufacturer or the individual peasant who produces; the work of production is effected by the gigantic cooperative as a whole. In consequence of this change, we no longer have commodities, but only products. These products are not exchanged one for another; they are neither bought nor sold. They are simply stored in the communal warehouses, and are subsequently delivered to those who need them. In such conditions, money will no longer be required. ‘How can that be?’ some of you will ask. ‘In that case one person will get too much and another too little. What sense is there in such a method of distribution?’ The answer is as follows. At first, doubtless, and perhaps for twenty or thirty years, it will be necessary to have various regulations. Maybe certain products will only be supplied to those persons who have a special entry in their work-book or on their work-card. Subsequently, when communist society has been consolidated and fully developed, no such regulations will be needed. There will be an ample quantity of all products, our present wounds will long since have been healed, and everyone will be able to get just as much as he needs. ‘But will not people find it to their interest to take more than they need?’ Certainly not. Today, for example, no one thinks it worth while when he wants one seat in a tram, to take three tickets and keep two places empty. It will be just the same in the case of all products. A person will take from the communal storehouse precisely as much as he needs, no more. No one will have any interest in taking more than he wants in order to sell the surplus to others, since all these others can satisfy their needs whenever they please. Money will then have no value. Our meaning is that at the outset, in the first days of communist society, products will probably be distributed in accordance with the amount of work done by the applicant; at a later stage, however, they will simply be supplied according to the needs of the comrades. It has often been contended that in the future society everyone will have the right to the full product of his labour. ‘What you have made by your labour, that you will receive.’ This is false. It would never be possible to realize it fully. Why not? For this reason, that if everyone were to receive the full product of his labour, there would never be any possibility of developing, expanding, and improving production. Part of the work done must always be devoted to the development and improvement of production.
If we had to consume and to use up everything we have produced, then we could never produce machines, for these cannot be eaten or worn. But it is obvious that the bettering of life will go hand in hand with the extension and improvement of machinery. It is plain that more and more machines must continually be produced. Now this implies that part of the labour which has been incorporated in the machines will not be returned to the person who has done the work. It implies that no one can ever receive the full product of his labour.But nothing of the kind is necessary. With the aid of good machinery, production will be so arranged that all needs will be satisfied.
To sum up, at the outset products will be distributed in proportion to the work done (which does not mean that the worker will receive ‘the full product of his labour’); subsequently, products will be distributed according to need, for there will be an abundance of everything. In a communist society there will be no classes. But if there will be no classes, this implies that in communist society there will likewise be no State. We have previously seen that the State is a class organization of the rulers. The State is always directed by one class against the other. A bourgeois State is directed against the proletariat, whereas a proletarian State is directed against the bourgeoisie. In the communist social order there are neither landlords, nor capitalists, nor wage workers; there are simply people – comrades. If there are no classes, then there is no class war, and there are no class organizations. Consequently the State has ceased to exist. Since there is no class war, the State has become superfluous. There is no one to be held in restraint, and there is no one to impose restraint.
But how, they will ask us, can this vast organization be set in motion without any administration? Who is going to work out the plans for social production? Who will distribute labour power? Who is going to keep account of social income and expenditure? In a word, who is going to supervise the whole affair? It is not difficult to answer these questions. The main direction will be entrusted to various kinds of book-keeping offices or statistical bureaux. There, from day to day, account will be kept of production and all its needs; there also it will be decided whither workers must be sent, whence they must be taken, and how much work there is to be done. And inasmuch as, from childhood onwards, all will have been accustomed to social labour, and since all will understand that this work is necessary and that life goes easier when everything is done according to a prearranged plan and when the social order is like a well-oiled machine, all will work in accordance with the indications of these statistical bureaux. There will be no need for special ministers of State, for police and prisons, for laws and decrees – nothing of the sort. Just as in an orchestra all the performers watch the conductor’s baton and act accordingly, so here all will consult the statistical reports and will direct their work accordingly. The State, therefore, has ceased to exist. There are no groups and there is no class standing above all other classes. Moreover, in these statistical bureaux one person will work today, another tomorrow. The bureaucracy, the permanent officialdom, will disappear. The State will die out. Manifestly this will only happen in the fully developed and strongly established communist system, after the complete and definitive victory of the proletariat; nor will it follow immediately upon that victory. For a long time yet, the working class will have to fight against, all its enemies, and in especial against the relics of the past, such as sloth, slackness, criminality, pride. All these will have to be stamped out. Two or three generations of persons will have to grow up under the new conditions before the need will pass for laws and punishments and for the use of repressive measures by the workers’ State. Not until then will all the vestiges of the capitalist past disappear.
Though in the intervening period the existence of the workers’ State is indispensable, subsequently, in the fully developed communist system, when the vestiges of capitalism are extinct, the proletarian State authority will also pass away. The proletariat itself will become mingled with all the other strata of the population, for everyone will by degrees come to participate in the common labour. Within a few decades there will be quite a new world, with new people and new customs.”
Then there was Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed, Chapter 3, Socialism and the State that says it all:
“The material premise of communism should be so high a development of the economic powers of man that productive labor, having ceased to be a burden, will not require any goad, and the distribution of life’s goods, existing in continual abundance, will not demand – as it does not now in any well-off family or “decent” boarding-house – any control except that of education, habit and social opinion. Speaking frankly, I think it would be pretty dull-witted to consider such a really modest perspective “utopian.”
What Trotsky is advocating here is the abandonment of the idea of material rewards or remuneration as a so-called incentive to produce. And if that is not enough we also have Trotsky saying:
“True, Abramovich demonstrated to us most learnedly that under Socialism there will be no compulsion, that the principle of compulsion contradicts Socialism, that
under Socialism we shall be moved by the feeling of duty, the habit of working, the attractiveness of labor, etc., etc. This is unquestionable.
Only this unquestionable truth must be a little extended. In point of fact, under Socialism there will not exist the apparatus of compulsion itself, namely, the State: for it will have melted away entirely into a producing and consuming commune. None the less, the road to Socialism lies through a period of the highest possible intensification of the principle of the State. And you and I are just passing through that period. Just as a lamp, before going out, shoots up in a brilliant flame, so the State, before disappearing, assumes the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e., the most ruthless form of State, which embraces the life of the citizens authoritatively in every direction. Now just that insignificant little fact – that historical step of the State dictatorship – Abramovich, and in his person the whole of Menshevism, did not notice; and consequently, he has fallen over it.”
And Kautsky too:
“Besides this rigid allocation of an equal measure of the necessaries and enjoyments of life to each individual, another form of Socialism without money is conceivable, the Leninite interpretation of what Marx described as the second phase of communism: each to produce of his own accord as much as he can, the productivity of labour being so high and the quantity and variety of products so immense that everyone may be trusted to take what he needs. For this purpose money would not be needed.
We have not yet progressed so far as this. At present we are unable to divine whether we shall ever reach this state. But that Socialism with which we are alone concerned to-day, whose features we can discern with some precision from the indications that already exist, will unfortunately not have this enviable freedom and abundance at its disposal, and will therefore not be able to do without money.”
[The Labour Revolution III. The Economic Revolution X. MONEY]
Finally, the Social-Democrat, HM Hyndman
“A much more serious objection to Kropotkin and other Anarchists is their wholly unscrupulous habit of reiterating statements that have been repeatedly proved to be incorrect, and even outrageous, by the men and women to whom they are attributed. Time after time I have told Kropotkin, time after time has he read it in print, that Social-Democrats work for the complete overthrow of the wages system. He has admitted this to be so. But a month or so afterwards the same old oft-refuted misrepresentation appears in the same old authoritative fashion, as if no refutation of the calumny, that we wish to maintain wage-slavery, had ever been made.”
The Left Apologists
So perverse are the arguments presented by critics of a free access economy that they uncritically project into socialism the same kind of atomistic self- interested outlook that prevails in capitalism forgetting that we are talking about quite a different kind of society altogether. In fact, free access is the most complete example of what is called a “gift economy” in anthropological terms. It is based on the principle of “generalised reciprocity” and the clear recognition of our mutual inter-dependence. It is not economic restrictions in the form of some kind of rationing that we should be focussing on but, rather a radical reconfiguration of the relationship between the individual and society and the realisation of human beings as truly social individuals (a social individual is an individual who realises his or her needs are part of a collective process of development and stimulation and thus has no need to hoard, monopolise, accumulate objects, articles for purposes other than that of use).
Critics of free access need now to fundamentally question and reassess the assumptions upon which they base their criticisms. The time is long overdue to restore and reassert the vision of higher communism as the explicit goal of revolutionaries everywhere. Anything short of that has either failed dismally or been found wanting. Revolutionaries today, 150 years after Marx, should NOT be advocating questionable stop-gap measures that have long been rendered obsolete by technological development. We should be hell-bent on getting the real thing – a society based on the principle “from each according to ability to each according to need”!
Of course, we cannot have socialism right now because the conscious majority support for such a system simply does not yet exist. You can’t have socialism without a large majority wanting and understanding it. The ends and the means have to be in harmony. There is absolutely no way you can force communism on a reluctant population that doesn’t want or understand it. They are required to understand what it entails. They will realise very well that with a system of voluntary labour we will each depend upon one another for a socialist society to function properly. The point is that in socialism, unlike in capitalism, we shall have a genuine vested interest in promoting the well-being of others – if for no other than reason than that our own welfare is bound up with theirs. Socialist scholar Keith Graham has written:
“…the very nature of the future society is such that it must be sustained by people clearly aware of what they are doing, actively and voluntarily cooperating in social production. It is literally unthinkable that a population should organise its affairs according to such principles without being aware that this is what they are doing. People can be coerced or duped into doing what what they themselves do not comprehend or desire but they cannot be coerced or duped into doing what they voluntarily choose to do”
When we meet these preconditions then people will fully appreciate, their mutual interdependence and the need to pull together for the common good.
You cannot just simply project into a socialist society the same kind of behavioural assumptions that underlie this dog-eat-dog capitalist society. Human behaviour and human thinking is at least in part a product of the kind of society we live in. Critics illegitimately project into socialism, the behaviour patterns and modes of thinking that pertain to capitalism – including, its atomised individualistic way of looking at things.
Capitalist competition fosters egoism. This is why narrow economically-focussed criticisms of a socialist society fail miserably every time because they take no account of the fundamentally different sociological framework within which a socialist society will operate.
Free-access economics eliminates the need for greed and removes the rationale for acquiring status through the accumulation of material wealth. The only way in which one can acquire status and the respect of one’s fellows – a hugely powerful motivator in any society – would be through one’s contribution to society, not what one takes out of it. Critics of free access (or higher communism) have fallen into the same erroneous way of looking at the matter as the bourgeois economists with their taken-for-granted assumptions about human nature being inherently lazy or greedy.
Remember the myth about The Commons? How the Commons were destroyed by the ignorance and the democracy of the commoners, ruining the land through over-grazing; without taking proper steps to conserve fertility; through, according to our mythologists, that combination of greed, stupidity, and laziness that the bourgeoisie project unto everybody else when, in fact, it describes them to a T? But it was a myth. The Commons were not destroyed by either ignorance, abuse, or laziness of the commoners– they were managed quite well, and democratically by the commoners, who willingly worked out the terms of shared use, and proper conservation. The argument that says “Oh, if human beings can just have free access to things, they’ll act like locusts” has at its base, a version of that same myth
The goal of social ownership and democratic control of production and distribution has to be articulated directly.To seek political improvements to the capitalist system is a distraction from what needs to be done. When we insist that the working class has to be educated before it can make progress, some people on the left who have good intentions say that they “don’t want to wait that long.” But this isn’t an option. A “revolution” carried out by people who are angry at the injustices of the old social system, but unclear about what to replace it with, or not sufficiently dedicated to the democratic structure of the new system, is the road to a new dictatorship. The working class who will create a socialist society must also know how to operate it. They need to understand what the basic rules of the game are, so to speak. There needs to be a widespread consensus about what to expect of people if a socialist society is to properly function.
“Anti-capitalism” in itself can never succeed in overthrowing capitalism. To bring capitalism to an an end we need to have a viable alternative to put in its place. And this is an alternative that we need to be conscious and desirous of before it can ever be put in place. A class imbued with socialist consciousness will be far more militant and empowered than any amount of mere “anti-capitalism”. Socialist consciousness is class consciousness in its most developed sense. The idea that such an alternative could somehow materialise out of thin air without a majority of workers actually wanting it or knowing about it is simply not realistic. Such an alternative can function if people know what it entails. In itself, engaging a workplace struggles within capitalism – important though this is – doesn’t take us much forward since capitalism can only ever be run in the interest of capital. The capitalist system isn’t a failure due to bad leaders or bad policies, but because of the kind of system that it is.
Socialism means a money-free state-free commonwealth without prices nor wages. This was the general understanding of what socialism meant. Marx didn’t talk about a “transitional society”. He talked about the lower phase of communism. It was still communism…that is, a classless society. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”
Who decides what your ability or need is? It would take some sort of position of power to determine who is in need and who has ability. Power naturally corrupts and tends to find ways to increase and consolidate power. After time, you are left with those who have consolidated power to abuse, and those who don’t. Therefore, who decides? The answer, you do! This is the whole point of the slogan “from each according to ability to each according to need”. The autonomy of the individual is maximised and as a result, we all benefit. As the Communist Manifesto put it:
“In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”
Specifically a communist (aka socialist) society – or at least what Marx called the “higher stage” of communism – exhibits two key features:
1) Free access to goods and services – no buying and selling. No barter. You simply go to the distribution point and take what you require according to your self determined needs. This depends on there being a relatively advanced technological infrastructure to produce enough to satisfy our basic needs. Such a possibility already exists. Capitalism, however, increasingly thwarts this potential. In fact, most of the work we do today in the formal sector will be completely unnecessary in a communist society – it serves only to prop up capitalism. What possible use would there be for a banking system in socialism, for example? We could effectively more than double the quantities of resources and human labour power available for socially useful production by scrapping capitalism. Socialism will destroy the need for greed and conspicuous consumption
2) Volunteer labour. Your contribution to society is completely voluntary. There is no wage labour or other forms of coerced labour. You can do as little or as much work as you choose. And you can do as many different kinds of jobs as you want, too. The presumption is that people would freely choose to work with socialism for all sorts of reasons:
– the conditions under which we work will be radically different, without an employing class dictating terms work will become fulfilling and pleasant
– we need to work, to express ourselves creatively
– with free access to goods, conspicuous consumption will be rendered meaningless as a way of gaining respect and social esteem. Which leaves only what we give to society as a way of gaining the respect of our peers. This should not be underestimated; it is one of the most important motivational drives in human beings as numerous studies in industrial psychology have confirmed
– Communism depends on people recognising our mutual interdependence. There is, in other words, a sense of moral obligation that goes with the territory
– Communism will permit a far greater degree of technological adaptation without the constraints of the profit system. Intrinsically backbreaking or unpleasant work can be automated. Conversely some work may be deliberately made more labour intensive and craft based.
– Even under capitalism today most work is unpaid or unremunerated – the household economy, the volunteer sector and so on. So it is not as if this is something we are unaccustomed to. Volunteers moreover tend to be the most highly motivated as studies have confirmed; they don’t require so called external incentives
– We will get rid of an awful lot of crappy and pointless jobs that serve as a disincentive to work
– since we would be free to do any job we chose to what this means in effect is that for any particular job there would be a massive back-up supply of labour to cover it consisting of most people in society. In capitalism this cannot happen since labour mobility is severely restricted since if you have a job you cannot just choose to abandon it for the sake of another more urgent job from the standpoint of society
With these two core characteristics of a socialist society – free access to goods and services plus volunteer labour – there can be no political leverage that anyone or any group could exercise over anyone else. The material basis of class power would have completely dissolved. What we would be left with is simply human beings being free to express their fundamentally social and cooperative nature
Free access is not going to be brought to the point of collapse by the fact that we cannot all have a Porsche or Ferrari parked outside our front door. Imagine what it could be like without a boss class on our backs? Imagine what our workplaces could become without the cost cutting constraints of capitalism and having the freedom to decide on these matters ourselves. Imagine not being tied down to one single kind of job all the time but being given the opportunity to experiment with different jobs, to travel abroad to work in new places, to taste new experiences. Imagine a world without money, without prices and without wages in which most of the occupations that we do today – from bankers to pay departments to arms producers to sales-people – will simply disappear at a stroke releasing vast amounts of resources and, yes, human labour power as well for socially useful production. Kropotkin was quite right. We don’t need the whiplash of the wages system to compel us to work. The mere fact that we recognise our mutual interdependence in a society in which we will fully realise our social nature will suffice to impose upon us a sense of moral obligation to contribute to the common good of our own free will. Indeed we already, to some extent, do this today even under capitalism, given that fully half of all the work that we do today is completely unremunerated. How much more conducive will a “moral economy” be to the performance of unremunerated work is not hard to see.
The Left tend to be nothing more than the reformist advocates of some kind of state-administered capitalism, paying lip service to authentic socialism but in practice obstructing any real movement towards socialism. The Left, by and large, does not stand for socialism and persistently misrepresents what socialism is all about by identifying it with some kind of state involvement in the economy. To suggest that free access would be less efficient than capitalism ignores among other things that at least half the work done under capitalism serves no socially useful purpose whatsoever and contributes nothing to human well-being in any meaningful way – it is merely done to keep the capitalist monetary system ticking over. For instance, most of the work carried out today in the formal sector of the capitalist economy will no longer be needed in communism. What useful work does a banker or pay-roll official do today, for instance? Absolutely nothing. When production for sale on market ceases to exist and we produce simply and and solely for need, a huge and growing chunk of the work we do today will no longer be required. Conservatively speaking, we can at least double the available manpower and material resources for socially useful production. If that is not a huge advance in efficiency then what is? In free access socialism we will be able to do more with far less because we will producing directly for use and not for sale. The capitalist monetary system is the most extraordinary wasteful form of economic organisation but we are sure the capitalists will be gratified to learn that some on the left should spring to the defence of their system against the socialist alternative.
The notion that capitalism can only be defined as a system where capital is owned privately for a profit is absurd. Doesn’t capital owned by the state for example count as capitalism? Doesn’t the very fact that means of production take the form of capital, irrespective of who owns it, make the system capitalist? The theory of state capitalism does not require there to be a class of private owners of capital, for there to be capitalism. This is a legalistic de jure approach to capitalism whereas a historical materialist approach looks instead at the de facto relations of production. It argues that there was a capitalist class in the Soviet Union that collectively owned the means of production as a class by virtue of their complete control of the state – the nomenklatura and apparachiks. Ownership and control are in fact inseparable. Ultimate control IS ownership. We are not saying there were no differences between the state capitalism and the private or mixed-economy capitalism but in their essentials they were the same.
In Socialism Utopian and Scientific Engels noted how capitalism was rapidly evolving away from private ownership of capital for profit by individual capitalist to joint stock companies and on to ownership by the state. Here is what he said concerning the latter
“The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine, the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of the productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage workers – proletarians. The capitalist relationship is not done away with. It is rather brought to a head.”
This does not seem to be compatible with the notion of “private profit” or ownership by private individuals but, clearly, what Engels is saying here is that state ownership is still very much capitalism. Of course, you can chose to define it in whatever way you want but in the Marxian tradition the relation between “capital” and “wage labour” is absolutely pivotal to any real understanding capitalism. Hence statements like these.
“Capital therefore presupposes wage-labour; wage-labour presupposes capital. They condition each other; each brings the other into existence.” [Wage Labour and Capital]
“To say that the interests of capital and the interests of the workers are identical, signifies only this: that capital and wage-labour are two sides of one and the same relation. The one conditions the other in the same way that the usurer and the borrower condition each other.”
So, no, its not essentially to do with “private” ownership and profit. This is misleading. This idea that capitalism rests on de jure legal ownership of capital by private individuals is essentially an idealist notion which defines a mode of production in terms of its legal superstructure. With state ownership your have in effect collective ownership by the capitalist class via their control of the state apparatus itself. From the point of the view of the worker it makes absolutely no difference whether their employers is the state or a “private” business. From the point of view of the consumer too state property is private property and for which reason a payment is required.
“The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is, rather, brought to a head. But, brought to a head, it topples over. State-ownership of the productive forces is not the solution of the conflict, but concealed within it are the technical conditions that form the elements of that solution.”
Engels is saying is that by bringing the scattered means of production under state ownership this will facilitate the transformation of these means into common property. So instead of having to deal with many separate individual capitalists we would have only to deal with the “national capitalist” as it were. This is what is meant by the “technical conditions” Engels speaks of – the centralised structure of decision-making that socialism would inherit from (state) capitalism
As opponents of central planning we would disagree strongly with Engels on this particular point. Nevertheless, Engels is clearly NOT suggesting that state ownership of the means of production , even though it facilitates centralised decision-making (which he seems to have thought would be important and useful for a socialist society) is anything other than a form of capitalist ownership.
It was Kropotkin who said:
“No hard and fast line can be drawn between the work of one and the work of another. To measure them by results leads to absurdity. To divide them into fractions and measured them by hours of labour leads to absurdity also. One course remains: not to measure them at all, but to recognise the right of all who take part in productive labour first of all to live – and then to enjoy the comforts of life” [The Wage System]
Socialism is not about “setting prices at zero”. It is about doing away with the whole notion of price and exchange value so that the very concept of “setting prices at zero” is a meaningless one as far as socialism is concerned. To talk of setting prices at any level presupposes still a capitalist framework If the supermarkets tomorrow said ‘All cans of beans are free’ the shelves would be cleared in hours. But if they said the same the next day, and the next, it would become pointless to go and fill your arms with cans of beans, and easier to just go and take a reasonable stock to keep close to hand. That is, money (likewise price) is not abolished, but the need for money is rendered redundant. Just because individuals in a free access economy are not restricted by money or labour vouchers from taking what they want does not mean they will want to take everything they can possibly lay their hands on. As for labour vouchers. Similarly just because these same individuals will not be externally compelled to work by the fact that their consumption is explicitly linked to their work contribution does not mean they will not contribute to the work. The point about a socialist society proper – or higher communism – is that there is no objective or external economic mechanism – like money or labour vouchers – mediating between the individual and his or her needs or wants. This includes the desire to work which would become as Marx put it in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, “life´s prime want”. A means by which we express ourselves, our individuality. Kautsky has the right understanding on that, why bother mimicking the pricing mechanism when there is already a perfectly good way of doing that?
Money is a social relationship. It links buyers and sellers in a market and therefore presupposes these things. But socialism implies common ownership of the means of production. Where everybody owns the means of production it is not logically possible to have economic exchange. Exchange implies owners and non owners. When I exchange something with you I am exchanging property title to this thing for some other thing. If you own a factory producing widgets you can sell these widgets on because you own them by virtue of owning the factory that produced them. It follows that if everyone in society owned the factory there would be no one to whom these widgets could be sold or exchanged. If there is no economic exchange then there is no reason to have a means of exchange – money. Money is a mean of exchange amongst other things and what it implies is the existence of an exchange economy which is completely incompatible with the idea of your “public” owning the means of production. Exchange denotes a transfer of ownership rights of the things being exchanged. This cannot happen where everyone owns the means of production, common ownership rules out the exchange of products and hence money. Logically then if you advocate the use of money and hence exchange, this means you advocate a system based on sectional or private ownership of the means of production – not common ownership. Money is not some kind of neutral tool of administration; it is fundamentally a social relationship between people. Of course, money existed before capitalism but, in its generalised usage, it corresponds to , and demonstrates, the existence of capitalist relations of production as a monetised economy par excellence. Since there will be no economic exchange transactions in socialism – socialism being based on common ownership of the means of production – this reason falls away along with the need for money.
This is why socialists totally reject the idea of using money not only – obviously – in a socialist society but in any supposed transition to such a society. A transitional stage that continued to use money would not be a transition at all. It would still be a capitalist society based on generalised commodity production. That is why Marx advocated labour vouchers – which we reject as too as both unnecessary and far too cumbersome – precisely because it was not money.
Many leftists have aligned themselves with the argument of the arch pro-capitalist Ludwig von Mises in asserting the need for a common universal unit of accounting. According to this argument, only by means of such a unit can we directly compare different bundles of inputs and thus supposedly select the “least cost “combination. For von Mises this unit is money; for some so-called leftists labour values. The purpose of a common unit of account is to expedite economic exchange – what communism will lack – rather than the actual efficient deployment of resources as such. Having a common unit of account has nothing to do with the technical organisation of production itself and everything to do with capitalism’s own priorities such as the need to determine profitability and the rate of exploitation.
Free access is a form of “generalised reciprocity” par excellence, a “gift economy”, which as the term itself suggests denotes the absence of any kind of quid pro quo set up.
1) The amount of work that needs to be done by comparison with today will be much less because of the elimination of all that socially useless labour that only serves to prop up the capitalist money economy – from bankers, pay to tax collectors and a thousand and one other occupations. Less work means a much reduced per capita workload on average which, in turn, means less resistance to working since our attitude to work is partly conditioned by how much time we are required to do it. If you only have to do two hours per week on a boring job you are going to regard it differently than if you have to do it for twenty hours
2) A volunteer economy means that we are not stuck with just one job but can try a variety so there is a labour reservoir in depth for any particular job – even the most onerous or boring – and to an extent that is simply not possible under capitalist employment.
3) With free access to goods and services there is only one way in which you can acquire status and the respect and esteem of your fellows – through your contribution to society. Conspicuous consumption and the accumulation of private wealth would be rendered meaningless by the simple fact that all wealth is freely available for direct appropriation
4) The terms and conditions of work will be radically different without the institution of capitalist employment. It is often these terms and conditions – in particular the authoritarian structure of the capitalist workplace – that are the real problem rather than the work itself
5) Without the profit motive there will be far greater scope to adapt technology to suit our inclinations. Some work might be subject to greater automation; other work might be made more artisan or skilled-based
6) In a socialist society our mutual interdependence will be much more transparent and the sense of moral obligation to give according to one’s ability in return for taking according to one’s need will correspondingly be much more sharply defined and enhanced as a motivating factor
7) A socialist society cannot be introduced except when the great majority understand and want it. Having struggled to achieve it can it seriously be maintained that they would willingly allow it to be jeopardised? The reductio as absurdum argument
8) Work, loosely defined as meaningful productive activity is actually a fundamental human need, not simply an economic requirement. Try sitting around on your ass for week doing nothing and you will soon find yourself climbing up the wall out of sheer boredom. Prison riots have been known to break out on occasions when frustrated prisoners are denied work opportunities and even under the severe conditions they have to contend with.
9) Even under capitalism just over half of the work that we do is completely unpaid and outside of the money economy. This is by no means just confined to the household sector – think for example of international volunteers such as the Voluntary Service Overseas or the Peace Corps – and it gives the lie to the capitalist argument that the only way you can induce people to work is paying them to do it
Since you don’t have a quid pro quo set up with free access, individuals are free to do whatever work they chose. What work needs to be done as explained can be readily communicated through the appropriate channels such as job centres, on-line facilities and so on. You don’t have the same kind of dichotomous view induced by a quid pro quo set up which pits your self interest against the interests of others. So social opinion become becomes a much more powerful force in society. Work that needs to be done most urgently and is not perhaps being done to the extent required – e.g. garbage collection – gains in status to the extent that it remains undone. People work for all sorts of reasons not just because they “like it”. This is why we find the usual objections to free access communism being trotted out to be simplistic and reductionist. Labour at this higher stage is no longer coerced labour in the sense that an individual’s access to goods (via their “income”) is made dependent upon his or her contribution. On the contrary, the labour of freely associated individuals becomes life’s “prime want”. It becomes entirely voluntary labour, freely offered. The compulsion to produce without which human life could not continue will then operate exclusively on the social plane and not directly upon individuals who, nevertheless, will have realised their fully social nature in a communist society and respond accordingly to the requirements of society to produce and reproduce its own means of existence. This is what constitutes the essence of communism – the realisation of our true social nature and of the need to contribute to society’s maintenance and well-being – and it is why we have long argued that communism needs to be conceived as what is technically called a “moral economy”
The problem for the notion of apportioning labour time according some single vast society wide plan. Because production is a socialised process, because everything is interconnected – you need to ensure a certain amount of input X is produced in order to ensure that a certain amount of consumer good Y is produced – the ratios of millions upon millions of inputs and outputs have to be worked out in advance and the relative proportions or amounts have to be produced precisely in accordance with the Plan because the knock on consequences of any shortfall, say, will ramify through the whole economy and upset the carefully worked out calculations of the central planners. So finally on to the question of labour time allocation within the context of a definite social plan. It seems to me that if you are going to allocate labour in this predetermined a priori fashion then, in order for the definite social plan to be effectively implemented to the letter, you would need some way of ensuring that labour in its multiple forms is supplied in precisely the quantities needed in order to ensure that the technical ratios of inputs and outputs embodied in the plan are complied with. How can this can this be done without the most resolute and coercive central direction of labour and the conception cannot possibly accommodated to the principle “from each according to ability to each according to need”. It cannot be done and the fact that it cannot be done points to the need for a radically different perspective on the nature of a communist society to the one he is proposing. Actually even Marx’s speculations on the nature of work and the abolition of the division of labour in communism directly contradict this notion in the famous quote from the German Ideology:
“For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now.”
Allocation and rationing and planning
The technological capacity to satisfy the basic needs of everyone on this planet for food, shelter, sanitation and so on exists today. However, it is capitalism that is increasingly thwarting and dissipating this potential. There is, for example, absolutely no reason why anyone today should starve. Do you realise just how monumentally wasteful is the whole food production system we have today? Do you realise just how much scope there is for increased output per hectare and we are not talking here of capital intensive inputs (such as terminator seed technology which is all about what benefits agribusiness) rather than the peasant farmer in the developing or undeveloped nations?
Mostly, but not entirely, the productive possibilities at our disposal are not being realised , and are increasingly failing to be realised, because of the huge and ever growing proportion of work undertaken today that is entirely socially useless (and in fact diverts human labour and resources away enhancing human well-being) but is nevertheless indispensable to the operation of the capitalist system itself. It has been conservatively estimated that, with the abolition of the capitalist money system and the introduction of a system based on direct production for use, we could probably double the productive capacity to satisfy our basic needs globally by freeing up all that labour and material resources currently tied up in socially useless , but systemically necessary, activities of all kinds.
Critics of socialism often seem wedded to this strange strawman notion of socialism as some kind of cornucopian society of absolute superabundance – all the more easy to knock it down. But this is not what is being proposed. What is being proposed is something rather more modest and reasonable – that we can today adequately meet our human needs (which are not infinite but finite) but increasingly capitalism gets in the way of this happening.
Thus, a vast and steadily growing proportion of the work carried out today does not in any meaningful sense enhance human well-being and welfare but merely exists to serve the functional needs of the system itself. We don’t actually need socialism to develop the technology of abundance in this reasonable sense. We already have the capacity to produce enough to satisfy our reasonable needs and this is, among other things, why your system of labour vouchers is now completely irrelevant. The irony is that the potential of modern computer technology which yourself have attached such importance to, is one of the things that now make “real socialism” eminently practical.
Every economy involves planning. Even the most ultra extreme free market capitalist economy you can think of is full of plans at the level of business enterprises. These millions of separate plans relate and adjust to each spontaneously. Central planning in its classic sense is the proposal to coordinate and plan the relationships between these separate plans rather than permit them to spontaneously adjust to each other. In effect, that means the disappearance or dissolution of all these separate plans and their replacement by one single “society wide” plan . That is the only meaningful way I can think of in which you can talk about a planned economy because there is no such thing as an economy that does not entail planning or “plans”. In theory, yes, but in the real world deviations from the plan will always happen and all the time. The Plan will never get the opportunity to be implemented; it will constantly need reconfiguring and updating. Instead of the single society wide plan moulding economic reality according to the intentions of the planners, the opposite will be the case. The plan will end up being hardly being worth with the paper it is written on. We are not the ones who are advocating some mega society-wide plan that seeks to coordinate all the inputs and outputs of the economy. The problem really lies with those who, inadvertently or not, advocate such a crazy idea. They simply haven’t thought it through.
It is a bit of myth to suppose that state capitalist regimes like the Soviet Union were organised in quite the top-down, authoritarian fashion that is sometimes suggested. There was a very considerable degree of decentralised decision-making in the Soviet Union at the state enterprise level – far more than is sometimes realised. People often make the mistake of confusing the political rhetoric of central planning, and the fanfare accompanying GOSPLAN’s latest 5 year plan or whatever, with what actually happened on the ground. No plans were ever actually really fulfilled. What happened is that the targets were routinely modified and revised to make it look like they were fulfilled. Instead of the Plan moulding economic reality, economic reality moulded the Plan. Often the plans were not even made available into well into the implementation period. The Soviet Union was very far from being a centrally planned economy in the classic sense of society wide planning and competition was rife at every level of the decision-making structure. Heads of industries were encourage to over-fulfil their part of the Plan (which goes against the idea of having a rational planned economy if people are constantly trying to change it), so they’d be competing with each other for resources (including labourers). There’d be competition between these heads for privileged access to materials and resources. Usually because there’d be a bonus involved. Within each ministry, enterprises competed fiercely for a privileged status, for reasonable quotas, and for easy orders. The same sort of competition existed on a lower level within each enterprise and on a higher level among ministries. The jungle of liberal capitalism of the past looks like a fencing tournament in comparison with this sordid infighting for influence interspersed with negotiations, shady deals and blackmail.
As for money not being a universal equivalent, at the end of the day, state enterprises had to keep profit and loss accounts expressed obviously in monetary terms. Though the state nominally owned the means of production, the legal possession and operation of these was in the hands of the state enterprises and trusts that existed as legal entities in their own right with responsibility for production. Crucially, their relationship with each other took the form of legally binding contracts for raw materials and productive machinery which were paid for by credits (money) in the central banks. State agencies like GOSSNAP (State Commission for Materials and Equipment Supply) operated essentially to facilitate horizontal links between these state enterprises. In its essentials, the Soviet Union was a capitalist economy albeit of a particular kind. However it is not quite correct to characterise the relationship between the state and the economic system as a whole as being analogous to the relationship between capitalists and the particular enterprises they own as in the West – the notion of “Soviet Union Inc”. This is because of the role of the state enterprises outlined above which makes the situation a lot more complicated than the simplistic idea of everyone working for one big firm called the state. While the system did have a rather more slack in it and greater scope for overriding the imperative of profit compared with western capitalism, ultimately it had to fall in line with the law of value. Losses incurred by state enterprises might revert to the state itself but there was a limit to how much these losses incurred by some enterprises could be sustained or compensated for by the profits creamed off by the state from other enterprises. Much of the subsequent reforms were really about devising better indicators of economic performance and as such confirmed the fundamental, if not immediately apparent, importance of the law of value in the Soviet economy and of course the need to accumulate capital out of surplus value. There was a labour market in the Soviet Union. A regulated one admittedly but a market all the same. Labour power was as commodity that was bought and sold at a price which was the wages which Russian workers received. If you argue that there was no labour market you might as well argue there were no wages which is absurd. Likewise, profits. In fact, state enterprises were obliged to keep profit and loss accounts and there was certainly pressure exerted on managers from on high to ensure profitability without which the the funding of the state apparatus itself would have been problematic. Nevertheless it is a myth to suppose that wage levels were not influenced by supply and demand. State enterprises did retain a not inconsiderable degree of flexibility particularly in the area of adjusting wage levels (so called central planning notwithstanding)and there was often fierce competition between enterprises over supplies of labour especially skilled labour with vacancies frequently being advertised at factory gates. The attempt to reduce labour mobility – for a while during the Stalin years it was illegal to change jobs with official permission – proved futile in the end and caused rising resentments “socialist” economy labour was not a commodity. It certainly was! You had employers and employees. The relationship between them was a commodified one, a quid pro quo market transaction. The fact that the price of this commodity is not established via the normal market interplay of supply and demand is neither here nor there.
As stated before, even in overtly capitalist countries, there are regulatory factors that come into play such as minimum wage laws. In state capitalist countries, this regulatory approach is taken somewhat further. However a regulated market is still a market and a fixed price is still a price. There is still the fundamental buying and selling relationship at the bottom of it all. Despite the fact national wage rates might be established centrally, enterprises could and did exercise a considerable degree of discretion in the hiring of wage labour and in offering employment benefits. Competition between enterprises was particularly fierce in relation to skilled labour and various ruses might be used to attract and hold onto such labour. We need to distinguish between the abstract theoretical model of the so-called socialist economy and the empirical reality of what actually went on.
There is not, and never can be, some single vast plan devised a priori fashion which is then handed over to the producers to implement. It does not matter whatever refinements you introduce – like the notion of “material balances”. It cannot possibly work. And the reason why it cannot work has nothing really to do with whether or not modern computers have the number crunching capacity to make it work.
It cannot work, quite simply, because for this vast single plan to work, all the millions upon millions of inputs and outputs that comprise the raw data upon which the plan is constructed, need to be held constant, need to remain linked together in the ratios exactly intended by the planners themselves. Any all alteration to any part of the plan has ripple consequences for every other part of the plan which will undermine the coherency of the plan itself. But change happens all the time. It is unavoidable. Thus central planning in this classic sense of a priori society-wide planning must inevitably founder. The plan devised by the planners will never ever get a chance to be implemented – even assuming it could be put together in the first place. There is, in fact, no alternative but to incorporate some kind of feedback mechanism into the economy. This means acknowledging once and for all that the overall pattern of production is not, and never can be, something that can be consciously planned but rather is something to be arrived at through the interaction of many plans.
It is not the lack of computing power that is the problem; it is the inherently problematic relation between the real world out there and the Plan itself. This is not simply a matter of natural calamities or logistical bottlenecks happening . It is also a matter of having to enforce targets to ensure delivery of inputs or consumer goods in the quantities required as well as impose the strictest rationing.
If that is the case – if a planned economy means a single society-wide plan in which every conceivable input and output is coordinated and predetermined in advance – then it is obviously a non starter. Because everything is interconnected all it takes is for the supply of even one input to fall short of what was planned and you would have to recalculate all the inputs and outputs once again. In the real world the one thing you can predict is that life will be unpredictable.
So you are left with the only other option on table – an economy that has many plans instead of just one. The question is – do you allow these many plans to adjust spontaneously through the market or do you allow then to adjust spontaneously through mechanisms established by a non-market and non-statist socialist economy? The basic infrastructure of a socialist system of resource allocation already exists today under our very noses.
Free access entails – amongst other things, a self regulating system of stock control which of its very nature is capable of responding very rapidly to shifts in demand. If people come to reduce their demand for a particular product this will manifest itself in a build up of surpluses, prompting distribution points to cut back their orders from suppliers who, in turn, will reduce their inputs for said good from their own suppliers and so on further back along the production chain. The opposite would happen if people increased their demand for a good. This would automatically trigger a signal for more of such a good and hence the inputs for such a good. The point is all this is perfectly possible today and more so now with the development of computerised system of stock control. A self regulating system of stock control which responds directly and promptly to changes in the pattern of demand from both production units and consumers provides the necessary data we need relating to stocks of inputs. It then becomes a matter of economising most on what is scarcest. The “relative scarcity” of any input is a function of the demand for the end product of which it is a component and of the technical ratio of input to output (or product itself). In this way it is quite possible to rank the relevant inputs in terms of their relative scarcity. So selection of the least cost combination is entirely practicable in a socialist society. Only the method of doing it is quite different to what happens with a common unit of accounting. It is what can be called a “lateral” approach to cost accounting rather than a “vertical” approach. We select technical combinations of inputs that minimise as far as possible our reliance upon scarce inputs in favour of more abundant alternatives. This is not an exact science but its the orientation of decision-making that counts – the fact that we are operating within a systemic constraint that pushes us always in the direction of economising most on what is most scarce – which makes it an eminently sensible and reasonable principle to apply.
We never claim we will have totally free access to everything. Hypothetically it may be possible but we should not assert that it will be the case. However, we now have the technological capacity to ensure the production of most things in sufficient quantities to enable them to be made available on a completely free access basis, As for the other things that cannot be produced in sufficient quantities, we can have a form of rationing but a form of rationing totally different from Marx’s labour voucher scheme. Those goods that need to be rationed will tend to be those goods deemed to be of low priority within some form of socially agreed hierarchy of production goals. The effect of such a scheme will be to systematically skew the allocation of resources in favour of high priority end uses wherever and whenever bottlenecks arise. That does not mean the discontinuation of production of low priority goods, it just means that it might require casting around for other more abundant alternative inputs. In the meantime shortages and delays will likely result. So some goods will be in short supply and others not. It is the former that need to be rationed in some way and the question then arises – what criterion are you going to use to ration goods with? A rationing system (perhaps,for instance, required for air travel tickets) that would be straightforward and simple to operate is required. A first-come-first-served arrangement may be appropriate in some situations but maybe unacceptable for all sorts of reasons in others. What might be the criteria that such a system of rationing could use to distribute those goods in short supply? Firstly, let us remind ourselves again that we are talking only of some goods – most likely, non necessities – and only insofar as they are in short supply which may or may not turn out to be the case. So, clearly, this in itself would rule out the idea of labour vouchers as a mean of rationing which would have to be a generalised approach applying to all goods, or not at all, and which we have already rejected, in any case, on other grounds. Secondly, it is important to note that the transformation of society from capitalist to socialism will not immediately transform the material legacy that the former will leave to the latter. In other words, from the point of view of individuals themselves, the immediate material circumstances they find themselves in will still differ strikingly from one person to the next.
If there is one thing that encapsulates such a difference it has to be the quality and nature of housing stock. This is a hugely important material consideration for anyone – one’s accommodation. The houses that we live in are a massively important component of our quality of life. In capitalism, we see an enormous variation in housing stock – from the tin shacks of some shanty town favela, clinging perilously to a hill’s steep slopes, to the luxurious splendour and spacious comfort of some stately home. Clearly, there are some things we can do more or less immediately about remedying such material inequality.
For instance, individuals do not have to live in run down shoddy accommodation if they do not wish to when there is already an abundance of empty but reasonably sound housing stock lying around and waiting for someone to move into. But it is not just empty housing stock that we are talking about either – there are many offices, shops warehouses and so on that could be more or less easily converted into suitable accommodation. This is quite apart from taking steps to immediately improve and upgrade what one’s existing home. That stately mansion, for example, with it twenty bedrooms could provide accommodation for several people who could then help to maintain and revitalise it. Far better that than allow it to gradually go to seed in the hands of its two ageing incumbents who can no longer afford the servants to do the cleaning or the repairs to prevent the dry rot from spreading.
Because the housing stock we will inherit from capitalism will be highly variable in quality and while no doubt every effort will be made to improve the quality of the houses that people live it will take a while before everyone can expect to be housed decently. Hence the notion of “compensation”. Of necessity, some people will continue to live in substandard for some unspecified time – we cannot just magic decent homes out of thin air (although it needs to be said in capitalism there are millions and millions of empty and perfectly habitable homes.) Huge variations in the quality of housing stock could prove a source of much social friction. This needs to be recognised and dealt with and the most appropriate way of doing that is by compensating individuals who have to put up with poor quality housing in the meantime by giving them priority – perhaps time-limited – access to rationed goods.
So there is certainly much that can be done immediately to ameliorate the housing situation but equally, it has to be said, there is much that cannot be done immediately. It will take time – perhaps many years – to overcome capitalism’s huge structural legacy of material inequality in respect of housing. And it is precisely housing that could furnish the criterion upon which a system of rationing might operate which can be dubbed the “compensation model of rationing”, using the term “compensation” advisedly because this is indeed what it would entail. Since it is not logistically possible for everyone in a full-blown socialist society to take possession of good quality accommodation all at once, and from the word go, then it would seem only right and proper that those who cannot should, in some sense, be “compensated” for having to put with less than satisfactory accommodation in the meantime. This would accord with egalitarian ethos of a socialist society and with a sense of natural justice. It would serve to heal and to bring harmony rather than sow dissent and social friction.
How such individuals could be compensated could? It could take the form of granting them priority access to those goods that are subject to rationing. This could conceivably be a graduated scheme with different levels of priority access corresponding to the assessed ranking of the housing stock in which people are living. The beauty of such a scheme is that it is flexible, straightforward and relatively simple to implement. Certainly, it would not require some vast sprawling bureaucracy to administer.
For instance, distribution stores stocking goods that are often difficult to get hold of and thus need to be rationed, could reserve such items for a specified period of time during which time only those with priority access rights and able to present the appropriate documentation to prove it, would be entitled to take them. Upon expiry of that time period any remaining goods could then be made available to the general public at large to take as they see fit on the basis of free access.
The technical or administrative process of mapping out this inequality and calibrating a system of rationing to match, is eminently achievable. In the UK, for instance, there is a system whereby every property is placed in one of several bands for local taxation purposes. Of course, in socialism there won’t be council taxes to be raised but there is no reason why properties could not be similarly banded according to a number of objective criteria. A rough points system which assessed properties on the basis of objective criteria such as size, facilities, overall condition and so on could be applied to facilitate the banding process and the occupants of the property in question could then be issued a certificate indicating the band it fell under. This information which would also be useful to local communities in their efforts to upgrade housing stock could then be utilised for the purpose of implementing a system of priority access to rationed goods which would tend by the very nature of things to be low priority goods such as luxury items.
This is merely a suggestion – to illustrate one possible practical way in which the scheme might be operated. No doubt there are any number of other ways in which it might be operated and far be it from us to specify and set in concrete the precise details of any arrangement to be adopted. Rather, it is the underlying principle or rationale of such a proposed scheme that we wish here to elucidate. Its purpose is to signal or make transparent society’s recognition of the fact of material inequality and its intention to do something about it and, most importantly, in accordance with its egalitarian values. The basic mechanism of such a rationing system is certainly something that is open to discussion but administratively speaking, however it is organised, it would be far simpler and more straight forwad than, say a labour voucher system which is itself would be dependent upon a generalised and massively complicated system of labour time accounting
The proposal to institute some form of rationing for some goods – non-rationed goods would, by definition, be distributed on the basis of free access so that you would have, in effect, have two parallel distribution systems operating side by side – presupposes some way of prioritising the goals of production and the allocation of inputs generally. This is an integral part of a larger system of production whose different components are will be functionally interconnected. In exploring the nature of these connections we shall at last bring to the light and systematically explicate the inner workings of a post capitalist alternative to contemporary capitalism
Vertical cost accounting in terms of a common unit of accounting is itself inherently more costly because it is predicated on a complex bureaucratic apparatus that seeks to cost factors of production in these terms. This has opportunity costs: the more bureaucracy you require, the more effort and resources you draw away from direct production for human need. Labour time accounting will require a massive bureaucratic apparatus to be fully effective on its own terms. Two forms of planning have been identified – “project planning” and “systemic planning”, the latter being an attempt to bring the different sectors of the economy within a single centralised planning framework. We have no real problem with labour time accounting in the first sense. Accounting for, or factoring in, labour requirements alongside a communist system of calculation-in-kind makes sense. It is however an entirely different proposition to seek to centrally direct and allocate social labour according to imputed labour values. This is where labour time accounting becomes central planning in the classic sense of a single society wide planning and that is a complete non starter.
Critics say labour is finite but so too is the demand side of the equation effectively limited and will be particularly so in free access since many goods serve today as status goods which will no longer be needed. Free access makes it pointless wanting such goods when everyone can freely avail themselves of them. The only way logically that you can gain status in socialist free access is through your contribution to society and not what you take out of it. Indeed, there will simply be no point in taking more than you need. It’s like taking water from a public fountain. You don’t take more than you need just because its free and available in abundance, do you? That would be silly
On the question of priorities – X or Y. If it is obvious to you that grain is more important than flat-screen TVs then why will others not see this as well? We do not think we need a particularly detailed or elaborate schema regarding social priorities. For the most part, we think it can be left to common-sense and an intuitive feel for what is more important. Such priorities would come into the play in the allocation of resources only where there are material constrains in the sense of a shortage of a particular input to meet the multiple demands for such an input. Then it would make sense to allocate said in put according to some notion of society’s priorities. But that does not prevent lower priority goods from being produced by resorting to technological substitution and the like.
Supply and demand can be pretty easily matched up through what is called a self regulating system of stock control using “calculation-in-kind” (“in kind” or “volumetric” calculation, is where actual human needs are quantified concretely by use and need without the mediation of value is essential to communism) which is in fact what happens today – except that alongside calculation in kind (counting physical stock and the rate at which they are removed from the shelves), what we have today also is a system of monetary accounting. In fact the computer technology that we have today makes this all eminently feasible
In capitalism there is a need to compare different bundles of factors with a view to arriving at the least cost combination. This implies commensurability and hence a single unit of account to which all factors can be reduced – price. This reasoning will not form a part of a socialist economy. In socialism, commensurability will actually no longer be an issue. What you would be looking at instead is relative availability or scarcity of any particular input. This is a function of
- the technical ratio or make up of the product of which that factor is an input and
- the total demand for that product.
Seen from this point of view, the relative scarcity of any factor within any given bundle or combination of factors can be compared to the relative scarcity of any other component factor, that factor being the most scarce in these terms being called the limiting factor. It is called the limiting factor because it determines the limits of how much of a given product you can produce. In agricultural science where the term was originally introduced (by Justius von Liebig) the traditional limiting factor inhibiting agricultural output was nitrogen fertiliser. The development of alternative artificial sources of fertiliser tended to mean some other factor (e.g. water supply) becoming the limiting factor.
This briefly hints at the way in which a socialist society will approach the question of economising on resources – by economising most on what is most” relatively scarce” within any combination of factors – and not by approaching the matter via some form of aggregate decision making with a view to arriving at some overall least cost combination between different combinations. The latter is in fact a very blunt approach which conceals more information than it reveals. Think of how the use of money as a single unit of account – the same would apply to labour values – overlooks external costs (or “externalities”), for example.
There will be some role for labour-time accounting in a socialist society but it would be a much more modest and restricted role than that envisaged in the centralised apportionment of social labour in accordance with a definite social plan. It would be more along the lines of indicative planning with rough estimates of the amount and types of labour required for specific projects. And above all, it would supplement, rather than replace, socialism’s primary mode of calculation – calculation-in-kind.
Labour Time Vouchers
Labour vouchers were advocated by Marx as a form of rationing in lower communism. They are not at all based on the wages system because, as Marx explained in The Critique of the Gotha Programme, the workers do not exchange their products. There is no commodity production. Wage labour implies the separation of the producers from the means of production whereas in lower communism, the means of production are owned by everyone.
We don’t favour labour vouchers – it is far too cumbersome as a mechanism for rationing. If you are going to have rationing, at least for some goods, there are far more effective and straightforward mechanisms than this. There is now no reason why most goods could not be distributed as free goods as would be the case generally in Marx’s higher stage of communism. Marx put forward this proposal somewhat half heartedly merely as a way of getting to grips with, and responding to, what he called the “unavoidable defects” of the first phase of a communist society where the means of production were not yet fully developed to permit full blown communism. In other words, labour vouchers were a form of rationing. It is pretty clear that he envisaged them being abandoned as society moved into the higher phase of communism – free access socialism – as goods and service became more and more abundantly available. In the Critique of the Gotha Programme he talked of the principle “from each according to ability to each according to need ” coming to apply in higher communism. This expression, which I think was first coined by Louis Blanc, was deliberately framed in opposition to the doctrine of the followers of Saint-Simon, “Let each be placed according to his capacity and rewarded according to his work” with the clear implication that work should be unremunerated and voluntarily undertaken.
There are numerous problems associated with Labour time vouchers and the allied proposal of pricing goods in labour time units. To cite just one, Marx talked of the producer getting back from society “exactly” what he put into it (after various deductions had been made) but how exactly do you determine what someone has contributed? How do you compare the productivity of a dentist and a steel worker for example. Do you treat each skill exactly the same and what does that mean in terms of incentives (for which reason advocates of labour vouchers propose such a scheme in the first place – on the grounds that workers need to be “compelled” to work by linking consumption to pay). Not all workers of a given skill level accomplish the same work in an hour
This is just one of many problems. The labour voucher scheme would, in the end, prove to be hugely bureaucratic and wasteful of human labour, notwithstanding all that computer power at our finger tips will quite likely create conditions that will enable the restoration of petty commodity production and eventually capitalism itself.
Engel’s remarks to Schmidt in 1890 reinforces Marx that when the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly, the principle “from each according to ability to each according to need” can the be implemented.
Meaning none other than free access communism where wealth no longer needs to be rationed and where labour is freely and voluntarily undertaken – the one thing logically implying the other and vice versa. The quote is interesting also in view of the discussion on what was meant by a future “socialist society” i.e. communism:
“There has also been a discussion in the Volks-Tribune about the distribution of products in future society, whether this will take place according to the amount of work done or otherwise. The question has been approached very “materialistically” in opposition to certain idealistic phraseology about justice. But strangely enough it has not struck anyone that, after all, the method of distribution essentially depends on how much there is to distribute, and that this must surely change with the progress of production and social organization, so that the method of distribution may also change. But everyone who took part in the discussion, “socialist society” appeared not as something undergoing continuous change and progress but as a stable affair fixed once for all, which must, therefore, have a method of distribution fixed once for all. All one can reasonably do, however, is 1) to try and discover the method of distribution to be used at the beginning, and 2) to try and find the general tendency of the further development. But about this I do not find a single word in the whole debate.” [http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx…s/90_08_05.htm]
Against Labour-Time Vouchers
To summarise the WSM’s opposition to Labour Time Vouchers:
1) Many advocates of labour vouchers support the idea of differential payments according to labour contribution. This raises the problem of how you measure one person’s contribution in relation another’s.
2) Any kind of quid pro quo or exchange set up raises motivational issues and fosters egoism. If you pay people differently people will disagree with the pay rate assigned to them. If you pay them the same, a nuclear scientist will contend that her work is of far greater import than a garbage collector and she should be paid much more.
Friction and discontent are almost guaranteed. Not only that, you have no way of ensuring that people will not gravitate towards the most congenial work if all work attracts the same rate. This is because quid pro quo set ups encourage one to think in terms of what is in one’s own interest and not the interests of the larger society. It promotes an atomised individualistic perspective. Garbage will remain uncollected. You can of course restrict labour mobility and centrally allocate labour but then you are back to the capitalist state and that in itself creates more problems than it solves. Any kind of quid pro quo set – “I give you something in return for you giving me something else” – has a built in conflict of interests that orientates individuals to adopt an egoistic or self interested approach vis-a-vis others. You are advocating an exchange economy of some type – though I still fail to see any substantive difference between your system and capitalism other than the fact that you want to wave a magic wand and make every one get paid the same, despite economic competition. You have already admitted that managers would be held accountable and that there would be incentives for firms to become more efficient. That can only mean they would be differentially remunerated according to their performance. Managers will want to reduce labour costs for example presumably by reducing hours worked or even laying off workers. How else, after all, is “efficiency” to be measured in your system other than by net income – the difference between revenue and costs. In pursuit of net income, managers incentivised by the competitive desire for higher remuneration will soon enough pit themselves against the workers.
3) A labour voucher scheme will require a huge bureaucracy to administer – on the one hand to administer, police and record labour inputs and on the other to administer police and record purchases. Labour vouchers will require labour time accounting across the board which is massively complicated. You might pay people the same but for planning/allocative purposes you certainly cannot treat labour inputs as equal. The stock argument that we can do all this with the super duper computer technology we have is no argument at all.
Computerisation certainly helps with calculation but this is much more than a problem of calculation. Its also one of evaluation and enforcement. What’s to stop people abusing the system. Who is going to monitor the monitors? And so on.
4) To ensure that goods are cleared at the stores at an efficient rate you have to ensure that the sum total of the face value of vouchers issued equals the sum total of labour inputs in the sphere of production. Otherwise you risk incurring huge structural shortages or surpluses. This applies not only at the macro level but for specific goods too. One proponent, Paul Cockshott, in his book suggested selling goods at above or below their labour content in order to influence consumer spending habits but already this is a significant departure from the strict labour voucher scheme. Equally significantly it opens up the path for speculative buying and selling of goods and hence corruption. what happens to goods after they have been purchased from the public stores. It is in this respect that a role for speculative buying and selling of goods on the black market exists as a very real possibility
5) People under a labour voucher scheme are reputedly paid according to their labour contribution but what about those who cannot work. The very old, the very young, the infirm and the disabled. This was the point made by Marx in the Critique of the Gotha Programme – that it is absurd talking about workers getting the full value of their contribution. Necessarily the working population would have to get less than the value of what they produce and the value of their labour vouchers would have to be adjusted according. All this incidentally would add yet another of unproductive bureaucracy to administer this social welfare scheme
6) There is nothing to prevent a black market emerging alongside and undermining a system of labour vouchers ex post facto Informal commodity transactions can arise making use of goods purchased with vouchers – particularly if, as is the case with most advocates of labour vouchers it is suggested that vouchers are for specific goods. But even if they were not and with your voucher you could buy any good that still does not stop a black market coming into being. What’s to stop you for example growing stuff in you back garden and bartering it for other goods. What’s to stop you combing with others to form an agricultural collective to do the same on a much large scale? Eventually as we know bater will give way to money and in due course this could quite conceivably lead back to capitalism
From the point of view of administration, free access would be immeasurably more efficient and streamlined – bureaucracy will be reduced to a bare minimum. The motivational issues will not arise either. People would not be compelled to do just one particular job but would be free to diversify meaning that for any particular job there would be a massive reservoir of labour provided by almost everyone. Social opinion would also play a decisive role in all this. You would no longer acquire status through conspicuous consumption which would be meaningless in a free access society. The respect and esteem of others – a hugely important motivational factor in any society – would derive from your actual contribution to society and social opinion would directly influence one’s choice of work in a dynamic way. Thus, work that was considered most pressing and urgent would, other things being equal, be precisely the kind of work that would attract most prestige and in a dynamic responsive fashion. If people neglected garbage collection the prestige of garbage collecting would rise accordingly as the piles of rubbish mounted. Supply and demand of social prestige in other words would step in to resolve the problem. Lastly, of course, there would be no reason for a black market to emerge. There is no way a distribution system of paid for goods can out-compete a system of free goods. There is much more to the sociology and economics of free access communism – Marx’s higher communism – than some people seem to realise and is betrayed by their knee-jerk responses. Quite simply they haven’t really given the idea the serious consideration it merits.
The whole point of a feedback mechanism is precisely to inform producers of the need to produce and deliver more stock when specific stock levels start running low at the distribution centres/stores. How in those circumstances do you decide which ones to put the labour resources into replenishing? About which end uses to direct labour, or indeed, material resources into, that rather depends on whether or not there is a sufficient supply of the resource in question to meet the multifarious quantified demands placed on it. If there is then this is not really a problem to deal with. If there is not, then what is needed is some rule of thumb to guide the allocation of resources under these constrained conditions of scarcity and according to some notional idea of society’s priorities – something like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, for example. What it means is that high priority goods take precedence over low priority goods. That does not mean the discontinuation of low priority goods, it just means that the production of such goods may require turning to other perhaps more plentiful substitute inputs – technological substitution – as revealed through a computerised feedback mechanism. This is not an exact science but nor does it need to be. Providing the tendency is to allocate resources firstly to socially determined high priority end uses as opposed to low priority end uses then that is a tendency working in the right direction. Its outcome is rational allocation. A production system needs to know which things to produce more urgently, or as a matter of priority, vis a vis others.
This is something that must logically arise at the point at which resources or inputs are allocated. In other words, it has to do with intermediate goods not final goods. It is at this stage, should overall demand for what they produce exceed supply, that production units need to be able to operate with some kind of sorting procedure when it comes to having to deal with the multifarious requests for the inputs they supply to the producers of final goods and upon which the latter are dependent. This is precisely where the idea of some kind of hierarchy of production priorities comes into play. It provides a rough and ready rule of thumb in a socialist society about who gets what first and how much. It doesn’t need to be perfectly precise – perfection is unobtainable under any system – but a guideline of some sort is still needed even if subject to constant negotiation.
No system whatsoever can register strength of desire because “strength of desire” is a subjective matter. You don’t need to know the “strength of desire” (an idea is rooted in a capitalist “willingness-to-pay” perspective) for items expressed by individuals as far as the communist production system is concerned. A production system does not need to know this nor, indeed, can it know this. “Strength of desire” is, in fact, irrelevant but preferences are not. It is the aggregate pattern of appropriation/consumption that you are interested in from a systems point of view and this is something that will be expressed through a self regulating system of stock control. The feedback mechanism within such a system will reveal consumer preferences automatically and relay or transmit this information to the production units themselves. The “strength of desire” for X will vary from person to person. That means you have to look at the aggregate patten of demand and as far as this aggregate pattern is concerned, it is quite untrue to claim under free distribution there is no way for the system of production to be calibrated by measures of strength of desire or preferences. Shifts in demand from away from cans of beans to meatballs in tomato sauce can very readily be picked up by the stock control system so that the pattern of output can be modified to take into account this shift in demand. Production units are not set up to cater to the needs of you or I as a particular individuals with your own idiosyncratic needs and preferences and cannot be an individual matter in the sense that the production system has to consult you or I as individuals on a one-by-one basis on what needs to be produced. The production system is simply an impersonal construct, a machine like arrangement, that responds to signals that represent aggregate patterns of demand that are constantly shifting and changing It is the self regulating stock control system that mediates the desires wants and whims of consumers and transmit the necessary information to producers in the form of specific orders/requests for fresh stock and so on. “Preferences” so to speak reveal themselves indirectly in the rate and volume in which at different kinds of stock are thus ordered. The production systems are set up to cater to aggregate demand by masses of individuals. All it needs to know is what it has to produce and this information is something that is transmitted to it via a self regulating system of stock control that links production units with each other and with distribution centres to which final goods are destined. So individuals will reveal their preferences via their consumption choices and it is completely irrelevant from the point of view of producers how strongly these individuals consumers feel about their own preferences. What matters only is a that a preference is expressed as part of an aggregate pattern of demand. No modern production system can ever be calibrated to what particular individuals may want or desire or the intensity with which they want or desire something. That is a myth. Production today is a social process and therefore it follows so must what guides or directs it be social. The question of preferences, the distribution of products and resources must align with the distribution of preferences within a heterogeneous population since this was precisely the point – that what the production system has to deal with is an aggregate pattern of demand or preferences – not the “strength of desire” for a product which is a subjective and therefore a personal individual matter.
The opportunity costs of people’s consumption choices to some extent this would be taken care of via the social hierarchy of production priorities which would tend to ensure that high priority end uses are catered for first and foremost. Otto Neurath, an advocate of calculation-in-kind and opponent of any form of common unit of account, made the telling point that with calculation-in- kind you have a much more direct and immediate sense of, and sensitivity towards, the opportunity costs of your decisions. He was particularly concerned about environmental issues and the way in which capitalist cost accounting tended to externalise environmental costs. In a free access, socialist economy people are likely to be more, not less, sensitive to opportunity costs of their actions when these are no longer mediated through the distorting prism of some common universal unit of account – be it market prices or, for that matter, labour time values
Socialism is all about individuals expressing their individuality. More than any other arrangement, it makes this possible. It is not a question of the community formally approving or disapproving of your consumption habits but rather of it asserting its own priorities in which you as an individual have a say. It is not a question of some committee formally sanctioning or vetoing a request for some product. Rather, it is a case of a community setting its priorities in terms of how resources get to be allocated. If a community regards the construction of a health clinic as being a higher priority than a pizza outlet that does not have to mean the latter will not be built. It simply means that in the event that some of the material inputs each have in common (e,g,. certain building materials) are scarce then priority allocation will be to health clinic, that in turn might mean delays in building the pizza outlet or perhaps switching to alternative building materials. There are many possibilities. But the point is that the construction of the health clinic is quite rightly secured. This is rational allocation
That may or may not have a bearing on what you as an individual might wish to consume insofar as it would influence the allocation of resources. For instance your desire for a luxury yacht may simply not be realisable because other things are deemed much more important. That doesn’t mean luxury yachts won’t be built; it just means they will have to wait at the back of the queue resource-wise and it does not preclude producing a boat for fishing or indeed recreational purposes, the debate is not about whether or not to build a fishing boat – there might well be ample resources to build it anyway – but rather about the community’s priorities in the first place.
A free association of producers will make available what people are willing to work to produce. A vote to determine what an individual can have is totalitarian, yes, but a vote to determine what goes into the common store is hardly so. That goods should be provided, on an on demand basis and if everyone wanted to have a high-performance sports car, collectively, everyone would have to understand what was given up in terms of lost activity to achieve this – and, it would be observable, as stocks and production of other goods were run down. It would also be totalitarian to demand you work to produce a sports car, it would only be something that could be achieved by the free consent of labour.
“I want to have a sports car.”
“We can do it, but my baby won’t get a kidney machine.”
“Oh, well, i won’t have a sports car, then.”
How are new products introduced? Through the equivalent of what is today called “market research”. Once a demand for a new product is established it then becomes a question of sourcing the inputs. That’s where the system of stock control comes in. the only way preferences can be expressed is in demand over the counter – if someone wants a newspaper, they want a newspaper – there is no way if they would be more or less disappointed than another person if they didn’t get it. What we could measure, would be people prepared to demand scarce articles (i.e. those with a high demand:supply ratio), since we could infer that if they are prepared to wait/deny it to others, etc., then they must want it quite a lot. But that really is simple measuring supply/demand, and prioritising items with high demand ratios. Labour time is just a useful rough stick, a resource we could measure also in supply demand terms – if a branch of activity were taking a huge amount of the total undifferentiated social effort, we might want to look at it and make some collective decisions about it. You don’t have to start out producing millions of units. You make a few thousand prototypes and measure how rapidly consumers take them from the store. Whether the individuals whose job is to develop new products (chemical engineers, mechanical engineers, etc.) can decide on their own to submit the requisition to the manufacturing line, or whether some degree of management sign-off is also needed, will be society’s policy choice. From that point on, it shouldn’t be the workers’ choice whether or not they want to make them. It should be part of their job requirements to make the quantity needed to keep the orders filled. You can choose your career, but, within each career, you have to do the job that was socially planned. If you don’t, you get no credit for showing up at work and you have no income. You can’t have the problem of investing in a new product. If all socially owned industries are sub-departments of one organisation, resources would come from inter-department transfers, not investment. The number of people needed in each department would fluctuate when something new is invented, but then the problem becomes one of how to attract more people to work in the sectors where they are needed most, not a problem of investments.
Capitalism is not going to collapse. It is not going to implode. There is no internal mechanism that would make this happen. Capitalism may be “catastrophic” in its consequences but the existence of a such consequences does not in itself signify that capitalism is about to “collapse”. It is important to keep this distinction in mind. Some have tried demonstrate that there is a falling rate of profit and this will cause the system to grind to a halt. But this prediction has been thwarted, time and time again, by the action of Marx’s famous counteracting tendencies. Since the early 19th century people have been confidently predicting capitalism would collapse. It hasn’t happened and it wont happen. By not regarding the “proletariat” as something to be manipulated and socially engineered into agreeing with us and by recognising that we ourselves are simply workers and not some vanguard which has to take it upon itself to emancipate the rest of our class. it is our role to put across the case for socialism openly and honestly and not try to engineer our fellow workers into joining with through the advocacy of so called “transitional demands” and the like. The only way capitalism will come to an end is if a majority of workers decide to consciously replace with it non-market, non-statist alternative. That, or the system is brought to an end by some external factor – a visiting comet from outer space, perhaps, or some catastrophic world war
The first thing to be said here is that working class consciousness and socialist consciousness are not two separate things. It is a totally false dichotomy to suppose that they are. Marx differentiates between a class-in-itself and a class-for-itself. The consciousness of a class-for-itself corresponds, to a socialist consciousness.
To put it differently, socialist consciousness is the awareness of a class of its own wage-slave status. It is important to understand that there is a kind of unresolved tension between the need to develop class unity within capitalism and the revolutionary desire to escape our status as wage slaves. The worker-ist attitude which celebrates the working class for its own sake, which sees socialism as being nothing more than working class empowerment, can be a reactionary belief which ironically keeps workers chained to capitalism. Instead of calling on workers to unite to abolish ourselves as a class, it remains simply at the level of calling on workers to unite for its own sake.
The question of primitive communist societies in relation to a future moneyless socialist society is not unimportant. Specifically it ties in with the bourgeois claims about “human nature” that has often been raised against the possibility of socialism. If 95% of our existence on this planet was without money it cannot reasonably be asserted that our human nature forbids us to abandon money.
The other point specifically about primitive communism is the claim, for example that it “ensured absolutely atrocious living standards because it was so unbelievably ill-equipped to deal with scarcity.” This Hobbesian myth, effectively demolished by the likes of Marshall Sahlins, serves as an ideological prop for capitalism because the sub-text is that only by organising into class society and especially capitalism can we ensure an improving standard of living. Empirically this is highly questionable.
For one thing, Hunter-gatherer societies did not readily relinquish their way of life to embrace settled agriculture. Many Hunter-gatherer societies co-existed and interacted with settled agriculturalist or pastoralist societies over long stretches of time (for example, the San and Bantu-speaking tribes in Southern Africa, like the Xhosa, whose language interestingly enough showed the influence of the San by incorporating the distinctive “click” sound of the latter). So it was a matter of choice and preference as far as Hunter-gatherer societies were concerned. Insofar as their standard of living dropped or became precarious this was often as not as a result of them being marginalised and forced out of their hunting territories onto more ecologically fragile land.
We have to be wary of the underlying assumptions of this whole modernist paradigm that what is the most “modern” and advanced – meaning capitalism – is the best and most productive and can ensure the highest possible standard of living and that what socialism has got to do is just go one better than capitalism in that respect. With regard to agriculture for example there has been a lot of recent literature reassessing the importance and productivity of traditional techniques and stressing the point that there is a lot we can learn from such techniques. We should not just assume modern equals better. In some cases, it is not. There are many example in the literature where traditional agriculture not only produces more per hectare than modern capitalist farming but is also a lot more sustainable Obviously we accept there is no way we can return to a hunter gathering society of primitive communism in a world of 8 billion-plus and rising.
However, we need to put the question of primitive communism in its proper context and not allow it to be usurped by the bourgeois myth-makers for their own ideological purposes.
The above is a re-edited collation of posts made on the discussion website RevLeft by Robin Cox