(From a chapter published in the AK Press book The Accumulation of Freedom)
Libertarian Communism, the Aspiration of Classes in Struggle
Class relationships stand at the core of global societies in our time. The interlocking web of capitalist and state power relations are embedded and reproduced as class exploitation at every level in communities. The abolition of class exploitation is the foundation of any future socialist economy, one which we hope would lead to a society where all people and communities would be able to develop autonomously to their full capacities. During every struggle for liberation and autonomy, class has stood in the way of further developing our human potential. Class has provided the bedrock for counter-revolutions and, even more threatening to liberation, has been capitalism’s ability to reproduce class relations even when the old actors, the capitalists, have fled the scene. New classes rise to take the place of the old ones, and the failure to do away with class altogether has led to some of the worst human tragedies, particularly in the former Soviet countries and various national liberation struggles.
Any group of people who seek to do away with class exploitation will run up against a problem. How is another form of economic activity possible? The easy answer is that capitalism is not eternal. Capitalism is realistically a marginal form of economic organization in human history, though one that spread from Western Europe a few centuries ago to become wholly dominant, and has left a path of carnage (human and environmental) in its wake. Still, we don’t want merely a different economy, but a better one, and hopefully one that transcends the problems of tyranny, inequity, waste, and deprivation.
Libertarian communism is one such possibility, though there needs to be a disclaimer. None of the so-called “communist countries” had any semblance of communism. All had class systems with workers and managers, with wage systems, and where the workers neither owned nor controlled their work and its products. Thus, those countries resembled capitalism more closely than a society based on the abolition of remuneration in the form of wages and democratic control. [i]
Likewise most people identified with communism today, only believed in communism after their own disclaimers. Marx, Lenin, and most of their followers made a distinction between higher and lower stages of communism, where we would pass from lower to higher communism as the revolution unfolded, the proletarian state withered away, and so on. Many Marxists thought of this lower stage as socialism. For this reason whenever mainstream Marxist theory attempted to address the question of post-revolutionary society, the emphasis was placed on the lower phase of communism. The lower phase, following Marx’s conception of a transition period, would bear some of the marks of the capitalist society which gave birth to it, including compulsion to work via a collectivist wage system— sometimes of labor vouchers, or at other times different wage schemes. For this reason, much of the Marxist communist economic literature isn’t actually communist, but focused on collectivist economics. The higher stage of communism is left to be determined by the post-revolutionary working class, except for a few exploratory remarks in Marx’s corpus.
Libertarian communist economics, however, have a few defining features:
- A commitment to a future economy based on the praxis of the revolutionary working class and popular classes.
- An economy based on the destruction of the wage system of labor, and a de-linking of the value of labor in production from the distribution of society’s wealth to its members.
- Collective control and management of the entire economy by the direct control of workers and community members united in a council system of direct democracy.
- The abolition of intermediary institutions of power governing the economy.
Libertarian communist economics’ assets are also some of its weaknesses, at least in regards to what is sometimes called prescriptive economics. Prescriptive economics attempts to lay out a vision, in our case, of a post-capitalist economic system based on some core values. Praxis is the concept of linking ideas and vision with concrete practices and struggles. Historically, it was the anarchist communists who generally took up the problem of the possibility of classless society, and even then only tempered by the necessary recognition of the leadership and innovation of everyday people to solve the problem concretely. The lack of materials on prescriptive economics can be traced in part to the strong commitment in anarchist and libertarian communist thought to the concept of praxis.
Paulo Freire defined praxis as “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.” [ii] This is to say that we should seek to act as revolutionaries through a conscious program of uniting our thinking about our actions and the impact they have. Theory and practice should aim for a relationship of back and forth, testing and reassessing, and building theory collectively out of the concrete struggles of the oppressed classes in action. As Marx says in The German Ideology
Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.[iii]
Libertarian communist prescriptive economics has then been shaped by belief in the potential leadership of the working class and popular classes, and the commitment to prescriptive economics reflecting both a strategy for achieving such an economy and a theory which reflects our experiences in struggle. The luminaries of libertarian communist economics come from periods of intense class struggle. Kropotkin, Berkman, Bordiga, the Impossibilist Socialists of the Second International, Socialisme au Barberie, De Jaques, theorists of the CNT, and Cafiero all address critical issues in prescriptive economics, and do so from the strengths and weaknesses of the revolutionary moments they participated in. For the English-speaking world, there is a familiar challenge. The overwhelming majority of prescriptive economics in the libertarian communist tradition came from Slavic, Romance, and East Asian-speaking regions. Until recently, few of these texts were translated. Many remain out of print, or only available in obscure journals. Some like Bordiga, have next to nothing in English, and can generally only be read in Italian and French, with less available even in Spanish. With this in mind, a project of study, translation, and debate around libertarian communist economics is an important part of the libertarian communist rebirth underway world-wide.
Lived Libertarian Communism
The experiences we have are limited to partial and momentary experiences in the revolutionary movements such as the Spanish revolution, the Hungarian workers councils in 1956, the Israeli Kibbutzim, the Ukrainian communes during the Makhnovschina, and various libertarian endeavors today like autonomous Zapatista communities, the Argentinean factory seizures during the economic collapse of 2001, workers who broke with Allende’s government to expropriate in Chile, and some more limited applications in open source free software, libraries, occupied housing, and occupied collectivized healthcare and education. Starting with the Paris Commune, libertarian and authoritarian socialists alike drew from the lessons of revolutionary moments, and sought to extrapolate lessons for the future. Bakunin and Marx spent considerable work on the Commune, and it perhaps shifted some of the revolutionary thinking of the time. The aim of this work isn’t to make such a study, however these historical exercises are useful and will partially be repeated here. That said, these experiences hardly warrant enough data to speak authoritatively on post-revolutionary society, but there are lessons which are worth reflecting on, and there are some broad conclusions we may draw. Seeing the seeds of libertarian communism as a lived body of activity demonstrates the potential for a future society beyond the shackles of present oppression and exploitation.
Peasant struggles across the world demonstrated glimpses of economic relations based on collective distribution and production. In Georgia during the 1905 Russian Revolution, anarchist communist peasants seized land and created a commune for a period with distribution without wages or money. The same would occur soon thereafter in the Ukraine, where a whole region of anarchist communist peasant and workers councils would build the seeds of an anarchist communist economy, until it was surrounded and crushed by the Bolshevik armies. During the Mexican revolution, insurgent communities organized with the resistance of Emiliano Zapata also ran land communally, as had been a part of indigenous traditions, and which spread under revolutionary leadership of peoples in arms.
Following World War I, Italy exploded in working class resistance. Workers fought austerity through independent militant unions, the anarcho-syndicalist USI, and a system of workers councils. At its height, general strikes led to factory occupations and workers councils that approved social production before its repression. Railway, for example, was one of the most militant and anarchist-influenced unions in Italy during the “Red Years” of 1919-1920. The railway union supported the occupations and workers councils, and refused to transport troops to crush the councils. The union eventually extended this resistance from occupation towards communist production.
As the rail union moved into a position of support for the occupation throughout the country, the workers on the Italian State Railways began switching freight cars to the factory sidings, providing fuel and raw materials and transport connections between the various factories under occupation. This action was essential in enabling the workers to continue production.[iv]
In Hungary in 1956, a general insurrection swelled after protests led by student and clandestine left groups were violently repressed in an atmosphere of workers resistance across the soviet block and repression by the USSR following Stalin’s death. Workers shortly took the lead and created a system of workers councils to run society collectively, abolished the communist party in practice, and built soldier’s councils for the defense of the revolution. The workers took the struggle beyond a military fight, stopped production, and actually began running the economy for the community’s needs. While any revolutionary situation is rife with ambiguities and contradictions, we can see kernels of communist economics within the reorganized production and distribution experiments of the Hungarian workers in revolt.
Peasants and farm workers organised deliveries of food to the workers in the cities. They drove out the kolkhoz (State farm) managers. In some areas they redistributed land, while in others they kept the collectives going under their own management.[v]
Workers continued to produce in the collectively managed industries, while distribution was carried out on a communist basis in many instances. This was based on the needs of the community in the struggle, and without a system of wages or allocation according to the perceived value of their contribution. Quoting the Observer at the time:
A fantastic aspect of the situation is that although the general strike is in being and there is no centrally organised industry, the workers are nevertheless taking upon themselves to keep essential services going for purposes which they determine and support. Workers councils in industrial districts have undertaken the distribution of essential goods and food to the population, in order to keep them alive. The coal miners are making daily allocations of just sufficient coal to keep the power stations going and supply hospitals in Budapest and other large towns. Railwaymen organise trains to go to approved destinations for approved purposes. It is self help in a setting of Anarchy.’ Observer 25:11:56[vi]
The Hungarian situation was cut short by its enforced isolation by the united Stalinist and capitalist powers fearing a spread of workers democracy, and ultimately Russian tanks silenced the Hungary libertarian experiment. We can only speculate how the question of wages and community management would have played out, and if the workers council system would have spread direct democracy beyond the workplace alone. Still this experience, which has been repeated across history, reflects the potential for an economy run on collective control over distribution de-linked from the wage system and its corresponding distribution system.
History is filled with other experiences with many outside the workplace. In Italy during the 60s and 70s workers and social movements rose up and took the struggle outside the factory walls. In occupied buildings, the women’s movement and workers began to plan and organize collective buildings for community use on a non-monetary basis. Fare strikes saw the unity of transit riders operating without monetary exchange, and in some cases (as nearly fifty years before) transit workers redirecting transit for popular usage. Experiences in squats re-organizing and re-developing space collectively is spread throughout Europe in Germany, Holland, Austria, Italy, France, and so on. Fare strikes, collective expropriation and redistribution of groceries, and occupations are mere glimpses within non-revolutionary situations of a communal economy run by the community on a needs-basis.
The Spanish revolution, created by the popular resistance of the peasants and working classes to a fascist coup in 1936, led to a broad libertarian experiment unparalleled in its depth and breadth. Without delving too deeply into its complex and contradictory experience, we can see that the Spanish revolution demonstrated the potentials of a communist economy. The Spanish economy and movements were highly regionalized at the time. Likewise the advances of the revolution differed by region, its movements, ruling class, productive capacities, and so on. While in Catalonia the State was allowed to survive, in Aragon anarchist militias and peasant organizations destroyed the rule of the local ruling class and state. Gaston Leval, a Spanish anarchist who took part in and studied the revolutionary collectives across Spain, documented the experiences of the collectives and communes, which abolished wages, money, and established social distribution de-linked from productive value. It is worth quoting here at length:
But—and this was the case especially in Aragon—where the State did not dominate, many original solutions had to be improvised; and we mean “many”, for each village or small locality introduced its own solution.
At the beginning, then, there was no tacit agreement other than for the abolition of money, the expression and symbol of traditional injustice, social inequality, the crushing of the poor by the rich, the opulence of some at the expense of the poverty of others. For centuries, and from as far back as the complaints of the outcasts of fortune had been transmitted from generation to generation, money had appeared as the greatest of all means of exploitation, and the hatred of the common people had built up against the cursed metal, against the paper money which the revolutionaries had set their minds on abolishing first and foremost.
In Aragon they kept their word. Nevertheless, for all that the principle of the “prise au tas” or in economic terms free consumption, was not applied. Apart from access, without control, to existing goods available in great abundance, and which were not the same in every village (here it was bread and wine, elsewhere vegetables, oil or fruit) some form of order was established from the first days when it was felt to be necessary, just as it was for the prosecution of work and production. For the revolution was considered right from the beginning a very important constructive undertaking. Especially in the countryside, there was no revolutionary orgy. The need to control and to foresee events was understood from the first day.[vii]
Experiences varied with the praxis and conditions of struggle. In the village of Naval for example:
…No money, not even local money, no rationing. Free consumption from the first day, but supervised consumption. Everybody could call at the “Antifascist Comite’ which is advised, if necessary, by the local libertarian group. A cooperative for general distribution was improvised and it produced a book of coupons numbered 1 to 100, in which were marked from day to day the commodities handed over on demand, and the consumer’s name.[viii]
The accounting system was further simplified, and no excess or wasteful consumption was seen. This was a system created under wartime conditions by people who were not trained accountants, managers, or bureaucrats. Nor was distribution and production isolated to independent towns; these moneyless communist experiments sought to coordinate and federate their economies in the collective endeavor of fighting fascism and building libertarian communism.
So far as distribution was concerned, whatever the form or method adopted, the organising initiative was appearing all the time. In hundreds of villages, libretas de consumo (consumer books) in different sizes and colours were issued. Ration tables were appended, for one had to ration not only in the event of a reduction in the reserves and perhaps in production, but because it was also necessary to send food supplies to the front and the towns, which only too often appeared not to appreciate the gravity of the situation.[ix]
The Spanish collectives in many cases re-organized production, increased output, and—with workers directing their own workplaces—improved upon a backwards and ailing economy. Rather than chaos reigning, workers demonstrated the power of self-management and the potential of everyday people to transform an economy for profit into an economy for social need in relatively short periods of time, all while under a brutal foreign-supported war.
Attempts to broaden this communist economy were restricted by the political situation. The failure of the revolutionary working class to destroy institutions of power led to a tenuous situation in which the leadership of the CNT faltered and allowed the state and capital to reorganize and the Stalinist communist party to set about destroying the gains of the revolution. The villages of Aragon sought to expand their experiment across the rebel territories on the eve of the counter-revolution as the Stalinist armies marched on Barcelona, attacked the militia system, and effectively solidified the suppression of the popular revolt, which had failed to establish the hegemony of the people over its enemies on the left and the right early on. Leval is extremely lucid here, and lays out the foundations and genius of the libertarian communist concepts of praxis, and theory arising from the lessons of struggle.
One can, nevertheless, come to the following conclusions: for the problem of distribution, which from certain points of view was greater than that of production itself, the Collectives demonstrated an innovatory spirit which by the multiplicity of its facets and its practical commonsense, compels our admiration. The collective genius of the rank and file militants succeeded in solving problems which a centralised governmental organisation would have neither been able nor known how to solve. If the pragmatic methods to which they had to have recourse may appear to be insufficient, and sometimes unsound in view of some contradictions which one observes here and there, the development tending to eliminate these contradictions was taking place rapidly (in eight months, or less, depending on the cases, structural resolutions had been taken) and progress was being rapidly made towards unifying and decisive improvements. During that time, in the part of the country where the official money ruled, the peseta was continually being devalued because of the inability of the government to hold down prices, and speculation was getting under way and growing.[x]
These lessons of struggles show us some of the outlines of a libertarian communist economy, developed and run collectively by the exploited classes creating a new world through a reorganization of social relationships and a transformation of the economy. How that economy could function in a fleshed out sense requires us to move from the partial experiences we have to a theory of communism which grows out of them.
A Libertarian Communist Society
There are two broad spheres within the economy: how things are produced and how they are distributed. A number of different alternatives have been proposed on how communist distribution would function. Generally speaking people agree on the idea of council democracy organized from the shop to the industry and federated by industry regionally and higher up globally. Directly democratic councils are democratic organs without representation. Workers and community members decide directly in open meetings how they want things to be. Above the mass assemblies, committees and councils of delegates coordinate between workplaces and neighborhoods. Delegates are given mandates and are expected to carry out the will of the assemblies. Likewise, delegates are immediately recallable if they overstep their bounds, and the decisions of delegates are either open to referendum or dependent upon approval of the assemblies. How exactly this functions, the mandates of the delegates, and so on, are questions which I think have both political and not merely technical content, and are best chosen through practice.
Neighborhood councils federated upwards similarly would provide the means for deciding what to produce and how much, with workers deciding how to do so, and communities formulating the fairest and safest way to produce and deal with waste, pollution, and so on. Industries would not merely be collectivized as the present economy contains worthless industries and products, as well as patently destructive ones such as nuclear arms. This process would likely take some time to transform an economy organized for boom and bust based on private profit to an economy serving the needs of the community on a usage basis. Job classes and the worst work would need to be reorganized and shared equally. There would need to be a base minimum of socially necessary labor contributed to receive the benefits of society from those who are able.[xi]
Considering distribution then, communist economic practice and thinkers have proposed a number of strategies for organizing the allocations of the wealth of society. Within the communist economic tradition there are two main frameworks: planned and what I call emergent. These are less theories than they are poles within the existing thought.
Planned communist economics, generally speaking, has advocated for the distribution of goods through planned production decided in mass assemblies federated in councils. All people in an area would get together on a regular basis to consider, based on an analysis of the amount of materials and labor available, what to produce and how to allocate the products based on the needs (rather than wages) of individuals and families. Producing then in a communist society would rely on two functions: measuring the desire of people for things, and producing both in a collective and accountable manner.
Given the present level of technology, it would be very simple to measure the actual consumption of people. In a communist society, we could readily automate the recording of statistics both of consumers and of resources in production. This could produce real time data on how much of what is needed and any patterns of consumption, and give society a means for anticipating and allocating resources towards what people want. This would provide a democratic way for allocating resources between varying producers.
For the purpose of planning the development of production, information could be brought together through the work of information centres, which could collate the appropriate statistics. Such information centres could exist on local, regional and world levels. On the smallest local scale, information centres could monitor the position of stocks and productive capacity to meet local needs. By collating these statistics, regional information centres would be in a position to know the complete picture throughout the region. This could be achieved by also monitoring the position of stocks, productive capacity and needs among regional production units. A world information centre could collate regional statistics in a similar manner. This would be a connected but decentralised world information system providing any combination of information that people required.[xii]
This isn’t to say, however, that we should merely produce whatever happens to be consumed at one particular moment. While communism would do away with the artificially created hyper-consumptive needs of capitalism through elimination of profit and wealth inequities, we want to be able to build an economy and society that reflect our desire for a better world and not just passing fancies. There must then be a mechanism for linking these decisions about our social direction and our actual proclivities.
The usage schedules provide the data which can be debated in the communal councils that then would decide how to allocate resources to industries, save towards development for future production, and invest in opening up new production or furthering existing production. Presumably workers who want to create new industries and products would present their offers to the assemblies for consideration in adjudicating between using existing labor and materials. You could think of this as partial planning wherein resources are collectively allocated through considering, debating, and crafting a plan based on the priorities of the collectivity, and then become debated and changed through federations of councils moving upwards, while the actual industries and products have the flexibility to adapt with actual usage. This is analogous to a form of popular budgeting where the wealth of the community is divided up into blocks for industries with ear marking based on popular proposals and coordinated through federations that would share data, revise proposals, and send back the budgeting for review by affected communities.[xiii]
Production schedules would be based on the collective priorities set in directly democratic councils and federated upwards. This would provide a means for anticipating and coordinating various industries not based on wages, prices, and class inequity. Rather than price, communal priorities are the arbiter of what and how much is produced. Instead of wages, need is the basis for consumption. Decisions about society’s produce would be conscious and collective, rather than the individualist produce-whatever-sells-come-what-may of capitalism. This was perhaps the position of Kropotkin’s communist municipalities in Conquest of Bread. Participatory economics makes a proposal with councils of planning for an integrated global economy, which in theory could be modified to be communistic.[xiv]
Another position might argue for an economy that is emergent and adaptive.[xv] This concept of communist distribution relies on intuitions and lessons from seeing society as an interdependent, living, and complex organism-like body. The motivation for this position arises from two sources. First there is a suspicion here about our ability to plan successfully, consciously, and explicitly a full economy; and secondly there is both support for and historical antecedents of a dynamic and evolving form of self-planning in a communist society. During the Hungarian and Spanish revolutions, people were able to take over the economy and in some instances in a very rapid period of time convert existing production for private profit into a collectivized economy for common use. This occurred initially outside of any single unified planning apparatus. Distribution evolved out of countless actions of individuals and groups which came to unify and re-organize to meet the demands presented by the wars and communities. This isn’t to say there wasn’t organization, but to say there is a difference between organization that is structurally and historically open and has the ability to produce emergent and evolving structure, versus extensively-planned organization that is predictive and fairly static. There is little evidence to point to people living under such conditions guiding their activities by adhering to such programs. We can understand the activity of an economy as emergent out of problem-solving at countless levels, and producing stability once equilibrium can be reached. This is a problem that is unfortunately hidden from these discussions; how to obtain equilibrium in a revolutionary context is in many ways a more significant problem than that of abstract models of potential futures. Surely part of this task involves principles and practice (revolutionary and libertarian content) beyond merely the form of a robust and adaptive economy.
There is good reason to question our ability to anticipate what we will want in the future.[xvi] Under capitalism desire is created, modified, and exploited. With profit eliminated, needs would become collective and organic. Still, needs are not fixed and predictable. If anything, human life is filled with fluctuations and unpredictable shifts. Moreover it’s not clear that our conscious reflections about our own perceived consumption and desires are accurate. People often mischaracterize themselves based on how they like to see themselves versus how they act. Politicize the situation and generalize it over millions of people, and there is a significant structural weakness in creating an economy based on self-reflective projections. Cornelius Castoriadis raised similar objections while in Socialisme au Barberie during the 1960s—70s.[xvii] Castoriadis rejects strict planning on a similar ground.
The plan can’t propose, as an ultimate target, a complete list of consumer goods or suggest in what proportions they should be produced. Such a proposal would not be democratic, for two reasons. Firstly, it could never be based on ‘full knowledge of the relevant facts’, namely on a full knowledge of everybody’s preferences. Secondly, it would be tantamount to a pointless tyranny of the majority over the minority. If 40% of the population wishes to consume a certain article, there is no reason why they should be deprived of it under pretext that the other 60% prefer something else. No preference or taste is more logical than any other. Moreover, consumer wishes are seldom incompatible with one another. Majority votes in this matter would amount to rationing, an absurd way of settling this kind of problem anywhere but in a besieged fortress. Planning decisions won’t therefore relate to particular items, but to the general standard of living (the overall volume of consumption). They will not delve into the detailed composition of this consumption.[xviii]
Producing then in a communist society would rely on two functions: measuring the desire of people for things, and producing both in a collective and accountable manner. Participatory economics proposes to measure desire for goods through people’s conscious guess of how much they want things. This proposal however would rely on a dialogue between people’s actual usage of existing goods, and collective structures of decision making for development and deciding the direction of the economy.
For some goods for which there are absolute and intractable scarcity, we would need to find a fair system for distributing based on real needs. This is a real pressing question, which again many economic theorists ignore because they are creating blueprints not based in real praxis to address how we get from our present state to a revolutionary and later post-revolutionary society. The transition from existing production to social production will necessarily create shortages in the short run. In the long run, the use of our collective knowledge, mechanization of the worst work, and the elimination of useless production which consumes such a massive portion of the capitalist economy (finance, military, prisons, frivolities of the wealthy, and so on) will give us a bounty that can more than provide for the world. Indeed we already produce more than enough food to feed the whole world, but burn much of it in excess to keep prices high! Many anarchist communist thinkers put forward the concept of rationing for such goods. There is a time honored practice in this regard, and it is the distribution form used in war time or organ transplants for example.
When the social revolution attains the stage where it can produce sufficient for all, then is adopted the Anarchist principle of “to each according to his needs.” In the more industrially developed and efficient countries that stage would naturally be reached sooner than in backward lands. But until it is reached, the system of equal sharing, equal distribution per capita, is imperative as the only just method. It goes without saying, of course, that special consideration must be given to the sick and the old, to children, and to women during and after pregnancy…[xix]
This is of course different from, for example, the rationing in the Soviet Union, where the best and lion’s share went to the party elite. Indeed with organs presently, there is an international organization which identifies the neediest and most qualified, and ranks them. Organ transplants occur on a communist basis in that it is need and availability that determines who gets organs, rather than price, their work, or perceived value. While rationing is to be avoided at all costs, we must recognize in times of hardship it may represent the only real equitable solution.
That said, Berkman’s communist alternative of open usage with surplus fails to address how a society could plan and deliberate between issues where a decision must be made, such as with pollution or conflicting uses for the same materials. Any deconstruction of the world capitalist economy will face up to the gross global inequities and repressed development of large sections of the world. We need a method for consciously and collectively developing all of the world’s communities’ capacities, and addressing underlying ecological disasters presently existing (and unsustainability in the long term engendered by capitalism’s search for expanded markets and increasing profits).
Only through community councils could we make those decisions. The solution is not a technical one however. We cannot merely invent an economic scheme for settling, say, fights over where pollution will end up. The mechanism already exists in the above discussion for bringing to the table various proposals, but with the political content for a community there can only be a political process within the community councils. No assignment of value, arbitrary as that would be, will solve that point. Instead communities will have to come together, debate, compromise, and craft the best solution for all. Power and struggles concerning power can be mediated by structures, but structures are only the shell of a solution. They provide no guarantees, and ultimately such political problems require a material, social, and historical analysis of that situation. Inevitably we require more experiences, practice, and experimentation to address it beyond truism, vague generalities, and empty formalisms.
That said, while there is no guarantee that it will always go as we wish, unlike in capitalism there will be a structural pressure towards being principled as any community will be in the same position throughout the various planning initiatives. We wouldn’t want to burn others who would be in a position to burn us in the future. Unlike now, there would be no financial or political incentive to do so either. When real conflicts do arise, and they will, it will be a community struggle that will on occasions go beyond our models and formulas.
A Critique of the Wage System
Distribution however draws clear lines. With distribution, we have seen communist economics to be defined by an absence of a wage-system of work, distribution based on human needs and material stores rather than on the perceived value of individual labor, and the replacement of accumulated capital with production for human need. Collectivist economics, of which Participatory Economics shares all these features, is rather a system of compelling people to work for various wage-schemes. Collectivist distribution is based on accumulated income earned as wages, and distribution of such income given based on the perceived value of the individual’s work. Collectivists have defined the value of labor under socialism in a variety of ways: amount produced, hours worked, difficulty of the work and effort in working (participatory economics), value of labor to society, and so on.
Communist economics rejects a wage system in part due to the experiences of revolutionary societies. If there is one thing we can see in the revolutionary experiences of Spain, Russia, China, Cuba, Hungary, Germany, and so on, it is that given the opportunity, capitalism can emerge out of its enemy. Class divisions and class inequities provide a launching ground for potential ruling classes. While a lesser opportunity than the proposal of a “proletarian” state, wage systems provide the ground for economic inequities, the accumulation of capital, and the material strength that could prefigure a new ruling class in ascendency. This is an essentially negative objection. On the positive side, communist economics provide additional alternatives and possibilities that are unavailable in economies that rely on the retention of inequity and wage labor. By abolishing the divisions both in work and in compensation, communism gives birth to fundamentally new social relations both between people and in production. A communist basis of distribution pushes the emergence and structuring of social production based on the real and lived needs of the community that benefits from the production. By rupturing the link between labor and consumption, communism offers an alternative method of living and working based on social need and human desire.
Moreover it is worth questioning on what basis a fair wage would be made. Under capitalism wages aren’t fair. A wage is based on the market, and that’s it. But socialist wages are all based on some perception of the value of someone’s labor. For participatory economics this is a wage “…for the effort or sacrifice they expend in contributing to the social product.”[xx] Various collectivist wages were proposed based on how many hours you work, how much you produce, the value of your contribution to production, and so on. There is a basic problem with all of these though; they are arbitrary and inequitable.
In our time, production is largely social. The contribution of an individual is very difficult to isolate from the contributions of countless others that make that work possible. Simply put, social labor and capital are so intertwined in present society, the individual contribution in most instances is nearly impossible to measure apart from the labor of others, and the social capital that allowed that individual to produce. Capitalism doesn’t try; it just pays what people are forced to accept. Looking only at hours, we all know one person’s hourly labor may be different from another; yet they receive the same wage. The value of someone’s work then, too, is unfair because some people are naturally handicapped, and others shouldn’t be able to get rich merely based on talents without exerting themselves much. If we judge based on effort and sacrifice, however, such a system is open again to arbitrariness. Having co-workers judge each other’s work would turn the gossip and infighting at work presently from an annoyance into a system of power over wages. Value is not a neutral thing to assign; it is power-laden and a tool of coercion. Participatory economics and collectivists want to take a repressive tool capitalism that mystifies real social labor that exists, and turn it into a tool of justice when disassociated from a profit-system.
The difficulty assigning value to labor illustrates something more fundamental; we don’t want an economy that prioritizes and rewards coerced labor based on perceived value. Both the danger of wealth inequities and the socially destructive pressure created by value assignments point to the more liberatory solution of an economy in which the value of labor is de-linked from consumption. This was traditionally formulated as “from each according to ability, to each according to need.”[xxi]
As a movement, we need to move beyond a role as the moral memory and model-maker of the mass struggles of our times. A libertarian alternative needs to engage in the construction of praxis directly out of the movements we are immersed in, with our theory evolving alongside our practice. With Marx and Kropotkin, it is correct to see elements of communism already existing in present society. Gilles Dauve contributes to this dynamic and historical approach to communist economics with the concept of communization.
Communism is not a set of measures to be put into practice after the seizure of power… All past movements were able to bring society to a standstill and waited for something to come out of this universal stoppage. Communisation, on the contrary, will circulate goods without money…it will tend to break all separations.[xxii]
Presently existing communism doesn’t mean functionally existing communism. Our task is not to set up islands of communism (which would almost certainly reproduce capitalist relations), nor to try to instantiate communism in present struggles. Capitalism is made up of relationships between people, not merely things and wealth. The real question of the development of a communist economy is about the development of revolutionary consciousness of the working class in mass struggle, and the development of communization and its practices. The defeat of capitalism isn’t a theory, but a historical moment in our struggles, and it is one that requires working through the social relationships, organization, and consciousness of workers in struggle.
[i] It’s worth noting that Lenin and Leninists tended to identify capitalism with a lack of planning (the so-called anarchy of the market). Planning was seen then as a step towards socialism. In effect they created planned state run capitalism (or if you disagree, a deformed version of such) using the tools of capitalist management theory such as Taylorism. Amongst the many mistakes there is a mis-assessment of capitalism. Capitalism is often highly planned and well beyond the individual enterprise. History has shown us now that planning is far from neutral. These points are well developed in Raniero Panzieri’s essay, “The Capitalist Use of Machinery: Marx Versus the Objectivists.”
[ii] Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, http://marxists.anu.edu.au/subject/education/freire/pedagogy/ch01.htm (accessed May 25, 2010).
[iii] Karl Marx, The German Ideology, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01a.htm (accessed May 25, 2010).
[xi] There is much to be debated here such as how work would be reorganized, the revolutionary process as we transition from the present economy to the future, environmental standards and choices, and the amount of necessary labor and how it would be maintained and regulated. These are general problems, unlike distribution, adequately discussed throughout the left libertarian tradition. I will for these reasons set it aside here.
[xiii] Additionally there will need to be means for deciding between communities in conflict over proposals. This is not a technical problem, but a political one. Struggle is struggle. If conflicts arise, despite no profit or power being involved, and democratic means fail to solve these disagreements, that is a political conflict for which no formal means will solve. This is a larger discussion I lack the space for here unfortunately.
[xiv] Purged of its wage-system and promotion of inequities of income, we could imagine a similar integrated planned communist system whereby we moderate locales’ planned needs with global production, development, and capabilities. I am not aware of any such theory, though it is possible. I think there’s reason for its absence, which I will come to later.
[xv] Emergent economics arises from latent theory that has arisen both in revolutionary struggle and an understanding of contemporary science of living systems. Without taking too extensive a detour, anarchism and libertarian communist thought has had a strong current in complex systems thinking, and the experiences of revolutionary movements have deepened the lessons about the specificities of complex adaptive systems like human societies. Take a single cell in a living being. A cell is a unit made up of uncountable chemicals. Those chemicals in themselves have a number of properties. Within the organization of the cell, however, new properties and processes emerge like the production of proteins, reproduction, and the creation of a cell wall. The activity of the cell is such that we can find general rules and principles of its living, but it is probably impossible to trace the actions of the cell back to its constituent parts; activity within such a system is too complex and evolving to reduce merely by trying to grab a moment as an individual. Complex adaptive systems are systems in which there are non-linear relationships between the actors organized at various levels of organization. These relations produce actions that are in theory reducible to their parts, but act collectively through being mutually inter-defined and adaptive. This creates different laws and order at different levels, and seemingly emergent properties that are not shared at lower levels. For example, I think, but my hair does not. It also shows us why top-down and hyper-engineered social programs ultimately fail. Imposing order at one level on a non-linear and complex level lower is unlikely to have direct causal impact. This is merely a theoretical way to make sense of soviet planning, where higher-level planning was unable to anticipate and adapt to the reality on the ground and thereby created system failures. Moreover complex adaptive system gives us a vocabulary for explaining and understanding revolutionary concepts developed in struggle. Decentralization, autonomy, diversity, and free association all are reinforced by understanding the way that order exists differently at different levels of organization, the emergence of properties out of lower levels, and the inability of centralized higher level bodies to impose order on lower level complex systems. While this vocabulary isn’t necessary for libertarian communist thought, it is a useful tool, and one that unites it with an ever increasing field of knowledge linking biology and living sciences with social theory.
[xvi]While collectivist and participatory economic theory has significant objectionable content (wage inequities for example), this is an objection of a different order. It is worth considering how important prescriptive economic theory is, and what its ability is and isn’t to bring about the change it theorizes. I suspect here most libertarian communists would differ too with such proposals.
[xvii] Castoriadoris proposed a lower-stage of communism (socialism) with wages paid for hours worked, though unlike participatory economics everyone would be paid the same wage. Not strictly a communist then, Castoriadoris puts forward a communistic proposal without wage differentials and contributed to communist theory.
[xviii] Cornelius Castoriadoris, Workers’ Councils and the Economics of a Self-Managed Society, http://www.lust-for-life.org/Lust-For-Life/WorkersCouncilsAndEconomics/WorkersCouncilsAndEconomics.htm#7._General_Problems_of_Socialist (accessed May 25, 2010). Originally published by Solidarity.
[xix] Alexander Berkman, ABC of Anarchism, chapter 12, 1929, http://www.lucyparsonsproject.org/anarchism/berkman_abc_of_anarchism.html (accessed May 28, 2010).
[xx] Michael Albert, Life After Capitalism, http://www.zcommunications.org/zparecon/pareconlac.html (accessed May 30, 2010).
[xxi] There is a controversy over how to interpret this statement in terms of “from each.” Some theorists argue that everyone would benefit from the goods of society without any compulsion to work in any form. Others require some minimum socially necessary labor (assuming one is able) to receive the right to the collective bounty of society’s labor. The latter is the traditional answer which was dominant in the CNT during the Spanish revolution, by Bertrand Russell, Chomsky, and many eminent theorists. It is my bias and one I will assume for this article.
[xxii] Gilles Dauve, Eclipse and Re-Emergence of the Communist Movement, http://libcom.org/library/eclipse-re-emergence-communist-movement (accessed June 18, 2010).