The goal is an economy following the maxim “From each according to their ability and wishes, to each according to their need”. Here, I’ll talk about how the processes of demonetisation, democratisation, voluntarisation and communalisation can lead towards that kind of society - with no assumptions of reversing technological progress.
Solving production in a non-capitalist format means answering three main questions:
What should be produced? (In other words, what do people need?)
How much of it needs to be produced?
Who does the work, and how much work do they need to do? (In other words, what is a person’s ‘ability’?)
These questions are hard to answer not because people don’t know what they want or what they can and can’t do (although sometimes that is hard to answer), but mainly because some labour isn’t very pleasant or interesting to do. If we assumed that all labour were interesting and fun, so that every task had more than enough willing volunteers, then we would be laughing. There would be no point in overproducing, but it would be easy enough to avoid underproducing whilst also catering to everyone’s taste, and nobody would need to worry about how much work they were doing relative to someone else: the idea is to banish the distinction between work and play, creating a society of pure leisure.
I personally do not think we will ever arrive at that ideal, but we can get close. Starting from our current position in capitalist dystopia, there are four processes that we can set in motion to get closer to it, answering those key questions of production in progressively better ways. We would then arrive at a point where the ideal is at least on the horizon, and ever more tangible, even if it remains forever out of reach.
The most crucial and most difficult step is to abolish capital. What I’m referring to here is not a violent revolution that transforms everything in society all at once, but rather the minimally necessary procedure for eliminating capital from the economic system.
After minimal demonetisation, capital is no longer accumulated and then exchanged for labour; instead the ‘money’ is created before or at the moment of production, and is destroyed when the worker spends it, to be created again in the next round of production. This ‘money’ is therefore no longer capital because it is not needed to start the process of production. Production is initiated instead by labour itself, and the credits are created ex nihilo to cover exactly this quantity of labour.
Administrating this system requires co-operation between producers, since market competition no longer makes sense (for anybody) in a system that has abolished capital. This co-operation, in the form of a producers’ association, is intended to replace currency, markets and the state, all in one hit.
Let’s consider an example. You work in a shoemakers, and you want to procure a bookcase. You place an order for a bookcase and receive an order form (which could be on paper, but is probably online). Producing the bookcase takes (on average) 10 hours of labour (with economies of scale taken into account), which you must contribute within the month. The furniture manufacturer includes these 10 hours of labour in its ‘report’ (probably an online form) to the association of producers and hence receives 10 virtual credits (created out of nothing) or, if computers aren’t available, 10 stamps. It’s extremely important to realise that these credits don’t ‘come from’ anywhere. The credits are ‘backed’ in two places: by the person placing the order (you), because you are saying “this bookcase is useful to me”, and by the workers in the furniture factory, because in acknowledging your order they are saying “this work is socially useful and therefore counts as a contribution to production”.
Meanwhile, somebody else orders shoes which require at least 10 hours of labour, and the shoe factory that you work in goes through the same process and receives 10 credits. You work 10 hours at the shoemakers and put the stamps onto your bookcase order form (or the digital equivalent). This is submitted to the furniture factory as proof that you have worked for 10 hours. Back at the furniture factory, somebody else (who may well be the shoe customer, but could equally be a bread customer or a blanket customer) does the 10 hours of work for you in order to fulfill their own quota, depending on what they’ve ordered. Since your account is in good standing, the bookcase is in fact delivered to you as soon as it is ready, but if you don’t submit your order form in time, then you will no longer be in good standing - then, future orders will not be so forgiving.
So, how did we answer the questions of production? In this case, it is easy to know how much should be produced, because it is based on specific orders to specific producers. The question of how much work needs to be done is also solved in the most natural way: you do the equivalent amount of work that you’ve ordered. It would be possible to answer that question differently - for example, asking for a flat rate contribution regardless of how much you order. That might be appropriate for certain services just as it is in capitalism.
Some people however are not able to work. For them, it would be necessary to administer and justify various kinds of labour exemption, creating credits for them even though they are not backed by a labour contribution, and checking their exemption status along with their order form. Necessarily this raises the labour cost of every product and service in the economy, because the work still has to be done, after all.
How could such a thing be created in practice though? That is a more speculative topic. To start with the process of demonetisation, we apparently need an association of producers who are prepared to co-operate with each other to reduce their dependence on markets and currency. Many capitalist businesses, especially larger corporations, would not be interested, because owners would see their personal power and wealth threatened. Co-operatives and non-profits would probably be more prepared to adopt this strategy.
Still, a particular business cannot achieve full demonetisation until its entire supply chain is included in the association, including electricity and rent. The question is whether a partial demonetisation is feasible in the meantime. Unfortunately it would be quite onerous for consumers, who would have to complete a labour contribution in one of the participating workplaces in addition to paying a monetary fee, though the monetary price ought to go down as demonetisation proceeds. It would probably be advisable to wait until a large enough group of producers has signed up to the scheme before implementing it. Other methods of reducing a producer’s dependence on inputs would be worthwhile: organic agriculture would seem more attractive to reduce dependence on chemical products; local energy production; use of open source software; and so on.
In the short-term, partial demonetisation should seem attractive because it insulates a business against market shocks and crises, as well as lessening the uncertainty associated with market competition, if enough competitors decide to join.
Although the proposed strategy aims to abolish capitalism entirely, there is one particular social reform that would be of great help during the process of demonetisation: the unconditional basic income. Such an income would allow people to work within the demonetised labour association to obtain additional products whilst still being able to pay the rent and other bills that are not yet demonetised. If the state were to co-operate with this process then it would be properly understood as a temporary measure, and therefore ought to look more affordable and more politically attractive. As the demonetised sector grows, the tax base of the basic income would be undermined, the basic income would then be reduced; but people would not need as much monetary income because it would be less and less necessary.
But just abolishing capital is not quite good enough. To properly settle the question of what gets produced, we need to make sure that everyone is in control of production, not just a small class of owners and managers. A full process of democratisation involves at least three important components:
Abolishing private property by making sure that all means of production not currently in use are managed as a commons by all those who need them or have an interest in them
Abolishing hierarchy within workplaces to make sure that means of production that are currently in use are managed fairly by the people who work in them and by all those who depend on them
Abolishing patriarchy, white supremacy and every other kind of systematic prejudice so that the economy, society, and all those newly democratised economic relations, are not biased in favour of some groups over others
This process has already begun and should not wait for any of the other stages of the process to continue. Nevertheless, demonetisation should help the process enormously. No longer would it be necessary to have somebody who is already wealthy (a capitalist) to invest in production, who then becomes even more wealthy (and hence more powerful) as a result. Rather, production is within everybody’s power once capital is eliminated. Therefore, there would be no natural way of distinguishing between owners and workers, unless it were imposed on the system by some kind of cult of personality, a fixation with leadership roles, or by social prejudices (especially patriarchy). To overcome those things, democratisation requires the participation of everyone. Direct action, education, solidarity and vigilance are all of particular importance here.
Demonetisation and democratisation together do not amount to full communism. Rather, what we have so far is along the lines of: “from each, and to each, according to their desired consumption, except for non-working people who are at the mercy of some socially-agreed exemptions system”. Achieving the full communist maxim will depend on abolishing the exemptions system so that everyone is provided for “according to need”.
So let’s modify the system we’ve got so that contributions are voluntary. For this to work, we no longer look directly at the orders that have been received, but instead make an estimate of the current demand. This would be based on user feedback in addition to the data on order history. The association collates all of the order estimates so that we now know the grand total of labour required. Then, users pledge a labour contribution according to their particular wishes and ability. When pledging, they specify which projects they wish to support, based on which products and services they most want to receive or which creative or scientific projects they are most interested in.
If there are enough pledges to support everything then great! If not, then projects with the least support have to consider downsizing. With a computer system providing continuous feedback about which projects are supported and which are not, it should be possible for people to prioritise the most important things, so that only the lowest priority projects have to lose out. This process solves the question of how much to produce, and assumes that projects can start up based on people’s independent initiative about what they need. However, when projects downsize, they need to agree on a suitable rationing method to distribute the products they have available, since we know there isn’t enough for everybody. In the best case, this might mean that you can only order one plasma television every five years - what a hardship! - but in other cases it might mean you can only have up to four avocados a month, unless you contribute more labour - and that is a quite serious restriction.
Again, it’s the unpleasant labour that spoils our fun. If production were exciting enough, we’d scarcely need to worry…
Whilst most people ought to be quite satisfied in a demonetised, democratised, voluntarised world, we can now think about how advances in technology - which I’m referring to here as ‘development’ - might bring us closer and closer to the ideal of a world without work. I’m not going to talk about the technology itself, but just the economic aspects.
If labour becomes more and more pleasant, then it becomes less and less necessary to back it with a pledge. If, for example, a project has enough workers willing to do the work, but not enough pledges, there is no reason for them to downsize unless the workers voluntarily decide to work somewhere else. Usually, fewer pledges means less demand, and that means there is less work to do anyway, making this a marginal problem in the initial stages. But sweeping technological advances could overturn that eventually, because it could (should) lead to a situation where enough pledges come from the workers themselves (“we’re so happy working here!”).
The problem with this is that so long as there are less pleasant tasks still in the economy, people might pile into these self-backed projects to avoid them, potentially jeopardising other parts of the economy.
Communalisation is probably a sensible way to handle this situation. By this point, the process of communalisation would almost certainly have started already, as it involves the acceptance of high-priority projects (such as energy, water, care/healthcare, transport and communications infrastructure) into a special communalised sector. This is analogous to nationalisation.
Communalised projects are all considered to be of equal, high priority. Concretely this means that labour - and especially, the uninteresting labour - is shared out more or less equally. ‘More or less’ means that the amount of labour contributed hovers around an average, and if one part of the communalised sector expands, such as healthcare, then labour is eventually expected to migrate into that part of the economy to support it. The result is that no worker should feel overburdened, relative to everyone else, which is particularly important when you aren’t getting ‘paid extra’ for your trouble. But another consequence of this is that communalised projects must be specifically accepted or rejected by communities (citizens). If a project is rejected, it must continue seeking pledges as before.
Whilst communalisation is primarily intended to safeguard the highest priority parts of the economy, it would also be a simpler and more appropriate system to use if labour tasks eventually became more automated and more pleasant. Full communism is not achieved when the entire economy is communalised, but specifically when all labour is so pleasant that it is no longer necessary to accept or reject projects for inclusion in the communalised sector. Without this ‘vetting’ process, the disinction between communalised and non-communalised (‘syndicalised’) dissolves, collapsing the economic spectrum (left and right-wing) into a single point. The end of history, if you like.
I think it is important to include ‘wishes’ because we’re not interested in a system where you are told what to do or where your ‘ability’ is assessed by some bureaucrat. ↩
Revolution is good too, though. ↩
In fact I do not think it counts as money. By my restricted definition, money is an exchange system and has the property that it circulates over and over. This circulation - not profit-making and not interest - is ultimately what gives it its cancerous growth tendency, largely because of the uncertainty in recovering the money that you have spent. ↩
Communalisation, as the name suggests, works better when there are genuine communities behind them. That’s why I’ve not mentioned it until later, because I think with the legacy of hyper-individualised capitalism, we would need time to redevelop this sense of community. ↩
If this sounds idealistic, you have to try to imagine living in a society where everything is free. Your labour contribution is also voluntary but it is necessary in order to avoid rationing the service, which affects everyone. Therefore, it makes sense that you would mainly be concerned with not working any more than other people unless you really enjoyed it. ↩