Previously I have written an outline of an alternative economic system based on commons, voluntary contributions and stigmergic peer production (which I will here refer to as the ‘commons society’). In my opinion it describes a genuinely ‘communist’ society in the original Marxist sense - that is, a stateless moneyless system of freely associated producers using the principle ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their need’. This characterisation of communism differs markedly from the experienced reality in the Soviet Union and its satellite states. At the same time, my more detailed explanation of communism reveals some startling similarities with the Soviet reality, and it is these similarities and differences that I need to address now, if we are to make a judgement on the question, “is communism possible?”
In my essay, I say that the commons society is likely to have a scarcity of workers rather than - as in market economies - a scarcity of work. In a market economy, people are constantly crying out for more jobs. In the Soviet Union - and in a commons society - workplaces are instead crying out for more workers. Even when it was legal for managers to sack people in the Soviet Union, they generally didn’t: they held on to as many workers as they could get because otherwise they would jeopardise their ability to fulfill the targets stipulated in the state plan. But in my vision of a commons society there is no such thing as a state or any kind of central plan. The reason for the scarcity of workers is simply because working is voluntary, and people would generally want to minimise unpleasant work.
Unfortunately, the labour scarcity in the Soviet Union led to acute shortages of basic consumer goods. Many explanations have been proposed for this, including the idea that the USA forced the Soviet countries to prioritise their military spending over everything else. While this is true, it doesn’t cut to the heart of the problem. The Soviet shortages were due to structural flaws in that system, which Soviet planners were in fact well aware of. They called it the “problem of labour discipline”.
Soviet workers were guaranteed a job and basic services such as healthcare, education, rent, food, electricity and public transport were either free at the point of use or heavily subsidised. It was still necessary to work and earn money in order to pay these low costs, but on the flip side, you did not have to work very hard in order to do so. Because of this, the managers of state enterprises were always worried about whether they would be able to fulfill their plan targets. As a result, they sent false information to the central planning agencies in an effort to get easier targets, and if all else failed, they would sacrifice the quality of the goods for quantity, since the quality target was harder for the planners to verify. But to produce consumer goods, it was necessary to have all kinds of material inputs, and when so many of those inputs were substandard, it was the productivity of the consumer goods sector that suffered the most.
So why couldn’t workers just be more productive? Critics say that there was a lack of material incentives. If workers in a glass factory decided to be more productive, in the hope of, say, resolving a shortage of jam (to be distributed in glass jars), there is no guarantee that anybody else would follow their lead. So the other inputs necessary to produce jam might not be available. In other words, there is no guaranteed material incentive.
In a market economy, the material incentive is money, because money can be ‘converted’ into practically anything else. However, money only has this ‘magical’ property because of its structural scarcity, the fact that you just never seem to have enough of it. This scarcity, and the fact that it controls a person’s access to the means of life, is what makes it such an ineluctable prize. The competitive drive to obtain as much of this scarce resource as possible feeds into the market economy’s structural imperative of expansion, which forces workers to be maximally productive in all parts of the economy at once, resulting in a situation where there are always goods available to buy (generally speaking) so long as you have the money.
Then would this issue of shortages also affect the commons society that I’ve described? Clearly the context is different, as there are no state planners and no money. Nevertheless, I noted in my essay that expanding a particular part of the economy to meet increased demand would normally require surplus labour - that is, it would mean that workers would have to be more productive for no material reward. However, this surplus labour is intended to be temporary and limited, since in the long-term they should be able to recruit new contributors after the guideline labour contribution value increases, hence ‘rebalancing’ the economy. In turn, however, that depends on the assumption that people actually care about their guideline contribution: it is, after all, voluntary.
A similar thing could be said about money. Money only functions as money at all if people believe in it. Once people lose confidence in a currency, as has happened historically during periods of hyper-inflation, you can look at your cash savings and see nothing but chunks of metal and a pile of paper.
Whereas surplus labour is intended to be limited and short-term in the commons society, workers in capitalism are doing unpaid surplus labour all of the time, as this is the only possible origin of the surplus value (profit) that is needed to survive in the market. In theory, the material incentives for this surplus labour will eventually arrive if the economy expands and if wealth ‘trickles down’ so that the workers can benefit from that growth, but it’s by no means certain that this will happen. So it is important to note that we are not talking about the feasibility of unpaid surplus labour or the feasibility of a system based on abstract faith in economic mechanisms. The question is just whether this is compatible with voluntarism.
What could make people believe in a voluntary contribution guideline? Resolving this question will take a little while longer.
Alienation is a Marxist concept with many components, and is used to critique the system of generalised commodity exchange, i.e. capitalism. In a market economy, people produce for the sake of the exchange value of their service, not its use value. (Exchange value is the monetary value; use value is the unquantifiable purpose of the product or service, its ability to fulfill needs.) Workers work for money, and capitalists invest for profit. The services are commodities, existing only to be sold. At the same time, because of the economy’s structural growth imperative, workers are forced to do unpaid surplus labour - i.e. to work harder than is necessary to produce what they need - which causes a further disconnect between production and needs. Capitalism then becomes production for production’s sake, and neither workers nor capitalists (nor politicians) appear to have any control over the impersonal forces of the market that drive the system. Rather than ruling the forces of production and the economy, the economy rules the people; rather than being masters of technology, people are slaves to it.
It is controversial as to whether the Soviet Union had a system of ‘generalised commodity exchange’, but it is easy to see that it still had all the elements of alienation. Workers were still forced to work, and indeed forced to work for the sake of money. Products and services still took the form of commodities. Most significantly, the Soviet elite did not attempt to plan the economy based on the needs of the population. Rather, they planned it for growth and expansion, in a clear and largely deliberate emulation of capitalism. Hence, according to the plan, firms and their workers were still expected to be doing surplus labour all the time. People remained slaves to the economy, albeit shackled to the impersonal force of the state plan that was imposed from above, and not the invisible hand of the market.
However, because Soviet workers did not have to fear the sack, they had more opportunity to subvert and resist the system, compared to workers in a market economy. So the “problem of worker discipline” can also be seen as a form of resistance to the alienating effects of the economic system.
A commons society tackles alienation head-on by eliminating the basis of commodity exchange, money. A commodity is something that is produced to be sold. Its main purpose is to realise an exchange value, with use values secondary, whereby social use values particularly suffer, such as health and the environment. Eliminating this contradiction is essential if we want a production system designed to meet human needs, and indeed in a human (read: humane) and ecological way. Alienation is a spell that money casts, a curse that instils in people an uncontrollable urge to accumulate and acquire, subordinating everything to this goal, even the ecological foundation of production and of life itself.
The commons society has no state plan, no imperative to accumulate, no compulsion to earn money, and no commodities to be sold. So what is supposed to be people’s motivation to contribute to production? I see it as a pretty good deal: if the majority of people look at their suggested contribution and contribute that amount on average, then society will collectively be able to produce everything that they have decided to produce, distributing the products and services directly to the project members who wanted them. And if most people are prepared to do a limited amount of surplus labour every so often, then the economy can easily expand, in limited ways, to cater for new or expanded needs as they arise.
Doing things this way, the amount of labour people would have to do to meet all of their needs, in comfortable conditions, would be far less than the amount that people are expected to work in either a market economy or a Soviet-style economy, not just because surplus labour is the exception rather than the rule, but also because there would be less work to do - an insane amount of labour is needed just to prop up and administrate the money system itself, to name only the most obvious example.
So now let’s go back to the thorny question of material incentives and the crux of many anti-socialist debates - human nature. Are people really so selfish that they will reject this possibility just because they want material incentives now, and cannot take the risk that the commons economy might not rebalance itself because not enough people care about their contributions? Do people have no motivation to contribute other than for the sake of a concrete material reward? If the answer is yes, it means people would prefer to do significant amounts of unpaid surplus labour 100% of the time, endangering themselves and the planet, rather than doing little more than their fair share and taking the risk that nobody else will do the same. They would prefer to shoot themselves in the face just to avoid shooting themselves in the foot.
In practice, it should be clear that people do have motivations to work other than for concrete, material rewards. Volunteering, for example, is a vibrant sector of the economy even in a system ruled by money. People take care of children and needy family members without expecting to get any concrete ‘return on their investment’. And these are not small, exceptional things - they are huge and quite literally ‘undervalued’ elements of the economy, which could probably not function without them.
In a commons society, people may contribute because they enjoy the work, or because they want to change something or improve something, or because they want to learn a skill, or because they want to make something exciting and share it with people, or because they like the people they work with, or just because they will feel bad if they don’t do their ‘fair share’, as measured by their guideline contribution. Or because they want to combat the shortages which personally affect them.
The Soviet system did not really give people the ability to resolve the shortages. Ordinary people had no control over the state plan and were subordinate to planners, managers and bureaucrats who were always curiously wealthier than they were. They were not allowed to set up their own enterprises, whereas I consider this to be an essential starting point in my vision of a commons society.
Moreover, the state firms were not ‘freely associated’, as in Marx’s original characterisation of communism. Indeed, they were barely even ‘associated’: in general, firms acted like isolated units that were only connected to each other via the central node of the state plan. In contrast, following much anarchist theory, my description of a commons society describes various levels of co-operation between productive units, including communication through the production chain, within a particular industry, and within a particular region. These associations would probably be responsible for normalising the use of the contribution guidelines. Projects in an association can agree on common ‘best practice’, such as what they consider to be acceptable levels of surplus labour.
In the Soviet Union, it was common for people to ‘steal’ things from work, resolving a shortage for themselves without caring about the rest of society. To avoid this risk, project associations can agree that their purpose is social production, meaning that they aim to meet the needs of their members, the userbase. Unlike either market or Soviet socialist economies, users are co-owners of projects in a commons society, and they can make their voices heard. This is because, as peer projects, production is set up by a group of users who have a shared need, and their initial contributors are drawn from these users.
There is no guarantee that projects will conform to any agreements that they come to in their associations, and no sure-fire way of enforcing such agreements. However, since associations are voluntary, there is no point in projects participating in them unless they intend to make a good faith effort to co-operate. In theory, such co-operation is in their mutual interest, as the economy will run more smoothly and shortages will be more readily avoided this way. Moreover, this co-operation does not involve unreasonable ‘sacrifices’, since the contribution guidelines reflect only the amount of labour necessary to sustain a person’s consumption, i.e. their ‘fair share’. And finally, the co-operation is not unwieldy: projects can be a member of as few or as many associations as they like for various purposes, and the number of decisions that they need to make is mercifully few.
But we still have not arrived at the core of the issue. In my essay, I believed I was describing a ‘commons economy’, an alternative economic system. But this was a mistake, which is why I now refer to a ‘commons society’. What is the difference? In capitalism, there is such a thing as the ‘economy’, a system that can be separated out from every other aspect of society such as politics and culture. This was never the case in pre-capitalist communities, where production and ‘economic activity’ were inseparable from other spheres of life such as culture, religion, kinship and interpersonal relationships.
Originally, trade and money were only used when dealing with people or communities with which you had no ongoing relations: you would trade with them, and then you would never expect to see them again. When money and markets start to take over economic functions within a community, the community is eroded. Every other person now becomes a separate atom, a person you never need to communicate with again. Recalling our discussion of alienation, we can see that it is not just the use value of the commodities exchanged which are masked by trade relationships, as even the identities and the humanity of the people involved are erased. A trade is a done deal: it neither requires nor facilitates any ongoing relationship between the participants. Worse, because sellers desire to get the highest price, while buyers desire to get the lowest price possible, trading is inherently antagonistic. According to anthropologist David Graeber, trade relationships in pre-capitalist societies “hovered about an inch away from outright warfare”. Hence the tendency for markets to destroy traditional communities.
Margaret Thatcher claimed there was “no such thing as society”. There are only individuals. Neo-classical economics starts with the assumption that people are independent ‘rational agents’, whose goal is to maximise their self-interest. Now, culture, kinship, friendship, religion and other aspects of life do still exist, but only as separate spheres. Because the material basis of life is governed by the economic system, they are always overshadowed by the impersonal dynamics of money. So Thatcher and the rest of the mainstream, right-wing economists are fairly accurate in their characterisations of the actually-existing system.
A commons society needs to overcome the separation between the economic and other spheres of life. But what could that mean in the context of a modern, globalised society?
I have already mentioned one element of it: the free agreements and associations between projects are not trades, nor are they legal contracts. They are direct human relationships. But for a global society to work properly, these agreements need to be on progressively larger scales. Agreements between producer associations are necessary to ensure that everyone is on the same page about their responsibilities and entitlements within the community. Specifically, it is their responsibility to produce for their members and to orient their activity around their guideline contributions.
In addition, we could expect social networks to play an important role in communicating information about where there are shortages and which tasks require the most urgent attention. Far from being powerless to affect shortages, people can send messages through their social networks (which can be in person, not just online) to find someone who is suitable for a particular task.
In the essay I suggested using an online system to track tasks and contributions. However it is also conceivable for people to share tasks in person. These ‘task-sharing circles’, as I’ll call them, would need to be responsible for a unique set of similar, locally-available tasks (jobs), which they would need to negotiate at the producer association. Then, people can join any circle they like, where they can decide amongst themselves how they will divide up the tasks that are within their remit. Functionally, they are similar to job agencies and careers advice services, but in their form they are more like self-organised clubs or ‘affinity groups’. (It should be noted that those who wish to join a project directly do not necessarily have to belong to a task-sharing circle, so long as the circle knows which tasks still need to be done.) In task-sharing circles, people could also share the caring responsibilities that they have towards their dependants, so that people with dependants can still contribute according to their wishes.
Some anarchists talk about the ‘abolition of work’. It’s a slightly misleading idea. Work in the sense of productive activity isn’t going to go away, but the separation between work and other spheres of life can. Production may be organised and perceived as a social, festive or ludic activity: “let’s produce together”, or “let’s play shoe-making, a co-operative multiplayer game where we aim to produce shoes for our 10,000 project members”. In a commons society it would be essential to reclaim production in ways like this.
Nevertheless, in a system of specialisation, it’s no good if some people are having a fantastic game of shoe-making whilst others are failing at the food production game. How do people know that they’re not the only ones playing, that they aren’t the only ones who care? Well, that’s what communication is for, in this case the free agreements mentioned above.
Lack of trust and lack of communication are hallmarks of social atomisation, an inherent feature of commodity-based economies with private producers, including Soviet socialism. In a monetised economy, producers do not co-ordinate with each other directly, as it is money that primarily mediates their interactions. The alternative is to communicate.
As I argued in the original essay, imbalances in labour will be inevitable, as long as we still have specialised labour and production chains that are geographically dispersed. That means some people will be over-working and others under-working. Rebalancing the economy will be the commons society’s main concern, and they will do this via social networks and perhaps task-sharing circles, using the guideline contribution values that they’ve been supplied with to guide their choices.
But if things get particularly imbalanced, it may make sense to organise a co-ordinated recruitment drive, called by agreement between numerous producer associations across a large region, or perhaps globally. During this special event - which may only happen every few years - the guideline contribution values could all be recalculated to take account of changes in technology or demand, or new information about the real time cost of certain tasks. Contrary to the usual situation, it would be possible to give people guidelines that reflect target rates of production rather than actual rates of production, while this process is going on. Then, task-sharing circles would meet, newly trained people would be recruited, and people would update any online systems they were using. If not all of the tasks were handled after a week or so, the process could continue, with people revising their contribution pledges, accepting additional responsibilities where appropriate, or sending out more feelers in the social network. After a fixed period, rates of production would be finalised even if the targets weren’t met, but people would have had plenty of time during the process to decide between higher workloads and higher production, versus lower workloads and lower production.
In many pre-capitalist societies, occasional tasks were carried out using ‘festive labour’. Often, an influential person in the community would call together some neighbours for a feast, during which they would be motivated to carry out a task like building a house or carrying some logs. Again, unlike employment in market economies, festive labour is both a social event and a productive activity. Accordingly, we might expect the above-mentioned ‘co-ordinated recruitment drive’ to be organised and advertised as a festival. Or it could be thought of as a game, with the objective of rebalancing production so that everyone is again satisfied with the contributions they are pledging.
One of the other questions that arises in connection to a comons society is how to deal with genuine scarcity. These are situations where the current rate of production, averaged over the current membership, yields less than one unit per member. This is likely to affect only a certain class of (relative) luxuries. Not everyone can expect to live in a mansion or to have their own private yacht, but in a society that cares about ecological sustainability and the minimisation - rather than the maximisation - of unpleasant labour, it may not be possible to even provide a private vehicle or personal computer to everyone in the world who wants one. I proposed two solutions in my original essay: access over ownership, where people prioritise shared services such as public transport or public computer facilities; and pleasure production, which gives people the opportunity to get what they want if they are prepared - and skilled enough - to make it themselves, in their own time (albeit with the help of others in the peer project, as normal).
When we think about the social and non-economic dimension of production, it’s possible to see several other ways of dealing with scarce products or services, although admittedly none of them are completely ideal:
Projects, producer associations and local associations might be given the chance to nominate a limited number of people that they consider most deserving of receiving the scarce luxuries. The nominations would be decided at an assembly of the relevant organisation, perhaps using the task weighting as a guide, or even using this system as an alternative to task weighting as a motivator for the least pleasant tasks. Importantly, a local association could also nominate non-working people, such as children, the disabled and elderly, retired people in the community.
Nominations could be made through the social network, starting with people that the producers know personally, who would then make their own nominations, and so on.
Alternatively, projects could decide to limit their membership only to people who are within a certain social distance. Others who want the services would therefore have to set up another similar project locally.
While it’s not feasible to prioritise people who ‘work hard’, since it is too easy to misreport or fabricate your working times, it is feasible to prioritise people based on their actual occupation, which is much easier to verify. Hence it may be possible to have a waiting list that prioritises people who do the most important and most demanding tasks in society, such as surgery or emergency response services.
Ultimately it would be up to each individual project to decide on the method they want to use. The important thing about these methods is that they include a non-quantifiable effect of interpersonal relationships and social approval. A person is unlikely to be nominated if they are known to be a sleazy character, no matter how hard-working they might be. This contrasts with market economies, which tend to reward wealth to people who are already wealthy.
At this point, it may seem as if a commons society is a strange thing indeed, with voluntary contributions, synchronised recruitment festivals, task-sharing games, inter-producer agreements, and luxury rewards that spread through social networks. But really, the biggest mistake that anti-capitalists can make is to assume that a new society will be generally quite similar to the current one, only with fewer problems. In fact, I have probably only barely scratched the surface of just how different a commons society needs to be. Nothing would be the same.
But is all of that actually possible? The grim reality is that capitalism has destroyed us, and the planet will not be able to sustain the cancerous growth imperative of the economic system forever. It may be that we are too late to salvage the situation. ‘Communism’ has been ideologically discredited, but a real vision of a voluntary commons-based society remains to be implemented in the modern context. With anti-capitalism in such a weak and disorganised state, I do not rate our chances of doing so in the near future. Perhaps in the distant future, when as yet unborn humans wake up in the ruins of the Oil Age catastrophe, perhaps they will make a new society, one that is caring, radically free, and ecologically sustainable. If they do, they would find our world strange, barbaric, unsettling. They would need a new hope.
In a commons society, if someone is ‘overworking’ by doing surplus labour then it means that there are other people who are ‘underworking’ by the same amount. There will always be imbalances of this nature but a commons society has mechanisms for keeping them in check. ↩
David Graeber 2011, Debt: The First 5000 Years. ↩
In fact, it’s another, often-overlooked component of Marxian alienation, which he calls ‘alienation from our species-being’. What he means is that social production is a uniquely human thing, but that capitalism turns it into such drudgery as to make it seem ‘animal’. ↩