What are the alternatives to capitalism and how will we ever attain them? The following diagram summarises:
Here are ten seriously proposed alternative ways of organising a society which go some distance in remedying the structural flaws of capitalism (with which I assume the reader is familiar):
Anarcho-syndicalism. Here, I will use this term to describe the post-revolutionary society which anarcho-syndicalists would probably build. That society is usually dubbed “libertarian communism”, but this latter term is potentially wider in scope and could cover many of the other items on this list. Anarcho-syndicalism, then, is an anarchist society based around a producer’s federation. Workplaces are self-managed by their workers and federate both with other workplaces of the same industry and with other workplaces in the same region, unified at the supra-regional and/or international level. While each workplace is self-managed, the federations co-ordinate production by matching supply to demand (such that there is no competition between workplaces) and sharing natural resources and expertise. The boards of each federation are made up of mandated, recallable delegates from the participating workplaces, so that control always flows from the smallest scale upwards. Communities and consumer groups inform (but do not dictate) production decisions and distribute goods amongst themselves either freely, when things are abundant, or according to a democratically agreed rationing system. This system, more or less, was a reality in many urban areas of the Spanish revolution of 1936–39. A pioneering text is Pouget and Pataud’s Comment nous ferons la Révolution (English translation) but more modern English resources are SolFed’s Fighting for Ourselves and The Economics of Freedom. It seems to me that a more Marxist-inspired system called council communism is not really distinguishable from anarcho-syndicalism in the post-revolutionary stage.
Anarcho-communism. While anarcho-syndicalism is based on a federation of producers, anarcho-communism is the federation of communes. Members of each commune meet regularly in a face-to-face open forum, where they decide on what they need and work out how to distribute the tasks amongst themselves. Recallable delegates are given mandates by the group and sent to participate in an assembly of all the communes in the region, and regional delegates are then sent to progressively larger supra-regional assemblies. Projects with a regional or supra-regional scope are spawned from these assemblies, and volunteers would be sought to work in them. In this way, the federation can initiate any activity that is required to meet the needs of its members. Participating communities would be responsible for ensuring that critical projects are always supplied with enough labour, so they might set minimum contribution requirements, allocating a certain amount of their labour time to the regional projects. With a liberal application of automation technology and other labour-saving devices, it is hoped that voluntarism alone would soon be sufficient for most projects. I have described a more specific model of anarcho-communism on this website, but the fundamentals go back to Peter Kropotkin (in particular, The Conquest of Bread). Murray Bookchin’s conception of libertarian municipalism is essentially also a version of anarcho-communism.
The peer economy. This concept championed by Christian Siefkes is an attempt to generalise the kind of peer production that we see in the open source movement to the physical world and the whole of society. Although a ‘peer economy’ might take a number of forms, I will follow the model proposed in Siefkes’ book From Exchange to Contributions, which is the only explicitly elaborated model I know of. People with a common goal collaborate in ‘projects’ to produce goods or provide services, making decisions most often by ‘rough consensus’, whereby the whole community can participate in discussions. Abundant goods and those that can be freely copied are distributed freely; the rest, however, are granted to consumers so long as they contribute a certain amount of labour. This quantity of labour is either fixed and equal for all contributors, or it is tied to the amount that the consumer wishes to take, or to the production effort required to produce it - different projects have different rules on this. You don’t have to contribute to the same project that you take a product from; projects are encouraged to use a single task distribution system. This allows consumers to choose from the largest possible pool of goods and services and to contribute back to any of the participating projects, picking their contribution according to their personal expertise and wishes, and making use of the ‘hints’ left behind by consumers and other contributors (effectively, ‘bug reports’ and ‘feature requests’). To make sure all of the necessary work is actually completed, tasks are weighted by popularity, such that doing unpopular tasks ‘counts’ more than doing popular ones. Projects co-operate with each other by means of ‘prosumer associations’. Public services are provided by a federation of local communities. Resources belong to the commons; they are managed by local communities, using the federation as the decision-making structure and the distribution pool as the means of making them available to projects.
Eco-communalism / Bio-regionalism. Up to now, all of the models we have discussed have been industrialised, counting on the widespread (though responsible) deployment of high technology as a way of eliminating undesirable and unnecessary labour. Eco-communalism, however, is based on the view that ecosystems have been so severely damaged by human activity that industry and technology should be drastically curtailed, and consumption levels significantly reduced. People are encouraged to return to the land, to live in harmony with their natural surroundings and with each other in small, close-knit communities of mutual aid. Technology would be reduced to an “appropriate” scale, such that it can be produced by a small community without any appreciable division of labour, and maintained by them without much in the way of specialist or professional expertise being needed. The most-cited ‘key text’ is E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, while an imaginative description of such a society is provided by B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two. In the real world, eco-communalism has been realised by hundreds of intentional communities or eco-villages that have been established all over the world - some successful and long-lasting and others not.
Primitivism. Eco-communalism attempts to eliminate industry for a return to an agricultural society, but primitivism goes even further, believing that agriculture is also a harmful form of human technology. Before agriculture, our species consisted of hunter-gatherers, and a few isolated groups of hunter-gatherers are still in existence today. Humans co-operate in relatively small groups, distributing the hunting and gathering tasks among themselves largely in accordance with time-honoured tradition. Whilst this kind of lifestyle is of course inherently dangerous, it is a myth that humans didn’t live very long in these times - the age distribution would include plenty of people who are ‘old’ by modern standards. Hunter-gatherers live in a state of perpetual abundance: since they cannot store food, they have to eat everything they have available as soon as possible, which means a lot of extravagant feasts and no reason to worry about the future. They have copious amounts of leisure time, which they spend either eating, dancing, talking or storytelling. They often have an animist belief system which encourages them to view the natural world as sacred; this stops them from causing unsustainable damage to their surrounding ecosystems and often motivates the performance of rituals to ‘rebalance’ the damage done by killing prey. Indeed, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle survived for nearly 95% of the existence of homo sapiens before agriculture developed. We are still homo sapiens, the same species, and therefore not appreciably different from these early humans. Primitivists therefore speculate that agriculture didn’t take so long to develop because of a lack of intelligence - homo sapiens is quite clearly intelligent enough - but perhaps because it was perceived as undesirable.
Anarcho-collectivism. Anarcho-collectivism is similar to anarcho-communism - its distinguishing characteristic is that it involves the issuing of some kind of money or labour notes. In practice, anarcho-collectivism was the reality for most places in the Spanish Revolution.
Participatory Economics (Parecon) is a type of stateless planned economy, in some ways a modern reincarnation of anarcho-collectivism, in which workers are supposed to be rewarded for effort with a non-exchangable currency. Championed by Michael Albert, Parecon has some very specific proposals, including ‘balanced job complexes’ for all workers designed to avoid the professionalisation of administration/bureaucratic activities. In general, it is a means for federations of producers and consumers to arrive at a democratically agreed plan for the economy, which is iterated on at each level of federation. See ZNet for more information.
Mutualism. Going back to Proudhon, mutualism or anarcho-mutualism accepts workers self-management, but unlike any of the other systems considered here it accepts the market as a way of distributing products, services and labour. The idea is receiving something of a revival in the modern co-operative movement. If every workplace became a workers’ or consumers’ co-operative with democratic decision-making processes, funded by mutual credit institutions, the result could be called mutualism. Socialists of many colours would already reject such a development for good reasons. There are problems with markets that are independent of how they are instantiated in capitalism, chief among them the existence of competition. Because of the market, co-operatives find themselves forced to accept adverse changes in their working conditions in order to compete; they ‘democratically’ internalise the same market logic that capitalist firms non-democratically impose.
Technocracy. In a technocratic society there are effectively two ‘classes’, technocrats and users. It’s the job of the technicians, scientists and engineers to design the society’s cities and industry, making intelligent use of resources, eliminating all unnecessary human labour and maximising quality of life for all citizens. However, technocrats are not supposed to interfere with people’s personal lives; they don’t make laws or judgements. In theory, they are only supposed to have power over the material resources that they have at their disposal, using them to provide a technological-industrial “service” called the “technate”. The technate is supposed to be completely self-sufficient in resources, so technocrats generally restrict their focus to a particular continent. The rest of the society consists of so-called “users” of the technate; however, if human labour remains necessary to make the technate work, labour contributions from the users may be required, although it is sometimes assumed that a technate is unable to force users to do anything and must therefore rely on voluntarism to get tasks done. Jobs, therefore, are specifically designed to be short, comfortable and enjoyable where possible. A system known as “energy accounting” is used in place of money and markets. In this system, the total productive capacity of the technate is measured in terms of energy output (joules), and this number is divided equally between all users, who spend the energy on the services they want. Supposedly, the technate monitors how people spend their energy credits and use this information to plan production. Energy credits are non-transferrable and not contingent on work contributions: every citizen has a right to receive their share. For more information, see EOS (Europe-focused) and Technocracy.ca (focus on North America). Notably, the Zeitgeist movement also advocates a form of technocracy and has been affiliated with The Venus Project, both of which might be worth looking at if you are interested in the subject.
Marxist socialism. I use the term “Marxist socialism” to refer to the society that would probably result from a genuine Marxist revolution. Marx was not an advocate of the state, which in theory is supposed to “wither away” after being seized by a Marxist vanguard party. For this reason, it seems that supposedly Marxist countries like the USSR and Cuba don’t really count as instantiations of this system, since they have/had a very powerful state apparatus. If the state were to be dissolved after a Marxist revolution, the result would probably be quite similar to the syndicalist system, except that it would keep a number of hierarchical positions and bureaucracies intact. The economy would probably be planned on a large scale with top-down decision-making. It’s not clear to me whether money would still be used.
Because they retain some form of wage labour, I don’t think anarcho-collectivism, parecon or mutualism are true solutions to be aimed for, but in considering how to build a new society we may need to ask ourselves whether one of these systems has any use as a ‘transitional’ form. The debate here is quite an old one. In State and Revolution, Lenin talks about two stages of communism - the first, in which people are rewarded with the full value of their labour according to the labour theory of value (the adage “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work”) and the second, ‘full communism’, in which goods and services are distributed solely according to need (“…to each according to their need”). And this simple little distinction is still being dissected and pored over by socialists today. Anarcho-communists specifically reject the weaker stage of communism, believing that all of society’s output is the result of an infinite number of past and present contributions, making it impossible to calculate the value of any one person’s labour. From a more pragmatic and less theoretical perspective, society is to some extent dysfunctional if the output is distributed according to anything other than need, since satisfying people’s needs is a prerequisite for sustaining that output in the first place (there won’t be any output to distribute at all if the workers starve, for example). Arguably, meeting people’s needs is also the most obvious goal for any rational, non-oppressive society to have.
One question which will arise, then, is how the ‘peer economy’, as described, differs from the anarcho-collectivist system. There might be a grey area between the two, but the important point about the peer economy is that contributions are made directly in order to satisfy needs, and that these contributions are made according to the person’s ability and volition. A wage system is about rewarding labour, and the rewards are then used to try to satisfy needs. In the peer economy, if somebody works more than they need to (for the products and services they want to get), then the amount of work that everyone else has to do automatically goes down. In a wages system, working more than necessary entitles you to more stuff (regardless of whether you want or need it), and everyone else might need to invent additional work to do just to keep their wages the same.
People from right-wing backgrounds, including those who may have grown up with the American Dream inculcated into them, sometimes make the objection that hard work and extra ‘effort’ ought to be rewarded as if it’s a moral imperative. Parecon has almost certainly been infected with this viewpoint. From the anarcho-communist perspective, the impossibility of quantifying labour or effort means that such rewards could never be systemically implemented. For communism in general, labour is not supposed to be an unpleasant slog or a kind of noble sacrifice that people have to be incentivised to endure - it’s meant to be a pleasant activity which is rewarding in itself for the person who enjoys doing it. Work has to become pleasant, which means good working conditions, copious leisure time and an absence of coercion. Any remaining ‘unpleasant’ tasks just need to be either eliminated or automated using technology, and if all else fails, they must be shared out among the community in equal measure or using some kind of rota system. If anybody acts heroically in a communist society, this can be heralded in other ways - having a celebration or giving a symbolic gift, for example - but it would not be systemic or automatic, rather it would happen only if a community specifically agreed on it.
The Anarchists will wonder why I have bothered to include a system like technocracy which for them, involves too much in the way of hierarchy to be palatable. In fact, I think technocracy has a number of things in common with an anarcho-syndicalist system. In the anarcho-syndicalist world, there’s still likely to be a division between workers and non-workers, with workers pretty much monopolising decisions about what to produce and what methods to use. The producers’ federation acts a bit like a technate in that respect, because they can plan industry exactly how they want it. Anarchists still generally believe in the use of technology to cut down on manual labour and to make work more comfortable, and might even advocate the application of science to the design of cities, transport, education and so on. The difference is just this - in an Anarchist system, the technicians are chosen by the workers, and the workers can recall them and reverse their decisions if they want to. In general, people with special skills and expertise will be listened to because of their knowledge and might be chosen as delegates for this reason, but their ideas are still subject to the approval of the base. This makes much more sense to me, since the dividing line between “expert” and “non-expert” is not particularly easy to define. What’s more, if a thirteen-year-old girl or boy proposes a fantastic idea for reorganising production or if a local poet with no scientific background accidentally makes a groundbreaking discovery, then Anarchist systems don’t discriminate, and any society that does discriminate will lose out.
Rejecting those systems that make too much use of coercion or money, we’re left with the first five on the list. These clearly have a number of things in common. None of them require a bureaucratic state apparatus, which is not surprising if the function of a state is to defend a ruling class from a subordinate class. In the contemporary context this means defending a private property regime. Instead of private property, these alternatives have the commons, which is a pool of resources that anyone can draw from, subject to the oversight of the communities managing it. Instead of a market economy, we have a peer economy or a kind of partially localised and responsive planned economy.
The differences between these systems are on two main axes. First there are differences in the level of technology. Primitivism and eco-communalism opt to curtail industry and technology drastically; the other systems actually aspire to make even greater use of technology to automate undesirable labour. Second there are minor differences in where production decisions are made. Anarcho-syndicalism and the peer economy leave almost all production decisions to the workers themselves, giving workplaces a large degree of autonomy. The danger is that non-working members of society might be excluded, and community resources might be misused, but these problems are solved by mediation processes with consumer groups and community federations. Anarcho-communism and eco-communalism burden communities with a lot more decisions: they decide what gets produced, how to distribute it and how resources are used, leaving only the details of the process to experts and to workers who are involved. For that reason, mediation becomes largely unnecessary, and workplaces should never end up abusing resources or ignoring consumer demand.
It’s not my intention to pick one model and insist that it’s the best solution. These five systems don’t need to compete with each other. Instead, we can expect that the post-revolutionary world will be diverse, with different systems in different places, similar to how capitalism is heterogenous at the moment. There will be systems that fall between the models considered here, intermediate solutions and grey areas. This is what Kropotkin envisioned too: “revolution would break out everywhere, but revolution under divers aspects … everywhere more or less Socialism, not conforming to any particular rule” (ibid, p.65). In order to work out how we might build this diverse revolutionary alternative, let’s look not at the model societies, but rather at the institutions and frameworks that they consist of.
Let’s consider the following ingredients to be constitutive of a new society:
The resulting system depends on which of these ingredients are present, as well as a few variables in how they interact with each other. By looking at these components separately, we can, for one thing, identify what needs to be built, and for another, we can see how these components might come to exist in different mixed-and-matched combinations, giving rise to a patchwork pluralistic Socialism of the future. The community federation is strong in anarcho-communism; in syndicalism, the producers’ federation is strong; and in the peer economy, the emphasis is on a distribution pool. Eco-communalism consists only of isolated communities, but we can now start to see how such communities might choose to interact on a limited basis with the rest of the world.
The concept of the distribution pool, or d-pool, is described by Christian Siefkes in chapter 5 of his book. Here, I am using it as an example of a mechanism that a future society might or might not use to distribute products and tasks. Projects can choose to join the distribution pool. Then, people can contribute labour to any participating project, and in return, get the products or the service that they want from any other partcipating project. Each project just has to set the number of hours of labour it requires for each of its products or services. Projects might choose to use a distribution pool only if they aren’t supplied with labour by one of the other means listed above (e.g. voluntarism and community mandates).
Some communities might only be willing to support projects that provide things for shared community spaces along with the things that everyone needs to survive - but increasing everyone’s work requirement just to provide some individuals with their own personal telescope or private yacht might be an unpopular move, and pure voluntarism might be unable to meet the demand (in a reasonable timeframe). As a result, projects providing luxury items for personal use, such as cars, musical instruments, telescopes, video cameras and so on, might decide to set up a distribution pool. Then, somebody who wants their own personal grand piano doesn’t necessarily have to go and work in the piano-making project (as Kropotkin suggests in Chapter IX of The Conquest of Bread) - they could contribute their labour in the optics industry instead, whilst somebody who wants a video camera could put in the requisite number of hours at the piano-making project, if that suits their personal skills and proclivities better.
An eco-communalist style community could also participate to get extra products or services that it can’t provide for itself. To do this, the community might collectively decide what it wants and also collectively shoulder the responsibility, dividing up the contribution requirement among willing volunteers, who would then have to leave the community temporarily to make the necessary contributions. Because eco-communalism emphasises a more personal community life, where everyone knows and supports each other, it’s possible that volunteers would do this even if only one of their members benefited, such as getting a telescope for a young budding astronomer. The community harmony that this promotes is arguably present in every society, just more explicit in an eco-communalist one.
In practice the d-pool can be implemented as an online system that tracks tasks and products. In case labour is partially supplied by other sources, the contribution requirements would decrease accordingly.
As described in a separate article, a gift network can be used in any society to supplement the projects that are undertaken by other means. In a gift network, people advertise what they need and what they can offer and are matched up accordingly. They provide their services apparently for nothing, but there is an expectation that somebody somewhere in the network will do the same for them when needed. All you ‘earn’ is the reputation and trust that makes you a viable target for other people to help you when you need it. This can be done on a small, personal scale in the form of a ‘gift circle’, where everyone knows each other, lives close together and meets on a regular basis to discuss their needs and offers; or it can be done over a computer network (which I discuss in more detail in the article). Both systems are currently being pursued even now and could be carried over to a new society without much change. If this happened, the gift network would probably be most useful for small jobs that pop up irregularly, especially when one person can do the job and where only one person benefits - for example, fixing personal computer problems, looking after a pet when someone is away, practising a foreign language, etc. It could be extended to more major activity if the conditions are right - for example, using tools in a community workshop to custom-build a desk for someone, or providing very personalised learning activities in a community centre.
We’ve looked at several alternatives to capitalism that have a socialist or solidarity-based character, and we’ve broken them down into six key components, all of which exist in various embryonic forms right now. By working on these prefigurative realisations, we can start to build the framework of a new society. As the elements begin to interact with each other and in different combinations, the variables will be set in different ways, and the outcome will therefore look different in different places. There will be some big industrialised federations, but these will almost certainly co-exist with some small, self-sufficient communities, some hunter-gatherer tribes and some adventurous nomads who journey from one place to another. There will be room for some experimentation with technocracy and parecon too. A peaceful co-existence with other kinds of socialism, such as market socialism, mutualism and state socialism, is conceivable, but I certainly hope that the attraction of a world without money, markets, state or coercion will gradually become inescapable.
This “dual power” strategy is discussed in more detail in my next essay, The Solidarity Economy as a Strategy for Revolution.