How could a moneyless economy work? The system presented here is what I call the voluntarised commons economy, in which the commons takes over from private property, and the labour system is based on voluntary contributions of time rather than obligatory payments of money. There are no states, governments or indeed any political institutions in this model. It is a highly decentralised system where decisions are made directly by the person or people affected by them and nobody else.
A commons (which is both singular and plural) is a resource which a community shares and conserves in order to meet their mutual needs, according to rules which they define themselves. The community shares the labour required to produce what they need, and then shares the output according to need. Most pre-capitalist societies had commons instead of private property, and the concept has recently been revived in examples like community-supported agriculture, open source software and Creative Commons.
This model draws much terminology and inspiration from Siefkes 2008 and from recent ideas about commons associations. In particular, I believe this is the model that would result from a long-term anti-capitalist strategy based on the establishment of commons associations right now.
The system consists of the following institutions:
Peer projects (henceforth ‘projects’) are the core units of production, producing goods or providing services. They are created by people who get together based on a mutual need or a shared goal. These people then collectively manage the project and some of them contribute their time to tasks that it requires, i.e. they each represent a commons.
Syndicates are groups of projects with a shared interest. This can be projects that produce the same product, have the same input, or projects that together form a supply chain for a particular output (e.g. a ‘bread syndicate’ is composed of wheat farms, mills and bakeries).
A Producer Association is an organisation for all the projects and syndicates of a particular region. Its main goal is to find solutions to common problems and to organise services that are of general use to projects, such as advice, construction and renovation.
A Local Association is a special kind of project that organises the public services relevant to a particular locality, such as a neighbourhood, city or region.
A Resource User Group is an organisation that manages and conserves a natural resource as a commons, ensuring that the people who need it can access it fairly. A Local Association can also take over the role of a Resource User Group.
The Global Labour Pool is the system that replaces the market. It allows you to contribute labour to any project, regardless of how many projects you are a member of. Existentially it is an online database which stores information about the tasks that are available in society, as submitted by projects and associations - hence it has no decision-making authority of its own. Individuals manage their labour contributions via the pool.
Producer Associations are the descendants of the commons associations which we can set up right now. Local Associations, in this model, would be separated out from the commons association because the desired ‘scale’ of industry would eventually be larger than the desired scale of local services. The distribution of labour is also separated out from the commons association and handled via the Global Labour Pool in order to facilitate a globalised economy.
Projects are autonomous - they do not have to conform to a plan, for example - but by sheer necessity they have to co-operate with other projects and with other associations and resource user groups in order to obtain the resources they need for production. But these resources are also managed as commons - meaning that every project, individual and association which has a need of them participates in the commons for that resource on an equal footing.
Contributors to a project are generally drawn from the user group, rather than being recruited from ‘outside’. This means that most people contributing to production have an intrinsic motivation because they identify with the goals of the project and benefit from it personally. But instead of only producing enough for themselves, the contributors produce for the entire user group in accordance with the suggested contribution which they each receive from the labour pool, so that they can indirectly support the rest of the economy that meets their needs.
In this model, everyone decides how much labour they wish to contribute and where they want to contribute it as a personal, individual decision, without any compulsion. This also means that the level of your contribution does not affect your ability to access products or services, and the amount of time you spend working is not related to the amount that you’re allowed to consume. Rather, the amount that you can consume is determined firstly by what’s available, and secondly by your specific needs. There are many advantages of this - for example, obviating “methods of exclusion” such as checkouts and work capability assessments, which saves an enormous amount of (boring) labour. I have written a fuller justification of voluntary labour, but here we’ll just focus on how it works.
Each project needs to identify the tasks that are necessary for them to achieve their goals and then estimate the amount of labour, in hours, which they think each task requires. Adding up the estimates for every task gives them a total that is required for their project. Syndicates can then add up the totals of each project to work out the total labour required to supply their output. In some cases these totals can then be modified by a Producer Association if it organises additional services needed by their members. The list of tasks and their labour requirements are then all submitted to the global labour pool.
To contribute labour, individuals first register their intention to contribute via the pool. They are then given a guideline contribution which is based on which projects they are a member of. For example, a person is probably a member of the Local Association they live in, as well as a bread syndicate, a local farm project, a health clinic, an academic community, the local guild of music, a global electronics syndicate, and so on. The guideline contribution is calculated by adding up the contributions specified by each project they are a member of.
The individual then looks through the list of locally available tasks and picks out the ones that they are involved in or wish to be involved in. As they go along they can see how their pledged labour contribution compares to the guideline that they’ve been given. Depending on their current life circumstances they can decide to do less or more than the guideline contribution.
The process of choosing tasks, and adding new ones, continues indefinitely and dynamically. People’s choices are guided partly by the level of their contribution (whether it’s less than or more than 100% of the guideline they’ve been given), partly by their ability and circumstances, and partly by how important and how motivating the available tasks are considered to be.
Further concepts are necessary to understand how the tasks and the output are distributed. Firstly, unpopular tasks can be weighted differently from popular tasks to encourage people to choose them. Secondly, if there is still an overall labour shortage then there has to be a process of prioritisation and ultimately, rationing. Finally, systems are needed to cope with relative imbalances in labour.
Labour is not counted in literal hours but in “guideline hours”. Tasks are weighted higher if they are less popular and aren’t getting enough volunteers. For example, if your guideline contribution is twenty hours a week, you could fulfill this guideline either by doing twenty hours of popular tasks, or by doing, perhaps, fifteen hours of less popular tasks, and still feel that you are doing “enough”. In other words, the incentive for doing less popular work is to have more free time, knowing that you have still done your fair share. Although you can of course just drop out of labour altogether, project members would hold you in high regard if you do the unpopular tasks.
The important thing in this system is to complete the tasks that you have chosen, rather than to do the exact number of hours that they were estimated to take. This gives people an incentive to work efficiently, because if they complete a one-hour task in 45 minutes then it will count as if it were a full hour, and they are not expected to spend another 15 minutes pretending to be useful (as might happen in capitalism if you’re being paid by the hour). If the discrepancy persists then the system is updated for next time so that it better matches reality.
Rationing, to me, means a maximum quantity that you are allowed to order from a project.
There are two different situations when rationing may be required. The first is when there are material shortages or extravagant consumption patterns leading to a situation where consumption consistently outstrips the current rate of production. The response to this issue is to place rations on the highest consumers only, not on everyone. But if everyone is consuming extravagantly then projects can consider expanding production so long as this stays within ecological limits. When ecological limits are reached, then there needs to be a state of permanent rationing.
If there are multiple projects using the same natural resource as an input (such as furniture and paper which both require wood), then they must co-ordinate with each other via the Resource User Group or Local Association in charge of that resource. If the resource is strictly limited then they would have to agree on the relative priorities of their projects. Since project membership subsumes both contributors and users (i.e. producers and consumers), and since production is for use and not profit, there is every incentive to co-operate and respect ecological limits.
The other situation is when there is a global labour shortage. In this case, it is evident from the pool where the labour shortages exist. This should naturally encourage people to contribute preferentially to important projects, such as agriculture and healthcare. The task weighting system also means that less popular and more necessary tasks become more attractive in general, such as refuse collection. Therefore, a global labour shortage should generally only affect low priority projects - that is, luxury products. Regardless of which projects are affected, the response is to ration the output for the project members until the shortage is resolved.
An overall labour shortage just means that people are not willing to contribute any more labour. Sometimes, this means that they do not feel that the current rate of production is worth the effort. In that case, the economy should shrink. It is important to recognise this possibility in order to avoid the temptation to force people to work. (Regardless, forced labour requires violent methods which are not available in this model.)
In any case, an overall labour shortage is a problem that can always be overcome by determination and effort, contrasting sharply with material shortages or financial crises, where people and institutions feel generally powerless to affect the situation.
Sometimes, projects may need to expand, perhaps because there are new members or because the existing members want to consume more. And sometimes projects will contract, because its services might not be needed anymore, or because a technological improvement has made some of its tasks redundant. As a result, the guideline labour contributions will tend to fluctuate up and down.
But people won’t be able to respond to the changes in their guideline contribution immediately. This is because of two important assumptions:
That the economy will still be globalised, meaning you can be a member of a project that is located anywhere in the world, and that resources can be tied together in large, super-regional production chains
That there will still be labour specialisation, which is necessary to support advanced technology and modern medicine
There are important signals that will help ensure that nobody is overburdened and that important tasks get done. If somebody finds that their guideline contribution is increasing, this is an indication that they should look for other responsibilities that they can take on, if they can. But because you won’t immediately find a suitable task (for the reasons given above), it’s important to tolerate the imbalance temporarily, since a suitable task might only appear at some point in the future. Conversely if your contribution is above 100%, this is an indication that your project should recruit more contributors to help out.
Every globalised, specialised economy needs this kind of flexibility. In capitalism it is provided by unemployed people - an enormous reserve of potential workers who can be recruited at the economy’s whim, to help it expand. In the voluntarised commons economy, the fact that some people are always doing less than their full guideline contribution - or perhaps not contributing at all - similarly provides a reserve of people who can volunteer to fulfill new tasks as the economy expands. Your motivation to contribute in this case is to help achieve a goal that you find interesting or desirable to you personally, as well as to prevent the introduction of rations.
Let’s consider how to resolve a geographical labour imbalance. In this case, there is a region that is ‘relatively overworked’ and a region that is ‘relatively underworked’. People in the underworked region know that they are importing more than they are exporting because they will often find that they are unable to reach their full guideline contribution. As a result, they can consider migrating towards the overworked region, and this can be encouraged specifically by that region’s Producer Association. (For this reason, it is important not to have any barriers to migration.)
One way to do this would be to include a ‘labour migration program’ as an available task in the labour pool. Overworked regions could then submit opportunities to this scheme, and people in underworked regions could then take part in a temporary migration to those regions, for a few months say, similar to ‘volunteer abroad’ programs that we already have.
If workers don’t want to migrate to the work, then it is also possible for the work to migrate to the workers. Specifically, a product can be produced within the region rather than importing it from elsewhere. This decision should normally be made preemptively: that is, when expanding the economy, don’t expand it in a region that is already overworked, unless there’s no other option; expand it preferentially in other regions where more labour is available. Hence, despite overall globalisation, there would be a small incentive towards making the economy as localised as it can be, because it prevents labour imbalances.
So far, so abstract. Let’s think about what it would actually be like to live in this kind of society.
As I’ve discussed elsewhere, there would be far less work to do in this type of society. The two biggest reasons for this are the elimination of overproduction caused by market competition and the growth imperative, and secondly the elimination of all the redundant activities necessary to sustain and administrate the money system and the associated instruments of violence.
As a result, the average working week would be considerably shorter. I can’t predict exactly how short, but there’s no question that we would have more free time. And this should have considerable benefits to social and individual health.
In capitalism we expect there to always be lots of people who want work but cannot find it. Jobs are scarce: dozens may apply, but only a few will succeed. The threat of losing your job is a dire and feared one. In this other system, the situation is completely reversed. Jobs are abundant: everyone will be positively ecstatic to have you join the team and share some of the workload with you. Instead of fearing that you’ll lose your job, you are more likely to be afraid of losing your colleagues. If someone leaves the team, then there is more pressure on you to do the remaining work. This should hopefully create a culture of support and respect within projects.
One consequence of this is that you would often not need to have an interview to be accepted for a task, unless you had to demonstrate a specific skill. Having formal qualifications would also be less important unless the job is particularly sensitive. Wherever possible you’re trying to find ways of including people, not excluding them.
Any contribution - no matter how small - would be important. As a result, there doesn’t need to be a concept of the ‘working age’, nor ‘retirement’. Instead of being forced into years of education regardless of their goals and aspriations, young people have to decide for themselves whether to work, participate in education or training, or do nothing until they’re older, and they can decide to gradually increase their contributions depending on their ability.
The elderly, meanwhile, can retire completely at any age based on their own decision about their current state of health. If they feel able to do so they can carry on working for as long as they want and hence continue to feel useful, and they can gradually decrease their contributions according to their ability. Overall, we’d expect to see labour contributions from a much wider range of ages than is usual in capitalism.
The commons economy produces to meet needs, and that means it has to know what people need before production takes place, rather than producing stuff and only later finding out whether it will sell or not, based on market criteria. Therefore, when you join a project, you subscribe to your share of its output (as well as receiving the corresponding labour contribution guideline). So instead of going to a shop, expecting to find everything that’s on your list, you can only take things that you have ordered, and you will most likely take them directly from where they are produced, or have them delivered. You can’t end up buying lots of extra stuff that wasn’t on your shopping list. You have to think carefully about what you need and be aware of the effect that this has on your guideline contribution.
For example, your membership of a bread project entitles you to go to the bakery where the bread is baked and collect your regular bread order from the baker. You should of course be able to modify your bread subscription as your requirements change, and a good bakery will take this into account, but it will still base its rate of production on the size of its membership. If it has any surplus produce left over, it can be freely given away.
If there are no shortages, then it may not even be necessary to place a specific order in advance. After joining a project, you could simply collect what you want from the producer or from a free store. In this case, however, it would still be advisable for projects to publish a recommended average consumption which members should take into account, deviating from it according to their requirements either upwards or downwards.
There’s no incentive to accumulate large amounts of stuff that you don’t need, because it cannot be sold. If you have things you don’t need, the only reasonable thing to do is to give them away. Thanks to voluntarism, there’s also no incentive to steal things from other people rather than going through the legitimate channels of joining a project and subscribing. As a result, “methods of exclusion” such as security controls and security guards should not be needed.
In this system, decision-making takes place at the smallest possible scale and democracy - meaning majority voting - is only used when it’s absolutely necessary. In both your working and personal life you should therefore expect a great degree of individual freedom, both in choosing what you do and how you do it. If you don’t have the technical knowledge to make a decision, you would ask someone who does - there’s still no need to put something to the vote.
In peer production, co-ordination is usually provided by the principle of stigmergy, which refers to a process of emergent self-organisation based on hints left behind by others. For example, users may submit feedback in the form of ‘feature requests’ or ‘problem reports’, and a contributor who feels attracted to solving one of these problems would then adopt the task and solve it, without needing to have ‘permission’. Contributors are expected to know what they’re doing, and members trust them to carry it out for the general benefit of the usership. If they don’t, the membership should have the power to override any bad decisions - perhaps not by majority voting but by reaching a certain quorum of ‘vetoes’.
Majority voting could be used to decide whether to expand or contract production in a project, since this affects everyone’s guideline contribution.
If a decision affects multiple projects - such as how to share a natural resource or which technical standards to adopt - then it should be made collectively by the people affected. In these cases, more deliberative methods of decision-making would be necessary. One useful model for this is mandated delegation, where each affected project sends a delegate to an assembly at the level of the syndicate, association or resource user group. Each project gives a mandate to its delegate; the delegates then collectively work out a proposal based on the mandates they’ve been given and ultimately put it to a majority vote.
If you’ve paid a lot of money for something you generally expect a good service, and many people complain bitterly if they feel that they got a ‘bad deal’. This increases the pressure on workers to do a good job, and contributes to an atmosphere of hostility between consumers - who want the lowest price but the best service - and producers - who want the highest price and cheapest service.
But when someone does something for you voluntarily, you often overlook any shortcomings and are more likely to praise its good qualities. In a society where all labour is voluntary, I’d anticipate that there would be less pressure and more solidarity between users and contributors. But because contributors are co-owners of the project who have a mutual interest in the service they are providing, they would still feel a drive towards high quality, following the stigmergic principle.
A related consequence is that there might not be a catering industry. Since project members get together based on mutual need, I can’t really imagine people banding together out of some common desire to be servile towards other people, waiting hand and foot on perfectly able-bodied guests. Restaurants, beach resorts, luxury hotels and personal butlers might be a thing of the past - and I don’t think that’s even remotely a cause for sadness. Naturally there would still be communal eating facilities - mostly you would probably have to do the cooking yourselves. It would be possible to have some kitchen staff, I suppose, but the servile gestures of a gourmet restaurant would be out of fashion. Any tourists would probably use spare living accommodation and every holiday would be self-service.
A consequence of the task weighting system discussed above is that unpopular tasks have to be shared out among more people, so that they can all benefit from having more free time. So unpleasant tasks are likely to be shared out among contributors, probably by combining some skilled tasks with some unskilled tasks - though not necessarily within the same project.
Projects do not compete for their survival - instead, they co-operate via syndicates. Syndicates have an incentive to share ideas, research, best practices, common production chains and even contributors, in order to meet their shared goals more efficiently. Some competition between projects that produce the same output - such as between two film studios - can certainly be expected, but this would be based on qualitative factors, rather than ‘grow or die’.
For some products it may make sense for syndicates to harmonise their operations as if they were one project. For example, it might be that they can produce a variety of different LCD screens using a common process, rather than having separate projects each doing things slightly differently. Changes in user preferences could then be handled by the syndicate as a whole, as well as giving members a common guideline contribution regardless of which product they wanted.
In capitalist systems, public services are sometimes organised privately and sometimes nationally. In this system, public services could be organised by independent projects, or they could be handled by Local Associations. Unlike the state, however, the provision of public services is the Local Association’s only function. It is not a political body and its only decision-making authority concerns the services that it provides. All citizens of the region are entitled to participate in such decisions.
The Local Association is most likely to organise services such as the maintenance of public parks and public spaces, local road maintenance and street lighting, waste disposal and recycling.
Other services and utilities could be organised in a variety of different ways. Communal facilities such as clubs, sports centres, assembly halls, workshops, fab labs etc. would probably be part of the Local Association but they could be independent projects if they only cater to a niche.
In some cases, as we’ll see below, a Producer Association might organise a service on behalf of its member projects. I use the term ‘communalisation’ when the labour for a service is distributed by a Local or a Producer Association.
Although any part of the economy can be communalised, this is less likely in the case of agriculture and industry because everyone has their own preferred diet and interests. However, it is not clear how the goals of animal liberation could be achieved in this case, other than through campaigns and direct action.
Unlike most current CSAs, a complete agricultural alternative would need to see super-regional co-operation between farms in order to distribute surplus food efficiently and thereby overcome unexpected bad harvests in some regions. This could be organised by an agricultural syndicate with farms as its members.
We mentioned the example of a bread project above, where you collect a regular subscription. For larger products such as furniture, bicycles or computers, you obviously don’t need a regular supply. Although not strictly necessary, it’s likely that such services would still be organised as ongoing services, because projects are membership organisations supported by ongoing labour contributions. So these projects would probably also organise repairs, replacements, technical support and recycling - perhaps via co-operation with other projects within a syndicate.
Because there is no market, people can freely move into any existing empty housing. The more interesting question is about the construction of new houses when this is required. There are four different options: “social housing” organised by a Local Association, “worker housing” organised by a Producer Association, “bespoke housing” organised by an independent project, and “pleasure production” organised by autonomous architects.
The main way to organise the construction of new housing is to communalise it. If it’s communalised by the Local Association, then all members of a community would contribute to the housing of their area by receiving a higher guideline contribution, and they would have to decide collectively where to build and how much.
However it is also possible for the Producer Association to communalise housing: from the point of view of production, housing is a vital service because it allows people to migrate from other regions in order to contribute their time and skills to a local project and to resolve regional labour imbalances. A housing project of this kind would still need to co-operate with Local Associations or the local land commons, rather than just building indiscriminately.
An independent project would probably concern itself with producing bespoke housing for specific clients. The rate of production, i.e. the speed at which new houses are built, would be determined directly by the amount of labour contributed. You would need to wait a long time to get a new house, so this method is unsuitable for coping with general population growth and migration.
It’s possible that such a project could decide not to include its labour in the global labour pool at all. This is what I refer to as “pleasure production”. In this case, the project would be a band of architects who would expect to have control over what they are building and they would mainly produce for themselves.
Construction work - whether it’s new houses, new production facilities, new tools or machinery - is a one-off task. And it could be handled like that, if construction workers simply wait until there is a task available, remaining de-registered from the labour pool if they aren’t contributing in some other way. They could then focus on achieving their guideline amount by averaging out their contributions over the year. If they generally fall short when doing this, then this may be a signal that there are too many construction workers.
Another possibility is for a certain amount of construction work to be included in the labour estimate for a project, a syndicate or a Local or Producer Association. This could be based on an estimate. In this case, construction workers could remain part of the pool, and people would have a better idea about how much work there is to handle in a given period.
Childcare services could be organised as independent projects, but this would mean that parents would always receive higher guideline labour contributions than people who aren’t parents. If they want to take care of children privately at home, then the project could certainly count this labour as a contribution via the pool, but the parents carrying out the labour would still never be able to fulfill a 100% guideline contribution in this way.
Although there are no serious consequences of this situation - since contributions are not tied to wealth - the general implication is that childcare should be considered a service to society and included in the Local Association. In that case, everyone who is a member of the Local Association (i.e. every citizen of the region) would receive a guideline contribution that reflects the care of children in this region.
This still assumes a model of care work that is very ‘service-oriented’ and individualised. Care work in general can be made more distributed and more efficient in more communal societies. For example, the more that people live in communal housing, the more they can self-organise the care of dependants, and this can be supplemented by on-site childcare facilities in workplaces. With this schema, the care of one person can be distributed across many people in society at different times; coupled with a culture that normalises the care of dependants in general, it would be possible to ‘debureaucratise’ care work and hence remove it from the labour pool. It becomes then not the responsibility of any particular person - or of any particular gender - but rather the responsibility of society in general in a largely unquantifiable way.
One way to organise energy is in the form of independent projects which then split the labour cost between Local Associations and producers according to how much of the produced energy they each consume. As an individual you would then contribute to your home’s energy supply via the Local Association, probably on a flat rate basis; the energy required for all the other projects you are a member of would then be an additional factor in your guideline contribution. The water supply could be similar.
However, we are only talking about how the labour contributions are distributed - and even then, they are only distributed in this way roughly since all contributions are voluntary. In truth, the labour required to supply energy and water is subject to significant economies of scale. Therefore, it would hardly be problematic if the energy and water projects were subsumed entirely under the Producer Associations or entirely under the Local Associations.
Since almost everyone needs healthcare at some point, there is a good argument for Local Associations to manage it. In this case it would be necessary for citizens to decide which services are included and which aren’t: alternative medicine and alternative therapies might still end up being organised as independent projects. It is certainly possible for all health projects to be independent, so that your guideline contribution only reflects the labour required by the practices and practitioners that you want to use. But these services would still have to be general enough so that people with long-term disabilities or chronic illnesses are included - since they generally can’t handle the suggested labour contributions themselves.
Regardless of whether healthcare is communalised or not, the supply chains for medical equipment and pharmaceuticals would need to be organised on a super-regional basis. Hence most healthcare projects would need to be a member of a syndicate that includes many supporting industries. As a result, the guideline contributions would be augmented by a proportional amount of the labour in supply industries.
Local transport systems such as buses and subways may be organised by Local Associations, since everyone in the locality benefits from them. But they could alternatively be organised as independent projects - for example, each bus route could be managed by a separate group of people that uses the route.
Super-regional transport systems like the railways would have to be organised by a rail syndicate. The members of the rail syndicate could be user-directed projects - where each one manages a separate route and co-operates with the syndicate to co-ordinate the timetables. Alternatively the members could be Local Associations, with each one managing its own railway stations based on the preferences of citizens in general, and co-operating with the other members to manage the inter-regional network (that is, deciding on routes and handling the maintenance of the tracks).
Meanwhile, individualised transport products like cars and bicycles would almost certainly be independent projects.
Without a state there is no possibility for compulsory education in this system, but there still have to be educational opportunities for people to acquire the skills and knowledge required by their desired vocation and to follow their interests. The former I’d refer to as training, and the latter, the pursuit of knowledge.
Since there is no generalised competition for jobs, there would be no need for academic qualifications as such - only for certifications of having a specific skill that is relevant to a specific task. For example, it would make sense to have a certification of your skill in engineering or construction, but not to have a ‘degree in architecture’, and even then, practical experience would count just as much. Furthermore, because this kind of society tends towards labour shortages rather than labour surpluses, there is a clear incentive for projects to organise on-the-job training.
More rigorous training programs, such as for medicine, would probably be organised directly by the relevant syndicates, meaning that users of those projects would contribute to the quantity of training labour directly. The number of training places would need to be limited based on the number of teachers available and can increase as soon as more people within the syndicate are willing to train others. Because the labour is supported by service users, it makes sense to also include the time spent by the students, so that participating in a vocational training program would also count towards your labour contribution (kind of like being paid to study).
If its member projects so desired, a Producer Association could handle the labour for training programs so that the training labour is evened out across a variety of producers, and to simplify the calculations in case of multi-purpose training centres or when students want to switch courses.
Knowledge ‘for its own sake’ is a human need, but since it is not linked to a service, it cannot be supported by service users. In the voluntarised commons economy, it is nevertheless perfectly possible to set up independent academic communities for this purpose. However, the labour would have to be contributed directly by the users. As a result, unless you are only part of the community part-time, it would be very difficult to fulfill your entire guideline contribution in this way.
So there is no point in including this labour in the labour pool at all. Such communities need to aim for peer education, meaning that the categories of teacher and student are fluid, so that most people are both teaching and learning. The maintenance of the facilities themselves would need to be shared up among the participants. (This is another example of ‘debureaucratisation’ which we also mentioned under childcare.)
An alternative is for Local Associations to include an academic community and other knowledge-related services. Then it would be possible to allocate a certain, agreed amount of labour purely to teaching or learning.
We’ll need to discuss three broad categories of research: academic research in the arts, in the sciences, and R&D for industry. Although the lack of profit motives and financial hurdles makes research in general much easier, there are still differences in how these three types of research are organised. R&D is the ‘easiest’ since everyone can agree that it is beneficial. This is for slightly different reasons compared to capitalism where the goal is increased profits with little regard to working conditions or benefits to society. When workers themselves are in control, they will still want to upgrade their facilities and improve their technology, but they will do so because they can directly reap the benefits of having more comfortable working conditions and increased leisure time.
Since the results of R&D are somewhat uncertain, and may have benefits for producers other than the ones who conducted it, it makes sense for the Producers Association to share out the labour quantity among its members. Unlike in capitalism, the implication is that projects have an interest in sharing their research rather than keeping it secret, because they do not compete with each other; on the contrary, sharing knowledge and research is mutually beneficial because it can potentially lead to lower average working times for everyone.
If a new productive technology has been developed, the labour necessary to upgrade facilities can be distributed among all members of the Association, and projects can take advantage of the new technology if they want it. Communalising labour affects the guideline contributions of everyone who is a member, so decisions about what to include have to be reached collectively. If a particular kind of upgrade is rejected then the projects that want it can still handle it independently.
Some research, such as in medicine, might instead be communalised by Local Associations because of its general relevance to society.
Similar to ‘knowledge for its own sake’, it doesn’t make sense to include research in the arts in the labour pool. But it is still viable for three reasons. Arts research, e.g. history, literature, linguistics and so on, doesn’t require much in the way of materials or equipment. Secondly, without money or intellectual property law, there would be free and open access to all research and information that its authors decided to publish, hence very few barriers to entry and freer sharing of ideas. Thirdly, people would have lots of free time.
It is also possible for some arts research to be supported by Local Associations if citizens agree. For example, projects could present their proposals to the Local Association along with estimates of the amount of labour required, and if citizens accept them then this amount could be added to the communalised labour, which is divided equally among everyone. Alternatively, to support smaller projects, there could be a fixed amount of research time allocated.
Unlike the arts, the complexity of the work and the fact that it usually requires material resources means that it’s impractical to leave it to people’s leisure time. A big science project, such as a space program, would probably have multiple kinds of backers, mostly individuals and Local Associations, but also syndicates and Producer Associations if they think the research output might eventually prove useful in their own industry.
However, because of the enormous amount of labour required, the project can encounter difficulties for two reasons: either because there aren’t enough people willing to do the tasks that the program itself requires, or because there aren’t enough people willing to do all of the other work that is left over in the rest of society. As an example of the latter, if the project requires metal resources, then the mining and metal processing industries may face an overall labour shortage that requires them to decide whether to supply the space program or whether to supply ordinary construction projects. It seems overwhelmingly likely that they will give the space program a low priority.
If for some reason they made the decision to jeopardise other parts of the economy and prioritise space research, this might prompt Resource User Groups or Local Associations to intervene to prevent research projects from consuming too many of the commonly held resources.
Although this situation may sound bleak to scientists, the overall result is that the progress of scientific research would depend purely on the generalised will of society to support it. In capitalism, the willingness of the state and private investors to invest in research fluctuates depending on their financial fortune, independently of their actual will to support it, but even if they can afford it, this relies on the function of money as a ‘forcer of labour’, and not on the will of the labourers to do that work for that purpose (for example, miners, cleaners, maintenance workers, producers of solvents and multimeters etc.).
Like research in the arts, creative works are far more likely to be conducted in people’s free time in this society, and that’s fine, because people should theoretically have large amounts of free time available. Since work itself is voluntary, artists could of course decide to devote all their time to their art if they wished, but it makes sense to contribute to the labour pool as well - to get inspiration for new art if nothing else.
It is also possible for Local Associations to decide to recognise the work of the most popular or the most accomplished local artists as labour contributions. Local Associations might also communalise the labour required to maintain public crafting workshops or other facilities for the arts.
While prose, poetry, digital art and video games can be produced with general purpose resources like a computer, most non-digital art, films, music and performing arts require various kinds of material resources. To handle this labour it would be necessary for artists to form projects such as film studios and guilds of music and to unify support industries via a syndicate. Artists and their supporters would then become members of these syndicates and receive corresponding guideline contributions.
In this section we’ll look at some economic issues in more detail.
A project has a current rate of production - the amount that they produce in a given time period - but may also have a target rate of production, which is the production necessary to fulfill the current need. The target rate of production is based on the number of members in the project and their average rate of consumption, which is generally determined by the number of orders made in the given time period. Projects should generally publish guideline consumption values which users should respect.
If the target rate of production exceeds the current rate of production then the project is probably hoping to expand. Their immediate response to this situation is to lower the guideline consumption values, signalling to the userbase that a shortage may be imminent. In the short-term, they can try to fulfill outstanding orders via the safety stock, which is a limited amount of surplus products in inventory. (The normal guideline labour values should include the maintenance of a safety stock.)
These measures give the project time to recruit additional contributors to expand production. It is important to realise that guideline labour contribution values reflect only the current rates of production, not the target rates. This is because the guideline figures reflect the amount of labour a person should do to support their actual consumption. Increasing the guideline contributions may make some people work harder, but there is no guarantee that it will resolve the shortages that they are personally interested in, in which case they may lose faith in the guideline values.
Because of this, expanding the labour contributions in the short-term can only happen in one of two ways: either projects recruit new people who were not previously contributing at all (see the section above), or some people choose to contribute surplus labour above and beyond their guideline contribution. It makes sense for projects and producer associations to discuss the issue of surplus labour so that people do not feel that they are the only ones doing it. In addition, projects should assess how much surplus labour their contributors are willing to do, so that they can provide realistic feedback to their user base.
Note that in a market economy, every worker performs unpaid surplus labour all of the time, as this is the only way of turning a profit. This surplus labour similarly serves the function of expanding production. The difference is that workers in capitalism have no choice: they must do surplus labour and they must expand production.
In the voluntarised commons economy, surplus labour is a temporary solution. Once a project expands due to surplus labour, the actual rate of production rises and therefore the guideline labour values increase as well. Projects can then expect to be able to recruit new contributors from the ‘underworked’ section of the contributor base, i.e. people whose guideline values are now higher than their actual contributions.
Only if this process fails for any reason, or if the shortage is due to ecological limits rather than labour scarcity, then rationing is the main response.
In some cases, the demand for a product or service may be significantly above the rate of production that a project could ever hope to achieve. This is particularly the case with new inventions or recent technology upgrades, as well as with luxuries such as private yachts, and perhaps even private vehicles.
The first response to these kinds of shortages is to prioritise access over ownership, which essentially means to reimagine the service as something that people share, rather than something they have to own personally. Public transport, for example, meets people’s need for mobility in a more economical way than producing more private vehicles, which is subject to severe ecological limitations. Computers, gym equipment and so on could be produced for shared community facilities first and foremost, before private uses are taken into account.
For the people who definitely want to have their own personal item in conditions of absolute scarcity, ‘pleasure production’ may be one viable option. For example, if you wanted a private motorboat, you would have to go and work in an independent motorboat project. However, producing for yourself does not count as a contribution.
There are many other potential ways of dealing with this kind of scarcity, but if all else fails, a project can still attempt to meet the demand long-term, and people would just have to wait in a queue. This is not altogether too dissimilar from a market economy, where many consumers have to save up their money over a period of time before they can afford a luxury item. However, in a commons economy you could not ‘jump the queue’ by flashing your money around, because money does not exist.
You might, however, jump the queue by counting on personal favours or kinship ties with the producers in question. This kind of informal influence is very common in non-capitalist societies, and was practised extensively in the Soviet Union. It isn’t necessarily a ‘fair’ way of distributing the output, but neither is the market principle of “wealth begets wealth”. Ultimately, there is no ideal solution to absolute scarcity, and we merely have to hope that it remains an exception, limited to only the most extravagant items, or that access over ownership becomes more culturally accepted.
Some people may suggest that people who work harder should be prioritised, i.e. those who contribute more. However, in the system described here, it would be too easy to fabricate the level of your contribution. Others might suggest the use of a ‘black’ market to handle these scarce products, but that depends on the existence of a currency. If a currency were introduced, it could be catastrophic. Projects might see it fit to engineer a scarcity of their output so that they can obtain the currency. If so, a market economy would be reintroduced, and we would be back to where we started.
It should also be noted that people’s needs and wants in a market economy will not necessarily be the same as their needs and wants in a voluntarised commons society. For example, many people require private vehicles to increase their employability, but this might be less urgent in a commons society where there is less work to do and less pressure, and also a greater density of local opportunities. Consumerism is the culture and the ‘religion’ of capitalism: social status is tied to wealth. It is possible that material wealth would lose its social significance, while social networks and personal relationships would gain importance.
In a voluntarised commons economy, people are motivated to contribute for the sake of concrete use values. In the case of raw materials, however, there may be several concrete use values associated with them because they are linked to multiple outputs ‘downstream’ in the production chain, and contributors may not be motivated by all of these use values. (For example, timber is ‘upstream’ in the production chain for wood, while construction, multiple types of furniture, paper and other uses are ‘downstream’.)
In the case of infrastructure, such as roads and communications, it may be that people consider the project to be of such general relevance to society that they do not mind which projects benefit.
In other cases, the variety of outputs is not likely to be a problem until there is a shortage. When there is a shortage, an upstream project has to prioritise its downstream beneficiaries. There are multiple ways of doing this:
Have a separate project for each output. For example, a particular forest might be used exclusively to provide for a specific carpentry project. Hence all contributors to the forestry project have the same motivation and the shortage will only affect one project. However, this sacrifices overall efficiency, since larger projects benefit from an economy of scale.
Ask contributors to note which of their downstream users (‘customers’) they are particularly interested in. The output is then distributed in proportion to the number of workers who support each project - until the shortage is resolved.
Organise a meeting with representatives from each downstream project and decide collaboratively on how to prioritise the output during shortages.
Prioritise the output based on the size of the membership in each downstream project. Therefore, if glass production is used in the health industry, it is likely to be prioritised because the health syndicates have large membership figures. A niche project - such as a project that makes decorative glass products - may have to sacrifice their production when there is a shortage, since their project has few members.
As discussed above, projects tend to be organised as ongoing subscription services. In some cases, however, it can make more sense to make a one-off use of a project. In these cases, the guideline contribution is likely to reflect the manufacturing time of the product or service. Each one-off acquisition would be logged, and a person’s overall guideline contribution would be calculated so that it takes into account their average consumption of one-off acquisitions over the past year (for example). On the production side, one-off uses would also be factored into the project’s assessment of the demand for their services, so that they can track usage trends and set guideline consumption amounts, or rations as appropriate.
Another way of handling these cases is to include one-off acquisitions of certain product categories in your membership subscription for a larger syndicate. For example, membership of a household goods syndicate may entitle you to a regular subscription of things you need frequently, like toothpaste and toilet roll, as well as the occasional acquisition of less-frequently used things, like light bulbs or extension cables. The precise product categories available would depend on which projects have decided to join the syndicate.
In capitalism people “work” and “have a job” in order to earn money. This crucial difference in people’s fundamental motivations is the reason why I will generally use the word “contribute” rather than “work”, and the word “task” rather than “job”, based on the vocabulary that is customarily used in existing peer projects. ↩