Saturday, December 03, 2016

Forward Towards Free Access

 If you don’t have an alternative to capitalism you are stuck with capitalism. It is all very well to criticise capitalism but the really hard thing is to put forward a viable alternative to put in its place. How are we ever going to get to live in a socialist society if we don’t know what it is in advance of creating it? Socialism is obviously impossible without workers having some idea of what socialism is beforehand but all that is needed is a basic idea, a rudimentary mental model of a class-free, prices-free, wage-free and state-free society. A "revolution" carried out by people who are angry at the injustices of the old social system, but unclear about what to replace it with, or not sufficiently dedicated to the democratic structure of the new system, is the path to a new dictatorship. "Anti-capitalism" in itself can never succeed in overthrowing capitalism. To bring capitalism to an end we need to have a viable alternative to put in its place. And this is an alternative that we need to be conscious and desirous of before it can ever be put in place. The idea that such an alternative could somehow materialise out of thin air without a majority of workers actually wanting it or knowing about it is simply not realistic.

 It is only through speculating about alternatives in more and more details that we can begin to put more flesh on the bare bones on the idea that we can invest with more credibility. It is astonishing that some on the Left seem to have discarded altogether the idea of full communism and what is even more astonishing is the grounds on which they do so. They have bought lock, stock and barrel into the bourgeois myth of "human nature" to defend their anti-socialist position. They have failed to see just how much their own perspective is imprisoned within the narrow horizon of bourgeois rights and bourgeois behaviour patterns. So perverse are the arguments presented by critics of free access that they uncritically project on to it the same kind of atomistic self-interested outlook that prevails in capitalism forgetting that we are talking about quite a different kind of society altogether. You cannot just simply project into a socialist society the same kind of behavioural assumptions that underlie this dog-eat-dog atomised individualistic capitalist society. Human thinking is at least in part a product of the kind of society we live in. Critics illegitimately project onto socialism, the behaviour patterns and modes of thinking that pertain to capitalism - including, its way of looking at things. These narrowly focused criticisms fail miserably every time because they take no account of the fundamentally different framework within which a socialist society will operate.

Critics of free access have fallen into the same erroneous way of looking at the matter as the bourgeois economists with their taken-for-granted assumptions about human nature being inherently lazy or greedy and have fallen hook, line and sinker for Garett Hardin’s ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ that if people get free things, they'll act like locusts. Likewise, many on the Left have aligned themselves with the argument of the arch pro-capitalist Ludwig von Mises in asserting the need for a common universal unit of accounting. According to this argument, only by means of such a unit can we directly compare different bundles of inputs and thus supposedly select the "least cost "combination. For Mises this unit is money; for some so-called leftists, labour-values. The purpose of a common unit of account is to expedite economic exchange - what communism will lack - rather than the actual efficient deployment of resources as such. Having a common unit of account has nothing to do with the technical organisation of production itself and everything to do with capitalism's own priorities such as the need to determine profitability and the rate of exploitation.

The Left tends to be nothing more than the reformist advocates of some kind of state-administered capitalism, paying lip-service to authentic socialism but in practice obstructing any real movement towards socialism. The Left by and large does not stand for socialism and persistently misrepresents what socialism is all about by identifying it with various kinds of state involvement in the economy. To suggest that free access communism would be less efficient than capitalism ignores among other things that at least half the work done under capitalism serves no socially useful purpose whatsoever and contributes nothing to human wellbeing in any meaningful way. When production for sale on market ceases to exist and we produce simply and solely for need, a huge and growing chunk of the work we do today will no longer be required. The capitalist monetary system is the most extraordinary wasteful form of economic organisation yet the Left springs to its defence. Critics of free access need to fundamentally question and reassess the assumptions upon which they base their criticisms. The time is long overdue to restore and reassert the vision of higher communism as the explicit goal of revolutionaries everywhere. Revolutionaries today should NOT be advocating questionable stop-gap measures that have long been rendered obsolete by technological development. We should be hell-bent on getting the real thing - a society based on the principle "from each according to ability to each according to need".

Free access socialism is the most complete example of what is called a “gift economy" in anthropological terms. It is based on the principle of “generalised reciprocity” and the clear recognition of our mutual inter-dependence. It is not economic restrictions in the form of some kind of rationing that we should be focusing on but, rather a radical reconfiguration of the relationship between the individual and society and the realisation of human beings as truly social individuals (a social individual is an individual who realises his or her needs are part of a collective process of development and stimulation and thus has no need to hoard, monopolise, accumulate objects, articles for purposes other than that of use.).

 Despite what the economic text-books say, our demands are not insatiable. They are conditioned by the society we live in and in a free access communist society much of what we falsely consider to be essential to our well-being - the pursuit of status via conspicuous consumption - will be rendered totally meaningless. Scarcity (or abundance for that matter) is a function of both supply and demand and these are both influenced by the kind of society we live in. In capitalism, the logic of competition and the expansion of capital without limit is reflected in the bourgeois notion that as individual consumers our demands are "infinite". This idea serves as an apology for capitalism.

Free access socialism, or higher phase communism as Marx called (or fully automated luxury communism as some are now labeling it) it is not some futuristic science fiction scenario but has existed as a potentiality within capitalism itself from at least since the beginning of the 20th century. It is not predicated on some "super-abundance" of wealth being made available to people but rather on the very real possibility of being able to meet our basic needs. Free access socialism is not based on the assumption that we stand on the threshold of some kind of comsumerist paradise in which we can all gratify our every whim. We refer to society being able to satisfy the basic needs of individuals today, to enable us all to have a decent life. The elimination of capitalism's massive structural waste is the prime source of productive potential; it will make huge amounts of resources available for socially useful production in a society in which the only consideration is meeting human needs, not selling commodities on a market with a view to profit. In higher communism, there is no exchange. None whatsoever. Consequently, there is no "bartering" of each other's abilities or needs. You freely give according to your abilities and you freely take according to your needs. It’s as a simple as that. Free-access socialism is the most effective means to meeting human needs. It immediately cuts out all the kind of work that performs no socially useful function whatsoever but only keeps capitalism running. Given current levels of productivity, we can even envisage there being a shortage of socially useful work for people to do in free access communism. It will be able to produce so much more with so much less. In socialism, unlike in capitalism, we shall have a genuine vested interest in promoting the well-being of others - if for no other than reason than that our own welfare is bound up with theirs. The very nature of the future society must be sustained by people clearly aware of what they are doing, actively and voluntarily cooperating in social production. When we meet these preconditions then people will fully appreciate, their mutual interdependence and the need to pull together for the common good.

Socialism will not be about "setting prices at zero". It is about doing away with the whole notion of price and exchange value so that the very concept of "setting prices at zero" is a meaningless one. To talk of setting prices at any level presupposes still a capitalist framework. If supermarkets tomorrow said, 'All cans of beans are free' the shelves would be cleared in hours. But if they said the same the next day, and the next, it would become pointless to go and fill your arms with cans of beans, and easier to just go and take a reasonable stock to keep close to hand.  Money and prices are not abolished, but their need is rendered redundant. Just because individuals in a free access economy are not restricted by money from taking what they want, does not mean they will want to take everything they can possibly lay their hands on. The point about a communist society is that there is no objective or external econonomic mechanism like money or prices mediating between the individual and his or her wants.

Money is a social relationship that links buyers and sellers in a market and therefore presupposes these things. But communism implies common ownership of the means of production. Where everybody owns the means of production it is not logically possible to have economic exchange. Exchange implies owners and non-owners. When I exchange something with you I am exchanging property title to this thing for some other thing. If you own a factory producing widgets you can sell these widgets on because you own them by virtue of owning the factory that produced them. It follows that if everyone in society owned the factory there would be no one to whom these widgets could be sold or exchanged. If there is no economic exchange then there is no reason to have a means of exchange - money. Money is a mean of exchange amongst other things and what it implies is the existence of an exchange economy which is completely incompatible with the idea of your "public" owning the means of production. Exchange denotes a transfer of ownership rights of the things being exchanged. This cannot happen where everyone owns the means of production, common ownership rules out the exchange of products and hence money. Logically then if you advocate the use of money and hence exchange, this means you advocate a system based on sectional or private ownership of the means of production - not common ownership. Money is not some kind of neutral tool of administration; it is fundamentally a social relationship between people. Of course, money existed before capitalism but, in its generalised usage, it corresponds to, and demonstrates, the existence of capitalist relations of production as a monetised economy par excellence. Since there will be no economic exchange transactions in socialism - socialism being based on common ownership of the means of production - this reason falls away along with the need for money. This is why socialists totally reject the idea of using money not only in full communism society but in any supposed transition to such a society. A transitional stage that continued to use money would not be a transition at all. It would still be a capitalist society based on generalised commodity production.