APPROACHING COMMUNIST ECONOMICS FROM A DIFFERENT ANGLE
I want to explain what a workable communist economic system would look like, but the task is not as straightforward as it might seem…IF you are going to do it correctly.
Most communists, if they tackle the question at all, start from the standpoint of, “What if people worked according to a common plan and shared out the wealth according to need? Wouldn’t that be GREAT?! Here’s a particular way of planning for production and distribution that I came up with….”
For one thing, this way of addressing the question of how to configure communist economics is too immediately concrete. Any concrete plan that we come up with is going to be limited to the material resources at our disposal at any particular moment. If example, if we were trying to build a model in the 1970s for how to run a communist economy, we would not have been able to imagine the full range of possible roles for our modern, 21st-century computer technology. It would be better to come up with more general principles first so that people could apply the general principles to any material situation in which they found themselves and create a communist economy that was tailored to their material capabilities.
The bigger problem with plunging right into concrete schemes of communist economics is, to anyone who is not already a committed communist, this sounds like putting the cart before the horse. Before you can talk about any specific ways of planning and sharing production, you first need to establish that this planning and sharing can happen in the first place. “Oh yes, wouldn’t it be GREAT indeed! Sadly, people are not angels. They are lazy, selfish, and not omniscient, so all of your planning and sharing will never get off the ground, no matter what form it takes. Competitive production for profit is the only way to ensure efficient production that is tailored to the wants of the public.”
The problem is that neither capitalists nor most communists really understand what capitalism or communism are. They get the debate started off on this false dichotomy of “planned, cooperative sharing” vs. “unplanned competition.”
Capitalism has plenty of examples of planning, cooperation, and sharing (think of the internal dynamics of any major corporation). And communism might easily have many examples of using certain decentralized, unplanned, competitive incentives to motivate people to contribute to production. (“Oh no! Heresy!” I can anticipate you communists in the audience thinking. Don’t worry, though: I am NOT talking about so-called “market socialism.” So-called “market socialism” maintains the production of commodities, which in fact makes it still a certain variety of capitalist production with all of the problems and pitfalls that that entails, as I will explain below).
Neither planning, cooperation, sharing, nor competition are essential features of capitalism or communism.
Allow me to restart this debate on a footing that I think is more accurate with regards to the essential features of each:
Capitalism is an economic system of commodity production in which labor power itself is a commodity.
Communism is an economic system of use-value production in which labor is motivated by non-commodity (non-exchangeable) incentives.
These simple sentences have more semantic implications than meet the eye.
Consider the first sentence about capitalism. Most people think they understand capitalism. Most non-Marxists would probably not elect to describe capitalism using these terms (or they might even think that there is no such thing as “capitalism,” per se, and that the term itself is outdated and misleading), but if given the description of capitalism above, most people would probably hazard a guess as to its meaning and think that they understood what Marxists were trying to say by it. Words like “commodity” sound like perfectly ordinary words with perfectly ordinary, non-technical meanings. Everyone knows that a “commodity” is just a physical good, such as pork bellies, soybeans, or barrels of oil, right?
Alas! I’m afraid not, my dear non-Marxist readers. And in fact, understanding what a “commodity” is and isn’t turns out to be the key to being able to envision exactly what a workable communist system of (non-commodity) production and distribution would look like.
The concepts of “labor power” and “commodity” are what I might call “vulgar cognate” terms. They (falsely) sound like they are similar to perfectly ordinary words like “labor” or “product,” but their meanings are in fact quite different. It is like being misled by a false cognate when learning a foreign language. For example, in French “le collège” sounds like it would mean “college” in English, but in fact it means “high school.”
Under classical political economy, words like “commodity” once had precise, technical meanings that have since been vulgarized in the minds of most. Most people think they know what these terms mean, when in fact they don’t. To most people, “labor power” is synonymous with labor. To most people, a “commodity” is just some physical product like pork bellies or soybeans or a barrel of oil.
So, if you tell people that communism will get rid of commodities (it must!…if it is going to avoid inheriting the essential dysfunctions of capitalism, as I will show), then it sounds like you are saying that, under communism, there will be no material items to enjoy, such as pork bellies, soybeans, barrels of oil, etc. That doesn’t sound very appealing!
Likewise, if you tell people that communism will get rid of labor power as a commodity, then it sounds like you are saying that people won’t have to (or won’t be able to) labor at all. “What delusional pipe-dream—as if society could function with people sitting on their butts all day! You see, communists just don’t understand human nature—that humans are lazy and selfish. Such silly, idealistic hippies, these communists!”
But what if we told people that we can find incentives to get people to do useful and necessary work that are not exchangeable commodities such as money….”Non-exchangeable incentives? Huh?” Likewise, what if we told people that we could produce useful goods and services and allow people to use them without first exchanging them as commodities….
Most people would have a difficult time imagining these scenarios of non-exchangeable work incentives or non-commodity goods because they consider exchangeable work incentives (money) and commodity goods to be natural concepts, inherent to human nature—so much so that the present specific commodity nature of goods under capitalism remains invisible to them. People will only be able to envision non-commodity goods and services (perhaps THE most essential feature of communism) once they properly understand what commodity goods and services are.
A commodity is a good or service whose only use-value (subjective utility or usefulness) to its producer, as a consequence not of the material qualities of the good or service, but of the social circumstance of that good or service, is the exchange-value of that good or service.
Oh boy…even more semantic meaning to unpack! This is why many people don’t end up making it through the first three chapters of Marx’s “Das Kapital.” We are not trained in grade-school to think in terms of these concepts of “use-value” and “exchange-value.” But they turn out to be essential.
To make this semantic unpacking easier, I have added some color-coding to each separate part of the definition of the commodity that is doing some separate bit of semantic work. I will have to go through and explain why each part of the definition in each different color is essential. That will have to wait for another installment.
But first, let me preview a bit of the roadmap if where we are going.
PRODUCTION FOR EXCHANGE VS. PRODUCTION FOR USE
If capitalism is the production of commodities, then another way of saying this is that capitalism is production for exchange-value rather than production for immediate use. Goods and services produced under capitalism must first be exchanged for exchange-value before they can be used. This requirement often becomes a frustrating impediment to the continuation of production of useful things and an impediment to the survival of people who badly need to use those things in order to survive, but who don’t have the exchange-value necessary in this mode of production to purchase those things as commodities.
The central idea of communism, on the other hand, is to break this impediment, this fetter, by having all of us orient our activities around production for use, not production for exchange-value. In other words, once we have produced a good or service, someone (who?) will immediately get to use it.
This is, from the standpoint of a Marxist, the chief appeal of communism. From the standpoint of Marxists, communism has nothing to do with people looking forward to standing around in a circle holding hands and singing “Kum-by-aaa.” It has nothing to do with the appeal of the idea of people “sharing things nicely with each other” in the abstract. That was the appeal of “communism” from the standpoint of the so-called “utopian socialists” of old, as well as from the standpoint of so-called “Christian communists” and others who want to go back to the the “primitive” or “primary” communism of informal tribes that had numbers of members below the Dunbar Number of about 150, in which shame and prestige economics (a moral economy) can substitute for a monetary economy.
Anyways, if communism is production for use, then the question then becomes: communism is production for whose use? The immediate producer’s use? The government’s use? Society’s use? (But, if it’s the latter, then “society” sounds rather nebulous. Who in our “society” will actually get to use which products and how often?)
One thing is for sure: it wouldn’t really make much sense to have people producing things for their own immediate use when we have inherited a complex and very efficient division of labor from capitalist society. Shoe manufacturers would end up stockpiling more shoes than they could use. Chair manufacturers would end up stockpiling more chairs than they could use, etc. We could get rid of the division of labor, but that would mean going back to a very inefficient system of individual subsidence peasant production—hardly appealing!
So we will assume for the time being that we will maintain (or even intensify!) the existing division of labor, and that the production for use will be for either the government’s use and/or society’s use.
STANDARDS OF EXCHANGE VS. STANDARDS OF USE
Capitalism is a system of production for exchange, and so it is no surprise that capitalism is chiefly interested in enforcing a certain standard of exchange: the law of (labor) value. Once commodities have been exchanged for exchange value, then capitalism cares not whether consumers derive any satisfaction from actually using the commodities.
Communism, on the other hand, is a system of production for use, and so it should be no surprise that communists would need to be chiefly interesting in enforcing certain standards of use.
Communists would not need to be particularly concerned about acts of physical exchange. If someone goes to a warehouse and physically removes an item from the warehouse and brings it back to that person’s house, then it would be of no concern.
However, communists would need to care about how those goods or services were being used.
Standards of use that communists might want to consider would be:
- What proportion of the time is the good or service being utilized?
- Is the good or service being used in a socially-necessary or socially-beneficial way?
For example, imagine that some acquaintances of yours removed a computer from a common warehouse and put that computer in their workplace. However, you happen to know that they only use the computer for one hour per week to surf the internet while they are on their breaks. You know that others could utilize this scarce resource in a more socially-beneficial way.
Under communism, you might be able to remove that computer from their workplace and put it back into the common warehouse, or maybe even into your workplace if you think that you could make better use of it. Your acquaintances could “sue” you for “stealing” their computer. Yet there might be an elected and recallable “town economic council” that would hear both sides out. If this council rules that you had a better track record than your acquaintances of making good use of goods, then this council could possibly vote to allow you to maintain usage, for the time being, of that computer.
You still would not “own” that computer. Someone else could come along and claim to have a better plan for using that computer, and society would have to make that judgment somehow.
And how might such a council be able to decide what “socially-necessary use” of a certain good or service would be?
One could have different organizations compiling different estimates of “factor utilization” for various products. Councils could use the numbers of whichever organization they found the most trustworthy and accurate the most often.
For example, if it was found that a random sample of a certain brand of computers in a country (Example: Datatron XL200) showed that they were only being used for half of each day on average, then the factor utilization for that brand of computer would be 50%. Let’s say that a random sample of oranges in society found that 75% of them went rotten before people got around to eating them. Then the factor utilization of oranges would be 25%. And so on….
Other voluntary organizations could take these compiled lists of factor utilization for different goods and services, and these voluntary organizations could try to keep track of who worked on producing goods and services with the highest factor utilization to earn the most “prestige points,” which might be relied upon as deciding factors in council votes on who gets priority usage of any particular good or service, or they might even decide who gets certain non-exchangeable perks as an incentive for others to focus on producing efficiently-used goods.
An example of a non-exchangeable perk might be a reservation for a Caribbean cruise vacation with a person’s specific name on it, such that the Caribbean cruise authority would only accept that person on-board with photo ID. There would be no ticket to trade as a commodity. This would NEED to be the case with such non-exchangeable perks because, otherwise, if you make these perks exchangeable, then you turn these perks into commodities and re-install commodity production.
NO SUCH THING AS HOARDING UNDER COMMUNISM
Communist society might have a distinct production advantage over capitalist society because, under communist society, every warehouse, home, and workplace would function as a collective “warehouse.” Things that were simply not being used according to the prevailing standard of intensity and/or social benefit could be taken by others to be used, regardless of where those items happened to be stored.
Some personal items, such as toothbrushes or dildos, might be exempt from this arrangement. But in general, there would be no reason why any piece of real, useful wealth could not be used by someone at nearly every hour of the day. If people did not like invasions of their privacy, then it would be up to them to store their goods in places that were easily publicly accessible without intruding into their privacy. People would only want to store a few personal possessions in their bedrooms. If someone tried to hoard, let’s say, a bunch of laptop computers in his/her bedroom, then perhaps councils might find that intrusions in that bedroom to retrieve those computers had social justification. On the other hand, if someone did not have stuff stored in a bedroom, and yet someone intruded anyways, then that could be punished as a true invasion of privacy and violation of common decency without social justification.
In any case, hoarding useful goods from those who could make good use of them—the chief bane of commodity production—would be impossible without the legal defense of it.
These are just some rough ideas. I’ll have to elaborate more on this in another installment….