I thought I should elaborate a little on a comment I made in a recent thread. It concerns the question of how it might be possible to get from where we are now to a free and liberating communist society. For readers who have no desire for such a society, I hope there is something of interest, even if only as an idle reflection.
Part of my comment was as follows:
In the posts concerning a “path” to a better society, what I am grappling with is no different to many others. The problem is not just to conceive of what that “better society” is, but, harder again, how to get from here to there. People disagree, for example, over reform or revolution, but even revolutionaries still struggle to answer how we get from here to there.
I illustrated this by providing a link to a talk, Is An Emancipatory Communism Possible?, by Allan Armstrong, which took place in April of this year in New York City. There is a long discussion after the talk, which includes some prominent Marxists, in which it becomes clear that they, too, frequently return to the question of how to get from here to there. And, like me, they have no coherent answer at this stage other than the conviction that such a transformation requires an end to wage labor.
With this point in mind, I added:
Personally, if an “emancipatory communism” is the aim, I do think that there does have to be a radical break from wage labor. However, there has to be a way to make this break. The only way I can see that this is possible, other than just imagining a sudden and complete break (which seems utopian) is to make use of what we have already developed within our current society – sometimes only as a potential – and turn it to our new purpose. The resumption of fiat money after an attempt to eliminate it is one development that I believe is highly relevant. I think it can enable a sustainable non-violent (I refuse to support violence) separation of the economy (perhaps only part of the economy, initially) from the logic of capital and wage labor.
But there are lots of other positive developments under capitalism (often as the flip side to a negative development) that also, in my opinion, make us more ready for such a change than we may realize.
In recent posts (here, here, here and here), I have begun to sketch out my thinking regarding the democratic potential in fiat money. Here I briefly consider some of the other positive developments under capitalism that may have partially prepared us for a transformation to a better society.
I think these developments are many and varied, some obviously more significant than others. One development I have in mind is the way a combination of capitalist reality and propaganda has encouraged identification with certain positive ideals such as freedom, liberty, democracy, equality in certain respects, diversity and tolerance. To some extent, the internalization of these ideals has been due to the development of a false consciousness concerning the nature of the society in which we live, encouraged by an unrelenting assault of propaganda through education, media and other influential social institutions. But at the same time, in most instances, there is also a real basis to the internalization of these ideals, because capitalism does offer limited forms of freedom and liberty. In a formal sense, it has usually developed alongside liberal democratic institutions, superficial though these are, and maintained equality before the law. It does encourage the diminution over time of certain types of inequality, prejudice and discrimination, partly because in the long run the profit motive may tend to reward non-discriminatory decision making, and more importantly because capitalism has usually provided openings for protest and dissent, and has generally allowed space for the building of mass movements for change.
But capitalism promises much more than it can deliver on all these fronts. So we are left with strong desires for the attainment of these positive ideals yet are confronted by the lack of genuine liberty, freedom, democracy and equality. Capitalism has developed a strong desire within us for something that ultimately it cannot deliver. It seems likely that this leaves us receptive to social changes that could bring us closer to those ideals. In this sense, there may be a greater yearning for these ideals than is necessarily obvious on the surface of economic behavior carried out under the constraints and compulsions of capitalist social relations. This raises the question of how much people are really committed to the current system, and how much it is just a feeling of resignation. There may be a feeling of helplessness, but not necessarily a lack of receptiveness to something better.
Capitalism also engenders an incredible economic dynamism in which capitalists are compelled to search out ways to cut costs through the implementation of technical innovation. This creates tremendous potential for generalized improvements in material living standards while at the same time producing fluctuations in employment and output that cause hardship for many. The gap between what is possible in material terms and what is actually delivered by capitalism tends to grow over time with every improvement in the methods of production. (This has been discussed to some extent in Implications of a Purely Mechanized Economy and in the ensuing commentary.) Under capitalism, technical advance is a competitive necessity, but also a daunting force, threatening to take away workers’ jobs and undermine capitalists’ past investments. The technical improvement raises the rate of profit on new investments while jeopardizing the viability of old investments. Something that potentially could be nothing but a positive force – technical development – at least temporarily harms many under capitalism. The absurdity of this will only become more apparent with the massive increase in mechanized production methods likely to occur in coming decades.
The social consequences of capitalism’s dynamism and drive for innovation extend far beyond the economic, into all areas of life. Change sparks new thinking, new art, new everything. Those with more time on their hands – whether through increased material affluence or as victims of mass unemployment – have more time to think, reflect, consider what other worlds might be possible.
There are many more considerations that could be raised. I will just mention one more that seems particularly relevant to the question of how receptive people are likely to be to a social change in which income is less tied to labor time – that is, a move away from wage labor and capitalist social relations. It is already the case, under capitalism, that much productive activity goes without monetary reward, some unproductive activity is highly rewarded, and much activity is rewarded in ways that has no real relation to the social value of the activity being undertaken. In other words, there is already, under capitalism, a significant separation of productiveness and income, and an even greater separation of productiveness and wealth.
Most work done in private households, for example, is productive and unpaid. When family members do something for each other, it is usually a communistic, not a capitalistic, social relation. When someone does a friend a favor, likewise it is communistic behavior. (The institutionalist – and non-socialist – economist Ha-Joon Chang touches on this and related points in an entertaining video.)
At the same time, there is currently mass unemployment in many countries. People, by now, have become quite accustomed to the notion of a significant minority of society receiving a modest income in the form of a welfare payment, unemployment benefit, transfer or charitable donation. There are also those of working age who need not work due to the interest income they receive on savings. Interest payments are also transfers. In all these cases, there is a separation of income from productiveness.
On Wall Street there are people who have made decisions of dire consequences for their employers or shareholders, and indirectly society, yet received massive bonuses. Again, this is a sharp separation of productiveness from income. In one sense, this might be considered an outrage. In another sense, it might be helping people get used to the idea that income and productiveness need not go together. I noticed a comment on a message forum recently that basically said, “I suppose if someone in the financial sector making monumental errors can be paid millions in bonuses, what’s a few hundred a week for a person who is unemployed?” By similar reasoning, if 1 percent of the population can own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent (Jim O’Reilly has just put up a terrific post on this), how much relationship is there between financial reward and productiveness in our current society?
One possible conclusion to draw from all this is that maybe we are already quite accustomed to the notion that material well being need not be connected to productiveness. Capitalism has already taught us that. Now it might be time to share the material well being around more equally, and as now, more or less irrespective of an individual’s proficiency or productiveness, but instead primarily on the basis of need and other humane considerations.
The point is, all these developments under capitalism, even the negative ones, potentially have positive effects on the receptiveness of people to the ending of wage labor and capitalist social relations. It may be that it is possible to be more revolutionary than the Marxists in this respect. Why bother reverting to a system (socialism) in which income is strictly tied to labor time when we have already advanced well beyond that kind of thinking thanks to the perversities of our current system? Rather than go backwards, why not just move forward from the point we have already reached?
As I have suggested in recent posts, fiat money would seem to make such a break from wage labor and capitalist social relations possible. Whether we want to pursue this possibility is ultimately up to us.