Communism is not about forcing a false equality on people dominated by the kind of centralised state that existed in places such as the USSR. Those regimes never escaped capitalism. The main problem with capitalism is that it strips work – our life activity – of its creativity and potentially rewarding character. It traps the individual into a mundane monotonous rut where work is experienced as degrading, rhythmic, and exploitative. Producers are reduced to the level of appendages to machines without powers of thought or a myriad of talents to be cultivated and developed for their own betterment, or the enrichment of society.
Clearly however, the impetus of market relations has transformed the world for the better in material terms. In pre-capitalist societies, work often shares some of the aforementioned characteristics. One is a ‘carpenter’, a ‘baker’, a ‘butcher’, or whatever, as many surnames that are derived from professions attest. A fixed role in life was often defining to the individual, as it remains under capitalism. But the massive expansion of productive powers that has taken place under capitalism through the development of among other things, machinery, provides a potential basis for radical social transformation and the total liberation of the individual.
It is often difficult to see how our globalized economy *could* be stripped of the degrading character of work so that we have our cake and eat it – i.e., to combine high standards of living with a liberated workforce. But it’s not impossible. The trick is to understand that commodity production is not the same thing as production-for-others.
Commodity production is production exclusively for a market and your product is owned and sold by capitalists and their chain of command. You do not know where your product is going, who it will be used by, or see any satisfaction in that relation. You simply produce blindly, and worse still, your managers will seek to get the maximum out of you in return for a wage that makes the whole process highly coercive. The level of the wage is itself determined by what you need to reproduce your existence for the next working week, at a rate acceptable to society. It does not reflect how much you produce or how much effort was expended. The class relation concealed behind the wage – i.e., that you work for the capitalist class, means the surplus product is appropriated by them. This surplus value has held steady – bearing in mind ups and downs – at around a third of the total you have produced. It is as if for every meal you cook, a burglar invades your house and takes a third.
The problem of the lacklustre relation of specifically commodity production to human liberation however, would also hold even if there was no capitalist class and all producers were small businessmen or women. The same drudgery and tedium of being fixed in a role would persist, only you now pay yourself rather than are technically exploited. Besides, such a society is impossible to conceive, since in order to grow, a small businessman or woman would need to deploy their capital in employing others, hence class relations would emanate from this. So how does society escape the rut whilst maintaining (or even improving) the physical standard of living that high-tech capitalism has provided?
Production-for-others need not mean production for the market with all the negative consequences that entails. In a communally organised economy, the local community agrees through participatory democracy what needs to be done and the conversant individual decides to do it. This idea is not as far-fetched as might first appear to those whose only experience is within the confines of the market. Tribal societies that were once the dominant arrangement used this method all the time. With varying degrees of conscious control, they would sit around the campfire of an evening and work these things out. You didn’t have production for production’s sake, i.e. a brutalising state of affairs where the individual has no say and therefore experiences his or her life activity as alien to him or herself. Rather, production just took place to meet the needs of others. The length of the working day in these situations was usually far shorter since the surplus product was enjoyed by the collective rather than privately expropriated. And work was rewarding because you knew why you were doing it, knew who it was for, and had strong bonds with these people. Nevertheless, this is not to glorify tribal societies. There were usually hierarchies and technology levels were so low that lifespans were shorter and ridden with physical maladies.
But to extract what was positive about tribal societies and square that with our high-tech physically decent standards of living today, is a real possibility now that has become more immanent with the development of communication technologies. Thanks to things like the internet and smart phones, it would now be possible to have an economy that is consciously planned by those doing the work in direct accordance with the needs of society as agreed by local participatory democracy. The compensation for your time expended at work would be something like a certificate that guarantees you access to society’s bounty. Not every certificate would be equal at this point. In order to incentivise highly skilled work such as brain surgery or work that continues to be dull such as shovelling faeces, the quantity of goods you can get would be greater. You could be writing articles one week for a lower level of reward than someone who is shovelling faeces, yet alternate those roles or do something entirely different the next week according to the agreements reached by the participatory democracy. The faeces-shoveller of course would be able to acquire his Ferrari quicker. So, at this lower phase of communism, individuals are not yet equal in material terms, though they are equal in terms of political power. Moreover, it is worth noting that in this scenario, society is now totally incentivised to increase its technological level. In order that it doesn’t have to devote too many resources for both the highly skilled work or the dull work, society becomes obliged to develop smart robotics and other machinery that can annul the drudge. Insodoing, the new society is adopting a new economic law concerning an ever-increasing amount of liberation of the worker, freeing him or her to develop their creative powers and basically live the life of Riley. The capitalist law of value has essentially collapsed, providing the ground for the evolution of a post-money system. This is an entirely different mode of production to capitalism, and a vastly superior one at that. The starting point for the new society in relation to its emergence from capitalism, is the demand that the means of production become socially rather than privately owned.