Disconnection from Commodity Production
[Part 4 of 5 of the essay »Anti-economics and Anti-politics« by Robert Kurz, published under CC by-nc-sa]
So how is a “natural microelectronic economy” possible as an embryonic form? The difficulty consists in the fact that the capitalist form of the functional division of society, as in the case of the capitalist structure of use value, cannot be assimilated, without alterations, into an emancipatory reproduction. The personnel of an enterprise which, for example, produces ships, cannot emancipate themselves, such as they are, from the social form of value. Since they do not consume the ships and cannot satisfy their own needs with the means of production of their enterprise, and since, at the same time, the specific production of their enterprise is incorporated into a capitalist system of division of labor, they remain dependent on the production of commodities, with all the familiar social consequences.
The situation would not be at all different even if there were to be a mass movement in society with a base in all the enterprises that would attempt, as a result of a crisis in capitalist reproduction, for example, to immediately supersede the commodity form on a worldwide basis. The “councils” of all the capitalist enterprises would not only represent the totality of the capitalist structure of use value, but also a whole system of functional divisions increasingly shaped by the abstraction of value, from the arms industry to transportation. A large proportion of these enterprises, due to their absurdity or the threat they pose to the public, must be immediately shut down, and the rest must be completely remodeled and inserted into new social relations.
To this must be added the fact that, in a commodity-producing system, there is practically no social understanding of the total network of reproduction on a material and physical plane. The totality of the social aggregates is only manifested in the form of large scale abstract liquidities in monetary terms (income flows, expenditures, etc.), in such a way that they are represented by the “total political-economic calculus”, so that the isolated enterprises, in the material aspect, only know their own suppliers and clients, but not the whole material process linked into a network, of which they form a part. There is, therefore, a grotesque ignorance on the part of capitalist society and its members concerning the material aggregate of their own life context, which is as foreign as an unexplored continent. This is why, when some journalists reconstructed the fantastic peregrination through Europe of a prosaic cup of yogurt and the resulting senseless waste of resources, their research led to such surprising findings. This is just one example that became famous; the same problem is repeated in everything that is produced, from gas turbines to pins.
A representative social system composed of enterprise “councils” not only has to fight against the furies of the interests of particular enterprises or the interests of their substitutes but also against a structure of reproduction molded by the abstractions of value—a structure which, by itself, tends towards mediations marked by the commodity form or, if not, appears to demand a new political meta-application, which intervenes “from above”, in a now more, now less, stabilizing manner, with all the dangers of an autonomization of this application. But a territorial-based organizational alternative to the “councils” (the opposite of enterprise-based councils), with a base in residential areas, cannot solve this problem either since, on this plane, they will only find fragments of an unknown context of production. The old workers movement, in effect, oscillated between the enterprise-based and territorial form of organization, and it turned out that as a general rule the trade unions were organized upon the basis of the enterprise and the parties territorially. This corresponded perfectly with the attachment to the economy of commodity production on the one hand, and to the complementary sphere of politics, on the other.
The organization of an emancipatory movement, therefore, cannot only be based on the structures of the capitalist division of labor (enterprises), or only on a territorial base (residential areas), but must instead contain within itself the (anti-) economic embryonic form of an alternative reproduction. An embryonic form such as that of a “microelectronic natural economy”, which supersedes private property in the means of production, cannot be represented at isolated points within the structure of reproduction (which at the beginning only exist in a capitalist form), but only at its end-points—where production becomes consumption. Only at these points is the constitution of a social space of cooperation possible whose activities do not lead back to the market, but are preferentially consumed, in their results, by the members themselves.
The economic split (and even that of individuals themselves) into the interests of the producer and the interests of the consumer is a basic characteristic of the commodity production system and of its corollary, private property in the means of production; the social and communicative identity of producers and consumers is thus a condition sine qua non for a supersession of the value form. Of course, this identity is not immediately possible for the whole of society, but must be mediated by institutions of direct social communication: “immediacy” in this context refers to people’s own environment, language and “discussions about” all the issues of reproduction—the opposite of the indirect, abstract, fetishistic, subjectless and mute environment like the one represented by value. This totally new kind of mediation, however, must itself first be mediated, exercised, tested, extended and refined, and this demands that the embryonic forms begin where the relation between production and consumption becomes palpable, without intermediaries. This is an unavoidable problem for the whole social emancipatory movement, regardless of the degree or stage of the crisis of capitalist reproduction in which it operates.
Historically, the market was always driven by raw materials and intermediate products, permanently encompassing new reproductive relations—and not only with relation to the acquisition of the final products that directly affect consumption, but also to the mediation of consumption itself, in the form of services, affecting even the private sphere. The economic totalitarianism inherent to capital obliged it to unconditionally dominate human reproduction and to leave as little space as possible outside the process of valorization (outside State bureaucratic “redistribution”, for example), except for activities which were in themselves unvalorized or only partially valorized which we call domestic labor, child care, etc. At the threshold of the historical limit of the value form that is just now coming into view, the integrating power of the totalitarian economic system is extinguished since the microelectronic revolution, in the most various ways, renders an increasing number of people dysfunctional and superfluous. At the same time, the system neither wants nor is able to abandon its totalitarian pretensions, and is attempting to reinforce its coercive aspect even when human and material resources can no longer be satisfactorily distributed.
With regard to an emancipatory movement which is conscious of the need to reproduce, starting from the embryonic forms, the social identity of production and consumption at a higher stage of development, it follows that it has to seize the market’s historical prey, in an exactly reversed sequence, beginning with the services and the final products which enter directly into consumption, for the purpose, starting with these final products, of developing and remodeling all of reproduction in an emancipatory form, all the way to raw materials and the supersession of the system of commodity production. A necessary factor that is consonant with this goal is, above all, the utilization of the emancipatory potential of microelectronics, rather than attempting to produce microchips. In the basic terms of Marx’s reproduction schema, this process can be reduced to the following economic common denominator: in order to disconnect the social terrain of cooperative activities from the commodity form and to prevent the market’s return, one must not begin with Sector I (production of means of production), but with Sector II (production of means of consumption) and with services.
This perspective is as radically distinct from any idea of small autarchic communities as it is from all conceptions of so-called dual economy. Socioeconomic autarchy would not be an embryonic social form, but a form of subsistence, in the pejorative sense of the word, which neither wants nor is able to maintain the level of socialization and of the productive forces; it would regress to a state inferior even to the petit bourgeois model of commodity production and would in other respects reveal its illusory nature, since there is always some tool or some component of production which a small community is incapable of producing for itself. This notion of autarchy, whether on a regional, “ethnic” or national scale, only transposes the moment of isolation to a wider context and thus does not lead to the end of commodity production, but only to the mean-spirited (as well as racist and nationalist) delimitation of the corresponding system of relations.
If it could be established, a society implementing a system of autarchic reproduction would constitute a “coercive community” that would oppress the individual according to the model of the religious sects, as was already demonstrated by the idea of autarchic “spiritual communes” elaborated by Rudolph Bahro, a former East German dissident. Autarchy should not be confused with the aspiration for social autonomy. Autonomy does not mean making everything on one’s own and constraining reproduction to an obtuse communitarian ethos. Autonomy means exactly the opposite: it means that economic relations are no longer subject to an external, irrational, fetishistic coercive relation, and that they rest upon free and conscious communication, which allows the individual’s eccentricities leeway for either open expression or for inwardness and seclusion. It should therefore be a social terrain for the expression of autonomy in this sense, a social terrain which can only exist if it is not regressively isolated and embraces multiple and extensive relations, capable of breaking with and superseding (and not reinforcing) national, religious and “ethnic” relations, which were transformed into models of exclusion in the history of modernization.
The concepts of dual economy, on the other hand, are also incompatible with the embryonic forms of the “natural microelectronic economy”, since the latter do not promote a static exchange with the forms of the commodity production system and cannot “complement” it in peaceful coexistence. The ideas of dual economy do not lead to a progressive disconnection from the commodity form. In Andre Gorz, for example, one of the most important theoreticians of the dual economy, “autonomous” activities are preserved, in the last analysis, as a simple pastime, since they have to be subsidized by a “basic income”, which would be obtained from market sources, in the unsuperseded form of money. Gorz considers all of industrial reproduction as irremediably “heteronomous”, since such a characteristic would be founded on technological potential. He does not seriously address the problem of the fetishistic form of value, or the difference between the capitalist essence and appearance of the microelectronic productive forces.
Likewise, neither Gorz nor the other representatives of the movement for a “basic monetary income” reflect upon the fact that the realization of their demand would only be possible by means of an apparatus of redistribution within a national economy. Contrary to what Gorz mistakenly believes, it is not merely a matter of everyone’s participation in the technical-material progress of productivity, since this would assume a social reproduction of economic exchange beyond the value form. In a system of commodity production, on the contrary, any increase in productivity has to first pass through the mediations of the value form and through its constraints. This means that a distribution of products according to productivity is not possible, only a distribution of money according to the result in the market and thus according to the successful realization of surplus value. For the system of national coordination of “basic income” this means, in turn, that in the competitive struggle in the world market, it would be obliged to compete successfully, for the purpose of collecting sufficient funds for monetary distribution. The notion of “basic income” implicitly contains, therefore, an unspoken nationalist and racist aspect: it is nothing but a social-nationalist derivative of left Keynesianism.
In practice, “basic income”, regardless of its form, will always be for the individual a very small amount for life and a very large amount for death, insofar as it will ultimately goad people towards “abstract labor” and harness them to the yoke of the market. It is for this reason that the liberals also flirt with this concept, since all of them seek, by way of a compensatory reduction of wage incomes, to prune acquired social rights (vacation, unemployment insurance) and to impose a rationed monetary diet upon the wage workers which would oblige them to accept, even at an advanced age, frankly miserable “jobs”.
Above all, the advocates of a dual economy completely ignore the crisis of the system of commodity production. Ingenuously enough, they assume the eternal survival of the market economy that will unfortunately remain “heteronomous”, and it is only for this reason that they can propose an inoffensive way of complementing the market system with various sectors of autonomy, which over the long term would create a balanced “dual” structure of reproduction. This issue, however, assumes a completely different aspect in a situation where not only does the intention of the sectors which must become autonomous point towards a radical critique and supersession of the commodity production system, instead of a simple peaceful coexistence, but also when the dynamic of the crisis nips in the bud any attempt at reformist pacification. Since the entire debate is already itself the result of the crisis, the unfolding social and economic controversies will no longer permit any long term attachment to the real categories of the value form.
In fact, no steps toward the creation of autonomous sectors of reproduction, disconnected from the value-form, can ameliorate the crisis; they would only aggravate it. Some years ago, in a debate in the journal, Junge Welt, the leftist economist Kurt Hübner, editor of the magazine, Prokla, argued that my proposal to disconnect certain sectors from commodity production would, if enacted during a period of crisis, “promote economic instability”. Nothing could be more correct. Everything that people do cooperatively, beyond market production, is seized from the market. This implies an accelerated “loss” of sales, jobs and purchasing power. As it affects the crisis dynamic, therefore, disconnection would necessarily constitute a self-reinforcing and “positive feedback”.
Furthermore, since during the first stages of disconnection the goal will be the production of consumer goods and above all the provision of services (on a cooperative and public basis), disconnection initiatives will also deal a hard blow to the hopes for a renovation of the market economy by means of the famous “service society”. This also applies to Gorz, who did not foresee such a result. The “service society” option is, in any event, an illusion, since a considerable part of the tertiary sector is not, in itself, productive in terms of capital, and can only be commercially represented in a secondary and derivative form (banks, insurance, trade, etc.) or must be stimulated in the form of State consumption (infrastructure, education, etc.). Nevertheless, the effective consolidation of the disconnection project within the context of the crisis dynamic could become the target for accusations that it is “injuring” the market economy. Wolfgang Schaüble, leader of the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) in the Bundestag and a fanatical supporter of conservative solutions for the stabilization of the total market economy, protested in all seriousness, in his book, Und der Zukunft Zugewandt (“And the Future Changed”) (1994), against the “do it yourself” movement, saying that the latter would steal terrain and possibilities from the market economy and would lead to a “shadow economy”.
With respect to this issue we can reverse the assessment of what the North American essayist Alvin Toffler still saw, in 1980, as a positive developmental tendency. Toffler then believed in the concept of a “prosumer”, the mixing of a “do it yourself” producer with a consumer of commodities. In fact, in the beginning, the disconnection movement itself will displace a part of “productive consumption” outside the system of commodity production, with the help of the goods produced by and acquired from the market. Toffler undoubtedly only saw the individual “prosumers” as a kind of centaur of economic relations, which, once again, must only represent a complement to the market economy (considered in its normal operation). In crisis conditions, however, and as an anti-market movement of cooperative forms of reproduction, this disconnection from the market could acquire an explosive social force. Against objections like those of Hübner or Schaüble, it must be pointed out that we do not have the least intention of assuming responsibilities for the market system and its “employees”. As our vocation is the supersession of this system, we must not burst into tears when each step of the disconnection simultaneously reinforces the crisis of reproduction dictated by the commodity form.
It is undoubtedly necessary to clarify exactly which spheres come to mind when assessing this new form of transformation. The theoretical definition which holds that this disconnection has to begin where the transition from production to consumption ends only offers a general concept which must in turn be concretized. From Section II, for example, come televisions, and among the service provision enterprises one finds the banks. It is clear that the disconnection cannot begin in these spheres. Rather, the initial objectives are the sectors within the immediate reach of social initiatives. The production of goods and services must not be deeply implicated in the capitalist division of labor. Besides, one must stay in contact with everyday life and instigate a palpable change from day to day. Only as sufficient socioeconomic terrain and experience are gained, and the proper know-how is generalized, will the field of autonomous reproduction be extended.
The initiatives of disconnected sectors of reproduction could well be called cooperatives, except that they will not be commodity-producing enterprises, but autonomous spheres, with a social identity of production and consumption. There is at least one example of such a project, abandoned by the old workers movement: consumers’ cooperatives. It must be observed—and this, in turn, demonstrates the ignorance of “orthodox” Marxists and the postmodern Left—that the simple mention of the term makes the monocles fall from their eyes. It is not a question here of an attempt to create, suddenly and from scratch, a new society of consumption. They comprise only one of many possibilities: an occasion to test autonomous reproduction in practice. In the beginning, it would just be a matter of critically laying the foundation, in the form of an example, for the history of the question of disconnection and illuminating its socioeconomic problematic. To approach this topic as something unimportant from the very beginning is completely ridiculous.
In economic terms, the consumers’ cooperatives founded by the social reformist and “utopian socialist” Robert Owen, were originally an effective step towards disconnection from the commodity form. In fact, the intention was to eliminate a whole sector of the market economy for their members, i.e., individual trade. In its place, there arose the autarchic organization of wholesale purchases. Thus, a moment of reproduction dictated by the commodity form was replaced by a moment of non-commercial self-organization. For the activists of the workers movement who organized these consumers’ cooperatives, this was undoubtedly a little-noticed side effect, since their historical horizon was not determined, even in the least, by the idea of a supersession of commodity production. What interested them was only the reduction of the costs of these transactions for the workers and their independence from the commonly usurious practices of the tradesmen and, above all, from the so-called “combined system” (which forced the workers to buy goods at exorbitant prices in the stores owned by their respective employers, making them, so to speak, doubly exploited as they received, in fact, a diminished “money wage”).
Overall, what is relevant in this attempt to form consumers’ cooperatives is that it was not a matter of “principle”, of an abstract altruism or anything like that, but of well defined practical goals of personal “cost reduction” and the improvement of the everyday lives of the participants. This motive will also be decisive for a future movement of disconnection. “Corporate cost-reduction” strategies can be completely defeated by an emancipatory strategy of “cost reduction” for household management which thus conquers a zone of independence from “abstract labor”. The power of autonomous cooperation, which is now totally dissolved in the market and the State, must be rediscovered precisely on the plane of daily reproduction and enriched with the potentials of the microelectronic productive forces. The time spent participating in cooperative self-organization is certainly less than what is gained by means of “personal cost-reduction”: it is enough to consider the volume of time and resources which individually atomized household administration wastes in an enormity of prosaic matters, and the latter to the exclusive profit of the respective “markets”.
With regard to such a project, the consumers’ cooperative is obviously a somewhat limited example, which falls short of establishing an autonomous activity as such and which remains historically linked to the existence of the market. The scope of such a project could be extended, however. The fact of having failed was not due to the level of the forces of production or to the workers’ lack of time, or to a lack of commitment. Around the turn of the century, more than one million people were organized in consumers’ cooperatives, and it seemed that this moment of reproduction could become an integral part of everyday life and of the workers movement. But this creation was not viewed with sympathy by political leaders, nor did the general population really disapprove of the campaign waged against the cooperatives by individual tradesmen, which finally succeeded in legally transforming the consumers’ cooperatives into commercial retail stores, operating under the most draconian regulations. In this way, their original intention was negated. The consumers’ associations became capitalist chain stores, with their retinue of curses, and their social interest disappeared, above all because the economic miracle after the Second World War appeared to eliminate the reason for their existence. The social and theoretical history of this attempt, in the context of a critique of the commodity production system, has yet to be written.
Any new attempts to found consumers’ cooperatives will evidently encounter quite different conditions in different countries. In Germany, at least, it is a matter of legality, since here no one can acquire a subway ticket or contemplate buying wholesale without attracting the suspicion that they are “scalpers” or profiteers. In some regions there are alternative purchasing networks that, in general, promote direct contact between ecological agrarian producers and the population. But these efforts are usually limited to “luxury goods” in the form of fresh organic produce, or they suffer from a limited organizational scope as much as from an insufficient connection with a wider movement of social critique. In a more extensive field of relations, however, this project could perfectly well be reconstructed and could assume a rich social dimension in a context of conflict.
A second example is the house construction cooperative. This institution also has a long history, which at least had points of contact with the old workers movement and is also related to the other initiatives for social reform. The “garden city” movement, for example, which was born in England, was not without significance. In this instance, the criterion of disconnection from commodity production is significant in economic terms: constructing and maintaining houses used by the members themselves (identity of producers and consumers). It is also necessary, of course, to buy products from construction firms, but in comparison with commercial construction, a higher degree of communitarian activity is possible. This activity could grow, in the event that the construction (similar to the microelectronic sphere) was to be accompanied by the dissemination of “polytechnic” knowledge (architectural know-how, management of construction materials, installation, etc.).
It is essential that the product not be reintegrated into the market as a commodity, i.e., that cooperation does not represent a commodity-producing cooperative. This is its main difference with respect to commercial construction, which produces houses as commodities and rents or sells their use. The construction of habitations, desks, offices, communication centers, etc., becomes, in this manner, a source of revenues for capital. Since the investors of capital do not want to use the buildings for themselves, it is not enough for them to recoup the money spent on their construction and maintenance. They demand, in addition, that they obtain a certain profit, which must be competitive with the profits of other investors of capital and which must be contained in the rents, fees, etc. The users of the buildings, therefore, have to pay these profits beyond the costs of production and maintenance and, for this purpose, expend “abstract labor” in other capitalist fields. The capitalist regime compels, to the utmost possible extent, the whole construction industry to be the exclusive domain of capital investment. It is thus not by accident that self-organized and self-administering cooperatives are not the beneficiaries of favorable laws or tax rates and that, to the contrary, they are obstructed as much as possible and are made unattractive—the parallel with consumers’ associations is obvious. Here, too, it would be fitting to critically research the history of these early initiatives from the perspective of the critique of value.
Consumers’ associations and house construction cooperatives were not the only aborted attempts at disconnection. The problem, ultimately, is that these activities only possessed an obscure existence, at the margins of the Statist and political program of the old workers movement, and did not involve any reflection upon the concept of disconnection or any perspective of superseding the system of commodity production. For this reason, they remained limited (and, so to speak, “conceptless”) to isolated fields of praxis. To this one must add bureaucratic party control and, later, that of the socialist bureaucracy, whose goal was to prevent any initiative of self-organization and self-administration, as well as any autonomous “horizontal” communication of the basic units of organization among themselves. The unsuperseded expenditure of “abstract labor” under the Statist regime automatically tended to channel, to the utmost possible extent, the whole of available time into social reproduction and left communication to flow hierarchically, from the top down. As is well-known, it was for this reason that the distinction between one system and the other, even in their own textbooks, was defined as that between a “centrally planned economy” and the “free market economy”, and not on the basis of the question of whether or not commodity production prevails. The social identity of production and consumption did not figure among the “socialist” goals (or it figured only in a distorted form, as pseudo-identity in the abstract universality of the State apparatus), and, as a result, the very question of disconnection could be neither named nor recognized in its respective initiatives.
In this way (and in unholy alliance with the defensive strategy of the capitalist regime), what failed were not just the initiatives of disconnection of the consumers and construction cooperatives; in addition, the corresponding “socio-cultural” potential of the old workers movement remained unexplored from a transformatory perspective. It is not, of course, a question of going back, for example, to the “culture of the public laundry and kitchens” of the old proletarian neighborhood. These socio-cultural forms were born from pure necessity and were bound to the level of the productive forces of their time. One must, however, recall that the new Fordist productive forces, which only became operational in Europe after the Second World War, completely stifled such socio-cultural initiatives under the processes of commercialization and abstract individualization. Even the old collective laundries were not modernized—to the contrary, the pressure exercised by an increasing capitalist supply was capable of adapting the Fordist production of household appliances to the structure of nuclear families. This led to an increase in abstract labor and in market volume. But the gain in available time for individuals, with socially atomized use and the demand for individual specialization, was much less, in reality, than what the potential of development of the productive forces was capable of generating.
The same is true of the other elements of the failed socio-cultural initiatives of the workers movements. The institutions of the workers movement administered numerous logistical structures such as schools, meeting halls, offices, etc. These establishments have also undoubtedly not been given the recognition due to them from a historical perspective. Here, the potential for socioeconomic disconnection never even arose, as in the case of what happened to the cooperatives. Instead, such initiatives were exclusively considered as simple expedients for the State-political goal, in such a way as to render them incapable of adopting their own manner of development. They were often added to the assets of the party or one of its members, and it was then managed commercially, towards the end of obtaining resources for the “war chest” of political propaganda. The movement of ’68 temporarily abandoned these establishments, which partly degenerated into bourgeois mini-businesses. Many of these businesses will be called into question within the context of a movement of disconnection and supersession.
This also applies to that economic complex that falls under the heading of “service provision”, managed in the form of the old “public canteens”, meeting halls, communications centers, etc. Establishments of this type were always an important part of all social movements, since people needed places to meet, discuss, eat and drink together. Cultural history provides famous examples of this kind. Consider, for example, the Jacobin “Street Clubs” of the French Revolution, the celebrated “salons” of the Romantics, and the literary culture of cafes or the English “clubs”. Although few people know this fact, it is still ironic that during the early days of the social democratic workers movement in Germany, innkeepers played an important role in the movement. Similarly, the alternative movement and that of 1968 provided a new stimulus to such establishments. The phenomenon reappeared, in West Germany, in the form of the widespread youth movements of the 1970s, with their demand for self-managed residential buildings. The rest of the communication centers which arose during that era (among which the one at Komm, in Nuremberg, is most famous) were later eliminated by the various city governments, due to increasing costs and conservative political policies.
The everyday needs linked to such establishments then came to be almost completely differentiated within capitalist forms. Their basis, in this sense, is constituted by the atomization into domestic micro-units, structured by a supply of Fordist kitchen appliances. Simultaneously, the capitalist furniture industry managed to create, under the rule of Fordism, an absurd invidious competition in relation to kitchen appliances, which was stupidly compounded in the form of “abstract labor”. This is not to question the desirable character of small kitchens that would be occasionally used, for example, to prepare a candlelight dinner for two. The incalculable waste of time and of resources which can be imposed daily—and without protest—upon the socially atomized masses, by means of the valorization process dictated by the structure of use value, must be defined as a mature product of the machinery of capitalist dreams.
Complementing the above, on the one hand, the proverbially miserable business of the canteens and kitchens of the large corporations and the establishments of the State bureaucracy are imposed, organized from the point of view of business-economic rationality, where the food always takes a back seat. Furthermore, commercial gastronomy gains ground: from the fast food chains based on low wages, to the family businesses with internal relations bordering on slavery and often dubious hygienic conditions, to the postmodern establishments founded and managed by savagely professional baby-yuppies, with Hitler haircuts, whose tiny portions would hardly satisfy a bird. As for the “new poor”, they are left with the donations from charity organizations—which are meanwhile being commercialized—or to the actions of socially infernal parish priests, who scrape together for the lost souls the abject leftovers of luxury feasts. Compared to this, the armed kidnapping of a hostage must be called an emancipatory action. And the local meeting places are firmly in the power of conservative German associations and municipal administrative apparatuses.
If there is not even one place for critical discussion of society, and it is impossible to have a meal with friends without shouting as loudly as you can to make yourself heard, the question arises concerning the plausibility, in this sector, of self-organized clubs as elements of a disconnected economy, where people would have access to the international press (and, perhaps, to a library), as well as the use of auditoriums for meetings, and where they could eat and drink. In the Anglo-Saxon countries, even in the United States, this was for many years an almost obvious moment of social life, although it was dismantled with the advance of capitalist development and never encompassed entire demographic sectors, zones or neighborhoods. The point is not to create a commercial enterprise for a certain public clientele that is dedicated to making money, but that people should create enterprises of this kind on their own, for their own needs. In economic terms, this means that each member would pay, in accordance with his abilities, a lump sum and/or periodic dues, with which provision would then be made for all that is necessary, without which the enterprise itself would return to the market—following the model, for example, of the self-organized nurseries, which are another example (and one of the few bequeathed to us by the movement of ’68). It does not matter that, with reference to necessary activities, some members might be partly subsidized; what is important is that the enterprise as a whole is not transformed into a market-oriented enterprise. And, obviously, an establishment of this kind—the opposite of an “enterprise” subject to a commercial rationale—would not need to be too fastidious and could even accept people who are well off.
All of this, of course, is not possible with only a handful of people. In purely socioeconomic terms, in today’s Germany it is not unthinkable that 100 people, for example, could gather together 10,000 marks each as a starting point, which would already be a cool million. One could also easily allow for these 100 people to pay 100 marks each month for a working enterprise (which constitutes the other 10,000 marks) and would no longer have to buy the corresponding services on the market. But the left is too diminished and too dismembered into infinite branches which fight among themselves or, in the best cases, are ignorant of each other, so that it seems almost impossible, even in large cities, to gather together 100 people (and their families) for such a goal—and this is not to speak of the standardized capitalists. As horrible as it is, one must recognize that capitalism has managed, even in the simplest things, to raise almost insurmountable socio-psychological barriers between atomized individuals—barriers that only religious sects, for more or less obscure ends, are currently capable of surmounting.
The above examples, and many more like them could be adduced, undoubtedly intersect at some points with the conceptions of Andre Gorz, and the latter, for their part, intersect with the ideas of Anglo-Saxon “communitarianism”. One cannot formulate the necessary critique of such initiatives from the point of view, for example, of the old workers movement, as occasionally happens with part of hardcore orthodoxy, and thus abstractly deny the positive moments in Gorz and in “communitarianism” itself. But, as was already pointed out above in relation to a critique of dual economy, the idea of a disconnection critical of value emerges in a context of social critique that is completely different from that of Gorz or communitarian theory, despite any similarities they may have. This refers not only to the basic question of a new and radical critique, instead of a solicitous “complement” to the capitalist system. It is, rather, autonomous spheres, beyond the market and the State, which must be the point of departure for a movement of supersession that ultimately encompasses all of reproduction, and not the endpoint of a merely marginal “self-help” movement.
The socioeconomic “unfolding” of the whole system of reproduction can be imagined, at first (although in a restricted area), as a process in which, for example, many of these initiatives together incorporate, into their non-commercial context, a sector which until then represented a supply branch of the market. To give a simple example: various construction cooperatives could together administer a sand pit, a quarry or a ceramics workshop according to their needs. Or even, to provide another example that excludes all nationalist restrictions, the various cooperatives could order their coffee and furniture from a sister cooperative in Latin America.
The basic economic problem consists in the fact that the activities outlined above must not be linked through commodity exchange and the monetary relation, but that a mediated identity of producers and consumers should really be created on a vast scale. It is not a matter of a commercial kind of specialization, but of a polytechnical division of functions, enabling people to take turns doing different things—and this in regional and continental terms, since there is no reason not to produce, for a while, coffee in Latin America or to raise goats somewhere else (which only works, undoubtedly, when the basic know-how is disseminated as knowledge and when, at least in certain technologies, precision and “aptitude” reside more in programmed machines than in personal training). Besides, it is not a question of an exchange of abstract equivalents, in a simple natural form, but of a purely technical-material division of functions, in which what matters is only that, within a functional context, necessary things are produced in the necessary quantities and qualities. This can be imagined, on the one hand, as the division of functions within a workshop, only in an extended form; this recalls, however, the Marxist idea of the whole of society as a “factory”, still connected, however, to that concept of “labor armies”, which still does not transcend the system of “abstract labor”. Just as the external relation between units of reproduction was only considered as the natural exchange of abstract equivalents, the internal relation was only thought of as the natural form of business rationality. It would be possible, however, to regroup the functional divisions within a context of the identity of production and consumption—a context exclusively oriented to the needs of the members. This would only be possible, of course, if there were to be a widespread and graduated system of non-commercial reproduction. During the transitional period, one could imagine that certain kinds of production would be supplied, in part, within an autonomous context, in a non-commercial form, and in part also within the market. Other forms are also thinkable. In fact, at this level the possibility of purely theoretical definitions ends, and, although venturing beyond the old Marxism’s rejection of concrete proposals, the sphere in which only the social practice of “learning by doing” is possible begins, accompanied by an interdisciplinary theoretical framework of economists, technicians and critical organizers of society.
We must repeat that the examples cited above could also be practiced in isolation (and today this is praiseworthy above all with regard to those points that have implications for a basic logistics for theoretical social critique itself), but that at first one cannot achieve a social effect by means of the progressive universalization of isolated practical examples. This was the old idea and it was utopian in the pejorative sense of the word. In reality, the goal must be to elaborate some kind of program or outline of an answer to the inevitable question of a new social movement: what is to be done? And this despite, or precisely because of, the current social quiescence under the leaden sky of neo-liberalism.
As is well known, social movements cannot be picked off the shelf by theoreticians; in reality, they develop spontaneously, although not, of course, without a certain initial impulse or the purposeful activity of certain people. One cannot, however, determine where, by whom, and in what manner such movements will begin. What is essential, in the meantime, is that the ideas for a revolutionary praxis can only obtain a social dimension through a social movement. Only when many people, at the same time and in many places, begin to “break the mold”, since they no longer want, nor are they able, to live as they had lived before, is the theoretical possibility of a social praxis born.
On the other hand, however, the theoretical concretion of the question of supersession is not directly linked to the existence of a mass movement. If we take as our point of departure precisely the fact that in the future none of the questions concerning the transformation will be formulated any longer under the assumptions of a capitalist welfare society and of successful competition on the world market, but in an environment of serious economic, social and (post-) political upheavals, then it becomes even more urgent to theoretically concretize the problem of a supersession of the commodity production system and to initiate a debate on this issue. In this sense, the objection raised by the representatives of “orthodox” Critical Theory and the postmodern Left that the radical critique of value, with the concept of “disconnection” and its implications, would precipitously devote itself to an inferior and obtuse “praxis”, is not only senseless—since it erroneously considers the theme of the question of supersession in its false immediacy—but also grossly negligent, since it implies an attitude which does not take social disturbances into account and, in the best of cases, degrades the critique of value to a postmodern and academic hobby.
The historical crisis spreading throughout the world and its destructive social consequences also raises the question, from a comprehensive point of view, of a guarantee of basic necessities for all. And, in fact, all the examples referred to above, from consumers’ associations, clubs, meeting halls, or nurseries, all refer to basic material, social or cultural needs. One could even add sectors such as those of food, clothing, furniture and home electronics production, of cultural goods, of energy distribution (solar), part of the infrastructure, technical training, social services, etc. It is ridiculous to impute to this problematic a reductionist option for “subsistence”, in the sense of a diminution of the level of needs. To the contrary, the goal is precisely not only to affirm, against the crisis of the capitalist system, a higher level of needs on the part of the autonomous sectors, but also to overcome the senseless restrictions of the market, which demand an enormous squandering of time and pleasure through abstract economic individualization.
On another level, one must ask oneself what wealth and luxury really are. Together with “abstract labor” and its historical fruit, the capitalist structure of use value, the capitalist concept of wealth and luxury should also be subjected to criticism. The mere idea that the option for basic needs should be an option for a poverty of needs is already revealing. Unconsciously, one thereby concedes that the basic needs themselves in capitalism became, in fact, impoverished. Capitalist luxury, in mass culture (and even more in its postmodern variant), refers above all to secondary things. The proud possession of a cellular phone or a week’s vacation in the Caribbean (a cultural offense against not just the Caribbean, but against the countryside of the whole world), with what people believe to be, in consumerist terms, the zenith of the productive forces, only dissimulates the fact that the extension of secondary wealth was followed, historically, by a complementary extension of basic poverty.
Over the course of capitalist modernization, time available for leisure was drastically diminished for the majority of people (even for management itself). Furthermore, simple things like fresh produce, hardwood furniture, etc., did not become relatively cheaper, but increasingly more expensive, until they are now luxury goods. Above all, the spatial frontier for individuals has constantly been shrinking. If we do not take as a standard the mass poverty produced by capitalist modernization, it is totally clear that living and habitational space have become smaller and smaller for the majority. The “workers mailbox”, an East German expression, could be generalized for construction, architecture, city planning and the politics of internal colonization of the whole system of commodity production, which transformed space and time into commodities. Against this, it would be fitting to propose, in opposition to the restrictions of the value form and without rejecting modern productive forces as such, a wealth of basic needs—or even a luxury of time and space. This also encompasses a certain indifference with respect to constant innovations in the production of autonomized objects, whose consumption no longer bears any relation to their utility. The cell phone, for example, and the possibility of speaking with two or three people simultaneously on the telephone, does not represent such a significant advance compared to the basic, one hundred year old invention of the telephone (similarly, the CD compared to the vinyl disc), that it would justify the delirious expenditure of time and resources required for their corresponding production and supply.
The perspective of autonomous sectors of disconnection from commodity production is subject to yet another objection: doubt concerning its “economic efficiency”. At first glance, it would seem that the autonomous forms of reproduction would never be capable of replacing the monstrous level of the capitalist division of labor and the increased concentration of capital, without immediately falling to a primitive level of “efficiency”. This argument not only does not take into account the peculiar character of the microelectronic productive forces, which have made a high potential of productivity utilizable on a small scale, but also remains imprisoned within the categories of commercial rationality.
Under the pressure of market competition, the expenditure of capital is not determined, essentially, by physical and material exigencies, but by the coercion of the average rate of profit, which represents a social abstraction. The fact that the production of apples and tomatoes, which is increasing almost everywhere, “is worth the trouble” in capitalist terms when it reaches, on the market, a gigantic volume which senselessly wastes transportation and energy, is solely and exclusively due to the standard of abstract valorization. When it is a question of commercial “efficiency”, what is implicitly meant is always this standard, which, by itself, is not identical with rational methods of technical and material production. It would therefore be necessary to distinguish between the utilization of techniques of labor economy or forms of organization, on the one hand, and the concept of “efficiency” dictated by valorization, on the other. The technique of labor economy is only a partial moment of destructive commercial rationality, and, besides, under its dictates, it does not lead, for example, to improvement in labor, but only to simple “labor saving”, to unemployment.
In the concept of commercial “efficiency” one other aspect should be criticized, which is completely undesirable in the autonomous forms of reproduction, the so-called “maximum capacity”. This moment, under capitalist conditions, is manifested in an especially absurd, distorted manner: on the one hand, capacity is left inactive when the business cannot manage to win for itself sufficient buying power; on the other hand, for market orders, production must occupy 24 hours of the day, without taking into account the needs or well-being of the “employees”. Under the pressure of competition, managers today demand an “extension of the hours of machine operation”, and even night and Sunday labor. In a form of cooperation that is characterized by the identity of producers and consumers, this would not be considered as “efficiency” but only as the product of a sick mind.
Since people began, for example, to build stone houses, the material was extracted from quarries which otherwise would remain inactive. The same holds true for the context of autonomous cooperatives, and also for offices and means of production. On the other hand, however, a quarry as a capitalist business—in its condition of economically atomized commercial machine—will cut the maximum possible amount of rock and would be particularly “successful” if the whole region were to be quickly transformed into a lunar landscape. At the same time, during an “economic crisis” (the concept itself already indicates the irrational character of the form of reproduction), when the extraction of rock is no longer “profitable” in business terms, the business is “closed”, and a sign is posted with the words, “Trespassing Prohibited”, even if the population has to live in tents or caves.
It is therefore necessary to establish a fundamental difference between the absurdity of commercial rationality and an assessment of the cost-benefit relation as it refers to time, to resources, etc., in production for concrete needs. Internalized commercial criteria, which manifest a false obviousness, have to be consciously superseded and unmasked in their absurdity (the latter being, so to speak, a task for analytical or even “propagandistic” efforts). If we compare the personal expenditures of the members of a cooperative with the supplies of the market and the corresponding necessary expenditure of “abstract labor”, autonomous reproduction would, in many cases, be perfectly “capable of competing” in social terms. Logically, this does not apply to all spheres, and obviously not to the production of raw materials. It was absurd, for example, that in the Chinese campaign of the so-called “Great Leap Forward”, under Mao Tse-Tung, steel was forged in parks and backyards. Nor was this an instance of an initiative of the participants to satisfy their own previously discussed needs, but of a State campaign (which naturally failed) “from above”, for the purpose of increasing the abstract volume of “steel production”, one of the categories of political economy.
The socioeconomic alternative must preserve a plausible relation to expenditures. But the “self-exploitation” of the first alternative enterprises was not due to a simple technical or organizational defects, but in reality to their market-oriented production and their involvement in the capitalist form of the division of labor. In an immediate or institutionally mediated identity between producers and consumers, on the other hand, the question of the expenditure of time can be managed flexibly. If, within an autonomous context, a person spends ten hours to produce something that, with the “abstract labor” mediated by the commodity form, could be made in ten minutes, the disparity would naturally be so great that this sphere would be the first to be restored to capitalist methods. Here, the disconnection from the commodity form could only be achieved with a much higher degree of interconnectedness. The case of a disparity of, let us say, one or two hours, is completely different. The abstract quantity of time, which is already a product of capitalism (cf. Gaston Valdivia’s article in the latest issue of Krisis, “Time and Money, Money and Time. From the Production of Time to Its Deconstruction by the Market Economy”), can by no means be the sole criterion. It is a palpable fact that one hour of “abstract labor” can be experienced as an eternity in comparison with two hours of activity in a satisfying social context.
The calculation of time disconnected from the production of commodities is enriched by criteria that have absolutely no existence in commercial rationality. The reduction of time to abstract quantities is a consequence of “abstract labor”, which is separated from all the other moments of life. The supersession of the value form signifies the supersession of the separation between “labor” and “free time” and, therefore, of “labor” as such. Obviously, this is not intended to imply that while operating complicated machinery one could have a cup of coffee or play chess. It would be ridiculous to think of the problem in these terms. That the social space of production should no longer be segregated under the aegis of commercial rationality, is another matter altogether, however; that it should be possible to “take one’s time”, that the time and space of productive activity should be suffused with social, cultural and aesthetic criteria, by pleasure, by contemplation, by reflection, etc.—and this also applies to architecture and the relation between the spheres of production and domestic life.
Even in various other aspects, calculations regarding the use of resources for the purposes of autonomous reproduction must be distinguished from the calculations of commercial rationality. If, for example, the production of fruit and vegetables for the market, as all the evidence indicates, is so inexpensive only because the products are cultivated in climate-controlled facilities, exposed to nuclear radiation and stored for months in gas-filled refrigerators, thus coming to approach tastelessness, or because a whole natural region is contaminated and the rivers have reached the point that it is recommended that one not swim in them, or even because miserable low-paid workers have to be exposed, without any protection, to pesticides and herbicides as if undergoing a wartime poison gas attack … then it is by no means acceptable to adopt the imposition of this capitalist calculus. And this is also true of everything else. A relative disconnection from commodity production means inexorably descending towards the roots, on the basis of self-reflection, in order to determine all the material and social conditions of life, thus disconnecting the necessary calculation of the expenditure of time and resources from the abstract capitalist calculation of time. In general, this would bring a great windfall in available time and, in particular, great modifications in calculation, as soon as one sets aside the deforming lenses of business economics.
There are more than enough reasons that make an anti-economy disconnected from commodity production, and the constitution of autonomous sectors, possible and necessary, and to make the former, the anti-economy, begin where the transition of production to consumption leaves off as well as on the plane of basic needs. What is essential, first of all, is that it should be linked, by way of the supersession of the socially miserable everyday life and by personal “cost reduction”, to a gain in available time and in satisfaction for individuals; in the second place, that a moment of autonomy and independence should be won from the constraints of capitalism; and thirdly, that the know-how and experience for an all-inclusive supersession of the system of commodity production should spread throughout society. This disconnection is defined as anti-economic, since the concept of the economy, in the history of modernization, was established by the hierarchical forms of capitalist socialization.
It would, however, be a mistake to visualize the process in general from an evolutionist perspective. This would probably be the gist of the criticism that would be advanced by the hostile Marxist or postmodern reader, for whom disconnection “is not as a whole moving in the right direction”. Such a reader takes pleasure in forgetting, especially when he is confronted by undesirable arguments, and has thus probably already forgotten that the problem is not situated in the context of any kind of chimera, but within that of an ongoing world crisis of the system of commodity production, which will also reach him, if it has not already done so. Just as disconnection as a social praxis is impossible to achieve through the progressive generalization of isolated examples, but only by means of a social movement, neither could it creep evolutionarily, and totally peacefully, from sector to sector, across the system of social reproduction. The fact that the direction taken by the “unfolding” would be contrary to the program of the Marxism of the workers movement, that it would not proceed from raw materials industries towards the production of consumption goods, but that it would be the other way around, says nothing about the historical velocity of the process.
Here we see the basis of another essential difference concerning the question of the “embryonic form” that distinguishes the proto-capitalist transformation from a post-capitalist one. The dynamic of the capitalist crisis dramatically foreshortens the temporal horizon of the transition. We are not facing centuries of evolutionary development which, in a distant future, would arrive at a “political-revolutionary” culmination, but, instead, a transition which will last, at most, in an earthquake that affects all of world society, a few decades, in which everything will be decided, without the process ever assuming, however, the form of a “political revolution”. The “embryonic form” gestating within the modern system of commodity production thus possesses a completely different value than the “embryonic form” of the latter system as it emerged in the epoch of the prehistory of the bourgeoisie. It is a ferment which is necessary to break with commercial stupidity and to stabilize, in terms of reproduction, a social movement of supersession—although it would not be an “embryo” in the sense of the biological metaphor.
For this reason, any theory or analysis of disconnection must also be not only a theory and analysis of the crisis, but it should in addition be accompanied by a discussion concerning planning on the scale of world society. The theory of planning could be prioritized in the movement of disconnection, since the latter will most likely be obliged to organize the transformation not in a steady piecemeal fashion, but in a number of large outbursts. Theoretically, this transformation should unfold as much in the perspective of unmediated identity as in that of mediated identity—on the one side, the problem of the direct disconnection of basic needs, and on the other, the problem of the social proportioning of non-commercial reproduction. For this purpose, it is necessary to elaborate a historical debate concerning planning, and we are still far from that stage. Only the unity of crisis theory, the theory of disconnection and planning theory can develop a coherent anti-economic conceptual picture. It is not surprising at all that today the old Marxists, the representatives of “orthodox” Critical Theory and the postmodern Left should not see anything of interest in precisely these three theoretical issues, and prefer to repress them or set them aside.
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