Sustaining Mother Earth: Abundance Beyond Capitalism
We face an unparalleled ecological crisis, a crisis bound up with the destructive waste characteristic of capitalism. All societies, from the earliest ways in which humans lived together to modern capitalism, have been organized around their tools. In early communism, where the means of subsistence were distributed according to need, abundance and scarcity existed only for the group as a whole, not for individuals. The economic order of capitalism has led to an inseparable connection between ecological catastrophe alongside productive abundance and scarcity.
The potential of each form of social organization is limited by its technological level. Therefore as technology changes the possibilities change. What is abundance at one stage is no longer abundance at a different stage. Even more importantly, human relations in production change with each stage of development. Thus in the earliest human social groups people lived in a communal relation to each other and to their tools, sharing everything in common. Plants, game, stone tools and fire were shared in common. In times of scarcity, e.g. drought, the entire social order shared the scarcity.
Everything we know about early forms of social organizations shows that people needed to cooperate. Survival of the band required that everyone eat. Hunting large animals required working together. Knowledge of the world was narrow, limited to the area within which hunter-gatherers (foragers) moved, and required the combined experience of all members of the group, passed on to younger members. Even in early large agricultural communities (around 150 people), only a minimal division of labor existed; all that was produced was owned in common; exchange did not exist. Good times (abundance) were succeeded by deprivation (scarcity). The most important conclusion to draw from a society in which tools were owned and used in common is that what is produced is held in common, and that abundance is for the group as a whole, while scarcity also is shared among the group.
New tools facilitated the development of agriculture, which arose independently from several centers around the world. These tools facilitated people reorganizing hunter-gatherer (foraging) social groups over several thousand years into stable centers of population. Improved stone digging tools, and later, metalworking and employment of animals in plant cultivation accelerated the transition. Grain domestication led to sedentary populations that could support 6 or 7 times the numbers in foraging communities. The Bronze and Iron Ages allowed for more intensive cultivation of the land and larger population settlements.
Along with the separation of food producers and non-producers came division of labor, beginnings of class society and exchange. From the early casual exchange of things of use to expanded mercantile exchange to the development of capitalist exchange, division of labor expanded, while the numbers of people no longer needed for food production increased. At the same time ownership of the changing tools and the means of survival produced by those tools changed hands. An owning class began to amass the product of the society’s labor. Individual abundance, unheard of before this time, enters the vocabulary. At the same time as new tools changed the quantity of abundance, the tools also began to change its quality: what was necessary for survival underwent a cultural expansion.
The emerging class society demanded a force to protect and expand the newly created private property. The State arose to defend private appropriation of a social product, to defend the right of exploitation and class abundance. With the beginning of class society, with the beginning of the division of labor and exchange, comes the germ that will be a society dominated by exchange value and markets, crushing everything in the way of its mad rush for profit.
As agriculture was succeeded by manufacture and industry, new tools again established the basis for people to reorganize society. Capitalism is above all a society ruled by the production of goods for sale: commodities. What distinguishes capitalism from preceding class societies is that even the ability to work – labor power – is converted to a commodity. What is common to all commodities is what makes them exchangeable: labor. Even the production of the worker’s labor-power requires labor – for the production of the means of subsistence. The value in exchange of every product came to be measured by the amount of labor expended on it. That amount was reckoned in units of time and compared using gold as money.
All previous advances in technology have created the basis for the employment of more labor-power. Each new and larger machine has extended the control of industry over the working class. Each increase of productivity has demanded a new market to sell the abundance of commodities produced. Each advance in technology has reduced the number of workers necessary to produce the agricultural means of subsistence (now at about 2% of humanity world wide).
Now a technology has arrived that replaces labor itself. The microchip and the robot are driving labor-power out of existence in many industries, including the industries that produce the means of survival. Automation has revolutionized the production of food, clothing, housing, education and health care. Automation has begun to eliminate labor from playing a part in the production of the necessaries of life and from the production of the commodity labor-power itself.
Abundance at the End of Capitalism
Capitalists strive to increase productivity as if the whole world were their marketplace. It matters little if we are talking about clothing or candy bars. Capitalists only are interested in the immediate realization of profit. Therefore, they waste massive amounts of human labor (by destroying unsold commodities). They consume massive amounts of resources (by unplanned overproduction). They expend mountains of resources that otherwise contaminate our lives (e.g. tar sands and shale oil). New electronic tools under capitalist control have expelled millions from capitalist relations into unemployability, leading to inconceivable abundance at one pole of society, unimaginable poverty at the other and catastrophe in the natural world.
Capitalists themselves recognize that the system built on the exploitation of labor is grinding to an end. Capitalists cannot, however, release their grip on private property. Corporations and the State merge, which is the essence of economic fascism. This is accompanied by fascism’s legal and political manifestations. Capital is compelled to rely on the State to put in place a system of force and violence for saving private property without capitalism. This results from the world-changing epoch of the end of value. But fascism is not the only possible consequence.
Abundance, the Environment and the End of Capitalism
The economic underpinning of capitalism is the wage-labor system. The capitalist purchases labor power i,e, the ability of the laborer to work, at the cost of its production. In the process of transforming the ability to work into actual production, the worker creates far more value than his or her wage. The greater the use of labor saving machinery, the less labor time goes to recover the wage and the more goes to unpaid labor time and consequently more profit. However, the worker who makes automobiles cannot eat them or wear them. There has to be some way to exchange the labor of making autos for the labor of making houses. Money, representing expended labor, is that universal equivalent. The basic exchange is money for labor power – or dead labor for living labor. As labor saving machinery expands, the cost of producing labor power falls. As electronics enters production with no human labor expended in production, money no longer represents expended labor and becomes of less and less and finally of no value. So how are people to eat and live? A new system of exchange, based on need rather value must develop.
The end of exchange value calls for the distribution of the social wealth according to need rather than payment. Distribution according to need means the coordination of production by a form of social organization that holds the means to produce in common, and that is capable of avoiding many of the “unintended consequences” of capitalist production. The end of exchange value makes possible a cooperative social organization; the new tools make this solution indispensable to end ecological catastrophe. Thus end centuries of accumulation of masses of wealth at one pole (along with environmental destruction) and untold poverty at the other. Thus begins the possibility, unthinkable under capitalism, of an economic paradise for all.
Abundance and scarcity under capitalism are conditions of class life. But with fewer people needed for producing the means of subsistence, a cooperative social organization can unleash the creativity constrained by capitalism. It can redirect that productivity to investigate and respond to the destruction of the earth. Humans are freed to expend their energy to solve the contradictions forced on us by capitalism. The end of exchange value makes practical that the aggregate produce of society can be rationalized as a true abundance over the long term.
We live in no ordinary period of transition: it is something totally new, a leap from class society to advanced communism. Abundance ceases to be a characteristic of one pole of society. Communist abundance is public property – wealth held in common, available to be defined and understood in terms of the needs of the whole of society. Only such a social organization can leave behind the short-term, profit driven, individual interest of a society based on private property.
The history of exchange value is the history of the increasing exploitation of labor. It is the history of human and environmental death and destruction for the protection of private property. Capitalists even use the new technology to maintain a stranglehold on private property. But a society that produces only use values spells the end of the dystopia of markets, exchange and private property itself. Producing only use values also spells the end of false utopian hopes. It opens the door to distribution according to need, not exchange according to who can pay. Finally begins the new era of a cooperative society on a higher level than early communism: not small groups discovering the world independently, but a society of billions world-wide tending our relationship with the rest of nature.
Electronic technology within a cooperative society creates opportunities for human beings to unleash their full creative potential for the first time. We can expand and build upon knowledge that is no longer the private patent of the few, but the public property of all. We can reconfigure our relationship to sustain the planet. Reaching this resolution depends on human beings introducing revolutionary new ideas, a new vision of an economic paradise.
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011