The Logistical Problem Of Surplus Accumulation

One of the recurring criticisms of communism from both indigenous peoples and exploited communities worldwide has concerned its historical emphasis on advancing the productive forces. Communist theorists, particularly intellectuals located in the ‘core’ of imperialist nations, or more broadly “the West,” tend to take their own material conditions for granted, and assume that it is the mission of global communism to “uplift” all nations to the same Western level of “abundance.”

By saying this, I am not endorsing “degrowth” or “overpopulation” theories, which suggest that the only way to avoid global ecological collapse is to either return to the level of subsistence that Marx and Engels referred to as “primitive communism,” or accept a massive reduction in population (which is usually banally assumed to be a normal consequence of ecological collapse and thus our own damn fault, despite the fact that it is likely to dis-proportionally impact people in the global south.) Such thinking is barely a step away from the Malthusian theories behind eugenics and genocide as vehicles of ecological preservation.

Furthermore, massive degrowth on the level suggested by many in the “green” movement – a “return to nature” as they call it – would either result in a massive increase in land use for farming, or mass starvation, due to the less productive techniques suggested. There are certainly valid criticisms of modern industrial farming practices: erosion, pesticide and fertilizer runoff, overgrazing of pastures, and destruction of habitat are some of its major issues. However, abandoning all the gains of industrial farming, like automation (which is certainly capable of being shifted away from fossil fuel power and adapting to more sustainable farming techniques) in favor of a return to some bucolic bygone era of small-scale settler-family farming, like Wendell Barry argues in “Farmland Without Farmers,” is ridiculous and reeks of bourgeois nostalgia.

First, such a return to “family” farming presupposes the existence of multi-generational families, something which capitalism has been steadily eradicating over the last hundred years.

Second, most of those farmers were able to grow only marginally more food than they consumed. Not only would the clock have to be turned back to an era that no longer exists, but this solution runs headlong into that other elephant in the room: settler-colonialism. Such dispersion of the urban masses into the countryside would do absolutely nothing to address the problem of the dispossession of indigenous peoples from their native lands. It would, instead, reinforce the petty-bourgeois system of land “ownership,” something that the Bolsheviks initially struggled to abolish in the Soviet Union.

For communists, there is however another alternative: collectivization. With the abolition of bourgeois notions of private ownership, land becomes a shared resource for the good of all rather than something to be hoarded for one’s exclusive benefit. In the case of the Soviet Union, where peasant-farmers could trace back many generations in the same area, this was a rather simple solution that involved reorganizing small landholdings into larger, more intensive collective farms. Simple does not mean easy, however, and they ran into numerous problems along the way.

For the United States, itself a settler colony, this problem becomes more acute when the subject of reparations to native Americans is included. As the original inhabitants of this land, their roots go back many thousands of years and are well documented both in their oral histories and in archaeological evidence. Anglo settler-colonialism uprooted them through violent genocide and dispersed and relocated the survivors into the least hospitable scraps of unwanted land that were left. Most of us living here today took no part in that process, but we still reap the blood-soaked rewards from the land that was stolen.

Further complicating matters are the millions of descendants of African slaves. They remain marginalized by a capitalist system that is still synonymous with white supremacy. With their ancestors having been violently uprooted and transported to America, their cultural ties to their homelands were broken. Sending African-Americans back to Africa remains as much of a non-starter as it was during the abolitionist period, when the colony of Liberia was created in a failed effort to do exactly that. For better or for worse, they have become inseparable from the indigenous land that was carved out by settlers on the backs of their ancestors.

These material realities pose an intractable problem that abolishing private property, while a necessary first step, is unsuited to solving alone. If communal relations are the solution, it becomes necessary to ask what it means to be a community. Fortunately, over a hundred years ago J.V. Stalin grappled with similar questions in his essay on “Marxism and the National Question.” First, he offers a concise definition of what constitutes a nation:

A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.

Then he raises the following points in his conclusion:

Thus the complete democratization of the country is the basis and condition for the solution of the national question.

Thus, the right of self-determination is an essential element in the solution of the national question.

Thus, national autonomy does not solve the problem.

Thus, regional autonomy is an essential element in the solution of the national question.

Thus, equal rights of nations in all forms (language, schools, etc.) is an essential element in the solution of the national question. Consequently, a state law based on complete democratization of the country is required, prohibiting all national privileges without exception and every kind of disability or restriction on the rights of national minorities.

These policies were carried out to great success in the Soviet Union, with full support from the state for education in regional languages that had been forcibly discouraged under the Tsarist russification policies. As a result, in today’s Russian Federation, there are “176 national groups and an almost equal number of languages spoken.” [1] This is somewhat comparable to the approximately 296 indigenous languages of North America, distributed in 29 families:

Langs_N.Amer

(It’s worth noting that the areas marked as “uninhabited, unknown, out of area” are almost certainly due to settler purges of traces of indigenous inhabitation, and/or failure to record any linguistic information about the inhabitants of those regions.)

One possible first step, therefore, in addressing the national question of a post-revolution North America, might consist of erasing the settler-colonial national and state borders, and establishing new regions based on the historic lands of the indigenous peoples. Within that framework of contiguous regions, it would then fall to the local communes, with their various settler and minority compositions, to work with the indigenous tribes of their region in establishing new systems for the use and care of the land and its resources.

I have already touched on some of the issues presented by agriculture under the capitalist mode of production, many of which are shared with the communist mode of production. However, agriculture is only one part of the mode of production itself. Similar problems are found in the industrial sector, which is primarily concerned with the reproduction of the means of production, the construction sector, and the consumer goods sector. Of the first two sectors, their ecological problems are largely the same under communism: there were a number of massive ecological disasters in the Soviet Union, most infamously exemplified by Chernobyl. Those issues have been elaborated on at length by many, most notably the American Indian Movement activist Russell Means:

Capitalists, at least, can be relied upon to develop uranium as fuel only at the rate which they can show a good profit. That’s their ethic, and maybe they will buy some time. Marxists, on the other hand, can be relied upon to develop uranium fuel as rapidly as possible simply because it’s the most “efficient” production fuel available. That’s their ethic, and I fail to see where it’s preferable. Like I said, Marxism is right smack in the middle of European tradition. It’s the same old song.

He’s not wrong. Nuclear energy is the most efficient means of generating power available today, and even under capitalism there is a consensus among a small group of environmentalists and futurists about its importance in addressing climate change. However efficient it is, communists would be wise to not blindly utilize it to replace existing power systems. The reason for this is tied to the final sector – consumer goods, and its relation to the topic of this essay.

Consider worldwide energy use per capita:

screenshot-from-2017-03-02-14-40-57

Cuba only needs to import around 16% of its total food, making it largely self-sufficient. Its people have adapted to limited resources forced by the US embargo, meaning that the excesses that we associate with capitalism simply do not exist there. One other interesting point from this chart is the relationship between Cuba and China. Until 2002, China’s per-capita energy usage was incredibly low, if slowly trending upward: this was partly due to its largely undeveloped rural nature until then, but also because it mostly produced goods for domestic use. US trade with China was “normalized” in 2000, and capitalists quickly rushed to exploit China’s resources and labor. Since the passage of PNTR, China’s industrial output has skyrocketed, and with it, energy usage.

Perhaps the “total energy consumption” figures below should be adjusted based on pre-PNTR figures, and the difference lumped in with US total energy consumption – since a large amount of China’s productive output is destined for the US market.

Screenshot from 2017-03-02 14-59-43.png

This last part is the legacy of imperial hegemony. The riches of the imperial core are highly dependent upon the exploitation of labor in the global south. Killing capitalism by attacking the profits that feed this imperial core – which is not strictly confined to North America, but also has branches spread out across Europe and parts of Asia like Japan – requires more than just ending wage slavery in the core itself. It also requires that the periphery deny empire of its profits.

The problem with that, historically, has been that the empire–in true colonial fashion–has used and continues to use its military as a bludgeon along with trade relations against any nations that dare deny those profits to empire. There is a long list of nations which attempted to stand up to the US empire and which were in turn felled by military means or coups: some examples are Argentina, Grenada, and most recently Libya in 2011. Other nations like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea turned to arming themselves in response to this outright aggression.

It is my hope that these struggles against empire continue and succeed. At the same time, the “anti-imperialists” of the core have failed to do anything for years. Since the anti-war protests of the 1960s, there has been a focus on symbolic gestures, marches and the like, with corresponding petitions to the bourgeois dictatorship for redress of grievances. I would argue that these have in fact had a less than useful effect, offering a perception of change even as the dictatorship discovers new loopholes and material conditions continue to worsen.

Yet, even if there is a revival of the revolutionary labor movement, and the abolition of wage slavery in the core plus resistance in the periphery leads to the destruction of global imperial capitalism,  we will be left with the consumer system built by capitalism here, and the bourgeois mindset that goes with it. A revolution is therefore necessary, not just to abolish private property and expropriate the riches of the bourgeoisie, but to change the very fabric of our society. The means of production that already exist must be employed by the post-revolution society in ways that avoid the wanton destruction of the environment associated with capitalism and even socialism.

In short, radicals here in the heart of the empire (especially those from the ranks of the settlers) should consider what life is like in Cuba, and recognize that it’s not necessarily a bad thing. As Marx said in his Critique of the Gotha Programme,

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!

Abolishing wage slavery does not mean everyone will sit around and enjoy a life of luxury while robots wait on them. It simply means that the socially necessary portion of labor-time – that which is required to maintain whatever standard of living is accepted by the post-revolution society – will be the worker’s own activity to do as they please rather than being coerced by fear of exposure or starvation as it is now under capitalism.

This implicitly means that those in the imperial core cannot expect, as they do now, to receive all the resources empire currently steals from the periphery. That will be quite the shock for many.

My thanks to @SiggonKristov. Inspired by this thread.

Footnotes

  1. Leprêtre, Marc. LANGUAGE POLICIES IN THE SOVIET SUCCESSOR STATES: A BRIEF ASSESSMENT ON LANGUAGE, LINGUISTIC RIGHTS AND NATIONAL IDENTITY (2002)

 

Advertisements

Terminal Capitalism

There seems to be a surprising consensus in the commentariat that we are finally living in the world of late-stage capitalism. The term itself was coined by Werner Sombart in his 1902 work Der Moderne Kapitalismus, to refer to a hypothetical period of capitalist excess and decline which he later asserted began with the first World War. In keeping with the title theme of my previous post, The Metastasis of Capital, I will instead dub this phase “terminal capitalism,” as it is becoming ever more clear that there is no silver bullet left that can magically fix capitalism in perpetuity. Capitalism will end: the only question is how long that process will take, and who will be harmed in the process.

As an aside, it is highly interesting that Sombart, of whom Engels was “pleased to find such understanding of Capital at a German university,” went on to sympathize with the Nazis and even wrote a book asserting that capitalism was the fault of the Jews. This underlines the uneasy position of communists, who may not only legitimize the bourgeoisie oppressors by seeking to ingratiate themselves with them, but also, by identifying the weaknesses of capitalism and speculating on how to fix it in their critiques, hand the bourgeoisie dictatorship gift-wrapped solutions to the perpetual crises of accumulation within capitalism.

Such is the case with modern monetary theory, basic income, and the service sector, three ideas that expand on postulates in Marx’s Capital and derived economic practices such as Keynesianism. The first states that the (bourgeoisie) state has the unlimited power to create fiat currency without any negative consequences, and is a direct result of the abolishment of the gold standard starting with the New Deal and ending with Bretton-Woods, a process that Marx postulated was an inevitable consequence of capitalism:

This expropriation is accomplished by the action of the immanent laws of capitalistic production itself, by the centralisation of capital. One capitalist always kills many. Hand in hand with this centralisation, or this expropriation of many capitalists by few, develop, on an ever-extending scale, the cooperative form of the labour process, the conscious technical application of science, the methodical cultivation of the soil, the transformation of the instruments of labour into instruments of labour only usable in common, the economising of all means of production by their use as means of production of combined, socialised labour, the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world market, and with this, the international character of the capitalistic regime.

With the end of private gold hoards, the bourgeoisie state was left standing as the sole holder of all wealth. Although capitalists carried on as if nothing had happened, in reality the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie had expropriated and centralized an entire nation’s capital overnight. The 74 years between the signing of Executive Order 6102 and the 2007 crisis of accumulation could be described as a long, drawn-out version of the 7 stages of grief, and the final acceptance of this fact is reflected in the media headlines about late-stage capitalism.

One of the ideas often passed off as a way of “solving” the deliberately uneven distribution of resources (and over-accumulation of wealth in the “top 1%”) under capitalism is the second idea I mentioned: a universal basic income. It proposes to directly distribute an equal amount of fiat to every citizen of the bourgeoisie dictatorship. But since that accumulated wealth is now entirely notional, and the over-production of goods in terminal capitalism means that the basic needs of every person on Earth could be met today, what UBI produces in reality is a way to ensure that workers are locked into serfdom, where necessities like housing are always kept barely out of reach, forcing one’s participation in self-alienating labor in order to “earn” the required tokens to “buy” the remaining necessities.

Demonstrating how capitalism relentlessly destroys all aspects of the bourgeoisie society that created it, Quartz ran an article entitled “Exhausted by the herd, single South Koreans are gingerly embracing the ‘YOLO’ lifestyle.” In so many words, the article describes how the pressure of capitalism to maximize dwindling profits, and thus surplus value, takes away so much of the wage-slave’s available time that they are forced to push away all other connections that we take for granted in society: friends, family, and indeed even the community. In the West, this is most viscerally realized in the form of the cubicle farm, an innovation that allowed capitalists to maximize workers per office space. Of course, even the cubicle farm is slowly withering away, being replaced most visibly in Silicon Valley by “open office spaces” that create a cheap, fake facsimile of the communities capitalism destroys inside the workplace itself.

This leads us to the service economy. The alienating nature of wage labor under capitalism was explored in considerable depth by Marx in the chapter on Estranged Labor in his 1844 Paris Manuscripts:

We have proceeded from the premises of political economy. We have accepted its language and its laws. We presupposed private property, the separation of labor, capital and land, and of wages, profit of capital and rent of land – likewise division of labor, competition, the concept of exchange value, etc. On the basis of political economy itself, in its own words, we have shown that the worker sinks to the level of a commodity and becomes indeed the most wretched of commodities; that the wretchedness of the worker is in inverse proportion to the power and magnitude of his production; that the necessary result of competition is the accumulation of capital in a few hands, and thus the restoration of monopoly in a more terrible form; and that finally the distinction between capitalist and land rentier, like that between the tiller of the soil and the factory worker, disappears and that the whole of society must fall apart into the two classes – property owners and propertyless workers.

Furthermore, in the manuscript form of Volume I of Capital, Chapter One, Marx clearly states that a commodity does not necessarily need to be physical in order to be a commodity:

There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom.

 

When the means of production begin to reproduce themselves without requiring any additional wage labor or capital derived from such wage labor, the accumulation of capitalism, which rests entirely on surplus labor as Marx described, begins to fall apart. The unsettling conclusion inferred to here is that the service economy is capitalism’s solution to the crisis of physical accumulation brought on by widespread automation.

Once the process of capitalist consolidation and expropriation has resulted in all natural resources and smaller capitals being owned by a single capital controlled by the dictatorship of the entire bourgeoisie class – for the sake of argument let’s call it Washington – it will possess a monopoly on all resources and production, without requiring any wage labor at all. The physical need for work will have been eliminated while keeping work for the sake of work intact. Instead of imbuing labor value into physical objects, the worker’s labor value now remains with the worker. Instead of creating commodities, the worker becomes the commodity, much as Marx predicted.

Artificial scarcity would continue to be the status quo, while the only “real” work would be found in selling oneself to meet the needs of others. The alienation of the worker under capitalism would express itself, finally, in the wage slave selling themselves as a commodity in order to obtain the artificially scarce necessities of life. These commodity-slaves, particularly at the bottom, would be entirely subservient to the needs of others, unable to do anything except keep themselves alive and presentable, while the bourgeoisie dictators of the state would have their every need attended to at no pain to themselves – having finally attained the position of royalty that they aspired to (while claiming to demand their abolition) so many centuries before.

If history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce, the liberation of the worker as a self-made slave, forced to sell themselves as a mere commodity to fulfill the whims of the bourgeoisie, is a farcical repetition of the slave-courts of ancient royalty.

In other words, a UBI would be nothing more than a superficial lessening of the burden on the commodity-slaves, a demonstration of the benevolence of their rightful rulers. It is the universal cake distribution of these aspiring Marie Antoinettes, having forgotten what their forebears did to the French aristocrats.

The good news, if there is any, is that the bourgeoisie do not yet possess complete control over the means of production. The national capital of China, for instance, is still controlled by the Communist Party. More importantly, and more relevant to those of us in the imperial core, and particularly the US, workers still nominally control their labor. It is true that the penalties for withholding labor continue to worsen, as the fascist dictatorship of the bourgeoisie continues to corrupt mass labor organizations from within and crack down with martial force from without.

The tactics of labor, Black liberation, and antifa movements provide some hope, demonstrating that temporary shutdowns are indeed possible and changes can be effected with limited numbers of activists. The challenge facing communists today, then, is one of the proper strategy to employ these tactics with in the aim of abolishing classes by overthrowing the mutually reinforcing bourgeoisie class rule of the fascist state and the capitalist system of wage slavery.

The Metastasis of Capital

Let’s talk about this story of a UK vet who died after losing his welfare benefits:

Screenshot from 2017-05-11 10-33-58

 

Regular readers of this blog may have figured out by now that I’m not exactly pro-military, to put it mildly. However, in liberal bourgeoisie society, defenders of empire like David Clapson are also the most visible victims of capitalism. While a liberal may walk past a homeless woman bleeding out on the street without comment, they always elaborate on how tragic it is when a retired cop or military vet dies of some “tragic,” entirely preventable incident like the one above.

Empire lures people into its war machine with promises of good wages and lifetime benefits, then cuts them adrift in the name of profit. The same goes for the “public sector.” Aside from fundamental necessities like healthcare, what is the main purpose of public spending? To answer this, let us break the question down further.

Q: Who benefits the most from public roads?

A: Private capitalists.

Q: Who benefits the most from reliable public transportation?

A: Private capitalists.

In other words, the entire modern public sector is designed for one purpose, and one purpose alone: to keep labor enslaved to capital.

Let’s take a step back to the last time monopolistic capital was concentrated at similar levels to today: the 1880s. Given free reign over infrastructure, capitalists created company towns in order to extract the most surplus labor value from their workers. The tendency of the rate of profit to decline led the Pullman Company to alienate its workers, leading to the Pullman Strike of 1894. Unfortunately, at the time Marx’s theories were still not widely disseminated, so the frustrated workers merely asked for better terms of slavery. To its credit the early labor movement did push for a reduction in working hours, but they stopped at 40 hours and nobody has dared to ask for further reductions in the years since the New Deal passed.

The bourgeoisie reaction to the labor movement was known as the Progressive movement.

The main objectives of the Progressive movement were eliminating problems caused by industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and corruption in government.

Initially the movement operated chiefly at local levels; later, it expanded to state and national levels. Progressives drew support from the middle class, and supporters included many lawyers, teachers, physicians, ministers and business people.

Allow me to restate: Progressivism is reactionary.

Why did the bourgeoisie respond to labor demands with their own call for “progress?”

The answer is quite simple, really. They sought the preservation of capitalism.

Lawyers, physicians, ministers, and merchants all share one thing in common: their livelihood depends on the wages of others. If wage laborers have no money with which to pay them, they starve as well.

Compare the following excerpts:

[…] spending on the public sector, schools and infrastructure was considered extravagant. […] Bridges, canals and roads were built, hospitals and schools, railway stations and orphanages; swamps were drained and land reclaimed, forests were planted and universities were endowed.”

[it] included food supplementary assistance, infant care, maternity assistance, general healthcare, wage supplements, paid vacations, unemployment benefits, illness insurance, occupational disease insurance, general family assistance, public housing, and old age and disability insurance.

and

[…] a favorable attitude toward urban-industrial society, belief in mankind’s ability to improve the environment and conditions of life, belief in an obligation to intervene in economic and social affairs, and a belief in the ability of experts and in the efficiency of government intervention. Scientific management […] became a watchword for industrial efficiency and elimination of waste, with the stopwatch as its symbol.

Doesn’t it seem like the second quote describes the first? The sources may surprise you: here is the first, and the second.

Fascism is, unfortunately, the logical conclusion of progressive policies. Every fascist government of the 20th century traces its social and economic policies directly to the Progressive movement. Remember who came up with eugenics? Then you have Margaret Sanger, progressive, feminist icon, eugenicist, and follower of Thomas Malthus, who said the following at the Sixth International Neo-Malthusian and Birth Control Conference in 1925:

Advanced on purely individual, feministic and profoundly eugenic bases, emphasizing the desiderata of Quality as opposed to Quantity in the procreation of humans, serenely indifferent to historical backgrounds, academic discussions and polemics, the new battle for human emancipation focused attention upon the problem of hygienic contraception as a personal problem, and essentially as the problem of womankind.

Let’s add “racist” to that list, too, for the societal effects of eugenicist policies cannot be described as anything but.

Modern Progressives can deny these aspects of the movement’s history, but they cannot change the effects their policies still have. Progressives can talk all they want about creating a system that is fair for all, but that is impossible without abolishing capitalism. As long as private capital exists, as long as an exploitative hierarchy of labor exists, inequality & suffering will remain a fact of life. Abolition of private capital by itself is not enough to solve this: at best, you get a proto-capitalist system like the Soviet Union. This is not a dig against the Soviets: they really wanted a better system, and in most ways, they had one. But like the American labor movement, when they had the opportunity to reduce hours of labor, they balked. After the Great Patriotic War, they never returned to the concept of reducing hours of labor, which ultimately spelled their doom, much as the American labor movement’s refusal to push for reducing hours of labor ultimately turned it into a reactionary bourgeois tool.

At this late stage of capitalism, I simply can’t accept that the solution to the problem progressives created by empowering the state is giving the fascist state even more power. This is not the post-war Soviet Union. We have no workers’ councils; we are not represented by the fascist state. No amount of well-meaning legislative proposals or Constitutional amendments can fix this mess. The system is designed to resist change.  People have been trying to change the Democratic Party from within for over 100 years. What do they have to show for it? Third Way? All of the great gains of the labor and civil rights movements were fleeting at best.

I can’t believe this needs to be said, but the “founding fathers” were bourgeoisie trash.

How are we going to pass a constitutional amendment – like, say, ending Citizens United – without control of 2/3rds of the states? How are we supposed to gain control of those states when a small minority of wealthy reactionaries have an iron grip on all the state machinery? What good would gaining control of electoral machinery do, anyway, when even solid-blue states like CA are dominated by their own minority of wealthy reactionaries?

Capitalism has metastasized in the United States. Reforms are like chemotherapy: they cannot cure the patient, and only prolong suffering.

Draw your own conclusion as to what needs to be done.

fully automated amazon.communism

One of the recurring critiques against socialism and communism is the reliance on centrally planned economies, as if a socialized monopoly is somehow far worse than privately-owned, exploitative capitalist monopolies. The same bourgeois economists who gush over how capitalist mergers create economies of scale through vertical integration also talk about how central planning will never work, ignoring that central planning is simply the vertical integration of an entire economy with the economies of scale that result. Either these economists are simpletons, or there is a far more sinister motive at play.

Of course, early attempts at central planning tended to include spectacular failures. Some of these were due to sheer hubris on the part of the planners, who have on occasion been criticized for trying to bend reality to their will, but more often it was mundane: miscommunication, delays, war, etc. Over-reporting yields and under-estimating demand tends to be shrugged off under capitalism as a market failure, but those same capitalists shriek in delight when they hear that the Soviets were not, in fact, infallible.

Looking forward to a future in which capitalism has collapsed, we may then wonder what to do next. Do we go back to backbreaking, labor-intensive organic farming and dissolve the cities, as it seems some on the environmentalist left wish to do? Or will we expropriate the tools of automation that led to the downfall of the capitalists, and put them to use for the common good? Let us assume for a moment that we do the latter, in which case we should ask what those tools might look like.

As it turns out, in Amazon.com’s relentless drive to expand to all sectors of the economy, they have in fact produced one possible roadmap to fully automated luxury communism. Setting aside the fact that most of the goods they supply are made with barely sufficient wage labor in the global south today, over the last twenty or so years they have put together a remarkable supply chain with automation, as seen in this video:

Even though they rely on robots to shuffle pallets around the warehouse, they still employ thousands of people to pick goods. Of course, those jobs are far from safe from automation – stock picking is a mundane, repetitive task that is an ideal target for robots like Baxter:

But even this is rather boring compared to some of Amazon’s newer forays into automation, such as delivery by drone and floating distribution centers.

161229101537-amazon-blimp-780x439

Of course, in true capitalist fashion, Amazon’s patent suggests absurdly luxurious uses for this technology, as described in the previously linked CNN piece:

The patent cites sporting events as a place where the aerial warehouse would be especially useful. The drones could deliver items such as team paraphernalia or food to large crowds in a small area.

A more critical look at this delivery technology might suggest its usefulness in, for instance, disaster relief: imagine being able to move a fleet of fully automated delivery centers loaded with supplies into a region devastated by an earthquake.

However, all of this pales next to their latest concept: an automated grocery store.

Setting aside the obvious problems of wastefulness and packaging – which could perhaps be partly solved with ubiquitous automated recycling, but I digress – this concept store more than anything I have ever seen reflects the potential future of fully automated communism, and it wouldn’t even require the smartphone app! If goods are freely available at no cost to all, then the “store” would be more like a virtual quartermaster. As people pick up what they need, when they need it, the store’s computer system merely needs to request restocking through the automated supply chain. It neatly sidesteps the common grocery store problem of 2-5 different competing brands for each category, minimizing wasted space, and the compact size of the stores means that they can be sited within urban communities rather than in the suburban hinterlands.

This is not to say that these stores should carry everything: trying to package fresh produce tends to be excessive, like these individually-wrapped bell peppers or plastic trays of pre-sliced apple bags. Community gardens, farmer’s markets (which, without money, would probably look more like tiny fairs than markets) and automated urban hydroponic vertical gardens could all be ways to supply cities with fresh, local produce on demand.

Even so, if the need for precise payment is eliminated, then it becomes possible for the automated grocery store to simply bring in boxes of produce, which people pick through, and cycle the boxes as they empty out. Large-scale automated farming, of course adapted for better ecological sustainability, will still be a necessary and important part of a post-capitalist food distribution system. And without the capitalist drive for ever-greater profits, care can be taken to ensure that the global system will continue to function for generations to come.

What’s more democratic than democracy? Demarchy

In the West, democracy is held to be the highest form of government. It is suggested that any government which does not derive its power from the people is illegitimate, even as Western “democratic” governments actively work to subvert the will of the people through various machinations. A 2014 Princeton study by Gillens and Page [1] revealed the extent of this subversion, concluding that public opinion has a “near-zero” impact on U.S. law. The following video from Represent.Us highlights the findings:

However, like most upper-middle-class (bourgeoisie) reformers, the folks at Represent.Us are stuck in the same trap of attempting to change a system that is actively fighting changes from within. What they decry as “corruption” is merely the logical outcome of a society in which money–or more accurately, capital–is the highest moral authority. Bourgeois liberals clearly live by the adage “Money is power,” while pretending it’s false by promulgating myths of opportunity and equality.

Even as these reformist groups suggest the way to fix unbalanced representation is through the passage of “anti-corruption acts,” county election boards all across the US are purging hundreds of thousands of voters from the rolls thanks to systems like Interstate Cross-Check. The remaining wreckage of the civil rights movement’s gains, like the Voting Rights Act, is steadily being cleared away by conservative judicial rulings at all levels of the federal court system. The much-vaunted checks and balances of the Constitution have, in the end, turned out to be little more than a speedbump for capital – almost as if they were not, in fact, intended to prevent oligarchy, but rather a bulwark to defend the bourgeois revolution of 1776 from a future popular revolt.

If it is indeed democracy that we seek, and not the twisted parody of democracy that bourgeois capitalism has produced, then we must dispense with all of the bourgeois sensibilities we carry along with us. We must distill society down to the bare elements, and re-shape it anew. In programming terms,we might call this a “refactoring” of society: recognizing that the old system was incapable of achieving the desired result, starting over from a clean slate with the desired result in mind and rebuilding a functionally equivalent system without re-using any of the old code outside of, perhaps, some universal shared elements.

During this endeavour, we must question all the norms of the previous society, and ask ourselves why systems operated the way they did. How did American electoral politics develop the way they did? How was that related to the original requirement for all voters to be white landholders? Why is it, for all the reverence toward the ancient Greek democracy of Athens, elections by lot were never seriously considered in the West?

Likewise, it is telling that Western states blast former and current states like the Soviet Union and Cuba, respectively, for being anti-democratic and authoritarian. Soviet, for example, literally means “council” in English. Anti-communists like to scare people by implying that the “all power to the Soviets!” cry of 1917 was a cry for authority, when in fact it was a purer expression of democracy (“All power to the workers’ councils!”) than the American revolutionary cry of “no taxation without representation.”

The following video explains the functioning of Cuban democracy, which is likewise based on popular assemblies or councils:

The appeal of popular assemblies should be obvious. Indeed, this concept forms the cornerstone of participatory politics, an idealized system of nested councils in which every person votes (participates) in a local council, elects a representative to be sent to the next council up, and so on until all of humanity is represented by a single elected council, which could be accomplished in as few as 6 council levels depending on the number of members per council.

nested_council

However, this system still relies on elections. This means that at least one person must be willing to run for the next level council from within each council, convince a majority of members to vote for them, and repeat the process for each level of council until all levels have been filled. This promises to be tedious, mostly uninteresting, and not terribly rewarding for most people unless driven by an ideological motivation – which may be a good thing, but more often than not, we see politicians driven by naked ambition rather than any sort of altruism. Parpolity, as designed by Professor Shalom, thus appears to replicate the failures of Western electoral politics.

One possible solution to this is explored by Belgian writer David van Reybrouk in his book “Against Elections.” [2] He advocates for a return to the ancient practice of election by lot, alternately known as sortition or, when practiced as a form of governance, demarchy. Instead of forcing each council in a nested system as proposed under parpolity to have its own tiresome elections, all members would instead place their names into a pool to be randomly drawn from. This is little different from lottery or drawing systems, and as such methods of preventing fraud are easily carried over. A series of campaigns and elections that might take months may instead be reduced to a few days of random selections, allowing a rapid re-organization of society under participatory demarchy.

Sortition also has further, more everyday, applications. It can easily be used to replace elections in any popular body, as long as a majority agrees with the requisite rule changes. Associations, party chapters, union chapters, and the like may all benefit from the impartiality (and proportionality!) of sortition.

Of course, we can fully expect the upper class and their admirers to strongly resist any such changes to existing bourgeois states, as it would destroy the power structures they have carefully built over the years to perpetuate the forced division of labor under capitalism. This means that any such speculative proposals are only useful following the collapse of capitalism and the bourgeoisie state, whether through its own failings or because of proletarian revolution.

References and additional reading:

  1. Gilens and Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspective on Politics, 2014.
  2. David van Reybrouk, “Against Elections,” Policy Network, 2014.
  3. Brian Martin, “Demarchy,” 1989.
  4. Stephen H. Unger, “Government by Jury,” columbia.edu, 2013.

In Search of Class Consciousness

In 1920, Lenin wrote the essay “Left-wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder” concerning the aftermath of the postwar German revolution and the abortive Communist revolution that occurred during it. Most of his essay thus is concerned with identifying those responsible for the failure of said revolution. He lays the blame squarely at the feet of the petty-bourgeois, who he claim possess

diffuseness and instability, that incapacity for sustained effort, unity and organised action, which, if encouraged, must inevitably destroy any proletarian revolutionary movement. [1]

This critique still seems relevant today, nearly 100 years after he wrote this essay. We have witnessed similar diffuseness and instability in the Occupy movement, which, unable to consolidate around a clear set of demands, served primarily as an incubator for activists who later took key roles in Black Lives Matter, the Bernie Sanders campaign, and even the Donald Trump campaign. Occupy’s rejection of proletarian identity, best recognized in their “We are the 99%” slogan, implicitly refused to recognize the systemic nature of capitalism. Instead, they shifted blame onto the “top 1%” of capitalists, absolving the rest of society that aids and abetts that same top 1%. As Lenin said,

It is a thousand times easier to vanquish the centralised big bourgeoisie than to “vanquish” the millions upon millions of petty proprietors; however, through their ordinary, everyday, imperceptible, elusive and demoralising activities, they produce the very results which the bourgeoisie need and which tend to restore the bourgeoisie.

As we saw in 2016, Occupy resulted not in a mass revolution and the toppling of Wall Street, but instead was merely one in a series of events that culminated in the election of Donald Trump. Occupy’s diffusive and non-proletarian nature also made it easy for the bourgeoisie to co-opt its message and monetize it. For instance, when the co-founder of the “Occupy Democrats” organization joined the board of advisers of a patent services company, this is how they described him:

Omar Rivero is the founder and editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats, a grassroots political organization that has close to 300,000 likes on Facebook. He studied Industrial Labor and Relations at Cornell University, earned a Master’s in European Business from the European School of Management (ESCP-EAP), and is now a political activist. Omar ran for office for the Florida House in District 118 and intends to run again in 2016.

In addition to being a rising political star, Omar Rivero is also an inventor and a talented entrepreneur. He has partnered up with World Patent Marketing to build and develop a multimillion dollar, futuristic social media network to compete with Facebook and Twitter. [2]

It is important to note that Rivero didn’t found Occupy Democrats until 2012, after the main Occupy movement had died down, its activists largely returning back to their previous lives. His attempt to “occupy” the Democratic Party was merely one of the latest in a long series of failed attempts at political entryism, and Occupy Democrats’ role in the 2016 election consisted mostly of creating memes to share among like-minded bourgeois liberals on social media.

Another common trait in American activism is the veneration of the “founding fathers,” the “American dream,” and a semi-mythological creature known only as “opportunity.” To quote Omar from the previous press release,

I am living the American Dream and I am going to make sure that every citizen in this country has the same opportunity that I had.

At this point, we should perhaps stop and ask ourselves what the “American Dream” really is. Its origins may be found in the settler mythos, and the first recorded reference to it came from a British colonial governor, who said Americans “for ever imagine the Lands further off are still better than those upon which they are already settled; if they attained Paradise, they would move on if they heard of a better place farther west.” [3]

Laurence Samuel argued more recently in his book “The American Dream: A Cultural History,”

For many in both the working class and the middle class, upward mobility has served as the heart and soul of the American Dream, the prospect of “betterment” and to “improve one’s lot” for oneself and one’s children much of what this country is all about. “Work hard, save a little, send the kids to college so they can do better than you did, and retire happily to a warmer climate” has been the script we have all been handed. [4]

Despite the fact that this “dream” has been proven to be a myth repeatedly, leading the late comedian George Carlin to joke “it’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it,” it has been unquestioningly embraced by many like Omar Rivero. Even Martin Luther King Jr, in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” tied the struggle for Black liberation to this nationalistic settler mythos:

One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. [5]

The prevalence of this mythos in American culture presents a serious problem for the struggle for proletarian consciousness. As I argued before, our reverence of the founding fathers is deeply problematic. Likewise, we embrace a Protestant work ethic despite the vast majority of our labor being absolutely unnecessary and superfluous. These are not new issues; this shared national identity and dream is a tool of capital, a very effective method with which the bourgeoisie can infect the ranks of the working and poor and turn them away from a proletarian class consciousness. As Lenin argued,

The abolition of classes means, not merely ousting the landowners and the capitalists—that is something we accomplished with comparative ease; it also means abolishing the small commodity producers, and they cannot be ousted, or crushed; we must learn to live with them. They can (and must) be transformed and re-educated only by means of very prolonged, slow, and cautious organisational work. They surround the proletariat on every side with a petty-bourgeois atmosphere, which permeates and corrupts the proletariat, and constantly causes among the proletariat relapses into petty-bourgeois spinelessness, disunity, individualism, and alternating moods of exaltation and dejection.

Thus our fight for freedom is not merely a fight against capitalism, but also the ideology that infects our society and hinders our fight. This, more than force of arms, is what necessitates the vanguard. It is entirely possible for self-organized armies of anarchists to fight against capital, as witnessed during the Spanish Civil War. But their disunity and internal divisions also makes them weak to divide and conquer strategies, which capitalists have perfected over hundreds of years of colonialism, both militarily and psychologically.

At this point some perspective is needed. What, exactly, is the scope of the project we find ourselves facing? It would seem that attitudes toward home ownership might serve as a useful proxy for petty-bourgeois ideology. The U.S. Census Bureau provided this helpful table:

c7sm96lvwaajlgk
In 2016, there were 135 million housing units, or 1 unit for every 2.4 people in the United States. (Coincidentally, this should disprove the notion of a housing shortage: what we have instead is an unequal distribution of housing, with 17 million vacant units.) Of these 135 million units, some 58 million are owned by landlords, who have always been a core part of the bourgeoisie. Of the remaining owner-occupied units, then, it is worth examining which owned outright, and which are mortgaged. Fortunately, FiveThirtyEight examined the results of the American Community Survey for us and produced this useful graphic:

c7soaplv4aadp7g

Extrapolating from the survey results, we can then estimate that roughly 27 million households own their homes outright. Of these, it appears at least a third own more than one property, according to this HUD paper on second ownership. Combining the various statistics, we may infer that around 43% of all US housing is owned by 7-9 million households. This allows us to set a lower bound on the size of the bourgeoisie class in the United States.

Subtracting that same amount from the 75 million total owner-occupied housing units, the remaining 66 million or so–57% of all households–might be expected to fall into the petty-bourgeoisie: some saddled with mortgages, some not, but all wishing they could enjoy the luxury of rental income. Considering how home ownership is an integral part of the American dream, we should further question how much of the remaining 36% of renting households aspire toward ownership. For that, we may turn to this blog post from the National Association of Realtors, which unfortunately paints a bleak picture for communists:

c7ss-hhv4aaqysm

According to NAR’s Aspiring Home Buyers Profile report, 90% of renters – nearly 33 million – “want to own one day.” If we add these renters to the 66 million who already own one home, we may then place an upper bound on the petty bourgeois of 99 million households, or roughly 85% of all US households. This means that only 8-9% of households have rejected this key part of the American dream mythos for whatever reason.

At this point some might be tempted to throw up their hands and ask how revolution is possible if >91% of the populace will resist. We may, however, want to reconsider our preliminary classification of renters after considering the other points made by the above chart. A large majority of those 33 million renters cannot afford to buy housing, and this statistic is unlikely to change in the future since high housing prices benefit the existing owners. Second, buying a home requires saving money for a down payment of at least 3.5% according to FHA rules; this merely adds to the impossibility of purchase for renters, given the tendency to live paycheck-to-paycheck at lower income levels.

Furthermore, there may even be inroads to the masses of “homeowners” thanks to financial engineering techniques introduced by capitalists. One such technique is the ARM, or adjustable-rate mortgage. Most notoriously employed in the lead-up to the 2008 housing bubble, these loans are made at low initial rates to convince renters that homeownership is possible; by the time the loan “resets” to a higher interest rate later on, the selling capitalist is long gone and the “owner” is left paying for a loan they cannot afford, which typically leads to foreclosure and a return to renting.

This forced division of class between owners & aspiring owners without sufficient means is something that can, and should be, exploited. It’s always worth remembering that capitalism requires exploitation to function: it always has, and will continue to, alienate the petty bourgeoisie if left unfettered. This is why Lenin advocated for “prolonged, slow, and cautious organizational work” to re-educate the petty-bourgeoisie.

Accelerationist purists believe that communism is the inevitable result of capitalism consuming itself. On this point, I disagree. History does not follow a path toward freedom. If it did, debt and slavery would never have emerged around the same time as agriculture. The alienation of labor by capitalism can just as easily be used by fascists to attract support from the proletariat, as we witnessed in 1930s Spain, Italy, and Germany, as well as recently with Brexit, Donald Trump, and possibly Le Pen in France. The policies of fascism, such as imperialist war and full employment, can then be employed to propel capitalism through its crisis stage of contraction and into the next bubble of expansion. For this reason, we may conclude that capitalists may be reliably expected to turn to fascism rather than allow fully automated luxury communism to exist.

At the same time, there seems to be a tendency among revolutionaries of both anarchist and Marxist persuasion to dismiss the potential usefulness of capitalist alienation. If we can provide answers for the alienated petty-bourgeoisie before fascist propagandists do, we may discover an opening. Lenin’s concept of the revolutionary vanguard is not outmoded; if anything, it is more relevant than ever in an accelerating capitalist world. The vanguard’s primary job is education since revolutions arise from class awareness. If we can provide for both the physical and intellectual needs of the alienated masses, then we should let the capitalists embrace their worst exploitative tendencies domestically: it may become our best recruiting tool.

References

  1. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/ch05.htm
  2. http://globenewswire.com/news-release/2015/02/23/708599/10121333/en/Omar-Rivero-Founder-of-Occupy-Democrats-and-Outspoken-Opponent-of-Patent-Troll-Scams-Joins-World-Patent-Marketing-Board-of-Advisors.html
  3. https://books.google.com/books?id=DlmrAAAAIAAJ&lpg=PA513&ots=QGpNa8Mn5t&dq=Origins of the American Revolution (1944)&pg=PA77#v=onepage&q=77&f=false
  4. https://books.google.com/books?id=domiAgAAQBAJ&pg=PA7#v=onepage&q&f=false
  5. https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html
  6. https://www.census.gov/housing/hvs/files/currenthvspress.pdf
  7. https://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/how-many-homeowners-have-paid-off-their-mortgages/
  8. https://www.huduser.gov/periodicals/ushmc/spring2004/article_ushmc-04q1.pdf
  9. http://economistsoutlook.blogs.realtor.org/2017/02/14/affordability-is-main-hurdle-for-aspiring-home-buyers/

 

Accelerating Toward Communism

Introduction

The core of Marx’s critique of capitalism lies in class relations, which can be traced back to the dawn of recorded history – and coincides with the dawn of agriculture. There is evidence that prior to agricultural societies, hunter-gatherers formed smaller communal societies, and this continues into the present day in many indigenous communities. That living history alone should be sufficient evidence to disprove any notion of competition as being fundamental to human nature, which is key to many arguments in support of capitalism.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels call for the building of a revolutionary class consciousness amongst the oppressed (the working class of capitalism, or the proletariat) with which the entire system of class relations, and the state which enforces it, may be abolished. Communism, after all, is nothing more than the return of society to its pre-agricultural state of communal relations and sharing, without discarding the advances made possible by agriculture and technology.

Another critical element of Marx’s theory of capital is the cyclical nature of its crises, and how these crises drive greater exploitation and alienation of the working class. In my earlier piece, The Implications of Abolishing Wage Labor and Capitalism, I briefly touched on the current crisis cycle of wage labor and automation within capitalism and offered three possible outcomes. After further reflection, I have revised my possible outcomes:

  1. The crisis ends with a basic income guarantee saving capitalism.
  2. The crisis ends with a full employment guarantee saving capitalism.
  3. The crisis accelerates, resulting in full alienation of the working class.

The third possible outcome is the most interesting, as it opens up several new possibilities from a communist perspective.

Basic Income

Capitalist futurists like Scott Santens are obsessed with the concept of a Universal Basic Income as a solution to the crisis of wage labor and automation that is currently underway. The usual argument is that basic income will redistribute a portion of the profits accumulated by the top 1% equally among citizens, which will in turn boost spending and stimulate the economy according to the predictions of Keynesian economics. An alternative form of basic income utilizes a form of “qualitative easing,” otherwise known as state expansion of the money supply, to provide a universal subsidy for the same Keynesian effect.

While capitalist futurists may be tempted to argue that any future in which basic needs are met and work is voluntary is a sufficient advance from the current capitalist welfare state, basic income fails both conditions upon closer examination. While a guarantee of money is indeed an improvement over the current system, it only guarantees demand for basic needs and does nothing to ensure that the market is optimally producing enough supply (and enough of the right kind of supply!) to meet demand. Like all other bourgeoisie economics, it remains irrationally reliant on the invisible hand.

Second, saying that work will be voluntary because everyone gets an average subsidy somewhere around the poverty line is patently absurd. This is little better than the voluntary work argument of anarcho-capitalists, who suggest that the starvation of the destitute is merely due to choices on their part. Because of the previous lack of guaranteed supply of necessary goods such as housing, it is impossible to guarantee that the monthly budget of necessities for everyone receiving basic income will remain below the level of the subsidy. It’s important to note that many tenant lease agreements expressly prohibit subletting, artificially constraining the supply of multiple occupant housing and thus keeping prices elevated. Work will, therefore, remain involuntary for the vast majority of basic income recipients living in major metropolises: if the price of available housing exceeds the basic income budget, what other choice exists besides getting a job?

Finally, the parasitic nature of capitalism should never be ignored, and that is exactly what basic income does. As Silicon Valley tech companies have drifted toward offering “software as a service,” which is basically a form of high-profit indefinite-term lease agreements, the same thing has happened in impoverished communities across America. Payday lenders sprung up to offer “short term” cash loans, bail bonds, and automobile-backed collateral loans at ludicrous interest rates, while companies like Rent-A-Center and Aaron’s appeared everywhere to offer moderately expensive consumer goods like flatscreen TVs and furniture sets at “low” rental prices, hoping that the cash-strapped poor would find a perpetual $19.99 monthly bill for a sofa preferable to a $500 one-time purchase. Once the poor victim is hooked on the service, the fleecing begins with upselling and ends with late fees, penalty rates, collections, and repossession. It is absolutely naive to assume that these practices would not multiply under a basic income guarantee.

Therefore, the major problems with basic income from a Marxist perspective have nothing to do with its viability in terms of bourgeoisie economics such as concerns of hyperinflation. It seems rather clear that basic income will work as advertised. However, since universal basic income advances the dissolution of neither class relations nor the state, and disguises the continued alienation of the working classes with pleasant-sounding liberal propaganda terminology like “opportunity” and “freedom,” it will only ensure the survival of capitalism and thus the continued oppression of the proletariat.

I also remain skeptical that a universal basic income will be universally adopted by capitalists because of prevailing views about the “laziness” of workers. Years of tireless repetition of anti-communist and anti-socialist propaganda lines have practically embedded them in the conservative dogma. Most conservatives will fail to see UBI for anything other than what it is – a welfare reform program – which runs against their desire to abolish welfare entirely. With any luck and robust bipartisan opposition, UBI will continue to remain nothing more than a liberal pipe dream.

Full Employment

At this point it is worth considering the second alternative to UBI: fascist full employment. Since this is a policy with a long and successful history of implementation, unlike UBI, it should therefore be considered an even greater threat to the advancement of full communism. The first nation to advance a policy of full employment was Nazi Germany, in response to the Great Depression, through a program of civil works (including the construction of the Autobahn) and more importantly, defense spending. This massive surplus of productivity was what allowed the Nazis to initially surprise their complacent neighbors through overwhelming force at the opening of World War II, although they quickly ran into resource limits as the war dragged on and the Soviets mobilized their war economy in return.

British economist John Maynard Keynes maintained silence on the success of Nazi Germany’s economic program on account of the brutality of the Nazis, according to biographer Robert Skidelsky. I can only imagine his horror at seeing the most successful implementation of his policies coming from the worst fascist state ever to exist outside of America. Perhaps that explains this interesting passage in the preface to the German edition of his 1936 work The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money:

Nevertheless the theory of output as a whole, which is what the following book purports to provide, is much more easily adapted to the conditions of a totalitarian state, than is the theory of the production and distribution of a given output produced under conditions of free competition and a large measure of laissez-faire.

After the second World War, Britain achieved full employment between 1950 and 1973, and while America never stated a policy of full employment to the extent Britain did, they have attempted to keep the official unemployment rate around 5% for many years. Most recently, Western legislators have once again picked up the baton of full employment.

The question that remains with full employment (in the British sense, not the American one) is how it will interact with increasing levels of automation. In Capital, Marx provided mathematical proof that capitalists will not invest in new means of production (i.e. machinery or automation) if they cannot make a greater profit with it than with the present means of production. Since full employment policies use the state to both subsidize unproductive work and absorb surplus productivity in the form of expanded infrastructure and stockpiles of military hardware, we may infer that full employment may in fact serve as both a check on the rate of automation (since there is no profit to be found in automating a job that the state is subsidizing) and an accelerator (due to demand for military hardware and autonomous systems).

One country that pursued a stated goal of full employment that I failed to mention earlier was the Soviet Union. While it was quite literally the furthest thing from a fascist state, meeting almost none of Umberto Eco’s criterion, it called for full employment as part of its “war economy” policies, most of which were maintained up to its dissolution aside from a brief period of attempted reform under Lenin’s “New Economy.” Just like the fascist states and western imperialist powers, the Soviet Union absorbed the resulting surplus of production by building national infrastructure and expanding and upgrading the Red Army.

Communism and the Left Acceleration of Capitalism

The end case of either universal basic income or full employment policies (and, quite honestly, it seems that we are headed for a horrific merging of the worst parts of both ideas) would seem to be found in an accelerating system of global warfare, which I’m sure would please the capitalists of the military-industrial complex immensely. It would be a dystopic system in which armies of low-wage, completely superfluous service workers “support” a consumer economy-as-a-service while the automated factories of the military-industrial complex churn out weapons for both sides of imperialist wars in the global south. In other words, the final result looks exactly like the capitalism we live in, only worse.

It is my suspicion that, given the amount of superfluous labor that currently exists in the economy, it should be possible to sustain a near-Western lifestyle with zero socially necessary human labor if we eliminate all non-essential “necessary” work, which should free up enough resources to finish the process of automating all the remaining essential work (as well as bringing the root cause of anthropogenic global warming to its well-deserved end.) Subsequently, human labor would only exist on a strictly voluntary, self-directed level, much like hobbies today – with the difference that free time would be universal rather than a scarcity as it is today.

Since it has become clear to me that the continued evolution of capitalism with either a basic income or full employment will present further challenges to abolishing labor and creating such a society, I am therefore opposed to both policies. The question, then, is what policy should communists support to advance the destruction of capitalism?

We may find the answer in what has been termed “accelerationism,” a difficult to grasp concept that Karl Marx was developing before his death, evidenced by his increasingly gloomy tone throughout the third volume of Capital. It may have even hastened the death of Marx’s close friend Friedrich Engels when he attempted to piece together volume 3, as described in this unsettling post by Vincent Garton that also points an accusing finger at the fourth volume of Capital for the collapse of the Second International. Unfortunately, the contradictory nature of acceleration also has a tendency to drive ideology far into the realm of nihilism and reaction, as seen in the case of Nick Land. It is good to ask uncomfortable questions, but we must take care when interpreting the answers lest we fall into the same trap.

The first question we must ask is: what will come after the latest crisis of capitalism, if we do not resolve it through some form of fascist state intervention? As Marx postulated, the crisis cycles of capitalism drive workers toward greater levels of alienation, i.e. continued loss of the value of their labor. The steady rate of profit demanded by capitalists, according to the traditional understanding of Marx’s labor theory of value, necessarily must be obtained by extracting an ever-greater share of value from the worker’s productivity. In other words, as profits rise, workers get paid less while being forced to work longer for the same wage.

However, this traditional understanding runs into a major hiccup around 1932, when the United States and most other nations partly decoupled their currencies from gold, and again in 1970, when the remaining ties to gold were blown away. Since fiat currency as a representation of gold (or another highly valued commodity) is the cornerstone of Marx’s labor theory of value, removing it makes most of volume 1 of Capital nothing more than a historical curiosity for analyzing capitalist relations prior to the Bretton Woods system. It does not, however, invalidate Marxism itself – which interestingly enough predicts its own demise, or more accurately evolution, as a fundamental function of dialectic materialism.

This understanding allows us to see how capital managed to evolve past the crisis of the Great Depression. At the time, demands for unionization, 8-hour days, and fair labor standards were forcing capitalists to cut into their profit margins. President Roosevelt responded to these demands with the labor reforms of the New Deal, giving the labor movement the appearance of victory, while simultaneously destroying the value of the dollar by making it illegal to hoard gold. While the unions celebrated their victory, he effectively pulled the rug out from under them by creating the conditions under which the currency could be devalued. While some of the other reforms were rolled back almost immediately under his successor, it was not until the 1970s that the full extent of this damage to the labor movement started to become clear.

In so many words, we can see that all of the “gains” lauded by bourgeois politicians, those scale-covered lying sacks of filth who entrance voters with sweet-sounding propaganda in order to extract donations of their hard-earned yet utterly worthless currency, are themselves utterly worthless. More than anything, the betrayal of the labor movement (and later, the civil rights movement!) serves as concrete proof that the incremental reform advocated by bourgeois socialists and so-called progressives is nothing more than breathing room for capitalists to regroup in before beginning their next assault on the proletariat. There is nothing the bourgeoisie fear more than the revolution of the proletariat, and they will stop at nothing to prevent it from happening.

It is this stubborn, deeply ingrained drive to save capitalism that will be the greatest source of resistance for left acceleration. We are already witnessing how left-leaning reformists are busily splitting themselves into two camps: one for the defense of wage slavery, in the form of full employment, and other advocating for the creation of a basic income subsidy for capitalism. For that is what basic income really is: a means of preserving the profit margins of capitalists by ensuring that “consumers” will always have money to spend.

We should, instead, firmly reject any attempt at reforming capital. The old byline of Democrats and their supporters (like the always useful DSA) has been “change the system from within.” But history has proven that such attempts always result in a weaker, watered-down, milquetoast version of the same system. This is because hierarchical systems like bureaucracy and capitalism are self-perpetuating: they will automatically resist any changes that could weaken the power structure, because such a change may threaten the system’s existence. We may therefore infer the corollary of this generalization is that hierarchical systems will always accept changes that will strengthen the existing power structure.

Deng: capitalist sympathizer, or visionary accelerationist?

The Communist Party of China is an intriguing bundle of contradictions in this sense. They still claim adherence to Marxism-Leninism and Maoism, while openly contradicting many of the orthodox views of both ideologies. One interpretation of this is that the bourgeoisie effectively took over over the Communist Party of China thanks to Deng Xiaoping and the failure of Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. However, if we accept the accelerationist premise that capitalism will suffer a sudden implosion and transition to fully automated luxury communism at some indeterminate point in the future, we must ask if Deng was therefore a committed communist who was merely ahead of his time, in the same vein as Marx and the two final volumes of Capital.

In this regard, the CPC’s debate over the nature of the primary stage of socialism is enlightening. They describe their current economic system as part of the primary stage of socialism, which began in 1950 and thus is expected to conclude by 2050 – less than 35 years away. The next stage that will follow it is not elaborated upon, but fully automated luxury communism might be a good guess.

A look at recent headlines will reveal how China has dramatically shaped the narrative of capital globally. The Chinese today are at the center of major technological developments including industrial robotics: Foxconn plans to eliminate nearly all human jobs in its suicide-prone iPhone factories. Chinese investment currently props up the US dollar as well as the Eurozone. The Chinese state is likewise playing a crucial role in the industrialization of the states of the “global south.” Their efforts are not completely compatible with orthodox views of capitalism, but viewed from the perspective of a deeply communist nation trying to accelerate the global collapse of capitalism, China’s policies may start to make a certain amount of sense. The only question that remains for me is whether this was intentional or merely accidental.

Conclusion

I am aware that this piece is likely to raise far more questions than it answers, which is good. I personally have severe doubts about the likelihood of sudden capitalist collapse and instant communization thereof. At the same time, the progression of capitalism and imperialism has created a pervasive surveillance state that casts into doubt the success of previously successful revolutionary models.

The answer that comes to me, then, is local organization of communal assemblies (similar to the Soviets, or the people’s assemblies under Mao’s teachings) and continued education of the populace in preparation not so much for armed revolution, but rather in the event of sudden collapse. Unlike the rich white survivalists, as communists we recognize that strength lies not in the quantity of munitions and supplies an individual may stockpile, but rather the shared class consciousness and mutual support of a true community.

The Cruel Prank of Housing

The “American dream” of suburban home ownership is little more than a cruel prank pulled on the working class by capitalists. The obligation to pay for housing is the primary tool used by capital to enforce unnecessary labor.

While rent is preferable for capitalists in terms of maximizing profits, most vividly in the company towns of the 1880s, health and safety standards have cut into their profits. Rent presents another disadvantage for the capitalist in that the tenants have no obligation to stay. This has been somewhat addressed through lease terms and first and last month deposits, but even those will not stop a motivated tenant from leaving.

Mortgages resemble most closely the indentured servitude of colonial America. In exchange for the promise of one day becoming a capitalist landholder, tenants indenture themselves to 30 years (or more) of payments, which for most people means doing anything they can to hold onto a job. While the idea of making a fixed payment for housing every month for 30 years is bad enough, adjustable rate mortgages are even more pernicious; resets are designed to weed out unprofitable “owners” and return housing inventory to the banks, who can then sell the same piece of capital again for pure profit.

Let us, then, further examine the pros and cons of rentals and “ownership.”

The owners of rental units are called “landlords” because, like the feudal lords of medieval Europe, they hold near-absolute control over their small domain. No tenant may improve or alter their residence without the express permission of the owner. Painting a unit is considered taboo, yet landlords will often charge tenants exorbitant prices to repaint a unit after they vacate it. The same goes for flooring, appliances, and anything else that wears out with use. This lack of freedom, and the promised freedom of the “American dream,” creates pressure on tenants to “work harder,” save up, and “buy” their own housing.

But the American Dream is an illusion, like the sweet scent of a Venus flytrap. The “freedom” of “ownership” granted is little more than a way for the real owners of the land (the capitalist financiers) to pass off the cost of maintenance and improvements to the mortgagee. In the rare situations that a mortgagee actually manages to pay off their loan, for instance after a lifetime working at an auto factory in Detroit, they remain liable for paying the state property taxes based on the perceived “value” of the land in perpetuity. They also remain liable for paying for basic necessities such as drinking water, regardless of quality of service, as seen in Flint, MI. This places further pressure on the working class to push for higher wages and/or retirement benefits in anticipation, as well as forcing retirees to either re-enter the working class, or become landlords themselves by either renting out rooms or their entire house.

The alternative to this two-pronged capitalist system is communal housing. Communal housing operates under the fundamental understanding that land, which predated our brief existence, and will continue to exist long after we pass on, simultaneously belongs to no-one and yet everyone. Once we understand that land is a resource that we all must share and protect for future generations, concepts of exclusive ownership reveal themselves as exploitative and evil.

The danger of this realization for capitalists cannot be understated. If the hoodwinked working classes, or in Marxist parlance the petit-bourgeoisie, recognize the fundamental contradictions of capitalism and feel empowered to take up revolutionary action, the capitalists will undoubtedly lose. Thus they engage in a broad war of propaganda against any and all criticism of capitalism. They deliberately conflate underground communities – existing in capitalist-owned spaces like the “Ghost Ship” warehouse – with true communal housing to discredit the concept. Likewise, anarchist squatter communes are painted as health and safety hazards in an attempt to make people think that is the only outcome of communal living.

Capitalist landlords in areas like Oakland are looking for only one thing, which is profit. When a housing market like the Bay Area becomes obscenely imbalanced, it creates an incentive to add unsafe living spaces in an attempt to maximize rents. The Ghost Ship was not a self-organized collective: it was a profit-seeking scheme driven by a capitalist.

On the other side, squatters have little reason to care about the buildings they inhabit, as they are explicitly owned by capitalists. Operating under the fear that the police will kick them out at any time, they will do whatever they can to minimize the risk of detection. What good is having running water or electricity if it alerts the bourgeoisie State to your “illicit” existence?

Only by abolishing private ownership can we create true communities:

where shelter is guaranteed to all;

where all have the freedom to express themselves in their personal space;

and where we act for the common good rather than in the interest of profit.

On Fully Automated Luxury Communism, pt.1: Production

Embracing automation and zero employment is one way to clean up the inefficiency and waste of capitalism without abandoning technology. What happens to the people, on the other hand, depends on whether this giant economic leap is implemented under capitalism or communism, as I examined in my previous piece. Under capitalism, there’s either an apocalypse (the newly superfluous people are eliminated) or a dystopia (Manna, the Matrix, etc.) Under communism, full automation and the abolition of wage labor yields something described as “fully automated luxury communism,” which countless reactionary thinkers over the years have derided as a utopian fantasy.

For years, capitalists have pursued automation because it increases efficiency, which enriches the capitalist. Vertical integration is another thing that increases efficiency, but attempts to vertically integrate tend to be fought under anti-trust. The reason for anti-trust legislation and breaking up of monopolies has less to do with fairness for “consumers” than it does with protecting the profits of other capitalists. This is why nationalization was popular in wartime. It generally allowed for increased efficiency with some tradeoffs.

But there is a major difference between capitalist monopoly or state nationalization, and fully automated luxury communism. Under fully automated luxury communism, the goal is meeting the needs of all with minimum waste. Capitalist monopoly turns the gains of efficiency into personal gain, while state nationalization turns it toward an advantage in war/trade. Capitalists love to make fun of Soviet Russia for its lack of choice in consumer goods, but really, do we need 18 brands of deodorant? Branding is not about choice; it’s about manipulating the psyche to create the illusion of choice. You can still have choice with a single supplier, if different products are required. This isn’t hard.

The land usage footprint for decentralized capitalist manufacturing and commerce is staggering, too. For instance, Los Angeles: 12% – 1/8th – of the city is either industrial or commercial, while 31% is suburbs to house the rich and petit-bourgeoisie and only 7% is medium to high density housing for the working classes.

screenshot-from-2017-03-01-16-47-34

Of course the greater Los Angeles area is much larger than the city, and includes cities like Irwindale, which have almost no residents. The land usage of this and other San Gabriel Valley cities is listed in the following table:

screenshot-from-2017-03-01-16-54-30

irontriangle.png

Almost all of this industrial usage was created between WWII and the Cold War to meet military demand. Much of it is horribly contaminated. Here’s the EPA’s list of Superfund sites in California, of which a good chunk are in the LA area. This pattern basically repeats itself when looking at any other city that was considered strategically important to wartime industry. Similar patterns emerge in other countries, including Russia. And in China, but primarily driven by capitalist demand rather than military. This is where the “Iron Triangle” comes into play. Of the three attributes (fast, good, or cheap), you can only pick two.

The military is only interested in having kit that works, delivered yesterday. Environmental safety is the usual victim. Likewise, the capitalist marketplace is only interested in having marketable goods delivered as cheap and fast as possible. In other words, the environment always takes a back seat to “necessity” or “profit.”

This is why Russell Means offered a scathing critique of Marxism as he saw it in 1980:

Capitalists, at least, can be relied upon to develop uranium as fuel only at the rate which they can show a good profit. That’s their ethic, and maybe they will buy some time. Marxists, on the other hand, can be relied upon to develop uranium fuel as rapidly as possible simply because it’s the most “efficient” production fuel available. That’s their ethic, and I fail to see where it’s preferable. Like I said, Marxism is right smack in the middle of European tradition. It’s the same old song.

But before we attack him for misunderstanding Communism, the historical context of communism in 1980 bears mentioning. The most powerful, most well-known communist nation in 1980 was, of course, the USSR. The only problem with this understanding is that the economy of the USSR, as this four-part series of articles from Aufheben concludes, was more proto-capitalist than it was communist:

We have argued that in order to break out of its backwardness and subordinate position within the world division of labour the state bureaucracy, which had formed after the Russian Revolution, sought to make the transition to capitalism through the transitional form of state capitalism. In its efforts to industrialise the Russian state sought the forced development of productive-capital that required the suppression of the more cosmopolitan and crisis ridden forms of money and commodity capital. However, while such forced capitalist development allowed an initial rapid industrialisation the distortions it produced within the political economy of the USSR eventual became a barrier to the complete transition to capitalism in Russia.

As such we have argued that the USSR was essentially based on capitalist commodity-production. However as a consequence of the historical form of forced transition to capitalism there was dislocation between the capitalist nature of production and its appearance as a society based on commodity-exchange. This dislocation led to the deformation of value and the defective content of use-values that both provided the basis for the persistence of the distinctly non-capitalist features of the USSR and led to the ultimate decline and disintegration of the USSR.

Even if one disagrees with the above conclusion, it should be worth noting that the economy of the USSR evolved accidentally from the specific circumstances of the Russian Civil War, when the Bolsheviks were forced to adopt a policy of “war communism” in response to capitalist systems breaking down. By the time Lenin began to enact reforms to the bureaucracy post-war with the New Economic Policy, his health was failing and the reforms were unfinished at his death in 1924. The Five-Year Plans that followed starting in 1928 effectively marked a permanent return to war communism. The bitter fight against fascist Germany during World War II, and the subsequent “cold” war with the imperialist United States that followed, offered no room for Lenin’s bureaucratic reforms to ever be realized.

A similar struggle for economic and bureaucratic reform took place in China. As Chairman Mao wrote in 1967,

If our country does not build up a socialist economy, what is it going to be? It will be like Yugoslavia, a capitalist country in fact. The proletarian dictatorship will be transformed into a bourgeois dictatorship, worse still, a reactionary and fascist dictatorship. This problem deserves our fullest attention and [I] hope our comrades will give it their thought.

This was his justification for the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Following its failure, we subsequently witnessed China’s gradual transformation to capitalism through the reforms of Deng Xiaoping and those who followed after him. A former Red Guard had this to say about his part in the revolution:

When I see privileges being given back to the old bourgeoisie, even the former capitalists, and how privileges are also being given to this new class of party cadres and officials, I am really outraged. When the rest of us are really having problems with housing, with jobs, with education, even with getting enough food to eat, these people are establishing a sort of neo-feudalism assuring themselves comfortable lives…. I do not want another Cultural Revolution – 10 years of turmoil did enough damage – but I think we were right in trying to smash the old system.

If Lenin and Mao, two of the most influential theorists in Marxism since Marx himself, were both concerned about the burgeoning bureaucracies of their respective states, what does that leave us with? We are presented with the odd situation of “actually existing communism,” composed of half-measures in times of desperation, functioning as a strawman for the attacks of vocal critics of communism on both the left and right.

Perhaps, then, a better state to discuss critically is Cuba. While Cuba embraced many of the Soviet models, its leaders were not so dogmatic as to apply them rigidly. As discussed in my last post, Cuba only needs to import around 16% of its total food, making it largely self-sufficient. Its people have adapted to limited resources forced by the US embargo, meaning that the excesses that we associate with capitalism simply do not exist there. This is represented starkly in the following chart of energy use per capita:

screenshot-from-2017-03-02-14-40-57

One other interesting point from this chart is the relationship between Cuba and China. Until 2002, China’s per-capita energy usage was incredibly low, if slowly trending upward: this was partly due to its largely undeveloped rural nature until then, but also because it mostly produced goods for domestic use. US trade with China was “normalized” in 2000, and capitalists quickly rushed to exploit China’s resources and labor. Since the passage of PNTR, China’s industrial output has skyrocketed, and with it, energy usage.

We can therefore see from the preceding graph and other information that Russell Means’ generalization is more true of capitalists than Marxists:

Marxists, on the other hand, can be relied upon to develop uranium fuel as rapidly as possible simply because it’s the most “efficient” production fuel available.

Efficiency, at its most basic, is using the minimum amount of resources for a given task. If we are starting with an extremely inefficient capitalist economy, it only makes sense to start by cutting out the most wasteful parts of the system. Depending on how much of the “economy” we could thus eviscerate, it is therefore entirely possible that existing renewable and nuclear sources would be sufficient to power global communism for many years to come simply by evening out the imbalance between rich and poor regions, shown in the below data:

Screenshot from 2017-03-02 14-59-43.png

Now before anyone claims this will mean reducing Americans to “third world” levels of poverty (ignoring that extreme poverty already exists in our fine capitalist dystopia), we should take a look at the distribution of US energy consumption.

energy_consumption_by_sector-large.jpg

energy_use_by_industry-large.gif

Based on the first figure above, transportation, industrial, and commercial use accounts for nearly 80% of US energy consumption. Of that 32% of industrial usage, nearly a third of it goes toward refining petroleum for – you guessed it – transportation.

What happens in a world that views commuting long distances to work pointless jobs 8 hours a day, 5 days a week an archaic anachronism? From this paper we find that (in Belgium, anyway) commutes account for 30% of trips and 45% of distance traveled:

Among all the residential commuting within the Walloon region of Belgium, home-to-work and home-to-school trips account, respectively, for 30% and 17% of trips and for 45% and 9% of the total distance travelled (Hubert, 2004).

Given the sprawling nature of US cities, it’s not inconceivable that those numbers could be as high as 80% here. With commutes out of the picture, the remaining trips could be easily replaced by a mix of automated public transit, bicycles, and walking.

Perhaps “never have to sit in traffic again” should be used as a slogan by communists. Other potential slogans follow: “never have to flip burgers again,” “never have to deal with bosses again,” etc.

Going back to Russell Means once again, he makes this point:

Being is a spiritual proposition. Gaining is a material act. Traditionally, American Indians have always attempted to be the best people they could. Part of that spiritual process was and is to give away wealth, to discard wealth in order not to gain. Material gain is an indicator of false status among traditional people, while it is “proof that the system works” to Europeans. Clearly, there are two completely opposing views at issue here, and Marxism is very far over to the other side from the American Indian view. But let’s look at a major implication of this; it is not merely an intellectual debate.

Communism, in its simplest form, is the abolition of private property and the collective sharing of resources. That, however, does not preclude the community from itself accumulating excessive resources, no matter the reason. That accumulation may even be for a good reason: in order to better resist imperialism, as was the case with Russia and China.

Marx, in his Critique of the Gotha Program, presented this slogan: “To each according to his needs.” If we relate this slogan to the spirituality Russell Means described, then it goes without saying that Communists should shun wealth. The remaining material difference between Communists and American Indians therefore comes down to what is meant by “need.”

Here it is worth considering the status of the Americas as occupied native land, which ties into land usage mentioned before. We tend to talk about the land as if it is our birthright, which might have been true for the Russian peasants, but not American settlers. As settlers and descendants of settlers, our connection to the land here is tenuous at best and written in the blood of natives. The very least we could do as communists, after abolishing the current bourgeoisie system of property rights, would be to talk with the indigenous nations–with the understanding that, as heirs to a settler empire, we have nothing to offer them that was not stolen from them in the first place.

However, the overly simplistic solution of returning 300 million descendants of settlers back to their ancestral lands is an obvious non-starter. For one, it’s a self-inflicted form of ethnic cleansing, and it’s certainly not fair to descendants of slaves brought here involuntarily. Second, somebody has to clean up the mess we and our ancestors made. That’s really what reparations boils down to, once you abolish property and money: it’s about trying to heal past wrongs.

 

In the next part, I plan to examine what food and housing might look like under fully automated luxury communism.

 

Link to the Twitter thread that spawned this post