It’s Christmas time again, and it seemed a perfect time to discuss the role of gifting within society. Nearly every child who celebrates Christmas will, at some point in their childhood, say something to the effect that “I wish it could be Christmas all the time!” and without fail, this wish is put down by parents. Obviously the parents wouldn’t be able to afford to buy presents for their children, as well as all their friends, relatives, etc every day, but that’s never the reason given. The reason given is something along the lines of “But then it wouldn’t be special any more.”
Communism is the idea that we should kick that view out of the water. Markets and capitalism are squashed into so much of our lives, but some of the greatest joy that people experience comes from the short times of the year when they reject all that: Christmas, birthdays, celebrations, etc. During this, we abandon notions of exchange and give gifts to each other. And we also gain a genuine sense of ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’: the first time a child gives out Christmas presents, they probably haven’t given much, but it means a lot to them, and will inevitably be appreciated. In fact often children are very eager to give out presents; it gives them a sense of pride that they’ve been able to, and perhaps more importantly, a sense that they are just as much a part of the occasion as everyone else. No-one measures and quantifies their Christmas presents. People don’t make charts and check prices so they know the exact balance of how much everyone has spent on each other. In fact we’d laugh at such an idea.
So here is my question: why can’t we live our lives like this? Why can’t we make gifting the basis of everyday life? For what reason can the principles of gifting at Christmas not be applied all year round? Do we really want to keep the rest of our lives shit so that the times when we do feel special by comparison?
For the Christmas-isation of everyday life,
Some of you may know that there is an atheist concept known as ‘Last Thursdayism’ - an idea intended to mock and satirise creationists who claim that the world was created 6,000 years ago with the appearance of it being billions of years old. According to this logic, the idea goes, you could just as well claim that the world was actually created ‘Last Thursday’ rather than 6,000 years ago based on the same reasoning.
Of course, it’s an amusing satire of the idiocy of creationism, but it got me thinking, particularly in conjunction with a quote by Murray Bookchin in his legendary essay, ‘Listen, Marxist!’:
When the hell are we finally going to create a movement that looks to the future instead of to the past?
Bookchin was mostly attacking Marxists, as well as some anarchists, who constantly look back to previous revolutions as guides to how revolutions ‘should’ proceed. However, I believe his words have a more important message than that; let’s build a society where we live in the present and in the future, not to the past. This is where ‘Last Thursdayism’ comes in – if your entire system of social relations is dependent on things that were started and finished longer ago than Last Thursday then you’re doing it wrong. If we want a free society, our reasons for relations must be in the moment.
To pick an easy first target that also makes the concept simpler to explain, the propertarian concept of ‘homesteading’. Under the logic of this theory, being as authoritarian as you like on your own property, even to the extent of acting exactly like a state is totally OK, as long as you ‘homesteaded’ it. The state doing the same thing on it’s territory isn’t OK because it didn’t. This fails the ‘Last Thursday’ test pretty conclusively. If the entire world was actually created Last Thursday with the appearance of being older, then no-one has ‘homesteaded’ anything. Yet we’re in the exact same situation.
But I’m not just bashing the propertarians here, this goes for everyone. Specifically, it goes for the many anarchists who unfortunately have picked up the propertarians’ bad habits. While the propertarians claim that human relations regarding objects is a black and white issue (i.e. something must be ‘private property’ with the proprietor holding the right of absolute and exclusive control over it, or ‘unowned’ in which no-one has any right of control over it), many anarchists now play the ‘possession’ card against them. This basically claims that ownership relations can be either of the two already mentioned, but also a third category, known as possession, which basically just means private property but without the economic exploitation of surplus value, interest, rent, etc. But this is still too rigid and restrictive. It’s replacing black and white with black, white and one shade of grey in between. There have always been shades of grey throughout history, such as the ‘Right to Roam’, which existed as convention long before it was enshrined in state law. What a truly free society must be able to have are infinite shades of grey. Rights regarding things must be flexible, always with the potential for exceptions due to need.
But let’s link this back to Last Thursdayism. You might have thought while reading this that capitalism actually corresponds fairly well to the idea, as wage labourers are by definition the people who don’t accumulate capital, and so do indeed live with regard to the present. But no. Even if we ignore the importance of debt to keeping people as de facto serfs through wage labour, the reason workers are in the situation they are in is capital accumulation. Capitalists, while always seeking to accumulate more and so looking to the future, must always look back when they get to that future, in order to justify their position. So if we live true to the ‘Last Thursday’ test then accumulation must go out the window too. And to the mutualists: if we’re going to get rid of capital accumulation and non-labour income, why on earth would we want to keep the market system that enables it? If ownership is to be based on use, how can one ‘buy’ anything, given neither the seller nor buyer can be the exclusive and absolute owner at any time?
A society based on Last Thursdayist principles means a society where people live in the present, not in the past. If something can be put to use then put it to use now. We live in a world where we have millions of unemployed people (not to mention those employed in useless bureaucracy) and millions of uninhabited houses. Where overproducing companies are actually incentivised by the market to destroy surplus goods rather than give them away. Where the state routinely spends up to 5% of GDP on weapons, something with the sole purpose of destruction. And yet people still talk about ‘scarcity’?! When all productive facilities are utilised, when everything that can be used to satisfy wants is put to that use, then we’ll find out about scarcity.
Now, some of you might be a bit disappointed reading this, as what I’m advocating here just seems to be communism, a gift economy. And yes, you’d be right, that is what I’m talking about. But why do we want communism? Is it because we think it is more ‘efficient’? Possibly, though probably not, as communistic societies do not have the drive for constant unending growth that capitalistic ones have. Is it because we value community? Possibly, but there are those that want to keep themselves to themselves, and communism must accomodate them as well. Is it because we think it to be the ‘freest’ form of society? Yes, but what does that mean? Freedom means your freedom to your everyday life. To be able to live for then, no need to justify your freedom now based on the past. So what better an idea than to base it around the idea that, for all we know, there may be no past, and so we should live as such?
Today, while browsing around various debate sites, this article (http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/danielhannan/100127395/crony-capitalism-is-failing-lets-try-the-real-thing/) was brought to my attention by yet another right-winger trying to persuade me of the supposed virtues of ‘real’ or ‘free market’ capitalism. This was just one of many similar encounters I’ve had recently, in which the system we currently have is continually referred to as either ‘crony capitalism’ or more often, ‘corporatism’ – this is however an argument that is suddenly dropped when they want to talk about the ‘achievements/prosperity of capitalism’.
What many socialists tend to do in this kind of debate is accept their opponent’s stance as an advocate of ‘free market capitalism’ and debate that, usually from a moral perspective. I feel this is a mistake. While I totally agree that such a system would be unjust and wrong, this argument requires much more time, effort and more complex philosophical discussion – especially with establishing certain concepts, such as what socialists mean by ‘private property’. The much simpler argument to make is whether such a system as ‘free market capitalism’ is even possible.
Free-marketeers generally accept the problems of corruption, state-granted privilege, etc, that exist in the current system, but here the problems begin. Their solution to these problems is generally simply something along the lines of ‘get rid of them’ so that we could then have some sort of perfect ‘free market’. However, they have no real plans of how to do this. The few ideas that they do have generally involve working within the state system. Murray Rothbard, the founder of ‘anarcho-capitalism’, could come up with no better idea than to campaign for ‘smaller government’. In recent years, many on the ‘free market’ right, particularly in the United States, have taken up the cause of Ron Paul as the supposed answer to all problems, but there are many ‘anarcho-capitalists’ who reject even this weak way of trying to achieve a cause. Their reason behind not backing Paul or other ‘libertarian’ candidates is that they consider voting to be a mark of supporting the state, which is fair enough, but leaves them with precisely nothing in the way of strategy. Many of this group of pro-capitalists seem to be under the impression that simply being against the state and providing arguments as to why is somehow beneficial to the cause of liberation from the state.
But that’s enough about the advocates of free markets for now, let’s discuss their actual feasibility. There are two main proposals for their existence. The first is the type of society advocated by people such as Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises; a ‘minimal state’ that would merely handle law and order, while the rest would be left to the market with no state intervention. A cursory glance at history indicates no such society has ever existed or come close to existing. And it doesn’t take much to figure out why. Advocates of free markets are often very quick to tout the supposed miracles of the ‘profit motive’ and ‘risks of investment’, but fail to recognise that its exactly these concepts which cause state intervention in the first place – businesses believe certain state action will bring them greater profits, and view their contributions to politicians and media as investments. This business-state collusion has occurred all the way through history.
The second proposal for ‘free market capitalism’ is that proposed by Murray Rothbard and the ‘anarcho-capitalists’. They propose that the potential for the state to be corrupted, as highlighted above, can be removed by removing the state from the picture altogether. This is a less obviously problematic scenario, but it still has its problems. For a start, the market. As David Graeber in his fantastic book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, market economies historically originated as a result of certain state action, usually to do with having to have large amounts of professional state employees (usually soldiers). As he put it in an interview about the book on RT (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SnOqanbHZi4), “Societies that don’t have states generally don’t have markets.” So a ‘free market’ stateless society seems unlikely.
Also, property. This is an endless source of disagreement in arguments about capitalism, but suffice it to say for now that there are certain forms of property relations that only occur within state societies. One of the pillars of capitalism, private ownership of land, is one of these. Stateless societies generally do one of two things with regard to land ownership:
1. Consider the land owned by either ‘no-one’ or ‘everyone’.
2. Consider land owned by certain individuals, but unlike in state societies, make no distinction between the owner of the land and the occupier or farmer of it.
With that in mind, ‘free-market capitalism’ would also seem to be impossible in a stateless society.
Earlier, I noted the problems of the strategy, or rather lack thereof, of the free market right. This may not seem too much of a problem to the anarchist movement – maybe ‘anarcho-capitalists’ and the like have got it wrong, but surely they can still be of use in the battle against the state? No, far from it. They fail to realise the power structures inherent in the state, preferring to see the state as some sort of unfortunate accident that humanity has stepped into. Many will indeed acknowledge that big businesses and the finance industry are in bed with the state, benefit hugely from state intervention and are huge supporters of the state. However, when the obvious next step that these business powers that prop up the state are just as worthy a target of our anger as the state itself, they suddenly jump ship and become apologists for big business. If we take that attitude, we can never hope to eradicate power.
Thanks for reading.
To attempt to paint a full picture of the entire history of socialism in these article would be almost impossible. What I will try to do is summarise the main historical developments. Here, I will start with ‘classic’ socialism, and the advent of the first main socialist philosophers and economists, and how the socialist movement was started.
For most of the world, socialism was the reality for most of history. Those who farmed the land received the products of their toil, and traded their surplus for what they needed, rather than producing exclusively for trade, or for someone else. For most people at the time, their land was their ancestors’ land – this had been the case for as long as anyone could remember. And it was similar all over the world.
The advent of feudalism in Europe and other regions was the first step against this with the creation of serfdom, where villeins were compelled to pay rent to farm land owned by a lord who had been assigned it by the rulers of the realm, in the case of England, the new Norman aristocracy. But there remained popular revolts against the oppression of the peasant class, such as that in England in 1381, where the Revd. John Ball declared that ‘all things must be in common’ and that ‘all men were created equal’. However, serfdom diminished through the feudal era as more villeins became free peasants, who worked on the commons, farmland shared by all the surrounding population of an area. This also created the oppurtunity for a new merchant class to arise, pushing for the peasants to be separated from their land.
Feudalism first began to crash in England, where the war between the mercantile (and to a degree, lower aristocratic) interests of Parliament, and the monarchic and aristocratic interests of the King, took hold in 1642. While the King was defeated, the new regime proved to be just as oppressive, and just as committed to divorcing the peasants from the product of their land. During this time there were many revolts, including that of the Diggers in 1649. Many English left for the New World of North America, where there was a guarantee of land that would be theirs to farm. In England (and later Great Britain, formed by the Act of Union of 1707), the process of divorcing peasants from their land continued, as in the rest of Europe to a lesser degree.
This was the context into which Adam Smith was born in 1723; a government forcing the interests of the new capitalist class onto a resisting population. He campaigned for the end of this, so that there would be a ‘free market’ of goods where all could produce freely.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the American colonists revolted against what they perceived to be unjust taxation from Britain in 1776 to create a free association of various state governments. In the late 1780s, this liberty that they had fought for was violated by the creation of a constitution and national government by those who became known as the Federalists. Anti-federalists like Thomas Jefferson campaigned that this government, if it was needed at all, be banned from the same violent creation of property that had occurred in Europe, but to no avail. Alexander Hamilton’s budget plans were passed and the federal government began the capitalisation of America, which caused some Americans to flee west in search of free land.
For a fuller description of the violent history of the creation of capitalism, see Kevin Carson’s excellent work, The Iron Fist Behind the Invisible Hand: http://www.mutualist.org/id4.html
Back in Europe, France had developed its own answer to Smith and Jefferson. Jean-Jacques Rousseau demanded the abolition of the French monarchy, the democratisation of the French state, and an end to the ‘fencing in’ of land for landlords and capitalists by the aristocratic ruling regime. But Rousseau didn’t live to see the revolution that took hold of France in 1789 caused by the taxing of the peasants (but not the nobility) to fund the King’s foreign exploits and his court’s huge personal extravagances. But a powerful counter-revolution kept France unstable for the best part of the next century.
Into this unstable France came a man with a new idea. Up to now, classical liberals, while opposing property and the state’s creation of it, had continued to endorse the existence of a state – Rousseau rationalising it as a ‘social contract’. But this new idea declared that the state was not necessary at all – that as long as it existed, it would be a tool of a ruling class. The proponent of this idea was called Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. And he called this idea ‘anarchism’, meaning without rulers. But Proudhon’s plans for bringing about anarchy and a return to the commons was not too dissimilar to classical liberalism – he advocated ‘mutual banking’ which he hoped would enable a free market in which capitalism would collapse without state support.
This is the point at which classical liberalism and socialism part ways. The theories of Smith, Jefferson, Ricardo, Mill and others, were appropriated by the propertarian ideology of the new capitalist class – eventually emerging as the ‘neoliberalism’ of Milton Friedman and the ‘Austrian School’ of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek.
While he remained admired in the socialist movement, Proudhon’s theories of socialism through mutual banks became discredited by socialists, but his idea of abolishing the state remained. In 1871, Paris revolted in France’s fourth revolution since 1788. In the international socialist Hague Congress, the members polarised around two camps, each representing one of the two major socialist figures of the time – Mikhail Bakunin and Karl Marx. Both were influenced by Proudhon, but both had abandoned his road to socialism, and adopted the cause of socialism (and in Marx’s case, a new idea, communism) through revolution. While both agreed with Proudhon that the state should be abolished, Bakunin argued that this should be done in the revolution and as soon as possible. Marx wanted a more gradual approach – that the revolution would not lead to an instant stateless society, but to a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in which the state would gradually ‘wither away’. They also differed on conventional politics. Marx argued that it was fine to form parties and seek political power, whereas Bakunin saw it as either futile or potentially corrupting.
Five years earlier, in 1867, Marx had completed the first volume of his all-encompassing analysis of economics, markets, and capitalism. He named it Das Kapital, or ‘Capital’ in English. It remains probably the greatest analysis of economics in history, and was so monumental that volumes 2 and 3 were not published until Marx’s lifelong friend Friedrich Engels published them after Marx’s death. And to cap it all, Marx had prepared notes for writing volumes 4 and 5 as well!
Thank you for reading, and watch this space for Part 2: Struggle and Revolution.
One of the most annoying things many radical socialists face in debates is a misunderstanding of what the term ‘socialism’ means. Moreover, this is increased by the right-wing media declaring things to be ‘socialism’, when in reality, they are nothing of the sort, and the right are just using ‘socialism’ as a synonym for ‘anything I don’t like’. In this article, I intend to make a clear definition of what is and isn’t socialism.
Socialism is defined historically and by most definitions I’ve seen, as the ownership of the means of production. There are various forms of socialism, but all operate within this framework. Now, the term ‘common ownership’ has attracted all sorts of misconceptions, but let me clear up the first. Common ownership of a field doesn’t mean you have to get the yes from everyone in the world in order to use it. If they wanted it, they’d have done something about it. There isn’t a natural scarcity of land, the only scarcity is one artificially created in the rise of capitalism. So in other words, the managers of a piece of land or capital are the users of that particular land or capital. This fits in well with the ownership theory of personal possessions, so it may be said that socialists advocate a use-based ownership theory. This could theoretically be individual (as is usually advocated by American individualist anarchists like Benjamin Tucker) or people could band together in co-operatives and produce collectively, and receive the entire product of their labour, as viewed by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Proudhon, and later anarchists, also viewed that these co-operatives would form federations, communes, collectives, etc, and that these would become the basis of society in whatever form the individuals and their co-operatives desired.
One misconception that must be straightened out is the issue of ‘public’ ownership, i.e. state ownership. State ownership is not common, whatever the state owns is just owned and controlled by the state elite. This elite aren’t the users of these things, they just control them through force. There is only ‘public’ access to them because the state elite permits it. That’s much closer to private than use-based ownership.
This leads on to another issue. The right tends to regard any economic state intervention as ‘socialist’. It’s hard to see where they’re coming from. When does any intervention the state makes ever promote worker self-management, democratic workplaces, or common ownership? It was the state which prevented all of these things in the first place and still does today. In fact, it was argued by Adam Smith that the state, by it’s own admission, was instituted for the advantage of the property owning class;
“Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is, in reality, instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have property against those who have none at all.”
That’s not to say that all state intervention as a blanket statement is necessarily anti-socialist. It was the state which originally acted in the interests of the property owners to put capital into the hands of the minority in what Marx called ‘primitive accumulation’. Some classical liberals, including Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and John Stuart Mill advocated various taxes and social security policies that would help restore this pre-capitalist society, and Proudhon advocated the state should set up worker-managed public works. However, most socialists have since given up that this would in itself create a socialist society, and have turned to the ideas of revolution propounded by the two foremost post-Proudhon socialists; Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin.
But to sum up, state intervention in itself isn’t socialist. And that includes the welfare state. But that doesn’t make it all anti-socialist.
So, I think that’s everything. If I’ve missed anything, please let me know.
Thanks for reading.