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(en) Ireland, Red & Black Revolution #10, Winter 2005 - What is communism? II. (2/2)

Date Sun, 13 Nov 2005 19:58:02 +0200

The Syndicalist Ambiguity

Syndicalism as a theory proposed a seductive confusion of means and
ends at once distinct from and yet in other ways analogous to that
offered by Marxist and statist currents of socialism. On the one hand
syndicalism opposed the use of state power to introduce post-capitalist
society. Syndicalism proposed the direct exercises of power by the
democratically federated trades unions themselves. As the productive
organisations of the working class, this held out the prospect of the
direct management of society by the producers themselves without the
intermediary of the state. But on the other hand, just as the Marxist
reduction of the question of social emancipation to the task of the
Marxist party seizing state power, so syndicalism too reduced the
question of social transformation to the question of power, albeit
power to the organisations of the workers rather than the state under
"revolutionary" dictatorship. Just as the Marxist tendencies
concentration on the question of power had led them to neglect the
question of the shape of the future relations of post-revolutionary
society, so the syndicalist focus on power, albeit in a different form,
similarly led to a tendency of at best agnosticism and at worst
indifference to the question of whether post-capitalist society should
be socialist or communist. Inevitably there was a tendency within
syndicalism to consider the question an irrelevancy and drift, by
default, towards the old Hodgskinian utopia of capitalism without

The tendency was aggravated in Spain which, isolated from the rest of
Western European anarchism, had not followed the break with
Bakuninist collectivism and adopted the compromise position of the
choice between collectivism/socialism and communism to be left for
individual communities to decide for themselves in the
post-revolutionary period. In fact the effects, if not necessarily the
cause, of this political agnosticising tendency within syndicalism came
to be recognised as a threat by the Spanish anarchist movement to the
extent that they found it necessary to form a specifically anarchist
political organisation - the AIT - to combat reformist tendencies
within the CNT.

But in the end it was the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany followed
by the defeat in Spain which ended the "classical" phase of libertarian
communism as a movement in the 1930s (2), caught in a pincer
movement between fascism and stalinism.
What is Libertarian Communism?

It is time to pause the narrative of the historical emergences, eclipses
and re-emergences of libertarian communism to examine, in the
abstract, what it is. A libertarian communist society is not a pre- but a
post-capitalist society. That is it is a society that is economically
dominated by social or cooperative production - i.e. there is an
advanced division of labour with only a small minority of labour being
engaged in basic food production and most labour is engaged in
producing goods or services that are mostly consumed by others. As a
corollary there is a high level of communication and general scientific
and technological development. What distinguished libertarian
communism from capitalism is that the delivery or transmission of
goods and services to their consumers is done on the basis to the
satisfaction of their needs and desires not linked or restricted in any
way to their contribution to the production process. That is there is no
money or wages and products are not exchanged either for money or
for other products judged to be of equal value - whether that value be
measured in labour time necessary for its production or some other
hitherto undreamt of measure.

Stated baldly like that to those used to the workings and logics of
capitalist society - and that is all of us these days - it seems at first
sight an absurdity or at the very least an unworkable pipe-dream. To
explain the existence of libertarian communists then, it is necessary to
add the following proviso: Libertarian communists believe that private
property (in the means of production), class society, money and the
wage relation are all interrelated aspects of capitalist society and the
attempt to change society to abolish some of those aspects while
retaining others - e.g. abolishing class society and private property
while retaining money and the wage as socialism proposes - will only
result in an unstable and violently contradictory mess that can only
end in collapsing back into the relative stability of the capitalist
dynamic unless it is taken forward to full communism. In other words
libertarian communists believe that attempts to make a post-capitalist
society by halves, such as socialism proposes, are doomed to end up
being transitional stages not to communism but to capitalism - as in
fact the historical experience of the 20th century has born out, at least
as far as the project of Marxian state socialism is concerned. The
libertarian communist critique of Leninism and all its unpalatable 57
different varieties is not that it is not libertarian, but that it is not

On that point we must emphasise that by using the term libertarian or
anarchist communism we are signalling our opposition to the abuse of
the word communism by the state socialists, not that we have chosen
an alternative to authoritarian or state socialism because these latter
phrases are contradictions in terms. The state relies on the wage
relation to exercise any authority, indeed to even exist. Without paid
enforcers the state cannot exercise power as the Serbian president
Slobodan Milosevic discovered when he stopped paying the wages of
the Serbian riot police who were supposed to be repressing the
demonstrations of other unpaid public sector workers on the streets of

In this sense communism is always libertarian or anarchist as the
abolition of the wage brings about the abolition of the relation of
command which structures the organs of state power such as the
police, army and bureaucracy.

Though the failings of state socialism have been amply exposed by
recent history, we do need to re-examine the case of proposed
libertarian socialism - a society where land and the means of
production have been taken into common ownership but the products
of labour are owned by their producers and exchanged for the products
of others on the basis of equal value measured by labour time
embodied in them. It is the contention of libertarian communists that
such a system would make all producers into competitors with each
other. The system of exchange valued by labour time introduces the
"productivity paradox" - the longer you take to produce a given output
the more of another's output you can exchange it for. Conversely the
more efficient you are in producing your output, the less you get in
exchange for it. The productivity paradox is that labour value
incentivizes inefficiency and disincentivizes efficiency. This is why
capitalism necessitates that the promotion of efficiency is specialised
off as a management function over and against the interests of the
productive workforce. The roots of class conflict in production are to
be found in the productivity paradox arising directly out of exchange
by labour time value itself.

The system of competition of individual interests also produces the
negative effects of people seeing each other as potential rivals rather
than as allies and promoting their narrow sectional interests rather
than the general good. Thus we have doctors who are paid to treat
disease and unsurprisingly they have little interest in disease

But by far the greatest evil resulting from the system of individual
competition - bellum omni contra omnes, the war of all against all - is
the outcome that our most important social product, the society we
live in, becomes an alien impersonal "other" that none of us control
yet we are all controlled by. By competing all against all to maximise
our little individual share of the social product to own, we lose the
ownership of the society we live in. Libertarian communists believe
that trading in the measly shares of the social product we own under
capitalist relations and in return gaining the ownership and control
over the direction of the whole society we make will result in a net
gain for all both materially and in terms of freedom.

Fine words indeed, but it logically follows that if the trading in of
individual ownership rights over the product of ones own labour in
return for the common ownership of a post-capitalist society were to
result in a net loss for all or most of humanity then libertarian
communists would be shown to be mistaken and those who preach
the capitalist gospel that the end of history has come and that the
capitalist world is truly the best of all possible worlds would be proved

Up until recently this was seen by all sides as a question that could not
be settled this side of a revolution - without making the experiment.
However in the last few years new developments taking place even
within current capitalist society have thrown this pre-conception into
Beyond the commune - de-centred anarchy

Before we re-engage with a historical narrative to examine these
recent developments we need to examine some other aspects of the
productive process, both as it has developed under capitalism and how
it can be expected to further develop under post-capitalist relations.

The first tendency is the increasing de-territorialisation of production.
By that we mean the increase of the number of fields of production
that are not tied to a specific place. Food production via agriculture is
territorial or tied to a specific place. The bit of land from which you
harvest must also be the same bit of land you previously prepared and
sowed. Consequently for those people and those periods of history
where agricultural subsistence was the dominant mode of production,
settled living in or by the territory of production was the norm for the
greatest number. Those settled agricultural communities unified the
spheres of production, consumption, reproduction and nearly all social
interaction within a single space. This largely self-sufficient and
potentially self-governing community is a social form that has existed
for centuries throughout nearly all human cultures around the globe
up until the last century or tow of capitalist upheaval. As such it still
had a powerful hold over the political imaginations of anarchists no
less than the rest of the different progressive tendencies of the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Russian "Mir"
influenced Kropotkin's vision of libertarian communism just as the
Spanish, particularly Andalusian "pueblo" influenced the vision of the
CNT's Isaac Puentes.

But as the productivity levels and related division of labour increase a
larger and larger percentage of the working population are pushed out
of agriculture, out of the rural setting and into urban spaces. In the
beginning some of these non-agricultural settlements were themselves
based around territorially-specific sites of production - whether mines,
fishing harbours or river crossing points. This last case points us
towards an important feature - non-agricultural settlements
necessarily imply the existence of flows of goods and people, if only in
bringing to the urban spaces the food they cannot produce. In fact
even prior to the development of urban spaces, agricultural
settlements required interaction with marginal but indispensable
itinerant populations to bring them goods impossible to produce
locally and be the medium of communication of news and culture
from afar. Despite the often deep divides of incomprehension and
mutual suspicion between settled and itinerant communities and the
tendency of the numerically superior former to discount or "forget" the
latter from inclusion in the notion of "productive society", the two
bodies are both mutually interdependent elements of the social whole
despite the de-territorialised nature of the itinerant minorities

As industrialisation proceeded, the creation of large centralised mass
workspaces with large immovable plant continued the appearance of
territorially-specific production. At this stage the workforces of large
mills or factories lived in their shadow and the workforce walked to
work. Industrial disputes were neighbourhood affairs.

However as the continuing specialisation, sub-division and
proliferation of the different strands of social production has
progressed it has become more and more evident that an increasing
amount of production is not territorially specific. That is, many
workplaces can be moved more or less arbitrarily from one place to
another. [globalisation & class struggle?] This de-territorialisation of
production is particularly pronounced for those engaged in
non-material production - i.e. the production of information and
communicative work, an increasingly significant sector of social
production. Communication is a necessary part of any social
production process and as long as face-to-face communication was
unrivalled, in terms of cost and effectiveness, the workplace had the
irreplaceable role of the physical assembly point for that
communication. Recently, with advances in telecommunications we
have seen the emergence of the ultimately de-territorialised social
production process - one that no longer has any "work-place" at all
where the participants need to assemble.

One social sphere remains territorially specific for the majority settled
population however - the domestic sphere, i.e. where we live. What
has changed is that this domestic and reproductive sphere no longer
maps directly onto a productive sphere. In a given urban
neighbourhood the residents will typically be engaged in many diverse
productive roles, attending many different workplaces or no static
workplace at all. Similarly in the static workplaces the workers will be
from many different neighbourhoods. Unlike the rural commune there
is no longer a single unifying point of assembly where all matters
affecting production, consumption and reproduction can be made
directly by those directly affected by them. For people to take part in
making the decisions that they are affected by they must enter into a
number of different communicative assemblies, each with different
sets of associates. This element of de-centring finally bids goodbye to
the ideal of the "commune" as the basic social form with which to
reconstruct society. The old federalist vision of an ordered tree-like
structure of decision-making from the local to the global - albeit
governed democratically from the bottom up, rather than autocratically
from the top down - must now be replaced with a multiplicity of
interconnected but distinct networks with no dominant centre. The
commune is dead, long live the commune!
Free Software and Intellectual Property

We should now move away from the abstract back to the real-world
historical developments that we mentioned earlier that have
overturned assumptions about the possibility of making any practical
tests of the effectiveness of production free of capitalist constraints this
side of a revolution. In fact such a practical experience has already
been underway for some years, not at the instigation of any
pre-meditated anti-capitalist or revolutionary movement, but as a
reaction to the actions of capitalist businesses in the field of software
development. The rise of the free software and open source
movements is a story in itself and one that is still very much in the
process of being written. Indeed a number of books have already been
turned out by media and academic commentators struggling to explain
the phenomena and particularly to get to grips with the aspects of it
that have most perplexed and disturbed the received truths of capitalist
economics. In short the free software movement is the product of
thousands of software writers or hackers working collaboratively
without pay to create whole systems of software that are owned not by
the producers but the common property of all.

In the space of little more than 10 years an entirely voluntary and
unwaged network of producer consumers have collectively produced
an operating system - GNU/Linux - that is not only comparable to,
but in many aspects, superior to the flagship commercial product of
global capitalism's most successful hi-tech company - Microsoft.
Given the short space of the time the free software movement has
taken for this achievement compared to the decades Microsoft has
invested in its product and the fact that the unwaged hackers have
done this work in their spare time, the case for the relative efficiency of
unwaged, property-claim free production has already made a strong
opening argument.

As you might expect the explanation for these novel results are related
to specific characteristics of the object of production, i.e. computer
software. To see what is different lets take a counter-example say a
motor car. Conceptually we can divide the production of a car into two
different production processes. The first is the production of a design
for the car the second is the production of a car from that design. In
the world of mass production such as that of car production, the
physical product - the actual car - dominates the design for that model
of car. That is the cost of manufacturing the physical parts for each
individual car is far more significant than the cost of the whole of the
designers wages. To the extent that it makes economic sense for a car
company to hire an engineer to work for two years on shaving 5 pence
of the production cost of a plastic moulding for a car sidelight (genuine

In complete contrast, with computer software the cost of creating an
individual copy of a software product and distributing it to the user is
so negligible in relation to the effort to produce the original design that
we can say that the design or prototype is the product. This is
important because it means the labour cost of producing software is
basically unchanged whether the end product is distributed to 10, 1000
or 1,000,000 users. This has an important implication - it is impossible
to exchange software for product of equal labour value. Consider a
single hacker spends 30 days producing a given software utility, he
then distributes it to 30 end users for the equivalent of an average days
wage apiece. This has the appearance of exchange but consider what
happens when the hacker then distributes the same software to
another 30 users for the same terms, and then another 300, then to a
further 300,000?

There is a further difference between the car and the piece of software.
If a fault is found on a car and it is fixed all the other existing cars of
that model would need to be fixed individually. With a piece of
software however, any user who detects and or fixes a fault in their
copy of that software can then share that fix or improvement with the
entire community of users and developers of that software at virtually
no cost. It is this multiplier effect that helps make the collaborative
process of free software so productive. Every additional user is a
potential adder of value (in the sense of utility) to the product and the
communicative feedback between developers and users is an
important part of the productive process.

There is a second barrier to incorporating software production into a
scheme of labour valuation. That is the uncommodifiability of original
or creative labour. By commodifiability we mean the ability to reduce a
given buyable item to a level of interchangeability where a given
volume is equal to any other given volume of the same thing. Potatoes
are commodifiable, roughly speaking one five kilo bag of spuds can be
swapped for another without any appreciable change in the outcome.
The logic of much capitalist production is to reduce labour to
commodifiability where the output of a given number of workers is
comparable to that of the same number of another group of workers.
However this process breaks down when the output relies centrally on
individual original creativity. It is recognised that the productivity of
the most gifted hackers is enough orders of magnitude beyond that of
that of mediocre or averagely competent hackers that one gifted
hacker can achieve in a few weeks what a large team of merely
average coders would be unable to produce in months.

It is this possibility of excelling which forms part of the motivation for
the core productive participants of the free software movement to
participate. No less than climbing mountains or running marathons
the acheivement of doing something well is a motivation in itself,
particularly in a society where our waged-work conditions often force
us to do things in ways well below what we are capable of. There is a
saying within the free software community that "people will do the
jobs they are interested in". But by the same token the jobs people find
interesting are often the ones that mobilise their individual strengths.
Freed from the constraints of exchange, people are free to seek out the
particularly lines of activity in which they can out-perform the
"average socially necessary labour time" to the extent that such an
estimate can even be made. Naturally if enough participants in a
collective labour process manage to do this successfully, the whole
process will be significantly more performant than any waged process.

If all the above features emerging from the relatively new field of
software production and the even more recent phenomena of the free
software movement were limited to that sphere alone then they would
be an intriguing case but little more. However many of the special
features of software - i.e. the relation between the single design or
pattern and potentially unlimited replication and distribution at little or
no cost - also apply to many other "intellectual" products such as
cultural artifacts like books, music and films and the results of
scientific and academic research now that computers and the internet
have liberated them from the material media of paper, vinyl and
celluloid. Indeed the whole area of products covered by so-called
"Intellectual Property Rights" are equally problematic to reduce to a
"just" exchange value.

Further the proportion of overall economic activity involved in the
production of these non-material products is ever growing to the
extent of becoming the majority sector in the metropolitan hubs of the
capitalist world. This tendency will of course not automatically bring
in its wake radical social change, but its counter-tendencies - the
growth of exchange-free productive networks and the increasing direct
appropriation of consumer intellectual products like music, films,
software and texts through free online sharing networks - will
continue to make the struggle to defend capitalist Intellectual Property
(IP) rights a contested battleground. In the struggle to extend and
defend IP rights, both legally and practically, the champions of
capitalism will be undermining the core justificatory ideology of
exchange - that of labour value. The role of libertarian communists is
in many ways unchanged - to participate in the present dynamic of
class struggles while advocating a future beyond capitalist relations.
Today however, we have the advantage that post-capitalist
exchange-free collaborative production processes are no longer
hypotheses but reality. In contrast it is the theories of the orthodox
"a-political" economist defenders of capitalist that people will never
produce socially useful goods without the incentive of money that is
shown to be an empty hypothesis - a false god.

Paul Bowman
This article is from the journal Red & Black Revolution
(no 10, Winter 2005) of the Irish anarchist federation WSM
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