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(en) NEA #7: To Each According to Need: An Anarchist Look At Communist Economics

From Northeastern Anarchist <northeastern_anarchist@yahoo.com>
Date Thu, 18 Sep 2003 22:05:28 +0200 (CEST)

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by Geoff, Class Against Class (NEFAC-Boston)
Capitalism is, fundamentally, an economic system; that
is, a particular way of organizing the production and
distribution of commodities across broad societies.
Why then are so many revolutionary anarchists openly
and militantly anti-capitalist yet simultaneously so
loathe to seriously consider economics? Surely part of
the problem is an often knee-jerk reaction on the part
of many anarchists against the perceived
"authoritarianism" of the best-known critic of
capitalism as an economic order: Karl Marx.

While there is much to be critical of in Marx's works,
and revolutionary anarchists should be proud of the
long, and often bloody, history our movement has of
resisting the reactionary tendencies within
self-proclaimed "communist" ideology, I think many
anarchists who have not read much Marx would be truly
surprised by how little Marx focuses on what communism
would be like. Many have focused their critiques on
phrases like "Dictatorship of the Proletariat" to
illustrate a case against Marx, and in doing so have
done a great disservice to the anarchist movement as a
whole. Not only are such phrases generally taken out
of context, they were coined long before the body of
Marx's work was written, and long before he made some
his most significant discoveries regarding the
functioning of capitalism. From this perspective,
Marx's most significant work was likely Capital, which
gives the fullest expression to Marx's ideas and
provides the most profound and systematic critique of
capitalism. Significantly, Marx refuses to define what
he means by "communism" despite using the term
repeatedly, except in the negative sense of how
communism would differ from capitalism. The indication
here is clear: criticisms of Marx which focus on how
he allegedly envisioned communism have little basis in
Marx's actually writings.

Virtually all early anarchists, including Marx's
longtime critic Mikhail Bakunin, recognized the value
of Marx's "materialism," as well as his specific
critique of capitalism. It is imperative to recognize,
as they did, that Marx's critique of capitalism
provides a unique view of modern economic relations,
the validity of which is difficult to dispute. Rather
than reject outright all of Marx's contributions to an
understanding of our world, as many anarchists are
inclined to do, we should allow ourselves to
appropriate those elements of Marx's analysis that are
most valid and are the most useful in explaining how
capitalism continues to function today. Refusing to do
so has led the anarchist movement to have only the
cloudiest sense of economics, often tainted by
liberalism, and has long hindered us from being able
to predict or understand the evolution of our enemy.

This article aims to expose revolutionary anarchists
to the basic economic principles upon which capitalism
is built, so that we may better understand the nature
of our exploitation and how to resist it. To
illustrate the applicability of these principles, they
will be explained in the context of one of the most
difficult questions to face revolutionary anarchists:
how would the economic base of an anarchist-communist
society function? I make no claims that this
information is particularly innovative, only that it
is relevant. My hope is merely to provide a basis upon
which the anarchist movement in general can build a
more informed critique of capitalism. As they say, you
must learn to crawl before you can walk.

The Basics

Before we can really delve too far into the mysterious
world of Marx we must first establish some of the
fundamentals of Marx's analysis. Often, those who
first attempt to read Marx are immediately discouraged
by his extensive use of jargon and mathematical
formulas. Unfortunately, it is also extremely
difficult to use Marx's methods of analysis without
simultaneously repeating many of the same obscure
terms. For this reason, most writers who continue to
build their analysis using Marx's terms, as I will as
well, making their ideas difficult to understand for
the uninitiated. All of Marx's concepts are extremely
complex, and I encourage those who find this material
especially interesting to turn to Marx himself for
more precise definitions, I seek here only to give a
firm grasp of his most fundamental ideas so that we
may use them in our own analyses.

Perhaps the single most important concept which Marx
ever expounded was the idea of surplus value. Since
Marx believed that all value was created by labor[1],
he was immediately confronted with the question of how
the capitalist - that is, the owner of the means of
production - could make a profit if all value came
from the labor of his employees. Marx solved this
problem by recognizing that labor was really just a
commodity, which he called labor-power, and that the
owner of labor-power (i.e. the individual laborer)
sold this commodity to the capitalist in exchange for
a wage.

Labor-power, like all commodities, has two distinct
values: use-value and exchange-value; use-value is
simply what the commodity is used for, whereas
exchange-value is similar (though not exactly
equivalent) to a commodity’s price, and is a measure
of how much labor went into creating that commodity.
An easy way to conceptualize this is thusly: a car’s
use-value is that it transports you from place to
place very quickly, while its exchange-value is
$14,000 which represents, say, 200 hours of work that
went into building the car. What makes the commodity
labor-power different from all other commodities, is
that its use-value is the only one capable of actually
creating new value. Labor-power’s exchange-value,
however, is simply what it costs to keep the laborer
alive and capable of continuing to work (though the
specific price of labor-power may fluctuate); also
called the value of the means of subsistence.

The cost of keeping a laborer alive is essentially the
same regardless of how many hours s/he works however,
and this is precisely how the capitalist is able to
make a profit. Every day that the laborer works,
therefore, is essentially divided into two parts: the
time it takes to reproduce the value that s/he
consumes each day, and the excess time beyond that.
This division can be expressed in any unit of work,
whether piece-meal work, hourly wages, or set salary.
The time required to reproduce necessities is called
"necessary labor time" while the excess time the
laborer spends working is called "surplus labor time"
and the value which is created through this surplus
labor time is called "surplus value." The overall time
required to constantly reproduce all the commodities
which society as a whole consumes, is called the
"total socially necessary labor time."[2]

It is important to note that surplus value is not the
same thing as "profit." Profit represents the amount
of money which a capitalist makes after deducting the
costs of workers in wages, raw materials, and
production overhead (such as rent, cost of
electricity, etc.) whereas surplus value represents
the level of exploitation of the workers - the number
of hours they work that produce value beyond what they
are paid.

According to Marx, there are two main ways in which
surplus value is created, and it is important that we
distinguish between them. The first, which we have
alluded to above, is what Marx called "absolute
surplus value" and revolves around the actual length
of the standard work day. In most advanced capitalist
societies, the issue of absolute surplus value has
seemingly been resolved, with the institutionalization
of officially recognized standard hours for work-days
and work-weeks. However, the concept of absolute
surplus value remains an important one for several
reasons. Although the matter has officially been
resolved with the standardization of the working-day,
it is important to remember that the capitalist still
extracts surplus value from this relationship, he is
simply constrained from amplifying the magnitude of
this extraction any further than the social and legal
norm. As a result of this, we find that the matter
really is not settled at all, but rather remains an
issue of contention between the proletariat and
capitalists. Thus, in the U.S. we continue to see slow
but steady extensions in the normal working day for
most people, even if the legal working-day has not
changed, and now new legislation proposals that would
officially extend the length of the normal work-week.
In many ways, the length of the working day is a
perpetual arena of struggle between the two classes,
and therefore serves as a litmus test for the strength
of each class respectively.

"The other form which the creation of surplus value
can take Marx called “relative surplus value."
Fundamentally, the process of producing relative
surplus value differs from that of producing absolute
surplus value in that it tackles the other part of the
capitalist’s problem: the cost of labor. By reducing
the cost of labor’s reproduction, the capitalist is
able to reduce the necessary labor time required for a
worker’s subsistence, and thus, although the hours a
worker labors remain constant, the ratio of necessary
to surplus labor time is altered, thereby creating
more surplus value for the capitalist. Since the value
of labor-power is the equivalent of the value of the
means of subsistence, it is only by decreasing the
value of the means of subsistence that relative
surplus value can be created. Further, it is only
through an increase in the productivity in some field
related to the means of subsistence that the value of
those means can be reduced. Thus, it is only through
increases in productivity that capitalists are able to
expand the rate of accumulation of relative surplus
value. It is worth noting that while the production of
absolute surplus value is bounded by physical
limitations imposed by the number of hours in a day
and the number of hours a worker can labor before
dying or collapsing, the production of relative
surplus value is almost limitless. Thus, we can expect
the behavior patterns and modes of operation arising
out of the means by which relative surplus value is
created to be more widespread, more enduring, and to
have deeper effects than those produced by the
production of absolute surplus value.

Now that we have covered some of the most important of
Marx's basic precepts, we are still left with
questions regarding the applicability of these
conceptions. Let us now turn our attention to the
realm of actual production, and see what kind of
conclusions we can reach about an economic basis for
anarchist-communism from Marx's analytical tools.

The Material Basis of Future Communism

As we have discussed above, Marx rarely ventured more
than a few steps into the misty depths of what could
be, or what would be, after a communist revolution. To
a certain degree, this was merely a recognition on
Marx's part that he simply did not know what communism
would absolutely look like. More importantly, however,
his wariness probably also represented a sincere lack
of concern over how the specifics of communist society
would function. As a materialist, Marx often repeated
his belief that the material base of society - that
is, its mode of production - is what defines and gives
rise to a given epoch's "superstructure" - that is,
its laws, decision making apparatus, mode of
distribution, etc.[3] It should come as no surprise,
therefore, that Marx apparently considered such
speculation to be extraneous to his writings. Hence,
he claimed that "Communism is for us not a state of
affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which
reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism
the real movement which abolishes the present state of
things."[4] Given this definition, what can we say
today, after more than one hundred and fifty years of
proletarian struggle, about the material basis of a
future communist society?

When Marx spoke of his vision of a communist society,
the abolition of capitalist division of labor took a
central role in his thinking. Marx acknowledged the
benefits which a division of labor had given society
in terms of productivity and technological advances;
what he rejected was not the continued division of
tasks, but the subjugation of humanity to its own
forms of activity which has resulted in individuals
being locked into the division of labor. Themselves an
expression of that division, individuals in turn
become defined by it: not an individual who works, but
first and foremost a worker, and increasingly, a
particular type of worker. At his most inspiring, Marx
asserts that in a communist society, "society
regulates the general production and thus makes it
possible for me to do one thing today and another
tomorrow,"[5] and further, that individuals would be
free to engage in various productive activities,
thereby furthering their own development, without ever
being forced to monotonously perform, either
exclusively or primarily, one productive function for
all eternity. This is not to suggest that
specialization would not be necessary in a communist
society, only that specialization would be based on
individual choice according to individual desires, and
that all fields of study would be open to everyone.

Is this vision really nothing more than romantic
utopianism? I claim that it is not. Central to Marx's
assertions about the end of the capitalist division of
labor, is the belief that gains in productivity and
technology will both minimize the overall amount of
socially necessary labor time and de-skill production
to the point where virtually anyone is capable of
engaging in most necessary forms of production. Once
the overall necessary labor time, that is, the labor
time needed to simply reproduce the social goods which
society consumes, has been reduced to a minimum,
individuals would be free to engage in any number of
pursuits suited to their individuality.

Based on the 1997 US economic census, the necessary
labor time for manufacturing is 4,480,725.72 (*1000
hours). Dividing this figure by the number of workers
engaged in manufacture gives us the total hours of
necessary labor per worker: 371 hours per year, or
7.15 hours per week. Compared to the actual average
labor time of 38.55 hours per week, this represents a
decrease in labor-time of over 81%.

This is, of course, only a calculation based upon the
actual number of workers already presently engaged in
manufacturing. It is important to delve deeper into
the question of necessary labor time, and examine the
ratios between essential and superfluous labor.
Essential labor is that which is engaged in socially
necessary functions: producing or distributing goods,
maintaining or constructing public works (such as
roads or sewer systems), etc. Superfluous labor is
that which does not produce anything: management
positions, the service industry, sales, retail, and
many professional occupations fall into this category.
Since one of the goals of a communist revolution
should be the elimination, to as great a degree as is
possible, of the superfluous labor, it is worthwhile
to consider what effect this would have upon the
overall socially necessary labor time.

Turning to the 2000 US general census, we see that the
percentage of workers engaged in what can be
considered essential industries is currently only
24.7%, while those engaged in more or less superfluous
industries account for 75.3% of the workforce.[6]

This represents an enormous source of wasted labor,
which could largely be eliminated in a communist
society. Assuming an average necessary labor time of
7.15 hours per worker per week for all branches of
essential industry, we can calculate the total
necessary labor time. The total necessary labor time
per person is thus equal to 1.7 hours per week, once
we have adjusted for the inclusion of workers who are
unemployed and those who are engaged in superfluous
labor. Clearly, the technological innovation and
development has reduced the overall socially necessary
labor time to a bare minimum. It is therefore
reasonable to assert that the capitalist division of
labor can indeed by superceded in a communist society.


One of the early and most consistent criticisms of
Marx from the anarchist-communist milieu has been the
accusation of "determinism;" essentially a charge that
Marx wrongly believed in "iron laws of history" which
slowly wrought social change as a result of economic
developments. The most important specific aspect of
determinism with which Marx has been charged is the
notion that capitalism will inevitably give way to
communism, regardless of the actions of any group of
people, simply through capitalism's progression along
its own lines of logic. Regardless of the validity of
the specifics of these criticisms, there is certainly
a tendency in Marx that seeks to deny the importance
of self-activity among the working-class in resisting
capitalism and eventually fomenting a revolution. As
we have just seen demonstrated above, technological
development advanced under capitalism has already
reduced the socially necessary labor time to the
barest of minimums, yet capitalism has yet to
collapse. This alone goes some distance in
discrediting determinist notions of historical

Without the comfort of a religious faith in the
inevitable implosion of capitalism, birthing a
libertarian communism in the process, we are left with
a host of strategic questions regarding the very
nature of capitalism and the best path towards its
destruction. The capacity of the capitalist order for
adaptation has long been witnessed in its unfortunate
resilience, and we in turn must constantly try to gain
a more complete understanding not only of capitalism
as a whole, but also the changing specifics of
capitalist production, which is simultaneously an
understanding of the nature of the struggle between
the proletarian class and the capitalist class. Such
an understanding should inform our activity as members
of the proletariat to focus our interventions in the
class struggle in a more effective manner. Ultimately,
however, I think that active participation in the
class struggle is more important than formulating
precise theories on the current nature of capitalism.
Theoretical understanding is at its best, and most
useful, when it simultaneously informs, and is
informed by, our activity in actual struggle.



[1] This is an aspect of the "Labor Theory of Value"
which we will not discuss here for lack of space.

[2] The nuances of socially necessary labor time will
not be discussed here. For our purposes it is enough
to understand a general conception of "total socially
necessary labor time" as the sum total of the
necessary labor time for every member of society.

[3] See german ideology, section on communism and
history AND critique of the Gotha Program.

[4] Karl Marx: Selected Writings, David McLellan, The
German Ideology (New York: Oxford University Press,
2000), p. 187

[5] Karl Marx: Selected Writings, David McLellan, The
German Ideology (New York: Oxford University Press,
2000), p. 185

[6] The divide between essential and superfluous
industries is not a precise measure, but an
approximation based on easily available data from the
2000 census. Some essential industries, doctors for
instance, are included with management, scientific
research, and professionals in the census data.
Further, the census data does not specify what
percentage of workers in any given industry represent
production workers or management. We assume here,
therefore, that all calculations are merely estimates,
though their accuracy should be considered fairly


Geoff is a pissed off projectionist affiliated with
the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage
Employees (IATSE) Local 182, and a member of Class
Against Class (NEFAC-Boston).


The Northeastern Anarchist is the English-language
theoretical magazine of the Northeastern Federation of
Anarcho-Communists (NEFAC), covering class struggle
anarchist theory, history, strategy, debate and
analysis in an effort to further develop
anarcho-communist ideas and practice.


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