From the generalized resource curse to communism

Interfluidity has a great post up proposing that technological advances are turning the entire global economy into a generalized resource curse. For those who aren’t familiar, the resource curse is the phenomenon whereby the discovery of lucrative natural resources in a previously poor country produces vast inequality and immiseration, as the number of people necessary to exploit those resources is only a small proportion of the population. The way around this resource curse, it turns out, is to socialize the profits, as Norway and Alaska have done. The shift to a generalized resource curse comes as less and less labor is necessary for actual production — vindicating Jameson’s claim that what capitalism produces that is genuinely new in the grand scheme of things is precisely unemployment. And what is necessary is a pre-distribution of wealth, along the lines of Alaska and Norway’s payouts to all citizens regardless of their connection to the oil industry.

While many have claimed that guaranteed minimum income is still “merely” reformist, I believe that the framing in this post points to the way that it could be a step toward communism. A market economy in which access to resources is not strictly correlated with wage labor for the vast majority of the population is significantly different from capitalism. It opens up new possibilities that are currently foreclosed by our insistence on systematically depriving people of freedom unless they agree to be exploited by a capitalist enterprise. For instance, imagine that someone is content with the minimum income and just wants to edit Wikipedia all day — that potentially produces a vast amount of social value that cannot be correlated with waged labor under the current system. One can imagine similar scenarios with other intellectual pursuits, and I expect that other scenarios would arise that are very difficult for us to imagine under current conditions. Yes, some undesirable labor would still be necessary, but once work and income are decoupled, there would no longer be constituencies opposing automation because it would destroy jobs — destroying jobs and setting us all free would instead be the goal.

So much political discourse is focused on “jobs,” but what we most desperately need is a decoupling of work and income. We may not have created the material conditions for full communism, but surely we’re much closer than we’ve ever been — and as Marx predicted, capitalism is increasingly incapable of managing the productive forces it’s produced. As capitalism undermines the need for constant human toil, the demand that everyone work becomes ever more urgent and yet impossible to insist upon. The U.K. is becoming the North Korea of neoliberalism in this regard — one can envision the entire country becoming a vast work camp, with the poor endlessly rearranging the grocery store shelves…

In short, it’s time to cash out of capitalism. We have the technology — and I would argue that fiat currency is actually among the most crucial technologies in this regard, which is why it has always generated an undercurrent of fear and distrust among capitalist ideologues. We all know that the current system doesn’t work anymore. It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the indefinite continuation of capitalism. We owe it to ourselves to try.

43 thoughts on “From the generalized resource curse to communism

  1. This is a truly interesting and novel proposal.

    It might also relieve the pressure on valuable vocations to produce measurable wealth, e.g., education, fire and EMT services, the ministry, art, etc. It would decouple “value” from “economic value.”

  2. Excellent post. The fact that, under a basic income regime, people would be free to do unprofitable but socially beneficial work is an important part of van Parijs’ argument in “Real Freedom for All.” UBI is not just freedom for consumption, it’s freedom for some combination of leisure *and* more intrinsically rewarding work.

    Which is why I’ve always thought it was a shame that Zizek dismissed van Parijs so glibly. If we’re interested in “returning to Marx,” shouldn’t we focus on giving a new meaning to the *transition* to communism? As opposed to just writing “full communism” in our Twitter bios?

  3. “A market economy in which access to resources is not strictly correlated with wage labor for the vast majority of the population is significantly different from capitalism.”

    But a situation in which the production of material wealth is more and more a function of socially general technical, scientific, organizational, etc. knowledge, which renders workers more and more fragmented and superfluous, and yet in which the goal of production is the creation of surplus value which nonetheless remains intrinsically tied to concrete labor expenditure… It’s the same difference, no?

  4. This is a great idea – but, I would argue strongly that the impulse to “fullness” is a fatal weakness. You’re not going to get to “full” communism. It’s been tried, Monolithic communism is tapped out, just as bad as monolithic capitalism. There’s got to be a new way, but if your idea turns out to be just another way of imposing communism without sounding like you’re imposing communism, it’s doomed.

  5. Ricky, Except that no actual-existing communist regime has ever claimed to have reached “full communism.” The point was always to have rapid modernization and development to “fast forward” to the material conditions of full communism — Khrushchev seemed to think the USSR was on pace to get there, but they quietly backed away from that claim after he was removed from power.

    Emily, I guess if I could articulate my frustration better — any regime is going to have production, and the use of human labor always implies the generation of surplus-value. The problem is how that surplus value gets appropriated. Is it social, or is it the private property of the “owners”? My plan would push us much further toward a purely social appropriation of surplus value, which is a big difference, or at least the difference that matters to me.

  6. Emily, I would ask for additional clarification that Adam did not request.

    Why do you think it “renders workers more and more fragmented and superfluous?”

    As stated, the proposal could be implemented in myriad ways, but I don’t see your conclusion as necessary or any more probable than another. Hence, I am wondering what unwritten premises lead you to that conclusion.

  7. The whole point is to make workers more and more superfluous — to free humanity to the extent possible from meaningless, externally imposed toil. Meanwhile, in the transitional period, workers’ power and leverage would be greatly increased by the fact that they are no longer dependent on their labor for survival. Hence presumably there would be more room to strike, less tolerance for excessive management pay, etc.

  8. “Emily, I guess if I could articulate my frustration better — any regime is going to have production, and the use of human labor always implies the generation of surplus-value.”

    This is wrong. A regime in which human labor becomes the object of a production process whose goal is the creation of abstract value(and not material wealth) is emphatically not implied in the “use of human labor”, but only in the specific historically constituted form of labor in capitalism. Overcoming the central, structuring contradiction of capitalism would mean overcoming the value form itself. You’re right that the conditions are there to free humanity from meaningless, imposed toil, but that cannot be brought about through alterations in the sphere of exchange alone, abolishing private property and whatnot.

  9. Do you take me to be saying that we implement universal minimum income and then we’re just done? Because that’s not my intention. I think it could be a step along the way, indeed a very important one. And the example of the Soviet Union’s failed central planning makes me think we might do well to try to use the technology called “money” in our favor.

  10. Oh, now I remember why no one wants to talk about the transition-qua-transition… It doesn’t offer that satisfying feeling that one is the purest, most anti-capitalist voice in the room. But it’s funny how little Marx himself was concerned about this. The obvious example is the Manifesto’s praise of the revolutionary role of the bourgeoisie, but in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, he even gives a Matt Yglesias on Bangladesh-like defense of child labor:

    Point being, basic income lies at that nexus of justice and inevitability that Marx constantly looked towards. There’s a strong argument that the trend towards delegating safety net programs to the “submerged state” is just (doomed) a tactic for delaying it–because these programs just end up approximating UBI anyway, raising the question of why we don’t just “go there”:

  11. The Post-Keynesians, who are mostly proto-socialists, have been fighting over Job Guarantee versus Basic Income Guarantee for decades. There are macroeconomic arguments (BIG is inflationary), and social arguments. Personally, as a socialist rather than an anarchist, I would prefer that a job (which can be editing Wikipedia or kitten-sitting) be negotiated between an individual and her community (preferably local), and that a community be responsible for finding useful or fulfilling things for people to do, than a individual hunt their own purpose in all cases. Probably a combination of both would be best. I also fear the BIG being used as a replacement for the social wage in a neoliberal move, for instance giving money to but health insurance rather than providing free health care.

    There are co-ordination problems, and the free individual who wants to build a new park is not necessarily going to, like Tom Sawyer, gather a crowd behind her.

    Bill Mitchell;as usual very long; googling “job guarantee versus basic income guarantee” will introduce you to the literature

  12. I think that after a couple months of trying to figure out what they want to do themselves, 90% of people would welcome an assignment — so maybe that part of the plan would take care of itself.

  13. Emily and Adam,

    My emphasis was on the fragmentation–why does Emily think that Adam’s proposal leads to fragmentation?

    Adam, your post is sufficiently vague that you should resist being too frustrated.

  14. Universal income would shut whinging radicals I know and am the hell up. That and stopping bombing places.

    After the millenia of self-aggrandizement you’d think the rich could find it in themselves to reward their bipedal worker population with basic economic well-being and dignity.

  15. Jason, work becomes fragmented and empty in developed industrial capitalism because the production of material wealth becomes decoupled from the knowledge, skills and labor of the immediate producers and is instead a function of the objectified productive powers of capital to which the worker must submit, sort of like in the Wachowski’s 1999 film “The Matrix”. Adam’s idea is that this situation points toward the possibility of freeing work from the domination of capital. I’m pointing out that because the goal of production in capitalist society is not material wealth but surplus value, because surplus value must be extracted from concrete labor, and because such extraction is a quasi-objective social necessity and is felt as a force of compulsion by everyone, as long as society is structured by the value form labor will remain unfree, no matter how the surplus is distributed.

  16. So this proposal just absolutely is not and can never be a step toward communism for you, Emily? It doesn’t even conceivably set up the possibility for further changes that would be much more difficult to pull off under current conditions?

  17. “as long as society is structured by the value form labor will remain unfree, no matter how the surplus is distributed.”

    I don’t think that anyone is disagreeing with this point. Adam simply seems to be saying that his proposal would be stepping stone towards restructuring society along lines other than the value form. A basic income policy wouldn’t overturn the deep-rooted structure but it’d ease people into different ways of thinking and living that are more conducive to communism. That’s if I’m understanding it correctly.

    I think it’s a good idea. The whole notion of ‘one giant leap’ into Communism is not only unrealistic, it’s ridiculous. Why would people even be willing to try it? Why would any rational human being be willing to swap an oppressive but familiar social structure (capitalism) for a totally hypothetical, potentially emancipatory but also potentially catastrophic social structure (communism) without any steps inbetween? Who wouldn’t conclude ‘it’s better the devil you know’?

    Capitalism wasn’t built in a day any more than Rome was yet people seem to think that Communism not only can but must be made to emerge in the blink of an eye, with no intermediary steps. (Not saying that anyone here believes in this caricature but some people surely do.)

  18. “it’d ease people into different ways of thinking and living that are more conducive to communism.”

    You could maybe even put it more strongly than this: a universal income undermines the system of wage labour, and wage labour is a necessary feature of the production of surplus value. So a universal income isn’t just about distribution, it’s also about production; indeed, it’s a direct attack on the value form.

  19. Above, I misuse the term “surplus-value” to indicate basically any value produced that is worth more than its material inputs (including subsistence conditions for the worker). Emily is right to insist on its restriction to specifically capitalist context. However, I wonder if she is making a mistake in another direction by insisting that a system in which there is an excess to be appropriated and distributed is necessarily the properly capitalist “surplus value.”

    Further, I wonder if it is truly necessary for a system to get rid of all abstract forms of value in order to qualify as post-capitalist. I don’t think it is, because it seems as though some type of abstract value has existed in essentially every economic regime, albeit not playing the same role as it does under capitalism. (Another issue: even if it were possible to get rid of abstract value, it seems to me that that would come so far along in the development of communism that it might literally be inconceivable to us as subjects formed by capitalism.)

  20. Emily,

    Thank you for your detailed response. The last part was most instructive, as I am familiar with the economic problematic, but not with the specific objection you had. Given that, I still don’t see what you think is problematic about Adam’s proposal, but let me try to articulate it.

    Anything that requires surplus value remains unfree? Because the surplus value is not held by the worker? Adam’s proposal does require distribution of surplus value, but because its not capitalistic, I do not see what the problem is. Unless one privileges the individual so much (is such a liberal) that any distribution of surplus that does not go to that individual is problematic. In that case, and I may be wrong in interpretting the thrust of your argument, I would just reject the liberal basis for a communitarian one.

  21. “Further, I wonder if it is truly necessary for a system to get rid of all abstract forms of value in order to qualify as post-capitalist. I don’t think it is, because it seems as though some type of abstract value has existed in essentially every economic regime, albeit not playing the same role as it does under capitalism. ”

    What makes capitalist society unique is that it is mediated by an abstract, homogeneous, quantitative form of self-valorizing wealth(rather than some form of overt social domination, for instance.) Labor in such a society is not the trans-historical activity that constitutes society and wealth in general, but is historically specific. It is the dialectical relationship between its value dimension and use-value dimension that sets the intrinsic dynamic of capitalism in motion. This dynamic necessitates both ever increasing productivity and the expenditure of immediate labor time in production, even as the latter plays less and less of a role in the creation of material wealth. The vast accumulation in alienated form of the technical and scientific knowledge and productive power of humanity that results from this dynamic, rather than liberating workers, again and again reconstitutes their subjection to a totality mediated by an abstract, homogeneous, quantitative form of self-valorizing wealth.

  22. Emily, I understand all that. Forgive me if I’m being slow, but you never seem to directly answer my question of why a guaranteed income not tied to wage labor apparently could never serve as a transitional step toward communism. It might clarify things for me if you could indicate, in a general form at least, what kind of thing might count as a genuine step beyond capitalism for you.

  23. I would affirm Adam’s point.

    Emily, you’re making arguments against something other than what Adam proposes, and the obvious connection is the he still appears to hold an “abstract” notion of value (where value is not immediate use-value). However, if that is the link you are using to critique him, then virtually all economies except perhaps hunter-gatherer would be exploitative. That gets us nowhere.

    I would repeat Adam’s request with a different emphasis: can you directly answer the question of why his proposal wouldn’t be an improvement? I can think of a few, but they are outweighed by the practical benefits given some stipulations.

  24. Jason, value is not simply an abstract notion. It’s a real abstraction that structures the whole of social life, including production, exchange, forms of knowledge and subjectivity. All economies may be exploitative, but only in capitalism is this exploitation directly that of a monstrous totalizing abstraction that subsumes every other aspect of society under its relentless and perverted drive.

    Adam, my point is that we should be careful not to succumb to the illusion that the bad, alienating, exploitative side of capitalism can be accorded to the mode of distribution alone, to the market and to private property, and that the sphere of production merely needs to be freed from these fetters. Overcoming capitalism would mean the determinate negation of both labor and value.

  25. I do not adhere to any such illusion! Do you just reject outright the notion that there would need to be partial steps toward communism? It is becoming tiresome for you to answer every one of my questions with Marxism 101!

  26. Ditto, Emily.

    Adam, I think we have received a definite response in Emily’s last sentence: “Overcoming capitalism would mean the determinate negation of both labor and value.” So, we should neither labor nor value?

    Emily, how have you not performed a reductio ad absurdum on your own thesis? Perhaps you mean a dialectical negation, because a logical negation would be the self-immolation of your argument? If so, then how does Adam’s suggestion not work towards this?

  27. Adam, I have no idea how to move toward communism. I wanted to try to problematize the presuppositions of your proposal, but you already understood everything.

    Jason: Well, since capitalism is a totality, with its demise so should vanish the space from which the critique of it is made. So, in anticipation of that moment, I will disappear from this argument. Class is dismissed!

  28. Next time you join a discussion here, you might want to be a little more clear on the relationship between your response and what you’re responding to — unless your goal is just to show me to be the arrogant know-it-all I am or something.

  29. Now that people are used to the idea of central bank asset purchases, if we can get subprime credit issuance going again, and can get banks to securitize those products, then the Fed can start buying them right away at the start of the next economic downturn. That would be a lot easier than trying to get guaranteed income passed through Congress.

  30. One way of describing guaranteed income is: the extension of credit, with no repayment requirements, to everyone. If you give lenders incentives to extend that credit, capped at a certain amount per individual, and the central bank backstops those loans, then aren’t you almost all the way there?

    One drawback of this approach is that individuals don’t have the kind of certainty that they would under an explicit fiscal program. Another issue is that financial services still extracts rents. But none of this will ever happen via fiscal policy, so.

    America figured out monetary policy first.

  31. Emily: I don’t know you or anything, and I know that sometimes a bit of jargon or technical language is necessary to avoid spending 300 words explaining some concept. Also, I’ve done my share of coursework in lefty political theory, and I think I probably share a lot of your basic political and moral intuitions. But: I find your comments here impenetrable.

  32. I’d just quickly point out that Emily’s arguments appear to require we still accept the labour theory of value. I’d agree with Negri on its total obsolescence, under exactly the conditions Adam is talking about.

  33. Too late. Adam, do it!

    Jared, her contributions were a paradox: she was lecturing us in basic Marxism in language so technical that only a person who had more than a basic grasp of Marxism could understand it. To be honest, if it weren’t for a side interest in the philosophy of economics, I would have been lost.

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