Wednesday, November 26, 2014

For Common Ownership, For Free Access


"From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs" is commonly attributed to Karl Marx, but "à chacun selon ses besoins, de chacun selon ses facultés" was also written by Louis Blanc (1811-1882) as a rebuttal to Henri de Saint Simon who claimed that each should be rewarded according to how much they work. It is speculated that the phrase was inspired from two lines from the Bible: “All that believed were together, and had all things in common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.” (Acts 2:44-45)

The contradiction in capitalist society is between the means of production, which are socialized in this society, and private, not social, accumulation. This inherent contradiction is the basis of society’s division into classes, into the rich and poor. It’s also the source of the crises of capitalism. Marx and Engels’ vision was that socialism would do away with this contradiction by doing away with private appropriation altogether. The idea was that the overthrow of capitalism in favour of a socialist society would improve the lot of the people. Marx and Engels also envisioned the destruction of the arbitrary division between physical and mental labor. Think about it — is sanitation workers’ work any less worthy in promoting public health than the skills a doctor puts in? Is it any less important to society? Yet sanitation workers are devalued in capitalist society and therefore paid less.

Not everyone has the ability to work as much as others do. Moreover, different people have different needs — say, there’s two workers, but one is raising a family while the other is only supporting herself. Paying these workers the same amount isn’t exactly equality, even if they put in the same amount of work.

The focus of the Occupy Wall Street on rising inequality between the wealthy 1% and the 99%, representing the working class was a popular expression of the conditions that Marx and Engels discussed when they described the growing poverty among the masses and the fabulous wealth of the capitalist class

Driven by this constant revolution in the means of production, high-tech, present-day capitalism is characterized more and more by low-wage jobs and a permanent and growing reserve army of the unemployed. But what if the means of production were owned collectively by the workers and run for the purposes of providing for human needs? Then these advances in technology would be a liberating force for humanity. Everyone could be relieved of back-breaking labour and repetitive jobs. Instead of working 40, 50 or 60 hours per week, everyone could work a greatly reduced schedule, with time for leisure, advanced education and cultural activities.

Human beings could put their minds to solving the great challenges facing the global population, not only to raise the standard of living for all, but also to rescue the planet from the environmental degradation that has been imposed by capitalism and the profit system. We could imagine that digging for oil and gas or mining for coal — all the things that are dangerous and toxic to workers and the planet — could be eliminated by the true development of renewable energy sources. These are the kinds of possibilities that Marx and Engels predicted when they described the socialist future.

We also believe that when the capitalist class is eliminated as a class and class distinctions are a thing of the past, when there is no longer a struggle for the existence of the individual, the capitalist culture of racism, of divide and conquer, of promoting divisions by country, nationality, race, gender and sexuality could be eliminated as well. Generalised want promotes divisions, and of course, the capitalists use it to their advantage. When that want is eliminated, it will be all the more clear that we don’t need to fight among ourselves or allow ourselves to be divided into other categories.

Imagine a society where all its members organize production and distribution on a cooperative, democratic basis according not to profit, but solely on the basis of need.  Such a society has no exploiting minority or exploited majority. All property other than personal property is held in common, for the benefit of all. Consequently, there is also no money. If you are hungry, you can eat from the collective store of food. If you want to work, work is always available, and each contributes what he or she can. When you are sick or old or too young, society always takes care of you. All decisions are made collectively, and leadership is chosen rather than imposed. There are no prisons, no standing army, and no state bureaucracy. The threat of social ostracism is sufficient pressure against anyone who threatens the collective or harms another.

Similar societies have already existed in one form or another, in all parts of the world, in what is known as "primitive communism."
"The brotherly sentiments of the Redskins," wrote the Jesuit Charlevoix of the new world Indians he observed, "are doubtless in part ascribable to the fact that the words mine and thine...are all unknown as yet to the savages. The protection they extend to the orphans, the widows and the infirm, the hospitality which they exercise in so admirable a manner, are, in their eyes, but a consequence of the conviction which they hold that all things should be common to all men."

The question, then, is not: Is such a world possible? but: Is it possible again?

The productive prerequisites for such a society certainly exist. The previously undreamed-of material abundance created by capitalism renders hunger, want and even class divisions obsolete. There is enough food produced today to provide enough for every person on the planet. The introduction of ever-more-advanced machinery and technology has raised output to unimagined levels. Workers run things. In this sense, the ruling class today has become entirely parasitic, siphoning wealth but serving no useful social function. Society could do away with the ruling class and suffer no more than when tonsils or an appendix are removed.

Bill Gates once derided open source advocates with the worst epithet a capitalist can muster. These folks, he said, were a "new modern-day sort of communists”. When masses of people work toward a common goal and share their products in common, when they contribute labour without wages and enjoy the fruits free of charge, it's not unreasonable to call that socialism. In the late '90s, activist John Barlow began calling this drift, somewhat tongue in cheek, "dot-communism." Nearly every day another start-up proudly heralds a new way to harness online community action. Digital socialism is socialism without the state, without national borders and designed to heighten individual autonomy and thwart centralization. We have peer-to-peer production, a bounty of free access. The online masses have an incredible willingness to share. The number of personal photos posted on Facebook and MySpace is astronomical, but it's a safe bet that the overwhelming majority of photos taken with a digital camera are shared in some fashion. Then there are status updates, map locations, half-thoughts posted online. Add to this the 6 billion videos served by YouTube each month in the US. The list of sharing organizations is almost endless. When individuals work together toward a large-scale goal, it produces results that emerge at the group level. Phillip Howard, an associate professor in communication at the University of Washington, reported in the weeks just before Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign "the total rate of tweets from Egypt  -  and around the world  -  about political change" exponentially grew from "2,300 a day to 230,000 a day." Not only have amateurs shared more than 3 billion photos on Flickr, but they have tagged them with categories, labels, and keywords. The popularity of Creative Commons licensing means that communally, if not outright communistically, your picture is my picture. In a curious way, this exceeds the socialist maxim of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" because it betters what you contribute and delivers more than you need.

Serious contributors to these sites put in far more energy than they could ever get in return, but they keep contributing in part because of the cultural power these instruments wield. A contributor's influence extends way beyond a lone vote, and the community's collective influence can be far out of proportion to the number of contributors. That is the whole point of social institutions—the sum outperforms the parts. Organized collaboration can produce results beyond the achievements of ad hoc cooperation. Just look at any of hundreds of open source software projects, such as the Apache Web server. In these endeavors, finely tuned communal tools generate high-quality products from the coordinated work of thousands or tens of thousands of members. An enthusiast may spend months writing code for a subroutine when the program's full utility is several years away. In fact, the work-reward ratio is so out of kilter from a free-market perspective—the workers do immense amounts of high-market-value work without being paid—that these collaborative efforts make no sense within capitalism. Instead of money, the peer producers who create the stuff gain credit, status, reputation, enjoyment, satisfaction, and experience. Not only is the product free, it can be copied freely and used as the basis for new products. Alternative schemes for managing intellectual property, including Creative Commons and the GNU licenses, were invented to ensure these "frees." Ohloh, a company that tracks the open source industry, lists roughly 250,000 people working on an amazing 275,000 projects. That's almost the size of General Motors' workforce. That is an awful lot of people working for free, even if they're not full-time. Imagine if all the employees of GM weren't paid yet continued to produce automobiles! One study estimates that 60,000 man-years of work have poured into last year's release of Fedora Linux 9.

The number of people who make things for free, share things for free, use things for free, belong to collective software farms, work on projects that require communal decisions, or experience the benefits of decentralized socialism has reached millions and counting. A survey of 2,784 open source developers explored their motivations. The most common was "to learn and develop new skills." The more we benefit from such collaboration, the more open we become to socialist concepts. We underestimate the power of our tools to reshape our minds. Did we really believe we could collaboratively build and inhabit virtual worlds all day, every day, and not have it affect our perspective? The force of online socialism is growing.

Even American Trotskyist James P. Cannon wrote that in a socialist society money, indeed, even a system for accounting for what was produced and how it was allotted would disappear: "In the socialist society, when there is plenty and abundance for all, what will be the point in keeping account of each one's share, any more than in the distribution of food at a well-supplied family table? You don't keep books as to who eats how many pancakes for breakfast or how many pieces of bread for dinner. Nobody grabs when the table is laden. If you have a guest, you don't seize the first piece of meat for yourself, you pass the plate and ask him to help himself first."

In socialism, society's surplus wealth would be collectively used to enhance the welfare of all rather than that of a small minority. Such a society may seem too utopian. But as Cannon said: "What's absurd is to think that this madhouse is permanent and for all time. The ethic of capitalism is: 'From each whatever you can get out of him--to each whatever he can grab.' The socialist society of universal abundance will be regulated by a different standard. It will 'inscribe on its banners ' abolish the wages system - said Marx - 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.'"

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