After the Revolution, What?
by John Spritzler
November 22, 2006
[This same article is on a blog here where you may leave comments]
[After I wrote this article, I came across a video (unfortunately no longer online) about what workers in Argentina are doing: taking over and running factories, paying all workers the same wage, giving their product to people who need it as well as selling it to others. But the video also interviews the "owner" of one of the factories who asserts that, contrary to the workers' claim, the factory does not belong to "the people" and that the government will one day give him back his factory. Until working people make a revolution that overthrows any government that would return factories to their capitalist owners, it is a pre-revolutionary situation. The article below is about what could happen after the revolution. The fact that Argentine workers, even before a revolution, have made such profound changes demonstrates how very possible are the changes discussed below, after a revolution.]
This article is for people who don’t like capitalism, but who aren’t sure that a better kind of society is realistically possible. It is for people who wonder, quite reasonably, "How would the economy work?" and "Isn’t the only alternative to a free-market economy a centrally planned one, which means even less personal freedom and probably low productivity and low quality goods, as was the case so famously in the former Soviet Union?"
I am going to describe the outlines of a society in transition from a capitalist one based on profit and the market to a more solidarity-based society which is not based on profit and the market. In this society there are what I call "circles of trust" within which people collectively own the means of production (i.e. what they require in order to make things or provide services in the larger economy) and within which they relate to each other economically by sharing rather than buying and selling. Some people are in circles of trust and some are not. As the circles of trust grow to include more people, the society becomes less a capitalistic one and more like what many of us want.
But first, there is an important "horse before the cart" question that must be addressed. While the society I am describing here is transitional in the sense that some economic relations are still profit/market-driven and some are not, even this merely transitional society could not exist without a prior revolution. I am not, therefore, suggesting that the way to create a better world is simply to start creating economic circles of trust (like food cooperatives, say) and work to expand their membership. The reason why not is this.
Until we make a revolution, by which I mean until a mass movement, aiming for a more equal and democratic and solidarity-based society, overthrows the power of our current ruling class, it is not realistic to talk about circles of trust growing to any significant size. The corporate and government elite who rule society today know very well that they are threatened whenever people try–as they always do in little ways and occasionally big ways–to create more egalitarian social relations. The elite use their power to attack any overt expression of solidarity or deviance from the principle that profit and self-interest are the only legitimate values. Every corporation, for example, is required by the "fiduciary responsibility law" to make all decisions based on maximizing profit to the shareholders, not doing good for others. There are laws against solidarity, such as the laws against "sympathy" strikes. Other laws prevent public employees from bargaining over issues other than narrow self-interest, by restricting the permissible issues to "wages and working conditions," meaning that teachers cannot openly bargain for the welfare of their students by fighting to end the oppressive mis-use of standardized testing for example. Apart from the laws, the elite use their economic power– to hire and fire and to relocate factories and whole industries–to attack people who act on the principle of solidarity. It will take a revolution just to gain the space to begin creating a solidarity economy.
A revolution to politically defeat a social class can take place relatively quickly compared to the task of re-shaping an entire society and economy by very different values. A fundamentally new kind of economy must therefore be able to arise somewhat gradually from the old, or it probably can never arise at all. The society described below can, by its very nature, gradually change from capitalistic to solidaristic, at a speed determined by how quickly people come to trust each other, something which will depend on continued political discussion and struggle after the revolution.
The question I am addressing here, however, is not whether a revolution is possible (an excellent discussion about why it is can be found in We CAN Change the World, by David Stratman) but whether, after we make a political revolution, we will be able to create an economy that provides the things we need and desire in a social framework that does not stifle personal freedom and creativity. I want to convince the reader that the things that capitalism brags about and which Communism so evidently lacked–the ability to achieve great economic productivity without a totalitarian government–are possible to enjoy in a very non-capitalist post-revolutionary society. Capitalism, in other words, is not the "only game in town." Revolution, therefore, is a very sensible goal to fight for. I offer the following discussion of how a post-revolutionary transitional society might operate in order to give revolutionaries (and would-be revolutionaries!) some confidence that they are not crazy for trying to build a revolutionary movement.
The "circles of trust" society I describe is not a blueprint, no more than a discussion of the principles of a free-market economy is a blueprint for what a particular free-market society would look like. It is, however, an attempt to provide just enough detail about the economy and government and culture of a non-market society to enable the reader to use his or her imagination to fill in the blanks with some confidence that the imagined society would be not only feasible but also desirable.
There are probably lots of ways to have a non-market economy and no doubt some are superior to what I describe here. Once people defeat the plutocracy and any other forces that oppose solidarity, there is no limit to what people might create by trial and error, and there is no reason why they could not change things over time. That, again, is why we don’t need a blueprint. Nor do we need to know the BEST way to organize a non-market economy. For a revolutionary movement to have confidence, it is sufficient merely to know that there is at least one way to have a much better world than the capitalist one. That’s what I hope readers conclude from what follows.
A "CIRCLES OF TRUST" SOCIETY
Circles of trust are sets of people among whom the economy is a gift, not a market, economy. Within a circle of trust, people share the fruits of their labor with each other as freely as parents share things with, and do things for, their children, or friends do things for each other, out of simple solidarity and concern for one another. This tends to happen when people trust each other, and not happen when they don’t. (George Salzman discusses the basis of trust here.)
A circle of trust may be a large circle with many members or a small circle with just a few members. Any people who mutually agree to be a circle of trust can do so, regardless of what they may or may not have in common: they may live very close to each other or very far apart; they may all work together in the same office or factory or farm, or work in the same industry or kind of work but live far apart geographically, or even work in completely unrelated kinds of work; they may share an interest in performing music together as a band, or playing sports as a team (or league), or working to solve a certain problem, perhaps involving scientific research; or they may have nothing particular in common except a level of mutual trust for some reason. The typical nuclear family, for example, is a circle of trust that we are already familiar with today.
A person is free to belong to no circle, to one circle, or to many circles, and to enter or leave any circle whenever he or she wishes. The only condition is that to belong to a circle requires the approval (directly or indirectly, as we will discuss shortly) of all the other members of the circle.
Let us assume that between people who are not in the same circle of trust, economic relations are the standard capitalist ones based on a market economy and the profit motive. For example, one group of people (let’s call them "shareholders") may, collectively, own some means of production, say a factory with all of its machinery, and a different group of people (let’s call them "property-less workers") may live in the town where the factory is located. The shareholders may or may not belong to a circle of trust, but if they do we’ll assume it excludes the property-less workers. Likewise the workers may or may not belong to a circle of trust, but if they do we’ll assume it excludes the shareholders. Economic relations between the shareholders and the workers is exactly the same as in our current capitalist society: the shareholders say, "We own the factory and everything produced in it, and we’ll pay you low wages to work in it if you are willing." Nothing new here. But what is new is the way things start to change when, as we are assuming here, there has been a revolution and the capitalist class is no longer dominant either militarily or politically.
Clearly, when a society contains only very small circles of trust, even if there are very many of them, that society is essentially a capitalist one, because most of the economic relations between people are relations between people who, even if they each belong to a circle of trust, do not belong to the same circle of trust.
The strength of a solidarity culture versus a competition culture at any given time is reflected by how close or far away a society is from being one in which everybody belongs to one common circle of trust.
When a circle of trust is small, like a family, no formalities are generally required. Everybody in the circle of trust knows everybody else in it personally. Everybody knows who is and who is not a member of their circle of trust. Mom and Dad may share a single checking account. Meals are made available to everybody regardless of how much they contribute to the family’s income. Family members are expected to "do their share" according to ability and if they don’t the price they pay is suffering the disapproval of other family members, not forfeiting their right to meals and shelter. Trust, and a desire to be regarded well by other members of the circle–and by oneself–is what makes it all work. But how can this be extended to large numbers of people who don’t know each other personally?
Here’s one possible way.
SHOPPING IN A CIRCLES-OF-TRUST SOCIETY
Imagine a society that, on the surface, seems like what we have today. Most people go to work at an office or factory or mine or farm or they drive a bus or a taxi or they are entertainers or athletes or artists or they are children or retired people or people too sick to work, or lazy bums or what have you. They buy things at "stores" (think local market, bazaar, shopping mall, internet, and so forth.) They pay for the services of others–barbers, house contractors, plumbers, physicians, etc.
Now imagine that some people have a "circle of trust card" (call it an S-card, "S" for solidarity), somewhat like today’s familiar credit card. When a person goes to a store (either a real building or some web version) to get something, either an object or perhaps a service provided by somebody or some organization, they use their S-card. Like a credit card today, the S-card is read by some device connected to a database and it responds to the proposed "purchase" with the message "approved" or "not approved." If the message is "approved" then the price is zero. If the message is "not approved" then the price is the free-market price or whatever the seller wishes to charge, and the transaction involves the exchange of money, like today, perhaps with an old-fashioned credit card.
What determines if the message is "approved" or "not approved?" The message is "approved" only if the "seller" and "buyer" are both members of the same circle of trust.
At this point two obvious questions arise. The first question is, "If the price of widgets were zero for people in a circle of trust with widget-makers, wouldn’t widgets disappear as fast as they could be produced, taken by people with virtually no real need of widgets?" To answer this question, consider how most people in our current capitalist society, where self-interest is promoted and solidarity is attacked, behave when confronted with free items. At the dinner table people are very reluctant to take the last especially delicious item from the serving platter; often it goes unclaimed, or if somebody does take it they typically offer it to others first. At the store by the cash register, the little bowl with pennies (‘take a penny, give a penny’) is usually well stocked; I’ve never seen or heard of anybody grabbing all the pennies in it. Where I work (nearly a hundred employees) we have an office supplies room with all sorts of goodies from pads of paper, envelopes, postits, paperclips, very nice pens, pencils, and so forth, and its all free for the taking; there has never been a problem with supplies disappearing. For the kind of people who would be members of a circle of trust, a price of zero would not be an invitation to take more than is reasonable. Could some individuals abuse the trust of others by taking more than what is reasonable? Sure. This is discussed below when the problem of "slackers," and how they would be handled, is examined.
The second question is, "How could two people from, say, distant parts of the world, who don’t know each other, end up in the same circle of trust?" The answer involves small circles inside of larger circles. Let’s say that Sam works as a research scientist in Boston, and Natasha works in a Vodka distillery in Russia. How could Sam and Natasha end up in the same circle of trust? Let's see.
HOW CAN ONE CIRCLE OF TRUST INCLUDE BILLIONS OF PEOPLE?
Let’s say Sam is known and respected, where he works, as a person who tries to make a reasonable contribution to society, and that based on this fact he seeks membership in a circle of trust. Suppose where Sam works there are, say, twenty people involved in doing medical research–academics and janitors and staff and whatnot–who mutually agree to self-constitute as a small circle of trust. Say Sam and the others call their circle of trust the A circle, or A for short. To be a member in good standing of A one must be approved by everybody else in A. If A-member Mary decides she doesn’t trust Sam for some reason, then she can remove her name from the A membership list and, if she wishes, ask others (whom she does trust) to join with her in forming a new circle of trust. Or she might persuade enough of the other members of A that Sam should not be considered a member in good standing of A, in which case they might ask Sam to withdraw his name from the A membership list (and tell Sam that if he doesn’t withdraw they will all withdraw their own names and join Mary’s new circle of trust.) The point is that a circle of trust is simply a list of names of people who all agree that they trust each other and wish to relate to each other economically as if they were members of the same family (i.e. on the basis of a gift economy rather than a market economy.)
Keep in mind that everything said above about what Mary could do if she didn’t trust Sam would, in practice, seldom happen. Simply knowing that such actions are possible would more likely result in people raising concerns with each other and reaching subtle compromises rather than expelling members from circles or breaking a large circle into a smaller one. The reason this is so is because, as we will see, the larger a circle of trust a person belongs to, the better their quality of life; conversely it is, as we all know from living in today’s capitalist society, no fun to be an isolated individual in a capitalist world where one confronts everybody else as a competitor.
Of course twenty people working together in an office, doing scientific research and/or support work for that research, have economic needs that go way beyond what they can provide to each other. Suppose A, therefore, wishing to be in a gift economy relationship with more people, applies–as a circle, not just as individuals–for membership in a "circle of circles of trust." There might be, for example, other circles of trust (say B and C and etc.) formed by people the way A members formed A. B might be residential neighbors. C might be young people in a musical band. And so on. These circles of trust might, for one reason or another, know enough about each other to decide if they trust each other. Perhaps they are all in the same small geographical area, or perhaps they are geographically distant but collaborate with each other in their line of work, or perhaps they share something else in common (religious beliefs? a love of gardening?). Whatever is the basis of their trust, A and B and C can self-constitute as a larger "circle of circles of trust" (called, say, ABC) if each member circle agrees to trust the other member circles.
How would A decide if it trusted the B and C circles? Answer: by any method the members of A agreed upon. The A circle might decide by a vote of all its members. Or it might be that its members would delegate the decision to an elected representative. Or they might base the decision on whether or not B and C were on some "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval"-type list created by somebody whose judgment A members trusted. For that matter, the members of A might agree to blindly follow some charismatic leader or guru. It’s their business and theirs alone how they conduct decision-making within their circle. (This applies to all decision-making, not just which other circles to trust, and this is an important point to remember in the context of the discussion of the type of government, below.) Whatever the method of deciding, if any member of A disagreed with the A decision to trust, say, B and C, then that person could just withdraw from A or try to persuade A itself to withdraw from ABC. (Like Mary and Sam above.)
Just as individual people can join as many or as few circles of trust as they wish, so also can circles (and circles of circles) join as many or as few other circles of trust as they wish. Furthermore, there is no limit to higher-order circles of trust forming, in other words circles of trust whose members are in turn smaller circles of trust, whose members are in turn are smaller circles of trust and so on and so on until, at the bottom, there are circles whose members are individual human beings. An extremely-high-order circle of trust could include a billion people or more (even everybody on the planet!), but its members might be just a relatively small number of moderately-high-order circles of trust, each of which, by whatever means its own members agreed upon, had decided to trust the other moderately-high-order circles of trust.
Note that the decision by one circle to trust another circle does not require the first circle to have direct knowledge of every single member of the second circle; it simply means that it trusts the second circle as a single entity, most likely based on its overall reputation. A circle’s reputation would depend on many things, and might be very good even if some of its members had below-average reputations. This is the way people, today, evaluate organizations like universities and hospitals, and it would no doubt be the way circles evaluate other circles.
It is not hard to see that circles of circles would have an incentive to join circles of circles of circles and so on up the hierarchy. The incentive to join a higher-order circle is to enjoy the benefits of being in a gift economy relation with more people producing a wider range of objects or services. "Benefits," however, doesn’t necessarily mean material benefits only; it also means the social/political benefits of living in a society based on solidarity instead of competition; living in such a society, remember, is the reason people join the circles in the first place.
CAN CIRCLES OF TRUST GROW LARGE?
Sure they can. In Seattle during the great general strike of 1919, 110 union locals joined in a strike that grew so fast and so large that it shocked the rulers. In just two weeks Seattle went from business as usual to the point where, for six days, virtually nothing happened in the city except as approved by the General Strike Committee. Mass solidarity broke out. The working class of Seattle was, essentially, a short-lived circle of trust, providing services and goods to each other but not to the capitalists. It didn’t last long, but not because it was unworkable or because the workers didn’t like it. It was defeated by capitalist violence, specifically the National Guard, 950 sailors and marines sent in by the federal government, and the Mayor’s 2400 specially sworn in deputies.
During the Spanish Civil War in 1936-7, in provinces such as Catalonia, more than five million people rose up and overthrew the capitalists and their Catholic Church allies and created a huge non-market gift economy. As in Seattle, it was defeated by a violent attack, in this case led by fascists and aided by Stalin.
Seattle was PRE-revolutionary; the capitalists held state power. Spain was only post-revolutionary temporarily. The society being outlined here, in contrast, is assumed to be a long term POST-revolutionary one; the capitalists, at least politically, have been defeated and are assumed to remain defeated. They cannot attack expressions of solidarity with governmental violence anymore. Under such conditions it is entirely reasonable to expect that circles of trust will grow larger and faster than in a pre-revolutionary society.
It is not inevitable, however, that circles of trust would grow larger; they could even shrink and disappear. The outcome would depend on who waged the continuing class war more successfully, people who want a more egalitarian and equal society based on solidarity, or people (presumably many of the old capitalist elite, and others) who want to go back to "the good old days" of capitalist inequality, exploitation and competition.
The net result of people joining circles of trust and circles in turn joining higher order circles is that Sam in his office in Boston would belong to a higher-order circle of trust and Natasha in a vodka distillery in Russia would also likely be in a higher-order circle of trust. If the orders of their circles of trust were high enough then Sam and Natasha could very well end up both being a member of the same higher-order circle of trust. A bottle of vodka from Natasha’s distillery could be in a Boston store for Sam to take for free. And Natasha might go to her local drug store and take for free a pill that incorporated knowledge made possible by Sam’s research. The more the culture of solidarity gained over the culture of competition the more likely that Natasha and Sam would indeed end up in a common higher-order circle of trust.
WHAT ABOUT SLACKERS?
We have discussed the incentive to join higher order circles of trust, but there is also a disincentive. The disincentive, of course, is the quite reasonable fear of entering into a gift economy relationship with "slackers," meaning people who take far more than they reasonably ought to, and/or give far less. Note that a person who can give virtually nothing and who takes quite a bit is not necessarily a slacker; the person might be old and infirm and in need of a lot of medical care, or a baby. Most people will distinguish between a baby, say, and a real slacker. But a slacker could also be not just an individual but an entire circle or even a circle of circles or an even higher order circle. Also, one person’s (or circle’s) "slacker" might be another person’s (or circle’s) valuable member of society; it’s a judgment call and people will disagree. A heavy metal musical band might be a slacker in the eyes of some and the best thing since sliced bread in the eyes of others.
To the extent that people wish to avoid being in a gift economy relation with those whom they consider to be slackers (and only to this extent), the existence of slackers is an important problem. And to the extent that this problem bothers people, then people who, or circles of trust that, specialize in providing trustworthy information about who is, or what circles are, a slacker would be highly regarded. Let’s call such people "journalists." Journalists would probably form circles of trust made up of journalists, or, as individuals, enter other circles of trust whose members include non-journalists; in other words they would enter circles of trust just like anybody else, and they would apply for membership in circles of circles etc., on the basis of their journalism being a valuable contribution to society. If respected journalists exposed a person, or a circle of trust, or even a higher order circle of trust as, in the opinion of the journalist at least, a slacker, then other circles might ask the slacker circle to withdraw its name from circles that they belonged to in common, or they might leave such circles and form new ones that excluded the slacker circle, or they might ask the slacker to shape-up, or (and this is not to be dismissed as unreasonable) they might say "to hell with it, let them be a slacker and live with the public disapproval." And, of course, some circles could respond one way and other circles a different way to the same slacker. Again, as discussed in connection with Sam and Mary, in practice there would be a process of sharing concerns and negotiating subtle compromises.
Notice that a "slacker" – a person or circle or circle of circles etc.-- is not necessarily a slacker because of the QUANTITY of what he, she or it takes and gives; the slacker label might very well be earned because of the QUALITY of what is given. A person might operate a little restaurant, and serve lots of food, but prepared terribly. Or maybe it is prepared well, but it is Russian cuisine and nobody in the region likes Russian cuisine. Whatever the reason, journalists might report, and word might just spread independently of journalists, that the restaurant is a slacker restaurant. If that happened, the people operating the restaurant, whose membership in a circle of trust depended upon others trusting them (on the basis of the restaurant providing a reasonable contribution to society) would be in jeopardy of losing their circle of trust membership. To avoid this (as well as simply to avoid feeling like nobody appreciated what they were doing in society), they would most likely try to ensure that the cuisine they provided was enjoyed by enough people to ensure their membership in a large circle of trust.
Notice also that the behavior of the restaurant workers described above adapts to the needs or desires of their "customers" in a socially desirable manner and yet this happens in the absence of a capitalist market or profit or even money. Something besides the famous "invisible hand" of capitalism operating through the motive of self-interest, and yet different also from a central economic plan as in the Soviet Union, plays the role, in this solidarity society, of providing rapid feedback to economic producers so that the economy produces what people really want. We will discuss this in greater detail below.
In this regard, it is quite possible that journalists would not only expose slackers, but also praise people/circles that deserve special recognition for doing something great. Why not? Which leads to the question, who will do the unpleasant work?
WHO WILL PICK UP THE GARBAGE?
There may be some work that society needs to be done and which everybody would consider unpleasant. Before discussing this, it is important to note that many things that one person would consider unpleasant another person would not. Being a garbage collector may not be Sam’s cup of tea, but Susan might consider it a pretty good way to make a contribution to society while getting some great exercise or fresh air or knowledge of one’s neighbors. Roger might think that having to learn a lot of academic mumbo-jumbo is not his idea of a good life and that he’d rather clean the building where academics work. Pat would rather stick her nose in books. So the problem of "who will do the unpleasant work" may not be as big a problem as some would think.
But suppose that nobody wanted to pick up the garbage. What then? One solution, of course, is for society to tell Tyrone and Miguel, "Here’s the deal: we will deprive you of food and shelter unless you pick up our garbage." That, essentially, is the capitalist way. What might happen in a more solidaristic society? One possibility, of course, is that the garbage would go uncollected and start to become a nuisance and eventually a health hazard. Before things got too bad, however, some people, presumably, would decide to collect the garbage. They might decide to do it by working only 10 hours a week, and request membership in a large circle of trust on the grounds that it is such an unpleasant task. The memory of the smell of rotting garbage would be a strong inducement to members of a large circle of trust to welcome the 10-hours-per-week garbage collectors. Eventually, some arrangement would come about, unless everybody agreed to live with no garbage collection–unlikely. Quite likely, people who were known as slackers for producing what nobody wanted would be the kind of person who would consider becoming a garbage collector, because most people don’t want to be known as slackers. Of course there is no limit to the ways people could deal with the problem. Perhaps people who hated collecting garbage and who were already members of large circles of trust would agree to each do a little of it and enjoy special praise or cut back on the work they were doing before. The point is that it is not hard to imagine that even in a 100% gift economy the problem would be solved one way or another.
A BORING DETAIL
This society requires databases with lists of circles and their members. Stores and any other venue in which people engage in economic transactions would subscribe to a data base to determine, for each transaction, if the response to the "purchaser’s" S-card is "approved" or "not approved." As with the "journalists," people who helped create and maintain such databases would join circles like anybody else. Stores would subscribe to whatever database or databases they desired. Journalists would expose fraudulent databases. People operating stores, and others "selling" their services would, if they wished to be members of the gift economy, have an incentive to be well-regarded by others and therefore to subscribe to the largest and most accurate databases. If a store was in the same circle as the provider of a database, the database would be available to them for free; otherwise they would have to pay for it.
WHAT ABOUT WIDGETS IF THERE IS NO PROFIT MOTIVE?
What about scarcity? What would happen if there were not enough of something to meet the demand? Conversely, what if too much of something was being produced for the actual demand. How would corrections be made analogously to the way the "invisible hand" does this in a market economy by means of prices rising or falling as a function of supply and demand?
In a market economy people produce widgets in order to sell them to whomever will pay the most for them. Widget makers decide how many widgets to produce, and whom to sell them to, on this basis. As long as one doesn’t mind the fact that people who desperately need widgets but have no money to buy them must go widgetless, this system "works"; supply tends to match demand, as Adam Smith with his "invisible hand" so famously argued. The "invisible hand" is a relatively good feedback mechanism that allows the overall economy to adapt to all sorts of changes: changes in technology, in consumer tastes, natural disasters like Katrina and so forth.
Within a circle of trust how would this occur? Take a small circle of trust, a family for example, to start out with. How does Mom or Dad know how much food to prepare for a meal? In the absence of a market place within a family, children don’t buy their meals. There is no price feedback mechanism. Does everything go haywire? Do the kids find nothing on their dinner plate one night and twenty pounds of mashed potatoes on it another night? Obviously Mom and Dad rely on past experience and common sense to decide how much food to prepare. If Mom and Dad stray too far from mark there will be non-price feedback mechanisms: the kids will complain if they are hungry, or mounds of food will remain on the plates after dinner.
When we "scale up" to very large higher-order circles of trust there will be similar analogous feedback mechanisms as well as experience and common sense at play. Like Mom and Dad preparing meals, the people making economic decisions are motivated not by profit but by solidarity–a concern for others in the circle of trust. If widget makers hear that there is a scarcity of widgets somewhere, by reading the newspaper (remember those journalists?) or by phone calls from widgetless people (or factories or whatever) and if they hear that un-taken widgets are piling up in stores somewhere else, then they would naturally direct widgets to where they are more needed. If they didn’t do this, it would be a kind of incompetence that would put them at risk of being labeled slackers.
What if there was a shortage of widgets everywhere? The answer to this is essentially the same as the answer to the question about what happens if nobody collects the garbage. Widget makers might work harder to cover a temporary scarcity of widgets and then take a well-deserved vacation after the emergency, or they may issue a call announcing that they need more people to help them make more widgets on a longer term basis, and either people would join the widget makers and their circle of trust for some reason (they need some way to avoid being a slacker, they want to help widgetless people) or some people would become independent widget makers, or society would have to put up with a permanent shortage of widgets.
What if there was an oversupply of widgets everywhere? Then the widget makers could take a holiday, if the oversupply was temporary. They would not likely be labeled slackers for this. If the oversupply seemed to be a long term one, then widget makers, or at least some of them, would have to get out of the widget-making industry and find some other way to make themselves useful if they wished to remain in a large circle of trust. If too many widget makers all remained a widget maker but hardly any of them did much work, then they would be at risk of being labeled as slackers. The point is that, just as within a family preparing meals, supply and demand feedback mechanisms can operate by means other than market-determined price. Largeness of scale does not prevent people from using past experience and common sense, and it does not prevent information about supply and demand from reaching the appropriate people.
In a market economy business decisions must, ultimately, be based only on price in order to maximize profit. A business that behaved differently would eventually lose to the competition and go out of business. Furthermore, the "fiduciary responsibility" law in a capitalist society obliges the managers of "publicly owned’ corporations to maximize profit, which means making decisions based on price. The significance of the "invisible hand" playing a positive role for society even though individual decisions are based on self-interest (profit and price) is not that a feedback mechanism based on price is superior to other feedback methods. The only "wonderful" thing about the "invisible hand" is that, in a society that perversely makes profit the ONLY motive, and market-determined price the ONLY feedback mechanism, some positive social consequences can nonetheless be expected (at least theoretically) due to the "invisible hand." Just because people in a market economy respond ONLY to price and profit, however, does not mean that people in a more natural and common-sense gift economy cannot or would not respond to other forms of supply and demand information, of which there are many.
WHAT ABOUT REALLY BIG WIDGETS TAKING THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE TO MAKE?
To the criticism that a large complex economy cannot operate with circles of trust and that an efficient economy requires a market place and the logic of profit, it is only necessary to note that huge chunks of the American economy are not at all market-based. Some corporations are larger economies than some nations, and yet within these corporations goods and services are shared, in a sense, rather than bought and sold for profit. The American military is, itself, a huge economy, but it doesn’t operate on the basis of a market/profit logic. When troops and supplies are needed (for bad purposes, but that’s another story) somewhere they are moved there; nobody waits to see if somebody there will "buy" them. The publicly financed American medical research economy, funded by the National Institutes of Health (with its budget determined by Congress) allocates almost thirty billion dollars per year to hundreds of different laboratories and researchers and universities with a system that relies mainly on people or institutions making either unsolicited grant proposals or proposals in response to specific NIH requests. NIH-appointed committees of experts (peers of those asking for the grants) decide which applications to fund, on the basis of scientific merit and social usefulness. Within this process, the only way that the logic of the market and profit play any role is insofar as the NIH exists within a capitalist society in which what is "socially useful" is determined by the people who are powerful in a capitalist society, such as the owners of big pharmaceutical corporations who might find a pill for hair loss more "socially useful" than a pill to cure a disease that afflicts only very poor people. Other than this external influence of capitalism on the process, the allocation of resources within the publicly funded scientific economy is not market-driven and quite efficient, and it does not prevent scientists from being very innovative and creative.
The market/profit system is not really necessary for rational economies to function; what the market/profit system is really most useful for is to provide crucial ideological legitimacy to a capitalist elite. It is what allows them to get away with paying low wages ("the company would go bankrupt otherwise") and polluting the environment (same excuse) and letting some people be billionaires while others starve ("Hey, if there were no possibility of getting obscenely rich, nobody would have any incentive to do any work at all; there would be no entrepreneurs, no creativity, no jobs, ...")
The failure of the Soviet Union’s non-market economy was due not to its not being a market/profit economy, but to the fact that it was an extremely undemocratic society ruled by an elite Bolshevik Party upper class. People were treated essentially like slaves, and slaves have no incentive, obviously, to work or be creative or do anything except be what the slave-owner regards as a "slacker." This is the source of the old joke about the Soviet economy: "They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work."
WHAT ABOUT LUXURY ITEMS?
Will there be Rolex watches or mansions or psychotherapy for one's pet dog after the revolution? And if so, who will get these things? The answer to the first question is, "Yes, if enough people want such things to be produced and enough people are willing to produce them." And the answer to the second question is, "Whomever the people producing these luxuries give, or sell them, to."
We've already discussed the non-circles-of-trust money economy in general, how it can exist next to the circles-of-trust gift economy but without the ability of owners to coerce workers that prevails before the revolution in a capitalist society. Luxury items, like any other item, could be produced in this money economy and sold to whomever can afford to pay the asking price.
But luxury items could also be produced in the circles-of-trust gift economy. Say that some people form a circle to produce Rolex watches. Besides producing the watches, they would presumably have some policy for deciding what to do with the watches they produce--whom to give them to, or where to make them available for the taking, although--who knows--they might decide to make the watches only for themselves. The point is that, in order to be accepted into a larger circle-of-trust, they would need for their policy on this matter to be approved by the members of that circle of trust. If the policy was one that seemed like a good and decent one, they would likely be admitted to a very large circle. For example, the policy might entail giving the watches to people who, for some reason, seemed the most deserving of a Rolex watch--perhaps people who did very dangerous work, or who lived in a region where life was very harsh, or who had suffered terrible misfortune, or who were just very well-liked for some reason. On the other hand, if the Rolex-makers' distribution policy seemed like an immoral or stupid one, they would likely remain excluded from large circles, and therefore unable to carry out their plan. The "journalists" of course would write about how luxuries were distributed, and the public discussion would be reflected in decisions to include or exclude those who wished to make and distribute luxury items.
WHO OWNS THE MEANS OF PRODUCTION?
As described so far, I have implicitly assumed that the people inside a circle of trust collectively own the means of production that they use to produce the goods and services that they share amongst themselves. If this were not true, then (as is the case today in our capitalist society) those who produced things or provided services would not have the rights of an owner over what they produced (or over the service they provided) and would not be in any position to share the fruit of their labor with others. Therefore, for a circle of trust to exist, its members must own the means of production that they require to produce the things or services that they freely share with each other.
How members of a circle of trust might acquire ownership of the means of production will be discussed next. But first, let us continue to look at the implications of the assumed ownership of the means of production by the members of a circle of trust. Since members of the circle freely share the fruits of their labor with each other, then for all practical purposes everybody is an equal owner of the circle’s means of production. Within the circle of trust the concept of individual ownership of means of production is meaningless, because the only practical meaning it could have would be to provide legitimacy for one member to claim ownership of the fruits of another member’s labor, which contradicts the assumption that members share the fruits of their labor freely based on concern for one another. It would be as contradictory to the circle-of-trust principle as if one parent in a family, claiming personal ownership of the stove, told the other parent who just cooked the family meal, "I own this meal."
Between two circles of trust that are not both members of the same larger circle of trust, however, economic relations are the same as between two independent businesses today, and from the point of view of each circle, the other circle holds exclusive ownership of its own means of production, be they land, machinery, buildings, tools or what have you. Each circle is a potential customer of (or subcontractor to) the other, in the old-fashioned sense. Likewise, we assumed at the beginning of this description of a circles-of-trust society that some people, "shareholders," might be classic capitalists who own substantial means of production and use wage labor. The question is, in a post-revolutionary society such as this, what is likely to happen with respect to ownership of the means of production? This leads to the answer to the question posed above, "How might members of a circle of trust come to collectively own the means of production that they require?"
Imagine how the world would look to the wage workers at the factory owned by the shareholders. They know very well that the goods or services that the shareholders sell are made possible entirely by their own labor, not the shareholders’ labor. The only claim the shareholders have to owning the goods or services they sell is their assertion that they own the means of production (and hence everything that is produced with them.) This claim by capitalists has always been controversial among working people, but it was enforced by the police and military troops because the capitalists controlled the state. In a post-revolutionary society, however, where capitalists no longer control the state, the only reason that workers would honor the capitalists’ claim to own the means of production is if they were convinced that the claim was morally valid, or if they were convinced that even if the claim is not morally valid it makes for a better world somehow to act as if it were.
Let us assume that our circles of trust society is one in which, at minimum, wage workers are free to discuss questions like whether capitalists should own the means of production, and that they are free to act on their conclusions. If the wage workers decided to constitute themselves as a circle of trust, and claim collective ownership of the means of production where they work, and exclude the shareholders from their circle of trust (except for those who might start doing their share of useful work for a change) what would happen?
Immediately, the question would arise: should the goods or services produced by the workers be given to those whom the workers freely decided should have them (like what happened during the General Strike in Seattle), or should the goods or services be exchanged for money with whomever would pay the most, and the money (minus a fraction that covers the workers’ wages) given to the shareholders? What will happen? Who will decide? Obviously the answer depends on what the workers think is right, and how forcefully they assert themselves if they think the former choice is the right one. There is no guarantee what will happen. But in a post-revolutionary society we know that if the workers constitute themselves as a circle of trust that owns the means of production where they work, there would be much less (compared to a pre-revolutionary society) that the shareholders could do to prevent it. And once the workers did become a circle of trust, the shareholders would be under a lot of pressure to join a circle of trust themselves; and, lacking ownership of any means of production, they would probably have to agree to do some useful work with some means of production in order to gain membership in a circle of trust that was large enough to permit them to live decently.
A related question concerns what happens when somebody (or some circle of trust) ends his or her (or its) membership in a circle of trust: do they take some of the means of production with them? One possibility here is that when a person (or circle) joins a circle of trust they negotiate an agreement with it about what material things (if any) they are giving to the circle and what material things (or money equivalent) they will be owed by the circle if they leave it--sort of like a pre-nuptial agreement.
WHAT ABOUT THE GOVERNMENT?
To say that the circles-of-trust society is a post-revolutionary one means that the monopoly of violence can no longer be used on behalf of capitalists to attack expressions of solidarity, as it is in our current society. Whatever else a government is, in any society, it is the organization that has a monopoly of violence. If any organization, for example, claimed to be the government over a certain territory but it could not enforce its will (regardless of whether its will was called a "law" or a "decree" or acknowledged to be merely the whim of a dictator) on everybody inside the territory who refused to willingly obey that organization, then that organization would have no practical claim to being the government in that territory. For an organization to enforce its will on everybody in a region, it is necessary that the organization be able to win any contest of wills in that region, including any violent contest. Having this power is what it means to hold a "monopoly of violence" in a region. It is equivalent to being the government, for better or for worse.
Therefore, whatever else is true about the government in a circles-of-trust society, it must not be under the control, formally or otherwise, of those who would use violence to attack expressions of solidarity. I believe that the more democratic the government is, the less likely it would use violence against expressions of solidarity, because most people believe in solidarity, as shown by the fact that in today’s world they can only be persuaded to support attacks on solidarity (like wars such as the U.S. invasions of Vietnam or Iraq) by lies that make violence against solidarity appear to be violence to protect good people from bad people.
Any formally democratic government can, however, be subverted and turned into the mere shell of a democracy that, in reality, is anti-democratic. No constitution or clever structure can make a government immune from subversion. The only thing that can protect a democracy is the public being well informed and clear about the forces in society that want to subvert the democracy, and prepared to take whatever actions are required to prevent its subversion, by using governmental or non-governmental means or both.
Assuming that the people have and continue to take such actions to prevent subversion of democracy, there are many different forms that a useful and adequate government could take. A system of delegates to higher bodies which in turn send delegates to higher bodies, with the delegates able to be recalled at any time, is one method. The system of representative government in the United States, even, could probably serve well enough in the absence of covert control by the wealthy. The higher-order circles of trust, themselves, would have their own internal decision-making arrangements and this would constitute a government-like component of the society, just as the major corporations in a capitalist society today make decisions that have enormous public consequences (like whether to move a plant) even though the corporations are not formally a part of the government. There is no need to say more about the government here because the intent of this article is mainly to address the feasibility of a non-market economy, not to provide a description of a government. It is worth noting, however, that the operation of the economy as described here has no need for any particular government intervention except, if necessary, to defend the circles of trust from a violent pro-capitalist attack.
The mechanics of a circles-of-trust society–the S-cards and circle of trust databases–would not be at all hard to implement, considering that what already occurs with credit cards is as complicated if not more so.
Life in a society like this would be pretty nice, and more so the closer it became one in which everybody was in the same huge circle of trust. Most people want to lead lives that give them the satisfaction of knowing that they are doing something that makes the world a better place for themselves and others, and so most people would behave decently. Furthermore, it would be a world in which people helped each other and came to trust each other. It would be a world in which people could discover the truth about each other instead of being subjected to lies designed to pit them against each other.
Some people may indeed be slackers, but there is no reason to believe that so many people would be slackers that the society would not be able to provide for people’s needs and many of their desires. Some circles of trust might let slackers be included in them and others wouldn’t. Slackers would have to decide to live with what they were offered for free (along with the public disapproval) or stop being a slacker.
There is no reason, either, to suppose that such a society would produce only drab low-quality products like those for which centrally planned ‘Communist" economies in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were famous. Most people take pride in what they do, and don’t want a reputation as somebody who creates junk or as somebody who is incompetent. In a society where people help each other instead of compete against each other I believe people would be far more creative and come up with far more ideas and outstanding products and services than we are offered in today’s capitalist society with its built-in obsolescence and "enriched" Wonder Bread and so many other outright scams carried out only to make a profit.
While there would be no effort in this society to ensure absolute equality (as if that were even possible), there would be a limit to inequality. Somebody who took a ridiculous amount of things or enjoyed a ridiculous amount of services would likely be labeled a slacker and suffer the consequences.
The society described here can, at least in terms of the economy (the political reality is a different question), exist at some in-between level between 100% market and 100% gift economy, which means that it is not impossible on the grounds that everything would have to suddenly completely change. When the circles of trust are small, then people would continue to work pretty much as they do now. Gradually the circles of trust could grow larger if and when people came to trust each other more, which is far easier in a post-revolutionary society than the one we live in today.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
After reading "After the Revolution, What?," ["AtR,W?"] some people have raised the following questions and concerns, which I address specifically here. I invite readers to post questions or comments on my blog, where this article also appears, and where I will respond as appropriate. (The blog comments are moderated to avoid spam, so your comments won't appear until I have time to approve them.)
Q. My worry while reading the article is that I'm pretty much of
a loner and am I going to have to negotiate to get into these circles in order
to eat? It just seems like this could be very time-consuming. I really don't
like the voting in or out. Sounds too much like high school. I see somebody
with the personality of a Bill Clinton belonging to everybody's circle. But what
about the Dennis Kucinich-type? All of us vying for memberships makes me very
A. It is already the case today, under capitalism, that you must negotiate in order to eat; you have to negotiate getting hired at a job or getting paid as a consultant or sub-contractor or author to a publisher etc. In a circles-of-trust society you would also have to negotiate, but instead of having to prove to some capitalist that your work will enable them to maximize their profit, you will have to demonstrate that your work is socially beneficial. Which would you prefer? There is no reason why the latter would be more "time-consuming" than the former.
You refer to people "vying for membership" as if circles of trust were exclusive clubs, in which the admission of "popular" people would squeeze out "unpopular" people. But the circles of trust would have every incentive to admit as many people as possible (or, equivalently, to join a larger circle with as many people as possible). The more people in the circle, the greater the benefits of being inside it, as discussed in "AtR,W?" People don't "vie" with each other to enter a circle; this is a concept based on the capitalist view of society that has everybody competing with each other. The point of the circle is to allow people to help each other, not to compete with each other.
Q. What happens to the outcasts: the sick, infirm, retarded, whatever? How will the system take care of them? You seem to lump a lot of categories into "slackers" and say that if no circle will take them in, they'll have to stop being slackers. But for some people, this "change" is not possible. What about the elderly who are depending on Social Security for their livelihood? Presumably most circles won't really want to take on the responsibility for their well-being. (Ha. Maybe I'm asking if your new society will have universal health care.)
A. "AtR,W?" says, "Note that a person who can give virtually nothing and who takes quite a bit is not necessarily a slacker; the person might be old and infirm and in need of a lot of medical care, or a baby. Most people will distinguish between a baby, say, and a real slacker." Even today, under capitalism, most people already distinguish between a slacker and "the sick, infirm, retarded" etc. That is why most people support programs like Social Security in the United States, and welfare payments for disabled people. There every reason to believe that in a post-revolutionary society people would continue to feel the same way. Circles of trust, at least most of them, would view "the sick, infirm, retarded" as people deserving to be full members of the gift economy, not as "slackers." If I thought this were not true, then I would give up on the human race and stop talking about building a revolutionary movement. If you believe it is not true, then there is no way I will convince you of the desirability of building such a movement.
Regarding universal health care, a circles-of-trust society would have it if enough people (health care providers and support personnel) in that society wished to provide it. I think the main obstacle to that happening is the current political power of the capitalist class, not any lack of desire by the population, who tell pollsters time after time that they want it and would even willingly pay higher taxes to achieve it (which would not, in fact, be necessary because, as has been demonstrated in peer-reviewed medical journals, a single-payer universal health care system in the United States would cost less than the current market-driven system with competing health insurance companies that siphon off billions of dollars for their corporate profits.)
Q. Where's the money going to come from when I go buy something from a place that's not in my circle? I don't quite see how the economy is and isn't money-based at the same time.
A. Before delving into this question, it is interesting that most people today know where babies come from, but not where money comes from. Our current fiat currency (what U.S. dollars and virtually all other foreign currencies are) is created out of thin air, from literally nothing, whenever somebody borrows money from a bank. When Mr. Jones borrows $100 from a bank, the bank simply increases the number (of dollars) in his account by 100, and increases the number that he owes the bank by 100.
To the extent that you are in a small circle with few other members, then you are essentially living in a capitalist economy just as you do today. If your small circle of trust is only your nuclear family, say, then it is exactly the same as today. If the circles-of-trust society kept a fiat currency, then you would get money either by borrowing it from a bank (in which case you would have to pay it back with interest) or by hiring yourself out to others (as a wage worker or sub-contractor or consultant) or possibly by selling whatever goods or services you can provide with whatever means of production you own (and wage workers you might hire.) Note that it would not matter to you whether your employer or clients or customers were private individuals or circles of trust; either way you would expect to be paid by them in money (let's assume for simplicity in a fiat currency like the U.S. dollar, but of course one could imagine a switch to a more socially beneficial type of currency, as discussed in great detail in The Future of Money by Bernard Lietaer.) Circles of trust would get cash for such transactions the same way people or businesses get cash today (or the corresponding way they would get cash if the money currency were of a different type.)
To the extent that you are in a larger circle, you would need money for fewer things. But the same principle would apply. When the circle of trust is larger, however, more options become available to its members. The members could decide that they would each, on their own, be responsible for obtaining whatever cash they needed to participate in the non-gift economy; or they could decide to operate more collectively, as if they were co-owners of a business operating in the capitalist economy. This is another example of how people are free to do things in different ways, in a circle of trust society. Of course, whether in this scenario the society evolved towards one large circle of trust for everybody or it de-evolved back to present day capitalism, or remained at some in-between status, depends entirely upon the political struggle between the pro-capitalist and pro-solidarity forces.
Lastly, if you were in a very large circle (one with billions of people) you probably wouldn't need money at all.
Q. I thought it was funny where you declared " Journalists would
expose fraudulent databases." Are journalists going to be more accurate and
trustworthy in your brave new world than they are now?
A. First of all, there are accurate and trustworthy journalists today. For example there are people who write articles and books exposing how things the capitalists do purportedly to benefit society are actually done to strengthen the control of capitalists over ordinary people so the capitalists can remain rich even though they are the biggest slackers of all. A person, for example, who exposes the oppressive misuse of standardized testing in our public schools is a good journalist. In a capitalist society, of course, good journalists (meaning good for ordinary people and bad for the capitalists) don't get jobs in the mainstream media, and no doubt many good journalists, or would-be good journalists either never enter, or they quickly leave, the profession for lack of being able to get decent remuneration for decent honest reporting. In a circles-of-trust society there is every reason to expect that decent honest reporting would be valued by the circles, and far more good journalists than today would find it possible to earn a living by doing good journalism. Bad journalists who were found to be untrustworthy would gain bad reputations and, like anybody else with a bad reputation, would have a hard time gaining membership in a circle of trust on the basis of their "slacker" work.
Q. Would having huge (billions of people) circles of trust prevent people from creating a more environmentally sensible economy based on local production and simpler technologies?
A. To the extent that local production meant no economic exchange of goods or services between distant locales, then there would probably not be any point to people in distant locales belonging to the same circle of trust, and such circles would probably not form. But to the extent that there were economic relations between distant locales, being in the same large circle of trust would make sense even if only the most localized production methods and primitive technology were used. Circles of trust, in other words, can accommodate very different kinds of economic production methods, ranging from local/primitive to global/high-tech. Which economic production method people chose to implement would, of course, be a political decision. The point here is simply that no matter how people resolved the local/global, primitive/high-tech questions, they would not have to do it on the basis of a capitalist market economy--it could be done on the basis of a gift economy.
Here's another person's description of how a society without money could work: "Abolish Money"
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