The dilemma of our time
Abundance within reach
Never before in History of humanity have technical capacities been as potent and accessible to common people as today. The massive development of the Internet through the ’90s profoundly changed ways of socializing, sharing, and working. Wealth was created in places that were socially and geographically peripheral by the hands of millions of small producers that, for the first time, could effectively access other markets and knowledge. In Asia alone, we saw hundreds of millions of people escape misery, more than in the rest of the history of humanity.
As technological change became generational and social change, there appeared more and more environments of abundance, free goods, new forms of collaborative work and, above all, a new work ethic based on knowledge, the creation of goods, and “de-alienation.” The “hacker ethic,” as it was termed at the turn of the century, inspired the birth of first universal public good to be intentionally constructed by our species: free software, which, by itself, has meant a transfer of knowledge and technology greater than all developmental aid from rich countries.
And, yet, not even the other great crisis of the last hundred years—the one that started with the “Crash of ’29″—created such discontent, such a dark spirit, and so much widespread pessimism. Neither admonitions nor hope work any longer to create attractive narratives. Well-being has ceased to be a credible expectation of analysts’ predictions or political parties’ options, whether old or new. All lines of contention have been shown to be futile for the common people. We’re entering a time in which no narrative can be believed if can’t demonstrate, here and now, that it successfully allows a new generation to develop and live decently through work.
Inequality, unemployment and demoralization
And, if anything has been really global over the last ten years, it’s been the experience of social decomposition. It’s the same whether we look in the most developed regions in the world or at emerging nations, in the Mediterranean or in the South China Sea, in the English-speaking world or in South America: society is more and more unequal, and the differences quickly become cumulative. If you miss the train, you don’t reach the destination.
In the most developed nations, the middle class has rediscovered unemployment. New generations don’t even have access to work, or if they do, it’s so precarious that it doesn’t let them experience the meaning real of what they do. Work has ceased to be considered the center of collective action, the origin of personal autonomy, and each person’s contribution to society. In today’s popular culture, work is a scarce good. There’s no lack of start-ups and NGOs that speculate with it, as if it was a precious metal. Work, the necessary link between personal effort and collective effort, is devalued to the limit, not only in the market—reducing its piece of the pie compared to capital—but also morally, in its public consideration and in its internal organization. It has gone from being universally considered the center of social organization to being perceived as facing extinction, from being experienced as the basis of personal realization to being seen as a source of anguish.
In a world where being able to contribute to the common well-being, work is talked about as if it was a privilege, and the only way of building a life seems to be getting rents. Rents are is not just any income, but an opportunistic and undeserved position, a extraordinary benefit produced outside of the value that one contributes. Rents are the benefits created by big businesses thanks to made-to-fit regulations or monopolies that only exist by legal imposition, like intellectual property. Rents are “incentives” that are decided on and inflated by the same directors that receive them, or the consequences in cold, hard cash of belonging to certain social spheres where certain positions and contracts, public or private, can be accessed. Rents easily become cumulative and create a spiral of inequality when access to information and education depends on personal income, or when competition to assure them is systematically restricted, as the State routinely does in key sectors like energy, telecommunications or the media.
In a world of rents, everything looks like a zero-sum game, where one wins because others lose. Distrust of everything and everyone, institutions and people, is the norm. It shows an individualism of the worst kind, for which life is senseless, and mere survival.
What is decomposing is not only the economic system, but what the human experience means
It’s not just social cohesion that’s decomposing. The rules of the economic system are decomposing, and with them, the human experience and what it means to be human in our time. It’s the inability of the economic system to create a future for everyone the that produces loneliness and distrust of everyone; it’s the pettiness of a system in which businesses depend on the benefits they get thanks to rents more than selling their products, or on eliminating competitors more than improve themselves, that produces lives of dependency, begging, and voracity.
Never has there been so much wealth or so much knowledge as now and, yet, far from feeling like both things give hope of abundance for everyone, more and more people are afraid that this is a threat to Nature, the same way they feel, day in and day out, like it’s a threat to personal survival.
Capitalism and its critics
There were a time when capitalism transformed the world, bringing our species closer to the abundance that, today, scares it so much. The “cancer of business” took over from the old European societies, feudal first and colonial centuries later, and smashed them from within in a long process of almost six hundred years. Capitalism, which started off as marginal—urban in a rural world, dynamic in a traditional society, equalizing in a system in which identity was based on lineage and origin—was revolutionary right from its first steps. In the city and its markets, it created new lifestyles and mentalities, new forms of knowledge, new freedoms, and new collective belongings.
Capitalism shaped the world because, before changing the State, it was able to create a new form of human experience
Capitalism created a new form of human experience and, by doing so, dynamited established relationships, its castes and its classes. It wasn’t the work of a generation. It could only deploy its full potential after centuries of evolution and entrenchment, of turning fairs—temporary markets—into a large, permanent urban workshop and, later, turning the guild craftsman into a factory worker under the thumb of the merchant investor, who bought the materials and carried the products to distant markets. It was only then that industrialization made a profound social transformation out of what, until then, had only been “tendencies.” It was the great revolutionary moment of the bourgeoisie.
In the first place, capitalism made a commodity of land, the principle means of production of the times. In the process, the agrarian and forest commons—the oldest and most widespread form of property—came to occupy a marginal place. And, with it, the real community of the family, the clan or the village, in which everyone knows each other by face and name, because they are linked to them by interpersonal relationships and affection. The vacuum was filled throughout the nineteenth century by another innovation: the imagined community of the nation. “Imagined” not because it was unreal, but because those who are considered its members don’t know more than a tiny portion of the others, and have to imagine the rest through common attributes, practices, values, and memories, which are always debatable. Fraternity based on the friendship of personal relationships and shared work will give way to an abstract fraternity in search of a “common good” that the new social classes linked to wage labor make a permanent part of social discourse.
Secondly, work became indistinguishable from whoever did it, because of the homogenization of the processes in the new productive space of society: the factory. The new relationship with work and, through it, with society and nature, was impersonal and anonymous, and no longer had to do with “being,” with lineage, or with geography. The vacuum created by the dilution of the servant, the communard and the guild craftsman was filled by a new abstract human type: the “individual.”
Although it may sound strange today, that whole advance—which allowed humanity to grow in number, well-being, and knowledge like never before—was produced thanks to making a commodity of everything that, until then, had not been, like land, which hadn’t usually been rented or sold, only possessed.
Even for the revolutionaries of the nineteenth century, it was impossible to deny the progressive nature of the great works of capitalism. They were well aware of how the industrial boom brought Humanity towards abundance, increasing knowledge and its practical consequence, technology. They were witnesses of the formidable historical spectacle of a world in revolution where distances were cut, the population multiplied, energy and water flowed in people’s houses for the first time, and the most distant and closed empires saw their walls give way before the onslaught of global commerce in manufacturing. For the first time in history, humanity as such took on a real existence: through new markets, we would all end up connected with everyone throughout the world; and in the factory, the immense majority of society would share a common experience—and therefore, would come to be the same thing—to the rhythm of the new mechanical geniuses. Capitalism, as they saw it, was preparing an egalitarian society through equality of living conditions, work, and social relationships that that it was, itself, expanding.
Revolutionaries that loved crises and large scales
But those revolutionaries saw something more: the growth of capitalism, in the first place, wasn’t the least bit linear. Its crises, like all prior crises, produced underconsumption (scandalous, miserable situations for those excluded from production). But, in contrast to the crises of agrarian societies, capitalist crises weren’t crises of under-production, but of “over-production”: it’s not that the factories couldn’t produce enough for the needs of all, it’s that the very dynamic of the economic system made it impossible for them to sell it to the great masses that needed it, because they didn’t have the money to buy what was produced. Additionally, the revolutionaries asserted that all this happened regularly, in cycles in which each decline necessarily led to a confrontation between an ever-more concentrated group of owners and an ever-more global and uniform class of workers. Everyone would struggle in a large global revolution for control of the States that held the social structures in place until, similar to what the bourgeoisie of the eighteenth century did in the French Revolution, the proletariat would take control of the State with one purpose: to direct a massive process of decommodification, giving way to a society of abundance where the essential purpose of production was to serve this or that need, instead of being sold as objects and services for a price.
Marx and Kropotkin never proposed to to close the factories. They thought that crises of overproduction signaled a limit of capitalism, the limit at which the logic of the commodity clashed with human needs. But they saw in the technology of mass production and in the ever-greater scale of the businesses a reflection of the progress that would lead the working class to “change the world from underneath.” They thought that by eliminating the commodity nature of objects, the “productive forces would be released,” which is to say, that productivity would be developed even more, and with it knowledge, well-being, etc. The very scale of production would also develop, until it constituted a great global factory-State, so productive that it could satisfy the material needs of all humanity with nothing more than volunteer work.
Nothing of the sort happened. No “global revolution” took place. Since 1871, there were local and national revolutions in which communists and anarchists looked for its first signs. Most were overthrown; none was able to produce on a larger scale during the following cycle of growth and crisis; and those that triumphed never brought about the decommodification of production. On the contrary, they gave power to repressive, totalitarian regimes, with very hierarchical and inefficient nationalized economies and such low levels of well-being among workers that they belied every delusion of the “liberation of productive forces.” When the Soviet Union fell and China took its first steps towards capitalism controlled by the Communist State, communism and socialism were discredited as alternatives. In the ’90s, their place was taken by “anti-capitalism,” which fluctuated between affirming that another world was possible and denying that capitalism and the human species could survive together, but avoided explaining how the former would become real and what made the latter inevitable. To a certain degree, this was the result of the sense of profound failure of “alternative” thought that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But, lacking a theory of its own, it would become an invertebrate socialism, a “big no” into which anything and everything would fit. It was, in a certain way, a leftism chastened by false socialist paradises, hesitant when it came to describing any future society, and far removed from any pretense of building functional models in the present.
The history we weren’t told
Decades before the first socialist and libertarian groups of any weight were formed, an alternative trend had started down a long path with a very different focus: communitarianism.
The new world will be born and affirmed inside the old
The basic idea of communitarianism is that the new world will be born and grow inside the old. Profound changes in social and economic relationships—system changes—are not the product of revolutions and political changes. It happens the other way around: systemic political changes are the expression of new forms of social organizing, new values, and ways of working and living, that have reached enough maturity to be able to establish a broad social consensus. As of a certain point in development, a “competition between systems” is established. The new forms, until then valid only for a small minority, begin to seem to be the only ones capable of offering a better future for the large majority. Little by little, they expand their spectrum and their number, encompassing and transforming broader and broader social spaces, and become the center of the economy, reconfiguring the cultural, ideological, and legal basis of society from within.
For communitarians, egalitarian forms should accompany capitalism in its evolution as a parallel society, not as a utopia—the promise of a society to come—except as a heterotopia: a different, alternative social place, with values and ways of its own. At first, they do it from behind, through learning, utilization and re-elaboration of existing technology and, as of a certain point, entering in competition with it. This perspective was called “constructive socialism.”
The first objective was always to show the feasibility of a decommodified life, “here and now,” on any scale. Communitarianism is not centered on creating political parties, but networks of small productive egalitarian communities. The maxim of economic organization comes to be “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”: communities of goods, revenue, and savings are established, production is organized by consensus, and from the beginning, the highest diversification is sought to serve the diversity of personal needs and gain autonomy for all.
New relationships, here and now
From 1849 to today, egalitarian communities have always been working: Icarian communities, Russian artels, Israeli kibbutzim, US, Japanese, or German egalitarian farms… They’ve been on practically all continents, they’ve had different names and nuances in different times and places, they’ve been through all manner of crises, and their members have made enormous sacrifices. In place of the centrality of the class nature of the collectivist narrative, they wrote a story of their community and their experience, which gave substance to the central idea of constructive socialism: building—here and now, within the community and between it and its surroundings—social and economic relationships that are desired or postulated as valid alternatives to the existing socioeconomic system, without delegating power to parties or organizational structures outside of the communities themselves. Without thinking of themselves as “experimental” or having detailed “roadmaps,” they have created a heritage and a culture themselves, little by little. They are the seeds of a society of abundance.
In the framework of the young and expansive capitalism of the nineteenth century, or the capitalism of technological revolution and permanent war that followed up through the present, if these “decommodified islets” want to maintain their autonomy and approach abundance, they have to enter the market: to live without needing money at all within the community, they must learn to think like merchants outside of it. It’s no contradiction: being in the market is the only way to not lose the technological pace of the system they want to overcome. But, at the same time, it’s the way to bring the first cultural and technological fruits of the new society to the old society. It is, in many senses—including the moral, since it aspires to expand the improvement in living conditions to more people—the first step towards a competition between systems.
The bourgeoisie, in its medieval infancy, introduced the revolutionary principle of equality of origin and a few technological improvements that expressed their vision of the world into some small spaces in feudal society. All of them happened far from the center of the production of value at the time, the fields. The medieval commercial bourgeoisie invented important things, but eccentric for the times, like the check, the letter of exchange, and double-entry accounting. In contrast, communitarianism demonstrated from the first day the feasibility of an economic organization thought of in terms of the needs. It was the first to make a reality of equality in spite of differences in gender or social or geographical origin, and across the 20th century, left a series of pioneering technologies: weatherization and sanitation in popular housing; the improvement of agricultural productivity, like drip irrigation, seed improvement, or the scientific management of dairy facilities; the development of free software for distributed networks; and the first analytical tools for public intelligence. These are innovations that continue to be significant and closer and closer to the productive core of the economic system.
In what little we’ve seen of twenty-first century, that sense of a cultural and technological “membrane” between the past and the future, between capitalist society and the small, decommodified space of egalitarian communities, has become even more clear. The appearance of new ways of producing based on new forms of communal property—like free software—and distributed communication architectures—linked directly to decommodification and the creation of abundance—put forth the notion that we are on the threshold of a new phase in which we will be able to change the nature of that competition between systems.
But, above all, what justifies a new time for the development of communitarianism is an irreversible economic change that has been imposed gradually: the reduction of the optimal scales of production. This decline in the optimal productive scale explains the deep trends that have produced the current economic crises, and why the political and corporate responses are often times counterproductive. And any alternative is not centered on social class or the nation, but a community.