Janet Burstall reviews Life without money: building fair and sustainable communities, edited by Anitra Nelson and Frans Timmerman.
This book argues that abolition of “the market” is the key to replacing capitalism. The medium of the market is money, so abolition of money is the way to “non-market socialism, a moneyless, wageless, classless, stateless world”.
After the poisonous decades of Stalinism and the failure of social democracy to challenge capitalism, it is welcome to find socialists looking for a different vision of socialism.
The vision in this edited collection is based on examples of people managing to live more or less without money, i.e. outside of but parallel to capitalism.
These people — rural, indigenous, peasant and domestic workers who are unwaged; squatters; work refusers; commune dwellers — are seen as the agency that can create the new non-market socialism. Several of the authors and the editors of this book claim to base their arguments on aspects of Marxist theory, especially Marx’s critique of money and commodities. Yet none of them explains why they have ditched and contradicted most of Marx’s analysis, particularly on the role of the working class.
“The market” is not what defines capitalism. Capitalist relations differ critically from pre-capitalist market relations in that they are based on a new commodity, a new market, the labour market that was constructed as recently as 200 years ago. This created the working class, whose members must enter the labour market, to receive a wage, to have money, to be able to buy the necessities of life.
The editors of Life without money recognise the need to reorganise production. But their preferred agency, non-wage labour, has no concretely imaginable historical role in doing so. Failing to employ a Marxist analysis of history and class relations, to explain the origin of current conditions, there is no understanding of the current motives and desires of labour and capital, no picture of how interests and actions in the present could unfold and lead to socialism.
Unavoidably this makes the book utopian in the sense that Marx described. It is both highly critical of existing society and in that way useful, but because it lacks a sense of “historically created conditions of emancipation” it is in effect a fantasy, personal invention without connection to actual historical forces.
Any vision of the future carries within it the seeds of dictatorship rather than democracy, unless it is able to mobilise desire for its fundamentals, desire that is expressed, formulated for and taken up by a mass democratic collective.
The working class is the only class that organises itself against capital, with more or less independence and democracy, depending on the time and place.
No other social force has shown this potential, yet Life without money shows no interest in the politics and development of the labour movement.
The conclusion of the book reads like a fantasy that could only be achieved by conquest of the rich “north” by an alliance of the poor meta-industrials of the “south”, and work refusing, squatting allies in the “north”, to enforce a “contract and converge” strategy leading to more equal consumption, lower in the north, and higher in the south.
Local communities would be as self-sufficient as possible, and exchange of goods between communities would be reduced to a minimum. Essentials would be produced as locally as possible. The only purposes proposed for complex industrial production are electronic communications and minimal cargo transport.
This economy would hold down production, deliberately reduce personal consumption, and pull back from global interchanges of raw materials, goods and services, in order to reduce overall consumption of resources and to achieve greater equality. It is much more rural and less urban.
Measure this vision against the failure of Stalinism. The authors attribute the initial failure of the Russian revolution to the retention of money. If only money had been abolished, Stalin would not have triumphed in Russia and the Cuban revolution would have been pure, they argue.
The account of debates about money amongst the Bolsheviks and the Cubans is interesting, and a socialist government would have to make decisions about the role of money. But these were not the critical decisions which led to the conquest of Russia and the Communist International by Stalin. Decades later the Russian and allied economies collapsed not because they still used money (more for accounting purposes than as a symbol of real value), but because they were so economically stagnant and unproductive.
An alternative to capitalism will not be supported in a democratic society unless it can better develop productive forces, and build on what is progressive in capitalism. This means that production will need to be dynamic, evolving, able to produce a higher standard of living with less labour. This doesn’t necessarily mean consuming more natural resources.
A society with democratic control of production would be able to redefine a good standard of living away from consumption of commodities or things, towards experience and free time to do as one wants.
But the extensive interchange of goods and services on a global scale, and complex industrial production will be necessary and desirable parts of that future, which Life without money tries to imagine away.