Revolutionizing production itself: For humanity and for the world

The existence of mountain topping is tied to capitalist production and capitalist logic and capitalist decisions. Production (its form, its impact, even its physical engineering) is deeply marked by the class society it emerges within.

“The forms of modern production (and consumption) are themselves deeply marked by the class nature of the societies that produced them. It is not just that the surplus of production is alienated from the exploited (by the owners of capital). The whole process of production (its forms, its inputs, its purpose, its outputs, its environmental impacts, its physical engineering, its social contstructs of hierarchy and punishments) are all marked by the class society within which they emerged.

“And this is important for understanding how socialist sustainability will  need to revolutionize (i.e. criticize, overthrow, and replace) those inherited patterns of production and consumption.”

“Communists have often written that we can’t just “lay our hands” on the existing state, and use it to our purposes.

“The same is true about production — we can’t simply “lay our hands” on this society’s productive apparatus and use it for our purposes. The production process itself needs to be radically changed — not just how it is owned, not merely where its surplus goes, but also what it produces, how it is produced, what it serves in the largest senses.

“It seems inevitable to me that a non-imperialist North America will have radically different consumption patterns.

“Rudolf Bahro once said (I’m paraphrasing) “Schiller only went to Rome once in his lifetime, but it was memorable. Why does every manager in Germany need to go to Sri Lankan or North African beaches every winter?”

“Similarly, the fact that American people can buy orchids (or cocaine) plane-delivered from Colombia in every neighborhood or that fruits are flown in (regardless of their local growing season) is all tied to the current structures and priorities of imperialism.

“There is nothing morally wrong with eating a banana every day — but there is a problem with a structure of world relations that delivers a banana to every grocery store in the U.S. every day and that makes such distant tropical produce non-exotic. And the problem is the inevitable by-products (social and environmental) of that structure.

“I don’t know the details of what a socialist North America would look like (what BTU levels would be possible without ripping off the world, what fruits and diet would look like once we shifted to bio-regionalism, what a reduced “carbon footprint” does to the price of beef and its level of comsumption). But I can’t imagine that revolution will not mean major changes — and not just because revolution is temporarily disruptive of highly complex circuits of trade.

“And it is related to the question “what do Guatemala and Puerto Rico look like if they are not dominated by the U.S. — and its cheap mechanized grain, and its decisions from the heights of finance and capital?”

by Mike Ely

There is a valuable exchange happening on our site between Keith and Stephanie. I won’t try to encapsulate it here, but want to respond to it.

I think there are some sharp contradictions here — that are posed within our theory, and within the very choices facing people.

A horizon beyond scarcity and inequality

First: Human beings have suffered, bitterly, from poverty and scarcity. Being dirt poor is awful. Watching your children go hungry and even starving before your eyes is unbearable — or watching a newborn die of dehydration from bad water. Seeing a world of goods, inventions and travel, and yet being pinned (by endless grinding poverty) in dead-end, repetitive, unrewarding labor is maddening — especially when for literally billions of people there seems no way out.

Second: Modern productive capacity allows (for the first time in history) a society of common abundance. Previously poverty and starvation were a result of human helplessness in the face of the natural world — our once-limited ability to triumph over rocky ground, or hurricane devastation, or infection, or drought.

Now however, the continued existence of hunger and poverty is a result of the current outrageous and unjust structure of human class society — the existence of class society itself is the cause of the difficult life of the vast majority of humanity. Something else is now possible (a mutual flourishing, radically new forms of egalitarianism, a radical redirecting of social surpluses toward actually solving the vast historic problems of the people around the world).

Production is marked by class nature

Third: The form of modern production (and consumption) are themselves deeply marked by the class nature of the societies that produced them. It is not just that the surplus of production is alienated from the exploited (by the owners of capital). The whole process of production (its forms, its inputs, its purpose, its outputs, its impacts, its physical engineering, its social constructs of hierarchy and punishments) is marked by the class society within which it emerged.

And this is deeply important for understanding how socialist sustainability will also need to revolutionize the inherited patterns of production and consumption.

One of the major contributions of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was the insight that the very form of production is itself marked with capitalist or communist directions.

Some examples:

* the very architecture of capitalist factories assumes a specific form of hierarchy — and obstructs different, socialist/communist relations IN production.

In revolutionary china, factories, docks, shipyards, agricultural villages had to be build differently (with meeting rooms, and open spaces, cafeterias, and structural redundancies to allow the workers to actually participate in their own supposed “rule” over society.)

* The very nature of capitalist assembly lines often assumes that workers are merely cogs in the process (and will not be meeting off and on to make decisions). And it is commonly structured to assume that “work life” for the workers is repetitive, uncreative, and subordinate. Just think through how a textile mill in Bangla Desh would have to be built differently to better serve society’s revolutionary transformation. (Would there be day care centers? an attached college? A side industry for processing link and toxic waste? platforms for public speaking in the production buildings?)

The class nature is most obvious in the social structures of capitalist production (hierarchy, enforced obedience, threat of firing, experts in command, managers trained in capitalist efficiency, “attention to the bottom line,” reproduction of “the color line,” inherent separations between plant and community, between work and education, the assumptions of “commuting,” the functioning of rotating shifts, etc. etc.)

But you don’t get far into a socialist revolution without realizing that class nature is also embedded in how machines are designed, or the assumptions of inherited processes. The production we inherit is itself (including physically) shaped by class society. And here we have been discussing the accumulating environmental impact of capitalist production (and the parallel crime of continuing such capitalist methods and assumptions in most previously socialist societies.)

* The fact that there are high communications among managers in industry, but little cross communication among farmers in the fields says a lot about how decisions are made, by whom and for what.

The example of coal

Let me take something  I know  about:

  • Coal itself is classless. It is simply a mineral seam in the ground.
  • But everything about coal production and consumption is marked by class (and class struggle) — and (in our current society) terribly marked by the capitalist nature of decision-making over production.
  • One extreme current example is mountain-topping — under capitalism it is “profitable” to scar the precious mountains to retrieve coal in small seams — by simply removing the whole top of the mountain. This destroys something irreplaceable (and brings to mind Marx’s use of the word usufructuaries— i.e. we should be stewards of the world around us, and use its “fruits” in a sustainable way.) the ratio is simple: under current market conditions, one inch of coal can pay for removing one foot of rock. So if the coal is 30 inches high (which is impossible to mine profitably by underground techniques), these coal pirate corporate pigs can “profitably” remove a mountain top that averages thirty feet high.

The early communist Karl Marx wrote,

“Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuaries, and, like boni patres familias, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.”

[Usufructuraries are those that harvest the fruits of what ultimately belongs to someone else. It is a nineteenth century legal word that captures some of what we now mean by "sustainable."]

  • Coal mining itself is soaked in the blood of the workers. In the mine where I worked, three men died over the years I was there. And men came out injured daily. Watching the older workers prepare for work you saw them (slowly, painfully) putting on trusses, braces, false legs. You saw missing fingers, or long scars. Capitalist coal mining used up humans as a raw material.

Again: this was expressed in “how the mines were run” (i.e. what the processes were, how the bosses were trained, what was considered “safe,” what specific decisions were made.) — but it was also embedded in the very nature of the production process, which had developed and morphed for a century under capitalism.

It’s not as if socialist society will simply “take over” the production processes inherited from capitalism, and use them to produce goods and surplus that we will now direct. The production itself has a class character.

And further: There are whole branches of industry whose expansion and even existence reflects the decisions of capitalism. The ruling class of the Eisenhower years (emerging from WW2, with the U.S. controlling “cheap gas” from the Middle East) decided to build a highway system with suburban sprawl (not a rail system, not compact cities). It was not just the profit making out of that process that was capitalist — the whole structuring of society, the very products being built, reflected capitalism’s values and priorities (including racism and white flight).

A socialist society has to critique and transform 

The whole way energy is produced and used in the U.S. is rooted in profound waste (and disregard for humanity’s future needs). The U.S. has long used (roughly) twice the BTU per capita compared to imperialist Europe (with a comparable lifestyle).

Coal in the U.S. used to serve the railroads (as fuel) and steel (as coking components) — now it is powdered and fed into power plants (in the main). It is not just the conditions of production that are marked by capitalist decisions and priorities, but the purpose of production, and the modes of consumption for various commodities, etc.

Communists have often written that we can’t just “lay our hands” on the existing state, and then use it to our purposes.

Something similar is true about production — we can’t simply “lay our hands” on this society’s productive apparatus and use it (unchanged) for our purposes. The production process itself needs to be radically critiqued, reconceived, overthrown and transformed — by the working peole themselves, while still maintaining and developing a working economy.

In the theory produced during the cultural revolution, it was said (by the revolutionaries among the communists) that the class nature of a production process was determined on three levels:

1) At the level of ownership (not just juridical ownership on paper, but actual ownership: meaning if it is state owned, who really owns the state?)

2) At the level of relations IN production (meaning how is the work itself organized, and how much are the workers developing the consciousness and political power to affect it?)

3) At the level of relations of distribution (meaning how are both wages and goods circulated, and who does that distribution serve?)

This is very different from the older, previous, orthodoxies among communists — who thought (one-sidedly, even naively) that stateownership settles the socialist character of production. In contrast, the communists during the GPCR said both that we had to see if the “ownership by the whole people” (through state ownership) is real or fake — i.e. who owns the state in a sweeping sense? Is the state (at its heights) still a revolutionary stronghold of ongoing communist transformation?

But beyond that, they argued that ownership alone (even by a genuinedly socialist state) did not guarantee socialist relations of production — and that it was important to see how local production itself functioned (what line is in command), and what larger purposes the distribution of commodities served. This is quite a radical view — and provides an new emerging response to the  forces (including anarchists and the theorist Charles Bettleheim) who have long argued of “workers control” at the factory level is key to maintaining genuine and ongoing revolutionary transformation.

We need to look at more than just how the production process is owned, (i.e. not merely where its surplus goes), but also what it produces, how it is produced, what it serves in the largest senses.

It seems inevitable to me that a non-imperialist North America will have radically different consumption patterns. Vastly different spectra of produced goods and services. Radically different environmental impacts. Radically different values and expectations among the people.

Rudolf Bahro once said (paraphrasing)

“Schiller only went to Rome once in his lifetime, but it was memorable. Why does every manager in Germany need to go to Sri Lankan or North African beaches every winter?”

Similarly, the fact that we can buy orchids (or cocaine) from Colombia in every neighborhood, or that fruits are flown in (regardless of their local growing season) is tied to imperialism. there is nothing morally wrong with eating a banana every day — but there is a problem with a structure of world relations that delivers a banana to every grocery store in the U.S. every day — and that makes the distant produce non-exotic.

I don’t know the details of what a socialist North America would look like (what BTU levels would be possible without ripping off the world, what fruits and diet would look like once we shifted to bio-regionalism, what a reduced “carbon footprint” does to the price of beef and its level of consumption). But I can’t imagine that revolution will not mean major changes — and not just because revolution is temporarily disruptive of highly complex circuits of trade. (Eric’s point recently about Carl’s seeming incapable of imagining Greece with a transformed new economic life, speaks to this). And it is related to the question “what do Guatemala and Puerto Rico look like if they are not dominated by the U.S. — and its cheap mechanized grain, and its decisions from the heights of finance and capital?”

Yes, (to return to my opening point), we have a major task providing abundance to people who are (today!) starving, undernourished, separated from clean water and health care, under-educated, economically marginalized, cut off from information and communication etc.

I have in my mind the picture of a young girl from the hill country of southern Asia, spending her days hauling water from the river to her village, about to be sucked into the maw of sexual slavery in some urban district — if our revolution doesn’t change her choices and her village, then it is no revolution at all.

In some ways, the great power of the productive forces (created so explosively under capitalism) will make this possible in a literally unprecedented way. (What would it mean to young women to have water pumps in such villages, to free their time, and to make their now irrigated fields more productive? What would it mean if surpluses on a world scale didn’t just leave such regions, but create development that served them?)

But at the same time communist revolution will (of necessity) radically transform and restructure that production (its methods, its purposes, its outputs, its geographical distribution, its impact) — or else the revolution will neither be communist nor liberation.

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  • Guest - Roxanne Amico

    This is great, Mike! Where is the exchange between Keith & Stephanie? I don't see a link...

  • Guest - Keith

    I dont disagree with this in general. But there are problems.

    The casual use of terms like "imperialism" is problematic because: the term is essentially meaningless. Do you mean what Lenin meant? Lenin argued that imperialism would bring capitalist development to the third world and thus speed the revolution, or do you mean what the underdevelopment school meant, e.g., the opposite. Capitalism in the first world arrests development in the third world? In any case both views are the negation of Marx's scientific findings without reason, argument or evidence.

    If I say this is how capitalism works. And you ask me to explain it, I can explain it, and I can refer you to Marx's Das Kapital for details. If I ask you to explain imperialism or refer me to a scientific exposition of imperialism you cannot do it. So when you say something is the result of "imperialism" that is just dogma by definition.

    In any event, Capitalism is a system for the extraction of surplus labour. It is a system of exploitation and domination. Yes it sucks. But read, for example, Fred Douglass's "Narrative of and American Slave" to see how much less wage slavery sucks than chattel slavery. Douglass feels absolutely liberated as he moves from chattel slavery to wage slavery.

    Yes, technology is marked by the system that it is developed in. It doesn't take the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution to know that. In the fourth footnote in the chapter 15 on Machinery and Large Scale industry in Das Kapital, Marx writes:

    "Darwin has interested us in the history of Nature’s Technology, i.e., in the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which organs serve as instruments of production for sustaining life. Does not the history of the productive organs of man, of organs that are the material basis of all social organisation, deserve equal attention? And would not such a history be easier to compile, since, as Vico says, human history differs from natural history in this, that we have made the former, but not the latter? Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them."

    yes our technology is marked by the system of exploitation and domination.

    At the same time the law of value -- commodities exchange at socially necessary labor times and value is a social relation between necessary and surplus labour -- is a social law that can only be overcome in ONE WAY. That is what Marx proves. The law of value cannot be overthrown by an act of will. The law of value is overcome via capitalist development. A socialist revolution can put the working class in political power and thus we can oversee this process of development in a way that is more environmentally sound and more egalitarian but none the less the law of value is the same as the law of gravity. I can't float because I want to, I can't abolish relations of production exchange just because I want to. Capitalist development moves towards the production of use values with less and less exchange value. The increasingly small amount of exchange value is the result of technology advancing and less and less necessary labour entering the production process. That is the path to working class liberation.

  • [moderator note: this has been moved to its own post.]

  • Guest - carldavidson

    I'm not 'incapable of imagining Greece' with different relations of production and productive forces. My point was to query and urge Greek communists to do so, since my 'imaginings' wouldn't be based on much more than thin air and dry theory. I've never been there.

    I could do rather well at it for the U.S. In fact, I devote a web site, http://SolidarityEconomy.net, to spurring the imagination of the left on the matter.

    And I would look closer, to living examples, rather than stories about the cultural revolution, on how both relations of production and productive forces can be changed when labor is sovereign, even on the micro level. That's been the whole point of my efforts around popularizing and spreading the word of what's been happening in the Mondragon Cooperatives in Spain. Search under 'Mondragon' in the just-mentioned site, and you'll get my reports.

    We will also have a new film out on the topic by mid-summer. Check out the trailer and the stories behind it at http://shiftchange.org

  • Guest - Red Fly

    <blockquote>Rudolf Bahro once said (paraphrasing)

    “Schiller only went to Rome once in his lifetime, but it was memorable. Why does every manager in Germany need to go to Sri Lankan or North African beaches every winter?”</blockquote>

    So I was looking up this Bahro guy because I'd never heard of him before and it turns out he became some kind of ecofascist later in life.

    This is an article I found linked from Bahro's Wikipedia page. Not sure when it was written but I found it fascinating. I think it dovetails nicely with the recent discussion thread around Stephanie McMillan's presentation and some of responses around it (especially Keith's). Check it out.

    http://www.spunk.org/texts/places/germany/sp001630/janet.html#bib55

  • Bahro was an East German dissident who wrote a once-influential book (the Alternative) applying Marx's (discredited) theory of oriental despotism to the Soviet Union. At the time, Maoists in West Germany were eager to find kindred spirits in East Germany -- and quite a few took up the case of Rudolf Bahro when he was imprisoned (defended in court by the now famous Gregor Gysi). After all he was speaking using Marxist theoretical terms, but was not some toady of the GDR regime. (And obviously, it was not just Maoists excited to find a Marx-speaking dissident in the East, but Herbert Marcuse and Ernest Mandel etc.)

    it was therefore revealing when Bahro was released from prison and crossed over to the West -- because from that moment on he stopped speaking "as a Marxist." he became a leading theoretical voice in the Greens. (And wrote the book "From Red to Green."

    When I was in Germany (during 1983) I attended the national Greens conference as an observor -- where the debate between the Fundis (led/inspired by Bahro) was intense with the Realos (who won, and who were soon part of the first German government sending troops outside national borders since Hitler.)


    I am not familiar with his political trajectory after losing the political battles within the Greens. But I would be wary of dismissing people and their ideas with simplistic labels like "eco-fascist" -- he was someone who thought of radical ecology as neither left nor right, and promoted a definite kind of spirituality along side his more explicitly political work.

    But I for one was never impressed with his work the Alternative, but felt I learned some things from his mid-life writings on politics and ecology (hence, obviously, my quote from him).

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    @Mike

    Why do you flatly assert 'Oriental despotism' as discredited. I found Wittfogel's book on the topic rather illuminating, and an antidote to Eurocentrism.

  • <blockquote>"Why do you flatly assert ‘Oriental despotism’ as discredited?"</blockquote>

    Because that was my impression -- i.e. that this theory (and this view of Asian history) had been debunked. It may not be literally true in the sense that no one gives the theory any credit (i.e. Bahro certainly did).

    In China, the communists did not uphold that theory, and (instead) viewed traditional China as a form of feudalism (not a separate mode of production based on irrigation etc.)

    More particularly: My understanding is that integral to the theory of 'asiatic despotism" was the idea that there was a kind of stagnation in Asian history -- to the degree of (at its extreme) speculating on an absense of history.

    My understanding is that modern research has uncovered quite a different picture of Asian history (not surprisingly) -- and that the past was not nearly as arrested and stable (i.e. stagnant) as once thought (in 19th century Europe).

    I am not familiar with Wittfogel, and would (of course) be interested to learn that my own understandings are wrong.

  • Guest - Red Fly

    Thanks for the background info, Mike.

    <blockquote>I am not familiar with his political trajectory after losing the political battles within the Greens. But I would be wary of dismissing people and their ideas with simplistic labels like “eco-fascist” — he was someone who thought of radical ecology as neither left nor right, and promoted a definite kind of spirituality along side his more explicitly political work. </blockquote>

    Eh...take a gander at that article. Judging by some of the rather disturbing passages turned up, ecofascist sounds about right to describe his later work.

    <blockquote>Since the mid-1980s, Bahro has been remarkably open about proclaiming his embrace of the spiritual content of fascism for the 'salvation' of nature and humanity. In The Logic of Salvation, he asks, "Is there really no thought more reprehensible than a new 1933?" -- that is, Hitler's rise to state power. "But that is precisely what can save us! The ecology and peace movement is the first popular German movement since the Nazi movement. It must co-redeem [miterlösen] Hitler." 80 Indeed, "the Nazi movement [was] among other things an early reading of the ecology movement." 81 Germans are to look for "the positive that may lie buried in the Nazi movement" and reclaim it, he says, "because if we do not, we will remain cut off from our roots, the roots from which will grow that which will save us." 82 Today one must "liberate" the "brown parts" in the German character. 83 The fact is, says Bahro, that today "there is a call in the depths of the Volk for a Green Adolf." 84</blockquote>

  • Guest - Carl Davidson

    Whether you want to call Wittfogel's 'hydraulic society' a separate stage or not, his 'Oriental Despotism' does a decent job of explaining the vast differences between the weak feudalism of Europe and the far stronger and more extensive variety in the great river valley societies in the rest of the ancient world, feudal or otherwise, in the Far East and elsewhere. It's an 'orphaned' Marxist work, but worth the read, regardless of where Wittfogel ended up in his last days..

  • Red Fly:

    I feel you. But (given where we are in time and space, and given our own particular tasks) I have a pretty deep reaction to any method that takes snippets from complex thinkers -- and leaps to a quick labeling and rejection.

    Obviously, my inclination is the same as yours: to recoil from any statement that would "divide one into two" on Hitler. For all kinds of reasons. Even if it is intended as a kind of provocation (and distancing) aimed at the existing left, and even if it is intended to question the moral high ground claimed by the (self-congratulatingly "anti-fascist") former rulers of East Germany.

    But, again, to actually understand what Bahro is saying (in his context, not just from ours) you actually have to do some work.

    For example: He is obviously alluding to the modern political utlity of a deep spiritual current in German thinking (and in German nationalism) that romanticizes nature.

    German people (who we all from afar imagine as the world's most technical people) often think of themselves as <em>forest folks</em> -- a mythical self-conception that goes back to the "barbarians" of northern woods fighting the Roman legions. Bahro is making comments about that, and in that context -- and he is (i believe) suggesting that to create the major society turn needed, the eco-forces of Germany should not merely present ecological restructuring as "new ideas", but package it in terms of yearnings and self-conceptions among the people that go back centuries.

    Again, like you, I recoil at any notion of dismissing (or diminishing) a century of justified political verdicts (on anti-semitism, on great nation imperialism, on fascist denial of critical thought and expression) -- it seems a very wrong thing to broach and a dangerously reckless way to write about politics in Germany.

    But I also want to urge you to break with the very entrenched left habit of facile summations (and facile dismissal of non-communist thinkers) based on quick one liners and extracted citations. We don't <em>need</em> some quick and easy capsule summation of Bahro's life -- a few minutes after you first heard of his name.

    It is not <em>possible</em> to actually understand and evaluate complex ideas (and, for example, his lifetime of thought on these matters) by copying and pasting some passages from wikipedia.

    We have all been guilty of this. It is seductive. And I believe we should just help each other stop.

    And we should do that work.

    If you find this interesting, why don't you read his works, his <em>actual</em> works, including his later essays -- and do some analysis of Bahro's thought and trajectory, and offer it to us here? I'd be curious to read an assessment from a communist point of view -- what can we learn, what would we reject, how should we view forces with these views?