Here in Britain we once again find ourselves faced with a familiar situation: stagflation, mass strikes, and the complete absence of any widely endorsed vision for the reconstruction of society. Even anti-Toryism, which galvanised hundreds of thousands during the strikes of the early 1970s, feels half-hearted this time round. Yeah we all hate the tories but it’s hard to get excited about when there’s no shadow of an alternative. Without any basic sense of a shared direction, strikes risk burning themselves out on a treadmill of industrial disputes with nowhere to go. What remains absent, as it has for a long time, is a genuinely popular conception of a different life, and a tangible bridge between our current struggles and a positive vision of the future.
It’s with this in mind that we’re sharing our Friends’ most recent reflections ‘On the Debate on the World Commune’. While these speculations from a small group in Germany might feel a far sight from the glory days of the libertarian communist movement, when the CNT’s roughly quarter of a million members spent months collectively debating and clarifying their definition of a classless society and then fighting for it on barricades, we don’t have any choice but to start from where we are now. And at any rate, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the CNT’s collectively elaborated program wasn’t born from direct experience alone; the influence of more theoretical reflections by Kropotkin and the rest played their part too.
We’ll be sharing our own thoughts on the world commune debate in the coming weeks, but in the meantime you can find an English translation of the original article here and a collection of responses in German here. As ever, we’re keen to hear from you. Get in touch: email@example.com.
1. For some years now various currents of what remains of the left have been making an effort to go beyond empty phrases and take a closer look at the abolition of the present state of things. The invocation of a coming insurrection, accompanied by a loud silence about what is to come after it, has lost its magic since insurrections have broken out in countless places around the world but then quickly collapsed again, without showing a way out of the misery. The barrier they have so far been unable to break through consists of an extremely intricate global production system that develops blindly out of itself. Confronted with such a global structure any attempt at liberation that remains limited to a single location must fail. This, whether acknowledged or not, is the common point of departure for the aforementioned efforts, which consequently revolve around precisely that central issue which the partisans of the coming insurrection and contemporary theorists of the riot consider stale traditionalism: the appropriation of social production.
Because we find the sketches formulated in this process – from the IT-enhanced reimagining of centralised planning to the small-scale appropriation of concrete, manageable social units advocated by the adherents of the “commons” , from the false promise of “fully automated luxury communism” to market socialist designs – all unsatisfactory in one way or another, we sketched some Contours of the World Commune (Kosmoprolet 5) for ourselves. They are based on the conviction that radical critique has the task not only of describing the misery of the present and of understanding and theoretically fuelling the struggles against it, but must also develop a rough idea of what it means to leave this misery behind, of what a better organised world could look like. The Contours do not proclaim a land of milk and honey in which work is “abolished” without any further ado, but they do trust a council-democratic world society to organise the activities necessary for common life in such a way that they lose their one-sided, oppressive character, and are left to the voluntary participation of all individuals. The Contours see a potential in the current level of science and technology and in the fact that billions of people are living highly precarious lives as surplus proletarians while at the same time natural resources and labour-power are insanely squandered for purposes that could have no place in a halfway-reasonably organised world: a potential for the satisfaction of social needs that is not based on drudgery; in the new means of communication, which today have found their way into the slums, we find a firm and historically completely unprecedented basis for democratic planning, based on a network of councils.
As well as being appreciated, the Contours have also met with all kinds of harsh criticism. In a left-wing weekly newspaper, one could read: “What is recognisable with the Friends (…) is the longing for the dissolution of all contradictions, the desire, with a political act like a revolution, not only to give society an economic basis that is less absurd than capitalism, but at the same time to overcome along with exploitation all domination, all power, preferably all forms of violence. This is an overloading of the concept of revolution and a pious wish.” Apart from the fact that the revolution we are interested in is specifically not a simple “political act”, and apart from the fact that in the Contours we also specifically advise against conceiving of the Commune as the end of all of humanity’s problems – the goal of overcoming every kind of domination is indeed something we had hitherto considered self-evident among communists, apparently mistakenly. Other critiques have turned out to be more substantial than this dross. They concern above all the rejection of the idea that after the revolution a transitional society will first be established, still based on principles of the old world and gradually growing into communism, and in particular the question of what role labour-time accounting would play in such a society. Because the Contours reject traditional ideas about the latter, they are seen as a wild scheme that negates the “rationality of the economy”, makes the free society an “incalculable adventure” and ends in “naiveté”; they invoke “immediacy” and are therefore “anti-modern”, not up to “the demands of modern, highly complex social production.” All these objections come from anti-authoritarian comrades, who have nothing to do with state socialism, and deserve to be examined.
2. Robert Schlosser recognises in the Contours nothing more than excessive wishful thinking, that hopelessly underestimates the effort and duration of the transition to a liberated society. He does not dispute the development of the productive forces since 1875 that we have referenced, but he correctly notes that, according to Marx, a first, lower stage of communism “is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges” (Critique of the Gotha Program). These birthmarks, according to Schlosser, have “not diminished with the development of capitalist society, but rather increased,” and thus there are “even more reasons for a transitional society today than in 1875!”
That the conditions eliminated by capitalist development were much less conducive to a free society, and that the revolutionaries in the 19th century, and in most regions of the world far long after that, were at war with various figures of the ancien regime at least as much as with the bourgeoisie, i.e. still in transition towards the modern bourgeois mode of production, is lost in this view. If Marx is attacked today by post-Marxists, postmodernists, or post-colonials as a historical determinist, a starry-eyed optimist of progress, or even as a partisan of colonial regimes, it is because he saw in this mode of production a quite different potential for its own abolition than in its predecessors. Those who see “even more reasons for a transitional society today than in 1875” are, underhandedly, portraying a largely peasant world of material and intellectual poverty, dominated by princes and clergy, as a more favourable basis for a direct transition to communism. It is hard to imagine that a Marx-educated critic like Schlosser really means this.
To illustrate the supposed fact that a revolution today would have to struggle with much larger birthmarks of the old society, Schlosser cites, among other things, a kind of moral decay of the working class: “With the development of bourgeois society, not only the productive forces develop, but also a large number of evils, such as crime in general, violent crime, gangs, prostitution, and so on. The jails are full, drug addiction is widespread… The most developed capitalist country, the U.S.A., bears a particularly striking testimony to this.” To interpret full jails as an indication of the moral depravity of the lower classes, rather than as an expression of a ruthless and racist criminal justice system designed primarily to keep in check those for whom capital no longer finds use, is very peculiar from an anti-authoritarian communist. And would not the legalisation of drugs be a good example of an immediate revolutionary measure of immense effectiveness, which would put an end to the devastation of whole societies by cartels, depriving them of the precondition for their business? Prostitution, on the other hand, is simply the result of the need to make money in order to survive, and is certainly not an expression of the supposed antisocial character of sex workers. The fact that Schlosser concludes, precisely with a view to such phenomena, that it “will not work (…) without repression” is somewhat disconcerting. Even if it is to be feared that a revolutionary movement would not only be hindered by the violent state apparatus of the bourgeoisie but also by armed gangs, and would therefore hardly manage with completely peaceful means, its decisive chance would ultimately lie in starving the aforementioned “evils” of oxygen through a different organisation of society.
Although he illustrates this with very strange examples, Schlosser is certainly right that communism requires new forms of intercourse between individuals and a new relationship between individuals and society, and that the generalisation of these new relationships will not happen overnight. However, we consider it useful to distinguish conceptually between a transitional society on one side and difficulties in the transition to a post-capitalist society on the other – difficulties which we not only do not deny, but explicitly emphasise. These difficulties have to be solved step by step and communist forms of intercourse have to be introduced. There would certainly therefore be a period in which such forms of intercourse are initially only partially enforced – partially in the territorial sense or in terms of which social spheres are affected. The term transitional society, however, points to more: to strive for such a society would mean to establish a stabilised form of society with its own principles and forms of mediation, which are not yet communist. This bears the danger that this form of society could lose its transitional character and would instead perpetuate itself and develop its own independent dynamics. And especially when it comes to the change of everyday forms of behaviour and the relationship of individuals to each other, it would have to be asked how a transitional society could ever lead to communism if it does not already implement or at least apply its basic principles as far as possible. Communist “morality”, as every materialist knows, does not arise just like that, but is dependent on changed circumstances to flourish.
As far as economic issues in the narrower sense are concerned, Schlosser urges moderation and patience, as if somewhere we were aiming for a flawless world commune within 24 hours. We have nowhere disputed the fact that the reconstruction of cities, agriculture, transport and energy supplies, as well as the overcoming of the given oppressive division of labour, will take time; in fact we explicitly stated so. Whether some things would take “generations”, as Schlosser claims without further justification, is impossible to say; any assertion to the contrary would be just as idle speculation. It is not about duration, but about the social forms of the transition. With regard to the division of labour, for example, Schlosser objects that it is “not the case that the workforce know the concrete processes in their companies, as you write. (…) For the individual wage-workers the whole thing is not transparent at all. As a rule one doesn’t know what happens in another department, what kind of stress the work there entails, etc.” But the revolution is precisely a break with “the rule”. What is the point of having a council if it can’t even allow for an egalitarian exchange about such things? Why mentally extend the present state of not simply the technically given but politically intended fragmentation of the “total worker” (Marx) into a situation in which conscious practice is supposed to abolish this alienation? From countless strikes and riots far below the threshold of a revolution one can observe that people who are complete strangers suddenly talk to each other on the street, break out of traditional roles and shed old habits like a rotten hull. Even from occupied factories, which are still subject to the constraints of the market, workers report how liberating the abolition of hierarchies and insights into former company secrets are for them. Schlosser, on the other hand, asks, “Does the engineer or skilled worker want to do the necessary basic [unskilled] work?” – and concludes that it is “impracticable in the transitional society (…)” for “everyone to receive the same wage.” In addition, the self-managed enterprises should initially continue to compete with each other via the market. If this is what Marxist realism looks like, we are happy to be called utopians.
Schlosser, like us, actually rejects state and market socialism in equal measure; in the long run he too aims at a free association beyond wage labour, state, and general commodity production. When he emphasises again and again that the new can only emerge very gradually from the existing conditions, this is not least based on a well-founded aversion to any Bolshevik-Maoist voluntarism that thinks it can bring about the new society with a crowbar; “war communism” in Russia and the “Great Leap Forward” in China are striking examples of the disastrous results of such undertakings. This is probably why Schlosser often uses the term social emancipation, which, unlike that of revolution, on the one hand makes the process clear from the outset and, on the other hand, shows that this process must come from the people themselves and cannot be controlled by some revolutionary vanguard on their behalf. All of this is obviously correct, but with Schlosser this tips into evolutionary scenarios, which even allow market exchange and wage labour their place – apparently for a long time, since after all emancipation takes time – without it being obvious why this should be so. If the producers take over their enterprises in an act of self-empowerment, why should they maintain the separation between these enterprises, which makes the market as a mediation necessary in the first place, and continue to compete with each other? What higher historical necessity should prevent them from preferring to dispense with such a market-socialist intermediate stage and from managing production plants as a whole, also given the fact that they are already technically-materially interwoven? Wouldn’t it be simply unavoidable, especially in the foreseeable turmoil of upheaval, to keep the vital areas of production running by means other than the market, and to distribute the goods produced according to need?
3. Several critiques of the Contours are grounded in the orthodox two-phase model of communism developed by Marx in the Critique of the Gotha Program (1875). According to this model, a core component of the first post-revolutionary phase is distribution by means of labour vouchers: each producer receives a certificate stating that they have performed a certain number of hours of social labour, and thereby acquires the right to consume goods and services whose production required just as much labour, except for certain deductions (for the expansion of production, the care of the elderly, those unable to work, etc.). Free distribution according to needs is reserved for the second, “higher” phase of communism, in which “the birthmarks of the old society” have disappeared and the sources of the production of wealth have grown immensely.
This outline was elaborated in detail a good half-century later by some council communists in Holland. In The Basic Principles of Communist Production and Distribution (1935), the Group of International Communists (Groep van Internationale Communisten – GIC) cite the horror of Russian state socialism as an argument for the model. Both the short phase of war communism, which was to establish an economy in kind by decree from above, as well as the later practice of centrally fixed prices, were based on state despotism, which disempowered the immediate producers and subjected them to a new exploitation by the bureaucracy. But, according to the GIC, “distribution according to need” as advocated by anarchists and libertarian communists, as well as the economy in kind advocated by Otto Neurath (responsible for socialisation in the short-lived Bavarian council republic) also suffer from the fact that they lack a rational, transparent economic principle. This principle could only consist in labour time. The enterprises managed by councils keep precise records, which on the one hand renders transparent how many hours and minutes are spent on an average pair of shoes, for example. On the other hand, the right of the individual to particular consumer goods would derive from this, exactly as Marx envisaged. For this purpose, it would only be necessary to determine in general terms how much should be deducted from each hour worked for the care of the elderly and those unable to work, for new means of production, and for the enterprises of “general social labour” (Allgemeinen gesellschaftlichen Arbeit – AGA), which are already operating on a completely communist basis and which supply goods and services to society free of charge – such as schools, hospitals, transportation. They are, so to speak, the bridgehead of the second, higher stage of communism within the first, and are to grow over time. In this way an “exact relation of producer and product” would result, excluding exploitation by the basic economic mechanism of the labour-time calculation.
We reject this model in the Contours. Whether it was an adequate revolutionary program at the time of Marx and the GIC remains an open question. In any case, the society they had in mind at that time differed in many respects from the one we are confronted with today. Productive forces and means of communication are completely different now. The huge army of the peasantry has been transformed to a large extent into a surplus proletariat, which survives in the informal sector, while the waste of social resources for the maintenance of the present order has assumed much more enormous proportions. Against the background of all this, the council communist Paul Mattick, for decades an advocate of the GIC model, already fifty years ago said goodbye to labour time as a key to distribution, even if it could be calculated as a matter of course for the planning of production. This is basically the position that is also advocated in the Contours. Herman Lueer and Jakob Koekepann have sharply criticised it, based partly on actual differences and partly on misunderstandings.
The Contours state that the timesheet economy contradicts basic tenets of a communist society, which at least Marx admits openly even if he considers it inevitable. Lueer, on the other hand, defends this conception without really advocating for it. If the products are simply “available within the community of producers” or if the labour time account only has the purpose of “providing information about working hours”, this is something quite different from what Marx and the GIC imagine. And when Lueer declares without any justification that “distribution without economic measure (…) does not mean ‘taking according to need’, but allocation by a superior authority”, he falls behind Marx and the GIC, for whom just such a distribution was characteristic of the later second phase of communism, which would have nothing to do with allocation by authority.
But Lueer goes even further when he claims we are mistaken to find a form of equivalent exchange in the labour time model a la Marx and the GIC, since after all private property and the commodity form no longer exist, on which exchange is based. It is Marx himself who summarises this as follows:
“Here, obviously, the same principle prevails as that which regulates the exchange of commodities, as far as this is exchange of equal values. Content and form are changed, because under the altered circumstances no one can give anything except his labour, and because, on the other hand, nothing can pass to the ownership of individuals, except individual means of consumption. But as far as the distribution of the latter among the individual producers is concerned, the same principle prevails as in the exchange of commodity equivalents: a given amount of labour in one form is exchanged for an equal amount of labour in another form.
Hence, equal right here is still in principle – bourgeois right, although principle and practice are no longer at loggerheads, while the exchange of equivalents in commodity exchange exists only on the average and not in the individual case.” (MEW 19, p. 20)
Lueer makes a distinction between the term “equivalent exchange” (Äquivalententausch) on the one hand and “exchange of equals” (Austausch Gleichwertiger) or “exchange of equivalents” (Austausch von Äquivalenten) on the other, but this hardly makes sense. As Marx shows, an exchange relationship continues between the individual producer and society in the lower phase of communism: he gives labour and receives it back in a different form, but to the same extent. A clear case of equivalence.
Even though, unlike Schlosser’s model, the timesheet economy promises equality to the producers from the first day on – an hour of sweeping counts as much as an hour of programming – it perpetuates, through such equivalence, the compulsion to work, which would therefore not be done voluntarily, either out of inclination or out of insight into necessity. That the Contours reject this kind of compulsion is a central point of attack in Koekepann and Lueer’s critiques. Although somewhat banal, Lueer is of course correct in the following remark: “The opposition between need and necessary labour is not produced by labour vouchers, but by nature itself.” A humanity which does not work cannot eat, at least no more than the meagre food which nature provides by itself. But in a society in which almost all production is subject to a complex division of labour, there is no such self-evident answer as to how the various labours are to be distributed to individuals and who may consume what.
Marx and the GIC’s conception of labour vouchers envisions using the denial of consumption rights as a means to ensure that each individual contributes his or her share of labour. This makes sense only if one assumes individuals who, without external coercion, can think of nothing better than to consume as much as possible and work as little as possible. How such people should bring about a revolution at all would be one question; why this character disposition must survive a revolution, another. Even under today’s conditions this assumption about individuals and their reluctance to engage in social labour is erroneous in many cases. Even after eight hours of exhausting, alienating and humiliating wage labour, many feel a need to do something meaningful with their abilities, to cooperate with others, to exercise and receive solidarity. It is a myth, necessary for the maintenance of the bourgeois order, that the elimination of the present social fabric with its silent constraints can only lead to open violence, barbarism and chaos. On the contrary, in exceptional situations it often turns out to be just the opposite – that precisely when circumstances are at their most adverse a solidarity spreads that people miss in everyday life. There are plenty of examples of this in natural disasters and crises. Even in individuals shaped by capitalism there is a reservoir of solidarity that a situation of emergency can uncover. Thus it seems especially plausible that after a revolution, in which people have appropriated society, this solidarity can become a sustaining principle. The assumption that compulsory labour and the linking of consumption to hours worked are necessary for the reproduction of society, on the other hand, reiterates the bourgeois myth.
Work, we think with the young Marx, is a primal need of human beings: “In creating a world of objects by his personal activity, in his work upon inorganic nature, man proves himself a conscious species-being, i.e., as a being that treats the species as his own essential being, or that treats itself as a species-being” (MEW 40, p. 516). In capitalism, labour exists above all in an inverted and alienated form as wage labour, completed by the atomized Sisyphean labour of the household, which is mainly imposed on women: it is “not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labour. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labour is shunned like the plague.” (Ibid, p. 514) If work were freed from this inverted form, it could be assumed that people would gain a new relationship to it, would realise themselves in it and would no longer flee from it. This is not to say that all work can become an end in itself; it is hard to imagine that there would not remain activities undertaken simply out of a sense of social responsibility. But the strict separation of life into a realm of necessity, in which only means are produced which people then enjoy in the realm of freedom, should be placed under question. Marx himself pursued a rather zigzagging course in this question. Contrary to his 1844 critique quoted above, he later declared in Capital that the “the realm of freedom” begins “in fact […] only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production.” This can only be “rationally regulated”; the “development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom”, on the other hand, can only be found outside of it, even in communism. In 1875, in the Critique of the Gotha Program, he again made it a prerequisite for the higher phase of communism, in which the famous principle “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” applied, that “labour itself had become the first necessity of life.”
The progressive loosening of the separation of spheres would be a principle of the Commune, not in the sense of a primordial soup of the “productive leisure” (Robert Kurz) – a realm of freedom, in which everyone can be unproductive, would have to be preserved at all costs – but with a view to change work in such a way that it acquires self-fulfilling moments. Such a perspective hardly appears in the work of the council communists. It gained momentum instead in the 1960s and 1970s in struggles against the misery of everyday life in the factories.
Timesheeting, on the other hand, depends on a strict division of life into a productive sphere and one for the satisfaction of needs. Much like in capitalism it would come to be that “man (the worker) only feels himself freely active in his animal functions – eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling and in dressing-up, etc.; and in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal. What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.” (Marx, MEW 40, p. 514) Koekepann provides a feminist justification for the rigid separation of spheres. Allegedly, the “wages-for-housework” campaign of the 1970s saw a step toward liberation in formalising and remunerating housework and thus recognizing it as a part of total social labour. For some representatives of the “wages-for-housework” campaign, this is true. But for the more radical ones, the demand for wages was more propagandistic, at most a first step toward more fundamental changes, namely the abolition of wage labour and domestic work; meaning, the overcoming of the division of activities into those that are recognized as necessary social labour and others that are hidden in the private home.
4. The critics of the Contours insist, quite rightly, that even a post-capitalist society would probably set itself the goal of minimising the amount of work in production as rationally as possible. This is lost in a lot of left-wing radical exuberance. This is clearest in so-called communisation theory with its proclamation of an “absolute anti-planning,” about which we have said a few words elsewhere. But even the prudent Paul Mattick writes in 1970: “The “economic principle”, that is, the principle of economic rationality which, as is so often repeated, is the basis of every social order and which is presented as the achievement of the maximum result at the minimum cost, is in reality nothing but the classic capitalist principle of production for profit, which always tends towards the maximum of exploitation.” As long as there is a realm of necessity, a society which organises its production according to the needs of its members will presumably strive to keep the dimensions of this realm as small as possible; this could well be understood as an application of the “economic principle”.
And yet, in many respects, rational communist economics would not merely mean that the minimization of labour is pursued in the same way that a capitalist economy strives to maximise the production of surplus value. If communist production is to serve human purposes – not only with its finished products, but already in the production process itself – these purposes are manifold. Besides the saving of labour, all sorts of other goals could be listed which a communist production plan could set: environmentally friendly and climate-neutral production; the minimization of particularly unpleasant work and not only of work in general; aesthetic questions. The association of free producers could probably think of several more. In a communist economy, therefore, not only one measure would be taken into account and sometimes they would be weighed against each other. Many of these planning objectives cannot even be quantified (what number represents the harm of building a railroad through a beautiful mountain valley?) but nevertheless must be taken into account.
In the libertarian-communist tradition especially there is a scepticism, born out of the rejection of parliamentarism, about political processes of negotiation which are to give way to the purely technical “administration of things” (Engels). But a precondition of this administration – and probably at least as important as this – would be social discussions about the goals of production planning, about the relative importance of different optimization goals, about willingness to work and about needs. This process of understanding may be far more challenging than the technical translation of its results into production plans, the allocation and use of resources, and so on. It could also quickly become an overwhelming effort if every production decision would require a fundamental discussion about the common priorities of society as a whole. Aaron Benanav therefore suggests that planning should follow “protocols” to decide between different possible production plans. While certain possible plans could be rejected purely algorithmically, if they are clearly suboptimal compared to others, qualitative criteria and social priorities are poorly represented by algorithms. In such cases, social agreements about goals and priorities in production planning would be more likely to be recorded in the form of decision-making aids and protocols, i.e. in regulations according to which planners can decide between plans which are optimal from a purely quantitative point of view.
Lueer and Koekepann are therefore quite right that the most exact possible determination of the amount of labour required for the production of a certain good should be an indispensable part of communist production planning. But this planning would have to include more than the mere minimization of such effort. Production planning which does not only strive algorithmically for the minimization of a certain quantity specifically requires a very well thought-out social organisation.
In the discussion of the Contours, our claim that work should be voluntary and consumption free has often been confused with “immediacy” or “non-commitment”; in this context, Koekepann even insinuates that the contours are “anti-modern.” The accusation implies that coercion is the only possible form of mediation, that only through it can commitments be established – in this, too, the bourgeois myth rings through. That the Contours were read as a call for immediacy is, by the way, also surprising, insofar as a concrete form of mediation is in fact proposed in them, namely the councils. The misunderstanding may be due to careless formulations on our part. But perhaps the sensitivity of the critics also has to do with the fact that the idea of a communist planned economy – a society in which the producers discuss their material needs, decide together what should be produced to satisfy them, and finally implement these decisions together – is actually under attack, and from the left of all places.
The “Commonists” are just one example. Simon Sutterlütti, a German representative of this current, criticises the adherence of the Contours to the social planning of production. For him, already a council structure by itself, which is used by the members of society to decide economic and political questions, constitutes the basis of a state. He asks why the Contours assume that in a communist society there will still be delegates. In a society based on a division of labour it is impossible for each individual to participate in all the decisions that concern them, and consequently they must delegate some of these decisions to others. The difference between a capitalist and a communist division of labour, however, is that the latter is the result of a conscious delegation of certain social tasks and decision-making powers, whereas the division of labour in capitalism is imposed blindly through the market. The members of society can only decide on production and other social matters if there are social bodies in which they come together for this purpose. “Commonism” has a fundamental distrust of such institutions, even if their necessity is admitted here and there. Here, too, the incompatibility of freedom (freiwilligkeit) and commitment is presupposed and therefore the latter is rejected or at least minimised. There is no overall social planning of production, but only individual collectives whose activities are to be coordinated as little as possible. This coordination may only take place by means of suggestions sent by individuals or single collectives, not by means of common, binding decisions. Thus, in “Commonism” the anarchy of the market is merely replaced by the anarchy of minimally coordinated work, instead of society consciously controlling the division of labour. The Contours, too, claim that “just as today people arrange ‘events’ electronically, agricultural communes could signal when help with the harvest would be welcome and anyone could check whether or not they could contribute.” Koekepann misunderstood this to mean that all production could or should be coordinated in this way. That was not our intention. Some things can be coordinated more easily with mere suggestions, but Koekepann is right that the organisation of total social production requires “rosters, planning of complex supply chains, decisions about the use of scarce resources, etc., precisely (democratically) planned and therefore mediated social production and division of labour”, and the “Commonist” assumption that all of that could be done without, is hardly realistic.
After all, the self-management of enterprises is something completely different from social control over the production process as a whole. A single chain of production, and even more so the economy as a sum of such chains, consists of many individual sub-processes that are distributed among various enterprises and are exercised by even more various individuals. These sub-processes must interlock precisely; for this reason alone, there is much to suggest that communist production on a large scale would hardly work without higher-level bodies for coordination. But coordination necessarily requires decision-making powers – and that means delegation – if it is to be binding. In the absence of appropriate bodies, decisions are left to chance or the persistence of the status quo; these forces take on a life of their own against society, and as a result society can hardly shape its overall economic process consciously or intentionally. The representatives of “Commonism” believe that their model allows for more democratic determination; in fact, just the opposite is the case.
5. How specifically such organs would be interlinked with smaller units, who would decide what and how, what measurements would have to be taken into account at which points – these are all questions about which it is not yet possible to say anything conclusive. Mirroring the gesture of pure negation often cultivated by contemporary left-wing radicalism, many recent outlines of a “democratic planned economy” suffer from the presumptuous claim to want to clarify such questions at the drawing board in advance. In contrast, we have deliberately left it at a few Contours, the concretisation of which can only be a matter of practice; in the end, everything may well be completely different anyway. Ultimately, subversive theory cannot do much more than name the pitfalls that have to be avoided and suggest how this could be done in order to pierce the semblance of the naturalness of the present order.
The Contours represent a break with the “rationality of the economy” only insofar as they curtail the absolute claim to validity of this rationality, which supposedly encompasses all past and future societies and which Marx formulated as the “economy of time.” They instead understand it as one of several moments that a world commune must consciously put in relation to one another and could do so for the first time because it has gotten rid of the blind dictatorship of profitability. If, on the one hand, the link between individual consumption and hours worked is broken, and, on the other, work itself takes on the characteristics of travail attractif, then the compulsion to measure the duration of every action and to examine every celery bulb for the labour time it represents is loosened. Unless you assume that peoples’ needs change from scratch every few weeks, a lot of things should fall into place over time and planning should therefore be much easier.
This doesn’t mean that the measurement of labour time would be completely obsolete, but planning would not be limited to it. During the “socialist calculation debate” of the 1920s Ludwig von Mises claimed that socialism lacked a “rationality of the economy”; a rationality which, according to our critics, we also frivolously throw to the wind. How limited this “rationality of the economy” actually is, was shown above all by the aforementioned Otto Neurath. Neurath, by no means a romantic irrationalist, actually an enthusiastic supporter of modern statistics, recognised that statistics could not do justice to qualitative moments. He countered the demand for a uniform standard without which rationality allegedly could not exist – for Mises money, for his socialist opponents labour time – by saying that comparability did not presuppose that everything could be reduced to a common measure. Between different possibilities of shaping their common life, people would sometimes have to decide in the same way as one decides between two different meals: without one, objective yardstick.
This brings the problem of social decision-making to the fore. The problem of the availability of information and the possibility of calculation, on the other hand, has never been as easy to solve as it is today. The immense progress of computer and network technologies facilitates planning and, in particular, makes the relationship between coordinating bodies and decentralisation appear in a new light; however, it only presents a solution to all possible problems for the representatives of computer socialism, who, in a rather clumsy technical determinism, think that Mises has been finally defeated with the advent of supercomputers. What they forget is the crucial fact that the problems of planning are at their core not technical but social and political. Developing a council-democracy that does not become a nightmare of endless debates, achieving rational delegation that does not turn into a specialism or lead to new relations of domination – these are the central challenges of a world commune.
Friends of the classless society