Richard D Wolff. Rethinking Marxism. Volume 19, Issue 3. 2007.
In the wake of the USSR’s collapse, China’s basic changes, and the global expansion of capitalism, many of capitalism’s champions have been trumpeting it as “the only alternative.” Capitalism won, socialism and communism lost, case closed. History, they say, has decided what kind of progressive social change remains possible—namely, making capitalism work “better” in the sense of more equitably, more democratically, more humanely.
Yet, two considerations of history suggest otherwise. First, emerging analyses of the USSR (applicable also to other “actually existing socialisms”) show that communism was never tried in its industry and that its economy was instead a state-operated capitalism (Resnick and Wolff 2002). Therefore, Soviet history proves nothing about the viability or desirability of communism. Second, capitalism’s current neoliberal revival is deepening inequalities of wealth, income, and power among and within nations. Large parts of the world suffer staggering impoverishment. The global leader of capitalism affirms and executes militarized unilateralism in the conduct of its foreign affairs. Alongside increasing warfare and environmental deterioration, what “democracy” ever existed dissolves, within ever more countries, into formal rituals of manipulated voting or disappears altogether. Likewise, what civil liberties were achieved atrophy in favor of security-obsessed states arming themselves at their citizens’ expense. The presumption that no alternative to actually existing capitalism exists, besides being unwarranted on empirical and theoretical grounds, represents the ultimate pessimistic resignation.
I offer specific reasons for preferring communism over capitalism because I believe transition to the former practically possible. My evaluation of the two systems turns on the presence of exploitation in capitalist production and its abolition in communist production. I will argue that exploitation is in itself ethically and morally unacceptable. Further, I will show that the exploitation that characterizes capitalism makes the achievement of equality, democracy, and community more difficult and thus less likely than would be the case if communist replaced capitalist production and thus eliminated exploitation. In the conclusion, I will contrast my negative evaluation of capitalism with Milton Friedman’s positive evaluation in terms of the contrasting Utopias informing the two evaluations.
Because the terms exploitation, capitalism, and communism took on multiple, confused, and contested meanings across the twentieth century, any serious argument about them must make its definitions very precise. This is done for exploitation in the first section below. The next two sections develop a critique of exploitation in general and capitalist exploitation in particular. This critique focuses on both the existence of exploitation and its social effects. The last two sections then define communism, describe a few of its key features, and explore some of their social effects. The conclusion summarizes the case for communism and against capitalist exploitation. Since my case partly updates older arguments currently eclipsed by other popular and academic discussions, it might be useful to recall that eclipses are temporary.
One of Marx’s contributions to modern thought was to define an aspect of the capitalist organization of work that others had missed: exploitation. His distinctive definition did not refer to the level of wages, whether higher or lower. Nor did it concern working conditions such as the physical environment, supervision, amenities, and intensity of labor activity. Others had examined those dimensions of labor. Instead Marx focused his analysis on the surplus generated within the capitalist organization of production.
Marx’s basic argument was both simple and direct, the fruit of critically interrogating the inadequacies of previous efforts to discern and analyze a surplus. For Marx, those who direct productive enterprises—the capitalists—deploy a quantity of value (the “capital” that they own or borrow from others or use with the actual owners’ permission) to buy two sorts of commodities. The first, “means of production,” comprise the raw materials, tools, machines, and buildings that are “inputs” to production. These are the commodities that the laborers work on and with. They are products of labor done previously in other enterprises. They have specific values as outputs embodying such earlier labor. The value of those outputs shapes what capitalists have to pay to acquire them later as inputs. For example, the chair-producing capitalist has to buy glue as an input; the glue is itself the output of a glue-producing capitalist; and the glue’s value as one capitalist’s output shapes its cost to another capitalist for whom it is an input.
The second commodity that capitalists must purchase Marx calls “labor power”— literally the human capacity to apply mind and body to production. This labor power is purchased from those who “own” it. From Marx’s day to ours, because individuals usually own their labor power, capitalists buy it from them. As with any other commodity exchange, buyer and seller must agree on a price. That price—or wage—is the value paid to the worker for the labor power sold to the capitalist. The circumstances of buyer and seller—the context of all their alternatives, options, constraints, and opportunities—shape the agreed price. The wage deal between worker and capitalist also requires that the output/product belongs immediately and exclusively to the capitalist.
Marx stresses the following simple point: the capitalist employer would only expend capital on these two commodities (inputs and labor power) if their combination in production yielded outputs whose value exceeded that capital. This excess in value Marx calls the surplus value. Capitalists get the surplus by selling the outputs of production which contain more value than the capitalists had to pay for the inputs.
Marx explains how the surplus arises—its source—by examining how capitalist production combines its two key inputs. First, the produced inputs (raw materials, tools, etc.) used up in production have their values thereby transferred to the outputs of that production. Second, there is the value added by the laborers’ work. The value of the output is the sum of the used-up input values transferred to the output plus the value added by the laborers. The surplus arises because the value added by the laborers exceeds the value paid to them for their labor power. Such workers are exploited since their labor activity adds more value to the output for the capitalist than they get for selling their labor power to that capitalist. Exploitation occurs whenever workers produce a surplus that is immediately received—“appropriated was Marx’s word—by someone other than the workers themselves—in this case, by the capitalists. Exploitation disappears when the workers themselves receive the surplus they produce, when they get not only the value of their labor power but also the surplus value that formerly went to others. For example, when exploited workers quit jobs in capitalist enterprises to establish instead new enterprises in which they are all both workers and their own board of directors, they thereby stop being exploited. Software engineers in California’s Silicon Valley have been doing that in large numbers for decades.
Note that Marx’s surplus is not an excess in any physical sense: it does not arise because outputs are ever physically greater than inputs as is argued in some other economic theories. What goes into production is what comes out, as the laws of physics affirm. The values (of the inputs used up plus the values added by laborers) that go into production equal the values of its outputs. Capitalists acquire a surplus when and because they pay workers less than the value added by their work. The surplus is a social relationship between the workers and the capitalists, not some physical phenomenon of production.
Capitalists use the revenues gained from selling the workers’ output in three ways. One portion goes to buy replacements for the inputs used up in production (so they can continue production). A second portion pays the wages promised to workers in exchange for the labor power. The remaining portion—the surplus—belongs to the capitalists: the fruit of capitalist exploitation.
What do capitalists do with the surplus they appropriate from production? Marx answers that they distribute that surplus partly to themselves and partly to others. The distribution to others is necessary because the capitalists’ continued ability to exploit workers has all sorts of conditions that must be secured. For example, capitalists need supervisors to make sure that workers keep at their work. Supervisors don’t make the output; they make others do that. Supervisors thus produce no surplus themselves, yet for the supervision they perform, they must receive a wage or salary and an operating budget. Capitalists usually distribute a portion of the surpluses they get from workers for supervision.
Similarly, someone inside the enterprise (or outside, say, in schools) needs to educate, train, and indoctrinate workers so that they can and will produce a surplus for capitalist employers. A state apparatus is needed to design and enforce laws preventing workers from reneging on their labor obligations. To secure these and many other conditions, capitalists distribute portions of the surplus to individuals charged with performing supervision, training, schooling, police and judicial fun ctions, and so on. In short, the capitalist organization of the surplus assigns to some workers—Marx’s “productive laborers”—the task of producing the surplus. Other workers—Marx’s “unproductive laborers”—do not produce surpluses for capitalists; instead they secure the conditions of existence of capitalist surplus production. The unproductive workers enable the exploitation of productive workers. For this “enabling” they receive distributed portions of the surplus from the capitalists who appropriate it. The capitalists at the command center of this system connect these two different kinds of workers—the exploited and those who enable exploitation, both of them equally important in their different ways to the reproduction of capitalism.
Of course, capitalists may not appropriate enough surplus from productive workers and thus make insufficient surplus distributions to secure their conditions of existence. Capitalists may, for all sorts of social or personal reasons, consume rather than distribute surplus. The recipients of distributed surpluses may be unable or unwilling to use them to secure capitalism’s conditions of existence. Nothing guarantees that the production, appropriation, and distribution of the capitalist surplus will happen smoothly or continuously. Moreover, the actions of capitalists and those to whom they distribute surpluses always have unintended and unforeseen consequences that may react back to undermine capitalist production. In all such situations, capitalism may stumble (experience one of its periodic recessions as enterprises go bankrupt, workers lose jobs, etc.) or, in extreme cases, collapse in a depression or pass over into another economic system.
What’s Negative about Exploitation?
Exploitation is experienced, consciously or unconsciously, by productive laborers in capitalist enterprises. Only part of the value their labor adds is “returned” to them as wages. The condition of their employment and thus their livelihoods is that they must deliver more to their employer that they get; the surplus is “extracted” (Marx writes “pumped out”) from them. Productive workers in capitalist are constrained to give something—the surplus—for nothing. The experience of exploitation often manifests itself in workers’ sense of being somehow undervalued, abused, or “ripped off” at work. The consumer goods and services they buy with their wages then serve as a kind of compensation for their exploitation.
The consumer goods and services that workers buy—that enable their individual sustenance and growth—are the products of workers in other capitalist enterprises. The raw materials, tools, and equipment used up by one group of workers were the products of other workers. Herein lies a certain community. Both production and consumption make workers interdependent. Individually and as a community, each worker depends on the effort and creativity that other workers pour into their work. However, the presence of exploitation makes this a profoundly unequal community at its productive core. All productive workers are cut off from their surplus output—from that part of themselves embodied in the surplus. The surplus portion of their products is not available to them, individually or as a community of workers.
Exploitation delivers the productive laborers’ surplus to other people—capitalists—to sustain them and their social position. The existence of surplus-appropriating capitalists does not merely add people to the community of interdependent laborers. Exploitation introduces particular kinds of opposition, conflict, tension, and potential explosiveness into production and thereby into the community that permits exploitation to occur. Capitalists are not like workers whose community is one of an interdependence of equals: my products embodying my labor and creativity in exchange for yours. Capitalist exploitation introduces the specific inequality of capitalists taking the surplus from the workers who produce it and not giving workers any equivalent value for it.
For those whose idea of community entails commitment to the principles of equality and active, participatory solidarity, exploitation is unjust and repugnant. It is the negation of the sort of community they seek. For those who believe in democratic community, it is impossible to justify or accept that the workers who produce the surpluses should be excluded from their appropriation and distribution. The clash between exploitation and such notions of community has generated endless efforts to redefine community in other ways that might accommodate exploitation. For example, when community is understood and celebrated in terms such as “equality before the law” or “one person, one vote” or “the sanctity of private property” or “individual liberty,” the issue of exploitation is neatly pushed out of consideration; it is erased. If community is defined as a set of individuals, each different yet with equal “rights,” it becomes easy to overlook how exploitation differentiates individuals in particular ways (exploiters versus exploited). By entailing one group’s “right” to exploit, exploitation condemns another to the right of being exploited.
The parallel between slavery and exploitation may clarify the issue here. In the United States, as elsewhere, it was eventually decided that commitments to certain definitions of community, equality, solidarity, and democracy were simply incompatible with slavery. Of course, supporters of slavery had offered alternative definitions of those values to support arguments about how they could coexist with slavery. Those arguments stressed how slaves were cared for and sustained by masters, how the natural incapacities of slaves required slavery as an institution so slaves could participate in community, how slaves were “freer” with masters responsible for them than they would have been without slavery, and so on. Yet, the antislavery definitions of what constitutes a desirable community prevailed and slavery was abolished. The point here is to stress that antiexploitation notions of community are in conflict with notions that accommodate exploitation. For the former, exploitation is the negation of community as they understand and value it.
What exploited productive workers lose qua surplus confronts them, their exploiters, and everyone else in society with a problem. Sometimes the problem is brought to public awareness by the productive workers themselves. Their consciousness of being exploited may emerge from their sense of loss and victimization within the production process, from envy of those disposing of the surplus they produce, from moral outrage at a social injustice, and so on. Consciousness of exploitation from the vantage point of the exploited can take endless forms ranging from short-lived political slogans and popular songs to systematic analytics such as Marx’s. In the exploiters’ consciousness, the surplus will likely be conceptualized rather differently from the ways in which critics of exploitation think about it. Those who accept some notion of exploitation have explained and justified it as conforming to God’s will, as reflecting unequal capacities among human beings, as resulting from the productivity of machines or entrepreneurial risk-taking, as necessary for the progress of civilization, and so on. Endorsements of exploitation vary with the cultural specificities of the societies in which they arise.
Exploitation need not be recognized by anyone—may remain unconscious—in the societies where it exists. Like many other realities of those societies, exploitation may not become an object of conscious thought. Amid the endlessly shifting concerns of human communities, the limits of their attention and knowledge always render some portions of social reality invisible. Reality always exceeds what is known of it. The gap between reality and knowledge shifts as both sides interact and constantly change one another, but a gap is always there. Exploitation’s existence may or may not become an explicit object of a society’s knowledge.
Sometimes a society cultivates blindness to an aspect of its reality. One part of that society may mobilize a campaign to attack and destroy modes of thought that affirm the existence of that aspect. When a more or less thoroughgoing demonization of those modes of thought unfolds, it may extend to those who “think like that.” They suffer accusations of ulterior, socially pernicious motives in persisting at affirming as reality what is declared not to be. They may be denied teaching or publishing opportunities, personal liberty, or life itself. Insisting that something does not exist becomes the singular truth to be upheld by all good citizens and especially the educated. While earlier defenders of capitalism admitted the existence of a surplus and sought to justify it, over more recent time, they have rather asserted its nonexistence.
For those who see and think in terms of exploitation, its denial by others amounts to a kind of self-induced blindness. For those determined to expunge exploitation as an idea, its supporters seem blind to its nonexistence (Boss 1990). Exploitation, like beauty, exists in the eyes of the beholders. Beholders often disagree and describe each other as blind. Sometimes they fight. Their struggles shape personal, intellectual, and social histories.
Some Social Effects of Exploitation
Beyond the moral and ethical grounds for opposing exploitation per se, there are grounds for opposition based on exploitation’s many social effects. Each individual worker’s physical, emotional, and intellectual dimensions depend significantly on his or her work activity. The qualities of work shape an immense range of social phenomena from the psychodynamics of the household to the politics and culture of the society. How each community organizes the work activity of its laboring members will deeply influence its development and that of every individual within it. A loving and productive community will be the more difficult to create or sustain the more its work activity contradicts those values. Where exploitation attends the workplace, the spillover effects on society will likely be significant.
Some of these possible effects are obvious. An unequal development of human skills, aptitudes, and attitudes follows when a minority is channeled into a class of exploiters and a majority into the exploited class. Countless commentators have examined this phenomenon from many perspectives. We can summarize their findings by focusing on the highly developed managerial apparatus typically inserted between the exploited and the exploiters in modern capitalist enterprises. Hired by the exploiters—who use a portion of the surpluses they appropriate from workers to pay for their salaries and budgets—the managers provide the means, context, discipline, and supervision needed for productive workers to maximize the surplus. Because managers are hired to extract surplus from workers, their skills, aptitudes and attitudes become not only different from but also oppositional and hostile to workers. On the one hand, these differences foster capitalist production, yet they also undermine production or even halt it by contributing to strikes, job actions, sabotage, or the infinite forms of “low worker morale.” The conflicts generated by exploitation at the workplace are frequently continued at or displaced onto other social sites. Then, family life, politics and culture, for example, bristle with tensions, antagonisms, and conflicts that are blocked from surfacing in production—possibly because the exploitation there and its effects are invisible to workers and capitalists alike.
In politics, the prospects for democracy are poor when exploitation characterizes production. Productive workers excluded from appropriating and distributing the surpluses they produce are thereby deprived of the learning and experience associated with those activities. Subject to countless management controls during the productive times of their days and lives, they rarely acquire the knowledge and self-confidence associated with managing. The upper levels of corporate management often require a breadth of directorial perspectives and engagement with the larger society very unlike what is demanded of productive workers. Objects of managerial manipulation and surplus exploitation, productive workers can slide all too easily into parallel positions in political organizations and the polity generally. At the same time, exploiters have increasingly learned to use the surpluses they appropriate to make political life reinforce the exploitative production system. They do this by constricting the range of options deemed “reasonable” or “realistic” for political institutions or politically active individuals to debate or enact. Large numbers of workers in capitalist society thus disengage from political debate and action partly because “politics” has become so alien and “uninteresting.” In addition, because they cannot escape exploitation on the job, they often displace onto politics a determined refusal to “get involved.”
Democracy can then mean not active, informed mass political participation, but rather, mere electoralism. Annual voting in many capitalist societies today reflects mass political pacification. Workers passively consume the advertising purveyed by party machines. The latter become totally dependent on raising the vast sums needed to buy media access to the masses.
In culture, exploitation often deeply reinforces another kind of passivity. Excluded from the appropriation and distributions of the surplus, from managerial activities, from meaningful political participation, often physically exhausted from work and emotionally stressed by their low social ranking, many productive workers lack the time, energy, or motivation to be culturally active. Political passivity is then matched by the passive consumption of cultural commodities sold—and heavily advertised—to them by capitalist enterprises. Instead of sports activities, workers in huge numbers watch professionals play. Instead of performing music, theater, and art, they purchase and consume appliances for listening to and observing broadcasts and disks.
Capitalist advertising emphasizes a definition of culture as consumption of “leisure” commodities whose production generates surpluses. To maximize the surpluses generated by those commodities, capitalist enterprises mass produce them for the mass buyers stimulated by that advertising. Cheap, mechanical reproduction of cultural commodities then plays a dominant role in shaping capitalist societies’ cultural life. Especially in the United States—where home computers, music, sports, literature, television, and film have been more fully converted into objects of individual consumption—culture less than ever provides occasions for workers to actively produce and share meaningful interpersonal communication. Exploitation thus contributes to a kind of passive, individualistic cultural consumption that further militates against an active, solidaristic experience of community.
In such circumstances, differentiations between high and low culture harden. Consumers of expensive cultural commodities look down on those buying the cheaper sort. The latter resent the former. Paid cultural activity ranks above unpaid. The highest paid “stars” dominate; in comparison, cultural activity by the average person seems puny, unimportant, and not worthwhile. Cultural consumption instead of cultural activity can then reinforce politics understood as spectator sport instead of collective action. Candidates become stars, too. Spectators/voters cheer or boo their maneuvers to win elections. Political positions and programs become part of the packaging of candidates (alongside their clothes, hair styles, personal mannerisms, church attendance records, and so on) to win votes much like commodity packaging aims to win buyers. Culture and politics intertwine as service commodities for consumption.
Of course, these negative economic, political, and cultural developments have multiple causes. The exploitation stressed here is but one of them. Some workers, despite exploitation, manage to avoid or escape capitalism’s negative consequences. As capitalist exploitation differs from one country to the next and from one historical period to another, its impacts on workers also varies. Workers themselves, by their activities and struggles, shape and contest those impacts, sometimes successfully.
Yet rarely have workers grasped and contested exploitation itself as a key cause of unwanted economic, political, and cultural burdens that could be eliminated. To that end, one crucial step is to acknowledge the existence of surplus and exploitation, to break the hegemonic taboo against concepts of surplus, exploitation, and the critical social analyses focused upon them. To refuse that break is to forfeit an important part of understanding and solving contemporary social problems. “Solutions” to those problems that ignore and thereby help to perpetuate exploitation rarely succeed and even more rarely endure. The following example that Marx offered to support this point remains valid to this day.
Exploitation is a basic cause of poverty within capitalism. Reformers have devised countless programs to “eradicate” poverty in capitalist societies while leaving the existence of exploitation unrecognized and unchallenged. Those programs failed; poverty remains a serious problem inside most capitalist societies and even more across a now globalized capitalism. Even where and when reduced, poverty has proven resilient in its resurgence. Where exploitation stays invisible, antipoverty policies that might include the elimination of exploitation remain unthinkable. Thus, the successive failures of antipoverty programs often provoke a fatalistic resignation to poverty as somehow socially intrinsic, as “always with us” and therefore not amenable to any policy.
The Communist Alternative
In presenting the “communist alternative” we speak of communism not as a social system, not in terms of society as a whole. We refer instead to the communist class structure of production as an alternative to the capitalist. We stress a class change in production in the hope and belief that it will help to produce a better society.
In an enterprise with a communist class structure of production, the productive laborers—those who produce the surplus—are also the people who get and then distribute that surplus. As they produce collectively, so they collectively appropriate and distribute. Communism, in this limited sense, makes the surplus theirs and thereby ends their exploitation. The concept of “worker” changes accordingly. The productive worker’s tasks in any enterprise organized as a communist collective include more than helping to produce the surplus as in a capitalist enterprise. In the communist enterprise, productive workers must also participate in the collective appropriation and distribution of that surplus. From Monday through Thursday, for example, they produce the surplus; on Friday, they meet to appropriate and distribute it. Productive workers become their own board of directors.
If and when such a communist enterprise hires other people as managers or other sorts of unproductive workers, their jobs are to enable the communist organization of the enterprise to continue and prosper. Of course, the communist enterprise might decide to share and rotate some or all of management tasks among productive laborers themselves. Similarly, the communist enterprise will distribute more or less of its surplus to its own expansion by purchasing more machines, equipment, and raw material and hiring more workers. To preserve its communist organization, all new productive workers hired would also have to join the enterprise’s board of directors. In times of retrenchment or decline, the board of directors of a communist enterprise—the collective of productive workers—will confront the problem of whether and how to lay off some of themselves. The board might well decide to do that by sharing the burden of layoffs among all its employees/members as more consistent with communism. In any case, communist unemployment will likely be managed and experienced very differently from capitalist unemployment.
In communist enterprises, the productive workers take over the processes of appropriating and distributing the surplus from capitalists. What does this mean for unproductive workers? As in capitalism, productive and unproductive workers relate to the surplus differently. However, in a communist organization of production, productive and unproductive workers confront one another directly without the intermediation by capitalists. The two kinds of workers—surplus producers and the enablers of surplus production—must define, negotiate, and resolve their differences and relationships or else risk the dissolution of the communist organization of production (and perhaps thereby initiate a transition back to capitalism or yet another organization of production). Various options exist. Perhaps “unions” of productive and unproductive workers will emerge to bargain collectively with one another. Perhaps a union of unproductive workers will demand and obtain significant power over how the surplus will be distributed by the collective of productive workers. Because it is a communist enterprise, the appropriation and actual distribution of the surplus are processes performed by the productive workers. However, the power to decide who gets what portions of the surplus distribution for what purposes will likely be shared by productive and unproductive workers. Indeed, in societies where the communist organization of production prevails, that same power over the distribution of the surplus will likely also be shared by people who are neither productive nor unproductive workers.
Complex power struggles over the surplus are nothing new historically; they exist in all class structures. In European feudalism, the church wielded power over how the feudal lords distributed the surpluses they appropriated from serfs. In modern capitalism, the state, banks, and merchants are some of the groups that wield power over how industrial capitalists distribute the surplus they appropriate from productive laborers. Communism, too, entails other social groups (unproductive laborers, the state, etc.) who will have power over how the collective of productive laborers distributes its surplus. The point is that those struggles over the distribution of the surplus will differ according to which class structure exists and leaves its complex imprints on society.
Political struggles will likely also attend the evolving interdependence among communist enterprises. Given the specializations of production among them, they will need each other’s products as raw materials, machinery, and so on. As workers’ skills and interests develop and as their personal circumstances change, they will need to move from one to another enterprise. Shifting consumer tastes and incomes as well as changing technologies will raise aggregate demand for some products and reduce it for others, requiring accommodations in all communist enterprises. Their interdependence will generate opportunities, costs, and pains for communist enterprises. Thus they will need to develop and adjust their relationships continuously. Political struggles are likely over how best to arrange such continuous adjustments and share their costs. Market mechanisms or centralized planning or decentralized planning or various combinations of all three will emerge. Communist enterprises’ boards of directors may exchange their products as commodities, buy labor power from themselves as individual productive laborers, borrow money, issue shares, and so on. Or they might alternatively establish central or local planning agencies to handle some or all of their interdependence. Unproductive workers and other social groups will likely contest with productive laborers over these institutions. The qualities as well as the durability of the communist organization of production will depend, in part, on how these contestations get resolved. And again, such political struggles over markets and planning in communism will differ from their counterparts in capitalism.
The issue of income distribution would no doubt also occasion discussion, debate, and political struggles within a society where communist class structures prevail in production. One question for decision concerns collective versus individual consumption. What portion of the communist surpluses should be distributed to provide collective consumption (publicly available education, medical care, recreation, transportation, housing, and so forth)? Will individuals obtain equal access to the objects of collective consumption or will inequalities be established, and if so on what bases (age differences, health differences, and so on)? What kind of public agencies will supervise collective consumption (centralized or decentralized, elected or appointed members, and so on)? What kinds and amounts of consumption will be private, determined individually?
Another question to be decided is the individual or household distribution of income. Productive workers, acting as communist enterprises’ board of directors, return a portion of total output (in kind and/or money) to each of the enterprise’s individual productive and unproductive workers as his/her personal income: their individual wages. The fund available for unproductive workers’ individual incomes depends on the surplus which depends in turn on what productive workers pay as individual wages to themselves. This communist interdependence occasions political struggles. Productive and unproductive workers as well as others in the larger society all have stakes in—and thus will want power over—both the size of the surplus and its distribution. Political struggles will develop agreements, perhaps codified into laws, concerning the size and distribution of individual incomes. Notions that individual incomes can or ought to depend mechanically on each individual’s “productivity” (as if that could actually ever be isolated and thus calculated) will likely disappear in communism.
What’s Positive about Communism
Communist and capitalist class structures will shape and engage every person’s ethical commitments in different ways. Different moral values emerge, in part, from different class structures. Communism redefines productive work inside enterprises to include the appropriation and distribution as well as the production of surplus. Division between producers and appropriators of the surplus disappears. Producers are not cut off from their products but rather decide, collectively and together with unproductive workers and still others, how much surplus they will produce and how they will dispose of it. In capitalist class structures, productive workers are cut off from the surplus and are thereby alienated from the part of their labor and of themselves embodied in the surplus product. That alienation stops with the end of exploitation. In communism, no one appropriates a surplus produced by another. No longer invisible or theorized as some nonlaborers’ private product (“their profit”), the surplus becomes recognized instead as a social product and therefore the proper object of collective political decision.
From moral standpoints that place high values on community, equality, and solidarity in production as elsewhere in society, communist will likely be preferred to exploitative (including capitalist) organizations of production. Since communism makes the size and social distribution of the surplus topics for social decisionmaking, it will appeal to those committed to democracy. Because communism puts the size and distribution of the surplus “on the table” for social decision, it also calls the mass of people (productive and unproductive workers) to participate, individually and collectively, in making such a social decision. By contrast, where capitalist class structures prevail, decisions about the sizes and distributions of the surpluses fall disproportionately to the exploiters. Their economic positions within capitalist enterprises give them such disproportionate power. Their receipt and power over surpluses supports politics and politicians that reproduce capitalism. They also support the particular modes of thought (e.g., the “neoclassical economics” that prevails today) that deny there is any surplus, let alone one that ought to be subject to social decisionmaking.
Communism expands the social issues subject to democratic decisionmaking. It integrates the class structure of production, the size and social distribution of the surplus, into the democratic agenda. If capitalism’s historic achievements include making undemocratic political elites morally intolerable, then communism’s will be to do the same for their economic equivalents, the exploiters.
Communism will not only appeal to certain moral values, but will also shape a society’s moralities. Capitalism likewise shaped as well as appealed to certain moralities. The point is that the two sets of moralities linked to capitalism and communism differ. Because communist class structures require workers to participate in the appropriation and distribution of the surplus, the workers will become more aware of the political, cultural, and economic forces affecting the social organization of surplus. Workers’ comprehensive participation in civic affairs, as a way to shape those forces, may overcome the political passivity that capitalism inculcated.
Because a communist organization of production focuses attention on the surplus, productive and unproductive workers—surplus producers and their enablers—will likely understand both their differences and their interdependence in new ways. Divisions and hostilities nurtured by their subordination to exploiters as employees may weaken and thereby enhance possibilities for democratic collaboration inside and outside enterprises. If social progress flows from citizens gaining control of their government, the same should follow from workers gaining control of the surpluses they produce or enable.
A communist organization of the production process inside enterprises may reasonably be expected to affect exploitative production systems elsewhere in society.
If, for example, households are social sites where some individuals produce surpluses that are appropriated and distributed by others, household exploitation will likely feel the effects when enterprise exploitation stops. If kings are eliminated from politics and capitalists from enterprises, it will become more difficult to maintain the tiny kingdoms inside household castles. If exploited members of households cease being exploited at work in enterprises that have become communist, how long will they tolerate it at home?
The case for communist class structures as preferable to capitalist and other exploitative organizations of production rests partly on ethical evaluations of their differences and partly on the social consequences of those differences. Utopian longings for community, equality, democracy, and solidarity have always influenced evaluations of alternative systems of production. For example, Milton Friedman’s equation of capitalism with freedom entails a deeply Utopian longing for a society that would celebrate individuality and individual liberty. Because Friedman rejects the existence of any surplus in production and hence of exploitation in capitalism, he evaluates capitalist and communist production systems in very different terms and comes to conclusions opposite to mine. Friedman makes no apologies for the Utopian dreams inspiring his evaluation, nor do I for those inspiring mine. Contesting Utopias and different notions of how to realize social movement toward them operate deeply in the debates over capitalism and communism. The contest remains unresolved notwithstanding the efforts these days to pretend that it is “over.”
Those inspired by Friedman’s Utopian dreams and analytical arguments keep working (for example, by means of global neoliberalism) to move them closer to reality. They suffer countless reverses, failed attempts, and experiments driven off course by external pressures, confused understandings, and the multiple contradictions always agitating every society. Those on my side also suffer reverses. The efforts to establish communist class structures of production display comparable failures and contradictions such as the collapse of the USSR and changes in China. Those opposed to communist class structures take understandable advantage of their opponents’ difficulties. Soaring to heights of blissful as well as wishful thinking, they declare communism now permanently defunct, proof that it was and is impracticable and undesirable for all the reasons advanced against communisms over the millennia.
However, communism remains as both Utopian vision and impetus for concrete social analyses and anticapitalist social action. Capitalism itself provokes and renews communism as its own self-criticism, its own alternative “other.” Communist class structures of production keep reemerging among the demands for change from those who suffer but will not resign themselves to capitalist exploitation and its social consequences. As capitalism has changed so too has critique of it. These days, criticism of capitalism focuses increasingly on the exploitative class structure at its productive core and on the gains available from transitions to nonexploitative, communist class structures of production.