Monday, June 4, 2012

Adam Buick on a life without money

Adam Buick's script from our panel discussion on Life Without Money at Bolivar Hall (London) on 30 May 2012 follows. Well over half of the discussion involved the around 40 participants who attended and it was quite lively.

I spoke about why and how we came to write the book and Derek Wall talked more generally about the power of money and contemplating radical social change while the first question that Adam addressed was: What might a 'life without money' mean?

It’s an ambiguous idea. It can mean trying to survive without using money within or at the margins of existing money-dominated society. Or it can mean a change of society to one in which money would be redundant. Both points of view are represented in this book.

Then there is the question of what is meant by “money”. There are those who want to replace notes and coins, cheques and electronic transfers by labour credits or consumption vouchers. They too are represented in this book, even though some might regard them as only wanting a different form of money. But then, Karl Marx, a famous critic and opponent of money, envisaged using “labour-time vouchers” instead of money in the early stages of socialism pending it becoming possible to go over to full free distribution and full free access.

None of the contributors argue that all that needs to be done is to abolish money and leave everything else unchanged. That would be madness and would lead to a breakdown of production and distribution. If you’ve got a system based on producing goods and services for sale on a market with a view to profit, you’ve got to have money. So, no, we don’t want to go back to barter.

As a Socialist, I’m one of the contributors who wants to replace the present capitalist system with a new system based on common ownership instead of ownership by the few and with production directly to meet people’s needs instead of production for sale on a market with a view to profits. In such a socialist (or communist) society – the two words mean the same – money would be redundant. So I don’t want to “abolish money”. I want a change to a society with a system of production and distribution in which money would be redundant and so would disappear.

For me, the case against money is the case against capitalism.

Capitalism is the system which now dominates the world. No country escapes or can escape from its influence and effects. It is essentially an economic system where the means for producing useful goods and services take the form of “capital”, or wealth used to produce more wealth with a view to profit, and where the goods and services produced take the form of “exchange value”, they all have a price and have to be exchanged for money.

The farms, factories, offices and other places where wealth is produced are owned and controlled by rich individuals, capitalist corporations and states. Under the pressure of competition, those in charge of these “units of capital” are driven to seek as much profit as they can, not so much for the personal benefit of the owners (though this does come into it) as to get funds to reinvest in cost-cutting innovations so as to be able to compete with, and outcompete, their rivals. One consequence of this is that more and more capital is accumulated. This in fact is what capitalism is all about: the accumulation of more and more capital out of profits.

So, over time the means of production and their productive power have built up and society has now become able, in theory, to produce enough useful goods and services to meet people’s needs. But the economic mechanism of capitalism does not let this happen. Making profits and re-investing them as more capital always comes first.

It’s an irrational system of “production for production’s sake”, of “growth for growth’s sake”. There are other anti-social results of capitalism. Such as the recurring economic crises and slumps like the one we’re in now. Such as the wars and preparation for war that occur as capitalist states compete over sources of raw material, trade routes, markets and investment outlets. Such as putting short-term cost and profit considerations before protecting the environment and respecting a balance of nature. But the one I want to concentrate on is that it does not allow production to be geared to meeting the needs of people for food, clothes, housing, healthcare, education an the other amenities for an enjoyable life.

People’s needs are met but only to an extent – to the extent that they have money to pay for them. There are various ways an individual can get money. They can inherit it (be born with it). They can steal it. They can beg for it. Or they can work for it – which is what most people do.

I don’t criticise those who try to avoid this by establishing rural communes or by living off what they find in skips. That’s a lifestyle choice but not an attractive one for most people. I don’t even criticise those who chose to steal money, at least not as long as they steal from the rich.

But what sort of society is it where most people have to fend for themselves to get money so they can access what they need to live – and where, even in a developed country like Britain, 10-15 percent can’t keep up and are forced to rely on more or less meagre handouts from the state? This, when, from the point of view of technology, society could produce enough for all, especially if we get rid of capitalism’s artificial scarcity (the need to make a profit holds back producing enough to meet people’s needs) and its organised scarcity (not just of wars and preparation for war, but also all of the resources devoted to the counting and transfer of money).

As a Socialist, I say capitalism must go if we’re going to be able to provide a decent living for every man, woman and child on the planet.

What is needed in place of capitalism is for the Earth’s resources to become the common heritage of all. Then, they could be geared to satisfying people’s needs. If productive resources were commonly owned, then so would what they produced. The issue to be dealt with would be, not how to sell to people what had been produced (how could you when they’re already the joint owners of it?) It’s how to share-out/distribute what’s been produced. In other words, exchange (buying and selling) is replaced by distribution (sharing-out and taking). For this, money is not needed.

It’s possible – right at the beginning or as a result of some major natural disaster – that some useful things might be temporarily unavailable in sufficient quantities. In which case there would have to be a temporary rationing of them till supplies were increased or restored. But, given modern technology and capacity to produce, the general rule (and certainly the aim to be reached as rapidly as possible) would be free distribution and free access, the implementation of the old communist principle of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”. With free public transport, healthcare, education, gas, water, electricity, telephone, internet access, and other public services and amenities. And people free to take from the stores and distribution centres according to their needs. As I said, there would be no need for money. It would be redundant. The notes and coins we now use would find their proper place in museums.

Why not? Would it work? And how would  – or, rather, could – it work?

The main objection is a popular version of the basic dogma of modern conventional economics: that resources are scarce because people’s wants are infinite. Or, in its popular (populist) form, because people are greedy, so they would take too much and the whole system would collapse in chaos.

But are people’s wants really infinite? “Infinite” is the word they actually use in the textbooks. If literally interpreted, it would mean that everybody desires to obtain the whole universe. Which is absurd. People’s needs are not infinite. But are people “greedy”? In today’s society, where you can’t be sure of the future, it makes sense to make hay or gather nuts while you can in case things go wrong and your future money income is reduced (if, for instance, you lose your job or your employer or the government freezes your pay).

But even today within capitalism, when some things are free at the time of use and people know they will continue to be freely available they only take what they need. I’ve got a Freedom Pass that allows me to travel free on public transport in London. So have hundreds of thousands  of others. Do we spend all our time going from one end of the line to another or round and round the Circle Line? Of course not. We only travel when we need to. Maybe more than we would if we had to pay, but there’s nothing wrong with that. It only shows how having to pay means that some needs have to go unmet.

So, overconsumption is not going to be a problem. The problem will be organising so that the stores and distribution centres are always stocked with what people are likely to need. Here we can go again to the textbooks of conventional economics. They say that production is geared to meeting paying consumer demand. This isn’t the case, but let’s assume that it is. The theory is that consumers determine what is produced by the way they spend their money. What they buy over a given period is a signal as to what to produce. If stocks run short, that’s a signal to produce more. If stocks build up, that’s a signal to produce les.

This system of signals via stock levels can work just as easily irrespective of whether the stocks run short or build up as a result of what people buy or as a result of what they take freely. So the sort of central planning involving planners deciding in advance all that’s needed – which some people see as the only way to organise the production and distribution of useful things without money – is not necessary. In a moneyless society too, production and distribution could be largely self-regulating.

Anyway, this is not a blueprint, just an illustration of how organising the production and distribution of wealth without money is feasible.
The session was taped and will be posted on You Tube in about month's time.

2 comments:

  1. An excellent synthesis of the case for a world of free access without buying and selling and how it could work. Simple in the extreme really. The only real obstacle is that people are tied mentally to what they know, which means that the achievement of this society may well be a long time coming - but come it must.

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  2. Fascinating and valuable stuff! Of course people have lived for milenia without money.
    I've written a novel 'The Free' which is set in the transition to a Money-Free world, in the context of capitalist collapse and climate chaos. It's a free ebook and can be read online here: thefreeonline.wordpress.com
    In the book local producer/consumer coops begin with free distribution systems, and that grows. They do keep a record with a computerised system deciding the worth of an item, based on social, use and scarcity value, called WURTS in the book. heres an extract from the Glossary:
    Wurts*
    A way to calculate the value of free goods. The wurt value of something in the shop includes variable eco-cost, use-value, and desirability cost, as well as scarcity value.
    The wurt is decided automatically by a computer program.
    But people argue and vote on the variables that calculate it.
    ..Curiously you can have a negative wurt.. e.g. you had a glut of apples.
    But you can't spend a wurt, It's a measure.
    There appears to be a danger of wurts turning back into money.
    The concept takes a bit of getting used to but beats calculating everything
    on absurd values of a capitalist market.. Wurt values are calculated by a dedicated Program and algorithm,
    with surveys and weekly online voting.
    (Fans note. Sadly we only know of wurts existing in the last chapters of these chronicles.

    Please feel free to use 'The Free' to illustrate what a money-free society could be like. That's why I wrote it.
    The trick is to play it live, to peep round our daily blinkers.Other worlds and social systems are not only possible, but are coming pronto. Like it or not. .

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