Communism in practice: Directly social labour

While reading this extract below from Peter Hudis’ wonderful book, keep in mind the already existing practices of P2P production, such as free software and open education. As Michel Bauwens and others recognise, these are examples of a proto-mode of post-capitalist production. They conform to much of what Marx describes (below) as the features of directly social labour but have yet to overcome the determinate imperative of value production i.e. they do not replace the production of value but remain reliant on it. Tony Smith and Guido Starosta discuss this limitation in detail.

Source: Hudis, P. (2013) Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism, Leiden: Brill. pp. 110-113.

“‘Now if this assumption is made, the general character of labour would not be given to it only by exchange; its assumed communal character would determine participation in the products. The communal character of production would from the outset make the product into a communal, general one. The exchange initially occurring in production, which would not be an exchange of exchange values but of activities determined by communal needs and communal purposes, would include from the beginning the individual’s participation in the communal world of products…labour would be posited as general labour prior to exchange, i.e., the exchange of products would not in any way be the medium mediating the participation of the individual in general production. Mediation of course has to take place.’ (Marx, Grundrisse, 1986: 108)

This is a remarkable passage that is worth close analysis. First, Marx acknowledges that labour would have a ‘general’ character in a new society. However, its generality would be radically different from what exists in capitalism, where discrete acts of individual labour become connected to one another (or are made general) through the act of commodity-exchange. In contrast, labour becomes general in the new society prior to the exchange of products, on the basis of the ‘the communal character of production’ itself. The community distributes the elements of production according to the individuals’ needs, instead of being governed by social forms that operate independently of their deliberation. Labour is general insofar as the community directly decides the manner and form of production. Marx is not referring here to the existence of small, isolated communities that operate in a world dominated by value-production. As noted above, Marx never adhered to the notion that socialism was possible in one country, let alone in one locale. He is pointing, instead, to a communal network of associations in which value-production has been superseded on a systemic level. Labour is therefore directly social, not indirectly social. Second, Marx acknowledges that exchange of some sort would exist in a new society. However, exchange would be radically different from what prevails in capitalism, which is governed by the exchange of commodities. Instead of being based on exchange-values, prices, or markets, distribution would be governed by an exchange of activities that are ‘determined by communal needs and communal purposes’. The latter determines the exchange of activities, instead of being determined by the exchange of products that operate independently of it. Third, Marx acknowledges that social mediation would exist in a new society. However, mediation would be radically different from that under capitalism, where it has an abstract character, since ‘mediation takes place through the exchange of commodities, through exchange value’ and money. In socialism, in contrast, ‘the presupposition is itself mediated, i.e., communal production, community as the basis of production, is assumed. The labour of the individual is from the outset taken as [directly] social labour’.

Marx’s distinction between indirectly and directly social labour is central to his evolving concept of a postcapitalist society – not only in the Grundrisse but also (as I will attempt to show) in much of his later work. He contends that in capitalism the ‘social character of production is established only post festum by the elevation of the products into exchange values and the exchange of these exchange values’, whereas in socialism, ‘The social character of labour is presupposed, and participation in the world of products, in consumption, is not mediated by exchange between mutually independent labourers of products of labour. It is mediated by social production within which the individual carries on his activity’. Marx is envisaging a totally new kind of social mediation, one that is direct, instead of indirect, sensuous, instead of abstract: ‘For the fact is that labour on the basis of exchange values presupposes that neither the labour of the individual nor his product is directly general, but that it acquires this form only through objective mediation by means of a form of money distinct from it’. In sum, a society is governed by exchange-value only inso-far as the sociality of labour is established not through itself, but through an objective form independent of itself. Such a society is an alienated one, since (as Marx showed from as early as his writings of 1843–4), the domination of individuals by objective forms of their own making is precisely what is most problematic and indeed perverse about capitalism.

Marx proceeds to go deeper into what he means by directly social ‘communal production’ by addressing the role of time in a new society. He writes, ‘Ultimately, all economy is a matter of economy of time’. All societies strive to reduce the amount of time spent on producing and reproducing the necessities of life. No society is more successful at doing so than capitalism, in which production-relations force individual units of labour to conform to the average amount of time necessary to produce a given commodity. Since this compulsion issues from within the production-process, instead of from a political authority which lords over it from outside, capitalism is far more effective at generating efficiencies of time than were precapitalist modes of production. Marx repeatedly refers to this as capitalism’s ‘civilising mission’. He says this because the development and satisfaction of the individual ultimately depends upon the saving of time so that life can be freed up for pursuits other than engaging in material production.

But how does the economisation of time relate to a new society governed by ‘communal production’? Marx indicates that it becomes just as important as in capitalism, although it exists in a different form and for a different purpose:

If we presuppose communal production, the time factor naturally remains essential. The less time society requires to produce corn, livestock, etc., the more time it wins for other production, material or spiritual…Economy of time, as well as the planned distribution of labour time over the various branches of production, therefore, remains the first economic law if communal production is taken as the basis. It becomes a law even to a much higher degree. However, this is essentially different from the measurement of exchange values (of labours or products of labour) by labour time.

Marx does not detail exactly how the economisation of time operates in a society governed by communal production; the text mentions no single mechanism or lever for accomplishing this. However, in light of his earlier writings, we can surmise that he sees the motivation for the economisation of time in a new society as resting upon the effort to achieve what he called in 1844 a ‘totality of manifestations of life’. When society is freed from the narrow drive to augment value as an end in itself, it can turn its attention to supplying the multiplicity of needs and wants that are integral to the social individual. Instead of being consumed by having and possessing, individuals can now focus upon what is given short shrift in societies governed by value-production – their being, their manifold sensuous and intellectual needs, whether ‘material or spiritual’. The more people get in touch with their universality of needs, the greater the incentive to economise time, to reduce the amount of hours engaged in material production, so that such multiple needs (such as cultural, social, or intellectual enjoyment) can be pursued and satisfied. In a word, whereas in capitalism the incentive to economise time is provided by an abstract standard, exchange-value, in socialism it is provided by the concrete sensuous needs of the individuals themselves. The drive to economise time no longer comes from outside the individuals, from value’s need to grow big with value, but from within, from the quest to manifest the totality of the individuals’ intellectual, sensuous, and spiritual capabilities.”