- Capitalism and Alternatives -

A Democratic Conception of Production

Posted by: Barry Stoller on December 17, 1999 at 20:00:45:

The Marxist paradigm rests upon the idea that socialism, in replacing the social relations attending capitalism's mode of production, will not only harness capitalism's productive capacity for the satisfaction of ALL people, but will even EXCEED it.

Material abundance is the fundamental predicate of socialism.

Indeed, envisioning the abundance a planned socialist economy could provide, Trotsky anticipated 'people's palaces on the peaks of Mont Blanc and at the bottom of the Atlantic.'(1) Lenin saw the day that gold would be used 'for the purpose of building public lavatories in the streets of some of the largest cities of the world.'(2)

Setting aside environmental concerns, what has not received enough attention, in my opinion, is WHETHER workers would WANT to create such copious abundance. Indeed, as I see it, a democratic conception of production as applied to the creation of goods might quite possibly limit a great deal of luxury in the socialist future.

With job rotation as a predicate of socialism, democratic production would simply be democracy applied to WHAT goods society collectively produces. A real socialist economy, producing according to need, would grant the workers the power to DECIDE what was needed (as well as wanted).

In the current 'free market' democracy (one dollar = one vote), ten millionaires desiring summer mansions would in fact receive them while, simultaneously, a million poverty-level working families desiring basic health care would not. Desire has nothing to do with the 'vote.' Numerical representation has nothing to do with the 'vote.' And MOST IMPORTANTLY, participation in the production process has nothing to do with the 'vote.' Only dollars are counted at the bourgeois 'ballot'---and, before that happens (lest us not forget), the LABOR MARKET determines how many dollars working people get to 'vote' with.

So it turns out in capitalist 'democracy' that the 'free market' enables a MINORITY to decide what goods are made---and for whom. This is why---even in a technologically advanced country such as America---summer mansions are made for ten millionaires while millions of families go without basic health care. Indeed, not only do millionaires receive luxuries that working people do not---but millionaires don't even have to make those luxuries for themselves, workers do that FOR them.

On the other hand, when a REAL democracy (one vote = one vote) is considered (and that would be socialism), it should be evident that the question of what goods are to be made would be made---democratically---by the working people. (I will assume here that people who do NOT work are not going to get a vote regarding production.) This means that if EVERYONE wanted health care, everyone would receive it---providing that everyone would be willing to create what it takes to make health care accessible to everyone (training doctors, manufacturing equipment, funding research, etc.). And, likewise, if EVERYONE wanted a summer mansion, everyone would receive one---providing that everyone would be willing to create what it takes to make summer mansions accessible to everyone.

Here we may anticipate that NOT everyone would choose to have a summer mansion. After all, if one has to actually do the work in making one (instead of having others do the work), one may choose instead to enjoy the leisure instead.

We may also anticipate that SOME people would choose to do the work required to make a summer mansion while others did not. What then? A REAL democracy would permit the 'summer mansion minority' its opportunity to make its summer mansions---proportional to the numerical strength that desire represents. Example: if 10% of the population chose to make summer mansions for itself as its TENTH priority (say, after food, primary housing, child care, and so on), then that 10% of the population would receive 1% of its working time to do so.

This leads us to the question of how much can actually be ACCOMPLISHED with only 1% of the social productivity going into the construction of summer mansions. After all, what characterizes the incredible productivity of industrial manufacture are the economies of scale requiring unremitting production. Example: a plant that runs only 1% of the day sacrifices 99% of its productive capacity. Thus luxury commodities are not mass-produced, itself a reason that they are so expensive.

A rough outline of a democratic conception of production, cited earlier, may follow this general reasoning:

What about the desires of the minority? I'm a scuba diver. The gear I really want costs far more than I can afford. But how many other people dive? Will there be enough people working in the diving gear factory to make it for ourselves?

A truly democratic (socialist) society will decide collectively what its labor priorities are...

If enough people want something (in a collective economy), then the level of productivity will exist to met those demands; if there are not enough people, then the level of productivity will be too low to sustain the demand.

Consider how the organic composition of capital ('capital' being investment in a socialist economy) determines productivity. If a 1000 people want to spend their free time making scuba gear, great (that's unalienated labor)---but they will also have to spend some of their free time getting the raw materials and making the machines that make the scuba gear. Since the abolition of alienated labor, there will no longer be wage-slaves who 'just happen' to do these tasks in the first place.

So, to answer your question directly... a lot of luxuries would probably get nixed in a collective economy. On the other hand, you wouldn't be compelled to print the collected works of Lenin for me if the majority of NONALIENATED workers said to hell with that!*

Returning to the example of summer mansions, if only 1% of social production went into making them (and, certainly, the 10% that desired them could spend any amount of its FREE TIME working on making them), then productivity perforce would be low---and slow. After all, only a small aliquot part of the entire productive capacities of social production would go into making them. That would be 1%.

If, on the other hand, EVERYONE in society decided it would be worth the effort to have summer mansions (say, as its TENTH priority), then 10% of the entire social production would go into making summer mansions.

And THAT would be a massive commitment to summer mansions---determined democratically.

To sum, a democratic conception of production would permit EACH WORKER an equal say in WHAT to make.

And all commodities would then flow proportionally from those priorities.



1. Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, International 1925, p. 254.

2. Lenin, 'The Importance of Gold Now and After a Complete Victory of Socialism' [1921], Selected Works, Progress 1968, p. 649.


* As it turned out, MDG decided against Marxist socialism after hearing that democratic principles (such as job rotation) might curtail his 'freedom' (to perform nothing but skilled jobs, in his working time, while 'other people' did the unskilled work FOR him while he went scuba-diving in his off hours).

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