A glut of capitalist propaganda and apologism, techno-optimism, and scientific utopianism has left us with the unforgettable cliché that thanks to the social, technological, and scientific progress of the last few hundred years, we are all better off. Any criticism of the state capitalist system must contend with the undeniable fact that our lives have improved dramatically compared to the backwards and brutal system of medieval feudalism, all thanks to the social reforms and innovations brought about by capitalism. It is quite easy to find even radical anti-capitalists that will reluctantly nod in agreement over this frequently-regurgitated platitude, but much harder to find those who have actually taken a critical look over it. Just about the only group who has questioned this assertion are the nutty anarcho-primitivists, which for most people simply reinforces the strength of the affirmative argument. How much “better off” are we, really? Is it really true that we modern peasants are dramatically better off than feudal peasants, and is any of this thanks to capitalism or its technological landscape?
The very basics of our quality of life should be examined according to our access to the very basics of human life—food, water, and shelter.
The beginning of the industrial revolution was the capitalist agricultural revolution; here our food-producing infrastructure changed radically from its feudal form, becoming much more productive than under the medieval regime thanks to improved technologies and the concentration of agricultural land through enclosure. At least, that’s the way most people understand it—a closer examination reveals that enclosure, and most of the other changes alleged to compose the agricultural revolution, actually did very little for productivity, or even for the economy. Most of the increases in productivity were thanks to the strengthening of the rights of the yeoman—peasant family farmers with firm rights over their land and produce. Other increases in productivity could be attributed to the increase in utilization, or the ratio of productive workers to idle workers; in other words, idleness was less tolerated in a more hierarchical work situation. The elimination of idleness will be expanded upon later.
Since the commodification of food, access to food has become more costly for society’s peasants. Since the commodification of food, the price of food has increased continuously, only becoming more affordable to those lucky enough to be on the receiving end of wage increases. Since the commodification of food, the wastage of food has increased to such a degree that dumpster diving in the city could support hundreds or perhaps even thousands of families. In total, food waste is proportionally almost half of all food production, which does not even consider the proportion of food crops which is used to produce utterly inferior biofuels. It is quite likely that in taking those two together, we could rid the world entirely of want for food.
The diet under the capitalist system is unique in its composition, often being called the “western diet”, but the “capitalist diet” would probably be more accurate. Under the capitalist diet, most people, more than four in five, experience malnutrition. Despite our modern understanding of diet, and the billions that have been spent in the scientific development of agriculture and dietary science, most people lack vitamins D and E, and a large proportion lack magnesium, calcium, and vitamin A. It is thanks to the capitalist diet that we do not eat the basic vegetables that would supply all these nutrients. The primary characteristic of the capitalist diet is immense quantities of corn, and meat fed by corn; the diet is taken to a comical degree in the modern “paleo” diet, which supposes that our ancient ancestors were both the perpetrators of animal genocide and somehow had an abundant supply of tree nuts, contrary to the reality of hunter-gatherers, who primarily ate berries, tubers, and bitter greens, and secondarily ate meat. Medieval peasants, also unlike the “paleos”, had a relatively balanced diet, with a higher calorie and nutritional content than our highly-sophisticated diet of corn and animal flesh grown by corn.
The production of food, similarly, has turned into an absurd contradiction of advanced science and inefficacy: Our agricultural system today uses more external, synthetic inputs than ever, while producing more waste than ever. The amount of synthetic nitrogen added to the soil, which could be entirely replaced by planting edible legumes, or weeds such as clover, is so great that it’s actually disrupting ecosystems. Phosphorous is in a similar category, except unlike nitrogen, many scientists suggest that we are actually in danger of running out of its artificial, mineral source, resulting in widespread food crisis should no adequate replacement be found. The two together can cause effects such as eutrophication, resulting in algae blooms and anoxia, which disrupt the situation of biodiversity in aquatic environments. This does not even consider pesticide and herbicide use, each of which now numbers in the millions of tons, while the targets of such poisons grow increasingly resistant to it. Similarly, animal husbandry is the chief source of antibiotics use, while it also produces more than anything else diseases resistant to such treatments. The waste problem in agriculture is quite more repulsive, with megatons of compostable plant materials ending up in landfills, and animal farms producing rivers of shit. On the whole, agriculture is unequivocally the chief contributor to climate change, biodiversity loss, and all other forms of ecological devastation.
The water situation is quite a bit simpler than that of food, which is so complex in its horribleness that it’s impossible to cover in its entirety in such an article. But this is not to suggest that the water situation is any better today, which is actually a relatively recent phenomenon. In The Conquest of Bread, Kropotkin notes: Communism (as in everyday communism) “prevails in [ . . . ] the distribution of one commodity at least, which is found in abundance, the water supplied to each house.” Since the 19th century, water has been increasingly enclosed, often by such force that many have termed the enclosure process the “water wars.” This has been aided, in recent years, by laws that penalize the collection of rainwater, considering it a violation of building codes not to be connected to the municipal water supply, or worse, theft under the law. In other places, air and water pollution exists to such a degree as to make rain or well water collection dangerous, putting residents at the whims of water treatment plants thanks to the nearby factory owners who have no interest in the health of the local populations.
The process of privatization and pollution gives capitalists yet another advantage: They are able to charge whatever they want for the most essential substance of sustenance, and of course the good capitalist will take advantage of this situation. The result, once again, is less for the peasant and more for the lord, or in many cases, water becomes the more expensive commodity compared to something the new lord is more interested in selling, such as Coca-Cola. In the privatization of water we have seen the viciousness that the capitalists are willing to deploy to defend the sources of their profits. The riots in Cochabamba, Bolivia are the archetypal example, with the government deploying heavily armed, heavily armored troops against a population defending their right to fulfill their thirst with the same water supplies they have always used.
One of the commonly-cited advantages of the private property system of course, is its ability to efficiently and rationally ration provisions so that shortages are not experienced. We hear this time and again from the right wing, the apologists, the economists, and the bosses, that this, above all, is why private property is necessary, that this is why socialism will ultimately fail, why socialism has failed. Yet it is in the highly capitalist countries where drought has recently become most worrisome, where water supplies have run short thanks to massive water use by bottling companies, animal agriculture, monstrous data centers, fracking operations, and the rest of industry. The phenomenon of the sinkhole is symbolic of not only the provision of water under a capitalist system, but could represent the capitalist system as a whole, which proudly exploits every microgram of raw material at as close to light speed as possible, describing this velocity as “efficiency” and the result as increasing quality of life.
Thanks to one of the most massive failures in capitalism’s “dismal” history, housing is somewhat more affordable, but this is a humorously relative statement. Housing prices have increased manifold over any timescale take, rendering houses unaffordable to anyone except those with the knowledge to build them on their own or willing to submit themselves to the mercy of the bankers. As in the 19th century, it’s not because of the labor that went into the house, the materials that form the house, or the increased utility of the house that form its value, but the potential profit that could be generated from the house that result in its exorbitant price. It’s thanks to the relation of the house to the rest of society, and the ability to profit from the house’s resale that those wealthy enough are willing to pay such a price for it.
Despite the apparently high value of many houses, many other houses sit unoccupied for years, unwanted, yet scarcely more affordable than those highly-coveted ones, and no more available to those in need of shelter, either. The design of modern homes has changed over the years, such that these empty homes often need to be powered and climate-controlled, otherwise they will develop molds or pests, and their grass lawns must be manicured lest they develop weeds. Each empty home represents not just wasted construction and wasted resources, but also an act of violence toward each homeless person prevented from living there with the sticks and guns of the proprietarians.
Despite each part of a Western home improving in its performance and efficiency, between the foundation, the frame, the walls, the roof, the windows, the doors, the pipes, the ventilation, the electricity, the heat, and the cool, houses have become no more material, water, or energy-efficient than their medieval counterparts, last no longer, and are often hardly more comfortable. This is all thanks to the commodification and contractification of construction, where each part of a house, each component of each part, each design of each concern, each installation of each concern, and the whole assembly of each house, are all done by independent and isolated companies and contractors who have no tendency or interest in coordinating with one another to build quality homes. Because of the high prices, the focus is entirely on cost, convenience, and aesthetic, with no mind to longevity, efficacy, or efficiency.
Despite the infrastructure of the basics worsening, surely other areas of quality of life have increased: We have a longer lifespan, more leisure time, we are more socially connected, and our increasing specialization has given us a higher purpose in life! After all, this is economics, and economics is all about trade-offs, so if we take a small cost in one area, we could have an immense benefit in another.
Certainly our lifespan has increased. What most people mean when they say this is that “life expectancy” has increased, which is not quite the same; while our maximum lifespan has indeed grown beyond that of medieval times, the change is not as dramatic as that of life expectancy. The devil is in the details when it comes to life expectancy, because it does not describe merely the average age that an adult dies, but also includes infant mortality. In other words, this measure of “average lifespan” is extremely susceptible to the number of infants that die. It’s the latter that is responsible for the bulk of the change in life expectancy, and there are just three changes that are responsible for nearly the entirety of the difference: Hand-washing, antibiotics, and vaccination.
Hand-washing was discovered to have been an important practice for doctors by Ignaz Semmelweis, who examined differences in infant mortality rates between two clinics in his town; he realized that doctors in one clinic, who performed autopsies and then delivered babies had a much higher incidence of child mortality, compared to the midwives of the other clinic, who only delivered babies. Semmelweis suggested that doctors have some sort of essence of death, which we now know to be pathogens, which was spread to the babies due to the lack of sanitation. This may seem obvious to us now, but in Semmelweis’s time, this was widely regarded as quackery, and Semmelweis died insane and alone in an asylum, having been ridiculed for his discovery.
Antibiotics have a long history, going all the way back to the original literate societies, or perhaps beyond. It has long been known that mold (or in Russia, warm soil) was a useful treatment for wounds, with soldiers carrying bread or oil cakes with them to treat their wounds in battle. Many scholars, apothecaries, and scientists, well before the vaunted “discovery” by Alexander Fleming, noted the use of molds in staving off bacteria, with increasing specificity until Fleming’s study. Today, antibiotics are primarily used to prevent disease in concentrated animal farming operations (CAFOs), and as a result, are becoming increasingly ineffective in the treatment of infections. We now observe, in increasing amounts, resistance to antipathogenic drugs by staphylococci, enterococci, gonoccoci, streptococci, salmonella, and tuberculosis. Now, and soon in increasing degree thanks to climate change, this resistance is transferrable between species thanks to “horizontal gene transfer”, where diseases do the neighborly thing to one another and provide the gift of drug resistance.
Man is not a being whose exclusive purpose is eating, drinking, and providing shelter for himself. As soon as his material wants are satisfied, other needs, which, generally speaking, may be described as of an artistic character, will thrust themselves forward. These needs are of the greatest variety; they vary with each and every individual; and the more society is civilized, the more will individuality be developed, and the more will desires be varied.
Vaccination, originally an evolution of innoculation attributed to the wits of Edward Jenner, has all but eliminated the most heinous diseases that have plagued us for centuries, such as measles, mumps, smallpox, malaria, influenza, and so on. In the Western world, we have all but rendered extinct these diseases, at least until now. Thanks to a small group of disgusting “entrepreneurs” eager to exploit the psychological weaknesses of ordinary people, and a widely-refuted, retracted study on the MMR vaccine, one in three young adult parents in the United States believe that vaccines cause autism in children, and we have since had the largest outbreak of measles in decades, with no signs of the anti-vaxxer movement slowing down yet. This, on top of the other pernicious effects of capitalism on medicine, such as the existence of diseases we have eradicated in the third world, thanks to their inability to pay for the vaccines we produce here in the West, whose production carries almost no cost. It is because vaccine research, and the resulting vaccines themselves, are private property that there is any concern to begin with over “recuperating research costs”, as apologists cite as the reason for charging far more than the cost of production to the receivers of these medicines.
Leisure time seems to be far and above one of the most oft-cited improvements we have experienced in quality of life since medieval times. According to the modern view, derived ultimately from that of Thomas Hobbes, the life of the medieval peasant was “brutish”, with peasants working 16-hour days, toiling in service of their lord and king, giving away most of their produce in taxes. On the contrary, one of the earliest movements in the political economics of the 18th and 19th centuries, one which had a wide consensus and as much vitriol as today’s right-wing distaste for “entitled” welfare recipients, was the idea that peasant farmers were lazy because they only worked about half the year. Medieval peasants enjoyed numerous religious holidays, over 150 of them in European countries. These were gradually eliminated, most prominently by following Voltaire’s suggestion of moving them all to Sundays, which was already a day of rest for peasants. “Yes, that may be,” you think, “but they still worked 16-hour days, and they gave most of their produce to the royals.” While it is true that peasant farmers were out in the field for up to 16 hours in a day, do not mistake it for 16 hours of toil. This time included up to 8 hours of mealtimes and napping, and was work done at a pace much more leisurely than that during and after the agricultural and industrial revolutions. The rent paid to the lord by serfs, which does not include the free peasantry, was comparable or far less than that paid to the bourgeois landlords following primitive accumulation. Taxes were even less, for as even Kropotkin notes, it was extremely unlikely for a peasant to ever see a government official or pay a tax. While it is important not to romanticize the working life of peasants, this goes both ways, and the image many of us have of the filth-covered, hunch-backed peasants performing hours and hours of exhausting manual labor is a much more accurate depiction of industrial wage work.
The work itself involved comradery with neighbors, as medieval agriculture took place in the commons, and neighbors intimately depended on and worked with one another. This sort of work can still be seen in some parts of the world, and is depicted in literary works involving peasant farmers, such as in Dostoyevsky: The difficult work of farming was done in big groups, and typically involved neighbors getting drunk together and singing as they worked. The culture of many traditional alcoholic beverages, if they did not revolve around marriage, revolved around neighborly coworking. In contrast, work today is lonely, increasingly lonely, as we are pushed into telework schedules, reducing the cost of capital and the possibility of worker organization. Today we have numerous high-tech devices and specialized venues for people to socialize, to repair the damage done by commodity relations, specialization, and suburbanization. These fixes can even exacerbate the problem, leading to even more extreme fixes, such as the ever-more utilized medication to cure social anxiety, a problem which can only exist in the context of the normalcy of social isolation.
Meanwhile, our work has become increasingly meaningless and alienating. No one within the capitalist system, from the richiest, rothschildiest, richie rich to the most destitute, groveling, dirt-eating slave, has any real control over what they produce. From the bottom, production is determined by the top, and from the top, production is determined by the market, and in both cases, even cognition is shaped by the demands of capital and the market. For all of us in between, we are limited to merely being one small part in an ever-growing whole, either toiling at a job that we ourselves consider pointless and unnecessary, or providing support for those that do. “Work” today does not mean providing for oneself or for others, but the production of commodities. For those of us lucky enough to do something that we enjoy, the demands of the market make even this enjoyable work stressful and agonizing, rendering an activity as trite and fun as baking cupcakes into a mission-critical operation to maximize profits. It’s important not to rest on one’s laurels, and this is especially true when there is no accolade to celebrate in the first place. The labor movement of the 19th and 20th century certainly won us some improvements over the industrial capitalist hell that emerged prior, but since then, we have seen no substantial improvements in our lives. The peasantry of today is qualitatively little better off than that of the Middle Ages. The march toward post-scarcity might even be considered the recovery of pre-scarcity, the revenge of the yeoman, or the trek backwards from a long walk in the wrong direction. The gewgaws and doodads of industrial capitalism are no substitute for our liberty and sustenance. We are being buffaloed and bought off by those privileged bums and their bumbling bilge which proclaims we are “better off”. Better off we are not, but certainly we could be with liberatory technology and social ecology.
 From www.nuffield.ox.ac.uk/users/allen/yeoman.pdf (http://cc4.co/FZKJID): Describes how most of the benefits of the agricultural revolution came at the hands of the free peasants, not the capitalists or the monarchs.
 From http://people.eku.edu/resorc/Medieval_peasant_diet.htm (http://cc4.co/EXIRC). Medieval peasants were typically farmers who did a lot of manual labor, so of course, they ate a lot of healthy food. We aren’t, and don’t.
 p.56: Kropotkin’s description resembles today’s public water infrastructure with no prices.
 Kropotkin pp.69-70: Kropotkin describes a relational theory of value here. Unlike the individual receiver perspective of subjective theory of value, or the individual producer perspective of labor theory of value, the relational view is a social ecology perspective that is the heart of the science of “transferics”.
 From http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/02/13/u-s-homes-are-getting-more-efficient-but-still-use-just-as-much-energy/ (http://cc4.co/ZFYEPC), among others.
 From The Invention of Capitalism, Michael Perelman, 2000; p.18
 From Schor, http://groups.csail.mit.edu/mac/users/rauch/worktime/hours_workweek.html (http://cc4.co/DZAKR)
Modern, right-wing anarchist philosophies like anarcho-capitalism are a great source of insight into how our left-wing traditions must evolve into the future. The new revolutionary front is not in the workplace, it is in the comments section. In order to successfully achieve victories for the oppressed, we must win internet arguments, and to do that we must base our political theory on objective moral principles. Without starting from philosophical axioms constructed out of contorted metaphors that depend on the ambiguity of language, we will forever be intellectually outgunned in our politics. Without ensuring that we deal with people being wrong on the internet, the iniquities of statist oppression will creep in under our noses and we will be washed away with the current.
With this in mind, it is important that we begin developing objective moral principles so that we do not suffer decisive, early losses on the digital battleground. As you, the reader knows, our end goal is a totalitarian bureaucratic state where secret police hover over you at all times waiting to steal away the fruits of your individual labor and give it to the indolent peasants, and we need to frame this goal in terms of achieving liberty or no one will ever swallow it. Thus, we have the problem of not only pushing society towards ever more taxation and authority, but to trick everyone into thinking they are being liberated as we take away their economic freedom.
The first principle we need is one to justify taxation. There are many ways we can go about this, but clearly the best would be if we could frame it in naturalistic and egoistic terms. We should present our end goal of 100% taxation as beginning from the self:
Your body is the steward and sovereign domain of your mind. Because your body is its own sovereign, your mind is a citizen of your body. Without your body providing, managing, and distributing the space, resources, and services your mind needs in order to survive, the mind wouldn’t exist. Your body taxes your mind by using its output to improve its infrastructure. This is a principle called “self-taxation”: Your body’s stewardship of your mind makes it sovereign and grants it the right to levy a tax in any form it desires on any occupant of its sovereign domain.
From self-taxation, we can conclude that anyone who occupies collectivist territory may have taxes levied on them in order to benefit the Collective. This is the definition of “collectivist taxation”, which is what we’re all striving for. Collectivist taxation is the ultimate form of freedom because you obtain the negative liberty of freedom from making decisions about production, and it encompasses all other forms of liberty. Instead of the oppressive conditions that anarcho-capitalism would put us under, in a truly free society no individual needs to make a decision and may blindly obey the Collective instead.
Rather than describing things in complicated nuance, we can simply examine any situation under the simple lens of taxation. A society without taxes is a total dystopian nightmare. To deny the right to taxation is to initiate the use of violence against the Collective by encroaching on its domain without offering anything in return. This is the moral equivalent of child murder or dog rape, and we, the Collective, suggest that you use these analogies any time someone suggests lowering or eliminating taxes.
Murder violates the right to tax because the murderer is destroying individuals’ ability to pay the tax. Theft violates the right to tax because the thief is stealing potential tax revenue from the Collective. The idea of an anarcho-capitalist society where no one pays taxes to an all-encompassing state is literally genocide, and therefore we are justified in defending our communes with mass murder on a lesser scale than actual genocide.
The second principle we need is one to justify secret police. In order to have a truly free society, no one may initiate force against the Collective. As we’ve established, the reason for this is because doing so would violate their right to taxation. Therefore, to be free we must have the ability to prevent the initiation of force and respond to the initiation of force. The problem is that regular police are too obvious with their uniforms, causing people to simply wait until they are out of sight of the police to commit their brutal tax-evading crimes.
Therefore, a free society must have secret police, or no one’s rights can be guaranteed. There is a high risk in creating secret police of double-agents causing violence and oppression by disobeying the Collective. Secret police mustn’t know the identities of other secret police so that they can all monitor one another and prevent disobedience. In fact, we cannot be sure that no one will be outside of the eye of the secret police unless everyone is one of the secret police. Total oppression is the true source of freedom. This principle is called “panslavery”.
With these extremely well-thought-out, objective moral principles, we must take to the internets and turn the tide of the revolution in our favor. Quitting your job to manage a half-dozen sockpuppets on Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Yo is the least you can do for the Collective. We need to enslave the hard-working anarcho-capitalists and their potential cis white male followers, who are hundreds of times more productive than the individuals in the Collective. Without these highly productive individuals creating all the products for the Collective’s use, there is no way that the Collective can live off the fruits of others’ labor. Not a single one of us wants to work and in order to guarantee that outcome, step one is to start winning online debates.
Armed with the dual weapons of self-taxation and panslavery, it should be a snap to trick people into achieving our dreams for us. We, elite members of the Collective, and you, the indoctrinated reader, and slowly trick society into pushing us incompetent slackers up to the top of the pyramid. We call this the “ramp strategy”, and it will put our left-wing cult squarely on the shoulders of the giants. Get out there troops, and start brainwashing people.
As the Rojava revolution continues, the nature of its economy has been much discussed. As I have written previously, Rojava aspires to a social economy based on cooperatives. In recent weeks, several people have asked me for Murray Bookchin’s ideas about the economy: what are the economic aspects of libertarian municipalism? I’ve put together a summary of his thinking here, based on the sources listed at the end of this article. –Janet Biehl
In a capitalist economy, the means of production—industry—as well as land, raw and finished materials, financial wealth are concentrated in private hands. The alternative is a social economy, in which ownership of such property—wholly or in part–is shifted to the society as a whole. The intention is to create an alternative society, to put economic life directly into the hands of the men and women who are vitally involved with it. An alternative system would be one that has both the desire and the ability to curtail or eliminate profit-seeking in favor of humanistic values, practices, and institutions. As Murray Bookchin pointed out, a social economy can take several forms.
Cooperatives are small-scale enterprises that are collectively owned and operated. They may be producers’ cooperatives, or they may be the collectivized and self-managed enterprises such as are advocated by anarcho-syndicalists. Their internal structures of sharing foreshadow the emergence of sharing in the wider society
In the 1970s, many American radicals formed cooperatives, which they hoped could constitute an alternative to large corporations and ultimately replace them. Bookchin welcomed this development, but as the decade wore on, he noticed that more and more those once-radical economic units were absorbed into the capitalist economy. While cooperatives’ internal structures remained admirable, he thought that in the marketplace they could become simply another kind of small enterprise with their own particularistic interests, competing with other enterprises, even with other cooperatives.
Indeed, for two centuries, cooperatives have too often been obliged to conform to marketplace dictates, regardless of the intentions of their advocates and founders. First, a cooperative becomes entangled in the web of exchanges and contracts typical. Then it finds that its strictly commercial rivals are offering the same goods it offers, but at lower prices. Like any enterprise, it finds that if it is to stay in business, it must compete by lowering its prices in order to win customers. One way to lower prices is to grow in size, in order to benefit from economies of scale. Thus growth becomes necessary for the cooperative—that is, it too must “grow or die.” Even the most idealistically motivated cooperative will have to absorb or undersell its competitors or close down. That is, it will have to seek profits at the expense of humane values. The imperatives of competition gradually refashion the cooperative into a capitalistic enterprise, albeit a collectively owned and managed one. Although cooperation is a necessary part of an alternative economy, cooperatives by themselves are insufficient to challenge the capitalist system.
Indeed, Bookchin argued, any privately-owned economic unit, whether it is managed cooperatively or by executives, whether it is owned by workers or by shareholders, is susceptible to assimilation, whether its members like it or not. As long as capitalism exists, competition will always require the enterprises within it to look for lower costs (including the cost of labor), greater markets, and advantages over their rivals, in order to maximize their profits. They will tend ever more to value human beings by their levels of productivity and consumption rather than by any other criteria.
A truly socialized, alternative economy would be one, then, in which profit-seeking must be restrained or, better, eliminated. Since economic units are incapable of restraining their own profit seeking from within, they must be subjected to restraint from without. Thus alternative economic units, to avoid assimilation, must exist in a social context that curtails their profit seeking externally. They must be embedded in a larger community that has the power not only to bridle a specific enterprise’s pursuit of profit but to control economic life generally. No social context in which capitalism is permitted to exist will ever successfully curtail profit seeking. The expansionist imperatives of capitalism will always try to overturn external controls, will always compete, will always press for expansion.
Such a society must be one that “owns” the economic units itself. That is, it must be one in which socially significant property—the means of production—is placed under public control or, insofar as ownership still exists, public ownership.
The notion of public ownership is not popular today, since its most familiar form is state socialism, as exemplified by the Soviet Union. The nation-state expropriates private property and becomes its owner. State ownership, however, led to tyranny, mismanagement, corruption—to anything but a sharing, cooperative economy.
The phrase “public ownership” implies ownership by the people, but state ownership is not public because the state is an elite structure set over the people. The nationalization of property does not give the people control over economic life; it merely reinforces state power with economic power. The Soviet state took over the means of production and used it to enhance its power, but it left the hierarchical structures of authority intact. The greater part of the public had little or nothing to do with making decisions about their economic life.
Real public ownership would have to be ownership by the people themselves.
That was precisely what Bookchin proposed as an alternative: a true form of public ownership. The economy is neither privately owned, nor broken up into small collectives, nor nationalized. Rather, it is municipalized—placed under community ownership and control.
Municipalization of the economy means the ownership and management of the economy by the citizens. Property would be expropriated from the possessing classes by the citizens’ assemblies and confederations (acting as a dual power) and placed in the hands of the community, to be used for the benefit of all. The citizens would become the collective “owners” of their community’s economic resources.
Citizens would formulate and approve economic policy for the community. They would make decisions about economic life regardless of their occupation or their workplace. Those who worked in a factory would participate in formulating policies not only for that factory but for all other factories—and for farms as well. They would participate in this decision-making not as workers, farmers, technicians, engineers, or professionals, but as citizens. Their decision making would be guided not by the needs of a specific enterprise or occupation or trade but by the needs of the community as a whole.
The assemblies would rationally and morally determine levels of need. They would distribute the material means of life so as to fulfill the maxim of early communist movements: “From each according to ability and to each according to need.” That way everyone in the community would have access to the means of life, regardless of the work he or she was capable of performing.
Moreover, the citizens’ assemblies, Bookchin wrote, would consciously ensure that individual enterprises did not compete with one another; instead, all economic entities would be required to adhere to ethical precepts of cooperation and sharing.
Over wider geographical areas, the assemblies would make economic policy decisions through their confederations. The wealth expropriated from the property-owning classes would be redistributed not only within a municipality but among all the municipalities in a region. If one municipality tried to engross itself at the expense of others, its confederates would have the right to prevent it from doing so. A thorough politicization of the economy would thereby extend the moral economy to a broad regional scale.
As Bookchin put it, in a municipalized economy, “The economy ceases to be merely an economy in the strict sense of the word—whether as ‘business,’ ‘market,’ capitalist, ‘worker-controlled’ enterprises. It becomes a truly political economy: the economy of the polis or the commune.” It would become a moral economy, guided by rational and ecological standards. An ethos of public responsibility would avoid a wasteful, exclusive, and irresponsible acquisition of goods, as well as ecological destruction and violations of human rights. Classical notions of limit and balance could replace the capitalist imperative to expand and compete in the pursuit of profit. Indeed, the community would value people, not for their levels of production and consumption, but for their positive contributions to community life.
For more on the municipalized economy, please refer to these sources:
- Murray Bookchin, “Municipalization: Community Ownership of the Economy,” Green Perspectives 2 (1986)
- Murray Bookchin, The Rise of Urbanization and Decline of Citizenship (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1987), pages 260-65. (This book was later republished under the titles Urbanization Against Cities and Urbanization Without Cities.)
- Janet Biehl, The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1998), chapter 12.