Changing the system of production
By Jean Zin
The economic and financial crisis, serious as it may be, will not provoke the end of capitalism which has weathered worse. But if an exit from capitalism has begun, it is for other reasons, which are more profound and more durable, and which are linked to our entry into the digital era and immaterial labor. It is these new productive forces which question the very basis of industrial capitalism, such as payment for wage labor or exchange value.
It is for material reasons, connected to the reproduction of productive forces, that the production system is forced to change radically, just as it is for reasons connected to material reproduction that this system will have to integrate ecological limits, by favoring the relocalisation of the economy. If the exit from the society of wage labor has already started, it is for the moment to our detriment, through the destruction of welfare protections and the explosion of precariousness. Social struggles will as always be necessary to conquer new rights and to reorient this new system towards our emancipation and a more sustainable economy. Nothing will happen by itself.
It is in any case within this material framework that our action can be decisive, far from any utopia or value subjectivism. “New technologies” occupy here a central place, comparable with the steam engine. However, it’s not only the materialism of reproduction and of techniques which it is necessary to take into account, but also the flows which constitute production as a whole system. To abandon capitalist productivism and its industrial model, neither isolated initiatives nor partial measures will suffice; the new productive relationships and new arrangements must operate as a system (of production, distribution, circulation) by ensuring their reproduction.
What is a system of production?
The systemic crisis concretely expresses everything that materially connects us to the rest of the world, whether we like it or not. Political economy itself was born from the inflation caused by the influx of gold from the Americas at the end of XVIth century, as noted at the time by Jean Bodin, demonstrating the influence of remote events which are completely independent from us. Mercantilism initially tried to respond to this kind of “natural catastrophy” by accumulating as much precious metals as possible, but the intensification of world trade which ensued was already reinforcing interdependencies. It was necessary to wait until 1758 for Doctor Quesnay to show, with his “economic table”, the analogy between economic circuits and the circulatory system, connecting social classes and distant parts in a totality which makes elements interdependent. Later, others attempted to reduce economic flows to their thermodynamic equilibriuum (theories of balance and of market self-regulation). To the contrary, one can consider that Marx’s principal contribution will have been to show that production was indeed organized as a system combining production, reproduction and circulation, a system with its own dynamic (based on profit and innovation), its specific relations of production (wage labor) adapted to productive organization as well as to the stage of technical development. Capitalism differentiated itself from feudalism as well as from a predatory economy by being a mode of production determined by circulation, industrial investment and waged work.
That production and reproduction inevitably compose a system does not mean that there is only one system, albeit a dominant one! It is vital to understand the fact that we belong to a plurality of systems, effective totalities which determine us materially more than we determine them, but in the gaps between which we can function. Indeed, against the contemporary individualistic gospel, a system is defined by the relatively independent operations of the elements which constitute it. No isolated individuals can fail to be integrated into a system on which they depend and which constrains them, like the transport system. The concept applies beyond the realm of production, up to the ecosystems exhibiting interdependencies between species and flows of matter, of energy and of information which run through them. In his marvellous book “The Macroscope”, Joel de Rosnay (1979) applied systems theory to the economy as well as to the biosphere, leading to what he called an ecosocialism. Thinking in a global manner does indeed means thinking in terms of systems, circuits, flow, interdependencies, organisation, division of functions, coordination, etc, where autonomy and self-organization play in any case an irreplaceable role of adjustment.
The totalitarian tendency of markets, with their liberal theories which do not recognize any value to non-commercial phenomena, has driven the fact that we belong to different systems of production into the background. However, it is a fact that there is no such thing as an economy which is not a mixed economy, a plural economy, where at the very least domestic, public and commercial exchanges coexist. This is precisely what made it possible for capitalism to emerge from the free cities on the margins of the feudal system, just like today a new alternative system based on relocalistion should emerge.
What is important to understand is that it is useless to want to leave a system of production if one is unable to propose a viable alternative system. It is therefore crucial to be effective, and to not propose simple correctives, even less to lecture people about the error of their ways. We need new rules, new social relations, new modes of distribution and exchanges which must not only connect together but also have an internal dynamism and a synergy with the techniques employed. It is a question of viability, of durability and of reproduction, where ecology obviously becomes the central concern. These interdependences strongly constrain what is feasible but are not sufficiently taken into account, unfortunately, by those who want to change the system (it is not enough to take control of it to change its operations), nor by those who simply want to correct it with norms and laws.
Capitalism as productivism
Of course all systems are not equal, being distinguished by their means and ends. However a system does not become dominant because of its good intentions but because of its material effectiveness, of its capacities of reproduction and expansion, according to a broadly Darwinian logic (which should not be confused with a reductive Social Darwinism). What made capitalism successful was its productivism which renders profit dependent on the improvement of productivity resulting from to investments and innovations, which in turn rely on technological and scientific advances to lower the price of goods. This positive feedback loop, a true snowball effect, lies at the root of the takeoff of economies and of the “virtuous circle of growth”, a galloping industrialization which must be paid a high price in terms of inequalities, poverty and pollution.
The reasons for the success of an invasive organism or of an overly voracious predator inevitably turns back against it when it has colonized all the available living space. Though Africa remains to be exploited, we can say that capitalism has reached its ecological limit with globalisation, which does not leave it with an outside. The problem is that it cannot stop its race towards growth. We can say that capitalism initially imposed itself through its productivity but has lasted thanks to the consumer society, which is of course ecologically unsustainable. Material degrowth is thus unavoidable, but it is not enough to declare this is the case, nor to exhibit voluntarism in the reduction of our consumption and working time in order to hope to significantly reduce a productivism which is at the core of a growth-dependent capitalism. We really need to change the system! In order to achieve this, we should not go backwards but instead take advantage of the immaterial economy, which can help with material degrowth, and especially to draw on the productive forces which enter in contradiction with the very bases of capitalism.
Indeed, capitalism is first and foremost industry. Wage-labor is a kind of temporary slavery (subordination) but the fact of paying work according to time spent (machine time) is essential to separate workers from their products and to appropriate the surplus value obtained by the improvement of the productivity of capitalistic investments. However, immaterial labour can be characterised by its non-linearity, as production is not proportional to time spent. This is what opposes it to physical labour, as information is opposed to energy. In the same way, the more labour is skilled, incorporating training time, the less it is reducible to immediate work, just like the work time of the virtuoso is not confined to the concert. For all these reasons, the remuneration of time spent becomes inapplicable (much as in the artistic field) requiring a posterior assessment, based on results. This would seem to result in the abolition of the separation between workers and their products, which they could all the more claim their share of now that they possess their own means of production with their personal computers. Except that it is very difficult to evaluate the contribution of everyone in performances which are mainly global and collective. So, not only does wage labour measured against working time become completely inappropriate in the age of information, being progressively replaced by project contracts and outsourcing, but it is the measure of value itself which becomes problematic (people speak of a “crisis of measure”). The commodity therefore loses its status of exchange value to the benefit of a pure opportunity value (or of prestige, of brand, or speculation), which is often quite ephemeral and which has only a distant connection to its reproduction value (except perhaps when it is on sale).
“As soon as work, in its immediate form, has ceased to be the main source of wealth, working time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and exchange value thus ceases also to be the measure of use value.” (Marx, Grundisse II, pp. 220-221).
It is not only capitalism’s industrial bases that are weakened, digital costlessness directly attacks intellectual property rights, its infinite capacity for reproduction providing immediate access to all works, an access that no-one will want to give up. This endangers cultural industries (and they certainly complain enough about it) who will need to reinvent themselves. It is on these grounds that one finds the strongest opposition of digital culture to the capitalistic logic, to old media, to music and movie corporations. The issue of downloading divides the generations and unleashes freedom-killing reactions which oppose themselves to technical reproduction capacities inherent to digitisation and networks! The end of the industrial model does represent the end of the system of capitalist production, of wage labour and of the commodification of culture and life. Of course, for the moment, in the absence of another system more suited to immaterial production, this contradiction of the new productive forces and of former relations of production is translated into additional and ever-more unbearable stress borne by an ever-increasing share of employees, with the rise of precariousness and the regression of welfare. For the moment the old system is trying to maintain itself through untenable laws that attempt to match technological innovation by fiercely maintaining obsolete property rights. These are contradictions on which it is possible to rely; productive forces that can be mobilised to build a new system of production.
Make no mistake, neither the crisis, nor the ecological limits, nor our good intentions, will be enough to overcome capitalism, but only digital technologies, now at the heart of production, as well as the immaterial labor that pushes the reorientation of the economy towards human development. This does not mean that things will happen by themselves, nor necessarily to our advantage if we do not vigorously defend our rights, but it is what conjures and enables a new system of production with new relations of production. Admitting the central place of digitality therefore assumes a crucial importance in the determination of a strategy for a future-oriented political ecology in the age of information.
If digital technologies were not sustainable, as some environmentalists contend, this would not imply their disappearance but would only reserve them to an elite as well as to production processes. However, it seems rather that these technologies are spreading at an until-now unheard-of speed, including in the poorest countries which have little infrastructure. It is all the more urgent to reduce their consumption and to make them more sustainable because it is certain that we cannot continue on the current slope, nor rely on the market to take into account environmental issues that most of the time translate into an increase in costs (there is no energy shortage, the problem is that fossil fuels, oil and coal, are too abundant and their prices were too low so far, thus constituting an obstacle to renewable energy).
Even if the battle is not won in advance, there is nothing here that seems out of reach, as digitality is one of the essential bases of ecological consciousness and global regulation. In addition dematerialisation can make a decisive contribution to a necessary material degrowth in many areas. Thus, we know that digital networks can facilitate relocalisation thanks to their capacity for decentralisation, which have long been implemented in corporations. No future ecology can do without, which implies caring about their sustainability, reducing waste and guiding them towards energy efficiency.
Creating a system
We have evoked most of the elements of a surpassing of capitalism in the era of information, ecology and human development: the new relocalised and immaterial production system will primarily have “to be a system” and adapt to the new productive forces, to new technologies as well as to the material constraints of reproduction and thus to environmental constraints. This has nothing to do with moral or even purely political approaches proposing laws and norms, which are indeed often necessary. We must insist on the fact that we need to go back to causes and not only worry about the most conspicuous effects. This means that we must address the question on the side of production more than on that of consumption, on the side of the system more than on that of the individual, on the side of offer more than on that of demand, on the side of the quality of the work more than on that of the quantity produced. We need to convince ourselves that the simple degrowth of waste and of commodification cannot change the productivist logic of capitalism, any more than the reduction of working time. Leaving productivism means first leaving the waged society dependent on consumption and on a profit-driven capitalist production.
It is not enough to declare something or to take one’s desires for reality, but it is vital to get the context right and to understand the stakes, which have only been sketched here. These stakes already strongly constrain an exit from capitalism which has already started but is still far from constituting an alternative. We must start from what is, from the “actual movement which abolishes the current state of things”, from ongoing experiments, which should be constituted as a complete and operational production system to become a real alternative. No isolated initiative or partial measure can replace this.
André Gorz was probably the first to present a coherent representation of a new relocalised system of production in the era of information, ecology and human development, by gathering in “Misère du présent” (1997) the various initiatives and proposals where the seeds of the future could be perceived. In fact, these proposals had already been defended for some time by Jacques Robin and the Transversales journal, without being quite connected together. They were replaced in the early 1990s by the reduction of working time (“réduction du temps de travail” or RTT), a strategy that would show its limits with the establishment of the 35h working week which increased wage flexibility. Not only was André Gorz one of the main theorists of RTT but he was firmly opposed to the guaranteed wage, which was a rising claim in social movements despite its apparently utopian nature. The category of “third sector” was also ambiguous, and “plural currencies” a little too fuzzy. Yet by bringing together and defining these mechanisms (guaranteed income, local currency, self-managed workers unions), André Gorz allowed a great step forward to be made, not so much in terms of the alternative’s credibility (these measures still seem too exotic and minuscule in relation to the immensity of the task) but rather for his success in the constitution of a new articulation between production, distribution, and exchanges. I have done little more than focus on the systemic coherence and combine these mechanisms with the libertarian municipalism of Bookchin – though it is far from a detail to anchor relocalisation in municipal democracy.
The most difficult to admit remains the fact that there are only local alternatives to globalised commerce. However, by definition, there can only be relocalisation at the local level, and thus we can start right away, even if these actions only makes sense inasmuch as they are integrated into alternative circuits and a Global Justice perspective.
It is impossible to describe in detail this post-capitalism which refutes too-simple solutions such as nationalisation of the economy or the collective ownership of means of production, leaving relations of production and the productivism of the system unchanged. To repeat, none of the isolated measures are determining in itself, only their combination is. It is indeed at all levels that the potentialities of digitality must be put to use, that small circuits need to be favoured and the rules of the game changed in international exchanges (fair trade, alternative circuits), in national redistribution systems and in local life. The point really is to change the world in its totality and to build a new system of production, but contrary to totalitarian utopias, there can be no question of abolishing the plurality of systems and lifestyles. It is necessary to fight against authoritarian policies, and all kinds of green fascisms, in order to defend our autonomy and to continue the fight for our emancipation. We locate ourselves in a plural and free economy, where capitalism will thus not disappear any more than industry but should employ less and less wage earners in an increasingly automated and relocalised production.
The point is to extract the maximum number of workers from dependency on profit-oriented production as well as alienated work (without claiming to abolish all alienation). Rather than everyone becoming civil servants, the point is to give to everyone the means of autonomy and of choosing their life (including a more natural life), replacing a good share of commercial leisure by self-developing activity; this should as a consequence radically modify consumption, without feedback effects (contrarily to the strategies aiming to reduce consumption). The point is to leave behind waged work in favour of autonomous work, immaterial work, chosen work, which does not only mean supporting digital creativity but also local services, artistic activities, and even revitalising crafts and small-scale subsistence agriculture. For that one needs at the same time a guaranteed income, which allows autonomous work, municipal co-operatives to practise an activity and be associated with other autonomous workers, and finally local currencies to ensure more outlets to local production without closing oneself to the outside.
The least one can say is that all these concepts are neither familiar nor credible, being a thousand miles from ordinary representations and even unacceptable ideologically for the majority, which does not prevent them from materially imposing themselves all over the world. In any case, new relations of production which create a system and are adapted to the digital era do represent the condition for a less productivist relocalised economy. This is the framework in which our future should be conceived. This does not mean that this would be enough to resolve all problems! Numerous measures are necessary to regulate capitalism, make agriculture more sustainable and cities more livable, but without falling into techno-utopianism, we should make sure our understanding of our era and our goals are accurate. So, whether we like it or not, it will be necessary to make use of the potentialities of telework, of teleconferences, of teleshopping and even of 3D printers (or perhaps of future digital personal fabricator) which can not only stimulate personal creativity but especially facilitate the obtaining of spare parts for repairs, or of any other small object, by eliminating material transport. This will undoubtedly not save us, it’s only a small portion of the solution, but we will need to accept it (like eating less red meat) and without forcing anybody!
None of the instruments in our possession can be neglected but what needs to be insisted on, is on the need for a systemic approach and a general coherence. We need a global approach taking into account all the dimensions of our life. Our capacity to make a correct diagnosis and to come up with the right answers will be more crucial than our good intentions. If it is necessary to fight for an emancipating ecology, the room for maneuver is indeed very weak, even if it still exists, between technical, ecological and systemic constraints. In any case, these modest instruments could prove rather quickly extremely useful if the monetary system breaks down, but the good news is that the municipal character of the bases of this new system of production allows its advantages to be tested immediately, here and now, as long as local conditions lend themselves to it.
 In 2000 in France under the Jospin government – Ed.
Gorz, A. (1997) Misères du present, richesse du possible. Paris: Galilée.
Rosnay, de, J. (1979). The Macroscope: A New World Scientific System. New York: Harper & Row. [Originally published 1975]
This article originally appeared in EcoRev, 33: 44-51 (2009).
Translation: Mathieu O’Neil