“Profound changes in social and economic relationships—system changes—are not the product of revolutions and political changes. It happens the other way around: systemic political changes are the expression of new forms of social organizing, new values, and ways of working and living, that have reached enough maturity to be able to establish a broad social consensus. As of a certain point in development, a “competition between systems” is established. The new forms, until then valid only for a small minority, begin to seem to be the only ones capable of offering a better future for the large majority. Little by little, they expand their spectrum and their number, encompassing and transforming broader and broader social spaces, and become the center of the economy, reconfiguring the cultural, ideological, and legal basis of society from within.”
Review: The Communard Manifesto, by Las Indias Cooperative Group
The Communard Manifesto (Las Indias, May 9, 2016). Translated by Level Translation.
By way of background, the Communard Manifesto comes out of the Las Indias Cooperative Group, which is a real-world venture in establishing a phyle — a non-territorial networked economic support platform — of the kind that Las Indias’s David de Ugarte described theoretically in his 2009 book Phyles.
The word “phyle” itself comes from Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, describing global networks that serve as support platforms for the local physical enclaves, and the enterprises within them, that constitute the nodes of the networks.
De Ugarte’s concept of the phyle also relies heavily on the concept of “neo-Venetianism” (a networked, non-territorial community with territorial member enclaves, providing various forms of support to local nodes). And like the medieval guilds of skilled trades, the phyle acts as a support platform for member enterprises and territorial enclaves. Examples might include low-interest credit and seed capital, training and certification, low-cost insurance (including against unemployment), legal services, cooperative joint purchasing and marketing, collaboration software, hostels for travelling members, and the like.
The Las Indias Group is, first of all, a community, with physical locations in Uruguay and Spain. Its economic activity — a direct outgrowth of its community life and fraternal relations — consists of a number of cooperative enterprises.
Like the Communist Manifesto of 168 years earlier, the Communard Manifesto begins by contrasting the revolutionary technologies of abundance with the social relations of production within which they are embedded. These social relations are riven with contradictions — inequality, unemployment, and social decomposition. Also like the Communist Manifesto, the Communard Manifesto‘s main concern is the path by which these revolutionary new forces of production will burst out of their capitalist integument and form the basis of a new post-capitalist society with social and economic forms consistent with abundance.
The forces of abundance include not only physical production technologies like micro-manufacturing, but new social means of organizing production — the hacker ethic, commons-based peer production, free information, and horizontal collaboration.
The old capitalist economic system is attempting to enclose this abundance as a source of rents. At the same time, the technologies of abundance are drastically reducing the need for productive labor, and thereby destroying wage and salaried labor as the means to earn sufficient purchasing power to consume naturally free or cheap goods at their monopoly prices. The attempt to impose artificial scarcity on abundance, for the profit of a few, leads to chronic underconsumption, unemployment and depression.
Unlike the Marxists — or at least the Old Left of the mass-production era — the authors of the Communard Manifesto do not see post-capitalist society as a logical extrapolation from large-scale production under capitalism. And it does not envision a transition based on direct assault by revolutionary parties based on the same principles of mass and scale as mid-20th century industrial capitalism.
Rather, the Communard Manifesto is in the same tradition as the autonomist work of Dyer-Witheford, Negri and Hardt (especially the latter two’s emphasis on “Exodus” in Commonwealth), Holloway’s How to Change the World Without Taking Power, and Mason’s Post-Capitalism. In the words of the Manifesto itself, “the new world will be born and affirmed inside the old.”
Profound changes in social and economic relationships—system changes—are not the product of revolutions and political changes. It happens the other way around: systemic political changes are the expression of new forms of social organizing, new values, and ways of working and living, that have reached enough maturity to be able to establish a broad social consensus. As of a certain point in development, a “competition between systems” is established. The new forms, until then valid only for a small minority, begin to seem to be the only ones capable of offering a better future for the large majority. Little by little, they expand their spectrum and their number, encompassing and transforming broader and broader social spaces, and become the center of the economy, reconfiguring the cultural, ideological, and legal basis of society from within.
As the technologies of abundance become cheaper, more accessible and smaller in scale, escape through building counter-institutions — Exodus — rather than attempting to conquer the institutional core of the old system becomes increasingly feasible
The appearance of new ways of producing based on new forms of communal property—like free software—and distributed communication architectures—linked directly to decommodification and the creation of abundance—put forth the notion that we are on the threshold of a new phase in which we will be able to change the nature of that competition between systems.
But, above all, what justifies a new time for the development of communitarianism is an irreversible economic change that has been imposed gradually: the reduction of the optimal scales of production. This decline in the optimal productive scale explains the deep trends that have produced the current economic crises, and why the political and corporate responses are often times counterproductive. And any alternative is not centered on social class or the nation, but on community.
The rapid decrease in optimal scale of production, and in necessary capital outlay for production, has led to a chronic economic crisis in which the enormous masses of accumulated investment capital are unable to find profitable outlets: “fewer new large industries that justify grandiose investments are appearing than in prior periods.” The neoliberal response of financializing markets and generating investment bubbles to soak up investment bubbles — a recurring theme in analyses by the Marxists at the Monthly Review Group since the 1980s — led to the Crash of 2008.
Instead, new technologies require very little in the way of capital outlay and are amenable to cooperative ownership by small-scale producers or local community control — thus rendering finance capital irrelevant.
We can group these new forms around two broad trends: the “P2P mode of production” and the “direct economy.” The P2P mode of production replicates the free software model in all kinds of industries where knowledge condensed into design, software, creativity, blueprints, etc., is central to the creation of value; and can accumulate in a “immaterial universal commons” that can be improved, reformed, and used in alternative ways for many kinds of different projects.
This multifunctionality of tools and value chains—which is what economists call “scope”— is the key to the direct conomy, a way of creating products created by small groups and launching them on global markets by using, on the one hand, low-cost, adaptable, external industrial chains and free software and, on the other, advance sales systems or collaborative financing.
That is, before our eyes, before and after the large financial crisis, a new kind of small-scale industry has developed, which is characterized by being global and by getting capital and credit outside the financial system, some in collaborative financing platforms, others announcing their own pre-sales and getting donations in exchange for merchandising. In fact, it’s an industry of “free” capital, which doesn’t have to give up ownership of the business to the owners of capital because, on the one hand, it reduces its needs by using publicly available technological tools, like free software, and on the other, obtaining the little capital it needs in the form of advance sales and donations.
Taken together, P2P production and the direct economy, two ways of substituting scale with scope, are the leading edge of a productive economy moving more and more quickly towards the reduction of scale. That makes them essential to understanding why communitarianism has a unique opportunity in the new century.
If there’s one point I take issue with, it would be the emphasis on production for the global economy by these small-scale manufacturers. Lean production is ideally suited to short supply chains with production directly geared to demand and collocated as closely to the point of consumption as technical efficiency permits. I believe the great majority of micro-manufacturing, in a post-capitalist economy, would be for neighborhood, community and regional markets rather than globalized supply chains.
Leaving that issue aside, the Communard Manifesto sees the transitional path as prefigurative: creating a demonstration effect of what’s feasible here and now — and thus leaves open the possibility for a rapid adoption curve during the phase transition.
Although we are still far from general abundance, we have a model of the production of abundance for intangible goods and innovation—the “P2P mode of production.” This, in turn, feeds a sector, the direct economy, that demonstrates enough productivity in the market to compete and beat the industry “from the outside,” without the help of over-scaled finance. That is, this new productive ecosystem is capable of competing and gaining ground against a giant that enjoys the advantage of extra-market rents, like customized regulations, grants, or patents. We’re talking about the same extra-market rents that multiplied with neoliberalism and which have produced the simultaneous erosion of state and market, which is to say, social decomposition. So, just to demonstrate that a productive alternative exists is already big news.
This social and productive space around the “new digital commons” or simply, the “commons,” is today’s equivalent of the first cities and markets of the medieval bourgeoisie, a space where new non-commercial social relationships appeared, and the new logic, together with signs of autonomy, begin to show a limited but direct impact on productivity. Throughout the lower Middle Ages, the bourgeoisie was able to drive those cities to turn them, first, into a big “urban workshop,” and later, into “municipal democracies.” A similar historical task, now with a society of abundance as the goal, is what lies ahead for communitarianism.
This is because this whole reduction of scales brings the optimum size of productive units ever closer to the community dimension, and therefore, points to community as the protagonist of a society of abundance.
So, much like Negri and Hardt in Commonwealth, the Communard Manifesto sees the new relations of production as coextensive with our communities and horizontal social relations, and capital as increasingly external and irrelevant to production.
In a capitalist economy, with technologies of abundance enclosed via “intellectual property” and other monopolies, abundance increases the profits of property holders while empoverishing everyone else. In a post-capialist economy, with such monopolies abolished and production controlled by the community, increased abundance benefits everyone by reducing the amount of labor time necessary for enjoying a given standard of living.
The general result will be an increase in our agency, and in our control over every aspect of our lives — a reintegration of our work into the rest of our social life, and reclamation of control over the pacing of work on the pattern that prevailed under pre-capitalist production by self-employed artisans and free peasants. Along with this will come an end to the scarcity mindset that pits us against one another, and the accompanying social authoritarianism. The tools of small-scale production will lead to a society much like that in Kropotkin’s vision, where the distinctions between town and countryside, and between head and hand work, disappear.
Developing this new society within the shell of the old entails expanding along phyle lines from existing nodes.
Egalitarian communities should undertake a path that allows them to go from the current model, based on the resistance and resilience of the “small community,” to another that starts from a large network of egalitarian and productive communities. We must feed the new sprouts, which are capable of maintaining themselves in the market, and at the same time, create more spaces of abundance and decommodification. Additionally, we need to take decommodification beyond our interior, and make it permeate all our surroundings. It’s time to begin the competition between systems.
A time is coming when we will have to learn to grow in many new ways: incorporating new members, incubating communities, teaching community techniques in neighborhoods, or creating popular universities of a new kind, that give tools for multispecialization.
We have to confront a gigantic problem created by over-scaling—from smallness, with smallness, and step by step. We have to use diversity and abundance to break out of the traps that a culture in decomposition tends to constantly fall into, which magnify defeatism, pessimism, and the idea of “every man for himself”. It’s not going to be a stroll through a rose garden, and we’re certainly not going to be able to make headway without encountering serious resistance.