Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century was the diving off point for the opening session of the recent Historical Materialism Australasia 2014 conference in Sydney. Valuably, Piketty exposes increasing economic inequality, highlights the burgeoning filthy rich and argues that deep inequalities are the natural state of any capitalism unfettered by state redistributive and welfare programs. But the panel I led raised a number of concerns about Piketty’s approach. Here I draw from my talk about the vexed issued of inequality for the Left in general and the particular stance of non-market socialists.
The gesture to Marx’s Capital in Piketty’s title is annoying given Piketty engages cursorily with Marx. In a New Republic (5 May 2014) interview he even misrepresents him, saying: ‘In the books of Marx there’s no data.’ Not surprisingly Piketty only offers a narrow statistical analysis of developing inequalities in income and wealth especially recently and mainly in advanced capitalism.
Inequality represents a double-edged sword for the Marxist left. Inequality in owning assets and income levels are living breathing proof of capitalism’s deepest failings. But addressing inequality often slides into reformism. Union demands generally support capitalism unless linked overtly to a revolutionary agenda ending capitalism. Unionisation has fallen since the 1980s. Radical unionism has been decimated.
The Left, in terms of anarcho-communist currents, is no longer a force in political debates or visible in mainstream media, university coursework and student discourse. We live in a thoroughly commercial culture with solidarity and mutual support reduced to charity and volunteering, pleading with governments and industry, victim mentalities and political blame games — rather than strikes and revolutionary demands. We have lost any sense of our real power. The will of the left is in tatters.
Meanwhile, climate change is only the tip of the iceberg of broad environmental crises, including peak oil and peak soil. Continuing with capitalism is species suicide. Yet addressing environmental sustainability often raises reformist, market-oriented solutions too — taking us into a quagmire of perceiving and ‘re-imagining’ the world in terms of exchange values.
Debates on economic inequality are bound by monetary language and practices. Money perpetually creates inequality in a world producing and distributing on the basis of exchange values. Inequality and equality discourses and activism sit in a capitalist black box.
So, ‘How can the radical Left more adequately address the twin issues of socio-political and environmental inequality and injustice in ways that allow capitalism to collapse and develop a society based on social and environmental values, i.e. use values?’ And, given the planetary environmental collapse and the crisis of capitalism, ‘How can we act appropriately and with the necessary speed?’
In Non-Market Socialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century (1987), Rubel and Crump call non-market socialism the ‘thin red line’ of socialist and communist thinking. In my introduction to non-market socialism in Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies (co-authored with Frans Timmerman) non-market socialists are defined as advocates and activists for a money-free, market-free, wage-free, class-free and state-free society where everyone’s basic needs are met — and power, responsibility and uses of the Earth are shared in fair, i.e. just, and sustainable ways.
While deciding how to implement such principles, visions and strategies distinguishes the diversity amongst non-market socialists, we share a heightened awareness that monetary structures, relations and values enable and drive capitalism, and that money is capitalism’s carrot, stick, magic wand and Achilles’ heel.
In non-market socialist perspectives, discourses and politics, ‘money’ is shorthand for the material, cultural and political world of ‘exchange value’ describing and determining our roles within capitalism. Money is the alphabet, motif, keynote, symbol, social matter and actual activity of everyday capitalism. We can do, or do not do, things according to how much money we do, or do not, have.
Non-market socialists see inequality as a permanent essential feature of capitalism due to the practice and concept of money, which is ‘not a thing’ but a social relation and social value. Autonomist Marxists Harry Cleaver and John Holloway have shown how non-monetary interventions can break capitalism. Anarcho-communists fluidly occupy similar positions and, along with a range of other Leftist strands such as Occupy, argue for creating socialism now.
From these perspectives the politically canny act is to create and stand in money-free spaces independent of capitalism and invite people into these socialist prototypes and hybrids halfway to socialism — where they can be more socialist immediately, relating in terms humane, social and sustainability-linked environmental use values.
Money-free spaces and actions — often referred to by the wider Left as ‘utopian’, ‘flaky’ and ‘unreal’ — are more clearly rational and logical the more unequal and unsustainable we become. During the Great Recession ‘sharing economies’ have multiplied alongside interest in, and establishment of, more radical commons, squatting and living from reusable ‘waste’ attracting young activists from the US and Europe through to Latin America, Asia and even here in Australasia.
Many sharing economy initiatives offer opportunities for experimenting with more democratic decision-making, learning skills for self-empowerment and collective production, and knowledge sharing. Sharing economies have developed a global discourse and frames of reference that hang loose from, but remain dangerously in tension with, capitalism, compromising with and being undermined and usurped by capitalism. Yet they represent one of the most hopeful popular uprisings that the Left can influence.
Money enmeshes attempts to change back into mainstream political and economic structures. Fair trade, ethical investments and carbon markets do not lead to equality between countries and environmental sustainability; trade is a seesaw of winners and losers, snakes and ladders.
While rejecting monetary values is a necessary condition to break current realities, rituals and the power of private property, it is only a necessary — not a sufficient — condition to establish a world without economic inequality. Clearly, we need to initiate, maintain and support practices that ensure collective sufficiency and environmental sustainability.
We must establish a world where people collectively plan and produce, share and care for one another and create a world ‘without equal’.
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Author: Anitra Nelson
Anitra Nelson is an activist-scholar and Associate Professor, Honorary Principal Fellow, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne, author of Marx’s Concept of Money: The God of Commodities (1999/2014), Small Is Necessary: Shared Living on a Shared Planet (2018), co-author of Exploring Degrowth: A Critical Guide (2020) and co-editor of Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies (2011).