By Grace Lally
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P is for production

This article is over 15 years, 5 months old
References to production come up all the time in Marxist writing.
Issue 329

Capitalism is a “mode of production”. Social relations are rooted in “relations of production”. Capitalist economies are repeatedly convulsed by “crises of overproduction”. The ruling class rule because they control the “means of production”. This emphasis on the centrality of production is sometimes characterised as “economic reductionism” because it is argued that the complexity of human life must be understood through a variety of different criteria which are beyond economic considerations.

Production, for Karl Marx, forms the base or foundation of all human life because it is the material precondition for everything else – humanity “must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc”.

But further, Marx understood production through social labour as the very essence of what it means to be a human being. Therefore to view production and the economy as a crude distraction from the “higher” forms of activity in which people engage, such as art, love and learning, is itself a reflection of the way in which class society, in denying us control over our own labour, alienates us from our own human nature. This lack of control over production is also at the heart of how capitalism alienates us from each other and from nature. Immaterial forces such as the stock exchange and the “job market”, which are actually created by our own social system of organising production, appear to have an autonomous power to dominate and control us.

Fighting for democratic control over production means fighting for much more than for everyone to have equal access to the material things they need to survive (and this is obviously not unimportant!). It is also about freeing ourselves from the alienation which turns all forms of activity into a drudge to be endured rather than the expression and fulfilment of our true selves.

It could be argued that the contemporary emergence of a “knowledge economy” makes the Marxist emphasis on production a little outdated – that changes in technology are increasingly freeing people to engage in more creative intellectual rather than manual labour. The undeniable reality, however, is that no matter how high-tech jobs become, we must still act on the natural world and employ physical and mental labour to produce the things we need to survive.

All forms of labour remain deeply interdependent and ultimately rooted in the material world. For instance, the virtual world of the internet depends on massive data centres in the real world – plans to build more in London came unstuck recently because the electricity grid’s decaying physical infrastructure couldn’t cope with the new demand.

A vast network of interconnected processes of production will remain necessary in any future socialist society, whether some people choose to work on self-sufficient rural plots or others in high-tech laboratories. The collective needs of society – from healthcare to developing solutions to global warming – will still need to be met through a complex division of labour. It is how we organise that production process as a society, rather than the particular technologies or resources we use, which will determine the kind of society in which we live.

Production in the capitalist economy is driven by blind competition for profit rather than consciously coordinated to meet human need. In the process human labour is stripped of its real worth as the personal and creative energy of conscious individuals. Instead labour time becomes an anonymous force which allows products and services with vastly different use values – from a haircut to a loaf of bread – to be equated and exchanged on the market in terms of the amount of “abstract” labour time involved in producing them. Everything, including labour time, becomes a “thing” which is reducible to a price in money. If production for the market dehumanises us in this way it also fails to deliver an efficient distribution of even the most basic resources.

It is only in the madness of a profit-driven economy that it makes sense for companies to tear down empty office blocks to avoid paying rates on them while so many are homeless; or use grain to produce fuel for cars when millions are starving.

As a recession looms, socialist arguments that the market is a completely irrational way to organise production become clear. The call to renationalise British Gas, for instance, can begin to articulate the desire of millions for a way of organising production that is geared to looking after people, young and old, regardless of whether they are “productive” members of the workforce or not.

But we’ve also seen governments nationalise private companies such as Northern Rock in Britain or Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac in the US – not to provide an alternative to the capitalist production system, but to save it.

This is why the socialist argument over control of production is never simply a matter of public versus private.

We fight for every shred of state intervention which can ease the burden of rising prices and rising unemployment on workers’ living conditions. But we start from an understanding that state control of production, such as what existed in Stalin’s USSR or China, is no alternative to the free market, and that we can’t use our own “democratic” capitalist state to manage production in the interests of ordinary people either.

Only the self-activity of workers in mass campaigns for such reforms offers any real alternative. Through protests, community campaigns, but most of all through strike action, workers can learn in practice that it is us who do the real work; our side which has the power to bring the capitalist machine to a halt; and our ability to organise collectively in struggle that will be the basis for any rational and democratic organisation of production in the future.

Further reading:

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