Changing the System of Production

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* Article: Changing the system of production. Jean Zin. Journal of Peer Production, Issue #1: Productive Negation. 2012




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."

The Crucial Role of Digital Technologies

"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.

On the need to create a whole 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.

Re-localization as a key necessity

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.[1] 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." (