Socialisation of Production

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Excerpted from an essay by Jonathan Clyne and Jean Lievens:

"It would be entirely one-sided to look at capitalism and only see crisis. Undoubtedly, in most capitalist countries many people have experienced a declining standard of living, unemployment and a reduction of the welfare state in the past decades. If you add to this the intensification of work leading to stress and burn-outs, the past decades do not present a pretty picture. There is a big difference compared to the fifties and sixties. However, that does not exhaust the question. It does not mean that there has been no economic development at all during this period. Only on very few occasions has capitalism meant an actual decline in the economy and then, with the exception of the depression in the thirties, only for a very short period of time. The normal condition for capitalism is for the means of production to develop. Although production can sometimes, but by no means always, decline during a slump, all production and development does not cease even then.

What is does it mean to 'develop the means of production? Essentially it means the development of human cooperation. This is the true source of economic development. This is what Marx called the socialisation of production.

The myths of capitalist ideology portray the single person, normally a man, that comes with some great new idea that a lot of people want. He then makes a fortune by marketing his idea in the face of stiff competition from others. Undoubtedly, individuals do come with great ideas, but they always do so in a context. Hence the difficulty of ascertaining whose idea it was. Increasingly the courts, as in the example of Facebook, have to be resorted to in a vain attempt to separate out who the “owner” of an idea is. The other end - moving from an idea into mass production – present an even greater problem with finding the “great individual”. To most people it is obvious that this cannot be done without many people cooperating.

In the past, Stalinists and reformists alike had their own myths about economic development. They saw the development of the means of production as meaning the development of big factories with big, technologically complicated machines. This misses the point entirely.

Without the development of factories, machines, railways, the telephone, and the internet, human cooperation would obviously be limited. The more advanced human cooperation is, the more it is dependent on machines and technology. But the development of human cooperation is the primary driving force of economic development – the main reason for making and using machines.

Besides, it is easily forgotten that machines and technology are not only the means for developing human cooperation, but they are themselves an expression of human cooperation. A forklift truck concentrates the labour of many workers into lifting one heavily loaded pallet with ease. The cooperative labour of many workers, so to say, continuous to live on in a dead object and do useful things. A factory or office building is also the product of human cooperation and enables human cooperation within its walls. A fetishistic view of machines and buildings has been the norm, as if in and by themselves machines had a meaning and a value.

Elementary socialisation

The most elementary form of production was individual production. The worker had his own tools, which he possibly even made himself. He sat in his workshop, perhaps with a few apprentices, and produced a pair of shoes or whatever. Production started to become socialised when individual workers were moved into factories. It got even more socialised when the employer supplied machines and it took a group of workers to produce even a single pair of shoes. People became dependent upon each other in order to produce something, but their dependency also meant that they could be a lot more productive. Socialisation has developed in many different ways since these early days of capitalism, therefore this can be called elementary socialisation.

In an individual work place cooperation is done according to a plan; a plan worked out by the owner or by somebody employed by him. This is rather problematic, as can be experienced at most workplaces. All kinds of conflicts arise. True human cooperation cannot be based upon force – the boss forcing you to do what he has decided by using the threat of being demoted, pay reduction or sacking. Real human cooperation cannot be based upon a hierarchy, where each layer can force the layer below it to do what it wants and where everybody is competing to climb the hierarchy. This is very destructive and if things get completely out of hand, which they can easily do, for example when one gets the non too uncommon feature of a psychopathic boss, a whole department or even the whole company can be destroyed. Yet normally, even that inefficient form of cooperation, based upon fear, is more efficient than individual production.

Some bosses and a vast array of management handbooks realise this problem. By all kinds of means they try to get the employed to somehow feel that they are involved and contributing to a common goal. This ranges from talk about 'the most important capital we have is our human capital', suggestion boxes, company parties, and courses to teach managers how to motivate the people under them. Some do manage successful “team-building”. And do well because of it. But even these “success” stories have their limits which become apparent when the economy turns from boom to slump. Somebody has to sack somebody else and maybe worsen others wages and working conditions. And all the hard work put down to get people to cooperate, risks getting torn down. And a sense of alienation returns. This is an elementary expression of the contradiction between the socialisation of production and private ownership.

General socialisation

That is not the end of the story. Small-scale production in one factory develops into giant global companies that approach monopolies in their branch. As capitalism moves along this trajectory of growth another form of human cooperation is created, an unconscious one - that between rubber plantation workers in Malaysia, tyre producers in Italy, steel workers in Sweden, and car workers in Belgium. All of whom cooperate to produce a car, that is then distributed throughout a large part of the world. This can be called general socialisation.

Inventions speed up this form of the socialisation of production. An early example were the railways that tied the economy of a country together. A more modern example is the use of the internet for so called Business-to-business (B2B) transactions. One of the main economic gains of the internet so far is not a better supply of books, YouTube or even open source programming. It is internet trade between businesses, such as between a manufacturer and a wholesaler, or between a wholesaler and a retailer. The volume of B2B transactions is much higher than the volume of business-to-consumer (B2C) transactions.1 This in turn allows for the development of much larger manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers as they are given access to larger and cheaper suppliers. Over the last couple of hundred of years the whole physical production and distribution system of the world has been more and more tied together. Many parts of the economy have become dependent on each other. What happens in one place or one branch has a major effect on the others. This more developed form of socialisation is initially mediated by the market and it is is not consciously planned, unlike socialisation within an individual workplace.

This kind of socialisation brings with its own problems – the investment cycles as described above. That is the classic boom slump cycle. Big resources are squandered in times of boom through speculative ventures, and even bigger ones during slump when unemployment leaps up. This is another form of the contradiction between the socialised nature of production and private ownership of the means of production.

However, as generalised socialisation increases in scope, it begins to chaff at the limits to conscious cooperation imposed by the market, in an attempt to overcome this conflict.

Initially, towards the end of the 19th century, this took the form of trying to achieve a monopoly in a field and thus more or less dictate the price and conditions for the production and sale of a particular commodity. An alternative strategy was to try and control production vertically, that is by controlling everything from the production of raw materials to distribution of the final product to consumers. The Stalinist command economy is rooted in these old strategies. It was a simple extension of them into one big vertically integrated monopoly controlled from the top.

These strategies proved untenable, partly as a result of government legislation, but mainly because it is almost impossible under capitalism to guard against competition from other big companies entering a field if the profits are sufficiently high there.

During the fifties and sixties, yet another strategy was developed - horizontal integration. It was the time of giant conglomerates producing everything from television to turbines. The idea behind this was that if the production of one commodity was going well it would compensate for another going badly. Typically some commodities went better during economic crisis while others fared worse. However, these conglomerates proved unwieldy as they grew truly gigantic. And as the world economy went into a more unstable epoch from the mid-seventies they had to be ditched. The worst performing companies within a conglomerate risked pulling down the whole group.

The history of the development of the means of production under capitalism can therefore be reduced to: first creating conscious, but dictatorial, cooperation within a workplace; then unconscious cooperation through the market; the expansion of conscious cooperation through the expansion of individual companies; and then attempts to overcome the limits imposed upon conscious human cooperation by the market through monopolies, oligopolies, and vertical and horizontal integration.

Advanced socialisation

In the last thirty years capitalism has made new attempt to overcome the limits imposed by the market. As a consequence of that there has been a big restructuring of the working class in the advanced capitalist countries in the past thirty-five years. Manufacturing jobs have declined steeply, but new jobs have arisen.

Much has been said and written about industrial jobs moving from Europe and the US to China and other developing countries. But the fact of the matter is that every single year in the past twenty-five years the number of jobs in the EU has risen in absolute terms. The claim that Foreign Direct Investment is creating jobs in China instead of the USA is false. The largest recipient of Foreign Direct Investment is the United States. And nobody is complaining about industrial jobs disappearing from Europe, Japan and China to the US.

Of course, many of the new jobs are low paid service jobs that have reappeared to look after the rich, because the rich have become vastly richer. Other jobs have arisen in the parasitic financial sector. But these are far from all jobs. Many jobs actually represent a development of the means of production away from the old dirty repetitive jobs in huge factories to a higher level.

In the eighties the watchwords of capital became concentrate on the core business, outsource and just-in-time production. Components and services that were outsourced made it possible to create big companies for the production of components that are a small part of the final product. A car company can outsource production to over one thousand other companies. The company that produces the batteries or the plastic bumpers or the seats can be partially or completely dependent on supplying to one or a few car companies. Things are not freely bought and sold on a market, but regulated by longer-term contracts. These contracts specify exactly what should be produced and when. This is the beginning of conscious cooperation rather than a market economy.

Outsourcing also has the consequence of reducing the number of workers defined as industrial workers. In the past a factory employed cleaners, drivers, canteen staff, repairmen, janitors and so on. They were all considered industrial workers, nowadays they are considered service workers.

The development towards smaller workplaces (although not smaller companies) is also part of the 'scaling-down' that enables better human cooperation. People cooperate better when smaller groups are linked together, than when there is one all encompassing group controlled from the top.

And then, in the interstices of capitalism, not least through the development of the internet, there has been the development of communities of self-organising groups of people that exist outside of capitalism, but are connected to it. They are used by capitalism, but also influence it. They are encouraged by capitalism, but at the same capitalism tries to control them. These new method that are developing are revolutionising the way in which corporations invent, design, develop and distribute products and services.

The old mentality of planning and implementation is being replaced by a new, dynamic economy of collaboration and common development. The old monolithic multinational organised in a closed hierarchical structure is under attach. Open source and other forms of peer-to-peer production are partially tearing down the walls between competing corporations.

Self-organising communities on the Internet such as Wikipedia, Linux, Flickr, YouTube… (but there are at least 200 000 other successful examples on a smaller scale) show again and again that they can develop things more effectively than hierarchical organisations.

The same ‘principles’ should be applied on the shop floor. In Western Europe, many parts of Asia, North America, and Australia business needs more and more to rely on the creative skills of their workers. Routine, rule-based ‘left-brain’ work, certain kinds of accounting, certain kinds of financial analysis, certain kinds of computer programming, has become fairly easy to automate.

In order to ‘motivate’ the workforce, the old methods of sticks and carrots don’t work. This is proved over and over again by scientists, who come to the conclusion that there is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does. Management consultants develop new theories concerning ‘intrinsic motivation’ that are very close to the old ideas of self management. Intrinsic motivation is based on understanding that people have the desire to do things because they matter, because they like it, because it is interesting, because they are part of something important.

Modern management schools suggest a new operating system, based around three elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose:

  • Autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives
  • Mastery: the desire to get better and better at something that matters
  • Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

The bottom line of the thesis of this motivation expert is: the main driving force for people is “doing things that matter”. This is completely the opposite of the profit motive.

This mismatch between what science knows and what business does, can be seen in a wide variety of examples, provided by thousands of studies on human motivation, on happiness, on ‘sharing’, alternative business models, etc. They show how in fact not only businesses (private and public), but all the institutions under modern capitalism are completely outdated and are in fact to a large effect a fetter on the free development of what is possible today. All these examples are very inspirational and add to a clearer understanding of how a future society, superior to capitalism, could look like. These new developments can be called advanced socialisation.

The movement that is gathering in the squares world-wide reflect two aspects of contemporary capitalism – its crisis and its development of the means of production, i.e. advanced socialisation. That is what gives the movement such an intensity and fresh character. It cannot and will not be pushed into authoritarian means of organising itself. It will not accept organisations that are modelled on the old hierarchical manufacturing factories.

“Some US trade unions have supported and even actively participated in the Occupy Wall St. movement. This is an important development. It could be the beginning of the transformation of the labour movement. If the labour movement does not cast off the old bureaucratic forms of organisation it will self-destruct, as the movement passes it by. Left groups have to face up to this challenge too." (


“Excerpted from an essay by Jonathan Clyne and Jean Lievens who have been active in the Belgian, British and Swedish labour movement since the seventies. They are now participating in​, a forum that is striving to make Marxism relevant for today."

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