Production and consumption: differences in orientation

Gallen Kallela's The Forging of the Sampo

Gallen Kallela’s The Forging of the Sampo

A previous article on Spirit of Contradiction dealt with the issue of types of revolutions drawing the fundamental distinction between insurrection, socialisation in production and communisation in consumption. Some of these ideas were expounded on by earlier Marxists when confronting themselves, for example, with the early Christians,1 and unlike them coming always on the side of production. Marx himself, though focused on the productive process, especially on his early work, takes a more dialectical view of this matter.2 My object is to consider these two orientations, and inquire on the political and ideological consequences they bear today.

Labour appears to most of us as a necessary evil. Many mythological systems contain this implicit view, from Genesis 3’s explanation to why work is necessary–a result of disobedience to HaShem–to descriptions of an afterlife characterised by the absence of want and hence of labour, passing through the many objects of power such as the Sampo, the Cornucopia, and similar cases.3 Etymologically, many of the equivalent words to labour–as well as possibly labour itself–have their origin in words referring to pain or burden. Travail, French for work, and its romance cognates such as trabajo, derive from a Latin word meaning torture.4 Whether this results from the distortions of class society or is an inherent property of human beings, it is clear that there is a prevalent notion that work is unpleasant and that people have a desire to avoid it as much as possible. This is, too, the view of the Austrian School,5 for which Bukharin derided it as the Economic Theory of a Leisure Class, which chapter 1, section III, is particularly relevant to this whole matter of orientation. On this light, it isn’t unreasonable that many of the exponents of radical and communist thought, understood in its broadest sense, struggled towards attaining for all persons the necessary means of life, focusing therefore on the issue of consumption and how to share goods to attain this end. Such examples would include anarchist thinkers such as Kropotkin; intentional communes such as those started up by hippies, some religious organisations, or those derived from Steiner’s anthroposophical principles; and older, often–though not always–religiously motivated movements such as the original Anabaptists.

What position is taken in this regard depends on what one believes about the existence of a human nature, and if it exists what its content may be. Thus, we find in Kropotkin a relentless faith in the prosocial nature of man, which justifies his contention that all people should get access to the means of consumption to whatever extent they desire and independently of their contribution to the productive forces of society. Likewise, many–if by no means all–communisers start out from the notion that man is naturally good, and that all which stands between this potential and its actualisation is the nature of class society, or, more broadly, civilisation. Thus we tend to find in communisers a certain resistance to those means which can be used for planning output and allocating resources, such as statistical, quantitative methods, scientific management and in general operations research.

Producerist6 socialists, on the other hand, are likely to have a more cynical view of the nature of man, and agree that, at least for the moment, we can expect selfish, short-termist and generally collectively irrational behaviour out of humans, and that a certain amount of adaptation is required to deal with this reality. Marx himself had a somewhat more nuanced view on the nature of man, which he dealt with on the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, the German Ideology, or the famous Critique of the Gotha Programme.7 For Marx, there is not a constant human nature that operates equally in all times and places, but instead humans are largely determined by their circumstances, especially their economic standing and relations of production. This position entails a break with many anarchists who make moralistic appeals to perfectability, and resulted in the oft-parodied–but in my view justifiable–notion of a new socialist man.

Marx’s view is that although there is not a constant human nature, there is a human species-being–a notion taken from Feuerbach–which is to say a certain manifestation in humanity in general and each human in particular that is partly determined by existing material conditions as well as by the biological characteristics of humans, and their understanding of themselves subjectively as free beings. For Marx, the capitalist system and the reign of the law of value leads to man’s alienation, which is of four kinds: from the product of the worker’s labour, which is disposed of by the capitalist; from the act of production, which is a natural faculty of man; from himself, in being subordinated to the necessity of the productive process; and from other workers, in being forced to compete against them. This notion of alienation clearly delineates the importance of productive activity for Marx. Hence alienation affects production in the following ways: regarding the first kind, in that being separated from the fruits of one’s labour and unable to dispose of them for a social purpose curtails human’s propensity to purposeful productive activity; regarding the second, in that production is reduced from a self-driven, self-expressive activity and instead becomes a series of automated acts which make the worker into a tool; regarding the third, in that production can’t be oriented towards self-chosen, socially useful goals; and regarding the fourth, in that capitalism curtails the development of the productive forces and, through the maintenance of a reserve army of the unemployed, removes the opportunity to engage in meaningful work for many.

On the other side of the coin, upholders of class society may also perceive humans as primarily consumers or producers. The consumer focus tends to come with a view of humans as naturally indolent, self-interested atomistic utility maximising agents. It is the typical notion used in classical game theory–although game theory is becoming more sophisticated now–, much of orthodox economics, and the Austrian School. These people don’t find it absurd to claim that, were the price of a good zero, demand would become infinite. On the other hand, those who believe humans are primarily producers tend to exalt the value of work, tend towards virtue ethics or deontology rather than utilitarianism, and tend to occupy fringe political positions such as Georgism, social credit, or Freigeld.8

The reason why this orientation matters, aside from what to do in a post-revolutionary situation, which, I think all will agree, is a premature consideration at this time, lies in the fact that the shape of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic discourse is different when coming at it from a producerist or a consumerist standpoint. For example, a common consumerist criticism of the Occupy movement was that members opposed capitalism while using hallmark products of it, such as the iPhone, whereas this criticism wouldn’t carry weight under a producerist mindset. On the other hand, the claim that Occupiers were lacking in skills and produced nothing would be a more likely claim to strike at producerists, hence the historical distrust Marxists held for the lumpenproletariat.

I would argue that part of the divergence in values between Europe and the US lies on the fact that the political orientation in the US is profoundly consumerist, while that of most of Europe is producerist. I would further argue that this results from the relatively expansive and resource-filled land-mass the US constitutes, in comparison to Europe, where easily accessible resources have already been depleted and ingenuity and labour are required to guarantee the reproduction of society. Hence the US emphasis on culture as an article of consumption, requiring its mass production and cheap distribution, vis-a-vis the understanding in Europe of culture as an active facet of life which affords the expression of the free development of the author’s personality. Many aspects such as the differences in frameworks for cultural funding, the treatment of brands or hobbies as vehicles for self-expression, and the like, stem from this distinction, while, admitedly, it does not constitute a binary.

A big thorny issue which stems from Marxism as a producerist movement is that related to the role and status of those unable to work: the disabled. This is a topic which affects me directly, as my disability has expelled me, or, rather, never let me into the effective labour market. Much as I would wish to sell my labour power, since provision for the disabled in Spain is rather limited, capitalists don’t consider me as a worthwhile investment. Perhaps they are right: it is undeniable that, much as some disability advocates would have it, disabled people encounter limitations in carrying out work, which makes capitalists, aside from the real existence of prejudice, unwilling to risk hiring them. Whether I’m right in believing that I would nonetheless be able to become a profitable source of surplus value or not, it is undeniable that given the state of the art, not all people could.

For the consumerists, the fundamental expression of human will is realised in choice, and such choice refers to what commodities to acquire and use. Hence, consumerists who are sympathetic to disabled rights emphasize the necessity of disabled people to get access to means of consumption, and in particularly to cultural goods and personal assistance if required in order to realise typical consumer activities. In contrast, producerists emphasize the necessity to integrate disabled persons in the labour force, giving them access to a fulfilling social role and to meaningful productive activity. Now, sometimes such a producerist approach is camouflage for super-exploitation schemes whereby the disabled are enticed or forced into work realised under much worse conditions than those of other workers–such as extremely low wages. However, I am sympathetic to the claim that productive, purposeful activity is a useful end in itself, in that it makes one become a part of the social mesh, contribute to production and reproduction tasks, and, most importantly, it is far more significant in the constant production of oneself, which is a hallmark of the process of human free development, than those activities that are merely consumptive. At the same time, access to the social product for those unable to work is a necessity for a humane society:9 not only because of some moralistic sentimental appeal, or because we are all likely to be disabled at one or other point in our lives, but because, ultimately, the realisation of the realm of freedom out of the realm of necessity presupposes the subordination of accident and chance to human planning, and not the subordination of humans themselves to the production of values–which would be to repeat the capitalist schema under better administration. The ultimate object of socialism must be the opening up of human development, and this development must belong to all in equal measure. However, I would find an existence that didn’t entail the realisation of purposeful, productive struggle against the constraints of nature and society a rather sterile one, and I believe disabled people should, inasmuch as it is possible, not be deprived of labour, neither now, when it is to be preferable only to unemployment, nor in that longed for day when it becomes life’s prime want.

  1. Rosa Luxemburg, on her work href=””>Socialism and the Churches, particularly on parts II–III, states, inter alia: So the demand of the Christians for collective property did not relate to the means of production, but the means of consumption. They did not demand that the land, the workshops and the instruments of work should become collective property, but only that everything should be divided up among them, houses, clothing, food and finished products most necessary to life. The Christian communists took good care not to enquire into the origin of these riches. The work of production always fell upon the slaves. The Christian people desired only that those who possessed the wealth should embrace the Christian religion and should make their riches common property, in order that all might enjoy these good things in equality and fraternity.  
  2. On his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, on href=””>Human Requirements and the Division of Labour under the Rule of Private Property we can read: The one side (Lauderdale, Malthus, etc.) recommends luxury and execrates thrift. The other (Say, Ricardo, etc.) recommends thrift and execrates luxury. But the former admits that it wants luxury in order to produce labour (i.e., absolute thrift); and the latter admits that it recommends thrift in order to produce wealth (i.e., luxury). (…) The Say-Ricardo school is hypocritical in not admitting that it is precisely whim and caprice which determine production. It forgets the “refined needs”, it forgets that there would be no production without consumption; it forgets that as a result of competition production can only become more extensive and luxurious. It forgets that, according to its views, a thing’s value is determined by use, and that use is determined by fashion. It wishes to see only “useful things” produced, but it forgets that production of too many useful things produces too large a useless population. Both sides forget that extravagance and thrift, luxury and privation, wealth and poverty are equal.  
  3. An in-depth analysis of myth is beyond the scope of this article, but such stories are common. As mere examples, consider the href=””>Akshaya Patra, from Indian myth, or the href=””>descriptions of paradise in the Qur’an  
  4. See href=””>travail’s entry on the Online Etymology Dictionary, for example.  
  5. For example, von Mises’ href=””>Human Action, Action within the World, Human Labour as a Means, contrasts a world where labour would be done for its own sake with what it claims to be ours, stating: The expenditure of labor is deemed painful. Not to work is considered a state of affairs more satisfactory than working. Leisure is, other things being equal, preferred to travail. People work only when they value the return of labor higher than the decrease in satisfaction brought about by the curtailment of leisure. To work involves disutility.  
  6. A quick note on terminology: I’m not using this term in the political meaning commonly ascribed it in the US, but simply in the sense of a tendency to focus on the faculty of production, and of man as a primarily productive being, as utilised in comparative law in such works as href=””>Consumerism Versus Producerism: A Study in Comparative Law.  
  7. In particular, compare the following: What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!  
  8. I don’t have quantitative data on this question, but a short survey of the orthodox economic literature will show the prevalence of the consumerist paradigm.  
  9. Marx, on the Critique of the Gotha Programmed cited before, referred to this as one of the reasons why undiminished proceeds from labour are not a feasible economic goal: Before this is divided among the individuals, there has to be deducted again, from it: First, the general costs of administration not belonging to production. This part will, from the outset, be very considerably restricted in comparison with present-day society, and it diminishes in proportion as the new society develops. Second, that which is intended for the common satisfaction of needs, such as schools, health services, etc. From the outset, this part grows considerably in comparison with present-day society, and it grows in proportion as the new society develops. Third, funds for those unable to work, etc., in short, for what is included under so-called official poor relief today. (Emphasis mine)  

About modulus

Modulus is an unaffiliated Marxist from South Western EU (Spanish state). He studied computer science and law, and is at present preparing for civil service exams for the Spanish administration. An avid IRC user, he enjoys arguments and will occasionally play devil's advocate. He regards himself as orthodox and is concerned about unscientific attitudes on the left on such things as nuclear energy, biotechnology, and so on. His support for the European Union as a platform to unify the class struggle across the continent has earned him plenty of strong opposition, and doubtless will continue to do so; until, that is, his view is vindicated by history.
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