A note on anarchist economics

Modern production takes the strictly individual productive capacities of individuals and multiplies them in a variety of ways. Organization and association in industry, social and technological infrastructure, progress in science, and various other factors all contribute to what Proudhon called the “collective force” in production, and he explained capitalist exploitation as a kind of “accounting error,” where there are three sorts of human inputs in production (individual workers as individuals, individual capitalists as individuals, who may or may not actively contribute, and all the individuals as collectivities), but only two of the three are compensated (with what may often be the largest share, that produced by the collective force, being largely channeled to the capitalists.)

That creates a weird economic environment, in which individual wages (driven down to something like a subsistence level by the disadvantages labor has in various markets, thanks, among other things, to the fact that a large share of the wealth it has created is competing with it in the marketplace) are expected to cover the bulk of basic, shared needs, both as payment in the market and as taxes to government. And it is subject to all the rigors of both the capitalist marketplace and the political process. Meanwhile, a mass of socially-produced wealth is in the hands of a capitalist minority, who tend to spend it on just about everything but necessities, under conditions where financial losses may be status gains, etc. Rather than following the dictates of supply and demand, much of that social wealth ends up in an economic environment that in some ways more closely resembles the anthropological gift economies, where pure expenditure can be translated into non-economic goods.

That topsy-turvy arrangement is almost exactly the opposite of what we might expect a well-ordered anarchist economy to look like. While anarchists vary in their approach to economic forms, there is probably a shared interest in creating a sustainable society in which individuals feel that not only their needs, but many of their desires are being met. On that basis, we probably also have a shared interest in seeing to it that a certain degree of mutual, social “investment” takes place in shared infrastructure, education, various forms of mutual insurance, etc. But there’s really no need for “taxes” to support that, as we expect to reclaim that mass of social wealth from the government and the capitalist, and we have to option of simply taking our remuneration for a share in social labor in the form of social spending. In a more collectivist society, we might see the arrangement turned more or less upside-down, with the bulk of social wealth plowed back into shared projects, unmediated by the market, and some small portion, corresponding to a wage, returned to individuals to do with as they wish in a limited market economy. Communists might “reinvest” everything, and the desire not to do any accounting would be protected a bit by the fact that the fruits of collective force, which have been systematically stripped from us, are likely to be substantial, even without any science-fiction scenarios or real “post-scarcity.” More individualist communities might return a larger share to the community, or return everything, expecting active investment in the maintenance of the community as part of community membership. And that last strategy might well survive some indifference and some free-riders for precisely the same reason that communism might succeed.