TOP 2014-02-07

Ten Alternatives to Capitalism

What are the alternatives to capitalism and how will we ever attain them? The following diagram summarises:

Diagram of the ten alternatives

Here are ten seriously proposed alternative ways of organising a society which go some distance in remedying the structural flaws of capitalism (with which I assume the reader is familiar):


Because they retain some form of wage labour, I don’t think anarcho-collectivism, parecon or mutualism are true solutions to be aimed for, but in considering how to build a new society we may need to ask ourselves whether one of these systems has any use as a ‘transitional’ form. The debate here is quite an old one. In State and Revolution, Lenin talks about two stages of communism - the first, in which people are rewarded with the full value of their labour according to the labour theory of value (the adage “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work”) and the second, ‘full communism’, in which goods and services are distributed solely according to need (“…to each according to their need”). And this simple little distinction is still being dissected and pored over by socialists today. Anarcho-communists specifically reject the weaker stage of communism, believing that all of society’s output is the result of an infinite number of past and present contributions, making it impossible to calculate the value of any one person’s labour. From a more pragmatic and less theoretical perspective, society is to some extent dysfunctional if the output is distributed according to anything other than need, since satisfying people’s needs is a prerequisite for sustaining that output in the first place (there won’t be any output to distribute at all if the workers starve, for example). Arguably, meeting people’s needs is also the most obvious goal for any rational, non-oppressive society to have.

One question which will arise, then, is how the ‘peer economy’, as described, differs from the anarcho-collectivist system. There might be a grey area between the two, but the important point about the peer economy is that contributions are made directly in order to satisfy needs, and that these contributions are made according to the person’s ability and volition. A wage system is about rewarding labour, and the rewards are then used to try to satisfy needs. In the peer economy, if somebody works more than they need to (for the products and services they want to get), then the amount of work that everyone else has to do automatically goes down. In a wages system, working more than necessary entitles you to more stuff (regardless of whether you want or need it), and everyone else might need to invent additional work to do just to keep their wages the same.

People from right-wing backgrounds, including those who may have grown up with the American Dream inculcated into them, sometimes make the objection that hard work and extra ‘effort’ ought to be rewarded as if it’s a moral imperative. Parecon has almost certainly been infected with this viewpoint. From the anarcho-communist perspective, the impossibility of quantifying labour or effort means that such rewards could never be systemically implemented. For communism in general, labour is not supposed to be an unpleasant slog or a kind of noble sacrifice that people have to be incentivised to endure - it’s meant to be a pleasant activity which is rewarding in itself for the person who enjoys doing it. Work has to become pleasant, which means good working conditions, copious leisure time and an absence of coercion. Any remaining ‘unpleasant’ tasks just need to be either eliminated or automated using technology, and if all else fails, they must be shared out among the community in equal measure or using some kind of rota system. If anybody acts heroically in a communist society, this can be heralded in other ways - having a celebration or giving a symbolic gift, for example - but it would not be systemic or automatic, rather it would happen only if a community specifically agreed on it.

The Anarchists will wonder why I have bothered to include a system like technocracy which for them, involves too much in the way of hierarchy to be palatable. In fact, I think technocracy has a number of things in common with an anarcho-syndicalist system. In the anarcho-syndicalist world, there’s still likely to be a division between workers and non-workers, with workers pretty much monopolising decisions about what to produce and what methods to use. The producers’ federation acts a bit like a technate in that respect, because they can plan industry exactly how they want it. Anarchists still generally believe in the use of technology to cut down on manual labour and to make work more comfortable, and might even advocate the application of science to the design of cities, transport, education and so on. The difference is just this - in an Anarchist system, the technicians are chosen by the workers, and the workers can recall them and reverse their decisions if they want to. In general, people with special skills and expertise will be listened to because of their knowledge and might be chosen as delegates for this reason, but their ideas are still subject to the approval of the base. This makes much more sense to me, since the dividing line between “expert” and “non-expert” is not particularly easy to define. What’s more, if a thirteen-year-old girl or boy proposes a fantastic idea for reorganising production or if a local poet with no scientific background accidentally makes a groundbreaking discovery, then Anarchist systems don’t discriminate, and any society that does discriminate will lose out.

Rejecting those systems that make too much use of coercion or money, we’re left with the first five on the list. These clearly have a number of things in common. None of them require a bureaucratic state apparatus, which is not surprising if the function of a state is to defend a ruling class from a subordinate class. In the contemporary context this means defending a private property regime. Instead of private property, these alternatives have the commons, which is a pool of resources that anyone can draw from, subject to the oversight of the communities managing it. Instead of a market economy, we have a peer economy or a kind of partially localised and responsive planned economy.

The differences between these systems are on two main axes. First there are differences in the level of technology. Primitivism and eco-communalism opt to curtail industry and technology drastically; the other systems actually aspire to make even greater use of technology to automate undesirable labour. Second there are minor differences in where production decisions are made. Anarcho-syndicalism and the peer economy leave almost all production decisions to the workers themselves, giving workplaces a large degree of autonomy. The danger is that non-working members of society might be excluded, and community resources might be misused, but these problems are solved by mediation processes with consumer groups and community federations. Anarcho-communism and eco-communalism burden communities with a lot more decisions: they decide what gets produced, how to distribute it and how resources are used, leaving only the details of the process to experts and to workers who are involved. For that reason, mediation becomes largely unnecessary, and workplaces should never end up abusing resources or ignoring consumer demand.

It’s not my intention to pick one model and insist that it’s the best solution. These five systems don’t need to compete with each other. Instead, we can expect that the post-revolutionary world will be diverse, with different systems in different places, similar to how capitalism is heterogenous at the moment. There will be systems that fall between the models considered here, intermediate solutions and grey areas. This is what Kropotkin envisioned too: “revolution would break out everywhere, but revolution under divers aspects … everywhere more or less Socialism, not conforming to any particular rule” (ibid, p.65). In order to work out how we might build this diverse revolutionary alternative, let’s look not at the model societies, but rather at the institutions and frameworks that they consist of.

Building Blocks of a New Society

Let’s consider the following ingredients to be constitutive of a new society:

The resulting system depends on which of these ingredients are present, as well as a few variables in how they interact with each other. By looking at these components separately, we can, for one thing, identify what needs to be built, and for another, we can see how these components might come to exist in different mixed-and-matched combinations, giving rise to a patchwork pluralistic Socialism of the future. The community federation is strong in anarcho-communism; in syndicalism, the producers’ federation is strong; and in the peer economy, the emphasis is on a distribution pool. Eco-communalism consists only of isolated communities, but we can now start to see how such communities might choose to interact on a limited basis with the rest of the world.


Federation of communities

Federation of producers

Distribution pool

The concept of the distribution pool, or d-pool, is described by Christian Siefkes in chapter 5 of his book. Here, I am using it as an example of a mechanism that a future society might or might not use to distribute products and tasks. Projects can choose to join the distribution pool. Then, people can contribute labour to any participating project, and in return, get the products or the service that they want from any other partcipating project. Each project just has to set the number of hours of labour it requires for each of its products or services. Projects might choose to use a distribution pool only if they aren’t supplied with labour by one of the other means listed above (e.g. voluntarism and community mandates).

Some communities might only be willing to support projects that provide things for shared community spaces along with the things that everyone needs to survive - but increasing everyone’s work requirement just to provide some individuals with their own personal telescope or private yacht might be an unpopular move, and pure voluntarism might be unable to meet the demand (in a reasonable timeframe). As a result, projects providing luxury items for personal use, such as cars, musical instruments, telescopes, video cameras and so on, might decide to set up a distribution pool. Then, somebody who wants their own personal grand piano doesn’t necessarily have to go and work in the piano-making project (as Kropotkin suggests in Chapter IX of The Conquest of Bread) - they could contribute their labour in the optics industry instead, whilst somebody who wants a video camera could put in the requisite number of hours at the piano-making project, if that suits their personal skills and proclivities better.

An eco-communalist style community could also participate to get extra products or services that it can’t provide for itself. To do this, the community might collectively decide what it wants and also collectively shoulder the responsibility, dividing up the contribution requirement among willing volunteers, who would then have to leave the community temporarily to make the necessary contributions. Because eco-communalism emphasises a more personal community life, where everyone knows and supports each other, it’s possible that volunteers would do this even if only one of their members benefited, such as getting a telescope for a young budding astronomer. The community harmony that this promotes is arguably present in every society, just more explicit in an eco-communalist one.

In practice the d-pool can be implemented as an online system that tracks tasks and products. In case labour is partially supplied by other sources, the contribution requirements would decrease accordingly.

Gift network

As described in a separate article, a gift network can be used in any society to supplement the projects that are undertaken by other means. In a gift network, people advertise what they need and what they can offer and are matched up accordingly. They provide their services apparently for nothing, but there is an expectation that somebody somewhere in the network will do the same for them when needed. All you ‘earn’ is the reputation and trust that makes you a viable target for other people to help you when you need it. This can be done on a small, personal scale in the form of a ‘gift circle’, where everyone knows each other, lives close together and meets on a regular basis to discuss their needs and offers; or it can be done over a computer network (which I discuss in more detail in the article). Both systems are currently being pursued even now and could be carried over to a new society without much change. If this happened, the gift network would probably be most useful for small jobs that pop up irregularly, especially when one person can do the job and where only one person benefits - for example, fixing personal computer problems, looking after a pet when someone is away, practising a foreign language, etc. It could be extended to more major activity if the conditions are right - for example, using tools in a community workshop to custom-build a desk for someone, or providing very personalised learning activities in a community centre.

Conclusory Exhortation

We’ve looked at several alternatives to capitalism that have a socialist or solidarity-based character, and we’ve broken them down into six key components, all of which exist in various embryonic forms right now. By working on these prefigurative realisations, we can start to build the framework of a new society. As the elements begin to interact with each other and in different combinations, the variables will be set in different ways, and the outcome will therefore look different in different places. There will be some big industrialised federations, but these will almost certainly co-exist with some small, self-sufficient communities, some hunter-gatherer tribes and some adventurous nomads who journey from one place to another. There will be room for some experimentation with technocracy and parecon too. A peaceful co-existence with other kinds of socialism, such as market socialism, mutualism and state socialism, is conceivable, but I certainly hope that the attraction of a world without money, markets, state or coercion will gradually become inescapable.

This “dual power” strategy is discussed in more detail in my next essay, The Solidarity Economy as a Strategy for Revolution.