November 24th, 2008 by Darin Robbins

Workers owning the means of production is still a valid idea, and can support the growth of authentic democracy.

In the last month of the presidential election, Barack Obama’s tax plan was characterized as a redistribution of wealth by conservatives and the Republican Party. This claim was incorrect for two reasons. First, it did not reflect the reality of the platform of the Democratic candidate which was in fact very similar to the approach of John McCain’s platform. Second, the perspective offered on any kind of redistribution of wealth as something negative obscured the actual facts of such an endeavor. A redistribution of wealth, either through taxes or other ways, can only be a short-term solution to issues of wage disparity and economic injustice. Both candidates of the two-party system fail to address the issue of disempowerment in economic terms that can severely limit democracy in political terms. The very idea of a redistribution of wealth points to a structural flaw in capitalism that both candidates agree to ignore, assuming that the overall economic system is sound. But a redistribution of wealth is not as effective as a redistribution of the means of production. This concept, originally advocated by Marx, can extend beyond a strict doctrine of Marxist communism to become an integral component of a new economic method that is more aligned with what American citizens expect of democracy in their society.

The redistribution of the means of production is a long-term solution to the exploitation that occurs within capitalism. The ability of individuals to control their own economic destiny, through the ownership of the tools that produce what is needed by humans in their lives, allows an equality of opportunity that is already assumed in a democratic process. Individuals becoming self-sustaining can prevent relationships of exploitation that emerge within a hierarchy that will naturally develop within the nation-state or capitalism. Though the idea of workers owning the means of production is mired in the negative connotation of communist dogma due to the ideology of the Cold War, an understanding of that idea separated from other aspects of communism can show its validity and its connection to democracy. When one discusses the means of production, one actually must include the means of power and meaning as well in a comprehensive assessment of the political, the cultural, and the economic within the social. These means are organized by preexisting relations of power, meaning, and production. These means also help to shape future relations of power, meaning, and production. The apparent means are contained by ubiquitous relations, while the ownership of ubiquitous means is the control of apparent relations. The understanding of these structures as apparent and immanent rather than ubiquitous and transcendent allows them to be used as tools of empowerment. The comprehensive control, understanding, and ownership of these means as structures is conducted through the interaction between use, experience, and creation by individuals. Individuals as citizens must be the ones who use, experience, and create in order to be able to participate in a free and equal way. These aspects are all interrelated as an opposition to a top-down system that is the nature of the nation-state and capitalism.

There is a need to recognize that the creation of value through labor is an expression of desire. From this basis it is clear that the widespread ownership of the means of production is directly linked to the will of individuals and collectives in a democracy. As Robert Dahl has proposed, just as political liberty is insured by political democracy then economic liberty must be insured by economic democracy. This can only be substantial and continuous if there is the redistribution of the means of production. Otherwise, this economic democracy becomes mediated and limited by the nation-state in its interaction with capitalism. There must first be an acknowledgment of the divergence of ownership between personal property and the means of production. Personal property is that which has value through its creation and its value may only be for the owner. The means of production can also be considered property, but it is in fact tools that can allow individuals to create products and instill value through the creative process. The confusion between personal property and the means of production has allowed the redistribution of the means of production, and the redistribution of wealth for that matter, to be portrayed as a theft of property. If all members of a society had equal access to the means of production through equal ownership, then the price of goods would be the combination of the cost of labor and the cost of production. Any value placed into the product through labor would rightfully belong to those who exerted that labor, and any exchange would be between equal participants with no situation of economic dependency between workers and owners. But the reality of capitalism is that there is an equality of ownership of labor and an inequality of ownership of capital in a economic system that favors those who own capital.

Those who own capital are those who own the means of production. The distribution of the means of production, as a process of empowerment in a democracy, can occur through various methods that historically have been outside of communism. These methods have concentrated on banking, production, and consumption but all have the common goal of a redistribution in order to correct the inequality that lies at the heart of capitalism. The distribution of the ownership of the means of production has been separately advocated by Binary Economics, Distributism, Participatory Economics, and Social Credit. From Binary Economics the method has been micro-credit and investment loans in order to establish businesses that have employee stock ownership plans. From Distributism the method has been support for cooperatives and the possibility of a graduated regulatory process in production, where the amount of mandatory regulations increases with the size of the business. From Participatory Economics the method has been an iterative price function in trade where producers and consumers are able to create a price equilibrium by balancing supply and demand on a local level of negotiation. From Social Credit the method has been a basic income guarantee through a citizen dividend in order to compensate for the gap between wages and price as labor costs plus production costs within consumption. The combination of these methods is an actual application of the redistribution of the means of production that recognizes the real convergence of the identities of owner, worker, consumer, voter, and taxpayer. This practice can fulfill the original goal as articulated by Marx that has not been fulfilled by communism.

This idea of economic liberty must not be confused with the reliance on the market as the best way to express freedom, as proposed by conservatives and some libertarians. The market is only one method of interaction with only finite individual freedom. In fact, the market is a transcendent form that contains the breaking up of the social. This breaking up of the social is accomplished through a series of precluded choices, contracts, and small partial objects of desire. The market, set up as a universal phenomenon, limits all social relationships and takes apart any preexisting social arrangements or procedures. The market does not address the fact that labor is dependent on capital within the inequality of the ownership of capital that occurs in capitalism. This inequality is also the inability of individuals, who might only have their labor, to form collective actions as political, cultural, and economic solutions. However, democracy can be the method of interaction with an infinite expression of individual free agency, much more than the ideology of the free market. Despite what is advocated by conservatives and some libertarians, the market is in direct conflict with a real application of democracy across the entire social field.

The redistribution of the means of production deals with the inherent problems of exploitation and hierarchy within capitalism. Capitalism itself is not a natural or eternal structure, but a specific mode of the economy within a historical context. It developed alongside the growth of the nation-state and has a direct relationship with the nation-state. Marxism has proposed that the nation-state is an instrument of the dominant economic class, but the internal abstract order of the nation-state always perpetuates a hierarchy and it can be argued that the abstract form allows class formations to occur. What can be established is that capitalism has gone through a process from formal subsumption to real subsumption which is a completion of the system’s absorption of all aspects of the social. In formal subsumption, where there still remains some remnants of the previous economy, the nation-state acts as the supplement to the body of capitalism. The body of capitalism can be defined as the formation of a physical infrastructure such as factories. The appearance of a national identity obscures the breaking up of the social by capitalism. In real subsumption, where there is the appearance of capitalism as the only form of the economy, the spirit of capitalism acts as the supplement to the nation-state. The spirit of capitalism can be defined as the ideology of the market and the commodification of the social. The appearance of a redistribution of wealth can obscure the perpetuation of power and meaning by the nation-state. The nation-state subsidizes and enforces capitalism in its beginning, while capitalism supplies and influences the nation-state with a technique of social control in its maturity.

When the United States was young, Thomas Jefferson envisioned a society made up of small farmers and artisans. This society, organized on the basis of citizens owning the tools of their own livelihood, made it possible for them to engage in the public life of their government. At first, slavery distorted that original vision, but it did not make that vision less credible or positive. As the country became less agrarian and more industrial, the idea of people owning the means of production that they would in turn use became diminished and obscured by the emphasis on capital and the normalization of its unequal ownership in the society. There was a universalization of the economic sphere through the growth of capitalism. The subsumption of the social by capitalism placed a particular limit on the cultural sphere, reducing any actions on identity politics or values politics to an existence as small parts within an unchanging economic system. The political sphere had both a universal and particular limitation within governmentality. The universal limit of the political was enacted through the law, while the particular limit of the political was enacted through a democracy of the structure. In other words, as long as capitalism was made predominant, its ordering of society relegated the political and the cultural to mechanisms that perpetuate the procedures of exploitation and hierarchy. Since capitalism is universal, then there is a need to connect political and cultural actions with an economic movement. The three parts of the social can not be isolated. Therefore, the redistribution of the means of production makes a comprehensive engagement as citizens more possible through the self-aware use of tools. That empowerment allows individuals to express their desire as human beings which is at the heart of free agency and the good society.