Kinder, Gentler Private Property

I attended the Friday after Thanksgiving Buy Nothing Day event in San Francisco, and while I\’m quite sympathetic to the general aim of Buy Nothing Day, I think there are a few things that could be greatly improved about your leaflet, \”The ABC\’s of Buying Nothing.\”

1. You suggest, \”Barter instead of buying. Participate in exchange without contributing to this economic system.\”

Whenever you have human beings mediating their relationships to one another through exchange you have the material basis for inequality and exploitation; the market is making the decisions, not the people involved. Barter and money are both forms of market exchange, and as such are inherently alienating. Both are based on private property. That\’s the opposite of a situation where private property has been abolished. If you call for people to barter you are calling for what you hope will be a kinder, gentler form of private property.

All the authentically revolutionary Marxist and anarchist tendencies in modern history have aspired to go beyond using money, not regress to pre-capitalist forms of the market economy. For all their mistakes and limitations, in places like rural Spain in 1936, and under the Soviet regime in Hungary in 1919, 20th century revolutionary movements that attempted to create post-capitalist societies were often clear on the need to not just abolish money, but to abolish the underlying commodity exchange relations that money is the most visible symbol of. That\’s what the slogan, \”From each according to their ability, to each according to their need\” refers to; a situation where all wealth is produced and allocated freely and according to need, without trade or exchange of any kind, not a private property system like what exists with barter. If you attempted to apply a system as awkward and inefficient as barter to the level of a large scale society, its inherent clumsiness and inefficiency would probably lead most people back to using money.

An article in the Situationist International Anthology about the Watts riots of 1965, \”The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle Commodity Economy,\” and Reading Capital Politically by Harry Cleaver both show how the tendency to go beyond exchange altogether asserts itself again and again in many contemporary working class rebellions. These moments of revolt usually have contradictory elements, but this tendency to assert real human needs against the market is exactly the thing that should be encouraged by anyone opposed to today\’s global social order. The abolition of all acts of buying and selling isn\’t just a good idea for the distant future; it\’s a living tendency that emerges in the most advanced social struggles. Market relations are the basis of what\’s wrong with life on earth. Whether it\’s money, barter, trade or exchange, the market economy has to be abolished. There isn\’t any opting out of it on a personal level.

2. Also, there\’s nothing particularly virtuous about limiting your shopping to \”indy\” capitalist enterprises. This comes off like the crusty-punk version of the shop-your-way-to-a-better-world bullshit that you find in a more upscale form from The Body Shop, Smith and Hawken and Mother Jones magazine.

3. Finally, I come to the letter Q: \”Quit your job. Find one you like. Work part-time or not at all.\”

This suggestion reeks of upper middle class privilege and naiveté. I can only begin to imagine how ridiculous this must sound to a working class single mother, who can\’t go back to live with her mom and dad in an upscale suburb when she gets tired of dumpster-diving. If your suggestions don\’t connect with the real lives of the vast majority of people outside the drop-out/career protester/slumming-offspring-of-the-upper-middle-class ghetto then what you suggest will be self-indulgent, irrelevant, or worse.

Most people in the real world don\’t work because they believe in it or don\’t have anything better to do with their lives, but because they are coerced into it — they have no choice. On an individual level we are powerless and at the mercy of the commodity system. People work to avoid complete and total impoverishment, and often nowadays even working all the time doesn\’t save a lot of people from being poor. And for most people who can\’t work, homelessness awaits, and capital has a vast and ever growing police and incarceration apparatus to accommodate their needs. The only people who consider poverty to be a virtue are people who grew up far from it — or a few religious nuts.

\”Finding a job you like\” isn\’t an real option either, except for a tiny fraction of a single percentage point of everybody who works for wages. Most forms of wage labor are inherently demeaning, stupid, socially unnecessary, ecologically destructive, or all of these things. In any case, the way you put \”finding a job you like\” forward as if it was a radical political response to the conditions of contemporary life leads to the assumption that if a atomized individual can find a job they like, they will no longer have any reason to be dissatisfied with life under capitalism!

If you have to work for wages you are being exploited. If you get others to work for you then you are an exploiter. And the era when large numbers of people could opt out of society and go live by themselves far away from others faded away more than a hundred years ago. The point isn\’t to run away from the problem, or seek an individual way of opting out of the global capitalist order — there isn\’t one. The point is to get together with other people who are in a similar situation of exploitation and dispossession and fight together against bosses, landlords, corporations and the rich — for less work, for more pay, for more free time, and ultimately for our own power outside of and against the market and the state.

Today capitalism has created a massive profit-motivated housing crisis in the Bay Area. This means many people are paying up to 50% or more of their income to keep a roof over their heads. In this context, a glib suggestion to \”work part-time or not at all\” has the smell of the trust-fund check recipient about it.

In your ABC\’s of Buying Nothing There is a tension between the desire to have an impact on the larger social reality around you, and a need to provide a political rational for your own individual lifestyle choices. As long as you aren\’t exploiting or victimizing others in your daily life your individual lifestyle options are your concern, and probably aren\’t of much interest to anybody other than you. (That doesn\’t mean anybody should be expected to be a perfect angel in their personal life; we are mere mortals, after all.)

Life under capitalism is getting worse and worse for the vast majority of people in the US, the richest and most wasteful country on earth. This presents people who consider themselves to be against the current way society is organized with enormous possibilities. Liberalism, Leninism and social democracy are dead. For the first time in seven or eight decades we can make our politics relevant to the vast majority of the wage-slave class, the only section of society who are really in a position to attack and sink the bosses\’ economy, and who have everything to gain in a fight for a sane, ecologically sustainable world. But the capitalist class won\’t be threatened and might even be quite pleased if large numbers of working people were to voluntarily relinquish what few material gains they have and self-manage a massive reduction of their living standards. In any case that probably won\’t happen. Almost no one will ever fight to have less than what they have. Most working people experience enough privation in their lives, and you aren\’t going to get anywhere by suggesting they should embrace total impoverishment as an individual moral response to the horrors of capitalism.

Under the right circumstances, most people will fight for more wealth and mor
e power in their lives, and that should be encouraged. There is a lot of excellent potential in having an anti-commodity-fetishism day in major shopping areas on the biggest commodity fetishism day of the year. Consumer society is empty and bogus, and many of those shopper in Union Square may on some level be aware of this. But in the future you should address the issue of wage labor from the inside; talk about how wage labor is the basis of what\’s wrong with life on earth today in a way that will be intelligible to contemporary working people. That means a perspective for mass collective action by wage workers against market relations, against the state, against advertising and the media, against the entire totalitarian reality of contemporary capitalist society. Many working people may on some subliminal level already be aware of these issues, and can probably be reached this way.

Wage labor is based on an artificial poverty created by capitalism; we work because we have no choice. Capitalism has created the material basis for a global society where all human beings could have adequate food, clothing, housing, health care, education and an equal say in how society is run, but the market stands in the way of this, it separates us from all the wealth we create, and the private sector elite uses lies and terror to keep things this way. Getting rid of capitalism will require a large-scale, conscious, organized revolutionary movement; millions of people taking action. But there are also real tendencies at work now in the daily lives of working and poor people that tend in this direction, even during a reactionary period like the present, where working and poor people assert their needs against the profit requirements of the market. Your suggestions about stealing and occupation of social space are excellent and tap into this.

There is a profound and spreading dissatisfaction around us with what passes for life under capitalism at the beginning of the 20th century. The opportunities in coming decades may be tremendous. But an individualistic, moralistic drop-out trip isn\’t going to go anywhere. It may make some people feel good, but isn\’t going to communicate anything subversive to the vast majority of people who can make things happen, and it isn\’t going to create a better world.

Anti-capitalist greetings,

\”Nestor Makhno\”

Mission Yuppie Eradication Project

phone (415) 430-2165 x 1030 Kevin Keating – email (415) 430-2165 x1030 – voicemail/fax