Fungible Communism

The complexity of an economy makes it difficult for non-market solutions to "solve" the problem that is satisfying demands. The information about what an individual actor wants can be difficult to obtain outside of giving them a variety of choices that can then be used to adapt what is on offer.

The problem is of course is that we, as intelligent beings in an incredibly complex world, not only desire a wide variety of commodities and experiences, but that the possibility space for such commodities and experiences is large enough that trying to rationally solve it through brute force calculation would be ludicrous and would require immense resources on a galactic scale in terms of computation and energy to power said computation. Much easier to just give every individual mind a desktop molecular assembler / disassembler then to build planet-sized computers with the intention of solving the economic calculation problem.

That being said just because a one-hundred percent planned economy is off the table does not invalidate attempts at communism for certain demands. As Cory Doctorow puts it, "Fully automated leisure communism isn't a binary: there are immediate stages of automated comfort we can seize."[1]

Such an iterative approach to building communism is far more realistic than seizing the state and declaring all property to be collectivized. In the age where the Cathedral is slowly being eroded by the Bazaar top-down plans for the future should be treated with suspicion. Indeed the most durable anti-capitalist projects of the 21st century that have arguably created the first stage of "fully automated leisure communism" have not all been driven by a left-wing ethos (although some certainly have) but rather emerged sponateously as a result of individuals and then collectives trying to solve particular problems. The libre software movement, Wikipedia and file-sharing have all created spaces that while not totally free from the influence of the state and capital pose serious challenges to them. More importantly while they have been coopted by the state and capital in certain ways, they have not been taken back into the fold of the market or the state. Wikpedia has resisted both putting up advertising to maintain its upkeep or becoming nationalized by a state.

Therefore when considering a transition to communist future we should look first to ways in which market forces are being eroded by new technologies. While it is certainly thought provoking to debate and interrogate how certain industries might function if collectivized or made to operate in a market where regulation was no longer centralized and instead dispersed throughout the populace, the truth is that such hypothetical are far into the future and that even attempts to build dual power will have to contend with the distorted landscape that results from state violence.
Instead we should look to other developments that are eroding what were once stable relationships of domination. Just as the proliferation of information technology has irreversibly changed certain industries so to does the future development of technologies like 3d-printing, desktop CNC machines and decentralized recycling that threaten the monopoly on the means of production.

However at this point in time such technologies are still being fully developed and have yet to properly permeate the wider consciousness. For example we've yet to see a big budget Hollywood movie in which 3d-printing is a central theme (certainly there exist movies that have made passing reference to the technology though).

But there exists one new technology that has penetrated public consciousness that has at it's core communist, or at the very least socialist principles and that is renewable energy. In 2016 a Gallop poll showed that 73% of Americans prioritized renewable energy over traditional forms of energy with Democrats at 89% and Republicans at 51%.[2]

Such favourability is no longer being driven by ideology, but rather by economics. The recent rush in the last year and a half by large corporations to switch to renewable energy is driven partially for marketing purposes, but primarily for economic reasons. The rise in power purchase agreements in which an entity can secure a certain percentage of power from renewable sources for several years is being driven by economic factors and risk avoidance. The extraction and transportation required for fossil fuels as a power source means their price can be variable, whereas outside of catastrophic events the only cost for renewable energy sources are predictable setup and maintenance costs.

Now what does this have to do with a communist future? Well outside of causing the rate of profit to fall, helping to destroy the parasitic fossil fuel industry that is effectively an extension of the state and helping move to a more sustainable future, moving to an economy powered by renewable energy helps in three ways.
The first is that it effectively gives people the option to turn their home into a mini power plant. While not available for everyone - obviously there are massive problems with people being locked out of the housing market or if they have access to housing being unable to afford solar, especially in areas in which the powers that be see such technology as a threat and have put up barriers to access. Nevertheless it cannot be emphasized enough that solar panels are the means of production when it comes to producing electricity and they are realistically for a much higher percentage of the population to own than previous forms of energy generation.
Second of all energy produced using renewable sources is extremely cheap. Renewable efficiency has gotten to the point where when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing nothing comes close pricewise. Such generation has been called zero-marginal cost, which is untrue given that renewables require maintenance over their lifetime, however such maintenance is much cheaper when compared to what it costs to use fossil fuels, making the marginal cost close to zero.

The final point is more subtle and allows me to theorize about how the economics of more advanced forms fully automated leisure communism might work.

As a commodity, electrons are extremely fungible - i.e. you don't particularly care about the differences between two or more electrons. Outside of transmission costs across an energy network and negative externalities, one electron can be exchanged for another. If the economy was entirely producing and consuming electrons capitalist arguments against alternative forms of economic management would be far less convincing since such an economy would be simple enough that it could be "solved" through brute force calculation within a reasonable timeframe.

Such a admission has significant implications for any attempt to construct a non/post-market economy. Electricity usage underlies all economic activity since the second industrial revolution and as such moving to a future where electricity prices are extremely low or even negative for certain periods of the day. While a fully renewable future will likely require expensive lithium ion batteries and big hydroelectric dams to soak up excess generation for when generation is impossible, there will nevertheless be periods when communist-style economics make sense. Just as a thousand people can access a website over the course of a day without any congestion, a renewable powered economy will allow for energy to be used for free.

The first order implications for economic activity are as follows. At certain points of day using electricity will be free. Under a capitalist system this will result in either cheaper prices or more profit for those companies that can charge monopoly prices. However in emerging dual power forms of economic organization issues surrounding distribution of goods and services becomes easier to manage thanks to them being cheaper. Attempts to build non-market alternatives suddenly become easier to manage thanks to energy costs being lower as a result of having an alternative energy source. Questions about permitting free riders and how much individuals should contribute to community run services and equipment become easier to answer thanks to energy needs now being supplied by low-cost method.

This is because fungible goods are perfect for communist economics. Both electrons and bits of information are, as they move through networks, effectively interchangeable with one another. Of course what those bits become or what those electrons power are incredibly variable but when they move through a network they are interchangeable. The complexity that higher level economic organizing requires is not nearly as important when dealing with simple inputs and outputs.

Might then a future non-market economy between now and whenever we all get molecular assemblers be one in which highly fungible commodities like electricity, information and whatever else can be simplified are available on the age old principle of "From each according to their ability to each according to their need?" A networked world in which markets are abolished not through force, but through abundance?

Picture credit: Wikipedia Commons

  1. Coase's Spectre, Cory Doctorow ↩︎

  2. In US, 73% Now Prioritize Alternative Energy Over Gas, Oil, Zac Auter ↩︎