Alas! This is part three of our three-part blogtacular. If you need to catch-up, or want to relish in some beautiful nostalgia, here is part two and here is part one.
Let’s go to the funnest* and most speculative form of the question. What would happen if everyone lived without money? Is a world without money possible? Let’s consider this a, hopefully brief, introduction to the economics of the kind of free-access anarchism we advocate as an ideal plausible organization for human society. (Note, we also firmly believe that there are other less drastic changes to our society’s functioning that could have real positive effects.)
Ok. First, we don’t want to replace money with a barter system. Bartering is just a really inefficient form of the kind of transaction-based economy that money facilitates. We’re arguing for “generalized reciprocity” or a gift economy. You do what you can to contribute and you take what you need. (This corresponds pretty closely to Marx’s “from each according to his ability to each according to his need.”)
To get an idea of what this might look like (before we start addressing some objections), start with today’s society and how it could change with the elimination of money, in simplified form. At first everyone does the same things, except jobs that deal exclusively with money disappear. There are no more banks, bankers, insurance companies, credit card companies, or debt collectors. There are no more cashiers. No one has to do payroll at FedEx. You don’t have to pay rent or a mortgage. You have no more medical bills.
Next, we do some of the obvious things. Homeless people (650,000 in the U.S.) move into the super-abundance of empty houses (roughly 5-20 million, depending on how we calculate it).
Medical care is given to all those who need it, not only those who can afford it. Similarly, food (and everything else) becomes available to all according to need, as we shift from production for profit to production for use/human needs.
Manipulative marketing for the sake of competition becomes obsolete.
Then, the overworked can work a lot less. We can make up for those hours with automatization, which should make life easier for workers, instead of eliminating their way of making a living as it does in the current system. And we can also make up for reduced work hours with a part of the huge surplus of labor that a) already exists in the form of massive unemployment and b) is created by the elimination of so many jobs that only exist because capitalism and money exist. There is more than enough labor and human will in existence to create what we need to transition to a sustainable economy based on a smart energy grid, renewable energy, cradle-to-cradle design, etc. – and still provide for significantly more leisure time.
So we see the potential of a system of production for need, free access to all for all, and without the type of means (money) that make massive inequality possible. But what about the drawbacks? First, who would do the shitty jobs? Literally, who the hell is gonna be a plumber? No one, or very few people, really like collecting garbage, jackhammering sidewalks, or cleaning oil off of beaches. And yet we see that people are willing to do things they don’t love when they know that they’re being treated fairly and are appreciated. People volunteered to help after the BP oil spill, not because they love getting covered in oil (usually), but because they knew it was the right thing to do and because people want to and enjoy helping each other. More specifically, I know I would happily do an hour or two a week of some horrible job in order to ensure that it gets done and that no one has to do it all day every day – like they do now. And given how few jobs are really universally despised, an hour or two a week would probably be sufficient. Nearly every person we’ve talked to would gladly do their part as well.
Yet people fear that others would not do their part. We’ll call this the “free-rider” problem. Perhaps it’s some natural suspicion of those we don’t know that makes us assume that they are somehow much less virtuous and caring than those we do know. Or maybe it’s the mindset of economic competitiveness that our society instills from childhood. Who knows. It seems increasingly clear to us, though, that most would be willing to do their part, knowing that the society they are constructing and maintaining is the same one that provides them free access to all material needs – and probably much healthier social relations than we currently have as well.
It is true, though, that there would be free-riders, and possibly quite a large number, depending on the strength of the social pressure to contribute (after all, social pressure is the reason we do a lot of the good things we do in life anyway). So, we must deal with the question, who would bother to work if all work were voluntary? However, our society already deals with significant free-riding, whether it’s wealthy people living off investments and tax breaks or the occasional person who actually decides to try to live on welfare forever. And given that a huge portion of current jobs don’t actually produce anything of value but merely exist as part of the machinery of our capitalist economy, a society lacking those inherent inefficiencies could accommodate a much larger quantity of free-riders, if it had to, though we suspect it wouldn’t.
Finally, our society and our world’s biggest economic issues do not relate to the ability to produce enough for all, but rather in the misdirection of that productive effort toward useless or destructive ends (marketing and stock trading, bombs and coal), toward luxury goods (diamonds and Porsches), and toward a small slice of the world’s population (the “developed” world, and within that, especially to an elite few). Producing for use, rather than profit, and allocating based on need, rather than ability to pay, seem to be enough, at least potentially, to more than offset a potential increase in free-riding. More likely, I think, is that a system without the perverse incentives created by money would better utilize human capabilities toward producing greater human well-being.
So is a world without money possible? I don’t know. Four hundred years ago it seemed impossible that people could choose their own leaders, but now we kinda do. Two hundred years ago it seemed impossible that different “races” could be treated equally by the law, but now we kinda are. A few decades ago it seemed impossible that instantaneous, anonymous contributions to Wikipedia from people all over the planet could render traditional encyclopedias obsolete, but now they kinda have. Will we have kinda replaced a monetary economy with a free access economy at some point in the future?
For now, we’re just living out the question.
– Adam & Jesse
* = Funnest is a perfectly fine word, in that it is widely used, easily understood, and formed by the same superlative suffix used with countless other adjectives. To not use it simply because prescriptivist grammarians reject it would be to bow to the same kind of arbitrary authority that leads to so much injustice and illogic in our world. (You know, the same kind that thinks it can “close” the area where the land meets the sea or assassinate democratically elected South American progressives). 🙂