Abundance has to do with production, not with consumption
Abundance is an economic concept in the setting of production, not consumption. Abundance exists when an extra unit can be produced without that meaning a perceptible increase in costs. For economists, it can be reduced to a formula: “zero marginal cost.” In an ideal competitive market, when the marginal cost is zero, that means that the prices that would maximize the benefit to producers would also be zero.
Common sense would say then that the business would have no incentive to continue producing. But really, just the opposite would happen. Although the price of the product is zero, the interest of the producer is to produce the maximum possible to dilute fixed costs as much as it can among all units produced. It is at that theoretical moment, with zero price, when a business stops thinking about the market and starts to seek the maximization of meeting the human needs its products match.
That is, if the marginal cost approached zero, the products would be “decommodified,” would stop being commodities that have to be sold, because if they aren’t, that would create a new loss. As a consequence, as of a certain level, anyone could enjoy as much as they need without giving up anything, and the same rationality that orients the behavior of the businesses towards the maximization of benefit would lead to an economy centered on satisfying human needs: anyone could enjoy as much as they need without giving up anything.
This does not mean that capitalism tends to be “decommodified” by the mere effect of competition. But this extreme solution of a basic model of economic analysis is, in any case, very illuminating.
In practice, abundance exists when the cost of producing one more unit is negligible and, given a sensible calculation of potential demand, we can do it indefinitely. For example: the cost of serving a web page or an electronic book to one more user from our own server is, for all practical purposes, zero.
A scarce product in a decentralized network is abundant in a distributed network
We should say that this example would only be true within a definable range of requests, but that if the number of people who want read our book were to pass a certain critical point, we would have to increase our bandwidth and the number of servers as well. So, if we look at it over the long term, these cost increases should be attributed to the units served. The marginal cost, the cost associated with the last copy distributed, wouldn’t be zero. Abundance, in that case, would have been just an illusion, a mirage, sort of like the cost of taking more person to work in our car: it’s practically zero… until the seats run out. Once the places are full, we need other car, or at least a bus ticket, for each additional person we’d like to transport. The marginal cost, the increase in costs for one more person, would be positive and easily perceptible.
But in our example, an information good, this criticism would only be true if the copies were distributed from a single server. If we share it on a distributed network with other users who, by downloading it, make it available to others in turn, each new download, each new user, will mean a possible place for others to download more. The more people download it, the less possibility there will be that, no matter how fast or large increases in demand may be, that any member of the network would have to increase their costs so that someone could download a new copy.
This is doubtlessly the most important thing the Internet has taught us: the same product that is abundant in a distributed network certainly would not be in a centralized or decentralized network. And, conversely, what is scarce in a centralized or decentralized network, can be abundant in a distributed network.
This finding may seem limited, since with current technologies, it would only affect intangible goods. But some of those intangibles—like industrial design, hardware, or processes—are the motors of the increase in productivity in physical goods and, since the world wars, the percentage they represent of total value produced has only increased. Their conversion into free goods can’t help but have a profound effect on the whole productive system.
That’s how, for example, the creation of free software works, as does the whole growing economy in general, the immense majority of it decommodified, that we include under the label “the P2P mode of production.” At the same time, the direct economy uses the results of innovation outside the productive apparatus controlled by over-scaled industries and the very over-scaled financial system, increasing productivity in the manufacture of tangible goods and pushing scale even farther downward.
The “P2P mode of production” is the model for the production of abundance
Although we are still far from general abundance, we have a model of the production of abundance for intangible goods and innovation—the “P2P mode of production.” This, in turn, feeds a sector, the direct economy, that demonstrates enough productivity in the market to compete and beat the industry “from the outside,” without the help of over-scaled finance. That is, this new productive ecosystem is capable of competing and gaining ground against a giant that enjoys the advantage of extra-market rents, like customized regulations, grants, or patents. We’re talking about the same extra-market rents that multiplied with neoliberalism and which have produced the simultaneous erosion of state and market, which is to say, social decomposition. So, just to demonstrate that a productive alternative exists is already big news.
This social and productive space around the “new digital commons” or simply, the “commons,” is today’s equivalent of the first cities and markets of the medieval bourgeoisie, a space where new non-commercial social relationships appeared, and the new logic, together with signs of autonomy, begin to show a limited but direct impact on productivity. Throughout the lower Middle Ages, the bourgeoisie was able to drive those cities to turn them, first, into a big “urban workshop,” and later, into “municipal democracies.” A similar historical task, now with a society of abundance as the goal, is what lies ahead for communitarianism.
This is because this whole reduction of scales brings the optimum size of productive units ever closer to the community dimension, and therefore, points to community as the protagonist of a society of abundance. And it is in community that we can understand why the struggle to overcome a socioeconomic system cannot be proposed as an electoral platform, revolutionary as it may be, but rather, happens in the setting of more profound competition: productivity.
The two faces of productivity
“Productivity” is a word that evokes rejection among large sectors of the population. For years, salaries have been reduced, workdays extended, and thousands of workers fired in the name of increasing productivity. It’s normal for the word to cause a shiver, because in stagnant situations, and in the capitalist framework, that’s exactly what it means.
In reality, however, increasing productivity means being able to do more with fewer resources and is the measure of all systemic alternative. The famous “liberation of productive forces,” that the old revolutionaries expected to succeed capitalism, is nothing more than a general development of productivity. The engine of the increase in productivity is technological change, understood broadly to include forms of organizing and structures. From the community point of view, the center of the development of productivity today is in free software, in distributed networks, and in multipurpose, low-cost tools of production and chains: everything that brings us closer to abundance.
Increasing productivity means “squeezing more” out of the factors: with the same quantity of inputs, producing more value in the same period of time. Increasing productivity means, for example, getting more energy out of a solar panel, needing less water to produce the same amount or more of vegetables, or having new programs that reduce the hours that we have to spend on repetitive management tasks.
But for over-scaled capital, in stagnant situations where there’s no new investment or technological improvement, “productivity” means, above all, employing the labor factor more intensively. That is to say: getting work hours for free—for example, by extending the workday without remunerating overtime; or through personnel reduction, while unreasonably overwhelming those who remain—which is equivalent to a salary reduction. Alternative and sometimes complementary ways could include reducing the quality of raw materials and, thus, their cost, without consumers realizing it; or ceasing to take responsibility for externalities created in production, like dumping unprocessed waste in a river to save on filters and purifiers. No wonder the word “productivity” can sound scary.
From the perspective of communities, however, developing productivity means something completely different. The main way to obtain it is as new as it is inaccessible to the typical business, which is over-scaled and anxious for rents.
Let’s again take up the example of publishing an online book. To calculate the productivity of the factors, we would have to find the ratio between the number of downloads and the number of factors employed in their production. But if, as we saw before, instead of posting it on a single server, we share it on a distributed network, the cost of one more download will be zero. At that point, we’re in a world of abundance. Even if it had tremendous success, and hundreds of thousands of people downloaded a copy, we wouldn’t need to increase the use of the factors. The productivity of the work necessary to write, edit, and format the book would increase with each extra download.
But embracing this path means accepting that the price of an abundant good—which is any digitized content in a distributed network—is zero. And with zero prices, it’s not so easy assure capital the dividends it desires. So, publishers, software giants, pharmaceutical companies, and movie studios try to maintain an extra-market rent, in the form of a legal monopoly called “intellectual property.” And that’s why music companies depend on centralized structures, which come with considerable marginal costs, like iTunes or Spotify, to control the restricted distribution of their products, so they can force the maintenance of positive prices.
Artificially creating scarcity has become a way of life for over-scaled industry
The traditional information and knowledge industries are engaged in artificially producing scarcity. Contemporary economic theory has described intellectual property as “unnecessary” for years, and there are more and more renowned economists that think that its negative effects far exceed the positives. Large distributed networks, in which millions of people share digital files, are as infinitely more efficient medium to distribute a digitized product than Facebook, Twitter, Google Books or Amazon, but the content industries have held a legal and political grip for years, which costs them millions every year in lawyers and lobbyists, to be able to fence off such networks by law and jail their supporters.
In the production of physical goods and services, the contrast no is less drastic. In contrast to a capitalist business, in an egalitarian community, the increase in productivity translates to a reduction of the work time that one must dedicate to be able maintain a comfortable way of life on the basis of selling products in the market.
We need to say that reducing work means we can spend more time, not staring at the ceiling, but dedicated to other kinds of activities, like learning new disciplines, playing, painting, or developing contributions to the commons in the form of free software, designs, books, or audiovisual content in the public domain. Activities that show us what the kind of work that will substitute wage labor will consist of as we approach an authentic society of abundance: an expression of skills motivated by the pleasure of enjoying interaction with others, the pleasure of learning, experimenting, and contributing. This it the opposite of the sophisticated form of slavery imposed by scarcity.
Capitalism was the greatest promoter of productivity in history, but it simply can’t allow itself abundance. The community, on the other hand, needs it.
Abundance is the magic that shines through the “hacker ethic”
Anyone who has lived or spent enough time in an egalitarian community has sensed how abundance advances through the reduction of work forced by scarcity and its gradual substitution by work understood as a personal and voluntary expression of the pleasure of learning and contributing. When everything is communal and responsibility is shared, there is no division between life time and work time. You can be yourself, and development in work drives us to learn new things, in new fields, and continue advancing. Then we stop being mere “technicians” or “specialists” and become “multispecialists.” This is a way of developing intellectually that fits naturally not only with the reduction of scale, but above all with the development of scope, the capacity to create many different things with the same productive base. Multispecialization is progress towards the end of the atomization of knowledge that paralleled the division of labor to the limit in the industrial factory.
Abundance is the magic that shines through the “hacker ethic” and assorted user groups. It’s no coincidence that a work ethic based on knowledge and enjoyment is extending beyond the communard world—where it always existed—coinciding with the social expansion of the Internet and the first forms of P2P production. The first cultural manifestations of distributed networks cultivated the pleasure of discovering all those applications of knowledge that do a lot of good but are not commodities. They celebrated these being valuable, because, even though they have a zero price, they reveal to us the fraternity of shared knowledge and, in in time, improve the life of thousands or millions of people.
For almost a century, capitalism has been incapable of turning increases in productivity into reductions in the workday. The “hacker ethic” connected with P2P production shows how the development of abundance leads, right from day one, to the progressive abolition of labor forced by need. That form of work competes with and opposes time dedicated to learning, living, and enjoying life.
The path to abundance doesn’t rely on downscaling production
Abundance has nothing to do with consumption and even less with consumerism. In reality, consumerism is not a “state of capitalism,” but a compulsive form of consumption with which some people, reduced to isolated individuals when they reach the market, try to recover from anguish, loneliness, the anxiety of work without meaning, and an atomized way of life that, like the system that produces them, “aren’t going anywhere.” Part of the middle class practices consumerism with the same fervor with which it then talks about it as if it was a universal guilt. Some clamor to “reduce consumption” and “degrow” as a systemic alternative. It’s a myopic view: consumerism is not the center of the current economic system. It is the spiritual symptom, visible only in a privileged minority, of a more serious and widespread disease—the same one that produces the chronic underconsumption in which the majority of humanity continues to live and the environmental disasters that move them.
To cure that disease does not mean producing less or “returning” to pre-capitalist technologies. To renounce the productivity conquered by scientific knowledge would mean more exclusion and poverty. To exchange industry for artisanship and technified agriculture for less productive forms would mean simply reducing productivity and, therefore, squandering even more human and natural resources than the inefficiencies of over-scaling already do. To renounce technological development is nothing other than adopting forms of production that are more costly in resources.
Quite to the contrary, we want to produce abundance here and now, on another scale and using another logic—those of the community and the needs of real people—developing more and more productive free technologies, because only with higher productivity will we be able to consume fewer non-renewable natural resources, fewer hours of labor forced by need, and less capital, while still taking responsibility for the well-being of others.
If there’s anything we can’t renounce without making things worse, it’s abundance. It’s hard, and will continue to be, to overcome the “fences” and “hurdles” that patents have put in the way of scientific knowledge. A lot of damage has been done by the evolution towards the artificial creation of scarcity in the chemical, agrarian, and pharmaceutical industries. We must not confuse scientific and technological development with the monopolistic and rent-seeking applications of it, which over-scaled technology, seed, and biomedical research businesses have made into their flagship products. In the application of genetics to agriculture, for example, there is the promise of abundance, though even its use by Monsanto today means a daily life of environmental destruction, artificial scarcity, and destruction of producers’ freedom.
What will we do about the overuse of natural resources?
The end of the overuse of natural resources will not be reached by producing less or returning to outdated technologies, but on the path towards abundance.
This can be seen clearly in agricultural exploitation. In Israel, where the kibbutz and cooperative movement was the nucleus of agrarian production and the leader in technological innovation, production between 1948 and today multiplied by sixteenfold, three times more than the population. And while irrigated land went from 30,000 to 190,000 Ha, 12% less water is consumed. That is, technological development encouraged by the communitarian sector increased general productivity—by no less than 26%—significantly reducing the cost of producing one more unit, and, to that extent, approaching abundance. But increasing the productivity of the factor even more—we were told for decades—would lead to a regional collapse if production continued increasing. Instead, more productivity and more production, far from leading to a greater stress on resources, reduced the total consumption of water.
But strengthening communities and the productivity of the communitarian sector it is not the focus of the official narrative or the political consensus in Europe or among US liberals. In that narrative, fed for decades by catastrophism that ran through all messages, from the Hollywood blockbusters to official documents from the UN or the EU, it was all about justifying, at all costs, the way that States paid big, over-scaled businesses’ transformation costs to avoid a disaster that themselves had created and reported. In the name of the imminent catastrophe, we needed to pay car companies for their infrastructure costs as they moved to electric cars, and give crazy subsidies to big energy companies, assuring their centrality when technology was already pointing towards renewable, distributed electricity. The process was, and is, a festival of rent-capture and corruption that has even drawn in Mondragon, the group of cooperatives that, for years, has been a global model precisely because of its excessive scale and its distance from community models.
It couldn’t be any other way. For years, adhering to the ecologist narrative meant choose between two false options. The first: ignore misery and the hunger for the majority of the world, and advocate for reducing productivity. The second: join the list of those who want to take away even more sovereignty from people and communities and give more rents to monopolies. Obviously, it’s a no-win situation.
Connecting the dots
If we connect the dots of economic change in our time, certainly the first thing that comes into view is a great crisis of scale in which large funds and companies of dysfunctional volume are asphyxiating the two main institutions of the system—the State and the market—and accelerating their global decomposition, decomposition that has enormous human and environmental costs. But if we expand the framework, we also see that the “globalization of the small,” free software, and distributed networks have created the first system of technological non-commercial innovation—the “P2P mode of production”—and a growing industrial sector—the direct economy—which is supported by it, is competing face to face with overscaled agrarian and industrial businesses, even though it has communal dimensions.
And if we dig a little, still we’ll find something more: we’ll discover that communitarianism is a parallel, underground movement, which has accompanied capitalism since its youth, exploring the paths of a new life experience and planting the seed of a society of abundance, while it waited for its time to arrive. In its time, the scale of change could be accepted by self-organized egalitarian communities. From that time forward, distributed networks of communities would be able to lay the foundation for real competition between systems, just as capitalism did with its feudal and land-based forerunner.
We think that time is arriving. But to be able take advantage of it, we first need to conquer something that the narrative of decomposition is grinding down: the centrality of work.
The Communard Manifesto
- The dilemma of our time
- Abundance within reach
- Inequality, unemployment and demoralization
- What is decomposing is not only the economic system, but what the human experience means
- Capitalism and its critics
- Capitalism shaped the world because, before changing the State, it was able to create a new form of human experience
- Revolutionaries that loved crises and large scales
- The history we weren’t told
- The new world will be born and affirmed inside the old
- New relationships, here and now
- Scale and scope
- From the era of economies of scale…
- …to the era of the inefficiencies of scale
- Today, capital is too big for the real productive scale…
- … and the optimal scale is approaching community dimensions
- Building abundance here and now
- Abundance has to do with production, not with consumption
- A scarce product in a decentralized network is abundant in a distributed network
- The “P2P mode of production” is the model for the production of abundance
- The two faces of productivity
- Artificially creating scarcity has become a way of life for over-scaled industry
- Abundance is the magic that shines through the “hacker ethic”
- The path of abundance does not mean producing less
- What will we do about the overuse of natural resources?
- Connecting the dots
- Conquer work, reconquer life
- To be unable to access work is to be in social exile
- There’s no self-realization without work
- To conquer work is reconquer life
- From adding to multiplying
- The scene will be urban
- The tasks of the communards
- You are the protagonist
- Appendix: concrete things you can do with this manifesto
- Expand the conversation
- Prepare to “make community”
You are the protagonist of this Manifesto. You can be part of a growing movement and build here and now, a meaningful life and a different world .
Natalia Fernández, las Indias
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The Communard Manifesto is the result of a collaborative process. It started with an 8.000 words proposal by las Indias. Open discussion -both live and on line- doubled its length and pulished its style. Then volunteers from three different continents started to translate it to Catalan, Portuguese, French, German and English.
María Rodríguez, las Indias