Understanding Socio-Economic Forms.
The complexity of modern human societies is such that most people do not fully understand how they function at a universal economic level. Confusion is therefore understandable. However, complexity in general becomes easier to grasp when underlying features are reduced to simplified abstract (non-particular) categories. Once these essential elements are understood, complexity can be added later. Using such a method in what follows will hopefully help readers comprehend past, present and future possible modes of production.
Consumption and Production.
Consumption and production are relatively easily understood abstractions because all life forms need to consume organic and inorganic material (food, air and water) in order to survive. These materials need to be produced in order to be consumed. Production and Consumption are therefore not just related economic, (non-specific) abstractions but represent the interconnected basis of everyday life – including human life. The abstraction we commonly describe as ‘nature’ is the producer of food, water and air. Historically, human communities have learned how to interact with nature in the economic activity (i.e. work) of obtaining and distributing food, water and shelter to its members.
Work, (doing practical tasks), is therefore, another easily understood level of abstraction. Moreover, in any given society there will be at least the following four categories of people. 1. a percentage who are fit and able to work. 2. a percentage too old to work; 3, a percentage too young to work; 4, a percentage who are too ill or incapacitated to work. In the essential work of producing food and shelter, the last three categories can be considered as unproductive! That is to say they are unable to produce the essentials to live. Yet, until their circumstances change, such non-producers still need (at a minimum) to consume air, water and food. Most human societies have by various means ensured this was achievable.
Divisions of labour.
Over historic time, the percentages of these four categories have varied and additional non-productive categories have been added. The abundance of food and water within easy reach and the number of productive members available, has in general determined how many or how few ill, incapacitated, old and young people can be supported at any one time. However, with the development of technological tools, increases in the efficiency of food production have occurred and the need for productive members reduced. This left some members free from essential production to undertake other forms of useful social activity. For example, teachers for the young, nurses for the sick, carers for the old etc. In other words an extended division of labour developed.
A further degree of detail and complexity can now be added to this basic, but still abstract human socio-economic formation. For example, if for every one thousand (or million) members of a community, twenty percent are too old, twenty percent are too young, two percent are ill, two percent are incapacitated by injury or pregnancy and ten percent comprise of teachers, nurses, carers, entertainers, utensil makers etc., (ie a total of 54%) then logic suggests the following. For the community to survive, the remaining 46%, of productive members by means of equipment and favourable natural resources, need to be able to produce enough essentials for themselves and for the rest of the community.
Trading and leisure activities.
If by a further development of skills and technology, the productive members (in the above hypothetical case – the 46%) can create more than enough essentials for themselves and their community, then, other things remaining the same, the following could happen. Those working in essential production could either shorten the duration of their productive activity (and have more leisure), or reduce the numbers working productively. Alternatively, they could continue to work for the same length of time and use their extra surplus production to trade with other human communities (originally) by gifts or barter. All three alternatives could be explored by any dynamic human community.
Historically some communities have undoubtedly used surplus production of fish, meat, fruit and grain, to increase the extent of their cultural activities (gatherings/festivals/music/art etc), others to reduce the time spent in producing. Others have used surpluses to become accomplished river and sea trading communities. In early non-hierarchical societies, the choice of how much to produce, how to allocate human resources to various forms of activity and how to utilise any surplus production would have been the decision of the entire community using whatever decision-making processes they had developed.
Faced with any problems (famine, drought, flood, pandemic etc) they could then decide to allocate sufficient human resources to shielding some from the problems whilst others volunteered to address solutions. In short, as a community they could flexibly adjust their socio-economic activities to address any developing positive or negative circumstances.
Class divided societies.
A further level of complexity can now be added to the above abstract model of socio-economic development. If one section of such an egalitarian community – for whatever reason – armed itself and gradually (or even suddenly) made itself into a ruling and controlling elite strata, then much would change. By making all the main socio-economic decisions this elite could dictate how many people should do productive work, how long workers should work, how much of the surplus production the elite would keep for themselves and how problems would be tackled. Class societies would begin to for.
Although, the above simplified linguistic abstractions describe no actual historical human community, once these basic inter-connections are comprehended, then social solutions to various problems became a community wide effort. Furthermore, it would not be too difficult to discover in historical, archaeological, anthropological and ethnological records, actual hunter-gatherer, pastoralist, herding and even agricultural communities which approximate to the lines of abstract development suggested above. Indeed, the 21st century neo-liberal phase of the capitalist mode of production, despite its many extra layers of complexity and socio-economic differentiation, confirms the validity of these abstractions.
Modern capitalist dominated socio-economic forms, merely demonstrate extra complexity woven into and onto them and have disconnected such basic forms of human socio-economic collectives. Yet in the 21st century, we still have essential productive workers, who feed, clothe, house etc., and entertain themselves along with supporting the (ever more numerous) non-productive, political, cultural and administrative classes. And by increases in surplus production, modern complex societies still feed the sick, the elderly, the young and now with capitalist labour-replacement technologies, support for the unemployed. Although under capitalism, each of those ex-producers are supported at a substandard level.
In modern class divided societies – whether so-called democratic or not – the community as a whole no longer decide on how many productive workers are needed, how long they should work, what and how they produce, nor how much resources they and the young, old, sick and support-service workers should get. Instead, the capitalist and pro-capitalist elite, through control of the legal system and the law enforcement agencies of the state, decide on all the above – and much more – including how problems such as pandemics are handled! They also decide which governments we should trade our surplus with, whether corrupt (ie Saudi Arabia etc.) or not. Crucially, they decide on how much they should pay themselves from the surplus-production of wealth for engaging in their non-productive ruling activities.
At all times, in peace, war, famine, flood or pandemics, their particular and general ruling class interests invariably come first. By any humane or ecological criteria, it is clear that the capitalist economic system they fiercely uphold is not just extremely unfair but is impoverishing millions, destroying species, polluting land, sea and air and now stirring up and circulating lethal viruses. Metaphorically speaking, the ruling elites everywhere are assertively, even at times aggressively (ie Myanmar, Syria, Yemen), killing the habitats and golden geese (ie working populations) that lay the golden eggs that disproportionately enrich their lives.
Elite power and their consequent ability to determine the future of humanity needs to be ended. A new socio-economic formation needs to be created. Cooperatives and non-profit public services have indicated the organisational direction humanity needs to now take. Egalitarian control and ecological sustainability now indicate how and why we and future generations need to limit the quantity and determine the quality of what is produced and consumed.
Roy Ratcliffe (April 2021)