On Modes of Production.
From the revolutionary-humanist perspective it is important to understand what is meant by a mode of production, and also what is known as the means of production. Both are important. However, clearly understanding the difference between the two is crucial. A study of 20th century radical political movements indicates that most participants (leaders and led) did not fully understand the difference. Therefore, the efforts they made to moderate the negative effects of the capitalist mode of production were easily negated.
The means of production are those discrete elements that once combined allow economic production to take place. These are; raw materials, tools, workplaces, technical processes, human skills and human effort (labour power). They may vary in quality and quantity and how they are combined, but it is from these means that any human form of production takes place.
In contrast, the mode of production refers to how the means of production are distributed among the socio-economic community. Modes such as hunter/gatherer; pastoralist; agricultural; industrial all have their respective means. However, a mode of production based upon slave labour could use the same means of production as a mode of production based upon tied peasant labour or the present capitalist mode of production based upon wage labour.
So the difference between various modes of production is not determined by the means themselves but by who owns or controls those means. Moreover, the distribution of products and value created is largely determined by the structure of this control. Under peasant agricultural modes the main means of production (land, rivers and mineral deposits) was owned and controlled by a land owning class. Within limits these ‘owners’ determined what was produced, how much was produced, how much the peasants could keep and who got the surplus.
Under slave owning modes of production a similar pattern applied. The slave owners controlled the means (land, tools, machines, labour power,etc.) In this case even the actual workers’ bodies were owned. Workers were bought and sold as commodities. Slave owners determined what was produced, how much was produced, where production took place and who got the value created.
Under the capitalist mode of production, its workers are not tied to land and their bodies are not ‘owned’ by their employers. However, the main means of production are overwhelmingly owned/controlled by individual or collective groups of capitalists and pro-capitalists. And, of course, workers under the capitalist mode are ‘controlled’ at work and in effect, ‘tied’ to a wage or salary. When that tie is cut, workers become dependent on public or private charity.
In all modes of production ownership and control of the means of production overwhelmingly determines how they are used.
The modern capitalist classes, together with their various agents, decide how and where production takes place, what materials are used and how the wealth created is distributed. In addition, this class – through its managerial agents – also decide important social issues. They decide how many workers are needed, what level of wages/salaries are suitable and what happens to the wealth and waste materials produced by these means of production.
Indeed, the two paragraphs above are all the reader needs in order to understand what group is ultimately responsible for all the major problems currently facing humanity. If there are sub-standard products; if there are large pockets of unemployment; if there is low-paid precarious employment; too much pollution; too much ecological destruction; too many un-recyclable disused products; then it isn’t difficult to figure out why.
A 20th century effort at controlling capitalisms anti-social tendencies sought to regulate what could be done by its agents. It was thought that parliamentary scrutiny and legal enforcement would curb the worst features of the capitalist system. Others thought that nationalising some means of production would also help. Varieties of such social-democratic reforms were tried in European and North American countries after the Second World War (1939-45).
The current reality of Europe, UK and the West now demonstrate the utter failure of this reformist tinkering with the means whilst retaining the mode. Post-war socio-economic history demonstrates that it is not the physical elements (the means of production) that directly cause problems – it is how these are used! Oversight of the means by politicians and bureaucrats still left the basic mode of production intact – hence the mess much of the world is now in.
An alternative, radical, political tendency viewed the regulation of capitalists as impossible. It’s adherents reasoned that as long as capitalists retained their wealth and power, they would be able to subvert or remove anything which reduced profit making. Classifying themselves as revolutionary anti – capitalists this radical tendency assumed power in 20th century Russia and China. Sharing the mistaken illusion of the reformists – but going further – they nationalised everything.
The Bolsheviks created the former Soviet Union; the Maoists, Communist China. In both these cases, (and a few others) an oligarchy of politicians merely replaced an oligarchy of landowners and capitalists in controlling the main means of production. These new totalitarian state capitalist modes of production continued to exploit workers, create injustice, human rights violations, ecological destruction, serious pollution and distorted forms of production.
Elite ownership and/or control of the means of production, – in all its historical forms – is thus a problem for humanity, not a solution.
Historically, elite interests have always departed from the interests of the rest of humanity. Elite control of the means of production caused serious problems in the past, is doing so existentially in the present and will do so in the future. In the long term, humanity needs a new community controlled mode of production which ensures every human being has a safe and adequate standard of living without the means of production directly or indirectly creating warfare, poverty, pollution and ecological destruction.
R. Ratcliffe (August 2019)