Economic Models are the Foundation of Social Relations

I want to get into a topic that came up a few weeks ago, the difference between Markets and Capitalism. Of the article excerpts we're going to discuss today, the first one is kind of ordinary, and the second one is from a very famous and very difficult text which has generated a lot of controversy in its existence. As always we'll go through the readings on the day of the discussions!

Libraries or Bookstores?
A nice illustration of the difference between capitalist and noncapitalist ways of organizing economic activity is the contrast between two ways in which people get access to books: bookstores and libraries. The United States turns out to have one of the best developed public library systems in the world. Ironically, perhaps, this system was largely founded through the philanthropy of one of the wealthiest and most powerful capitalists of the late 19th century, Andrew Carnegie.

What are the key differences between bookstores and libraries? When you enter a bookstore in search of a book you go to the part of the store in which the book is shelved, take it off the shelf, look at its price, and then decide whether or not it is worth it to you to spend that amount of money to have the book. Your access to the book is governed by your willingness (and ability) to pay for it. In a library you go to the shelf, see if the book is there. If it is, you take it and check it out. If it is not, you put your name on a waiting list and get notified when the book is available. The access to the book is rationed by time: your willingness to wait for it. The librarian then notes how long the waiting list is and, depending upon the resources of library, the level of community support for its activities, and its policies concerning waiting lists, decides whether or not to order more copies of the book.

The underlying principles of a library and a bookstore are thus quite different. The basic principle of access to books in the library is “to each according to need” or interest, while the principle in the bookstore is “to each according to ability to pay.” These two mechanisms have very different consequences in the world. Libraries are clearly more egalitarian in the sense that they embody an ideal of equal opportunity for all. No one is at a disadvantage because of personal resources. If bookstores were the only way of getting books, then poor people would have much less access to books. One can easily imagine libraries being used for all sorts of things besides books – movies, recordings, artwork, tools, video cameras, etc. And indeed, some public libraries in the United States do provide some of these. Imagine how the American economy would be different if libraries were ever to become a general, pervasive model for access to such a wide range of things?

The Reproduction of Everyday Life - Fredy Perlman (1969)
The everyday practical activity of tribesmen reproduces, or perpetuates, a tribe. This reproduction is not merely physical, but social as well. Through their daily activities the tribesmen do not merely reproduce a group of human beings; they reproduce a tribe, namely a particular social form within which this group of human beings performs specific activities in a specific manner. The specific activities of the tribesmen are not the outcome of "natural" characteristics of the men who perform them, the way the production of honey is an outcome of the "nature" of a bee. The daily life enacted and perpetuated by the tribesman is a specific social response to particular material and historical conditions.

The everyday activity of slaves reproduces slavery. Through their daily activities, slaves do not merely reproduce themselves and their masters physically; they also reproduce the instruments with which the master represses them, and their own habits of submission to the master's authority. To men who live in a slave society, the master-slave relation seems like a natural and eternal relation. However, men are not born masters or slaves. Slavery is a specific social form, and men submit to it only in very particular material and historical conditions.

The practical everyday activity of wage-workers reproduces wage labor and capital. Through their daily activities, "modern" men, like tribesmen and slaves, reproduce the inhabitants, the social relations and the ideas of their society; they reproduce the social form of daily life. Like the tribe and the slave system, the capitalist system is neither the natural nor the final form of human society; like the earlier social forms, capitalism is a specific response to material and historical conditions .

Alienation of Living Activity
In capitalist society, creative activity takes the form of commodity production, market production of marketable goods, and the results of human activity take the form of commodities. Marketability or saleability is the universal characteristic of all practical activity and all products. The products of human activity which are necessary for survival have the form of saleable goods: they are only available in exchange for money. And money is only available in exchange for commodities. If a large number of men accept the legitimacy of these conventions, if they accept the convention that commodities are a prerequisite for money, and that money is a prerequisite for survival, then they find themselves locked into a vicious circle. Since they have no commodities, their only exit from this circle is to regard themselves, or parts of themselves, as commodities. And this is, in fact, the peculiar "solution" which men impose on themselves in the face of specific material and historical conditions. They do not exchange their bodies or parts of their bodies for money. They exchange the creative content of their lives, their practical daily activity, for money.

As soon as men accept money as an equivalent for life, the sale of living activity becomes a condition for their physical and social survival. Life is exchanged for survival. Creation and production come to mean sold activity. A man's activity is "productive," useful to society, only when it is sold activity. And the man himself is a productive member of society only if the activities of his daily life are sold activities.

The sale of living activity brings about another reversal. Through sale, the labor of an individual becomes the "property" of another, it is appropriated by another, it comes under the control of another. In other words, a person's activity becomes the activity of another, the activity of its owner; it becomes alien to the person who performs it. Thus one's life, the accomplishments of an individual in the world, the difference which his life makes in the life of humanity, are not only transformed into labor, a painful condition for survival; they are transformed into alien activity, activity performed by the buyer of that labor. In capitalist society, the architects, the engineers, the laborers, are not builders; the man who buys their labor is the builder; their projects, calculations and motions are alien to them; their living activity, their accomplishments, are his.

Academic sociologists, who take the sale of labor for granted, understand this alienation of labor as a feeling: the worker's activity "appears" alien to the worker, it "seems" to be controlled by another. However, any worker can explain to the academic sociologists that the alienation is neither a feeling nor an idea in the worker's head, but a real fact about the worker's daily life. The sold activity is in fact alien to the worker; his labor is in fact controlled by its buyer.