This post proposes a new organizational form called a “virtual commune”. If you want to jump right into what that form could look like in practice, check out this post. The following is an analysis that leads to that form and explains it generally.
“Power comes only from the organized masses."
– Kwame Ture
Volton is a robot made up of smaller robots, each of which is piloted by a person. The fleshy bodies of the Voltron pilots are weak, but once they encase themselves in technological exoskeletons, which then fit together into a single robot body, they are capable of amazing things (I assume – I have never seen Voltron).
The ultimate aim of communists is to act in the world to attempt to transform the capitalist social order into one in which class distinctions do not exist and production occurs on the basis of need, while preserving some of its labor saving technology.
The question is what kind of actions are likely to lead to that goal.
I won’t argue this point here, but I think the above quote of Kwame Ture is correct. The masses of people need to be organized into a coherent collectivity capable of a wide variety of action in the world. From coordinating its own reproduction, to defeating the capitalist class on every plane of struggle, to implementing a “social immune system” for preventing class formation once communism has been achieved.
To that end various organizational forms have been applied, including vanguard parties of various types, mass parties, labor unions, isolated communes, riots. These were all invented at various times by people, and developed in the context of specific moments of history and struggle. They have proven effective for organizing certain segments of the population to be able to perform certain actions, and they are all undoubtedly still important in class struggle today, but no existing combination of them has yet succeeded in achieving the ultimate goal1.
With that context, I want to propose an organizational form that we’ll call a virtual or integrated commune, which has not yet been tried on any significant scale and which may contribute to the organization of masses necessary for the revolutionary transformation of capitalism into communism. I think this form is well-suited to parts of the working class in the imperialist core, which is the place I know best, although it seems pretty generally applicable given access to sufficient expertise and technology.
Before defining a virtual commune, let’s define a commune generally.
Definition (commune). A commune is a democratically-run organization of people who coordinate their labor activities with the aim of meeting their collective needs. In a commune, all members should have more or less the same relation to the productive process, or at least the differences should not be such that a subset of members is able to accumulate disproportionate surplus and material power. Furthermore, the commune aims for self-sufficiency. I.e., to rely as little as possible on external institutions such as the state, or on production that happens outside the commune.
At the risk of being too simplistic, the goal of communism is basically to create a commune that encompasses all of humanity2.
What most people think of with “commune” is an intentional community consisting of people (in California or some such place) who do coordinate their labor activities, but who also are living together in some kind of common housing, and perhaps do a bunch of other things together too. That is something more specific than what we mean by “commune” generally, which should also refer to organizations that coordinate labor time without requiring participants to live together, for example. Let’s call that “traditional” style of commune an “isolated commune”, or a “closed commune”.
Definition (isolated commune). An isolated commune (or closed commune) is a commune, which further has the property that all of its members live in a relatively compact geographic area in which no non-commune member lives, and social relations with non-commune members are minimized.
This has been proven to be something of a dead-end as far as organizational forms for revolutionary change go. The reason is pretty clear, which is that they are isolated from society at large, do not tend to interact with other forces like the labor movements or socialist political parties, and have no means of expanding.
So, we are interested here in non-isolated communes, which we will call “integrated”, “connected”, or “open” communes.
Definition (integrated commune). An integrated commune (or open commune) is a commune which is not isolated. I.e., a members live geographically and socially integrated with the outside world.
You can think that the commune is overlaid geographically on a not-entirely-communal space and social reality. It’s similar to a capitalist company: a coherent entity that coordinates the labor activity of its members, which persists itself across time, but whose members are interspersed within the wider social reality.
Integrated communes differ from worker-owned coops in that they aim to encompass as much of their members' production needs as possible and to minimize interaction with the capitalist economy. Moreover, they should be trying to grow and also involve themselves in other struggles, (workplace struggles, housing struggles, elections, etc.) They are the germ of a general communist mode of production rather than just organizing production as a capitalist firm does. Since we are interested in revolutionary action, I would propose another definition
Definition (political commune). A political commune is a commune that has as an explicit goal replacement of the current capitalist world order with a communist one, and which acts toward that goal however it feels it is able to, in addition to coordinating the production of its members.
Having replacement of the capitalist system as a goal is a prerequisite to actually acting towards that goal. So, we are only interested in political communes, and from here on out we assume all communes under discussion are political. This would be another distinction with cooperatives, which in my experience do not intervene politically very much.
Any non-trivial organization must — by definition — maintain structures that guide members toward the organization’s will, rather than the will they would otherwise pursue. To give a name to it, let’s call the degree to which members act in accordance with the defined logic of the organization, organizational coherence.
The coherence of a closed commune is maintained by the social closeness engendered by geographical closeness, along with the social disconnection from the outside. The social interactions which occur on a closed commune serve as a “social exoskeleton” which reinforce each member’s tendency to act in accordance with the commune’s collective will.
Because open communes don’t have this extreme geographical closeness or social isolation from the outside world, some other force is required to maintain their coherence.
We propose that at least part of that force be provided by a technological system that the members interact with, which reinforces their tendency to act in accordance with the collective will of the commune. We all know intimately the way that technological systems (involving computation happening on cloud servers interacting with individuals via their smartphones) can drive the actions of vast numbers of people.
In fact, we are members of gigantic and highly coherent technologically supported organizations (e.g., Twitter). There are also smaller ones like cryptocurrency communities.
Unfortunately, so far, the goals of these systems have been rather stupid (e.g., maximize time spent staring at a phone and photographing glamorous meals and locales, maximize energy wasted on computing SHA256) and not at all democratically determined. We propose using these same mechanisms (common state maintained on servers which individuals interact with in a push and pull way via their phones and personal computers) to support an open commune’s activity.
Definition (virtual commune). A virtual commune is an open commune whose operation is supported by a networked computer system which members interact with through their smartphones and other personal computers3. Moreover, the system uses techniques from distributed computing and cryptography to ensure integrity of the system against malicious actors, and to protect the privacy of its members.
Let’s speculate about what such a virtual commune could look like.
I wrote this as a separate article – in the form of a story – that details some of the mechanisms that would be used on a virtual commune. Some general principles however:
Of organizations that I’m aware of, I would say Cooperation Jackson takes steps towards this organizational form, though I don’t think they would describe themselves exactly the way I have and they haven’t made much use of computers in organizing AFAICT from afar. Also the vision I’ll put forward has more “centralized” (although democratically controlled) organs of command.
I just read this from Community Movement Builders that I think articulates a similar point-of-view, although they describe a market-based system of cooperatives rather than any kind of planning. There is also less emphasis on technology, which makes sense given they don’t explicitly consider planning. I think my focus on the technological aspect is an artifact of me being a programmer.
Overall I think the vision there is correct, but technology would be necessary in reality to make the kind of organization hoped for possible.
If we want to design an effective revolutionary organization, it must be capable of attracting members. In order for someone to want to join an org, it must be seen as a viable vehicle to address whatever problem that person is motivated by. That motivating problem serves as the source of their potential anti-capitalist energy.
So what are the prime sources of anti-capitalist energy in the imperialist core? It varies by class segment, but I think some of the principal ones are:
Let’s detail how the virtual commune potentially addresses these issues.
Given there is no profit being extracted, if all other costs are not too much higher, workers should be able to work less, they don’t have to work the extra time to pay for the boss’s profit.
Unsafe working conditions.
Workers can democratically enforce safe working conditions.
Again, in principle if work is allocated intelligently, there is more to go around since the capitalist is not extracting profit. There is of course a trade off between hours worked and product produced.
If the commune can obtain housing, because it does not seek to extract rent for consumption as a landlord does, there should be more money/labor available for maintaining housing.
Disrespect and lack of autonomy at work.
Democratic control of work, involvement in making the economic plan, etc. should improve this.
I think the virtual commune does not inherently have one stance or another on this, but membership in a given area could decide to spend some of its time directed by a cop-watch group, or other kind of self-defense orgs, or organizing such activities on its own.
Stress from pace of work and boss.
The democratic control of production should alleviate this.
Again, the commune does not inherently have a stance towards this, although membership could enforce sustainability in their plan and monitor their material exchanges with non-human nature. I think members would need to be ideologized against this.
Absence of meaning or sociality from life.
The increased control over one’s working conditions, and increased time for family, friends, creative pursuits, etc. should help with both meaning and sociality. Moreover, the commune could spend part of its time pursuing activities that members find meaningful rather than those that are most profitable. Also, the cooperative working relationship engenders a very social working life, as in cooperatives.
From the perspective of trying to achieve communism, the approach also has the following to recommend it:
It allows us to gain experience with running parts of a society in a non-capitalist way, before taking state power and having to try (and fail) to run the entire economy in a non-capitalist way.
To put it another way, using the 7 coordinates: it forces us to consider not just what relations and processes of production we need, but also what institutions, mental conceptions, technologies and social relations are necessary to support a communist mode of production. To put it another way, it forces you to start developing communist superstructure. For example, what sort of mental conceptions and education are necessary to keep members invested in the structure and acting for the common good?
Let a thousand flowers bloom. It is a new organizational form which has not yet been tried. Moreover it relies on new technologies, so it is a form which would not have been possible in the past.
A traditional commune forces participants to totally uproot their lives in order to join, the virtual commune allows people to remain where they currently are and maintain their existing relationships. Therefore the set of people who would potentially join is much larger. Same goes compared to membership in a vanguard party.
Incremental progress toward communal organization of the economy is possible and can be measured. This is in contradistinction to the approach of communists seizing state power before gaining experience running an economy. In all historical instances of communists seizing state power, they were forced either to accept the capitalist mode of production or be replaced, as they were not able to construct effective communist modes of production to replace it.
It also has a form which is easily understandable and immediately provides people with tangible benefits (as opposed to e.g., membership-based political parties, guerrilla groups, etc. which are I think a bigger leap for a lot of American workers in times of non-acute crisis). Americans are used to being a worker, although usually without any decision-making power, and interacting with and allowing themselves to be directed by apps on their phones.
I will defer a more involved critique to a future post, but, the easiest critique is one which applies to any hopefully anti-capitalist organization: how can you remain anti-capitalist in light of the fact that you have to persist yourself within the capitalist system? I think it’s not something that can be answered up front, given the multifarious ways that co-option of unions, left parties, etc. has occurred.
Those kinds of concepts are too polluted by capitalist ideas to engage with directly in my opinion. However that doesn’t mean we can’t use ideas or technologies developed by such projects that may be useful to our end.
I think it is better just to focus concretely on the tasks we are trying to accomplish (organizing the working class to be self-sufficient and maximally coordinated) and the technologies we will use to accomplish that task.
Many of the technologies that have been developed in the context of crypto and DAOs (state-machine execution consensus algorithms, zero-knowledge proofs, etc.) will be useful in constructing a virtual commune, but that no more connects these things than say a coffee shop and the US government because they both use spreadsheets.
An organizational form is an abstraction of specific organizations, which are themselves abstractions of concrete actions taken by specific people. So, we cannot really say any particular organizational form (as an abstraction) cannot in any circumstances be part of the construction of communism, but we must make abstractions and tally up wins and losses in order to act in the world. ↩︎
And after that, in some sense all of non-human nature, as we try to meet the needs of all conscious beings. I would therefore make a more nuanced definition of the aim of communism as follows: it is to create a world in which pain (physical pain, spiritual suffering, libidinal frustration) is minimized. Then there is an argument (made by many over the millennia) that the existence of one class that dominates and extracts from another, is incompatible with this goal. Finally, there is a specific analysis from Marx which argues that the specific way to achieve the abolition of class rule from our current position (capitalism) is working class revolution. And hopefully, once that is done, other impediments to the full goal can be removed. ↩︎
Given the constraints of the social capacities of human beings without communication technology, any real open commune over a non-trivial area will necessarily use technology to mediate the reinforcement of a tendency to act in accordance with the communal will. Therefore any “open commune” of sufficient scale will in practice really have to be a “virtual commune”, but we keep the separate name to emphasize the particular kind of technological system proposed. ↩︎