It's Dusk Somewhere

Specifying communism: autonomous access to the means of subsistence

Posted at — Sep 29, 2023 by Izzy Meckler

Soren Mau’s ‘Mute Compulsion’ does an excellent job of calling attention to the ways that our environment – physical, social, technological – mutely compels us to act in certain ways. If a communist social order is to be robust, it must take advantage of that fact, and etch its social relations into the environment.

One pillar of any communist social order would be permanent and free access to the means of subsistence (MOS): food, water, housing, clothing, at the very least. Such access makes it impossible for one person to be completely dominated. If there is always the option of surviving independently, one cannot be made to do degrading work.

The most apparently straightforward way of implementing this would be for each person to have sufficient land, tools, and know-how to do subsistence farming. However, this is not realistic given the constraints on arable land we’re working with, and also would only provide a very low standard of living.

A better solution would be to socialize the production of the base-level means of subsistence (i.e., produce them through collective, technologically improved, processes in which people produce for others, as in capitalism but with production processes that are worker-run and ecological), and then to somehow enforce through social relations

  1. Independent unfettered access to the social product
  2. A guarantee that enough for every living person will actually be produced

Let’s start with point 1 and assume enough means of subsistence is being produced. The aim is to avoid a situation where, as in capitalism, access to this social product is cut off for some people. Before solving the problem we must first state the problem. I think cryptographic language can be useful here, as our intention is to design a scheme which allows for a certain functionality – namely, access to one’s fair share of the social product – under adversarial conditions in which some adversary may try to cut off that access.

The trick is to realize that we don’t need to defend against any adversary – obviously that would be impossible since aliens with advanced technology could show up and force any state of affairs they wanted – but only against socially produced adversaries. I.e., people and social groups that are generated by the social order we’re trying to design.

Looking at Cuba gives a good example of what is meant by this. It is very hard for someone to try to start being a capitalist and resuming capitalist exploitation in Cuba among other reasons because Cuban society prevents individuals from accumulating dominion over enough resources to start a capitalist firm of any scale on one’s own. The people produced by Cuban society cannot (and I think largely have no interest in) exploiting each other as capitalists would.

So our goal is to set up a society $S$ in which for any person $p$ belonging to that society, for any collection of individuals $A$ produced by that society of size at most $n$ (this is the adversary), there is a course of action that $p$ can follow such that no matter what course of action is pursued by the adversarial group $A$, $p$ will gain access to the means of subsistence in time at most $T$ with probability at least $1 - \varepsilon$.

Note that this has three parameters:

Probably we should add some bounds on the psychic and physical pain that must be endured to gain access to the MOS as well.

Let’s make a definition. We’ll say a society is $(n,T,\varepsilon)$-free if it satisfies the above goal. I.e., if every individual within it can access the MOS within time $T$ with probability at least $1-\varepsilon$ regardless of adversarial behavior of up to $n$ individuals.

Now, this isn’t a perfect definition but it is a start. One failing is in reality we will probably want to allow adversarial behavior by a larger number of individuals, but put bounds on the number of adversaries within a specific geographical region, or perhaps put strict bounds on the organizational capacity of our adversaries (say they aren’t all coordinating with each other, etc.) That would probably be more realistic.

Here are some ideas which would help a society meet this goal of freedom for its members: