Sunday, October 18, 2009

Some thoughts and ramblings about an alternative economics

Cycle of the economy: work-production-distribution-buying-consumption. People consume, they also work. They work and get paid in dollars. The products that they work on are sold by the company they work for to a store or other distribution path. People buy whatever it is from the store and then take it home and consume it. All of it is a stand in for the basic relationship between a person who makes something selling it to another person, who in turn has also made something of his or her own that they've sold in turn. Money, companies, distribution, then, are all stand ins for the exchange of goods. In a mediated world, the core of the buying and selling that used to go on is between companies that produce and companies that distribute. It's not directly between consumers and production oriented companies or simply between stores and consumers but between the buying and selling between companies themselves. Even though stores, lets use the example of grocery stores, raise and lower their prices, decide to stock items or not stock items, what they sell doesn't appear out of nowhere. By the time it reaches the shelves it's already been bought and paid for. What happens when consumption patterns change is that it ultimately sends signals to the producers to either cut back production, increase production, or to possibly think about concentrating production in another area. Production also pushes forward onto the distributors, in this case the grocery store. Prices in raw materials may increase, necessitating a rise in cost that's passed onto the distributor that they can't do much about. New products come on the line to distribute, new ways of doing things are discovered by producers that lead to lower prices.

So you have workers who are also consumers. There are natural constraints on what can be made, natural needs that humans have, skills that folks have, and technology and ways of organization that make use of the skills and the resources. It all seems so straightforward.

Something gets in the way of this happy exchange, though, and that is the division of labor. In the example given above there's no discussion of management or specific reference to ownership. The production/distribution/consumption idea could be done with workers owning the place that they worked at and serving as their own agents in selling products to distributors. The modern world isn't like that. Historically, what I think happened is that the people who bought the goods from producers and sold them in turn took over and gained control of the producers themselves.

Early on you had market towns where there were established traders that had monopolies on certain goods, acting as the exclusive agents for distribution of them. Then, the traders and distributors started to set up workshops owned by them instead of by the workers. For instance in fabric production, the independent workshops were now competing with weavers who worked making fabric directly for the trader and for no one else. This control of the process ensured more money would be made, and it's a strategy that you can see in grocery stores when they produce store brands that they sell next to brands made by other companies. The trade off for the workers was some insulation from the pure market forces that they sometimes confronted. But it got out of hand.

Eventually, the process of people on the distributor end of the line gaining control over the people on the production end of the line lead to a split in how work was organized: on one side you had (and have) the laborers, on the other you have managers and owners. And of course on the side of consumption the reality of people working to produce the things that you use receded into the background as the world view of the distributors took over, producing the bourgeois worldview.

Then, what was born was the idea that capitalists, owners, didn't have to be chained to any particular industry, but that a natural thing to do would be to research an industry and start up a business in it. In this case, the folks with the money purely set out to establish a shop where the workers had no control and purely represented it as what's normal to do. The link between the work that is being done and the management of that work was severed and became a more abstract relationship. It makes sense that if you want to do something in a particular industry you should have experience of it as a worker. The people who do the work understand what's being done, and it seems natural that a worker would step up and start a new enterprise with a host of other workers to help him or her out. But increasingly this became not the case. The division between work on the one hand and management and ownership on the other stuck and became the model we know today, to the extent to where a person who does get to know an industry by working in it is expected to act like a capitalist if he or she decides to found a shop. It's expected that the way businesses are set up will be the way that this newly coined businessman/woman will behave, with organizing things on a collective or cooperative manner not even being considered.

But this way of organizing things is inherently exploitative. Instead of working for yourself you work for someone else who takes what you make and sells it to other people, to people who are very much like themselves in function, that is to say not dealing with work itself but only with the exchange of the products of labor that has already been produced.

You can already imagine what happens when this new mode of production takes over and replaces the more cooperative structures that preceded it. The more established it gets the harder it is to object to the terms of the work and expect to get results. Find a place that will accept what you demand, I dare you.

The control of production by folks associated with distribution also flows the other way, where those who sell get more and more concentrated. We find chain stores proliferating, independent distributors going out of business, and the same type of power relationship that we find in production popping up in distribution and consumption: if a chain store dominates in an area, and there are no alternatives, where are you going to go if they start doing things that take advantage of that situation? The crux or final development of it all may be something along the lines of Wal-Mart, where concentrated distribution is coupled with the sponsoring of Wal-Mart brands made exclusively for the store in China and elsewhere in the developing world. Wal-Mart in this scenario absorbs all of the model of how the economy flows, being the exclusive middle man managing the basic relationship of production with distribution/consumption. In actuality Wal-Mart sometimes has competitive bids on its products from multiple producers in China, but what Wal-Mart says goes.

The solution is to take over the beast itself and to dismantle it. Not dismantle it into small parts that can't work with each other but dismantle the control over production by those who do not produce and dismantle the hold on distribution/consumption by other elites who dominate it without serving the consumer's best interest.

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