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With his name often used in a derogatory manner to gesture the perils of Soviet Communism or “totalitarianism”, Karl Marx is likely the most misunderstood of all popularized economists. While most famous in the general public mind for presenting treatises on Socialist-Communist ideas, his work on analysing how social development takes place is remarkable, and unfortunately, unknown to many. We will ignore the former works and focus on the latter. When I come to think of it, his analysis of social development charted out sometime in the 19th century can actually be used to predict the shift from the current socio-economic structure to the Resource Based Economy.
According to Marx, people in a society at any given time, have a certain level of productive ability which depends on their knowledge, skills, the technology available to them and on the bountifulness of the natural environment they live in. All these are called productive forces. People relate to one another by producing and accessing the means of life. The relations born out of these activities that bind them are called social production relations. These are basically the institutions and practices associated with the way goods are produced and distributed. In Marx’s words, ‘It is not the consciousness of people that determines their existence, but their social existence which determines their consciousness’, which is evident even today.
By labour, man acts on productive forces and transforms them into a form useful to him, and at the same time, transforms himself too by developing the ability to perform better. This is known as social productive forces, which generally represents the productive potential of a society. This can be thought of in terms of science, engineering and technology. For example, it was found out by physicists that when current passes through a conductor, a magnetic field is generated around it. This principle when applied, materialized itself into the electric generator. Later, it was found that the efficiency of a generator can be enhanced by modifying certain parts of it. This way, not only did we change the tools that we used in everyday life but also added on to our knowledge base.
Coming back to Marx, the ownership of the means of production, he said, determines the form of cooperation and division of labour in the process of production which in turn determines the social productive forces. Hence, who owns (or has access to) the means of productions determines what kind of interaction there is going to be between man and the productive forces. If, for instance, the means of production are owned by just a few, then a huge portion of the population does not get to experiment with the tools in society. This impedes the growth of social productive forces. Further, social production relations themselves are dependent on social productive forces. Both of these together form the mode of production.
Moving away from the economic portion of society, let us try to tap the intangible components. Social relations are a specific type of relations that are different from social production relations in that they are taken care of by the conscious mind. Man is conscious of the fact that he affects other individuals through his behaviour and that the others affect him too. Social relations are often manifestations of human behaviour, whether innate or operant.
Ideology is a system of ideas that shapes man’s mind. In today’s world, we could think of them in terms of legal, political, moral, religious, philosophical, scientific and artistic ideas. Social psychology on the other hand is the distinct psychological attitudes that man develops towards various social relations. People have the tendency to change their behaviour in the presence of different people.
Social relations, ideology and social psychology together form what is called the superstructure. It includes the ideas and the supporting institutions which support the class/classless structure of the society.
The superstructure along with the mode of production gives birth to what is known as social formation.
So much for the jargon. Now let us see how change takes place in society.
The artificial environment that man creates , continually supplements his natural powers. Consider the examples of vertical and hydroponic farming, desalination techniques and 3D printing. They have the capability to provide subsistence and material abundance all over the world in contrast to a century ago when this could not even be thought of. The resources on earth haven’t increased (they have in fact decreased due to our linear consumption patterns), but our productive capacity has increased with the help of the knowledge we gained by working scientifically on the natural resources we were endowed with. Thus, social productive forces are continually developing. This pattern of regularity in the development of social productive forces is called the law of progressive development of productive forces.
A given state of productive forces demands appropriate production relations. For instance, with the given amount of technology in the primary stages of capitalism, a majority of the public was engaged in blue-collar jobs whereas today with the advent of technologies such as the internet, the world is moving towards the service sector. Hence, production relations conform to a given set of productive forces. This is called the first law of sociology. A given type of production relations demands a certain type of superstructure. This can be seen as with the shift from the blue-collar to the service-sector oriented world economy, there has been a shift of attitudes. The superstructure conforms to the given production relations. This is known as the second law of sociology.
According to these three laws, if new tools emerge in society with the help of human ingenuity, then the whole social formation, as we know it, would cease to exist and a new formation would appear since the tools (technology) that we refer to would be a part of social productive forces, the first step in the formation of a society. Certain tools make certain types of societies possible. New tools create new classes that have conflicts. Change here destroys the existing economy (and consequently the superstructure) and a new economy (and a new superstructure) starts emerging. Therefore, with the coming of new technologies such as nanotechnology, newer techniques of food production, 3D printing, sixth sense technology and the internet itself, we are to expect the fall of the current social formation and the rise of the natural law/resource based economy.
However, this is easier said than done. In reality, though the social productive forces may continually advance, the social ideas and psychological attitudes are slow to change. Social relations are continually repeated actions of certain kinds, together with social ideas and socio-psychological attitudes which result from these social relations which have a tendency to grow into habits to form a complex of customary social behaviour. Hence, it is the superstructure which is resistant to change, not the economic system. This is why we hear about guns being printed at home using 3D printers, about supercomputers used by financial markets causing economic crises, about half of the children in India being malnutritioned when we have the ability to fulfill everyone’s needs. It is not the economy, but our psychology and the consequent superstructure. Earlier, in the time of great thinkers and philosophers, we had the vision but not the resources and the technology. Today, we have the resources and the technology but we have lost the vision.
This is where, I guess, The Zeitgeist Movement comes in. The movement is not supposed to be looked upon as a brand name of some kind but as a group of people trying to put forth what makes sense in order to restore the vision for our civilization. It exists to propagate the train of thought which is required for us to get updated in tandem with our technology. In other words, it exists to bring the current productive forces and the superstructure in harmony so as to create a balanced social formation.
As can be seen from the above analysis, the world is anyway moving towards a so called resource based economy with all kinds of moral and intellectual paradoxes. We might have the material RBE but what will be missing is love, compassion and cooperation, all of which fits in the second portion of the analysis. It is up to us whether we want it to remain just a resource based economy or turn it into a resource based collaborative society. The values that we uphold as a civilization are outdated. Believe it or not, change starts from within. In the words of Jiddu Krishnamurty, ‘The real revolution is the revolution of consciousness’. To top that, even Marx said that tools create a specific type of economic system, but people create a society.
J. Gurley - The Materialist Conception of History
O. Lange - Political Economy (Vol.1 Ch.1,2)
See, products are never owned. Never were, never will be, by anyone – all the way from the creator to the consumer.
Look at some examples of what we call products: computers, phones, watches, cars, ovens, houses, clothing, food, water, oxygen – okay, oxygen isn’t a product, but neither was water till a few decades ago, so you know where this is going. Now, let’s break down the illusion of owning a computer. When you buy a computer, you think you’ve purchased a product, so you feel like the owner of it. But a deeper look reveals that all the components inside that computer come from the earth. They’re mined, refined, filtered, altered, shaped, and moved from one part of the planet to another, piece by piece, till they form a computer. This computer is then shipped from a factory to a warehouse, then to a reseller, and then finally to your doorstep.
You pay for this computer from start to finish, but what are you really buying: metal, plastic, silicon, glass, cardboard or software? None of them, because these are all resources of the earth. They don’t belong to you or anyone else. (No one owns ‘plastic’ as a material, for instance.) If anything, it’s the other way round – you belong to the earth, since the flesh, blood and bones you’re made of come from the earth.
In effect, you pay for the hands that build the hardware, and the brains that design the software. You pay for people performing certain functions, albeit technically, you can’t own people either.
Here lies the illusion. For every ‘product’ we think we’re buying, we’re really paying for a ‘convenience’ or ‘service’ – provided by people we don’t own, created with materials we don’t own. What do we own then? Nothing.
This deconstruction is true for any product (tangible) or service (intangible) under the sun.
Take land. When you sign an agreement saying you’ve bought a house, you have the illusion that you own the piece of land. But the land belongs to the earth, like it has since the beginning of time. An agreement holds no real value. It is perceived as an agreement as long as certain laws agree with it. When the laws change, the agreement becomes a worthless piece of paper, even though the true worth of the land doesn’t change in the least.
Take healthcare. The drugs are made from materials born of the earth. The treatment is prescribed by doctors born of the earth. Neither can be owned by any individual.
Take your breakfast cereal. Take your internet connection. Take the tiniest cog inside the car you drive. Break down anything you can think of, and you’ll arrive at the same common denominators.
We live in a world so shrouded in illusion that we believe we own things, or worse, people, when in truth we own nothing. In fact, most of what we pay for a product is used to fund its advertising – to create the very illusion that drives us to buy the illusions in the first place! Now if that isn’t a distorted society, what is?