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Who Will Clean the Sewers? September 12, 2003 by RedStar2000


Anything we write about communist society must perforce be speculative; we are not able to leap 50 or 500 years into the future and "see for ourselves".

But the temptation to speculate is difficult to resist...especially for those of us who anticipate a revolutionary transformation of human society.

What we "know" about communist society is that there will be no classes, no wage-slavery, and no repressive state apparatus. And we are always asked how things will "get done" in such a society.

In particular, we are asked "who will clean the sewers?".

So herewith some speculations on sewer-cleaning and other aspects of communist society. As like as not, I'll turn out to be miles off the mark...probably much too conservative in my "forecasts".

But it's fun to try.


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In communist society, work is "voluntary"...that is, any given person may "take" what s/he "needs" for a dignified life without being compelled to so much as lift a finger.

Thus people will gravitate towards that kind of "work" which they enjoy; people will not have "jobs" but rather interests or projects that they will pursue with considerable diligence...because it's "what they really like to do" since they "are really good at it".

There will be, of course, social prestige attached to particular interests or projects...those who choose interests and projects which benefit society in ways that people perceive as important will be highly regarded. Those whose interests are more personal will probably be looked down upon and possibly even snubbed entirely.

It will be something of a trade-off: "she is an electrical engineer specializing in reliable power generation...and is on the A-list of every social group in the region" while "he spends his time studying old internet archives and only other antiquarians enjoy his company".

But what of the socially necessary tasks that are not interesting and rewarding in themselves?

Or as you will hear from day one of first telling people that you're a communist: who will clean the sewers?

If survival is not at stake, who will have the "incentive" to do the "dirty jobs"?

Let's face it, "boring, dirty, and unpleasant" is a reasonably accurate description of most jobs under capitalism.

Some of this unpleasantness could be alleviated by simple improvements in working conditions and reduction in the hours of work "expected"...it's one thing to spend a day on the back of a garbage truck once a week or once every two weeks and quite another to do it 48 hours a week. It's one thing to do it with a facemask and other protective gear, quite another to do it without.

This suggests one possible approach: divide up the unskilled shit work amongst everyone. Everyone "must" put in, say, 8 or 16 hours a month performing some unpleasant but socially necessary task.

But you see the problem: whenever you say people "must" do something unpleasant, then you open a barrel of unpleasantness yourself. You will have to find people who are willing to enforce the "must"...a very unpleasant job in itself and a sharp reduction in the "freedom from compulsory labor" that we made our revolution to secure.

We could ask for volunteers, of course. And the minority who do volunteer could receive "social rewards" in prestige, public acclamation, etc. We could "teach" an "ethic" of volunteering on behalf of the general welfare and this would somewhat increase the "pool" of volunteers over time.

When 20th century Leninists talked about "the new man of socialist society", this is what they had in mind...even though there was no way any significant number of such "new men" (or women) could emerge in a Leninist class society. In class society, to volunteer for unpaid labor is, from a material standpoint, stupid.

And we know that material reality prevails, do we not?

Were we to "make a list" of the "shit jobs" under capitalism, some interesting conclusions could be drawn.

Many of those tasks will no longer be "necessary" under communism. In particular, the vast armies of clerical workers employed by state and corporate bureaucracies can be demobilized...as neither states nor corporations will exist.

The process of replacing manual labor with machine labor (automation/cybernation) in controlled environments has been going on for a long time and will doubtless continue. By the time of a communist revolution, there may not be much of it left.

Much of the "service industry" may well disappear after the revolution for a different reason--what many people actually do in the contemporary service industry is what servants used to do in the 19th century. It was considered "degrading" then; and is not particularly admired now.

Since a lot of it is not really "socially necessary", a lot of it will probably disappear.

Still, when all is said and done, the sewers must either be cleaned on a regular basis or they will become blocked, turds will float in the streets, and your toilet will stop working. How can we get people to be "willing" to take care of this socially necessary but very unpleasant task?

Well, let's consider. Remember that communism is not "Heaven". However abundant the material goodies of life might be, there will not be an infinite supply of everything that's desirable.

In other words, there will be rationing...to make sure that everyone gets an approximately equal share.

There will also be waiting lists...it's not possible to produce everything that everyone wants all at once. For example, products that require a substantial amount of co-ordinated labor to produce may be in relatively short supply...and though available upon request, may involve a considerable period of waiting before one is ready for you.

Here is a "window of opportunity" that communist society could use: those who are willing to clean the sewers and do the other kinds of boring, unpleasant jobs go to the head of the list for desirable goods in short supply. They do not get "more" than others in the long run, but they get what they want sooner.

What such people lose in "job satisfaction", they gain in "immediate material gratification"...or as close to "immediate" as we can manage.

I regard this as a temporary measure, of course. In the long run, we humans should be able to build robots to do any task that humans find boring or unpleasant. But the artificial intelligence community is still a long way from building anything more intelligent than an insect. So we need a way to "plug" the technological "gap" and make sure that the socially necessary work gets done.

In addition, there is a kind of justice to this arrangement that strongly appeals to me. In capitalist society, those who have the most interesting and challenging careers also gain the greatest material rewards; while millions of people who do the grubby shitwork that keeps civilization functioning receive, for their indispensable labors, shit pay and no respect!

Thus, when you see someone driving a new car or who has a really swell apartment in a new building, unlike now, you will know that they really earned those things, doing work that you would not want to have to do yourself.

As we need to remind ourselves, under communism things will be very different.
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First posted at RedGreenLeft on September 7, 2003
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This thread is not really about crime and criminals in communist society (maybe I'll write something on that soon)...

But briefly, the objective of communist society with regard to such people is to rehabilitate them.

Granted, this must be balanced against the need that people have for personal security from random violence; unlike some, I personally have no problem with the death penalty for violent crimes, even those short of murder.

Labor as punishment for non-violent crimes degrades the concept of labor itself. How can we, on the one hand, praise those who perform important functions on behalf of the community and then turn around and watch people in chains clean the highways (as is the case now in a number of American states)?

Our ethic at least approaches the view that socially useful work is almost a privilege...how can we then use it for punishment?

I don't think that will work.
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First posted at Che-Lives on September 8, 2003
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Here is something interesting.

I posted this piece at two other "left" forums.

What I note is that in all the forums, the serious responses offered a number of ideas for handling the problem...including some things I wasn't even aware of.

Now, imagine a post-revolutionary society, where millions of people are contributing their ideas for solving practical problems, arguing over those ideas, and democratically deciding which are the best ideas.

Do you see how utterly banal and foolish the objections of our sheep-herders and reformists really are?

We communists are "impractical"...we don't have a "plan" formulated by "expert consultants" and implemented on the orders of a "great leader".

How utopian!

And right here in front of us we have a small example of what ordinary people can do when they put their minds to it.

Yes, ordinary people. There are no "geniuses" here. Certainly not me! Just people who are interested in the shape of future society and willing to give some thought to the matter.

And the usual narrow-minded philistines who can't see past class society, hierarchy, professional "expertise", and, of course, their own "career paths".

Yes, we are "impossible" -- their worst nightmares made flesh.

No wonder they hate us!
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First posted at Che-Lives on September 8, 2003
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quote:

...so when we talk about the final objective of life, COMMUNISM, one can be certain to be talking about several centuries.


Well, no one here has a crystal ball in good working order. Everything we say about the future must involve a considerable degree of speculation.

But I hope you are not hinting at that shabby Leninist mythology concerning "centuries of socialism" prior to a communist society. That's just their "ticket to ride" and has no relevance to this discussion.

A proletarian revolution in the second half of this century and the more or less immediate transition to communism would carry in its wake a good deal of the infrastructure that exists now.

And it would have to be maintained.

Also, I would not assume that communism is "the final objective of life". What humans will come up with next is impossible to predict...but we hairless primates do love to come up with new stuff and new kinds of relationships.

In a thousand years, communism may seem as primitive and backward to people then as Assyria or Babylon seem to us.

Things change.
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First posted at Che-Lives on September 9, 2003
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"Shoes, shoes, all God's children got shoes"...except for the reformist. Let's see if we can fit him a pair...extra large, of course, as they will also have to fit his mouth.

No doubt in the early months after the proletarian revolution, existing stocks of shoes and boots will be "appropriated" by the folks who need them (and some who don't).

Workers at existing shoe-plants will be deciding more or less on their own what to keep producing and what to discontinue. Since existing networks of distribution will have collapsed, they will also have to decide how they want to distribute what they make. They will try to get in touch with the workers who supplied their plant with the necessary raw materials.

Gradually, a new network or series of networks for production and distribution of shoes will grow up. The use of card-swipe technology will tell the shoe factory workers what people "like" and "don't like" every morning and unpopular designs will be discontinued while production of popular designs increases.

The shoe as "fashion statement" will probably disappear for several decades; the main objective will be comfortable, well-made, durable shoes and boots. This is especially important for women--who are ripped-off enormously more than men with shoddy, uncomfortable, and over-priced footware in the present system.

What happens if one "network" makes "better shoes" than another? Some will make do with the inferior shoes; nearly all will put their names down on the waiting list for the good shoes.

At some point, a centralized data-collection agency (card-swipe again) will notice this...and send a gentle suggestion to the "bad shoe collective" that they should either improve their shoes or, perhaps, make something else.

This will be publicized; people will know about it...including the workers who supply the raw materials to the "bad shoe collective". Those workers will feel like their efforts are wasted...supplying raw materials for fuckups to make lousy shoes. They will stop doing that and instead offer their raw materials to the "good shoe collective" who will make better use of them.

You see, the way things are now, no one cares about the "end-product" or its "usefulness" unless they are paid to do so.

In communist societies, people will care very much about things like that...not least because their social standing in the community depends on it.

No one wants to be publicly labeled a fuckup or part of a collective of fuckups. People want to take pride in their work...including what it's used for. They want to now and some can; but for most working people now, it's just grind out the crap and get that paycheck.

Thus, perhaps after waiting a few weeks, our reformist gets his pair of new shoes...for the asking.

When he left, I think he was still grumbling about the wait...but it was hard to understand him with that shoe in his mouth.
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First posted at Che-Lives on September 9, 2003
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quote:

Who runs this ‘centralised data bank’? Who maintains it? Who maintains the network to which it is linked to all the millions of people? Who decides what it will and won't show?


The people who like to do that kind of stuff; the people who enjoy complicated computer networks and links and data compression, etc., etc., etc.

Who did you think was going to do it? Wage-slaves?

quote:

Surely these people have an awful lot of power, after all if they decide to show a favourite commune of theirs as producing highly prized goods then that commune benefits enormously.


Of course they could "rig" the numbers, but to what purpose? The commune that they favored would still be up against informed opinion ("I tried their shoes and they sucked!"--internet consumer review #35,172).

And what would be gained? Some temporary social approval that would turn into its opposite as soon as the fraud came to light.

There being no material incentive for corruption means that there will be very little actual corruption (not none, just very little).

quote:

Your system contains no mechanism for conveying the combinations of needs and desires together with relative values people place on each. That’s its whole problem


I'm sure there must be some kind of "sense" in this statement...but I'm damned if I know what it is.

What combinations? What needs? What desires? What "relative values"? You asked me about shoes!

People will want the "best quality stuff" and that's what will get produced. If there's not enough stuff available, then there'll be a waiting list. If people want to swap stuff, then they'll do it...who cares?

Are you under the impression that communist society will produce huge quantities of crap "for the masses" and a tiny amount of quality goodies "for the leaders"?

Are you still "thinking" in terms of class society?

Of course you are!

quote:

It gets even worse when you talk of production goods. Here there often will be a hard benefit in having the very best ‘widget’ instead of a lower quality substitute....But it takes no account of marginal efficiency


Widget-making communes will be just as concerned with the end-use of their products as shoe-making communes. They will "check out" very thoroughly a commune that wants a new widget and will do their best to make an informed choice.

But "marginal efficiency" will probably be ignored. They'll be looking at the end-users' plans, their track-record, the quality of their membership and, most importantly, exactly what they plan to make with the widget, how socially-useful is the ultimate end product.

quote:

And now I see that some communes are going to be restricting the supply of materials to others if they perceive that the latter is not producing top quality. Why exactly? Why are the needs of the producing communes so disregarded? I thought needs were always paramount.


Needs are paramount. The "bad shoe commune" is deprived of raw materials because they are making shoes that no one needs; i.e., crappy shoes. The raw-materials commune does not want to waste their labor providing raw materials to fuck-ups who make crappy shoes.

quote:

You still did not answer the question about who it is that funds new development or how even the desire / need for such development is communicated.


No one "funds" new development in the sense you use the word.

But it might work like this...

Let us say that the Yerba Buena (formerly San Francisco) Regional Transit Commune decides, after studying transit use, that a new subway line stretching from downtown to the Pacific Highway would be "a good idea"...that is, it would move more people more quickly than the existing (and overcrowded) bus lines while using less energy to do so.

They would have many meetings with communes in rail producing, construction, electric power, architecture, etc. If agreement was reached, then ground would be broken for the Geary Street subway line.

Suppose this project competed for resources for another large scale project in the same region? Then, ultimately, there would have to be a regional referendum on the matter...and likely a very heated one.

Communes that wanted to do a "large-scale project" would have to persuade other communes that the project "made sense"...not in terms of "return on investment" (which would not exist) but in terms of long-range social utility.

Communism is not "Heaven" where people never disagree and live always in peaceful harmony. Real humans disagree about stuff all the time and there will be many heated arguments about the proper allocation of resources to maximize utility.

But the outcome won't be decided by your precious marketplace...the richest bastard won't win the argument!

Because there won't be any of your precious rich bastards!

We will, with any luck, have guillotined the lot.

Enjoy your new shoes.
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First posted at Che-Lives on September 10, 2003
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The question of crime and punishment in communist society really deserves its own thread; it's complicated and fraught with unintended consequences.

But I do not think that compulsory labor is a proper punishment for any crime. There's no way we can create an "ethos" of the dignity of labor and turn around at the same time and use it for punishment.

It wouldn't work.
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First posted at Urban75 on September 24, 2003
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quote:

It's just a wee thought, but what would you do with tired old reactionaries such as meself who, after The Revolution would continue to distribute such subversive authors as Adam Smith...


I'm quite sure the works of Adam Smith and subsequent bourgeois economists will continue to be available in the public library...look in the section "Paleo-economics". For all I know, there may even be courses in it (the History Department would seem to have the best claim).

quote:

...and continue to want to make a profit off our own labour and the labour of others?


Well, no one would care what you "want"...it's what you actually do or try to do that might be of some concern.

I can't imagine why anyone would want to work "for" you, giving you the opportunity to profit from their labor. I know of no instance in recorded history where freed slaves petitioned their former masters to chain them up again.

The expression "profit from your own labor" is a mis-use of the word "profit". The surplus that you acquire from your own labor is not "profit" in the capitalist sense of the word.

You might suffer some social stigma if it became widely known that you were a greedy sod.

That's all that I can think of.
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First posted at Urban75 on September 25, 2003
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quote:

If I were running an enterprise on my own and making more money than it took to cover operating costs (and lets for the sake of argument throw my own living costs into this since it would be my enterprise) I would be producing surplus income - profit under any definition of the word.


There is a misunderstanding here, and I'm afraid it's my fault. So let me try to rectify the matter.

In a capitalist society, if you run your own one-man business and generate a surplus, that is indeed "profit" by the dictionary definition as well as customary usage.

Within the Marxist paradigm, however, what you really are is a worker who has received the full value of his labor power.

This is, of course, quite rare...but it does happen. I actually know one such person myself.

But these considerations are irrelevant to communist society, where there is no market, no money, no wage-labor.

You would certainly be free to work on your own or in association with others to produce some good or service that people found useful. Indeed, you would be encouraged to do so and the more useful your product or service, the higher your social prestige would be and the more people would want to work with you.

But whatever you produced would be freely available to those that needed your product...just as whatever you needed would be freely available to you.

It might well be that what you worked on is a product of great skill and expertise, requiring hundreds of hours of labor, etc. Well, you're not going to hand it over to some yobbo that walks in off the street, are you? You will be very choosy about who you give it to...someone who will be appreciative of your work, use it carefully, take care of it, etc.

If it is a more ordinary product, one considered a "basic necessity", then chances are you'll make it and shove it out the door...keeping in mind, of course, that if it's "too shoddy", your door will soon be blocked by unwanted products. Many collectives and communes will be making "ordinary stuff" and people will have lots of choices.

It's possible your remarks referred to a "socialist" society--that so-called "transition stage" between capitalism and communism...where there are still markets, money, wage-slavery, etc. I can't offer you much encouragement in that context; it's you (small businessman) vs. Socialism, Inc. (bloated state apparatus that owns nearly everything...including the police!).

Should that unhappy option be resurrected from its well-earned grave, I think you're probably doomed.

Let's hope we don't have to go through that crap again.
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First posted at Urban75 on September 26, 2003
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quote:

How do anarchists intend to deliver value, a challenge.


quote:

Value is not defined by the cost of producing something but by how much someone wants it.


Pretty fuzzy.

What does it mean in this context to say that someone "wants" something, let alone "how much" they want it?

In a moneyless economy, the question "how much do you want it?" is semantically meaningless...there is no quantitative measure of individual desire.

Does there "need" to be one? Is not the simple statement "I want X" sufficient?

quote:

Now it's a tenet of Marxism that value should be delivered at cost (as far as possible the more realistic would say, but let's not quibble).


Cost is, of course, something that could be quantified and perhaps will be...specificially in terms of the human-hours of work it takes to produce X (including, of course, a proportionate share of the human-hours of work it took to produce the raw materials, transport them, build the necessary machinery, etc. to produce X).

The statistical complexities would be formidable, no doubt (especially the problem of infinite regress)...but that's what we have super-computers for. If 10 people put in 100 hours to make X, the true cost is not likely to be much above 150 hours. Accumulated experience will provide reasonably accurate algorithms for solving the equations in most cases. All that's required is that people keep track of their hours and that someone keeps track of what is actually produced.

Knowing the true cost of possible "mixes" of production, people can decide what is "affordable" and what "costs too much". They may do this individually, collectively, or as an entire society-wide decision. Allowances can be made for those who choose to "opt-out" of a big project.

When producing things for use, you'd like to know if the stuff is actually useful. As I've noted before, modern card-swipe technology can easily furnish real-time or very close to real-time data on what people are actually requesting and using and what is piling up in a warehouse somewhere.

In the latter case, the collective might be informed (by that central data base) that what they are making is of no use to anyone. The collectives that furnish the "bad collective" with raw materials may cease to do so...or demand improvements. Spare parts may become unavailable. And so on.

How "quick" or "efficient" this process will be is hard to predict; we know that under capitalism, producers of shoddy commodities can limp on for a decade or more before the banks finally cut off their credit and force them into bankruptcy.

In the scenario that I propose, the "bad collective" would find themselves in an empty workshop unable to produce anything. They'd have no choice but to move on to other, more useful collectives...unless boredom was really appealing to them. One thing they might be able to do is invite a collective well-known for its competence to "take them in" as apprentices...to learn how to get it right.

And if their incompetence was truly legendary, they might be incorporated into the routines of stand-up comedians.

quote:

It seems to have no mechanism at all to correct an oversupply of goods which are wanted, but not as badly as others, because after all, their output will still be taken up, because it is wanted.


As always, the simplest solution is to ask people what they want. Capitalists do consumer surveys all the time; there's no reason that communist society couldn't do them...and do them better and more thoroughly. Is it unreasonable to assume that if a serious want was going unfulfilled, that some collectives wouldn't step up to "meet the demand"?

Again, efficiency is difficult to predict, but over time it "ought" to work...at least for "serious" wants.

And, of course, there's vocal public opinion...always a key factor in communist society. People who have a want that is chronically in short supply will organize to demand it...and may even start a collective to start producing it themselves.

quote:

An anarchist economy does not seem to have any regulatory mechanism to balance need and production across the whole economy.


No, it doesn't, at least not explicitly. After the revolution, people will first be concerned with getting their own cities back in some kind of functioning order, then they will look at regional possibilities, then at the economy as a whole.

It's certainly not "out of the question" that "federations of federations" could eventually engage in some "loose" form of economic planning that would take in the whole economy. As I noted in an earlier post, they would be making some very well-informed suggestions...not giving orders or commands.

Finally, I hope it's understood that the baroque extravagance of "consumer wants" that we know under capitalism will almost certainly be a thing of the past under communism. In the last decade or so prior to proletarian revolution, with the capitalist system collapsing, people will be struggling to survive as well as against their fading masters...the idea that "you are what you buy" is one that will come to be regarded with disgust and contempt.

In some ways, communism will be simpler than capitalism.
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First posted at Che-Lives on October 2, 2003
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