System Change Made Simple

The Transition to the Gift Economy

July 10, 2022 Terry Leahy Season 1 Episode 6
System Change Made Simple
The Transition to the Gift Economy
Show Notes Transcript

How would we actually get from where we are now to a gift economy? There is a range of possible strategies and options. A popular revolution supported by the armed forces. An act of parliament following a landslide election victory. A multiplicity of grassroots initiatives gradually link together and begin to operate without money as the capitalist economy crumbles. 

7: Transition to the gift economy

Terry Leahy 2023


This chapter is about the transition to the gift economy. Chapter four explains the idea of the gift economy, and this chapter is about the actual process of transition. What we have today is a very complex networked economic system. It's global in dimensions and people depend upon it for their livelihoods. In that context predictability, knowing you can expect to get something you need, or being sure that you won’t, depends upon the way market forces work out. It's based on money. Do you have enough money to pay for it? We are very dependent for our livelihoods on the market economy. A gift economy has no money and works on agreements between voluntary collectives of producers and consumers. We must move to that with the least possible disruption. We do not want people dying in the streets because they are unable to access daily supplies of food, water, and heating — currently supplied through market transactions.


It's very hard to say how all of this is going to work out. A certain amount of unpredictability and disruption could well be unavoidable in the transition to the gift economy. Clearly, we're at a situation now where business as usual is massively disruptive and will become more and more disruptive. Because of that, people will be prepared to take risks up to a point. This chapter is concerned to map out a plausible transition. Recognizing the unpredictability of all this, it makes sense to think of a variety of pathways, rather than recommending the ‘one right way’.  


Faced with these questions a lot of people are sceptical about whether a revolution to replace capitalism is even possible. How could we ever get the power to overthrow the capitalist class? This seems like a massive impossibility. My comment is that the world has seen lots of successful revolutions. The problem is not — having a revolution and taking over society through that. The real problem is what happens next. Are you able to nail down a classless society? To create an egalitarian harmonious, sustainable social order. And, of course, the prognosis is not looking particularly good as far as that's concerned. A recent depressing example is Venezuela. They got the political force and the armed support necessary to make a revolution happen. But the ambitious project of utopian social change withered away and was corrupted, with some version of class society being maintained — and with much of the population disillusioned and dragging their feet. The other chapters of this book have more to say about those issues. For now, I am concentrating on the process of achieving a revolution that aims to create the gift economy. 


I am going to suggest that there are two broad types of transition that we might consider. The one that seems most obvious is transition by revolution. The institutions of the capitalist economy are dramatically abolished and replaced with the institutions of the non-monetary gift economy. The second broad type is a transition by accretion. There is a symbolic continuity with aspects of the existing capitalist economy and a real structural break. The various symbols of the capitalist economy still seem to operate. Even money and the market. But the real content, the capitalist content of those forms, has been eviscerated. There has been a structural break in the way that these symbolic forms operate. This is a very tricky argument to make. I'm not entirely convinced that this second transition pathway could actually work. But I think it's worth explaining because it informs the way a lot of people think about these issues.


Prefiguring projects


Before I get into this discussion, I want to introduce some concepts that are useful in conceiving a transition to the gift economy. The idea of ‘prefiguring’ is that you start to build institutions and practices now that create examples of the social institutions and practices that will dominate society in the post-capitalist future. These prefigurings provide living examples of what you want to do, a propaganda exercise. They practice and deepen the culture on which a future society will depend. This is to look at them as aspects of a strategy of transition. But of course, they also work to create opportunities to live more enjoyable lives. To get away from the worst aspects of the market economy. I am going to talk about two kinds of prefiguring institutions. I will call the first ‘hybrids of the gift economy and capitalism’ because they include aspects of the current capitalist market economy as well as features of a future gift economy. I will talk of the second sort of prefiguring institutions as ‘temporary autonomous zones’ — referring to the work of Hakim Bey, an anarchist writer from the nineties. 


Hybrids of the gift economy and capitalism


A hybrid depends in various ways on the market economy. For example, it could use money, offer goods or some services on the market, or pay wages to staff. To give an example, we could consider a local community NGO operating in the global south. It’s a community-controlled sustainability outreach, educational organization. The people of local villages have organised small face to face democratic assemblies. These assemblies elect representatives to direct the work of the NGO and appoint professional staff. The NGO gets international donations and uses these to pay the staff. It also uses this money to buy equipment needed for the work. For example, building materials to construct their centre, a car to visit local communities, laptops and phone services to record meetings, organise donations, access agricultural information on the net, report back to funders and so on. As you can see, a lot of what I have just described works within the framework of a market economy — wage labour for the professional staff, ownership of the community centre as property, the purchase of commodities necessary to the work, the wage labour of the donors from the rich countries.  


The other aspect of any hybrid is an ethical practice that departs from the usual operation of a capitalist firm. Some aspect of the gift economy. Looking after people or the environment. Participatory democratic control. The gift rather than market exchange. For example, the NGO in the global south facilitates community control of their organisation through assemblies of local village communities — that organize applications to the NGO for assistance, that elect community representatives to the board. The NGO enables workers’ control through planning meetings that join the professional workers and community representatives. These organisational forms are much like what we would expect in the voluntary clubs that are the producer units in a gift economy. The aim of the organisation is not to make a profit, like a capitalist firm. Instead, the resources of the organisation are devoted to two aims. One is to help local villagers to achieve food security – an operation of caring for people. The other is making sure that this is achieved through a sustainable agriculture that also leaves space for local wild species. Caring for the planet. These aims are shared by the donors from the rich countries — who are spending their money to make a difference in the world and to express their affection and solidarity. The methods for food security that are being promoted are also departures from the market economy. They are based on household food provision. A non-market economic enterprise. People get access to food without paying for it.


As the next few chapters will show, hybrids come in a great variety of forms. Just one more example here. A community supported agriculture farm run by a workers’ cooperative. The aim of the members of the cooperative is to run a successful market enterprise and to get a wage through that. But alongside this they want to relieve the alienation associated with paid work in capitalism. So, they are setting up a cooperative where they make decisions about their production, without a boss controlling work and creaming off the profits. Their aim is not to get the highest possible profit but also to look after the environment while doing that — they are committed to using agroecology and permaculture, to growing food sustainably. Also, to selling food locally and reducing food miles. Their customers have similar mixed aims. On the one hand, to use their wages to get access to good food at reasonable prices. But also, to buy food that has been grown sustainably and produced locally. 


Initiatives supported by governments can also be hybrids. The tax system takes a portion of the social product. In the best-case scenario, citizens vote to decide how to allocate their taxes. Initiatives can be directed to propping up the market system. But also, in some cases, to undermining it. Or at least to supplementing the market in ways that could fit with a gift economy. This is a controversial claim for an anarchist or Marxist to be making — so I will come back to this in a later chapter. For now, let us look at some examples of hybrids that are facilitated by government intervention. One would be government support for an NGO through a grant. Allowing an organisation to survive outside of market pressures to a certain extent. The most common example in rich countries today is funding for community arts. Then there are various kinds of government intervention that regulate environmental damage, such as. Acts against air pollution. Subsidies for renewable energy provision. Payments to farmers adopting organic agriculture. Payments to set aside parts of a farm for wildlife refuges. Sewerage services. Then there is public ownership of national parks, railways, health systems and the like. Funding for community services run by not-for-profit charitable NGOs.


None of these government initiatives are an unmixed blessing. The use of money and wage labour to make the initiative happen. The use of a paid police force to protect public assets. The ubiquitous attempt to turn these hybrids into some facsimile of a capitalist firm. Finally, a lot of these initiatives are necessary precisely to maintain the conditions for profitable business. By taxing citizens to step in where the market is unwilling to act. For example, public education, roads and bridges. At the same time, my argument is that this is a shifting terrain, and governments can also end up promoting the ethical values and practices of a gift economy. For example, the EU subsidies for organic agriculture. A sustainable agriculture that cares for the planet. 


These initiatives which are typical of governments in many countries of the capitalist world, point in the direction of an alternative economy. Or they can be seen in that light, and it makes sense to promote them in this way. 


Temporary autonomous zone


Another kind of prefiguring strategy is to set up organisations that attempt to avoid participation in the market and the state. To carve off a bit of economic life outside of the market, to avoid state control. Hakim Bey (aka Peter Lamborn Wilson), an anarchist writer from the nineties, talks about two kinds of institution. One of his essays is on the ‘temporary autonomous zone’ (TAZ). He uses that term to describe situations in which some form of anarchist polity seizes a small part of social space, without attempting to take over a whole country, replacing the state or whatever. There are certainly some good examples. 


One is the uprising in Hungary in 1956, crushed by the Soviet Union. Huge popular demonstrations demanding workers’ control started the uprising. As people assembled at the radio station, police fired on the crowd. Workers in the arms factories distributed weapons. Most of the police and armed forces surrendered to the crowds. A statue of Stalin was pulled down. A revolutionary council of students and workers was formed and remained in session. The Soviet Union sent tanks to crush the rebellion and fighting in the streets broke out. Some Russian tanks joined the uprising. Workers occupied their workplaces and formed councils. Among other things, these councils all demanded workers’ management. Delegates from these councils linked up to form city or town Revolutionary Councils. White collar workers, peasants and soldiers joined industrial workers in forming councils. Peasants supplied the rebels with food. Peasants who had been coerced into state-run farming ‘collectives’ redistributed the land or continued as collectives, while deposing their managers. A newly formed council of free trade unions demanded workers’ management, free elections, and wage increases. A general strike paralysed all but essential services. In a second assault on the revolution, the Soviet state sent 5,000 tanks and pulverised the working-class heartlands of Hungarian cities. Up to 50,000 Hungarians died and the statist bureaucracy was restored.


Another example was the uprising in southern Albania in 1997. Beginning as a revolt against government corruption, the state ceased to operate. Decisions were taken by popular assemblies in the towns. Armed gangs defended the uprising. Eventually the UN stepped in to restore state control. 


One could see the early success of the Spanish anarchist movement in the revolution of 1936 as starting a TAZ. Catalonia, a province of Spain, was taken over by the revolution and decisions made by an anarchist federation of trade unions and by popular assemblies.  


More recently the Zapatistas are an example, taking over in most of the Chiapas province of Mexico in 1994 and running a democratic alternative government. 


A more localized example is the Zone a Defendre (de Notre Dame des Landes) in France. Protestors occupied the area designated for a new airport in 2009 and have been establishing a local economy that avoids the use of money. This is just one of several ZADs set up in France in recent years.


Another essay by Hakim Bey explains a similar concept, ‘immediatism’. The idea of immediatism is that people come together as a voluntary club, engaging in some common project — not mediated by money or by commercial media. This could be something as low key as a sewing bee making patchwork quilts. It is an institution that separates itself from the capitalist marketplace and constitutes an alternative economic form. Organisations such as this are actually a quite common feature of the social life of global society. They are rarely seen as ‘political’ or as prefiguring a completely different social order. 


I think it is fair to use the term ‘temporary autonomous zone’ for both these concepts from Hakim Bey. They are essentially the same, the scale is the only difference. Autonomous zones suggest a whole territory reconfigured while immediatism carves off a bit of social space in the interstices of capitalist society.


Prefiguring initiatives are conceived differently within the two strategies for transition to the gift economy. Within the strategy of revolution, these prefiguring institutions prepare the ground for the revolution. In the strategy of accretion, prefiguring institutions proliferate and link up. Without any decisive revolutionary break, they develop to constitute a post capitalist gift economy.


Transition by revolution


What I define as a transition by revolution does not have to be violent or illegal, though of course it could be both. The main thing is the relatively sudden switch from the market capitalist economy to the gift economy. A revolution could even take place as authorized by an act of parliament. You get majority support for the Greens parties in a variety of representative democracies. They could come to power and finally work out that the market economy is the central problem. They could invite people to take over their workplaces and to begin making compacts with each other to run the economy, leaving money out of the picture. That’s not out of the question. It would still be a revolution in the sense that it would be a dramatic and decisive break. The party in power would be saying to the population. Come on, we are going to make a complete break and money will cease to have any meaning. You might as well put it in your bottom drawer, it means nothing anymore. 


Alternatively, a revolution could take the form which is more familiar. Massive assemblies of people on the streets in every urban centre. They constitute such a huge majority, that it becomes obvious that the status quo cannot continue. The police and the armed forces refuse to follow orders. The powers that be negotiate a surrender. 


If we are talking about a transition to a gift economy the following days might go like this. 


Let us call this day after the success of the revolution, day two. On day two, most employed people should come to work as they usually do, in their usual jobs. When they get to work, they form a committee. A democratic mini assembly of all the people you usually work closely with. Like units of twenty people. If the workplace is a larger concern, you might decide to also have an assembly of the whole building or elect representatives to go to such an assembly. 


At this point these assemblies are faced by a key question. Is what we usually do in our work useful to the community at large? Like growing wheat or repairing a bus? Or at least necessary right now to make sure that immediate needs are met? Like stacking a supermarket shelf? Or is it some task that has no relevance to an economy without money and the market? Like working in a bank or an advertising agency. 


In cases where your team decides their work is not necessary, they might dissolve their firm. The members would look for another kind of position and volunteer their help or go home and look after their garden. Or they might decide to re-use their skills and equipment to do something more useful. The advertising agency might decide to start producing informative videos and work by local artists. The effect of this, taken as a general injunction, would be to supply volunteers for the new projects necessary to retrofit the economy to be sustainable.


The aim of these decisions would be for people to continue the useful parts of their work, at least in the short run. So as not to disrupt things too much. We'll just go ahead as planned. This would apply even in workplaces where the work was contributing to damage but was necessary to maintain services in the short run. For example, if you were working in a garage, fixing petrol cars, you might go on doing that while a more effective sustainable public transport system was being set up. 


A necessary task for these collectives would be to set up arrangements with other collectives to resource supplies and distribute their production. At the present time, firms and the administrators who handle these relationships contract supply and distribution through monetary market arrangements. These monetary contracts would be replaced by negotiated agreements to receive and supply products. The farmer would negotiate with the transport company, the transport company with the packing company, the packing company with the supermarket, the supermarket with the local community. 


Clearly a lot of people who are working now are doing jobs that may be useful, but they are not the jobs they would prefer. To avoid disruption, they could stay in their jobs and train a volunteer as an apprentice, before leaving. As suggested in the chapter on the gift economy, any job that was hated by all and sundry could either be eliminated (for example grinding artificial stone bench tops) or rostered (taking out the rubbish). 


After several months, it would become apparent that a lot of jobs were not actually necessary to service people’s real needs. Also, that a lot of products and technologies were causing environmental or social damage. As whole teams of workers left these industries, they would provide a floating labour force of volunteers to relieve the pressure on those who are now overworked doing useful tasks — for example nurses in hospitals — to take the most obvious case. You might decide that fire proofing bush dwellings is what you would really like to be doing with your life. To make an informed decision about where and how to volunteer, this cohort of ex-workers could be advised by media organisations carrying out investigations in the community to expose gaps. By peak bodies organized around particular institutions, such as hospitals, schools, public transport and so on. 


This is about a first stage of implementing the gift economy. I have been trying to work out how we might do this without causing the kind of disruption that might lead to shortages, queues and worse — where people’s daily needs are concerned. In the longer term, we would see bodies set up to make deeper changes to implement a sustainable economy. For example, my view is that very large urban centres are unsustainable. If you bring foods to the city from long distances, the energy demands for transport become hard to manage with renewables. As well, we are running out of phosphates for agricultural fertilizers, sourced by mining phosphate deposits around the world. It makes more sense to source phosphates from manure. But transporting human manure from urban areas to distant agricultural sites is also energy intensive. Localising agriculture is the likely long-term solution. We could have towns linked by rail, with trains powered by renewables. Each town would be surrounded by a local farming zone, with ox carts bringing produce into the town and with much of the food grown in town gardens. To create a massive reconstruction of urban life on this model is the sort of task that could gradually evolve, with teams of builders offering urbanites the opportunity to demolish their city houses and move to country towns. Other teams would be building new rail lines and electrifying the rail services. And so on. To take another example, we might see urban garbage disposal handled by local neighbourhoods recycling, composting waste, and treating sewage. Again, this is a change that could take place gradually and would require coordination between voluntary groups charged by neighbourhood committees with the responsibility for implementing a neighbourhood plan. 


Against a staged transition


The change from the current monetary economy to a gift economy is very drastic. Faced by this enormity the tempting option is to take this transition in stages. The revolution gains political power and uses money to implement the changes to a sustainable future. For example, paying for a renewable transport service. Paying social welfare to those who are out of a job because the old economy has been abolished. Making sure that people can buy food to put on their table. Paying the armed forces to consolidate the revolution against opposition. 


My view is that going for a staged transition is a mistake. In the end, it allows the leaders of the revolution to occupy the position of the state and to pay people to implement their will, to plan the economy from the top. 


In Spain the revolution of 1936 followed the election of a leftist government. Occupations and other local actions challenged the power of the capitalist class. In response, Franco organized an army coup against the democratic (Republican) government. While the Fascists took over some parts of Spain, the democratic government held out in other areas. Seizing their opportunity, the anarchist organisations and the local people occupied industries and took over farming land in much of Spain, expropriating capitalist landlords and business owners. The whole province of Catalonia fell to this anarchist push. In the first days of this insurrection, local committees distributed essential supplies free of charge. In the longer term a patchwork of different arrangements organized economic life.


In some rural areas of Spain, collectives ran farms and operated a local gift economy. They allocated food to their communities according to need. Surplus agricultural production was sold by the elected committee and the money used to supply goods that were not locally produced. Also distributed without charge according to need. In other areas, a local money was devised. 


In the urban areas, workers occupied government services and took over many private firms. These co-operatives paid wages, either by charging for their services and production, or though government provision. For example, before the uprising there were 1,100 hairdressing salons in Barcelona. The hairdressing assistants were paid very low wages and the shops were not well maintained. The revolution intended a 40-hour week and a 15% pay rise. Many shops would not be able to make ends meet given these changes. So, all shops joined the union. The workers cut the number of shops to 235 and re-vamped them. All were paid the same, even previous owners. Wages were increased by 40%. A kind of collectivisation via the umbrella anarchist union.[1]


In Murray Bookchin’s review of these occupations, he argues that the leadership of the anarchist federation/trade union (CNT/FAI) started to dominate the urban collectives. 


Initially, nearly the entire economy in CNT/FAI areas had been taken over by committees elected from among the workers and were loosely coordinated by higher union committees. As time went on, this system was increasingly tightened. The higher committee began to pre-empt the initiative of the lower, although their decisions still had to be ratified by the workers of the facilities involved. The effect of this process was to centralize the economy of CNT/FAI areas in the hands of the union.[2]

After the participation of anarchist leaders in the Catalonia and Madrid governments, larger firms in Catalonia were ‘socialized’. An elected committee appointed a manager, who was in turn supervised by a government controller. Real decision-making power gradually fell to the government. Factory councils had an ever-diminishing influence. The ‘Collectivisation Decree’ of October 1936 established a ‘General Council for Industry’ with wide powers to determine the action of collectivised factories. 

Formulating a general program of work for the industry, orientating the Council of Enterprises in its tasks … the regulation of total output in the industry, and of internal and foreign markets; to propose changes in methods of production; to negotiate banking and credit facilities.[3]

Tendencies in the Spanish anarchist movement had prefigured these developments before the 1936 revolution. Santillan argued the necessity for a central planning authority to coordinate production.[4] He promoted a federated economic council making final decisions, with input from the anarchist trade unions. 


As indicated, the anarchist leadership entered a coalition government with the Soviet backed socialists and the liberals. In the ‘May Days’ of 1937, this Republican national government fought the anarchists in Catalonia, taking over the industries that had been occupied by workers. A government dominated by Soviet backed communists deprived the urban and rural collectives of funds and resources — with military occupations when necessary. The central Madrid government controlled the gold reserves of the country. Given the hostility to the revolution in other capitalist countries, exchange of gold for industrial goods was the only way to supply Spanish factories with essential goods from abroad. The now ‘nationalized’ industries were forced to accept government control to get access to these supplies. 


The anarchist armed wing was drafted into a Republican army. As Vernon Richards points out, the Republican government organized their army in typical military fashion, with soldiers organized into a chain of command. They were defeated by the Fascist army. 


Clearly this was a complex situation. What it shows is at least this. The nationalisation of collectives, with government funding and supervision, enables governments to control production. Workers’ councils end up in an advisory role at best. The enthusiasm of the original moment of occupation withers. Likewise, the collectivisation of private firms as cooperatives inevitably places them in market competition, a variant of the capitalist economy rather than a challenge to it.


The Russian revolution commenced in February of 2017. Initially the Mensheviks were in government. From this early date, workers’ committees were formed in industrial urban workplaces and peasants began taking over large estates and big commercial farms. The factory committees sometimes came to agreements with the owners and exercized a supervisory role. In other cases, the owners were expropriated or abandoned their firms, and the workers’ committees took complete managerial control. Another common outcome was a lockout in which the owners closed down their factories to avoid control by a workers’ committee. In October of 2017 a second revolutionary surge saw the Bolshevik party (the Communist party) take control of government. Initially the Bolsheviks supported the factory committees as a form of expropriation of the capitalist class. Even in nationalized industries such as transport, they recognized them as legitimate bodies of oversight. In this early period, congresses of the workers’ committees were set up to coordinate their actions nationally. 


As the factory committees gained more and more purchase in the economy, the Bolshevik leadership worried that these organs were taking over and preventing management by the state, the proper organ of workers’ power. The Bolshevik party gained support in the Trade Unions — organisations that had pre-dated the revolution. Through a set of party resolutions and government decrees, they established the unions as the legitimate organizers of ‘workers’ control’. In the trade union congresses, representatives of the workers’ committees were a minority and Bolshevik loyalists were the majority.  Gradually, the Bolshevik leadership in government moved to subordinate the trade unions to ‘Vesenka’, the government department organizing the economy. Where the membership had voted in someone who supported workers’ power in management, the party replaced these elected representatives with party loyalists. 


Committees to run industry were composed of a minority of worker representatives (mainly from the trade unions) with government members and technical experts in the majority. During the emergency of the civil war, the party nationalized most industrial enterprises, meaning that the plan of industrial production was to come from above. In industrial enterprises the party implemented a policy of ‘one man management’ leaving the workers’ committees and the trade unions the task of enforcing discipline and encouraging commitment to the common cause. These developments were contested from within the party by a faction known as the ‘Workers’ Opposition’ or ‘Left Opposition’. In party congresses, the leaders of the party (especially Lenin and Trotsky) negotiated deals that would give some tokens of acknowledgement to this faction — while maintaining their own favoured policies. Later the party expelled this left faction and closed down their newspapers. 


In all of this, it is easy to see how the government’s control of the money supply gave it the means to replace the workers’ committees with state managers. Initially, those industrial workplaces that were owned privately sold produce on the market. It was possible for the workers to take over and run the plant as a cooperative, selling goods to pay wages. However, this was quite difficult in the circumstances. The disruptions of the revolution, war with Germany and later the civil war meant that firms were often shut down. The effect was to prevent the operation of factories depending on supplies from those firms. Later a blockade by the capitalist powers prevented Russian industry from getting necessary supplies from overseas. Resisting attempts by the Bolsheviks to collectivize agriculture, the middle peasants who had gained land during the revolution were reluctant to sell their crops. They were not interested in the low prices being offered by the government and sold a small surplus on the black market. There was nothing to buy from a damaged industrial sector. They hoarded grain or sowed less acreage than usual. It was hard to run a factory if the workers were struggling to feed themselves. Often workers would abandon their work and return to the countryside where they had more chance of getting a meal. Eventually the Bolshevik government resorted to various kinds of forced extraction of grain supplies from the countryside. 


Putting all this together it meant that the urban working class running commercial factories were in fact depending on food supplied by the government. There was a system of food ration cards. Workers who were leading the opposition from the workers’ committees were deprived of their ration cards. Later, when the government nationalized most industry, the government supply of money and goods in kind made it impossible to organize workers’ management in opposition to government decrees. Wage incentives operated through piece work payment and bonuses allocated by management. The government managers running factories would pay more to those who produced more. Exclusion from trade union membership was also used to bring oppositional elements under control. 


Ultimately, the government command of the economy was backed by armed force. The Bolsheviks were supplying the armed forces with food requisitioned from the peasants. It was armed bands licenced by the party who extracted grain from the peasants. It was the army under Trotsky that crushed the democratic rebellion in Petrograd. An army of peasants, paid by the state. These paid armed forces were the ultimate basis of the power of the state.


From the perspective of the gift economy, what was absent was any plan by the workers’ committees to run the economy without money, making deals between industrial units and peasant farmers to exchange products through compacts. Instead, the theory of workers’ management promoted by the anarcho-syndicalist minority at the time, and implicit in the workers’ committees was as follows. Workers would occupy and take over both nationalized firms and private enterprises. These would be run as cooperatives selling goods on the market. Coordination of the whole economy would be achieved by federating these autonomous committees and making resolutions on prices, wages, production and the like. A democratic process in which delegates to this federal body were elected and could be recalled by their local committees. The analysis of Maurice Brinton, writing in 1970 for the Solidarity group in the UK, typifies this approach. In that analysis, the progression towards this solution was stymied by the Bolshevik party with their centralizing statist offensive. My comment is just that this offensive was enabled by the control of money, inevitably in the hands of the state — controlled by the Bolshevik party. 


E.H. Carr, a British historian writing in 1950 gives an account much more sympathetic to the Bolshevik party. He endorses the objections to the workers’ committees that were coming from the Bolshevik leadership at the time – also reported by Brinton. The problem was that the workers’ committees were taking over factories as though they were the new owners in possession, running them as collective fiefdoms. But this possession could never be an expression of the class power of the proletariat taken as a whole. As well, the necessity in this period of disruption of industry and agriculture was a strong central plan that would organize each work site – whether the workers there liked it or not. Brinton of course denies this. The committees were starting to federate and collectively organize the economy when the party took over. My own take on this is slightly different from both these viewpoints. 


Money making cooperatives are inevitably thrown into competition with other similar enterprises. Even if the whole economy is taken over by cooperatives. This is how the market works. Buying cheap and selling dear is the only way for an enterprise to stay in the game. No amount of federation and discussion between different firms can obviate this consequence — so long as you are running a monetary economy. The gift economy starts with a radical commitment to workers’ choices in production and distribution. What voluntary collectives do is decide what to produce as gifts to the community. This is of course in consultation with their suppliers and with the communities who are to be the recipients. But at the end of the day, it is the workers’ choice. This is what an end to alienated labour really means. While various kinds of coordinated plan may be helpful, agreements between producers’ collectives are the basic means of coordinating an economy without any central point of organisation. 


Hannah Arendt is famous as a political theorist. Her book On Revolution is a strange halfway point between liberalism and anarchism. She makes the point that in ‘every genuine revolution’ throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, ‘spontaneous organs of the people’ appeared to enable participatory control of public affairs. These were the sociétiés révolutionnaires of the Paris commune in 1870, the Soviets of the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, the räte of the German uprising of 1918-1919, the councils of the Hungarian rebellion of 1956. These organisations sprang up outside of any revolutionary party and were entirely unexpected by those parties. Her description of the Hungarian case is particularly instructive in terms of what we might hope for:

The most disparate kinds of councils … neighbourhood councils that emerged in all residential districts, so-called revolutionary councils that grew out of fighting together in the streets, councils of writers and artists, born in the coffee houses of Budapest, students’ and youth councils at the universities, workers’ councils in the factories, councils in the army, among civil servants, and so on.[5]

Arendt acknowledges that all these cases included councils established to run workplaces. However, she proclaims, attempts to manage workplaces democratically were always ‘a dismal failure’.[6]  As a liberal, she assumes that the economy is better managed by business owners! As argued in this and previous chapters, my view is firstly that there is no easy separation between ‘public affairs’ and ‘the economy’. A truly participatory and democratic control of public affairs must intervene in the economy. Secondly, the long-term failure of all of these inspiring revolutionary moments is at least partly down to their failure to abolish money. A participatory takeover of the means of production cannot be achieved within the context of a monetary economy. The continuation of the market economy provides an opportunity for the state to re-establish itself. It vitiates any attempt at participatory governance of everyday life.


The gift economy and the state


For the sake of a simple narrative let us assume that in representative democracies parliament is the basic organ of the state, the centre of state power. Parliament makes laws and then the police, and if necessary, the army enforce them. The police and the army must do what parliament tells them to do. Because they're in the police force or the army as a job. If they do not do what parliament says, then they'll lose their job. They'll be sacked. But why do they need a job? The same reason as anyone else. To get money. Why do they need to get money? To get access to the goods and services they need to run their lives. 


After the gift economy revolution. There is no money and people are being supplied by gifts. You do not need a ‘job’ in the old sense — because you do not need to get money to live your life. The goods and services you need are being supplied to you as gifts. The workers in the various collectives are deciding where to distribute their gifts. 


So, there is no body of people, needing a job and keen to sign up as a police force or army. Ready to take orders and do what they are told — regardless of whether they agree with those orders or not. Consequently, parliament can no longer operate as a state. It cannot maintain a monopoly of armed force, instructing it’s executive armed wing to carry out its orders.


The existence of the state depends on a generalized condition of alienated labour. People do not have ownership of the means of production and must obey orders in their working lives — to get access to goods and services. The army and the police are just examples of the condition of every member of the subordinated classes in a class society. If you get rid of alienated labour, you get rid of the state. A body that can centrally control the use of force and rule a whole society.


This is the basic argument to show why a ‘state’, as it is commonly understood, could never exist in a gift economy. This argument has implications for parliament, and implications for the use of armed force. 


So, let’s look at it first in relation to parliament as a ‘state’. Let us look at two alternatives. 


The state vanishes


The first alternative is that the whole operation of government could vanish and be replaced by networked decision making. There's no need for the political process. There's just networked agreements and compacts. Normally these agreements are worked out between the producer collectives involved. However, if something affects lots of different communities, they might arrange a joint meeting of delegates from the communities in question. A temporary talking shop. These could even be international if the issue warranted that. 


Parliament but not as we know it


Another alternative could be that parliament and some sort of representative democracy still happens. So, there is a consensus that there will be voluntary clubs charged by the community with organising elections. The members of these clubs are supplied with their daily needs by gifts, just like everybody else. They organize voting, count votes, and send elected representatives to parliament. Likewise supplied by gifts, just like everyone else. Most people vote because it is considered a civic duty. 


So, how do the votes of parliament translate at the level of communities and economic collectives? Ultimately, what parliament decides is just advice. There's no coercive power in it. It represents what it is — the viewpoint of a majority of representatives who were elected by the members of the community, just that. Economic units may take that advice on board, or they might decide not to. In the end, they are in charge of their own affairs and negotiate agreements with other collectives and with local communities.  


So, a voluntary network, an NGO, replaces the state. It’s not appropriate to continue calling it ‘a state’ because it doesn't have a monopoly of coercive power. It cannot enforce top-down executive decision making, through a paid police force or army. Nevertheless, it is an important advisory body. I think a lot of people get really worried by the idea that a gift economy could not have a state. That everything would be out of control. For people with those concerns, this ‘talking shop parliament’ proposal may seem attractive. In a later chapter I will consider the approach taken by the Zapatistas in Mexico. Their governing apparatus has some similarities to what I have proposed here. 


The use of armed force


Now let’s look at the use of armed force by society to enforce the social rules that are worked out within a gift economy. As explained above, these bodies cannot be paid enforcers, working under orders to uphold the law — as laid down by a democratic state apparatus. 


As I have explained in the chapter on the gift economy, it is unlikely that armed force completely vanishes, at least as a last resort. Rather than a police force carrying out the orders of the state, the organs of armed force would be voluntary clubs. They would be like any other producer organisation of the gift economy. The community would provide for the members of these clubs, through gifts, exactly as for other citizens. Their role would be to assist local community organisations to deal with any real problems of violence. As members of their local communities, they would know that their continued good standing — and the support they were receiving for their work — would depend on them taking notice of the community and backing up the structures of the gift economy. Alternatively, communities might decide to roster this function, by lot, with rotations of training followed by working in the community. We could think of these bodies as not that different to a martial arts club, with community oversight. I am assuming that during the revolution, the vast majority of the police and the armed forces join the revolution and initiate the process of implementing a system of voluntary clubs to handle violence — when necessary. Handing over their weapons to local community bodies. Again, it makes sense to examine the practice of the Zapatistas where these issues are concerned. I will save this to a later chapter.


Transition by accretion


The idea of a transition by accretion is that the move to a gift economy does not happen through a relatively sudden revolution but through small gains within the context of the capitalist market economy. These small gains link up and eventually what we end up with can no longer be described as ‘capitalism’.  As I said earlier on, I'm not totally convinced that this can work, but it's important to talk about it. 


In this scenario, we have a pre-revolutionary situation where more and more economic units in society become ‘hybrids of the gift economy and capitalism’. More thorough attempts to end the capitalist economy are the temporary autonomous zones which grow to take over more and more of the social space.


So, the theory of transition by accretion is that this huge variety of hybrid economic units and autonomous zones acts to undermine the hegemony and the coercive power of the market economy. For example, if you're in a cooperative that is distributing products according to need, rather than ability to pay top dollar, you are undermining the logic of money. The discourse of buying cheap and selling dear. If this kind of behaviour becomes widespread, then money ceases to have much meaning. The strategy of transition through accretion is that this happens more and more. To the point where money becomes largely symbolic. It's handed over as a sign of the end of the deal. But the real deal is going on in the negotiating rooms, working out the compact to supply and receive a product. The ownership of money becomes less and less useful in offering you control over the labour output of others. So, the African village has only got $800. But they can readily access $2,000 worth of steel. Owning money become less and less useful in giving you predictable control over the things that other people are producing. Along with that, enforcement by the state becomes increasingly difficult. The state pays the police force and pays the army to implement their decisions. But now, with an avalanche of hybrids, these people are also receiving gifts and negotiating deals with other organizations. These other community groups are supplying them with a large part of their income in kind — as goods and services, rather than as money.


The idea of the strategy of accretion is that there's a tipping point then to system change. These accretions add up. There's a cultural shift. Even being a capitalist, who's just exploiting their money for the sake of making the most profit, becomes stigmatizing. Trendy capitalists start to talk a different logic. A drift that we can start to see with the royal family in Britain and with the defection of Trump’s niece, Mary Trump. 


There might be a combination of these measures. Capitalists who are taking their ownership of the means of production too literally suddenly find that their property is no longer worth any money, no one will do business with them. Or perhaps their buildings get taken over by squatters and no one intervenes to protect their ownership. There could be a symbolic continuity. Where capitalists still appear to own their property, but the community and workers make all actual decisions. The ‘owner’ is a figurehead only. Like the continuity at the end of the feudal period in Britain, with a king who gradually becomes a head of state in name only. Like the chiefs in horticultural societies, who seem to have all the power, but in fact their role is to facilitate a solution that everybody thinks can work. The same thing could happen with parliament. It could become a talking shop. It could not actually enforce anything, because economic decisions would be made elsewhere. 


My discussion of the strategy of transition by accretion is a little bit of a thought experiment. I am taking off here from the theory that is very popular on the left in sociology and human geography. That of Erik Olin Wright (sociology) and the similar ideas of Julie Katherine Gibson-Graham (human geography — in fact two authors). Wright talks about what I have called ‘hybrids’ as ‘real utopias’. Like me, he sets up several criteria to explain how these real utopias differ from standard capitalist firms. In a similar vein, Gibson-Graham talks about ‘the community economy’ in terms of a variety of non-capitalist social organisations. They are not capitalist in this sense. They are not run by owners who are exploiting the work of their employees and selling their production on the market. As well, ‘community economy’ organisations are those non capitalist organisations that work ethically to care for people and the planet. Both authors envisage a continuation of the market economy and a continuation of the (democratic) state as aspects of a final post-capitalist economy. 


As you will be aware, I have made several critiques of these approaches. One is that any firm that operates against the logic of the market is likely to lose out in market competition and vanish without a trace. The other is that if firms do manage to behave in these non-market ways, they will undermine the power of money and the market. In this discussion of the strategy of accretion I am bringing these strands of critique together. The aim of hybrids is to care for people and the planet. And where necessary and possible, to sidestep the market to enable this practice. To the extent that hybrids become widespread and link up, the effect is to undermine the market and the power of the state. The same with autonomous zones where the departure from the market is even more extreme. An avalanche of hybrids and autonomous zones would destroy the market and the state with that. Wright and Gibson-Graham are just wrong where all that is concerned. But I am open to the possibility that all of this takes place within an apparent symbolic continuity. These institutions and organisations of capitalism appear to survive but in fact they become something completely different.


If pushed to the wall, my favoured analysis is as follows. Hybrids and autonomous zones are an excellent strategy for action now, to undermine the hegemony of the market and to point a way forward. However, the most likely strategy to get rid of capitalism in the end is a revolution. 


Preconditions for the transition


Are there any preconditions for a transition to the gift economy to take place? 


I am sure that a period of development of civil society is required to spread the practices that will organize a non-monetary gift economy. Hybrids of the gift economy and capitalism, as well as the increasing appearance of autonomous zones, large and small. These will be discussed in more detail in following chapters. To give just one example. The Bolivian uprising of 2003 depended on organisations of popular power founded in rural cities prior to the revolution. 


El Alto, that city of uprooted migrants, was astonishingly well organized in those days: closures of streets and highways, neighborhood councils on every block, volunteer vigils on every corner summoned by megaphones, barricades piled with stones, wire, and tires, independent radio stations broadcasting day and night, people’s guards to prevent looting of stores, and assemblies held in the streets, trade-union offices, and parish churches.[7]


Obviously, the global conditions for a turn away from capitalism and class society lie in the failure of the promises that have held capitalism together in previous decades. The promise of development for the global south. The promise of increasing affluence and more leisure for the global north. The promise of a peaceful life. Instead, neo-liberalism and its parent globalisation have led to wage stagnation, increasing inequality and economic insecurity in the global north. The environmental crisis is increasingly understood as intrinsic to the market economy. The threat of disasters to come undermines the legitimacy of the current order for the global north. The real impact of the environmental crisis now undermines the promise of development in the global south. In every part of the globe the local hegemonic elite threatens war. To secure limited supplies of dwindling fossil fuels. To supply what is needed for a transition to renewables — when there really is just not enough to go around. To divert people’s attention from more pressing problems. None of this is the least bit reassuring if you take it seriously.  


These conditions could be considered ripe for some kind of revolutionary transition out of capitalism. But we must admit that it is quite likely that the far right will be able to make use of this discontent and disillusion to take over. As I have suggested in other chapters, the most probable effect of such a development would be a corporate crony version of capitalism. More akin to the mercantilist or feudal society of the past than to the capitalisms with which we are familiar. To defeat these options, the left needs to strongly promote a feasible and attractive alternative. My view is that the gift economy makes sense. Proponents of democratic socialism and the steady state economy are certainly a part of the left resistance to capitalism at the present. They must be counted as allies in any leftist initiative. At the same time, I have showed why I think these perspectives are not gaining traction in the community. Their failure is contributing to the ‘There is No Alternative’ malaise that the far right can readily exploit. What I look forward to is a breakthrough in which the gift economy suddenly starts to gain huge support from outside the social networks that currently constitute the left. 


It should be noted that revolutions often happen that are completely unexpected and have not been prepared by a long-term mobilisation and ideological consciousness raising. The gift economy could readily come about through an event in which disillusion boils over and the end of money and the market are a consequence. These institutional forms, supported by a mass of detailed daily decisions and minute enforcements, vanish as the conditions of an uprising eliminate their everyday foundations. Looting, occupations, rent strikes, illegal distributions, citizen assemblies, workplace meetings. This activism is so widespread as to confound the far right — and also any attempt to re-constitute the state and money as eco-socialism or the steady state economy. Instead, this activism becomes organized as a non-monetary economy, with distributions arranged and promised, with production organized by the producers, with communities running their own affairs, with meetings to iron out conflicts and achieve resolutions.


Perhaps more of a worry is that a transition to an egalitarian polity will fade away after initial successes. In retrospect, it would be obvious that the psychological and material preconditions for class society had not been eliminated. Class society would have re-constituted itself, using the technologies of agricultural surplus to fund a ruling class and their army. The fall of the Roman Empire is an example to think about. The invading tribes that destroyed the western empire were egalitarian bands led by chiefs — with councils of warriors advising them. The empire they defeated was a class society divided into functional segments of a class machine —slaves/citizens/army/aristocracy/bureaucracy/emperor. But within 400 years, a new form of class society had re-established itself in Europe with peasants, knights, lords, clergy, and kings. A patchwork of small states and semi-independent lordships. How depressing. 


As I have already argued, the best chance of avoiding this fate is a strong feminist movement that is augmented through the revolutionary transition. It is this foundation that is necessary to eliminate two key psychological prerequisites for class society. 


·      The hierarchy of the family, fathers as a ruling gender class in each household. The taken for granted experience of hierarchy for children growing up in patriarchal households. 


·      The socialisation of boys through the absence of adult men in the care of infants and young children. Bringing about the competitive and misogynistic personality type that makes men the ideal agents for class society. The failure of empathy that is central to the chains of command and exclusion that constitute class. 


To avoid all this, we need to re-constitute family life and socialisation in line with a feminist agenda. The precondition we need is one we already have – a strong feminist movement. To maintain a gift economy after the revolution we need that movement to succeed in abolishing patriarchy, a work in progress at present.


The next set of chapters will consider the different kinds of prefiguring institution that I have outlined in this chapter. Hybrids of the gift economy and capitalism. Temporary autonomous zones, especially the Zapatista intervention in Mexico.




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[1] Souchy, Augustin 1974, ‘Collectivisations in Catalonia’ in Dolgoff, Sam (ed), The Anarchist Collectives: Workers’ Self-Management in the Spanish Revolution, New York: Free Life Editions, p. 94.
[2] Bookchin, Murray 1974, ‘Introductory Essay’ in Dolgoff, Sam (ed), The Anarchist Collectives: Workers’ Self-Management in the Spanish Revolution, New York: Free Life Editions, p. xxxii.
[3] Richards, Vernon 1972, Lessons of the Spanish Revolution – 1946-1939, London: Freedom Press, p. 108-109.
[4] Guérin, Daniel 1970, Anarchism: From Theory to Practice, London: Monthly Review Press, p. 124.
[5] Hannah Arendt 1960, On Revolution, p. 270
[6] Ibid. p. 278
[7] Gilly, Adolfo 2022. Paths of Revolution London: Verso, pp.138-139.