Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Conquest of Bread

I finally got around to reading the bread book. It was okay. I prefer Mutual Aid. The basic premise of The Conquest of Bread is to map out necessary conditions for what Kropotkin calls Social Revolution. In such a revolution, the manner in which production is carried out, as well as the ownership structures governing it, must be overhauled. For Kropotkin, revolution is all or nothing. If any vestiges of liberal capitalism remain, the revolution is doomed to failure.

The book is interesting in that Kropotkin, unlike others who attempted to map the course of communist revolution, actually knows quite a bit about the technical aspects of agriculture and industry. With this knowledge, Kropotkin is able to estimate the labor time necessary to maintain a society without a class skimming from the top. Writing in 1906, he assures us that in such a society, people would only need to work five hours a day. As new technologies enter into production on the basis of convenience (rather than on the basis of saving labor costs for the capitalist), society will quickly diminish this necessary labor time.

Kropotkin asserts that such a society can only emerge if some necessary conditions are met. First, the wage system must be abolished in its entirety. He expresses this in his adage "all belongs to all." He tells us that wages are an inherent vestige of a class structure, that wages cannot exist without a class skimming profits from the top. Wages and profits, therefore are mutually dependent social structures, and one cannot be maintained without reestablishing the other in some form.

In order to maintain such a society, Kropotkin tells us that society must be anarchist in addition to communist. This is because centralized decision making creates a bureaucratic class no different from the capitalists who do only intellectual work as others toil for them. Morally, Kropotkin believes that everyone should be given the opportunity to engage in enriching intellectual work as well as invigorating physical labor. Rather than drawing up a plan for how this is to be accomplished, Kropotkin insists that the only way for a bureaucratic class (and hence a profit system) to be avoided is to decentralize production. In so doing, small groups of people can come together to solve the problems only they know best. Whereas bureaucracies can only come up with universalized and ill-fitting solutions for similar, but not at all the same, social problems, decentralized production allows those most intimately familiar and directly affected control over how to solve them.

What Kropotkin ends up with in The Conquest of Bread is a sort of alternative economics that can encompass a post-revolutionary society. Kropotkin achieves this by starting his analysis with how systems satiate consumption rather than how production is organized (in capitalism). With such an outlook, Kropotkin is able to make his labor estimates as well as explore alternative social structures (and the potential for ones that don't yet exist). He builds upon his previous book Mutual Aid, which, among other things, demonstrates that technological progress is hampered by states. Implicitly drawing on his insights in Mutual Aid, he constructs an economics capable of incorporating the anthropological fact that decentralized structures founded on mutual aid are not only capable of meeting human need, but actually do it better because they are oriented in such a direction (rather than to the maintenance of a kingdom or business enterprise).

In all, Kropotkin offers an alternative economics that, while not as generalizable as Neoclassical and Ricardian economics, offers more technical specificity in its methodology. This methodology is to assess human need first and then compute the labor necessary to achieve them with the present technology. This requires a great deal more knowledge of things such as agriculture and industry.

I wonder how much labor time we'd have to expend now in order to maintain the Social Revolution.