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The Knowledge of a Better World

Michael A. Lebowitz is professor emeritus of economics at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada and is the author of Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), winner of the 2004 Deutscher Memorial Prize.

This essay was originally presented as a talk on December 3, 2004, at the World Encounter of Intellectuals and Artists in Defense of Humanity, in Caracas, Venezuela.


There is an old saying that if you don’t know where you want to go, then any road will take you there. I think that recent years, years of neoliberalism, imperialist outrages, and the virtual destruction of almost every effort to create an alternative, have disproved this saying. Our experience tells us that if you don’t know where you want to go, then no road will take you there.

Our greatest failing is that we have lost sight of an alternative. And, because we have no grand conception of an alternative (indeed, we are told that we should have no grand conceptions), then the response to the neoliberal mantra of TINA, that there is no alternative, has been: let’s preserve health care, let’s not attack education, and let’s try for a little more equality and a little more preservation of the environment. Because of our failure to envision an alternative as a whole, we have many small pieces, many small noes; indeed, the only feasible alternative to barbarism proposed has been barbarism with a human face.

Let us think about a real alternative to barbarism, a grand conception but yet a very simple one. I have in mind a simple idea expressed by Karl Marx in 1844 (but which runs throughout his work)—the unity of human beings based upon recognition of their differences. That is a conception which begins from the recognition that people are different—that they have differing needs and differing capabilities—and that they are interdependent.

Whether we act upon the basis of this understanding of our interdependence or not, we cannot deny that we produce for each other, that as beings within society, there is a chain of human activity that links us. We produce inputs for each other, and the ultimate result of our activity is the reproduction of human beings within society. We can think of this as the activity of a collective worker, as that of the human family, or as that of the family of workers; but, this chain of human activity exists whether we consciously produce on this basis or not—whether we understand our unity or not.

In fact, as we know only too well, outside of little oases (some societies, some families), in this society we do not consciously produce for the needs of others, and we do not understand our productive activity as our contribution to this chain of human activity. Instead of valuing our relationship as human beings, we produce commodities, we value commodities; instead of understanding this chain of human activity as our bond and our power, we understand only that we need these commodities, that we are dominated by them.

The Knowledge of Commodities

This, as is well-known, is what Marx called the “fetishism of commodities” in the first chapter of Capital. It is a powerful concept. In my view, no one has ever communicated this idea better than an artist—Wallace Shawn, an actor and playwright from the United States. In his play The Fever (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1991), Shawn’s protagonist at one point finds a copy of Capital and begins to read it at night. He thinks about the anger in this book, and then he goes back to the beginning, which he had initially found to be impenetrable. Here I’ll quote a long passage from Wallace Shawn:

I came to a phrase that I’d heard before, a strange, upsetting, sort of ugly phrase: this was the section on “commodity fetishism,” “the fetishism of commodities.” I wanted to understand that weird-sounding phrase, but I could tell that, to understand it, your whole life would probably have to change.

His explanation was very elusive. He used the example that people say, “Twenty yards of linen are worth two pounds.” People say that about every thing that it has a certain value. This is worth that. This coat, this sweater, this cup of coffee: each thing worth some quantity of money, or some number of other things—one coat, worth three sweaters, or so much money—as if that coat, suddenly appearing on the earth, contained somewhere inside itself an amount of value, like an inner soul, as if the coat were a fetish, a physical object that contains a living spirit. But what really determines the value of a coat? The coat’s price comes from its history, the history of all the people involved in making it and selling it and all the particular relationships they had. And if we buy the coat, we, too, form relationships with all those people, and yet we hide those relationships from our own awareness by pretending we live in a world where coats have no history but just fall down from heaven with prices marked inside. “I like this coat,” we say, “It’s not expensive,” as if that were a fact about the coat and not the end of a story about all the people who made it and sold it. “I like the pictures in this magazine.”

A naked woman leans over a fence. A man buys a magazine and stares at her picture. The destinies of these two are linked. The man has paid the woman to take off her clothes, to lean over the fence. The photograph contains its history—the moment the woman unbuttoned her shirt, how she felt, what the photographer said. The price of the magazine is a code that describes the relationships between all these people—the woman, the man, the publisher, the photographer—who commanded, who obeyed. The cup of coffee contains the history of the peasants who picked the beans, how some of them fainted in the heat of the sun, some were beaten, some were kicked.

For two days I could see the fetishism of commodities everywhere around me. It was a strange feeling. Then on the third day I lost it, it was gone, I couldn’t see it anymore.

In this quotation from Wallace Shawn a certain type of knowledge is described—price. Price is the form in which that chain of human activity and human relationships appears to us. This knowledge comes in monetary units. We know the prices of the things we need. We know the price we have ourselves received. And, now we must take that knowledge and make individual rational decisions…as consumers, as capitalists—we’re all the same, maximizers on the basis of the knowledge we have, maximizers on the basis of money.

Think about the knowledge we do not have in this world where money is the medium of knowledge. We know about nothing that does not come to us with a price—the natural environment around us, our own needs for the development of our potential; we know nothing about the lives of all those people who have produced the things we purchase, all those people with whom we have entered into a relationship by buying the results of their activity. Our situation is one of social ignorance, and that very ignorance is what permits us to be divided, turned against each other, and exploited by the owners of commodities, the owners of the chain of human activity.

When our knowledge is the price of things, how can we avoid being divided? When we don’t recognize our unity, how can we avoid competing against each other to the benefit of the owners of knowledge?

Another Kind of Knowledge

Think about another kind of knowledge—a knowledge based upon recognition of our unity, knowledge based upon a concept of solidarity. It is a different knowledge when we are aware of who produces for us and how, when we understand the conditions of life of others and the needs they have for what we can contribute. Knowledge of this type immediately places us as beings within society, provides an understanding of the basis of all our lives. It is immediately direct social knowledge because it cannot be communicated through the indirect medium of money.

Knowledge of our needs and capacities is radical because it goes to the root, to human beings. And, when it is obtained because we recognize our unity, it is knowledge which differs qualitatively and quantitatively from the knowledge we have under the dominant social relations. It is quantitatively different because existing relations no longer make its monopolization and restriction a source of private gain. It is inherent in knowledge that it is a public good. Knowledge can be reproduced at almost no cost, and unlike scarce commodities, I do not have less knowledge if I give you some of mine. In a rational society, knowledge should be shared without any restriction.

The existence of institutions which make knowledge property and a source of private gain, then, are contrary to the concept and ethos of knowledge and demonstrate the social irrationality of those institutions. Take the grading mechanism in many universities, for example. It is a common practice for professors in North America to grade according to a normal statistical curve—so many As, Bs, Cs, Ds, and Fs—regardless of overall student performance. What kind of behavior does this make rational for those who function within such a structure? Clearly, it is to keep knowledge to themselves (or to a small subset of friends). The more other students know, the lower are one’s own chances for a good grade. (In fact, it makes rational giving other students false information.) The structure in this case puts students in competition—a situation that Robert Wyatt, the British singer, once sang about with the line, “How can I rise, if you don’t fall?” This artificially created structure produces a zero-sum game in the case of knowledge which, by its very nature, is not zero-sum. Thus, whereas ideally a university might be viewed as an environment dedicated to the fullest possible development and dissemination of knowledge—something which a collective learning process would encourage—we can see that the creation of an environment which rewards private ownership of knowledge is contrary to the idealized concept of the university.

In many respects, this can be seen as a parable of intellectual property rights. What intellectual property rights do is to attempt to create an artificial scarcity that will compel people to pay more for knowledge than its actual cost of reproduction. Their purpose is to make what Marx called the products of the social brain a source of private enrichment. In a society, on the other hand, which begins from the recognition of the needs of all its members, the logical and rational impulse is to make knowledge available to all at its true cost of reproduction—zero.

Where our social relations and institutions are not such as to lead us to view our knowledge as property, there is another way by which the knowledge available to all is expanded. Much knowledge—especially about how we work is not codified; it is “tacit knowledge”—knowledge, e.g., of how work could be done better, knowledge of how it could be easier. Within antagonistic productive relations, the situation especially of the wage-laborer, this is knowledge to be kept to oneself—in order to ensure that it is not used against you. In a rational society, though, it is knowledge we would share. “Gold in the workers’ heads” is what Japanese labor relations experts called it when they introduced mechanisms to induce workers to share ideas about improving products and production processes. This knowledge is wealth which would flow naturally in a society which is based upon the recognition of our interdependence.

Tacit knowledge is an example of a type of knowledge available freely under a different set of social relations. It is not, however, the only difference in the knowledge which would be available. When we begin from the conception of an alternative society, it becomes clear that a certain type of knowledge is hidden from us under our existing relations. The knowledge that is not communicated in a commodity economy is that which has no price in the market. The natural environment in which we live, the air we breathe, the sights we see, the sounds we hear, the water we drink (ah, once the water we drank) has no price and thus does not enter into our monetary calculus. And, without that price, it is invisible when we as atomistic maximizers make our decisions. It means that these decisions, based upon partial knowledge, are inherently biased. If we were able to place an appropriate price upon clean air, our actions as calculating producers and consumers would produce different decisions—ones more likely to ensure the maintenance of clean air. Hypothetically, too, if we were able to place a price upon the full development of human potential or upon the ability to live in a just society, faced with this altered set of prices, our individual decisions would differ (as would the decisions of those who currently purchase our abilities without the need to consider their real price).

But, how, in the absence of commodity exchanges can such information which takes into account what Marx called “the worker’s own need for development” be generated? If we share Marx’s emphasis upon the importance of the rich human being, “the totally developed individual,” then certainly we must concern ourselves with the mechanisms by which the knowledge of needs and capabilities can be produced.

The Accumulation of Knowledge for Human Development

Those who are here to discuss ways to defend humanity against the barbarism it currently faces begin from certain values. These values are embodied in the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela—in the goal described in Article 299 of “ensuring overall human development,” in the declaration of Article 20 that “everyone has the right to the free development of his or her own personality,” and in the focus of Article 102 upon “developing the creative potential of every human being and the full exercise of his or her personality in a democratic society.”

That Constitution also is quite specific on how this human development occurs—participation. Much like Marx’s stress upon human activity as the way people transform both circumstances and themselves, Article 62 of the Bolivarian Constitution declares in that participation by people is “the necessary way of achieving the involvement to ensure their complete development, both individual and collective.” Human development, in short, does not drop from the sky—it is the result of a process, of many processes, in which people transform themselves. It is the product of a society which is “democratic, participatory and protagonistic” (to quote the Constitution once again).

Through social forms (as set out in Article 70) such as “self-management, co-management, cooperatives in all forms,” through democratic planning and participatory budgeting at all levels of society, people develop their capabilities and capacities. This process of transformative activity, though, is precisely the process of developing the knowledge required for this alternative society. That information cannot come from markets, from surveys nor negotiations at the top—it comes neither from the fetishism of commodities nor the fetishism of the plan. It is through democratic discussions and decisions at every level that we can identify our needs and our capabilities. The creation of democratic institutions is precisely the way in which we expand the quality and quantity of knowledge that can make a society based upon unity and the recognition of difference work. How else can we understand the needs of others except by hearing their voices? How else can we consciously insert ourselves in the chain of human activity? The knowledge needed to build and sustain an alternative society, a society based upon human bonds, is necessarily “democratic, participatory and protagonistic.”

The Battle of Ideas

Knowing where we want to go is a necessity if we want to build an alternative. But, it is not the same as being there. We live in a world dominated by global capital, a world in which capital divides us, setting the people of each country against each other to see who can produce more cheaply by driving wages, working conditions, and environmental standards to the lowest level in order to survive in the war of all against all. We know, too, that any country that would challenge neoliberalism faces the assorted weapons of international capital—foremost among them the IMF, the World Bank, and imperialist power (in various forms including the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy and other forces of subversion).

The most immediate obstacle, though, is the belief in TINA, i.e., that there is no alternative. Without the vision of a better world, every crisis of capitalism (such as the one upon us) can bring in the end only a painful restructuring—with the pain felt by those already exploited and excluded. The concept of an alternative, of a society based upon solidarity, is an essential weapon in defense of humanity. We need to recognize the possibility of a world in which the products of the social brain and the social hand are common property and the basis for our self-development—the possibility in Marx’s words of “a society of free individuality, based on the universal development of individuals and on their subordination of their communal, social productivity as their social wealth” (Grundrisse [Penguin, 1973], 158). For this reason, the battle of ideas is essential.

That battle can be fought in many ways. For one, it points to the importance of the deepening of the real process in societies where the beginnings of an alternative have been made. The glimpses of a better world that they provide—even in the midst of concerted attacks by imperialism—are an inspiration for struggles everywhere around the world, a demonstration that there is an alternative.

But, it is only in those struggles themselves that we spread an understanding of that alternative. These are struggles which start from people’s needs, from their discontent over the gap between what society promises them and what they are able to obtain. The battle of ideas begins here by communicating knowledge of the nature of capitalism—by demonstrating that poverty is not the fault of the poor, that exclusion is not the fault of the excluded, that wealth is the result of the chain of human activity.

These struggles, too, are explicitly about knowledge—the struggles against property rights that deny free access to the intellectual accomplishments of humanity. They are struggles against commodification, against the invasion of money and price into all aspects of life. But, they are also struggles for new democratic forms that are a means of tapping the gold in the heads of all people and of communicating all our needs and capacities. They are struggles, in short, for a democratic, participatory and protagonistic alternative.

In this era of capitalist globalization and neoliberalism, however, it is obvious that more than local democratic institutions are needed. How can we understand the needs and capacities of people who are geographically distant but intimately close as parts of the human chain of activity? How can we see other limbs of the collective worker as human beings with needs rather than as competitors? We develop our understanding of our unity and interdependence with those who capitalist globalization has assembled around the world through solidarity with those people—not only with their specific struggles as workers or citizens but also by linking up with them directly on the basis of community to community.

To build a world based upon solidarity, we must practice solidarity—and in that way transform both circumstances and ourselves. If we know where we want to go and we know what is necessary to get there, we have begun the battle to defend humanity against barbarism.

Finally, to take up a theme introduced last night by President Chávez and Pablo González Casanova about the need to make real changes in the world, let me close by paraphrasing Marx, using the language appropriate to this conference: the idea of human society is sufficient to defeat the idea of barbarism. But, it takes real human action to defeat real barbarism.

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