Andy Blunden December 2000

What is the most important problem of social science?
for the First Electronic Congress on the Updating of Das Kapital.

We have been asked to contribute an answer to the question: “What is the most important problem of social science?”, but the answer can only be that the most important problem facing humanity today is not a question of science at all, but rather a question of ethics, of how we must live, a question which cannot be answered by science.

This is because science deals with the questions of the form of “What is ...?” and “If this ..., then what?”, but cannot tell us what we ought to do or what sort of people we ought to be. Human activity is only an object of science when it is, in the first place, an object, rather than a subject. What we choose to be and what we choose to do is a subjective act.

The current situation which confronts humanity, a situation which both threatens the extinction of life on Earth, and offers the promise of a genuine humanism, is based upon the accumulation of knowledge, which is however, given the mystified social form of capital.

The equation of capital (or value) with knowledge is at first sight perhaps a surprising one. But knowledge is the cumulative capacity to make something happen, the ideal content of human practice. Although knowledge manifests itself to us as an internal state of mind, its meaning is in human practice. It is not the contention that knowledge and value are the same thing, but the tendency of bourgeois society is to bring the two into identity. Thus essentially they are the same thing.

The problem of knowledge is in fact the essential task of the whole bourgeois epoch. The task of the working class is not to solve scientific problems, (the theoretical attitude), but to live humanly, (the practical attitude). Throughout the bourgeois epoch the theory of knowledge and the theory of value and the social forms of value and of knowledge itself, have developed in close connection with each other, reflecting the basis of knowledge in bourgeois society in the objectification of social practice, in political economy.

[I think the task of the feudal epoch was Religion, that is to say, the unification of humanity around a single conception of God. This project was never completed, having been cut short by the rise of bourgeois society, leaving us with a world divided into East and West, religious strife in the Balkans, the Caucasus and so on. But the building of nation states and civil society would have been impossible without the work of the great religions. Likewise, the tasks of the social revolution are posed while the tasks of the bourgeois epoch are still incomplete.]

The theoretical task entailed in living humanly is only the exorcism of ghosts, the demolition of the theoretical chains which bind us to the monetary system, the concepts and social constructs which reflect the fictions of bourgeois society. It is not the erection of new theories, new concepts, but the demystification of old ones.

To explain what I mean by this statement, consider the ‘science’ of political economy. In bourgeois society this science has developed along with the practice itself (commerce and industry). Nowadays, political economy ‘models’ economic agents as little computers sending messages to each other by processing each others’ messages according to algorithms arbitrarily constituting their ‘self-interest’. The result of this inhuman nonsense is a conception of the in-principle unpredictability of economic activity in today’s global economy, and the concept of complexity as the basis for economic crisis. Now what is our role (we who reject this absurdity)? To make a better economic science? To be able to predict crises where the bourgeoisie themselves find their system to be essentially both out of control and unpredictable? Should we seek to promote our concept of value as against theirs? Surely not. For us, the point is not to be an ‘economic agent’ at all, but a human being. That is to say, we have to demolish economics, not improve it. And the same goes for all the ‘sciences’ (plural!!). Science is only the ideal form of a certain system of material practices, practices which we must revolutionise just as surely as we must revolutionise productive labour. Medical concepts, for instance, reflect medical practices. It is not that the medical sciences (anatomy, pharmacology, immunology, etc., etc.) are not valid knowledges, but they are knowledges of certain kinds of practice, and must be exposed as such, through and through. Otherwise, the choice of a different way of keeping well is impossible.

Theory is an abstract generalisation of social practice — both internally in thoughts, and externally in all sort of ideals from words and images to laws, and social institutions, created as part of the regulation of the corresponding practices. This is important. The formation of thought-objects in the mind of any individual is a social conquest and is only made possible through the building of objective, material ideals, which are the things reflected in thought. Our scientific ideas are adequate abstractions from the social practice achieved up to the stage of bourgeois society, and exist in connection with the tools, institutions, machines, materials as well as books, words, images etc., produced in the practice of science. These abstractions are true to bourgeois life, but we must transcend them and destroy their social base if we are to live humanly. Thus, the point is to change practice, to live differently, to be a different kind of people.

The problem of how to live differently is a problem which presents insurmountable spiritual barriers to every person, since all human action is action with others, but others do as they will. This living with others is something we do by means of ideals which are built in the course of working with others, building a common understanding encapsulated in words, rules of conduct, personal acquaintance, shrines, icons and so on.

So this ethical task has a theoretical aspect in this: that people use theories (among other things) in the way they work together; theory is a part of sharing a common view of the world. But people do not live by theories.

Economics manages to overcome the hurdle of making an object of human action only by keeping humanity as an ‘external’, by basing itself on the assumption, more or less valid until now, that human beings are unable to choose the course of their own lives, that their values exist as material objects subject to the ‘law of the market’.

Economics is the theoretical aspect of the practice of keeping human activity independent of subjectivity. In a small community still under the sway of kinship relations, for example, economics makes no sense at all, because people decide what to do, albeit by means of traditional relations that they cannot change. Anthropology, (or theology, for the people themselves) are the sciences which give knowledge of their lives. Likewise, in a state which has fallen under the sway of a personal or bureaucratic dictatorship, where people are constrained in their activity by the subjective actions of the ruler, then economics must be replaced by psychology, the science which addresses itself to the mental activity of the ruler. To the degree that people collectively take control of their lives together, something which presupposes the achievement of a concomitant cultural level, then ‘economics’ becomes utterly meaningless.

It is of course equally true that economics cannot be “wished away” or legislated against. So long as people are exchanging their labour, there will be money, there will be a “law of value”, there will be economics.

Since the socialist objective obliges us to eschew any idea of manipulating others, of achieving our aim by managing to force others to comply with our vision, how do we act with others in a way which invites their collaboration with us.

For example, behaviourism is the psychology which abstracts knowledge of mental phenomena from the practice of striving for compliance. Its methods deny the subjectivity of the objects of study and are concerned only with the objects observable actions. These actions are reduced to the stimulus-response equation. Its technology is the practice of personal control. Modern business methods no longer depend on this crude method of compliance, and the methods of psychological science have developed beyond the banalities of behaviourism. A range of theories of personality-type, role-playing, team-building and so on, render the range of social relations manifested in the contemporary division of labour as aspects of personality and have built a technology of manipulation, widely applied in business and industry, politics and social control.

But all this is secondary. There is one relation, one glue which binds this whole system together and which bars the way to liberation. Money is the demon which must be exorcised and the counter-example to what must be created. I say “demon” because like the gods and demons of earlier epochs, money is essentially a myth, but is however the central organising principle of the modern world.

But money differs from the pre-modern devils and saints in that it is a pure abstraction, something which has reduced human labour to pure quantity (possible only in a society in which labour itself has been reduced to the level of quantity), and has thereby plumbed the utmost depths of human nature, drawing into itself every single aspect or manifestation of human labour. Money is the most concrete, and therefore objective and material of all abstractions produced so far by human history.

Through money we collaborate with others across the world, in voluntary, productive activity. Money is an ideal, a social construct, a fiction in which we have suspended our disbelief so that we can enjoy the game, an object which is absolutely lacking in physical properties.

It is not a figment of the imagination however, it is an ideal, the limitingly pure abstraction from the most thoroughgoing and extensive social division of labour. The activity it reflects is really existing, and the ideal represents, and even participates in that really existing practice; only the natural, necessary existence of the ideal is an illusion. Existing as it does outside the mind, it always takes some material form (a coin, a cheque, a bank balance), but it is the spiritual aspect of the thing which constitutes it as an ideal (its meaning for human society, its place in human relations). The meaning of an ideal is given solely and completely in the range of social practices within which it functions. Money (value, capital, ...) has no meaning outside of human society, no physical properties.

Thus, if people act without regard to money, money does not exist, capital is abolished.

But how is this possible? How could we all suspend our belief in capital? (All producers that is, it is neither here nor there what a non-worker believes, in this context.) Firstly, only social cooperation on a scale equal to or exceeding that achieved by capital has a hope of transcending the power of money. There can be no turning back from the extraordinary complexity of social life today. For communities to recapture control of their lives from global capital, from the dictates of economics, from business interests, from the law of the jungle (all of which amount to the same thing). The community must out-do money, must achieve voluntary association on a scale which transcends and overreaches that achievable by money.

This is by no means ruled out. On the contrary. It is true that money facilitates social complexity on a scale hitherto unimagined, and achieves a stunning simplification of networks of cooperation stretching across the globe, reducing complex modes of cooperation and division of labour to simple acts of valuation. However, money applies to social life one enormous constraint: if you cannot find a buyer for your labour, your labour is valueless and cannot be carried out. It is a fact that increasingly large numbers of people are finding themselves dehumanised as a result of this constraint. Even those who do work, work for a living and produce only obscenities, angry or demoralised at the abuse of being forced to spend their energy in purposeless activity or at the “interference” of money, of economics, of self-interest, into their work.

This is just like the situation in the dying days of feudalism, when the traditional patterns of division of labour increasingly acted as a senseless constraint on cooperation, reducing masses to pauperism. In those days, the power of money was the manifestation of the demand that feudal right had to give way and people had to be allowed to work together in ways that were ruled out by the kinship-based modes of cooperation specified by feudal law.

Now, the removal of the cash nexus proffers the possibility of a qualitative increase in the complexity of social productive activity, achievable if people are able to do as they will to meet social needs independently of the constraint entailed in whether or not the person whose needs they meet can afford to pay. (LETS may be an example of a direct measure to get around this constraint).

The question confronting humanity is reduced to: “How can we live with modern industry without money?”

What does this mean? Firstly, it means creating a new ideal, an ideal which reflects (is abstracted from, is the collective internalisation of) new ways of working together. I say this because it is an invariable rule that cooperation is possible only on the basis of a shared ideal, whether that shared ideal be money, a common language, a shared vision or hatred of a common enemy. The scope and complexity of the social cooperation matches the scope and depth of the corresponding shared ideal.

This process of creating a new ideal has already begun. It is found in the multiplicity of modes of resistance, especially to be seen in the anti-WTO movements, which are actually the negation of acting according to a shared ideal at the same time as acting against the power of money. Such actions are a beginning because collaborative social practice is the sole foundation of a new ideal. Further, the possibility for the manifestation of a new ideal is brought about by the freeing of social collaboration from subordination to any particular ideal. (Likewise, the power of money derives precisely from its independence of the will of any particular person, any particular theory, but its power is always expressed through particular people.)

The problem is that this new political cooperation which has been achieved, has been achieved by means of the denial of ideals, by subordination to the fear of the clash of ideals, the reflex not to talk real politics (i.e not to talk about ideals, visions), to limit exchange to talk about where to assemble, about who is going to paint banners, and so on. Politics does not go any higher than providing information or sharing experiences (deemed to be the legitimate reasons for making a speech).

Alongside this there is a struggle for ideology which functions as a means of recruiting people into the participating organisations, and which is thus a necessary component of the process in itself, but still one which continuously reconstructs the barriers to the achievement of socialism. Barriers, because these organisations lock into place the existing ideals which reflect the relations and problems of bourgeois society, but necessary as well, because mobilisation is only possible be means of the existing ideals, materialised in the various forms of oppositional organisation, whatever their weaknesses. Thus we have a politics of diversity, of coalitions, which can create the raw material of a genuine social movement, but cannot create the basis for a new social ethic.

How to create a new ideal? The ideal which expresses a world without money, without the placing of the human will into an object which moves according to unhuman, natural law, alienated from human consciousness and confronting human beings as an alien, natural force — an ideal of positive solidarity?

Let’s look at this issue of working collaboratively with lots of other people. The fantastic thing about money is that, for good or ill, it makes possible the cooperative labour of millions of people, people who do not know each other, and allows the division of labour among those millions to be regulated according to a ‘law of value’. Having money means being in possession of a definite quantity of the consent of the community to do whatever you want.

How do things fare with labour which is voluntary, that is, labour which is not done for money, to earn a living?

In general, it is possible for a team of ten people to work together voluntarily and cooperatively, sharing decision-making and action, on the basis of un-mediated direct cooperation.

There are countless examples of Local Exchange Trading Systems, in which the mode of cooperative remains exchange of commodities but the universal equivalent used is the product of a positive choice by the participants, rather than being a state-sanctioned currency. It is said that experience shows that the limit for a LETS scheme is about 500 people.

Trade unions and other voluntary bodies achieve cooperative action among quite large numbers of people, many thousands, but invariably, in order to achieve this they become employers, they collect membership dues or donations or whatever, and in one way or another use money as a definite means of organisation. Even in a trade union, the power relations are reliably reflected in the flow of money — from subscription income flowing through branches up to the executive and paid out in wages to organisers and so on.

The challenge is how to live as 6,000 million people voluntarily associating at a level of complexity corresponding to modern industry, without abrogating our will to a token, without money.

Human beings don’t need to be coerced in order to work, but the achievement of an effective division of labour is a work of rationality which definitively exceeds the power of subjective intelligence. This feat has been achieved by the evolution of traditional patterns of cooperation and later by money.

The concept of “planning”, as an alternative to economics, is fine insofar as it encapsulates the idea of people consciously choosing what to do, rather than this being left to chance or chaos. Insofar as “planning” incorporates the idea of regulation, bureaucratic planning, centralisation and so on, it is hopeless. No super-computer in the world can currently even guess what the economy is going to do next, let alone substitute for it, except by means of a massive reduction in complexity, a reduction in complexity which would constitute an even more severe constraint on cooperation than the cash nexus currently imposes.

The problem of living without money is a problem of ethics, not science. The ethics of bourgeois society is called economics, manifesting itself as a branch of science, Utilitarianism of one form or another. The ethics of communist society is the ethic of solidarity.

Let’s look at this question of ethics for a bit. There are two kinds of ethics: the ethics of duty and the ethics of virtue. The ethic we seek is not an ethic duty, of “what must we do”, but an ethic of virtue, of what sort of human beings must we be? The issue before us is not one of formulating a set of rules for conduct, of prescriptions as what one ought and ought not to do (the regime of feudalism, reproduced latterly in the form of bureaucratism in the Stalinist countries) but of the creation of a level of culture where freedom and social harmony are identical.

The conquest of the bourgeois epoch was a regime in which people do whatever they want, the idea of creating a culture where pursuit of private interest is deemed to lead to the social good. However, this social good turned out to be nothing but the accumulation of objective value alongside the atomisation of human subjectivity, and inevitably led to the concentration of value and the pauperisation of the majority. The ever-increasing material power of the productive forces not only leaves whole regions of the world in abject slavery, and a huge under-class even in the wealthiest of industrial powers. Moreover, even among the sections of the population with regular employment and union rights, there is a moral poverty which cannot be overcome by all the wealth in the world.

An ethic of virtue, an ethic of being, answers the question: “What sort of people must we be?” so that the private freedom realised in bourgeois society can find its expression in genuine humanism, a genuine joy in the meeting of the needs of other people, rather than in the inhuman atomisation of “private interest”. While it is obvious that freedom cannot exist unless people are free to do as they will, so long as people desire to do that which is inhuman and counter to the needs of other people, then they will be constantly frustrated and are not genuinely free. Real freedom, a genuinely ethical society, can only be where people will what is socially good.

This ethic of being is not a subject of science. It is not something which can be taught in the Universities, given a value and sold in the shops. It is not something which can be monopolised by the educated classes or commodified and accumulated by big business. It is above all the prerogative of the ‘doing class’, the working class, and in particular the class which has a “practical attitude” (as opposed to the “theoretical attitude” which is fostered in management and the direction of other people, of getting compliance to the demands of the owner, the government, the funding body, the customer, etc., etc., etc.).

This ethical task is the principal task confronting humanity today. Let us look at the situation today, the post-modern condition, as it has been called.

The illusion of post-modern society is that of pluralism, the illusion of a multiplicity of identities and communities all “doing their own thing”, of a myriad of interest groups all pursuing their own ideals, of “mixed economy”, of “regulating capitalism”, of identity politics (blacks, women, workers, national liberation, etc., etc.), of multiple sets of values, of cultures and sub-cultures without a common language, and so on.

An illusion, because in fact this manifestation of subjectivity is only the expression of the objective unification and homogenisation of the world being executed by money.

The apparent fragmentation of post-modern society is, in its Essence, the homogeneity of a single, indivisible, world-economy, a single worldwide labour-cooperative of wage-slaves dominated by seamlessly exchangeable paper currencies and trading relations, the inextricable ties binding the fate of us all. Globalisation and fragmentation, economic rationalism (i.e., neo-liberalism) and tolerance, cosmopolitanism and mutual dependence — are all two sides of the same coin.

Likewise, the non-politics of the anti-WTO movement and the breaking down of sectarian divisions on the Left which runs alongside the actual unravelling of social organisation (volunteering, church attendances, trade union and active membership of political parties, and so on, all declining) — the loss of collective consciousness which is inseparable from the ubiquity of mass media and telecommunications — is the material foundation for the emergent ideal of one world of voluntary associations of producers.

How to give birth to this ideal?

First comes the social practice. People struggling together despite being ignorant of each others’ ideals gives us something to talk about. It is necessary to have conversations, situated at a distance from the fault-lines of political struggle, which go to the clash of ideals and work this through.

The pre-condition for the success of such a project is the abandonment of theory, the mutual willingness to give up one’s own adherence to the old ideals around which one has grown up, learnt politics, accumulated experience and so on, in order to let in the new ideal. A shared ethic is the possibility for a new ideal. The new ideal comes side by side with the elaboration of the new practices with which we will learn to live with modern industry without capital. Each (ideal and practice) has its own course of development; these processes intersect and reflect upon each other, but they nevertheless are independent processes. The confluence of the two — the new ideal and its corresponding social practice- constitutes the Revolution.

We must not rush to put a name on this movement, just as we will be reluctant to give up “what we believe in”, but it is necessary to learn how to work consciously with ideals, understanding their foundation in social cooperation.

That is our task.