Félix Vallotton, ‘Landscape at Sunset’ (1919)
Reclaiming colour, light and life itself
The communist idea would have little chance of succeeding if it was concerned only with needs and reductions. We also need to remember that the goal of politics is to improve life. Certainly, a ‘salary for life’ (1) (offering protection against the uncertainties of life and material distress), the sovereignty of associated producers (abolishing relations of pure subordination) and the right to leisure time (as part of disarming the productivity imperative) are all gains that would make life incomparably better than under capitalism.
But perhaps more should be said to remove the negative associations with which abandoning capitalism, and the word ‘communism’ itself, have been saddled — collective housing, a diet of potatoes and sausages, grey cars, grey coffee grinders, grey clothes, grey walls, grey cities.
In our imaginations, capitalism has a monopoly on colour, light, and even life itself. That must change, as it is destroying absolutely everything: the planet, homes (of all but the rich), physical health (except that of the rich), mental health (that of the rich too, though in a different way). If communism is ever to be viable, conceptually and politically, it must reclaim all this. It even needs to stake a claim to luxury — since lux is light. And that is what it’s all about: light in our lives.
In one of the many grotesque and shameful acts of which advertisers are guilty, after ‘concept’ and ‘creativity’ (to the chagrin of ‘creatives’ everywhere), they have set their sights on ‘the city’, its ‘lights’ and its ‘colours’. The idea that ads make the city more beautiful is the kind of moronic rubbish those bearded ad-folk in flip-flops and thick glasses are happy to peddle. Remove advertising, and you go back to Tirana, or East Berlin before the Wall came down.
The reality is rather different: if we take down the JC Decaux signs and hand our cities back to graphic designers, street artists and indeed everyone else, we’ll see an explosion of shapes, colours, ideas and slogans. we can hold competitions to decorate those gigantic tarpaulins that cover buildings under construction, sure of seeing something other than photos of watches, perfumes or mobile phones blown up to 20x10m. But perhaps we should not blame the advertisers: as zombies themselves, lost in a false world of commercial images, how could they spot the difference between the living and the dead? We know, in any case, that they’d be prevented from causing harm: obviously, advertising would come very high on the list of things to be abolished. Shutting down the advertising industry would set an example of new priorities in the division of labour.
Human beings want to make things
Advertising’s mistakes are a concentrated version of capitalism’s: to have confused a desire for material goods with desire itself, then to have concluded that, without those goods, desire would vanish from the world — and colour and light with it. With a little hindsight, it’s a scam of shocking magnitude. Everything today, especially street photography, contradicts this big lie, and speaks to a surge in our desire to make, paint, design, write, build, create — but this time for real. That is to say, outside the concept of currency values?? and demands of capital. One could even say that the premise of Friot’s well-founded, almost anthropological proposition is exactly that: human beings want to use their abilities. It may sound silly, but it is still true, and profound: human beings want to make things.
Capitalist luxury reserves the most beautiful things for the rich, while communist luxury can emerge from conditions totally other than purchasing power
The configuration of social structures at a given time forces this urge to fit pre-established forms, and humans to use their abilities in a certain way — most often one that corresponds with the aims of those in charge and serves their interests. But release individual abilities from this trap, and they’ll be used more. This is the ultimate justification for Friot’s salary for life: people will make things, and those things will contribute to social life.
Of course, people ‘making things’ in and of itself does not automatically constitute a division of labour that will meet all the needs of collective material life. Some part will still be subject to coercion. But which part? Many employees know how, and like, to make things that fit perfectly into the division of labour, but are forced to make them in conditions that are degraded by capitalism and its demands of competition and shareholders. Yet these degradations are exactly what the system of a salary for life frees workers from, leaving intact a fully functional division of labour and the possibility of making things well.
The beginning of luxury
The desire to make things means a desire to make them well, and even the best we can, because when we are making them for ourselves, we put all of ourselves into them. For certain things, to make them well is ipso facto to make them beautiful. This is the beginning of luxury.
We may already see a little more clearly what ‘luxury’ will be about, and especially what it will not be about: certainly not the solid gold bidets of those who have got rich on neoliberalism or the accumulation of stuff: as well as exploiting human beings, the logic of quantity — that of capitalist value — is wrecking the planet. It is strange — in fact, absurd — that the word ‘communism’ is embedded in Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism, a sort of technologist prophecy based on 3D printers, ubiquitous photovoltaic cells and the conquest of space, promising solutions to the climate and energy crises and ‘abundance’ for all. That is more or less the prospectus of a barely reconstructed capitalist vision.
Well, no; the numbers of objects that surround us and their rate of renewal will fall — they must. The idea of luxurious communism, then, must mean rejecting the idea that this reduction would mean a loss of beauty in our material life — because we will still have one. And, to be more precise, the aim will be to maximise the beauty of the minimal number of objects that we will keep.
The beauty of objects, beyond quantity and hype, is the first difference between communist and capitalist luxury. The second is the way they are accessed. Capitalist luxury reserves the most beautiful things for the rich, while communist luxury can emerge from conditions totally other than purchasing power: the freedom of producers to make things according to their desires, which will most often be to make them well and beautifully. In other words, freedom from all the constraints of capitalist production, which cause producers to make things badly.
These constraints express an overarching logic: capital always tries to remunerate work as little as possible, thereby creating demand among those with little money, who need goods at a low enough price; that means they will be made under conditions that doom them to be badly made by mistreated and poorly paid employees, so completing the cycle. Only the richest of the rich escape this junk loop. The few who hold most of the wealth then find a supply that substitutes the ‘poor quality/productivity’ blend of the mass markets for a ‘good quality/high price’ formula.
The system of salaries for life breaks the inevitable junk loop by uncoupling activities from remuneration. When people are protected by a salary for life and can devote themselves to an activity and make things without this having the slightest impact on their remuneration, they do so under completely different conditions: according to their desire, which is to say well. Here again, we must overturn the capitalist axiom that, left to their own devices and freed from the ‘healthy spur of having to earn a living’, people do nothing — that they are essentially lazy. The opposite is true: ‘left to their own devices’, that is to say freed from the violence of being made to work under capitalism, people make things, they never stop making things, and they even make them better and better, for they are beings of desire and activity.
For example, a farmer can produce for the satisfaction of producing well, supplying healthy and good quality products, when he is no longer held back by the straightjacket of supermarkets and their requirements on price, and therefore on productivity, which mean using chemicals. Or when he ceases to be held back by the debt incurred by investing in mechanisation, imposed by the logic of high yields and low prices — all things he can break with under a salary for life. He will probably produce them in smaller quantities, but many more people will want to go into agriculture if it is satisfying, uncoupled from capitalist demands and released from economic uncertainty.
In a capitalist system, it is manufacturers outside the mass market who provide gourmet dining, at very high prices. This is, in turn, caught in a similar debt trap when it comes to its facilities and, by the same logic, quality suppliers (of furniture, crockery etc), which means high prices. According to the capitalist adage, ‘you have to pay for quality’. But this is not true. Quality doesn’t have to ‘come at a price’. Capitalism has put the idea in our heads that quality is always linked to a quantity of money, otherwise we would only have access to junk. This is a lie. Quality comes from conditions that allow people to produce as they wish, that is, without depending on it for their survival. It’s obvious straightaway that quality is the immediate corollary of this freedom, and always for the same reason: people do something well, the best they can even, when they do it for themselves, to present their labours for social recognition, provided that this does not take the form of a monetary price to which their material reproduction will be attached. The conditions are then met to ensure that, without piles of money being exchanged, the best standards of production spread as far as possible, and becomes the rule rather than the exception.
The aesthetic vocation of communism
If communism is a grey idea, it will not capture imaginations. But it doesn’t have to be — quite the opposite. There is no contradiction in arguing that it can, and should, be luxurious. That is to say, it can shine the light of beautiful, well-made things all around, because everyone will have been placed in conditions in which they can make them beautifully and well — receiving a salary for life. Here we see how critically important it is to maintaining the greatest possible freedom of expression for private creators. Division of labour is necessary in some cases, and enough has been said about that, though it is not a subject that can be ignored. But division of labour in no way contradicts the idea that the necessary objects that come out of it are beautiful and good. But for that to happen, their production must be freed from the tyranny of capitalist value, and not regimented by top-down planning.
‘Remember East Germany and the Soviet Union, how ugly they were, and how beautiful and classy things are here? Well, that’s capitalism.’
Then, the sovereign associated producers will give their best, because they will be doing what they love. In this communist form, private initiatives will offer us good food and beautiful furniture, perfumes and clothes, in short, beautiful things, which make for an aesthetic life. Design will no longer be capitalism’s capture of aesthetics, as today — because, from the skylines of metropolises to the metallic shine of cell phones to the styling of cars, everything is currently calculated to invite us to contemplate the material power of capitalism. To plant in our heads, most often unconsciously, this unbreakable link between the ‘beauty’ of objects and the capitalist system of objects, and make us think, ‘Remember East Germany and the Soviet Union, how ugly they were, and how beautiful and classy things are here? Well, that’s capitalism.’
Communism will lose the battle for imaginations, then the political battle, if it locks itself in the austerity and ostentatious disinterest of critical intellectuals, and their contempt for objects and for the life of the senses, especially for domestic life. ‘Let us think above all of developing our minds’, ‘let’s be pure of mind’, ‘we are indifferent to objects’, ‘we are above material needs, ‘these things are unimportant’. What a mistake. They have considerable importance.
In a surprising, though perfectly logical ‘dietetic’ scholium, Spinoza, who in matters of intellectual development was hardly a small player, recommends surrounding oneself ‘with pleasant food and drink, with scents, with the beauty of plants, with decoration, music, sports, the theatre, and other such things , which anyone can use without injury to another’ (2). Aesthetics must be applied everywhere in life, from its etymological meaning (of an appeal to our senses) to those elevated practices where stimulating the senses can lead to the deepest meditative states — as discussed by Pierre Gagnaire and Ryoko Sekiguchi in a conversation on the culinary arts, or in the arts of perfumes and flower arranging, or the Japanese tea ceremony.
Naturally, the highest achievements are also the rarest, so only a limited number of people will have access to them. The capitalist criterion for selection is well known: money. A visit to Pierre Gagnaire’s website lifts the spell he casts by displaying the reality of his prices: dinner for two in his restaurant costs a month’s minimum wage… We had assumed the criterion of money would no longer apply. Yet we will need another in its place, since the promise of having ‘the rarest things within everyone’s reach’ is flawed logic — at least when it comes to the kind of goods economists call ‘rival’. Some kind of lottery? Why not?
In reality, the most important thing is not to be found in these very exceptional experiences. It is now clear that that by ‘luxury’, we should understand not so much the absolute rarest things reserved for the few, but beautiful, well-made things that are universalised and put within reach of the many. Luxury is also the presence of fewer but more beautiful things in everyday life, both as a habit and an education, which eventually prepares us for the most elevated experiences. And it is the desires of free producers that will make communism luxurious.
(1) A ‘salary for life’ is a proposal made by Bernard Friot as an alternative to Universal Basic Income in his book Émanciper le travail, La Dispute, Paris, 2014.
(2) Baruch Spinoza, Ethics IV, Proposition 45 (scholia).
Author: Frédéric Lordon is an economist and author of Et la vertu sauvera le monde… Après la débâcle financière, le salut par l’éthique? (Raisons d’agir, Paris, 2003)
Source: Le Monde diplomatique, 8 November 2021, https://mondediplo.com/outside-in/luxury-communism