Friday, August 19, 2016

Letter From Europe: The French movement for abundance (1980)

The Letter From Europe column from the February 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

In France, before and just after the last world war, a group known as the Mouvement Fran├žais pour I’Abondance (MFA) enjoyed some success, to such an extent that its theories are now referred to in most French dictionaries under the word abondance. The key figure in this movement, which still exists today though divided into a number of rival groups, was Jacques Duboin. Born in 1878 he had briefly been a junior Minister and a Radical Deputy in the 1920s. The slump which followed the 1929 Crash, however, set him thinking about economic and social matters and led him to elaborate a “theory of abundance”, first sketched in La Grande Releve des Hommes par la Machine in 1932, and to found a movement which after the war became the MFA.

According to Duboin, the 1930s slump represented the coming of abundance which capitalism, being based on the exchange of goods for profit, could not cope with since only goods which werc scarce had an exchange value and so were exchangeable. Abundance. Duboin taught, kills profits; which explained why capitalism had to try to suppress abundance in order to survive.

To give the flavour of the MFA analysis we translate below some passages from their pamphlets:
   In this regime [capitalism] which rests on exchange, the means of production are private property. Their owners draw a profit from them by selling what is produced at the highest price competition permits. People who possess nothing sell their labour as dearly as competition permits, and get wages, salaries or fees which allow them to buy what they need to live.
   It is clear that such a regime cannot exist with abundance since this suppresses profit. In fact, only products and services which have some value can be sold. But only scarce products keep their value and sell at a profit. Abundant products have no value: they are given and taken; they are not sold . . . It is thus a truism to say that abundance does not exist: it will never exist in the capitalist regime since production is not motivated by the desire to satisfy consumption but by that of realising a profit. When this profit becomes impossible, production stops. It is then said that there is a crisis, even if many consumers lack the bare necessities (Duboin, Economic Distributive de l'Abondance, 1946).          The magnificent scientific achievements of the 20th century have made abundance appear in all the industrialised countries, upsetting their economies from top to bottom, since these can only function with a “scarcity" of products and services. This obviously requires explanation: At the present time money is almost as indispensable to existence as air to the lungs. But money doesn’t fall from heaven; it is production as a whole which distributes it in the form of wages and profits. The pursuit of money being thus at the centre of our concerns, we do not grow corn to have corn, but to have money; for if we don’t gain any money then we don’t sow any more corn. Similarly all other agricultural, commercial and industrial enterprises are only viable to the extent that they succeed in bringing into their tills more money than they pay out. When abundance appears, workers are sacked since there is no more work to give them. But they then don’t buy the products and these, remaining at the charge of the producers. make their profits disappear: he who can't buy ruins him who wants to sell! People then complain about “overproduction", for this is what everything that cannot be sold is called. But chronic overproduction, is that not abundance? So goods are not produced in abundance quite simply because they would not be able to be sold (Bombe “H” ou economie distributive, 1958).
The first paragraph of these extracts contains some serious mistakes; on some points the analysis as a whole comes very near to currency crank theories like Social Credit, and in many ways Duboin can be seen as a French equivalent of Major Douglas. His solution to the problem of distribution, however, was different and more interesting. The exchange economy, said Duboin, must be replaced by an economy in which wealth is no longer produced to be exchanged but is produced instead simply in order to be distributed to human beings to satisfy their needs. This new economic system he variously called l'economie distributive (the distribution economy), le socialisme de I'abondance and le socialisme distributif.

Under this system the means for producing wealth were to cease to be the private property of individuals and to become the common heritage of all the members of society; the wages system was to be replaced by a “social service” in which every able-bodied person would work for a certain period in order to help produce an abundance of wealth; finally, every member of society would be credited, from the cradle to the grave, with a “social income” in the form of a monnaie de consommation (consumption money) which would be equal for those in equal circumstances and which would enable them to draw what they needed from the common store of goods set aside for individual consumption.

We will once again quote from “abundancist" writers to show the extent of their opposition to exchange:
   It should not be necessary to think very deeply to understand that from the moment when production has become the property of society as a whole, the economic process can no longer be carried out by a series of exchanges (which imply individual or group property of the products exchanged) but only by allocation (or distribution) (Pour batir le socialisme. Perspectives Syndicalistes. 1969).
   Socialism . . .  still calls for “the socialisation of the means of production and exchange". For the means of production they are right. But as far as the means of exchange are concerned, they are behind the times and unconsciously play the game of the capitalism they are fighting against by accepting to present the problem in the same terms as it. The real objective to pursue is “the socialisation of the means of production and the replacing of the means of exchange by means of distribution".
(Gustave Rodrigues, Le Droit a la vie, 1936 edition, p.108.)
This “distribution economy” described by Duboin in fact had more in common with the utopia described in Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888) than with Douglas’ Social Credit. But his proposal for “consumption money” attracted support from the same sort of people as in other countries supported Social Credit. There is however a difference. Major Douglas envisaged giving everybody a “social dividend” within capitalism; Duboin, on the other hand, assumes the abolition of exchange so that “consumption money" is a misnomer, especially as Duboin made it clear that this so-called “money” could only be used once and so would not circulate. Strictly speaking then, it would not be “money”at all but something similar to the “labour-time vouchers” which Marx once envisaged as possibly necessary in a very early stage of socialism. In fact “consumption voucher" would be a better term for what Duboin had in mind.

Any system of vouchers — and this applies to the labour-time vouchers mentioned by Marx as well implies as a counterpart that the goods for distribution have pseudo-prices. Under the labour-time voucher system these pseudo-prices were to be related to the time spent in producing particular goods. Under Duboin’s system they were to depend on how scarce a particular good was, holding out the prospect that, as abundance came more and more to be realised, goods would become “cheaper" and “cheaper", (able to be acquired by smaller and smaller numbers of vouchers) and eventually free. Indeed Duboin proposed that some services such as heating, lighting, transport, telephones and health treatment should be free from the start. Thus, as with Marx, so for Duboin the end to be achieved was the full application of the principle “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”—free access to goods and services according to what the individual person judges he or she needs.

If Marx, writing in 1875, may have had a case for saying that unrestricted free access to goods and services could not have been introduced immediately had socialism been then established, the same cannot be said of Duboin and his followers in the 1930s and certainly not today (Duboin died in 1973, at the age of 95). In fact there is something odd about a group calling itself “the movement for abundance" yet not proposing full free access as something that could be realised very rapidly. As we have pointed out in our comments on labour-time vouchers (see, for instance, Socialist Standard, April 1971), the fantastic development of the means of production in the twentieth century has made any system of rationing, however generous the rations, quite obsolete. This applies to labour-time vouchers as well as Duboin’s “consumption money’’. A consistent “abundancist” today can only be in favour of free access, of goods being freely available for people to take according to need from the abundance which is technologically possible now but which will only becoming socially possible once capitalism has been replaced by socialism.

The MFA is open to criticism on other grounds too. Duboin was an underconsumptionist who greatly exaggerated the impact of mechanisation and automation on employment under capitalism. He just looked at the labour displaced in the final stage of the production process while neglecting the extra labour required at earlier stages to invent and build the new machines. Certainly, the former is greater than the latter — otherwise the new machinery would not be introduced — but as a matter of observed fact productivity in manufacturing industry increases on average at the comparatively slow rate of 2 or 3 per cent a year, and certainly not at the fantastic rates sometimes implied by Duboin. But Duboin was not original in making this mistake, nor in making another in accepting the myth that banks can “create credit" whereas in fact they can do no more than lend what has been deposited with them.

The MFA also argues, sometimes quite vehemently, that its “distribution economy” could be established in just one country, preferably France. The arguments it uses to defend this view show that it has not fully understood what socialism is even if it has understood the need to abolish what it calls “the prices-wages-profits system". As the productive apparatus capable of producing an abundance of wealth is world-wide, it is clear that abundance can only be realised on a world scale and that socialism, the society that will permit its realisation, can only be world-wide too. Indeed at times the picture the MFA paints of what it calls socialism more resembles state capitalism. At one time in fact (when Russia was more popular than it is now) the MFA used to describe Russia as "scarcity socialism", though most French “abundancists" would not. Most French “abundancists" would now agree that the Russian system is a form of state capitalism.

What is interesting in all this is that, virtually unknown to us in the English- speaking world, a group of people in France came to the conclusion that the solution to todays social problems necessarily involves abolishing the exchange economy and the wages-prices-profits system, even if this insight was mixed up with all sorts of confused and incorrect ideas. It once again confirms that the spread of socialist ideas does not depend entirely on our own meagre propaganda effort.
Adam Buick (Luxemburg)

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