Non-market socialism today

Earth Overshoot Day marks the point when human activities use more resources than nature is capable of regenerating each year, an imbalance well established by the end of last century, creating a gap that has increased most years since. If we use models devised by the UK’s New Economics Foundation (NEF) and the Global Footprint Network, Earth Overshoot Day in 2011 fell on 27 September.1

Yet markets and firms show few signs of addressing environmental concerns, especially when it comes to issues such as diminishing consumption in countries like Australia. We have the know-how to solve ecological imbalances but we cannot implement solutions because neither the private sector nor governments are willing to invest in the transition. Stanford scientists have, for instance, shown that by 2050, reliable and renewable alternative energy sources, such as solar, wind, geothermal and hydroelectric power, could substitute for current non-renewable ones.2

Meanwhile, we are told to expect years – perhaps a decade – of economic instability before the end of the global financial crisis and its consequences.

The Occupy movement testifies to the potential for radical change. As the Occupy Wall Street website explains: ‘We want to see a general assembly in every backyard, on every street corner because we don’t need Wall Street and we don’t need politicians to build a better society.’3

But what would a non-market society look like? How would it address the three concerns at the heart of the Occupy movement: economic sufficiency, social justice and environmental sustainability?

For us, ‘the market’ and its operating principle, money, are the main problem.

We don’t see money as the root of all evil. Abolishing money would not solve the challenges of living peacefully and sustainably. But the entire framework of market production and exchange – the laws of supply and demand, private property, profit-making and competition – is, in our opinion, antithetical to direct democracy, cooperation, environmental and social justice, and the satisfaction of everyone’s basic needs. That’s why, in our book Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies,4 we have explored the potential of what Maximilien Rubel and John Crump referred to in 1987 as the ‘thin red line’ of non-market socialism.5

There is a long history of attempts to think about futures without markets. Thomas More specified that his socialist Utopia was a republic without money, where coins were of interest only as artefacts. Earlier, the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle distinguished between use values and exchange values, key concepts for non-market socialist analyses. Use values are the uses, qualities and purposes of goods and services, in contrast to the prices, and profits and associated economic values of such commodities.

Discussions about use values often reach vastly different conclusions than discussions based on exchange values. Students of economics are familiar with the question of why diamonds are so expensive compared to water even though water is essential to human life and diamonds unnecessary. The answer is a neat segue into the laws of supply and demand, where prices and exchange values are created very differently from social and environmental use values.

The distinction between use values and exchange values often becomes clear in the difference between arguments by activists and those by businesspeople. Take the example of whether Australia should rely on nuclear energy. Activists will raise the human and environmental dangers of a nuclear plant, such as the heightened risk of accidents and the proliferation of nuclear weaponry. They might also discuss the merits of nuclear power compared to coal in the reduction of carbon emissions, as well as pointing out that conservation and the reduction of energy use are relevant options. In contrast, businesspeople are likely to argue that the new industry will create energy for existing and expanding firms, as well as profits, jobs and new trading opportunities. In other words, one side argues in terms of use values; the other, on the basis of exchange values.

This value-based distinction has been very important in the establishment of existing communisms, as well as in critiques of them. If communism is to mean ‘from each according to their abilities and to each according to their needs’, then use values become paramount and, arguably, exchange values become obsolete. That’s because, as the example of diamonds and water suggests, use values are neither expressed nor reflected in exchanges values: prices arise in a very different way, via market mechanisms. That’s why strategies about markets and money have been so significant in discussions of transitions to socialism.

Both the Russian and Cuban revolutions initially spurred debates about the disappearance of money. In both cases, despite non-market socialist arguments raised by people like Che Guevara, market and state complexes developed with government planning, highly regulated by bureaucratic elites who used monetary and market mechanisms as tools of power, repressing the substantive democracy through which the people might have decided production.

For non-market socialists, the continued existence of markets and money, even regulated, was a fundamental weakness of communist experiments in the twentieth century. That’s why, in contrast to the mainstream communist focus on state socialism, state capitalism or market socialism, Rubel and Crump drew attention to anarcho-communist, impossibilist, council communist, situationist and Bordigist currents – tendencies ignored by mainstream leftist thinking.

But that volume has long been out of print. Furthermore, most of the contributors assumed abundance based on efficiencies of production by machines. Today the environmental limits of the planet have already being breached. That’s why it is important to consider arguments that take account of planetary limits, such as those advanced by eco-feminists, autonomist Marxists, ecological economists and anarcho-communists such as Murray Bookchin.6

There is another practical reason to look at non-market socialist thinking right now. In recent years, we have seen experimentation with non-market exchange and production, most of which has involved hybrids of capitalist and non-capitalist relations. ‘Hybrids’ are experimental models that straddle the opportunities of this world and the conditions for establishing a different one. Examples include the ‘collaborative consumption’ movement, which covers a range of free, non-monetary or low-cost sharing arrangements involving goods and services. These can include car-pooling, buying bulk food, couch-surfing and even caring for neighbours’ pets or preparing homely sit-down communal dinners.7 The movement has evolved in a dual way, incorporating market mechanisms and the pro-market socialism of the ‘solidarity economy’,8 alongside experimental local organisations promoting alternative currencies, time banks and local exchange trading systems (LETS) for people to share skills on joint projects (even co-building houses).

Alongside cooperatives dedicated to environmentally sustainable and socially just working practices, various swap meets (where people swap surpluses of home-grown vegetables, fruit, home-baked goods or second-hand books, clothing and other items) have developed too, expanding practices promoted by movements such as permaculture, slow food, transition towns and fair trade.

Though we are excited by such projects, we are also concerned about the naivety they involve, since many set out to make a new future with stridently anti-capitalist, anti-monetary and anti-market values, but end up in self-defeating compromises with the market system, even to the extent of understanding their success in terms of profitability. The latter tendency is especially noticeable in Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers’ recent book What’s Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, which offers the example of a retailer charging $20 for people to bring clean clothing to swap for other garments and accessories – a system in which a swap of one of my items for yours is free but the service providing the storage and space makes a profit.

Theories informing these movements include new and old concepts such as décroissance (de-growth), a ‘guaranteed minimum income’ and ‘shorter working week’, and a ‘great transition’.

An authoritative survey by Martínez-Alier and others in 2010 has defined ‘sustainable de-growth’ in broad terms as ‘an equitable and democratic transition to a smaller economy with less production and consumption’.9 The most prominent proponent has been Serge Latouche.10 Although the sentiment of a guaranteed minimum income has a long history, it was Robert Theobald who promoted this universal right for a monetary claim to cover the basic costs of living in Free Men and Free Markets in 1963. Anders Hayden’s pioneering work on the socio-environmental benefits of a shorter working week for all was published in 1999.11 The transition (towns) movement, Global Scenario Group, NEF12 and the Tellus Institute’s Great Transition Initiative all talk about the massive social changes demanded by the challenges of global warming and sustainability in terms of a ‘great transition’.

These emerging frameworks are especially vague when defining the necessary or ideal role of money in their approaches. As with traditional Left supporters of planned socialism, activists in such movements tend to be suspicious of financial capital and banks, and see money as a neutral tool. Yet those who practise de-growth and voluntary simplicity risk being dominated by the monetary economy, which has a long history of eroding non-market ways of living and producing, such as Indigenous lifestyles and artisan businesses.

That’s why we have been investigating the clearer and more comprehensive visions, theories, strategies and practices of non-market socialists. Essentially, these boil down to the sharing of ownership and use rights to all means of production, whether natural (such as land) or artificial (such as factories). While all people have the right to basic needs, they also are obliged to produce and exchange under rules and principles decided collectively.

An example of a hybrid moving in this direction is the Twin Oaks community in Virginia, USA. Established in 1967, it supports around a hundred people through rural collective sufficiency and businesses that earn each member about $5000 per annum, which goes into a common purse rather than to an individual.13 Using a labour-credit system, each member devotes around forty-two hours per week to the communal workload, which is far less than the sixty-nine to seventy-four hours that most Australian parents with a couple of children spend on their domestic and paid workload.14

In the Twin Oaks system, people get a direct say in what and how things are produced and consumed, and their basic needs for health, training, food, clothing and shelter are met while they contribute to their supply. Twin Oaks shows how a community can co-design the production of goods and services locally, and collectively select through a common purse how they will trade outside their neighbourhood. Such trade, though today in money, could be replaced in the future with non-monetary exchange based on agreements (‘compacts’ instead of ‘contracts’), if we were all moving in a non-market socialist direction.

Claudio Cattaneo’s study of Barcelona squatters reveals their practices as a form of hybrid, too. Squatters eschew the monetary economy and live simply and collectively, re-using and recycling, and sharing work and produce.15 Perhaps not surprisingly, he found that rural squatters achieve greater degrees of autonomy and sustainability than urban squatters who, however, have the advantage of modelling more sustainable and socially just practices with greater visibility. From a non-market socialist point of view, the weaknesses of the urban squatters only underscore the importance of support from broader Left forces – for instance, concerted efforts to expand the commons as the material basis for a sustainable socialist future. Hybrids struggle, in other words, because the material conditions to support them as dynamic, self-generating structures do not yet exist.

In non-market systems, people are encouraged to work through moral incentives, such as the fulfilment of social expectations to join in collective production, and the status gained by ‘putting in’ and even exceeding expectations. Marx argued that people enjoy creating, especially if the mind and body are working as one; many of us work voluntarily on activities we enjoy or believe ought to be done. Nonetheless, he was at pains to point out that establishing capitalism involved separating people (for example, peasants and Indigenous peoples) from their means of production – land – which implied a structural coercion to work for money in units produced for trade. The context within which people work – and how and why they work – is key. In a highly abstract capitalist system, certain people who inherit money, or gain it exploiting others, seek to avoid work, while many of the wage scales and conditions are unfair and unjust.

Under the current system, we work in jobs that capitalists offer and in conditions established by them (albeit with state regulation to prevent gross abuses). In non-market socialism there would be a universal right and obligation to work. There would also be a right to collective decision-making over what was considered work, how much labour was devoted to one activity rather than another and what the conditions of work were.

At Twin Oaks, people over fifty gain successively larger pension credits to work less but maintain their living standard. By contrast, Australians are moving towards replacing pensions with superannuation, the value of which is threatened by inflation and the vagaries of market investments.

Other aspects of work, such as where some people work harder than others, are likely to persist regardless of whether the system is waged or unwaged. Precisely because money is not the root of all evil, people are motivated to work (or, alternatively, to avoid work) for various reasons to do with the control of their labour, and the conditions and context in which it is performed. All of these are addressed by non-market socialism.

The non-market socialist strategy entails acting as much as possible outside capitalism, creating just and sustainable production substitutes as the system tumbles. With non-market socialist hybrids, individuals and communities could reduce how much they work for money and increase their voluntary efforts in collective activities such as community gardens.

Questions around the creation of goods and services that are currently reproduced as commodities in complex industries could be addressed variously. The general idea is to base conglomerates of neighbourhoods, each with a high degree of collective sufficiency and direct democracy, in bioregions. Bioregions are landscapes characterised by distinct and dynamic collections of natural communities of species, frequently bounded as watersheds. For instance, Australia’s National Reserve System has eighty-five bioregions and 403 sub-regions.16 Permaculture operates in bioregions because common geographic and climatic characteristics lead to shared practices, knowledge and skills. Bioregions, neighbourhoods, households and individuals would exchange both planned and unplanned surpluses and unusable goods and services with neighbouring regions via ‘compacts’ – that is, non-monetary binding agreements, rather than monetary contracts.

The question of ‘scaling up’ such societies – how are the models established and expanded? – is easily solved using biological concepts: for example, neighbourhood cells nested in bioregions replicated across continents. Alongside local networks within the bioregions, strong interconnecting networks would link more and more expansive regions right up to global collectives for significant and appropriate decision-making, such as setting targets for controlling carbon emissions. The site of primary economic activity would remain local, with direct decision-making and minimal exchange, making both markets and money redundant. Ecologically complementary biotechnologies would, over time, replace heavy high-tech machinery except in minimal and essential areas. Thirty years ago, Small Is Possible, the sequel to EF Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful, provided some strategies using alternative organisation and appropriate technology.17 Innovation in sustainable production involves mimicking nature (practising biomimicry) to create simpler and more environmentally friendly ways to produce goods.18 Recent advances in home manufacturing offer another way forward, allowing people electronic access to designs to fabricate goods in households.19 There is progress with dematerialisation of machinery production: for example, reducing steel input by more than 70 per cent, making it recyclable, and allowing production by small- to medium-sized enterprises.20 Distinct bioregions would manufacture goods based on the least environmentally damaging options and the most socially friendly models, which might mean many more workers, with each of them only working one day a week in a factory and spending other work days in, say, gardening and caring jobs.

Non-market socialism provides a rich source for the Occupy and associated movements, addressing the three crises facing humanity, offering visions and strategies for ‘real change from the bottom up’ and ‘a general assembly in every backyard, on every street corner’, as well as ways to undercut the power of capital non-violently by withdrawing support for monetary activities, reinvigorating mutual aid, expanding the commons and working in collective solidarity.

1 ‘Earth Overshoot Day Is Coming’, Global Footprint Network,, accessed 30 March 2012.

2 ‘World Can Be Powered by Alternative Energy, Using Today’s Technology, in 20-40 Years, Experts Say’, ScienceDaily, 26 January 2011,, accessed 6 April 2012.

3 OccupyWallStreet,, accessed 24 March 2012.

4 See, accessed 30 March 2012.

5 Maximilien Rubel & John Crump, Non-Market Socialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Macmillan, Houndmills, 1987.

6 Murray Bookchin, ‘The Communalist Project’, Communalism, no. 2, 2002.

7 For background and examples, see the Collaborative Consumption Hub at, accessed 30 March 2012; François Jégou & Ezio Manzini, Collaborative Services: Social Innovation and Design for Sustainability, Polidesign, Milan, 2008.

8 See and, accessed 30 March 2012.

9 Joan Martínez-Alier, Unai Pascual, Franck-Dominique Vivien & Edwin Zaccai, ‘Sustainable De-growth: Mapping the Context, Criticisms and Future Prospects of an Emergent Paradigm’, Ecological Economics, no. 69, 2010, pp.1741–7.

10 Serge Latouche, Farewell to Growth, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2010.

11 Anders Hayden, Sharing the Work, Sparing the Planet: Work Time, Consumption & Ecology, Between the Lines, Toronto, 1999. See also Anna Coote, Jane Franklin, Andrew Simms & Mary Murphy, 21 Hours: Why a Shorter Working Week Can Help Us All Flourish in the 21st Century, New Economics Foundation, London,
21-hours, accessed 5 April 2012.

12 Stephen Spratt, Andrew Simms, Eva Neitzert & Josh Ryan-Collins, The Great Transition: A Tale of How it Turned Out Right, New Economics Foundation, London, 2010. See, accessed 30 March 2012.

13 See, accessed 30 March 2012.

14 Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘Trends in Household Work’, Australian Social Trends Catalogue Number 4102.0, released March 2009,, accessed 12 March 2012.

15 Key findings from Claudio Cattaneo’s PhD thesis appear in Chapter 10 of Nelson & Timmerman, Life Without Money.

16 Australian Government Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, ‘Australia’s bioregions’,, accessed 5 April 2012.

17 George McRobie, Small Is Possible, Abacus, London, 1982.

18 Janine M Benyus, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, William Morrow, New York, 1983.

19 See the Thingiverse website:, accessed 5 April 2012.

20 See, for instance,, accessed 5 April 2012.

Anitra Nelson

Anitra Nelson is an honorary associate professor at RMIT University. Her publications include , Marx’s Concept of Money: The God of Commodities and Steering Sustainability in an Urbanizing World: Policy, Practice and Performance.

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Frans Timmerman

Frans Timmerman works for a member of parliament.

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