The Means of Production

Below is the text of a presentation I gave as part of a “teach-in” event hosted by the Penn State chapter of Young Democratic Socialists.

Human beings need things to live. We need shelter to keep us dry, clothes to keep us warm, food that we can turn into energy. We also want things. We want caffeinated drinks on summer days, jerseys from our favorite sports teams, iPhones with which to text our friends and share our selfies on Instagram.

These things, these wants and needs, do not appear on their own. We enter into economic relationships and each produce some of the labor required to continually satisfy these wants and needs for the rest of society. This is true whether you’re a stone-age hunter, a medieval craftsman, or a cashier at McDonald’s.

But it is also not our labor alone that enables us to satisfy the wants and needs of others, which is to say, our labor alone generally does not produce economic value. We need tools, buildings, infrastructure, natural resources, industrial equipment and other similar such things to which we apply our labor and actually produce economic value. These resources are the means of production, or capital. The ownership and control of this capital is the central division between socialism and capitalism.

In capitalism, the means of production are owned and controlled by individuals — or corporations owned by individuals — for individual benefit. If there is more immediate financial profit in destroying the environment than in preserving it, or in expanding mass incarceration than in rehabilitating offenders, or in paying workers starvation wages than in offering a livable salary, those more efficient profits will enable and encourage the expansion of such societally destructive activity, and reward those who pursue political policies that allow for such destruction.

The United States generally organizes its economic relationships along capitalist “owner-worker” lines, but has never been fully capitalist. The government, representing all members of society, makes investments in both the human economic inputs and the capital economic inputs. Government increases the value of our labor by providing education, security, and investment in research to create new processes and expand the boundaries of human understanding. Government also invests in expanding the means of production and their productive capability — subsidizing factories, building massive infrastructure projects, and investing in research which results in the creation of new tools and materials.

In democratic socialism, we believe that economic activity should be regulated for the benefit of society as a whole. We believe that control of the means of production should be taken away from the capital-owning class, the one percent of millionaires and billionaires, and given to the people — the workers who apply their labor to those means and produce the goods and services wanted and needed by society.

It would be remiss to discuss the means of production without talking about productivity. Increases in productivity come when new methods, tools, materials, or processes are introduced to the creation of economic value, enabling more work to be done with less effort. In a capitalist society, this results in more profit for those who control the means of production, as they require less labor from fewer workers to obtain more value, putting downward pressure on wages. Historically, this kind of disruption has caused great anxiety for workers, who must adapt their lives and skills to new economic realities as they are forced into competition with each other and compliance with employers. It is also inevitably followed by vast accumulations of wealth to the bourgeoisie

While median family income in the United States tracked closely with increasing productivity in the decades following the second World War, that prosperity stagnated in the 1980s with the decline of the labor movement and the aggressive pro-corporate, anti-worker policies of the Reagan administration. While productivity has continued to climb, incomes for most people have stagnated and even fallen. The richest one tenth of one percent of Americans now hold as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent combined.

Under a socialist society, productivity increases would not be followed by anxious, displaced workers and unimaginably vast profits for the fortunate few, but a general increase in the standard of living for all people. Control of the means of production would not just greatly reduce or eliminate poverty, hunger, homelessness, and preventable death, it would mean that every advancement in productivity would raise the standard of living for all and give more security, more leisure, and more freedom to regular people.