Under communism… What will the city and housing look like? How will production and housing be distributed throughout the territory?

6 March, 2021

cities and housing under communism

In this article…

Today’s topic: City, housing and urbanism under communism

Where will factories be located under communism? Will cities still exist? What will housing look like? Will we all live in houses? If the population is spread out, will production be spread out as well?

Under the mega-city lies capital accumulation

Chongqing, China

The opposition between rural and urban areas and the exponential development of cities is a typically capitalist phenomenon. Capital accumulation, which defines the system and its cycles, is, by definition, a system of concentration of productive resources. And such concentration does not occur only in the juridical forms of capital or in a class and in certain organisms linked to it. It also occurs in space.

The concentration first of industry and then of services in large urban centers is a feature of capitalism as it facilitates the fluidity between capitals. Therefore, from the first steps of capitalism, capital concentration and urban concentration have gone hand in hand. In the early 19th century, when the bourgeois revolution had not yet expanded capitalism across the continent, urban population was only 3% of the European total.

The birth of capitalism itself began with the parcelling out and enclosure of communal lands and the consolidation of estates, driving much of the peasantry into the city. There the peasant became a proletarian as he could only live by selling his labor power. Thus, from the very beginning, capitalism began to concentrate the mass of workers in the cities.

The city itself turned into capital. And in the current historical phase, it turned into fictitious capital, into pure speculation. How many times in the big historical cities have all houses been paid for according to their original price? The whole city is pure fictitious capital coalesced into space and bricks. Nicolas Flamel’s original real estate speculative trick going from a medieval anecdote to a general modern phenomenon.

And since each apartment is a small monopoly on a space made artificially scarce, construction began to seek more and more height by minimizing the weight of variable capital (wages, labor). The new neighborhoods took the form of monstrous beehives based on the logic of capital itself. Residential towers and office skyscrapers are a monumental portrait of capitalist concentration.

What will happen in communist society when capital accumulation no longer imposes its needs on society? Crowding will cease to make sense, the proletariat will battle against the city and overcrowding in order to satisfy human needs for space. Amadeo Bordiga, an Italian militant internationalist who was by training an engineer, described it clearly in the 1950s:

The revolutionary struggle for the demolition of the dreadful and tentacle-like agglomerations can be defined as communist oxygen against capitalist squats. Space versus cement.

Amadeo Bordiga. “Space versus cement,” 1953

But under communism, in the overcoming of the city, workers in the quest to satisfy human needs will also have to overcome the city-countryside opposition that defined capitalism from its beginnings. This was visible even in the midst of rising capitalism for an Engels who had studied for years the relationship between industrial development, environmental destruction, and workers’ housing misery in Britain.

Overcoming the opposition between town and country is therefore not only possible. Rather, it is already an immediate necessity of industrial production itself, as it is also of agricultural production and, moreover, of public hygiene. Only by merging town and country can the present poisoning of air, water and soil be eliminated. […]

Capitalist industry has already become relatively independent of the local limitations arising from the localization of the production of its raw materials. […]

Overcoming the separation of town and country is not, therefore, a utopia, not even in view of the fact that it presupposes a dispersion as uniform as possible of big industry throughout the territory. It is true that civilization has left us in the big cities an inheritance which it will take much time and effort to eliminate. But the big cities must be abolished, and they will be abolished, even if it is at the cost of a long and difficult process

Engels. Anti-Dühring, 1878.

A productive structure distributed throughout the territory

Complete robotization of corn cultivation is already a real possibility.

A dispersion as uniform as possible of big industry throughout the territory? Insanity!!! will shout in chorus the environmentalist, the investment manager and the stalinist. Concentrating is about increasing productivity and reducing emissions, they will argue. Let’s translate: concentrating capital increases productivity in terms of profit.

But concentrating productive capacities does not necessarily increase the possibility of satisfying human needs in material terms. Within capitalism, stalinism is a good example. Stalinism’s obsession with gaining scale and concentrating production in order to accumulate capital reduced, for example, cement production to several large factories, all in central Russia. The result: there was never cement when needed. Production was extremely fragile in the face of all kinds of disruptions and logistical bottlenecks.

This sounded great for the planners who thought in the same terms as the investors on the other side of the Iron Curtain. A disaster for those who needed the goods. Moreover, the alleged rational planning came with a vengeance. Not only was – according to the Stalinist USSR’s own reports – production in general notoriously fragile and uncontrolled, but the ultra-concentration of production in single plants helped to uncoordinate production and hasten the end of the union:

Before the failed August coup, several republics had banned the export of several key raw materials and final products to other republics in an attempt to force the Soviet government to recognize their independence. […] The inevitable result is that the supply-side of the economy has degenerated into chaos, with enterprises unable to rely on planned supplies and shops unable to secure goods to sell.

The situation is exacerbated by the highly specialized nature of the old planning system, in which economies of scale were achieved by concentrating national production of a given product in a single factory. Recent press estimates suggest that three-quarters of the most common 6,000 industrial products are produced only one establishment. As traditional trade relations between republics crumble, there are often no alternative sources of supply.

A more recent example? The Covid vaccines… and even facemasks in the first phase of the pandemic. Superconcentration became evidently dysfunctional for national capitals themselves.

So what then? It seems natural to think that a decommodified production governed by the satisfaction of human needs will tend to follow the map of those needs – that is, the distribution of the population in space – and adapt to the optimal scales of production.

Under communism, as we have seen in the previous installments of this series, we will enjoy the consequences of the liberation of the development of the productive forces – and especially for the principal of these, labor, i.e. the proletariat – a liberation which accelerates the already present tendency towards the socialization of production. Taken together, both increase the physical productivity of labor, what we can produce during an average hour of human labor, to the point of making possible the complete abolition not only of wage-labor, but of work enslaved to necessity.

But this does not mean either that raw materials will always be the same – certainly not the same as now – or that the productivity of all the physical elements of production will be constant or equal to the current one. Today, without leaving capitalism, we have gone from paper books to electronic books, from coal to a mix of energy sources – some renewable, some not, etc.

That means that under communism each production will have a different optimal scale and that the fit between optimal scales of production and scale of needs is not going to be static. There will be things that we will produce at home, others in a nearby radius and others at some distance. We will have mangoes and pineapples where they are needed even if their production is limited to specific climates, and we will be able to make books where we want them. Other things will scale down in a moment or scale up if the structure of human needs changes over time within the communist society.

Under communism, productive centralism reflects the centralism of the class. Since this does not mean concentration of power in a few but the opposite – concentration of all decisions in all – productive centralism is the opposite of factory concentration. The whole of production is regulated by the needs of human society as a whole, continually adapting itself to its form and developing throughout it according to the ever-changing and colorful map of its needs. Can we arrive at something more concrete? No. We have to wait until we can begin mass decommodification before we can envision it.

Individual houses?

“Walking City”, a project by “deurbanist” Iakov Chernikhov, inspired by Engels’ “Anti-Dühring” in 1930. The “deurbanists” attempted a “transitional urbanism” opposed to the logic of value. Their texts were banned and most of them slaughtered by stalinism.

We know, as we already pointed out, that the systematic and massive decommodification of human relations, that is, socialism, will rediscover space in the face of verticalism and concentration which are a mere imposition of the dynamics of capital.

In the transitional society, it is variable capital – the part of production devoted to the satisfaction of workers’ human needs – what determines how much is socially accumulated in order to increase the possible production in future cycles. This is what is meant by the dictatorship of workers as opposed to the dictatorship of capital, in which accumulation asserts itself at the cost of the pauperization of workers to sustain the accumulation of capital.

This upside-down turn abolishes capitalist relations of production. c [what is accumulated] ceases to be capital, v [labor devoted to the satisfaction of needs] is no longer the price of labor power which reduces the majority of the population to meager consumption, and in turn pl [surplus value under capitalism] appears in the form of newly created goods, ready for further individual and collective consumption.

There is no longer profit, i.e., other people’ s labor appropriated by the bourgeoisie, by officials or by institutions.

Expanded reproduction must therefore be envisaged as a response to the direct demands of the human set that integrates society; it has ceased to be capital accumulation. In other words, during the transition period the extension of consumption in its multiple orders presides over and determines expanded accumulation (the old constant capital).

G. Munis. Party-State, Stalinism, Revolution, 1974

What this, the basis of the transitional economy, means for housing and the housing form in the process toward a communist society, is well stated, once again, by Bordiga:

After having crushed by force this increasingly obscene dictatorship, subordinate every solution and every plan to the improvement of the conditions of living labor, shaping to this end the dead labor, the constant capital, the furniture that the human species has contributed over the centuries and has continued to contribute to the earth’s crust.

Then the brutal verticalism of concrete monsters will be mocked and repressed, and in the immense horizontal expanses of space, displaced the gigantic cities, the strength and intelligence of the human animal will progressively tend to make the density of life and the density of work uniform in the inhabitable lands.

Amadeo Bordiga. “Space versus cement”, 1953

And this is as far as we can picture now. The city disappears in order to aim at the full integration of humans in space and Nature, dispersed as Engels said, connected as the deurbanists dreamed of during the Russian revolution with the provocation of their houses on rails.

But under communism will we live in individual houses, family houses, in small collective communities? It’s hard to know what form the family will take – we’ll talk about that in another article. And we know that the communitarian is present in the history of the class and in each of its developments… but also that it points to and experiments above all with the emergence of society as community, without class divisions or fractures, but not necessarily the permanence of small community forms, although it does not deny them either.

That is, we know that under communism we will have enough room, and that we will move through the larger space of the world territory without the ballast of being tied by capital to a job to go back to in order to punch out. And we know that we will be free to shape and enjoy our need for socialization. But we cannot yet know the concrete forms that this will take. We must overthrow capitalism first. Shall we begin doing that?

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