Behind the Iron Curtain part 21 – Ownership of the Means of Production 2

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.

Last time I visited this theme I mentioned the logic that was presented to us in order to argue that means of production in our socialist country do belong to the people. What was never mentioned, and what took a really long time to me to realize, is the fact that even in capitalism is a lot of people who do indeed own the means of production. I do not mean the corporate overlords, the robber barons of modern era, but people who actually really work.

For example lets say that I either decide that I do not wish to be a corporate drone anymore, or my supervisor finally decides that my expertise is not enough for him to put up with my quirks (like honestly and without beating around the bush telling him when his department designs crap, or being rather cranky when I miss a meal). My backup plan in such a case is to try to make custom knives for sale.

It is possible to make living that way, others have managed it so why not me? However should it come to that, there are three realistic scenarios:
1) I flop and after a time of trying to establish myself on the market I will have no other option than to get employed again.
2) I will get a foothold on the market big enough to live by for reasonable time, perhaps even until retirement.
3) I will get a good foothold on the market to the point that I will not be able to satisfy the demand for Charly made knives on my own, so after a while I might need to employ for example part-time employees to help with some lower-skill jobs whilst I myself would concentrate on the high-skill jobs. Like the Finnish knife-maker about whom I posted a video a few weeks ago.

This example shows the transition between a small-scale producer and a big scale producer. In scenario 2 there is no ambiguity whatsoever – the person who uses the means of production owns them. In the scenario 3 it gets a bit murky – the owner of the means still does work rather a lot, but their employees do not own the means of production at all. And really, would it be fair in such a case for me to give them a portion of my shop in addition to the wages? I do not think it would.

However of course then there is the american dream, where one makes it through the stage 3 to stage 4, where one does only the employing, and not the actual working. I personally would never wish for that, but there are people who do. And then there is the stage 5, where one does not have a hand in making anything ever but simply inherits the company, or buys it wholesale.

Like so many other things in life, this is not black-white, there is actually a nearly continuous spectrum of options.

The problem with the regime was that it dealt with this spectrum by completely ignoring its existence. Any and all ownership of means of production that was not via the proxy of the state was illegal, period. All the little artisans, small shop owners, small farmers etc. who indeed worked their own asses of in addition to perhaps employing a few people were viewed as no different from big factory owners who never lifted a finger to work in their lives. For the regime, there was no difference between Charly making knives in his workshop on his own and Donald Trump cheating his contractors and not paying his employees fair wages. They both were bourgeoise exploiters and both had to be dealt with harshly.

As a result not only the big factories with awful working conditions got confiscated, but also all the little workshops, shops and farms. The whole middle-class was wiped out and made illegal without any nuance.

In the 60s there was an effort to rectify this injustice (along with others), but it was quashed by military intervention from USSR.

As a result, a lot of people rightfully resented the regime, because they were in very real sense of the word robbed by it.


  1. says

    I think that in an ideal society there would be artistic tools available as a social benefit. I.e: fully equipped machine shops, CAD systems, 3d printers, musical instruments, construction tools, broadcasting and authoring tools, etc.

    In the internet space there has been a tremendous democratization of certain parts of the tool-chain. With a shapeways account and some free software, you can produce things with almost zero cost of entry. Or with an arduino board and some off the shelf robotics stuff. That’s all good but there’s a darker undercurrent, namely that large businesses position themselves to lock up valuable markets through control of parts pipelines or retail gateways (e.g: amazon/ebay/etsy) Charly’s knives can be a successful business but if you looked to be a threat to a large business they could suffocate your supply chain and distribution channel effortlessly and some asshole would lecture you about “free market” the whole time.

  2. says

    @Marcus, I do not think tha could ever work. In my experience fully equipped machine shops available to public would get vandalized and badly treated. As I stated in other articles on this theme, common ownership does not unfortunately work, because there are too many selfish assholes around who do not care about anything that is not personaly theirs. I think that unfortunately most people are like that.

    What we need is a good balance between socialism and capitalism -- there are issues where socialist approach is better suited for the best outcome (policing, health care, environtment protection, infrastructure) and then there are issues where small-scale capitalist approach gives better results (artisans, some non-essential services, comfort and luxury goods). There are even issues where global corporations give the best results -- for example making mass-produced goods at low prices.

    What the regime got wrong was trying to force every problem into a leftist socialist solution, by decree. Kinda like what american Republicans are doing, only opposite, when they insist on wanting to keep healtcare privatized despite it clearly delivering worse results than socialized one.

    When I make a test on the (heavily american-oriented) political compass, I come out al a hardcore leftie, but I do not think that is correct, because I do not think that there is any one-size-fits-all solution for all societal problems.

  3. polishsalami says

    The most reactionary element in Anglosphere nations is the petit bourgeoisie. People who think their ownership of a hardware store aligns their interests with the 1% are hardly worth worrying about.

  4. says

    @polishsalami, that is a problem in current CZ too, but here I can say with confidence that communists are to blame for this attitude, because as I am saying in the article, during their power grab they treated these small businessowners just as they did the 1%.

    Everyone with a legitimate concern is worth worrying about.

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