New Economy Journal

Library Socialism

Volume 2, Issue 4

August 4, 2020

By - Noon

Piece length: 2,651 words

Cover photo by Monjur Hasan on Unsplash
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If you have a garden and a library, you have everything that you need”

- Cicero

The difficult thing about imagining a better world is social relations.

Revolutionary Marxism call for workers to “seize and own in common the means of production”, as if this were a clarifying statement rather than a definitional one. When Marx was writing, the means of production (that is, the equipment and inputs used to produce goods) and the social relations of production (that is, the way in which humans relate to one another so as to produce goods) were much clearer: a capitalist owned a factory, which consisted of machines (the means of production) and hired workers (the relations of production) to operate those machines. Together the means and the relations of production form the “mode of production”.

The aim of socialists throughout the ages has been to replace the capitalist mode of production with a new one, the socialist (or communist[1]) mode of production, which has been endlessly defined but rarely imagined. Marx and Engels wrote surprisingly little about the details they envisioned for the future, in general keeping either to grandiose statements, such as that communism will be “[the end of] the prehistory of human society”[2] or technical definitions such as as “a stateless, classless, moneyless society”[3] which is specific but also quite abstract.

So we are left to imagine what the better world is that we are hoping for. One thing that Marx was quite clear about, however, is that the relations of production will change when the means of production have developed beyond them. That is to say, the means of production always change before the relations of production. For instance, the technology of industrial society was developed before the bourgeoisie became the ruling class, and the shift from the social relations of feudal society (e.g. fiefdom and serfdom) to the social relations of bourgeois society (e.g. wage-labour and commodity production) occurred precisely because the new industrial technologies had improved the means of production.

Perhaps the reason for the recent rise in popularity of socialism in the West is the new means of production that have developed in the last few decades: the internet, handheld computers, dirt cheap electronics ('the internet of things'), and cheap renewable energy. These have allowed people to create new social relations – how many Facebook friends do you have? How many people on the other side of the world do you speak to every day? How many lectures with experts, or comedy routines, or sports games have you sat in on via podcast or livestream? These are all instances of social relations that were either impossible or rarely accessible for most of human history, and even for the vast majority of the history of capitalist social relations, which span the last 400 or so years. Previously only the extremely wealthy or the extremely talented could attend lectures at Harvard; the only thing needed for that experience in 2020 is an internet connection.

But these casual glimpses of different social relations are still not an adequate basis for a shared vision of a society that we can build from within the totalising behemoth of global capital. The task of reinventing society is enormous, and in order to mobilise the masses of people required to change our world, we will need a clear and at least somewhat agreed upon utopian vision. As such, I wish to present to you Library Socialism, the political ideology espoused by 'the Wrong Boys', Aaron Moritz and Shawn Vulliez, creators of the podcast Srsly Wrong.

Library Socialism is both a utopian and a pragmatic concept. It takes an existing social relation (that of the library) and expands and recontextualises it in a way that is intuitive but that holds up under deeper scrutiny. In brief, the idea is that all or very nearly all products and services will be held at and made available to people from a library. Say you want to deep-fry an entire hamburger. You don't use a deep fryer very often, so there's no reason you would have one in your house. You go to the home goods library a few streets away and check one out. Or hey, it's the near future, so maybe you order it online and a drone drops it to you. You make your greasy meal, and learning the error of your ways, you vow never to deep fry a hamburger again. Luckily, you are not saddled with an expensive and bulky kitchen item, because the end point is that the deep fryer is returned to the library.

The Wrong Boys give many examples of items that are more sensibly borrowed than owned, but which, because of our capitalist social relations, can't be held in common and instead must be held as private property. For example, tents. Tents are expensive and bulky, they're easily damaged, subject to mould, degrade while being stored and generally are only used a few days a year. Cars are indispensable but only in their function: for most people, owning a car (rather than always having access to or use of a car) is a huge nuisance, with massive costs, complex repairs, and so on. By holding these items in common and having access through a library system, most of these difficulties are solved while also massively reducing the overall total number of items produced by minimising unnecessary duplication. Benefits are created for the user, while also leading to better sustainability outcomes.

Even items that most people think of as preferable to own – for example, furniture – could be held in common. Under the system proposed by The Wrong Boys, in most cases, for most things, people are able to check out an item semi-permanently. If you're an Executive Assistant, and need a car at a minute’s notice around the clock, you'll be able to borrow one effectively permanently - maybe renewed on a yearly, or two-yearly basis. If you've moved into a new place, you can get a couch. It won't have to be returned two weeks later like a book. The idea of Library Socialism is to make objects available for people to use, not to restrict the use of those items.

There are three foundational principles of Library Socialism: usufruct, the irreducible minimum, and complementarity. These terms are all adopted by the Wrong Boys from Murray Bookchin, who advocated a sort of socialism he called Municipalism. The irreducible minimum is probably familiar to most listeners under the name of a Universal Basic Income. However, Moritz and Vulliez suggest a different conceptual framework: rather than having a basic income, they advocate for basic outcomes. The UBI, they argue, is a fundamentally capitalist approach to social welfare. It retains the fundamental bourgeois social relations of profit, personal wealth, purchasing power, commodity production and consumption, and so on, essentially just supplementing wage-labour with a certain amount of wage-non-labour.

The irreducible minimum by contrast is a concept the Wrong Boys develop from Paul Radin, an anthropologist who argued that tribal societies allow all individuals access to communal resources based on their needs, rather than limiting access based on ownership. The irreducible minimum, then, as a component of Library Socialism, is the idea that everyone should have access to the goods and services they need to maintain a high quality of life. On some level, existing libraries are already providing this in certain areas, the most obvious being education (ie, access to reputable information in the form of books), but also increasingly in other areas such as internet access, language learning, childcare, and other goods – my local library has a free cold-weather clothing rack.

If we take the irreducible minimum to a logical conclusion in the context of Library Socialism, we reach conclusions such as: libraries should include kitchens, counselling services, doctors, and have close connections with housing services or homeless shelters. These are ways of providing the irreducible minimum to those without food, shelter, medical care, and so on.  It's worth noting that none of these concepts are difficult to imagine: again, one of the most valuable things about Library Socialism is that it involves expanding and centring an existing social relation, which makes it both more accessible conceptually but also pragmatically; and it is well-documented that libraries and librarians are extremely valuable in providing people with this irreducible minimum. For example, Jane Garner (p iv) argues that libraries in prisons:

improve quality of life during incarceration, and reduce the chances of reoffending after leaving prison” and are “means of escape, a means of passing time constructively, a means of staying connected with community, both inside and outside prison, an opportunity to experience autonomy and self-responsibility and, finally, as an inadequate support for their formal and informal education and literacy development”

The second major pillar of Library Socialism is usufruct. This is a legal term that derives from two Latin words, usus ('use') and fructus ('fruit'). Usufruct, then, is the right to both use an item and to benefit from its products. It is distinct from standard ownership of property because it does NOT involve the right to damage or destroy an object, which is called abusus ('abuse'). For instance, if you buy a book, you could read it (usus), benefit from the information (fructus), and you would be perfectly within your rights to tear out each page and burn them (abusus). By contrast, existing book and tool libraries work on a usufructian system: you can use the book or tool, you can keep the information you learned or the table you built, but you can't tear up the book.

Usufruct is conceptually important for Library Socialism because it illustrates exactly WHY our default capitalist concepts of ownership are inefficient and unnecessary. To return to the example of an Executive Assistant needing round-the-clock access to a car, even the most ardent capitalist would be hard-pressed to find a reason why they need the right to smash the car with a sledgehammer. It makes vastly more sense to let people have essentially unlimited access to the use and fruits of a car without including the abusus right.

Bookchin describes usufruct as “the freedom of individuals in a community to appropriate resources merely by the fact that they are using them. Such resources belong to the user as long as they are being used. Function, in effect, replaces our hallowed concept of possession”).[4] This is subtly distinct from the Library Socialism version – Bookchin is talking about pre-capitalist societies where usufruct is a default social relation, while Library Socialism is looking forwards to a post-capitalist society, where usufruct is an organising principle. So we might imagine that in a Library Socialist society, people would not necessarily be welcome to use other people's property (whether that is something permanently owned, like furniture you've made, or something on long-term loan from a library, like a car) but they would necessarily be welcome to use items held in common at a library.

Finally, complementarity is “a way of seeing non-hierarchical difference as something generative” (Srsly Wrong ep 200). This is perhaps the most important conceptual shift from capitalist social relations to Library Socialist social relations, because unlike usufruct and the irreducible minimum, it is antithetical to the compulsory individualism and competitive drive of capitalist economies. There is a common claim that capitalism is extremely efficient – which it is in certain ways – but modern consumer capitalism involves immense duplication of effort: Nike and Adidas are in a constant arms race to develop better shoe technology. They are constantly replicating each others' developments because they are in competition with one another. Imagine how advanced our footwear would be if these two instead complemented each other's research – Nike looking at soles, while Adidas focuses on laces, or what have you.

In the context of Library Socialism, complementarity leads us to a constantly expanding realm of goods and services available at libraries. In fact, this is already happening – as mentioned above, libraries around the world have been early adopters of public computers. This is because information in books and information on the internet complement each other, and librarians, being curators of their space, understand this complementarity. This is also why so many libraries have story time, or children's entertainers: librarians know that a lot of children and parents come to libraries for books, and by providing complementary services like edutainment they can massively increase the benefits they provide to their patrons. This is also the reason for medical clinics, or physios who work at gyms; they have understood the way specialists are complementary to one another.

It is the contention of Library Socialism that libraries are the perfect locus for complementarity. They are definitionally accessible to everyone, and the non-financial relationship between the staff and the library users means that the librarians aren't incentivised to deny people access (unlike shops, where the staff are incentivised to deny access to goods until customers pay). Instead, they are incentivised to make the library as useful and beneficial as possible, which they do by curating complementarity.

To return to Garner's work on prison libraries, she argues that while libraries are beneficial for prisoners from external points of view (for example, in reducing recidivism), there are also huge benefits from the point of view of prisoners who use libraries. She quotes an inmate (pp 21-22), Knudson, who says:

More than simply providing dissipation [sic] for me when I become bored, the library provides a means of letting my mind elude the everyday monotony and tensions that can build up and cause a person to end up in solitary confinement … My institution library has become a very substantial part of my life. I do not think I would have been able to handle stressful situations if the library was not readily accessible to me. My library is more than a place to find a book. It has become a significant friend... My library has helped me find the courage and strength, not only to overcome my incarceration, but also to strive for a more honest and productive future.”

This is a very clear example of the three principles of Library Socialism in action. The library is providing Knudson with an irreducible minimum, some things that everyone should have access to: escape from monotony, relief from stress, friendship, courage, strength, honesty, and productivity. Knudson has usufruct rights – he can use the library and he retains the benefits of it, without “owning” the resources there. Complementarity is also apparent here, where the library doesn't merely provide information and literacy, but acts almost as a spiritual centre where Knudson is able to develop resilience and personal fortitude.

In conclusion, Library Socialism is an extremely valuable utopian proposal for a post-capitalist mode of production. Its three fundamental principles, the irreducible minimum, usufruct, and complementarity, are useful conceptual tools that will allow us to analyse social relations and institutions – both those that exist and those that are yet to be created – from both a utopian and pragmatic point of view. One of the major benefits of Library Socialism, as opposed to more orthodox Marxist socialisms, is that it relies on existing social relations that are well understood and can be incrementally increased in a way that, for example, vanguardist revolution does not allow for. In a time of great upheaval and social change, a shared ideal of a utopia is an incredibly valuable thing, and I commend Library Socialism to the reader as a very possible, very imaginable future that we can strive together to create.

  • [1]    The distinction is not important in this essay
  • [2]    Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy (1859)
  • [3]   This is not a quote from Marx or Engels, who never used this exact formulation, but the idea of a stateless, classless, moneyless society is laid out in Socialism, Utopian and Scientific (1880), The Communist Manifesto (1847), and elsewhere. It is most famously developed by Lenin in The State and Revolution (1917).
  • [4] The Murray Bookchin Reader, 1999 J. Biehl [Ed] p 61 <>

One Reply to “Library Socialism”

  1. The writer by frying a hamburger is canceling the recognition that animals are not fructus naturales or just a renewable resource in the garden. No socialism can be possible without acknowledging the right of usurfuction to nonhumans. The social in social relations is inclusive of sentient beings. Animals are not a commodity on the shelf of library socialism.

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