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16th April 2016

AS A MARXIST it’s encouraging to see such an variety of responses to that weighty term, Means of Production. It can sound fusty or antiquated, part of the jargon of old-fashioned “political economy.” 

But it also has a commendable clarity that cuts through the bullshit of the modern fantasy economy, wittily personified in the narrator of Featured Entry 1748.

Money is properly a means of exchange rather than production, but the blurring between the two here sends an important message. I’m reminded of a beautiful passage in Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, when a young Soviet university graduate tramps through farmland on his way to meet his fiancée and muses on the nature of capitalism:  

“...when everything was produced only in order to be exchanged; when true qualities and uses dropped away, and the human power of making and doing itself became only an object to be traded.
“Then the makers and the things made turned alike into commodities, and the motion of society turned into a kind of zombie dance, a grim cavorting whirl in which objects and people blurred together till the objects were half alive and the people were half dead ... Living money and dying humans, metal as tender as skin and skin as hard as metal, taking hands and dancing round, and round, and round, with no way ever of stopping.

Entry 1748 is less surrealist, but strikes an engaging note and allows the reader to think again about what passes for “common sense” about the way our world is run. “It could be different," the narrator concedes, echoing the immortal cry of Che Guevara: “Another world is possible.” Necessary, too!

I must also choose as a featured entry, 1752. Timely and powerful, this reads as a savage indictment of the deindustrialisation of Britain whose heart was ripped out “when our mines and our shipyards were closed,” but brings it bang up-to-date with the plight of a family thrown onto the scrapheap by the Conservatives’ refusal to save our steel. Didactic in places, but there’s a place in literature for impassioned polemic.

Many entries however shifted the focus from economic uses of the term to the “production” of humans themselves. Entry 1753 eloquently tells of the pride of a mother in the children she has raised, despite a less than admirable array of fathers; Entry 1747 transports us to a future where the pleasurable and reproductive aspects of sex have been separated, but offers a hopeful glimpse of human affection cutting through an oppressive social order; the murderous interstellar dictator ofEntry 1745, his body internally rebuilt by tiny nanobots to win him immortality, is an unforgettable character. 

But of these “left field” interpretations of the title, my winner has to be the poem: Not Today (Entry 1744). In the developed world, most of the diseases that once cut people down in their prime are beaten, but millions face a lonely and confused old age. Thatcher’s revolution dealt savage blows to the social bonds that bound us together: the end of secure, long-term employment in a single place has weakened ties to family and community and so, too many of the aged are left alone. 
1744 does not tackle loneliness as such, but in an inventive master-stroke talks of the “great factory” of the mind, grinding slowly to a halt; the protagonist is not unhappy, but: 

“the means of producing lucid thoughts had rusted.” ,
“The cluttered space was empty of all but memories
and even those held no guarantee of truth.

Such a fate may one day face us all. This is, in my view, an important poem.

About the judge

Ben Chacko is editor of the socialist daily newspaper the Morning Star and a member of the Communist Party political committee. He comes from Gloucestershire and read Chinese at Oxford University. While there he edited the Young Communist League magazine, Challenge.


My Notes