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Basic Issues of the Social Question

Basic Issues: Chapter One: The true nature of the Social Question

On-line since: 13th July, 2002


Chapter One

The true nature of the Social Question

Does not the catastrophe of the World War demonstrate the deficiency of the thinking which for decades was supposed to have understood the will of the proletariat? Does not the true nature of the social movement stand revealed by the fact of this catastrophe?

It is necessary to ask these questions, for the demands of the proletariat, previously suppressed, are surging to the surface now that the powers of suppression have been partially destroyed. But to maintain the position which these powers took in relation to the social urges of a large part of mankind is something which can only be desired by someone totally ignorant of the indestructibility of such impulses in human nature.

Many of the key people who were able to influence the European powers which in 1914 were intent on rushing headlong into the catastrophe of war were victims of a great illusion in respect to these impulses. They actually believed that a military victory for their side would still the impending social storm. They have since had to admit that their own behaviour gave the social urges the impetus they were waiting for. Indeed, the present human catastrophe has revealed itself to be the historical event through which these urges attained to their full driving force.

During these last fateful years the leading persons and classes have had to condition their behaviour to the attitudes of the socialist circles, although if it had been possible to ignore them they would gladly have done so. The form events have since taken is the result of these attitudes. Now that a decisive stage — in preparation for decades — has been reached, a tragedy unfolds in that thinking has not kept pace with events. Many people who have been trained to think in terms of developments in which they saw social ideals are now helpless when confronted with the grave problems which the facts present.

Some still believe that their ideas concerning a restructuring of society will somehow be realized and prove sufficiently efficacious to guide events in a positive direction. The deluded opinion that the old scheme of things should be retained in spite of the demands of a majority of mankind can be dismissed off-hand, and attention should be shifted to those who are convinced of the necessity for social renewal. In any case we are obliged to admit that party platforms wander around amongst us like so many mummified ideas which are continuously refuted by the facts. These facts require decisions for which party programs are unprepared. The political parties have evolved along with events, but have fallen behind in respect of their thinking habits. It is perhaps not presumptuous to maintain that these conclusions — which are contrary to what is generally believed — can be properly arrived at through a correct appraisal of contemporary events. It is possible to deduce from this that the times should be receptive to a characterization of the social life of mankind which, in its originality, is foreign to the thinking of most socially oriented personages as well as to party lines. It is quite possible that the tragedy of the attempts to solve the social question is attributable to a misunderstanding of the meaning of the proletarian struggle — even on the part of those whose ideas have originated in that struggle. For men are by no means always able to derive correct judgements from their own desires.

It would therefore appear justified to ask the following questions: What does the modern proletarian movement really want? — and does this correspond to what is generally considered to be its objective by the non-proletariat and the proletariat alike? Does the true nature of the social question agree with what is commonly thought about it — or is a completely different way of thinking necessary? This question can hardly be answered objectively except by one who has been in a practical position to understand the modern proletarian mind, especially the minds of those members of the proletariat who have been instrumental in determining the direction which the social movement has taken.

Much has been said about the development of modern technology and capitalism, the birth of a new proletariat: and how this proletariat's demands have arisen within the new economic system. Much of what has been said is relevant, but that nothing decisive has been touched upon is evident to anyone who has not been hypnotized by the idea that external conditions determine the nature of human life, and who is objectively aware of the impulses which originate in the human soul. It is true that the demands of the proletariat have arisen during the evolution of modern technology and capitalism; but the recognition of this fact says nothing about the purely human impulse residing in these demands. As long as these impulses are not fully understood, the true nature of the ‘social question’ will remain inscrutable.

The significance of the following expression is apparent to anyone who has become familiar with the deep-seated, internal forces of the human will: the modern worker has become class-conscious. He no longer instinctively follows the lead of the other social classes; he considers himself to be a member of a separate class and is determined to influence the relations between his class and the others in a manner which will be advantageous to his own interests. The psychological undercurrents related to the expression ‘class conscious’, as used by the modern proletariat, provide an insight into the mentality of a working class which is bound up with modern technology and capitalism. It is important to recognize the profound impression which scientific teachings about economics and its influence on human destiny have made on the mind of the proletarian. Here a fact is touched upon concerning which many people who can only think about the proletarian and not with him have murky, if not downright dangerous notions, considering the seriousness of contemporary events. The opinion that the ‘uncultivated’ worker has been deceived by Marxism and the proletarian writers who promulgate it, is not conducive to an understanding of the historical situation. This opinion reveals a lack of insight into an essential element of the social movement: that the proletarian class consciousness has been cultivated by concepts which derive from modern scientific developments. The sentiment expressed in Lassalle's speech ‘Science and the Worker’ [Note 2] continues to dominate this consciousness. This may seem unimportant to certain ‘practical people’. Nevertheless, a truly effective insight into the modern labour movement requires that attention be focused on this subject. What both the moderate and radical wings of the proletarian movement are demanding reflects the economic science which has captivated their imagination and not as has been maintained, economic life itself somehow transformed into a human impulse. This is clearly illustrated by the journalistically popularized scientific character of proletarian literature; to deny it is to shut one's eyes to the facts. A fundamental, determining characteristic of the present social situation is that the modern proletarian is able to define the content of his class consciousness in scientifically oriented concepts. The working man at his machine may be far removed from ‘science’ as such; nevertheless, he hears the explanation of his situation from others whose knowledge is derived from this science.

All the discussion about the new economics, the machine age, capitalism, etc., may be most enlightening in respect to the underlying causes of the proletarian movement. However, the determining factor of the present social situation is not that the worker has been harnessed to a machine within the capitalistic system, but that certain thoughts, influenced by his dependent position within the capitalistic world order, have developed in his class consciousness. It may be that the thought habits of the present inhibit recognition of the implications of this fact and make it appear that to emphasize it constitutes no more than a dialectic game of concepts. This must be answered as follows: there is no prospect of a successful intervention in modern society without comprehension of the essential elements involved. Anyone who wishes to understand the proletarian movement must first of all know how the proletarian thinks. For this movement — from its moderate efforts at reform to its most excessive abuses — is not activated by ‘non-human forces’ or ‘economic impulses’, but by people, by their ideas and by their will.

The decisive ideas and will-forces of the contemporary social movement are not contained in what technology and capitalism have implanted in the proletarian consciousness. The movement has turned to modern science for the source of its ideas, because technology and capitalism were not able to provide the worker with the human dignity his soul needed. This dignity was available to the medieval artisan through his craft, to which he felt humanly related a situation which allowed him to consider life in society as worth living. He was able to view what he was doing as the realization of his strivings as a human being. Under capitalism and technology, however, he had no recourse but himself — his own inner being — in seeking the basis for an understanding of what a human being is; for this basis is not contained in capitalism and technology. Therefore, the proletarian consciousness chose the path of scientifically oriented thinking. The inherently human element of society had been lost. Now this happened at a time when the leading classes were cultivating a scientific mode of thinking which no longer possessed the spiritual impact necessary to satisfy the manifold needs of an expanding human consciousness. The old world-conceptions considered the human being to be a soul-entity existing within a spiritually existential framework. According To modern scientific thought, however, he is no more than a natural being within the natural order of things. This science is not experienced as a current which flows into man's mind from a spiritual world which also sustains his soul. An impartial consideration of history reveals that scientific ideation has evolved from religious ideation; this has to be admitted in spite of how one may feel about the relationship between the various religious impulses and modern scientific thinking. But these old world conceptions with their religious foundations were not able to impart their soul-sustaining impulses to modern modes of thinking. They withdrew and tried to exist outside these modes of thinking at a consciousness level which the proletarian mind found inaccessible. This level of consciousness was still of some value to the members of the ruling classes, as it more or less corresponded to their social position. These classes sought no new conceptions because tradition enabled them to retain the old. But the worker, stripped of his traditions, found his life completely transformed. Deprived of the old ways, he lost the ability to take sustenance from spiritual sources — from which he had also been alienated. Broadly speaking, modern scientism developed simultaneously with technology and capitalism, attracting in the process the faith and confidence of the modern proletariat in search of a new consciousness and new values. But the workers acquired a different relationship to scientism than did the members of the ruling classes, who did not feel the need to adapt their own psychological needs to the new scientific outlook. In spite of being thoroughly imbued with the ‘scientific conception’ of causal relationships leading from the lowest animal up to man, it remained for them a purely theoretical conviction; they did not feel the necessity to restructure their lives according to this conviction. The naturalist Vogt and the popular science writer Büchner, for example, were certainly imbued with the scientific outlook. Alongside this outlook, however, something was active in their minds which enabled them to retain certain attitudes in life which can only be justified through belief in a universal, spiritual order of things. How differently scientism affects someone whose life is firmly grounded in such circumstances and the modern proletarian who is continuously harangued by agitators during his few free hours with such things as: modern science has cured man of believing that he has a spiritual origin; he knows now that in primitive times he clambered indecorously around in trees and that he has a purely natural origin. The modern proletarian found himself confronted with such ideas whenever he sought a psychological foundation which would permit him to find his place in the scheme of things. He became deadly serious about the new scientism and drew from it his own conclusions about life. The technological, capitalistic age affected him quite differently than it did the ruling classes, whose way of life was still supported by spiritually rewarding impulses; it was in their interest to adapt the accomplishments of the new age to this life-style. The proletarian however, had been deprived of his old way of life which, in any case, was no longer capable of providing him with a sense of his value as a human being. The only thing which seemed capable of providing the answer to the question: What is a human being? — was the new scientific outlook, equipped as it was with the powers of faith derived from the old ways.

It is of course possible to be amused at the description of the proletarian's manner of thinking as ‘scientific’; but only by equating science with what is acquired through years of attendance at ‘institutes of higher learning’, and by contrasting it to the consciousness of the proletarian, who is ‘unlearned’. Such amusement ignores one of the decisive facts of contemporary life, namely, that many a highly educated person lives unscientifically, while the unlearned proletarian orients his entire way of life according to a science which he perhaps does not even possess. The educated person has taken science and pigeon-holed it in a compartment of his mind, but his sentiments are determined by societal relations which do not depend on this science. The proletarian however is obliged by his circumstances to experience existence in a way which corresponds to scientific convictions. His level of knowledge may well be far removed from what the other classes call ‘scientific’; his life is nevertheless oriented by scientific ideation. The life-style of the other classes is determined by a religious, an aesthetic, a general cultural foundation; but for him ‘science’, down to its most insignificant details, has become dogma. Many members of the ‘leading’ classes consider themselves to be ‘enlightened’, ‘free-thinking’. Scientific conviction certainly lives in their intellects, but their hearts still pulse with unnoticed vestiges of traditional beliefs.

What the old ways did not transmit to the scientific outlook was the awareness of a spiritual origin. The members of the ruling classes could afford to disregard this characteristic of modern scientism because their lives were still determined by tradition. The members of the proletariat could not — tradition had been driven from their souls by their new position in society. They inherited the scientific outlook from the ruling classes and turned it into the basis for a conception of the essence of man — a conception, a ‘spiritual substance’ which was ignorant of its own spiritual origin, which in fact denied its origin in the spirit.

I am well aware of what effect these ideas will have on non-members of the proletariat and members alike, who feel themselves to be ‘practical’ people and who consequently consider what has been said here to be remote from reality. But the facts which are emerging from the world situation will eventually prove this opinion erroneous. An objective consideration of these facts reveals that a superficial interpretation of life only has access to ideas which no longer coincide with the facts. Prevailing thought has been ‘practical’ for so long that it has not the slightest relationship to the facts. The present catastrophic world situation could be a lesson for many: what did they think would happen, and what did happen? Must this also be the case with social thinking?

I can also imagine the reproach of someone who professes the proletarian viewpoint: ‘Another one who would like to divert the basic issues of the social question on to paths which are amenable to the bourgeoisie.’ Such a person does not realize that, although destiny has placed him in a proletarian milieu, his mode of thinking has been inherited from the ‘ruling’ classes. He lives proletarian, but he thinks bourgeois. The new times do not only require a new way of life, but also a new way of thinking. The scientific outlook will become life-sustaining only if its manner of dealing with the question of a fully human content to life attains to a force equal to that which animated the old conceptions.

A path is herewith indicated which leads to the discovery of one element of the modern proletarian movement. At the end of this path a conviction is intoned in the proletarian mind: ‘I seek a spiritual life. But spiritual life is an ideology, a reflection in people of outward occurrences which does not originate in a spiritual world.’ What has emerged in modern times in the transition from the old cultural-spiritual life is regarded by the proletariat as ideology. In order to capture the mood of the proletarian mind as it manifests itself in social demands, it is necessary to realize what effect the view that spiritual life is an ideology can have. It is possible to object that the average worker knows nothing of this view, that it more likely addles the half-educated minds of his leaders. To hold this opinion is to be ignorant of the facts, is to be unaware of what has taken place in the lives of the working classes during the last decades, is to be blind to the relationship which exists between the view that spiritual life is an ideology, the demands and deeds of the so-called ‘ignorant’ radical socialists and the acts of those who ‘hatch revolutions’ out of obscure impulses.

It is tragic that there is so little empathy for the emerging mood of the masses and for what is really taking place in people's minds. The non-proletarian listens with anxiety to the demands of the proletariat and hears the following: ‘Only through socialization of the means of production is it possible for me to attain to a dignified human existence.’ What he does not realize is that his class, in the transition from the old times to the new, has not only set the proletarian to work at means of production which are not his, it has also failed to provide him with nourishment for his soul. People who think in the way described above may claim that the worker simply wants to attain to the same standard of living which the ruling classes possess, and they will ask what this has to do with his soul. Even the worker may contend that he claims nothing from the other classes for his soul, that he only wants them to stop exploiting him and that class differences cease to exist. Such talk does not reach the essence of the social question, reveals nothing of its true nature. For had the working population inherited a genuine spiritual content from the ruling classes, and not one which considers spiritual life to be an ideology, then its social demands would have been presented quite differently. The proletarian is convinced of the ideological nature of spiritual life, but becomes steadily unhappier as the result of his conviction. The effects of this unconscious misery, from which he suffers acutely, outweigh by far in importance for the present social situation the justified demands for an improvement in external conditions.

The members of the ruling classes do not recognize themselves as the authors of the militancy which confronts them from the proletarian world. But they are the authors in that they have bequeathed to the proletariat a spiritual life which is bound to be considered an ideology.

The social movement is not characterized by the demand for a change in the living standards of a particular social class, but rather by how the demand for this change is translated into reality by means of the thought-impulses of this class. Let us consider the facts for a moment from this point of view. We will see how those persons who like to think along proletarian lines smile at the contention that any spiritual endeavour could possibly contribute toward solving the social question. They dismiss it as ideology, as abstract theory. They think that no meaningful solutions to the burning social questions of the day can come from mere ideas, from a so-called spiritual life. But upon closer examination it becomes obvious that the nerve centre, the fundamental impulse of the modern proletarian movement, does not reside in what the proletarian talks about, but in ideas.

The proletarian movement is — to an extent perhaps unequaled by any similar movement in history — a movement born of ideas. The more closely it is studied, the more emphatically is this seen to be true. This conclusion has not been arrived at lightly. For years I taught a wide range of subjects in a workers' educational institute [Note 3]. Through this experience I have come to recognize what is alive and striving in the modern proletarian worker's soul; I was also able to observe the activities of the various labour and trade unions. I feel, therefore, that I do not base myself on mere theoretical considerations, but on the results of actual experience.

To know the modern workers' movement where it is being carried out by workers (unfortunately, this is seldom the case as far as the leading intellectuals are concerned) is to recognize the profound significance of the fact that a certain trend of thought has captured the minds of an exceedingly large number of people in an extremely intensive way. The fact that the social classes are so antagonistic to each other makes the formulation of a position regarding social problems quite difficult. The middle classes of today find it very difficult to identify with the working class and cannot therefore understand how such an intellectually demanding dialectic as that of Karl Marx — regardless of what one may think of its content — could have found receptivity in the virgin proletarian intelligence.

Karl Marx's system of thought can be accepted by one individual and rejected by another, perhaps with reasons which appear to be equally valid. It was even revised after the death of Marx and his friend Engels by those who saw society from a somewhat different viewpoint. I do not wish to discuss here the content of this system, which is not, in my opinion, the meaningful element in the modern proletarian movement. Its most meaningful characteristic is, to me, the fact that the most powerful impulse active in the working class world is a system of thought. No practical movement with such fundamental, everyday demands has ever stood so exclusively on a foundation of pure ideation as does this modern proletarian movement. It is the first movement of its kind in history to have chosen a scientific foundation. This fact must be properly understood. What the modern proletarian consciously has to say — program-wise — about his own opinions, his wants and his feelings, does not seem to be essential.

Most important is that the intellectual foundation for life affects the whole man, whereas the other classes restrict it to particular compartments of the mind. The proletarian is unable to acknowledge this process because the life of the intellect, of thought, has been bequeathed to him as an ideology. In reality, he builds his life on ideation, which at the same time he considers to be unreal ideology. It is not possible to understand the proletarian interpretation of life and its realization through the acts of its adherents without also comprehending this fact and its consequences for human evolution.

It follows from what has been expounded above that any description of the true nature of the proletarian social movement must give priority to a description of the modern worker's spiritual life. It is essential that the worker sense the causes of his unsatisfactory social situation and encounter the methods for changing it in this spiritual life. Nevertheless, at present he is not yet able to do anything except angrily or contemptuously reject the contention that a meaningful impellent resides in these spiritual undercurrents of the social movement. How is he to recognize an impellent, which affects himself, in what he must consider to be an ideology! One cannot expect to resolve an untenable social situation by means of a spiritual life so perceived. Due to a scientifically oriented point of view not only science itself, but also art, religion, morality and justice are considered to be facets of human ideology by the modern proletarian. He sees in these aspects of spiritual life nothing that relates to the reality of his existence and which could contribute to his material well-being. To him they are a mere reflection of the material life. Although they may indirectly react upon man's material life through the intellect or by influencing will impulses, they originally arose as ideological emanations of this same material life. He feels that they cannot contribute to the solution of social problems. The means to the end can only originate in material reality.

The new spiritual life has been passed on by the leading classes to the proletarian intellect in a devitalized form. It is of primary importance that this be understood when considering the forces to be utilized in solving the social question. Should this state of affairs remain unchanged, then the spiritual life of mankind will be condemned to impotence as far as the social challenges of the present and the future are concerned. A majority of the modern proletariat is absolutely convinced of this impotence, a belief which is brought to expression through Marxism and similar confessions. It is said that modern capitalism has evolved from older economic forms, that this evolution has placed the proletariat in an untenable position with respect to capital, that the evolution will continue until capitalism destroys itself by means of the forces inherent in it and that the liberation of the proletariat will coincide with the death of capitalism. Later socialist thinkers have divested this conviction of the fatalistic character assigned to it by certain Marxist circles. Nevertheless, its essential nature remains, as is evidenced by the fact that it would not occur to a contemporary socialist to say that the incentive for the social movement could derive from an interior life born of impulses of the times and which has its roots in spiritual reality.

The mental attitude of the person forced to lead a proletarian life is determined by the fact that he cannot cherish such expectations. He needs a spiritual life which emanates the strength to enable him to sense his human dignity. Being harnessed to the modern capitalistic economic order, his soul necessarily thirsted for some such spiritual life. But the spiritual life handed to him by the ruling classes created an emptiness in his soul. The present-day social movement is determined by the fact that the modern proletarian desires a quite different relationship to spiritual life than the contemporary social order can give him; and this is what is behind his demands. This fact is clearly [not] understood neither by the proletariat nor by the non-proletariat. The non-proletarian does not suffer under the ideological label (of his own making) attached to spiritual life. The proletarian does — and this ideological label has robbed him of belief in the sustaining value of spiritual values as such. The finding of a way out of the present chaotic social situation depends upon a correct insight into this fact. Access to this way has been closed by the social order which has evolved, along with the new economic forms, under the influence of the ruling classes. The strength to open it must be acquired.

There will be a complete change of attitude concerning this subject when sufficient importance has been attributed to the fact that a society of men and women in which spiritual life functions as an ideology lacks one of the forces which makes the social organism viable. Contemporary society has become ill due to the impotence of spiritual life — and the sickness is aggravated by reluctance to recognize its existence. By recognizing this fact we would acquire the foundation on which ideas could be developed which are truly appropriate to the social movement.

The proletarian believes that he touches on one of his soul's basic strengths when he talks of class consciousness. The truth, however, is that ever since he has been harnessed to the capitalistic economic order he has been seeking a spiritual life, one which can sustain his soul and make him conscious of his dignity as a human being — and the spiritual life considered to be ideology is not able to develop this consciousness. He has sought this consciousness, and when he could not find it he substituted the concept of class consciousness.

His gaze is directed exclusively towards economic factors, as though drawn there by a powerfully suggestive force. He therefore no longer believes that the impetus necessary to accomplish something positive in the social field can be found anywhere else. He believes that only the evolution of the unspiritual, soulless economic life can bring about conditions which he feels correspond to human dignity. He is therefore forced to seek his salvation in the transformation of economic life. He is forced to conclude that through the transformation of economic life all the injuries will disappear which derive from private enterprise, from the individual employer's egotism and inability to satisfy the employees' demands for human dignity. Thus the modern proletariat has come to see the only remedy for the social organism in the transfer of all privately owned means of production to community operation or even community property. This opinion was possible because we have diverted our attention from spiritual forces and concentrated solely on the economic process.

This is the source of the contradictory elements in the proletarian movement. The modern proletarian believes that he will attain to his rights as a human being through developments in the economic field. He is fighting for these rights. And yet, in the process something appears which could never be the result of economic activities alone. This phenomenon, which is thought to be the consequence of economic factors alone, is a very salient feature of the social question. It is a process which follows a direct line of development from ancient slavery through the serfdom of the middle ages and up to the modern proletariat. The circulation of commodities and money, the realities of capital, real estate, private property and so forth, are all elements of modern life. A characteristic of contemporary society which is not clearly identified, not even consciously recognized by the proletarian but which constitutes the fundamental impulse for his social will, is that the modern capitalistic economic order, within its own sphere of activity, recognizes only commodities and their respective values. Within this capitalistic organism something has become a commodity which the proletarian feels may not be a commodity.

The modern proletarian abhors instinctively, unconsciously, the fact that he must sell his labour power to his employer in the same way that commodities are sold in the market-place, and that the law of supply and demand plays its role in determining the value of his labour power just as it does in determining the value of commodities. This abhorrence of the commodity nature of labour power has a profound meaning in the social movement. Not even the socialist theories emphasize this point radically enough. This is the second element which makes the social question so urgent; the first being the conviction that spiritual life is an ideology.

In antiquity there were slaves. The whole person was sold like a commodity. Somewhat less of him, but a substantial part of the human being nonetheless, was incorporated into the economic process by serfdom. Capitalism is the force which persists in giving a commodity nature to a portion of the human being: his labour power. I do not mean to imply that this has not been recognized. On the contrary, it is recognized as a fact of fundamental importance in the modern social movement. Nevertheless, it is considered to be of an economic nature, and the question of the commodity nature of labour power is therewith turned solely into a question of economics. It is erroneously believed that solutions will be found in economic factors through which the proletarian will cease to consider the incorporation of his labour power in society as unworthy of human dignity. How modern economic forms evolved historically and how they gave human labour power commodity character is understood. What is not understood is that it is inherent in economic life that everything incorporated into it must take on the nature of a commodity. It is not possible to divest human labour power of its commodity character without first finding a means of extracting it from the economic process. Efforts should therefore not be directed towards transforming the economic process so that human labour power is justly treated within it, but towards extracting labour power from the economic process and integrating it with social forces which will relieve it of its commodity character. The proletarian yearns for an economic life in which his labour power can assume its rightful place. He does so because he does not see that the commodity character of his labour power is the result of his being totally harnessed to the economic process. Due to the fact that he must deliver up his labour power to the economic process, he necessarily delivers up himself along with it. The economic process, by its very nature, tends to utilize labour power in the most expedient manner and will continue to do so as long as labour regulation remains one of its functions. As though hypnotized by the power of modern economics, all eyes are focused on what it alone can accomplish. However, the means through which labour power no longer need be a commodity will not be found in this direction. A different economic form will only convert labour power into a commodity in a different way. The labour question cannot be properly integrated into the social question until it is recognized that the production, distribution and consumption of commodities are determined by interests which should not extend to human labour power.

The thinking of our times has not learned to differentiate between two essentially different functions in economic life: on the one hand labour power, which is intimately associated with the human being, and on the other hand the production-distribution-consumption process, which essentially is not. Should sound thinking along these lines make manifest the true nature of the labour question, then this same type of thinking will indicate the position economic life is to assume in a healthy social organism.

It is already apparent that the ‘social question’ may be conceived of as three particular questions. The first pertains to the healthy form spiritual-cultural life should assume in the social organism, the second deals with the just integration of labour power in the life of the community and the third concerns the way the economy should function within this community.



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