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Work as it is, as it could be

“That would never work!”

A typical response, I imagine, to the description of a socialist society, where people work because they want to, on a voluntary basis. Such a society would not work, we are told, because no one in it would do any work.

However, that view of work as, well, work—rather than something enjoyable—tells us more about today’s society, where our motivation to work is primarily the need to pay rent and put food on the table. Immersed as we are in this reality, it is not surprising that it shapes our view of labour in general (past, present and future), so the idea of a society based on labour performed willingly, without any form of coercion, seems ludicrous to most people.

Given that typical outlook, it is not easy to convince someone of the necessity and feasibility of a fundamentally new mode of labour by simply elaborating the description of work in the future (which can never be an exact blueprint). No matter how appealing that future society might appear, compared to present-day reality, it will probably still seem to be a figment of the imagination.

A better approach, I think, is to start with the present, looking at the work-related problems we face and considering their root cause. On that basis it should become clearer that socialism is not an idle dream but the real solution to undeniably real problems, and that the workplace problems we experience today can also be solved by, or will cease to exist in, that new form of society.


Work problems

Most of us have first-hand experience of bad jobs, so there is no need to present concrete examples here. But if we consider why a particular job is unpleasant it generally comes down to one or a combination of the following factors: long hours, low pay, high intensity, monotony, and (for lack of a more precise category) the boss. We know all of this—perhaps too well—but here I want to consider the reason why these problems occur.

That answer is not hard to find if we reflect, just for a moment, on the essential nature of capitalism as a society where production is a means of generating profit for a minority ruling class that owns and controls the means of production. It is no exaggeration to say that those two closely intertwined facts (i.e., the profit motive and class ownership) are at the root of most of the problems we face at the workplace.

The hunger for profit is insatiable; no capitalist will settle for a five percent profit if there is a chance to get six. This is not merely a question of individual greed, but the systematic pressures of competition that capitalists ignore at the risk of ceasing to be capitalists. This drives them—not unwillingly—to squeeze as much surplus value out of workers as possible, whether by prolonging the working day, lowering wages, or increasing the intensity of labour. All of this goes without saying, I think, and the direct connection to workplace problems is equally clear.

But even setting aside the impact of profit chasing on the labour process, we are still left with the fundamentally undemocratic workplace. Those who own or control the means of production call the shots (and pocket the profits), whether we are dealing with a small company, a corporation, or a state-owned enterprise. The workers, meanwhile, have no choice but to work in the manner assigned to them. No matter how enjoyable the work itself might be, this lack of control over the labour process (not to mention over hiring and firing decisions) contributes to the dissatisfaction we experience at our jobs.

Idle hands?

Considering the fact that the labour process is a means of generating profit for a minority class that directs that process, it is no wonder that a certain gloom hangs over workers on their morning commute. Those looking down on them from the comfort of the executive boardroom might take it as proof of the inherent laziness of people—or at least of other people. This idea of a slovenly human nature is ironically (or perhaps naturally) most prevalent among the “leisure class,” who look to the pressure of competition to whip the lazy workers into shape.

It should be obvious, though, that people are far from being lazy by nature. Nearly everyone, except the most demoralized or pampered, is eager to find worthwhile work. And if we cannot find enjoyment or self-fulfilment in the jobs we do to earn a living, we will try to find those qualities in the activities we pursue in our “free” time.

One reason we may underestimate the desire to work is that those leisure time activities come under the category of “hobbies,” even though they do not always differ in substance from types of labour performed for wages. What tends to make a hobby enjoyable and fulfilling is precisely the qualities so often lacking in the jobs done to earn a living. Instead of being a way to benefit others, performed under their direction, a hobby is an activity pursued for its own sake that can be a means of self-development and self-fulfilment.

The same thirst for and enjoyment of meaningful labour can also be seen in our attitude towards the jobs we must do to earn a living. Despite all of the drawbacks that stem from the profit motive, as sketched above, our jobs can still be a source of satisfaction and self-development and we can find ourselves engrossed in the work itself without always thinking about the end of the working day or the upcoming paycheck. Indeed, unless we had this capacity to enjoy work—and to seize on those worthwhile aspects of our jobs—the bosses (who complain about “lazy workers”) would be very hard-pressed to obtain any work, and hence profits, from their employees.

A social change

The aversion to work that is not uncommon today is certainly not due to inherent human laziness or the general nature of labour itself; it stems rather from the problems arising from its function as a means of profit making for a minority capitalist class. So as long as the current social system remains in place, we will be stuck with the problem of long working hours, tedium, and high intensity.

The solution to those workplace problems, along with a whole string of other problems, is thus a fundamental social change that establishes a new form of society, where production is no longer subjected to the logic and tyranny of capital. That is an unprecedented change, certainly, which still seems impossible to most people today, but socialists are convinced that it is both possible and urgently necessary.

I should note, though, that the creation of a fundamentally new society will not take us into the realm of science fiction, as human beings will still be obliged to carry out labour in order to produce the material wealth that makes our continued existence possible. Socialism will not free us from the need for productive activity, but rather alter the form and purpose of that activity. Simply put, production in a socialist society will become a means of satisfying the various needs of the members of society as decided democratically by those members themselves

Work transformed

The fundamental reorientation of society following a socialist revolution will obviously have an enormous effect on the labour process and the personal experience of work.

The first change that seems likely, for a number of reasons, is a major reduction in the length of the working day. This will be possible, first of all, because production will only be intended to satisfy the needs of society’s members, as determined by them, so there would be little incentive to continue working beyond that point, thereby piling up unwanted goods and squandering natural resources. Unlike today, any increase in the productivity of labour, so that more goods can be produced using less labour-time, could immediately shorten the length of work for individuals. And there would not be the terrible waste of labour we see today under a system where goods are produced for a fickle market, rather than to directly satisfy needs, and may thus rot on store shelves or in warehouses if not purchased (particularly at the outset of an economic downturn).

Another reason that the working day may become the working morning or afternoon is that the relative size of the pool of adults willing and able to perform the productive labour, which produces the wealth of society, will increase with the addition of the unemployed and those engaged under the current system in unproductive labour (e.g., bankers, lawyers, salesmen, etc.). The entire financial sector, for instance, will no longer have a reason for existence in a society where products are not bought and sold on the market. Other unproductive individuals include gamblers, prostitutes and criminals, as well as the entire capitalist class. In a socialist society, all of these people can contribute to the production of the material wealth that is the fundamental basis of human life.

The shorter working day is only a quantitative change, of course, but it would bring about an immediate improvement in the quality of our lives, as we can easily imagine. Even if we consider our jobs today, a significant reduction in the working day (provided the intensity of labour remains unchanged) would make most jobs, at the very least, far more bearable, and allow us to engage in other activities we find more agreeable.

More significant, however, is the qualitative change in the labour process and in our attitude towards work once labour has solely become a means of improving our lives and production decisions are made democratically by the members of society themselves, who collectively control the means of production and have free access to the goods that are produced. Marx describes this new society as an “association of free individuals, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labour-power in full self-awareness as one single labour force” (Capital, vol. 1). In this socialist society, the production process would become transparent; individuals could easily grasp the connection between the labour they and others perform and improvements in their own and other people’s lives. This is a qualitative change not only from the perspective of the labour process of society as a whole, but also in terms of the attitude that each individual would likely have towards work.

Another important qualitative change in the labour process and our view of it stems from the fact that each individual within the “association” or community will be actively involved in making the important decisions regarding production. Those decisions would be made by them democratically, according to the simple criterion of improving the quality of their own lives. That tangible democracy contrasts sharply with the utter lack of influence workers today have on the decisions regarding production and the labour process, which are nominally made by capitalists and politicians but in fact dictated by the impulses of capital. In socialism, the members of the society will be able to decide on the plans for production (and other aspects of life) and then work together to realize them, without sacrificing their own needs for the sake of profitability.

In the process of collectively making those decisions one can imagine all sorts of issues that might be debated. Certainly there is the question of what to produce and in what quantity. But in addition to such matters, close attention will also be paid to what might be called the qualitative or even aesthetic aspects of the labour process, reflecting the fact that the entire society is now oriented towards improving the level of human life. This means that there would be an effort to make the experience of work itself is as enjoyable and fulfilling as possible. All of the decisions would also have to take into consideration the resources available, both in the present and future, so that a short-term gain in the quality of life does not lead to disaster for latter generations. These are some examples of the big questions that might be considered, but there would be countless others, covering every imaginable aspect and consequence of the labour process.

So, to finally return to the initial question about voluntary work, will people actually work on a voluntary basis in a socialist society? Or would they only take advantage of the free access to goods and not participate in the work to produce those goods?

My answer, of course, is that the vast majority of people would be willing, and perhaps eager, to work in a society where the benefits of their own labour, both to themselves and the community at large, are clear and where they themselves make all of the decisions regarding production. There may be a few individuals who choose to do nothing, or at least nothing that adds to the wealth of society, but I imagine they will be looked on with pity, rather than any sort of anger, just as we might view a person today who has no vital interest in life. It seems safe to say that most will voluntarily work as a way to both develop themselves and improve their own lives through the fruits of that labour.