What are labour vouchers?
Labour vouchers (or labour cheques, labour certificates, labour-time vouchers) are a device suggested to govern demand for goods in “socialism”, much as money does today under capitalism.
Originally proposed by Robert Owen in 1820, they were later taken up by Marx in 1875, to deal with the immediate and temporary shortages remaining from capitalism, if socialism had been established at that time.
The World Socialist Movement opposes labour vouchers entirely, because they will not be needed or desirable.
Those who support labour vouchers have several different approaches or definitions of them. We try here to clarify what labour vouchers are, and why we oppose them. In the rest of this section we use the words “paid”, “earned”, “purchase” and similar words to mean actions in “labour voucher socialism” that would be similar to what those words mean today.
Labour voucher supporters hold the following general beliefs:
Most labour voucher supporters agree that:
- Labour vouchers are paid for hours of labour performed.
- Labour vouchers are not money.
- Labour vouchers are used to purchase goods and services.
But they disagree with each other:
- How are labour vouchers apportioned?
- Each worker gets the same quantity for each hour worked. If the agreed upon rate is 100 labour vouchers for 1 hour, everyone who works for one hour gets 100 labour vouchers.
- The number of labour vouchers paid per hour depends upon the difficulty or desirability of the work performed.
- Temporary or Permanent?
- Labour vouchers are a temporary measure. The general feeling here seems to be that people are used to money now and need time to wean themselves from it.
- Labour vouchers will be permanent. These advocates say that society needs some method to restrict access to goods, and/or that without them there is no way to determine what items should be produced in what quantity when there are conflicting desires for goods.
- What about those who do not or cannot work?
- Basic necessities should be free to all.
- Enough labour vouchers should be given out to those who do not work (or don’t work enough) to ensure that they can afford basic necessities (and perhaps more).
- Enough labour vouchers should be given out to those determined (by someone or some group) to be needy, or justifiably unable to work, to ensure that they can afford basic necessities (and perhaps more).
- What about non-traditional work, or work not paid today? (housework, art, etc.)
- Pay for housework, art etc. on an hourly basis like any other work. (possibly including difficulty factors, etc.)
- Pay for art based upon desirability: how many people go to see it or some such measure.
- Straight exchange: art is purchased with labour vouchers for whatever the buyer and seller agree upon.
- Can labour vouchers circulate?
- No. Once a purchase is made the labour vouchers are either destroyed, or must be re-earned through labour.
- Yes. It appears that there are few who believe that labour vouchers should circulate like money, but there are those who believe that they can be “invested” (although not for profit, proponents assure), or that when something is purchased, the seller could use them for their own purchases.
While supporters of labour vouchers have different approaches or ways of stating their beliefs, this broad-brush approach does give a good general feel for the range of ideas of those supporting labour vouchers.
Socialism means free access to the goods and services produced by society without any exchange, barter, trading, labour vouchers, or money. Instead of arguing specifics socialists argue against the whole concept of labour vouchers.
- The technical ability exists today to produce, in an ecologically responsible manner, more than enough to satisfy the self-defined needs of the world’s population. There will not be a shortage of goods and therefore, artificial access limitations—labour vouchers—will not be required.
- It is obvious that if everyone decided that they needed everything, free access could not work. If people want socialism to work, they must decide that they will not work to destroy it. Common sense will prevent outrageous overconsumption.
The WSM has always said that socialism cannot be established by 51% of the working class. The conscious support for socialism by the vast majority is key to the success of socialism. If only 51% of the working class support socialism and they haven’t thought it out, then failure is certain. If the vast majority of the working class understands and supports the ramifications of socialism, then success is guaranteed.
Labour vouchers, given that they are unnecessary, are undesirable
- Labour vouchers would tend to maintain the idea that our human worth is determined by how much or how many goods we can own (or produce).
- Labour vouchers require administration. People must spend time administering the labour vouchers themselves—who gets them (and how many), how they are reused or destroyed, etc.
- Labour vouchers imply that someone must police who takes the goods produced by society. In other words there must be people who spend their time ensuring that other people do not take things without paying for them. That is normal in a profit oriented society, but a waste of human labour in socialism.
Labour vouchers, as suggested by some, are money
- If “labour vouchers” circulate, they are money, no different from today and should be called money. Labour vouchers cannot circulate.
- If used as originally intended, to account for hours worked, and goods taken, they are not money as meant in the broader capitalist sense. Although for workers the everyday use of labour vouchers would be very similar, labour vouchers could not be used to accumulate the means of producing wealth, which is a very important difference. Their only purpose would be to limit consumption and enforce work. Note that enforcing work was not the initial idea, but has become, to some, an important feature.
In any case, socialism will be a society of free access and voluntary labour. There will be no need for labour vouchers.
- In socialism, perhaps 50% or more of the work done under capitalism will not be needed. The people currently doing that work will then be available to perform useful work. This will allow for a significant reduction in the average work day.
- Instead of the profit motive standing in the way of production and responsible production techniques, production will be able to meet people’s needs.
People will make rational consumption choices.
- Today, goods are produced to make a profit. It is therefore important to sell them, and in order to do that people must be convinced to buy the goods. It does not matter that the goods may have little or no real utility, the important consideration is selling them. With this in mind, advertising creates needs. Goods which never existed before, suddenly become absolute requirements—then they sit in closets, unused.
A large section of the genre of time-saving appliances is geared to a market that must be convinced that taking 5 seconds to chop a carrot (or whatever) for supper is too long: it can supposedly be done in 1 second if only the consumer purchases the latest, greatest appliance. That is wasteful of the earth’s resources and of the labour required to produce those appliances. Without a huge advertising industry pushing the consume, consume, consume ethic at us, most people will not object to spending an extra few seconds doing household chores.
- Many consumer goods are used rarely. Perhaps sharing them in a neighbourhood will replace the idea that everyone needs one of everything. This will reduce the number of these items required. That means reduced production and reduced scarcity (and therefore no need to limit access to these goods).
Some simple examples:
- Lawn mowers: Maybe five or ten per block will supply the needs of everyone on the block. And maybe some avid gardeners, because they enjoy it, will do the yards of other neighbours.
- Automobiles: Most cars sit idle for most of the day, some are used only a few times a month. Combined with intelligent changes in how we work, an appropriate transit system in most towns and cities can easily eliminate the need for many cars, without significantly increasing inconvenience to people who, today, drive to work. There is no reason that every family will want to own one or more cars (as is almost an accepted norm in countries such as the United States and Canada).