When we speak of work in the social or economic sense, we mean the expending of physical and mental energies upon means of production—either directly, in the creation of wealth, or indirectly in the distribution and administration which arise from production.
Because under capitalism the means of production belong to a minority, the capitalist class, work is earned out under the antagonistic relationship of employer to employee. Therefore, when the Socialist refers to members of the working-class as wage-slaves, he is sticking strictly to what is socially and economically accurate. Workers are compelled to seek out a member of the owning class, or someone who acts on his behalf, like a foreman, manager or state official, in order to offer for sale his physical and mental powers to work. These powers are part of his person and cannot be sold apart from him. The price, be it relatively high or low, which the worker obtains, is commonly referred to as wages. There are, unfortunately, many workers who find the acceptance of their class position distasteful and prefer to call their wages a salary. Such attitudes are skilfully pandered to by the capitalist class and by the politicians who shape their vote-catching accordingly. But they do not affect the facts of the situation one iota.
In order to wrest from nature the wherewithal to live, men have always had to work. Regardless of the claims made for electronics and automation, they will always have to do so. Nor is a situation wherein men did not have to work the least bit desirable. The great crime of capitalism is that it reduces the class that works to simply chasing pay-packets, so that money becomes the object of all social productive activities, and the work itself regarded as an evil necessity.
The idea of doing something useful and taking pleasure in doing it well, is something which survives only faintly, and against tremendous pressure. Capitalism, with its profit motive, so distorts and debases everything that people, for example, whose job it is to tell lies on television commercials are held in higher regard than road-sweepers.
We are taught that it is important to be successful. But here again, capitalism measures success in money terms. If one is an architect, one is successful. If one is a bricklayer, despite the mutual dependency of the two, success is somehow not thought to be a relevant term. To be a good carpenter has nothing to the social esteem that being a pop-singer has. Carpentry can be immensely interesting creative work, but here another aspect of capitalism comes in—the lack of fulfilment. It is the repetition and frustration in most people’s lives under capitalism that gives pop-singers and such their exaggerated importance. They represent outlets—avenues of escape from a world which would otherwise drive more people mad than it already does. Even the carpenter has to use cheap materials and speed up his work because capitalism says, “time is money.” What pleasure can he get from making hundreds of front doors out of battens and hardboard and filling the hollow with chippings?
It is a remarkable thing that workers in many industries, such as clothing, food and building, spend their lives producing the sham and the shoddy for themselves, and the expensive and luxurious for the wealthy. But despite the absurdity, few seem to notice it.
The answer is to be found in what passes for the “ideology’’ of capitalism. The worker is taught from the earliest age to keep his place and to regard himself as one of the lower orders whose good fortune it is to be allowed to work for an employer. The pulpit, the press, the schools and the state combine to persuade the worker that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” The employer is presented as a noble fellow, a veritable pillar of society whom we would all be lost without. He has got where he is through drive and enterprising zeal and if we work hard enough, and long enough, we too can rise to be captains of industry.
The capitalist class themselves find it necessary to devise a variety of means to make wage-slavery more acceptable. Having removed the pleasure from work and spread the notion that the only possible incentive is money, they have made work a drudge. Instead of workers willingly and happily doing something which they find interesting and can see to be useful, they largely resent the daily grind. It is common opinion that nobody really wants to work. Yet what is really objectionable is the oppressive conditions under which work is carried on. The time-clock, the army of foremen, music while you work, and the constant attempts to speed up, all testify to the antagonism between capitalist and worker. Although the existence of the class struggle is strenuously denied by the apologists of the system, we still find workers organised in trade unions, and employers in various associations, to wrangle interminably about the degree and conditions of exploitation.
The antagonistic relations of production will be abolished with the establishment of Socialism. The merchandising of human energies will end when the separation of the producers from the means of production is finished. The poverty and insecurity of the working-class is inseparable from the wages-system. Workers can be hired and fired according to the state of trade. When a slump comes along, the mass of unsaleable wealth coexists with the increased privation of the producers. Socialism means making the productive resources the common property of society. When people are socially equal there will be a real incentive to work. The only end in view will be the satisfaction of human needs. Money will no longer dominate our thoughts and actions. With the removal of capitalism from the world, all the dirty work of armaments, armies, navies and air-forces and the useless monotony of banking, insurance, and commercial advertising will disappear.