Socialism and Work
When Paul Lafargue wrote his well-known pamphlet The Right to be Lazy he chose this title to parody the demand, still current today, for “the right to work”, In one sense he was right. The “right” to be employed by a capitalist is not something worth fighting for (quite apart from being unachievable). Given the demeaning and exploitative nature of employment it would indeed be better to demand the right not to work, the right to be lazy. In another sense, however, this title is misleading in that it suggests social life could continue without work, not in the sense of employment but in the sense of productive activity.
The sixties and seventies saw the growth and circulation of the idea of “the abolition of work”, of a work-less society in which production would be fully automated leaving human beings free to engage in “play” or “leisure” or “creative activity” as it was variously put. This was reflected not only in the number of books, pamphlets and articles on this theme but also in the extraordinary popularity, mainly on the strength of its title, of Lafargue’s pamphlet which went through edition after edition in nearly every West European language.
The spread of the idea of the abolition of work was positive in that it reflected the rejection, in practice also, of the capitalist “work ethic” by an increasing number of people. But it eventually became clear that the idea had not been fully worked out. Was it work as such — the expenditure of human physical and mental energy — that was being objected to, or was not the objection rather to work as employment, to work for an employer, to wage-labour? Was it not possible that the exercise of humans physical and mental faculties might even be a basic human need? Was, in any event, a fully-automated society a desirable objective? Would it be compatible with the need to conserve resources and to maintain a sustainable balance between human society and nature?
These reflections led some to conclude that the objection was indeed to wage-labour rather than to human productive activity as such and that the aim should not be to automate all productive activity but rather to achieve a society in which productive activity would become enjoyable and “creative”. This was in fact the position taken up by Lafargue’s contemporary, William Morris. And of course Fourier too had argued that work could and should be made attractive and that this was the answer to the questions, aimed at advocates of a free society, “what will be the incentive to work?” and “why would anybody want to work?”.
Some of those who came to this conclusion then went to the opposite extreme and rejected not just the aim of full-scale automation but all modern technology, suggesting that the solution was to go back to a “simple life” based on handicraft production. But this is to make a fetish of “machines” and “technology”, to attribute to them a consciousness and a will which, as inanimate objects, they don’t have. Machines and technology don’t and can’t do anything on their own. The type of machines that are constructed and the use to which they are put depend on the social context. Machines in a society geared to maximising profits will be used differently (and will tend to be different) than in a society geared to serving human needs, including the need to engage in satisfying, creative activity.
Achieving the goal of turning the necessary task of production into creative, enjoyable activity does not have to involve rejecting all modern machinery and industrial techniques; it will be attained if production, both its aims and its methods, is brought under full human control. This can only be done through the abolition of property (private and state), production for sale and profit, and working for wages. In other words, through the establishment of socialist society, which will not have to abandon industrial production, but adapt it to serving human needs.
A strong case can be made out for seeing satisfying, creative work not just as a desirable aim but as a vital human need. In any event some kind of activity, some physical and mental exercise, is necessary from a purely biological point of view since the chemical energy we acquire in the form of food must be used up in ways other than merely maintaining body temperature. So it is in the nature of humans to expend their physical and mental energies, to exercise their faculties, to work.
There is another reason why humans must expend physical and mental energy and that is to obtain from nature the food, clothing and shelter they need to survive. Since transforming nature to satisfy needs is the definition of production, this activity is productive activity and is a necessary human activity in any system of society, socialist as well as capitalist.
Etymologically, productive and creative should mean the same: the transformation of materials found in nature into something useful to human life. When something is produced by transforming nature something new, that didn’t exist before, is created. Productive activity and creative activity should therefore be synonyms but it is a measure of the extent to which productive activity has come to be debased that we should be raising the demand that it be converted from the unsatisfying, externally-imposed burden that it is for the great majority of people into a satisfying, freely-chosen activity, that productive activity should once again become “creative”.
The term “once again” is appropriate in this context since the evidence from the anthropologists is that in the original propertyless, classless – communist – condition of humanity productive activity was creative in the sense of being a satisfying, freely-chosen activity. It only became the unsatisfying, externally-imposed burden it has been for most people throughout history with the corning of propertied, class society where it became forced labour, an activity imposed by ruling classes to serve their needs.
In the sense that this original situation with regard to productive activity can be regarded as being the natural human condition then satisfying, freely-chosen productive activity (‘creative activity”) can be regarded as being just as much a human need which human society ought to satisfy as food, clothing and shelter are – and the various class societies of history, including existing capitalist society, which denied this need must be regarded as being contrary to human nature and the kind of productive activity they have imposed (slave labour, serf labour, wage-labour) as unnatural, alienated labour.
This means that there cannot be any question of distinguishing in socialist society between a “realm of necessity” (of externally-imposed activity) and a “realm of freedom” (of freely-chosen activity), where the aim would be to reduce supposedly externally-imposed productive activity to a minimum in order to have a maximum of “free” time to engage in other activities. All time must be free, otherwise society will not have escaped from the tyranny of having to economise labour-time — which is precisely the economic logic of capitalism and what is meant by the term “externally-imposed”. All productive activity, including the most routine, must become freely-chosen, work in a socialist society must be entirely voluntary.
In a society where humans are free to choose both the pace and the length of time they work, not only would the blind pressure to reduce to a minimum the labour-time needed to produce a product no longer exist, but it would become perfectly meaningless to measure the “value” or the “cost” of a product in terms of the labour-time socially necessary to make it. A society based on voluntary work would be free from such considerations. And if productive activity is enjoyable how can it be regarded as a cost?