The Nature of Work Under Socialism
To some Mrs Thatcher was the anti-Christ, and there is some justice in this reprobation. But above all she was the arch anti-philosopher, the ultimate philistine, the unthinker, the stagnant pool of accumulated prejudice, a museum of reactionary forces. Yet the chord was struck, and the nation chimed to the note, as indeed the world even now still resonates from the impact of the seismic disturbance that swept through its economy, forcing all before it, and of which Thatcherism was a parochial part, neither particularly significant nor powerful in itself. But of true significance was the historical trend towards the fundamentalism of market theology, and the concomitant trend away from the values of human interaction and rational assessment and evaluation.
The re-evaluation of the present system of relations between people we may call socialist thought. Socialism asserts that the world changes in the sense that the currently-prevailing concept of human nature is not after all the absolute truth, but merely an historically contingent consequence of the equally contingent political and economic systems for the production and distribution of “goods”.
Perhaps the most crucial component in all the socialist credo of alternatives is the radically utopian concept of work. All work in socialism will be voluntary. Voluntarism is to be extended not only to the choice of occupation but the the duration, intensity and all aspects of the organization of work. It is a curious fact that the greatest advocates of “freedom of choice” consider it the greatest affront to suggest that the producers of goods should have any choice in the matter of their own occupation.
Despite the oft-deployed transparent sophistry’ calculated to show that Venezuelan gold miners and production-line workers in Eccles have freely entered into an open partnership with their employer, it is plain enough that starvation in the one case and insidious coercion in the other (e.g. the cheerful “back to work programme”, the scheme for officially persecuting the unemployed) have been the most persuasive clauses in the arguments of employers.
For the most part capitalists do not even attempt this defence: the worker must do what is necessary for the market and for profits, and the individual choice must subserve this higher need. In this world, the luxury of choosing a life of fulfilling vocational work is the reserve of the lucky few; it is not the normal condition.
- work must be done to furnish need.
- work is hated by all, therefore,
- work must be obtained by compulsion.
Yet nearly everybody seems to agree that work is a curse rather than a gift, but they confuse the nature of work with the nature of capitalism. The capitalist conception of work is founded on a philosophy of human nature, according to which a human is a “rational” creature whose greed and idleness direct them respectively to consume as much, and do as little, as possible. The absurdity of this position is obvious (try to consume without doing, or try doing without consuming), but despite its falsity it is a powerful image, sustained from above by sinecured intellectuals, and from below by a credulous proletariat. The first are sustained in their belief by a mixture of fear and vested interest, the second by inarticulation and institutionalized stupidity. However in fairness, intellectuals have never been merely the paid propagandists of mill owners, rather along with the owners of the means of production they shared an interest in perpetuating the financial institutions that supported them, and a trepidation concerning the permanent threat of revolt. The comfortable bourgeoisie seems to have long felt disturbed by the possibility of herdish multitudes rising up and wresting their comforts from them, a fear no doubt exacerbated by the feeling that the “working classes” were essentially alien, devoid of refinement or the potential for moderation.
These Morlocks, the “other” species, were just a kind of animal “with sensual desire and grovelling thought; foul of body and course of soul” (Ruskin, Ad Valorem 79).
Among nineteenth-century thinkers who were human enough to be moved by the condition of the working people, yet not so moved to overcome their prejudices towards them, were Charles Dickens and John Stuart Mill. Dickens, the author of Hard Times, effectively quarrels with the characters Bounderby and Gradgrind for reducing workers to economic and material factors of production, but would he allow those workers the helm of society? The unrestrained multitudes that run amok in A Tale of Two Cities reveal the beast Dickens believed to lurk in the common man. Animals deserve an understanding protector rather than emancipation. J.S. Mill had a similar attitude. Mill’s own life of arduous creative work did not soften him to the view that a fulfilling active life was for the lower orders:
“It is a common error of socialists to overlook the natural indolence of mankind; their tendency to be passive, to be the slaves of habit, to persist indefinitely in a course once chosen . . . they . . . will not exert themselves to improve, and letting their faculties rust, will lose even the energy required to preserve them from deterioration.” (Principles of Political Economy, 1848)
“. . . the poor labour more, and really live better, than in years of great plenty, when they indulge themselves in idleness and riot”. (Political Discourses, 1752)
“Everyone but an idiot knows, that the lower classes must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious.” (A Farmer’s Tour Through the East of England, 1771)
“It is proposed to better the condition of the labourer by giving him higher wages. He will either drag people down to the same point of misery at which you found him, or drink his wages away. He will, I know it. Who gave him this will? Suppose it were your own son of whom you spoke, declaring to me that you dared not take him into your firm, nor even give him his just labourer’s wages, because if you did he would die of drunkenness, and leave half a score of children to the parish. ’Who gave your son these dispositions — I should enquire. Has he had them by inheritance or by education?’ By one or the other they must come; anti as in him; so also in the poor. Either these poor are of a race essentially different from ours . . . or else. . . we make them as continent and sober as ourselves — wise and dispassionate as we are ” (Ad Valorem 79)
“A plentiful subsistence increases the bodily strength of the labourer, and the comfortable hope of bettering his condition, and of ending his days in ease and plenty, animates him to exert his strength to the utmost. Where wages are high, accordingly we shall find the workmen more active, diligent and expeditious, than where they are low. ” (Wealth of Nations, 1776)
“Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it, namely, that, in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers, or performing on a tread-mill, is work, whilst rolling nine pins or climbing Mont-Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service that would turn it into work, then they would resign.” (Mark Twain: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer).