1990s >> 1994 >> no-1077-may-1994

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.

Socialist Thought
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.

No defence
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.

How has it come about that the most essential part of existence, that of what a human person is to do with their life by means of work, has been refused admission to those things that are left to choice? In a nutshell the received wisdom states:
  1. work must be done to furnish need.
  2. work is hated by all, therefore,
  3. work must be obtained by compulsion.


Concerning premise (2), the history of work has indeed been a succession of misery, drudgery and oppression.


Hell of toil


It may indeed be historically true that in certain stages of human development, it was absolutely necessary that the great majority of humans had to be cast into a hell of unremitting toil. But for socialists, work is not inherently unpleasant. On the contrary, the “hardship” of labour, or the production of goods, is no longer even to be sharply separated from their consumption, or the “reward” of labour, since both are necessary for the harmony of the human being. The mastication of food, the exertion of muscle and brain, are not only equally important for life, but equally desirable for any balanced person.


Work may have hitherto been extracted by a species of social contract whose terms are ones of coerced servility, where “the elevation of the few is founded on the degradation of the many” (T.H. Green 1881). But these terms are not characteristics of work itself, only of the contemporary capitalist arrangement and are insisted upon in order to ensure the pliancy of the workforce. Consequently, the socialist rejects the punitive attitude towards work, for in socialism work is to be made pleasant. And if work is pleasant, then the main objection to it being made voluntary is removed.


Curse of work?


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.

Grovelling animals
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)


Mill was not stupid, but intelligence is a weaker force than prejudice.


Brilliant stupidity


The history of thought is littered with examples of brilliant men thinking stupid things. Another great philosopher who was twisted by bigotry was David Hume:


“. . . 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)


A lesser figure, Arthur Young, preached the orthodoxy as follows:


“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)


The most remarkable thing about these insights into the forces governing the behaviour of the toiling classes is how easily the authors exempt themselves from their operation.


Selfless devotion
“Human nature” is for others, not for the sons of the aristocracy who toil at art or criticism or at philosophical tracts on human nature, not for the aspiring middle-classes who devote themselves selflessly to public service or career. No, only the incontinent masses seem to be subject to the universal laws of the human species.


Yet the socialist, perhaps surprisingly also has allies amongst these comfortable intellectual classes. Strangest of them is John Ruskin (1819-1900), (“I am a Socialist of the most stem sort — but 1 am also a Tory of the sternest sort”). Ruskin, cloistered academic and critic, nevertheless had the intellect to challenge the received concept of human nature and labour.


That concept of the guzzler, the idler is the target of Ruskin’s biting satire:


“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)


The notion of the shirking, propagating, drinking, working classes survives down to the present.


The Child Support Agency is clearly a descendant of the fear of feckless scroungers leaving “half a score of children to the parish”. For “parish” read “income support” and nothing has changed.


The idea that better wages for workers will not ensue in a riot of drunkenness and fornication receives most surprising support from that guru of laissez-faire economics, Adam Smith (1723-90):


“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)


This is not a description of an inherently lethargic creature. The tendency of humans to remain endlessly motionless has been greatly exaggerated. A life-time of meaningless slavery and overwork indeed gives an appealing aspect to the possibility of its permanent remission. But we look at life from a distorted position, one of battered submission and a routine of pointless drudgery.


The point of socialism is to remove the malignant influence of capitalism which poisons our attitude to production and alienates us from its purposes.




The essential purpose of work is not to make profits, and consequently the act of labour is not essentially vile. Labour may indeed be a devil while encased in Mammonism, but freed from that prison, the purpose of work is revealed in a truer light, and is two-fold: firstly to provide the goods of life, whether food, tables, transport, health, books, music or knowledge; and secondly to provide satisfaction in the process of producing these goods.


No work which does not satisfy both these requirements will be considered necessary in socialism. The act of producing goods (as opposed to profits or “bads”) is precisely what ensures this satisfaction. This being so, coercion, punishment or persuasion is not necessary for the securing of those human activities essential for the products of civilization. It is not beyond human wit to devise a system to combine our need to work, our need to be valued, our need for regard and for self-regard, with those things which need to be done. It is not beyond our wit to combine our freedom, i.e. our voluntarism, with our needs.


The paradigm shift required to understand the transition from capitalist work to socialist work may however be beyond many a great philosopher. Unfortunately many elderly philosophers suffer from a severe ease of hardening of the categories, and would rather stick to fox hunting than consider a novel idea. In many ways children are better philosophers than their long-robed superiors, since they have not yet become set in their ways.


Higher understanding
One small boy in particular, albeit a fictional one, demonstrates a higher understanding of people’s relation to work than a flock of Oxford dons:


“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).

Norman Armstrong