The real dirty work
Socialism will eliminate capitalism’s dirty work
‘Who will do the dirty work?’ is a question that socialists often hear, whether from inveterate opponents or those who have just come across the socialist case. The questioner usually has in mind jobs such as collecting the bins, sweeping the streets or working in the sewers. The reason why people ask about this kind of work is that it is clearly useful, indeed essential: without collection of rubbish, for instance, towns and villages would soon disappear under a pile of filth and rats.
The standard answer to the ‘dirty work’ question is to say that a socialist society would try to automate such work, or make it less unpleasant, or organise a rota or call for volunteers. Since there will be no employment or jobs in socialism, certainly nobody will be condemned to do such work forty hours a week for years on end.
Charles Fourier once suggested that children, who love dirt, should be the ones to do the dirty work. That will probably not be acceptable as a solution, but it at least illustrates one of the possibilities.
However, there is another way of approaching the question: to ask what work truly counts as dirty. For cleaning toilets and removing industrial waste may not be very nice, but there is other work which is dirty in the very real sense of being anti-human, concerned with damaging people rather than helping and benefitting them. This is work which will not be needed in socialism, where all human activity will take place to satisfy people’s needs.
The armed forces, for instance, exist to defend the interests of the ruling class of whichever country they serve. To do this, their members must be prepared to kill, injure, maim and torture, under the orders of their commanding officers. Spies, secret agents and government assassins have essentially the same professional mission. And soldiers don’t just kill: they also die in the interests of a class of parasites. Learning to be a good soldier, sailor or airman/woman involves unquestioning acceptance of orders and soul-destroying drills intended to inculcate discipline and obedience. The humanity of soldiers and their victims are both dismembered by war and the training that prepares for war.
Those who work in arms factories, designing and building the weapons that soldiers use are doing another kind of dirty work. Making guns, bullets, missiles and bombs means making ways of killing and maiming other human beings. Socialist society will know no wars or armed forces, so using and making these weapons — probably the dirtiest work that can be conceived of — will simply not take place.
Other dirty work involves depriving workers of their homes, cars or whatever if they cannot pay for them. Bailiffs are deliberately concerned to prevent people from meeting their needs for accommodation and so on, including the most basic needs of all. Sadly, the poverty that drives workers to labour for a wage can lead them to take jobs that cause them to act in a thoroughly nasty and inhuman way to their fellow workers.
Many would no doubt include employment in slaughterhouses as another example of dirty work: killing animals, often in appallingly unhygienic conditions, so that people can eat meat. Much other employment is numbingly routine, repetitive and boring, perhaps taking minutes to learn and yet forming the basis for a lifetime of labour.
This is anti-human too: it reduces people to mere appendages of a machine (whether lathe or computer) and robs them of their freedom and creativity. Human work should if possible be interesting, varied and fulfilling, and such routine work is none of these. William Morris wrote an essay with the significant title ‘Useful work versus useless toil’, and boring unhuman labour is definitely toil.
We have not even mentioned work that is part and parcel of the money system, from banking to insurance, from shops to accountancy. This cannot be compared to killing in the armed forces, but it is not about meeting human need, not about producing useful goods and services (food, homes, clothes, health care, transport, leisure activities). It is essentially useless work rather than intrinsically anti-human (though of course it can be just as boring as anything mentioned in the previous paragraph).
Work which produces genuinely useful things is bound to be more satisfying than work which is pointless or just produces luxuries for the idle rich.
It should also be emphasised that, in describing some work as dirty and anti-human, we are not attacking those workers who are forced to do these jobs. They are exploited like all other workers, and their interests lie equally in ending capitalism and establishing socialism. No member of the Socialist Party is allowed to join the armed forces, since we are not prepared to kill and be killed for ‘queen and country’, but we do not regard soldiers, bailiffs and so on as enemies of the working class.
So if sceptics ask you about dirty work in socialism, get them to reflect on what really counts as dirty work.
Under capitalism, much work is not just useless and wasted but actually designed to be anti-human and to kill and damage people. This is the true dirty work, just the kind of degrading labour that will not be necessary in a socialist society.