According to Need

‘From each according to ability, to each according to need’ is an old socialist slogan. Both parts of it prompt further questions, and here we will look at the second half: what are needs? How are they determined? Do people differ in what they need?

Simply put, a person’s needs are what are required to live a secure and fulfilling life. This would include at least access to adequate food, housing, healthcare, education, clothing, travel, leisure, entertainment. This is not meant to be a complete list, just an initial indication of some of the needs that people have. Poverty is sometimes defined in terms of social exclusion (see the October 2014 Socialist Standard), which means being unable to access what most people take for granted. This would cover decent housing, healthy food, good-quality healthcare, buying warm clothes, affording fares on public transport, going to the cinema, having an annual holiday. Doing useful work could be included too. These are people’s essential needs, and capitalism is often unable to ensure that they can be met. In a socialist society, nobody would be excluded in this way.

It may be said that there is a lot more that people need, or at least want, from a fast car to a top-notch stereo system, from a season ticket to their favourite football team to a luxurious second home in the countryside. In socialism people will define their own needs, and they will surely vary between individuals. But things like a fast car and a second home are really reflections of a capitalist society that puts emphasis on people’s status and showing off. Free access does not mean that people will take home with them large amounts of potatoes or toilet paper or light bulbs, as they have far more common sense than that.

A more elaborate theory of needs was outlined by the American psychologist Abraham Maslow, in an article first published in 1943. He revised his views somewhat over the years, and his work has been subject to a number of criticisms (eg that it is based primarily on consideration of white men in relatively prosperous countries). Nevertheless, it is a reasonable place to start a fuller consideration of human needs.

Maslow’s original theory involved five kinds of need. Physiological needs enable the human body to function, and include food, drink, shelter, warmth. Safety needs include protection from the elements and security from danger, whether diseases or wild animals. Love and belongingness would include friendship, intimacy, affiliation to a group. Esteem needs involve respect from others and a personal feeling of dignity and independence. Lastly, self-actualisation would cover personal potential and fulfilment. Importantly, he argued that these needs were set in a hierarchy, with more basic needs having to be satisfied before higher ones can be. Thus, we clearly have to be able to survive before we can worry about self-esteem. But, as has been pointed out, some people may struggle to meet some of their physiological needs but still have close and supportive friends and family. His later work added other kinds of need, but here we can just consider his original scheme.

A socialist world would clearly have to give priority to meeting physiological needs for the whole of the earth’s population. Nobody should go hungry or homeless, and the planet’s resources (from raw materials to machines and technology and human skills) are more than adequate to achieve this. Producing enough food to feed everybody adequately is fairly straightforward, and will be perfectly feasible in a society where the profit motive has been confined to the rubbish bin. Decent housing for all will be an essential aim, with production no longer having to worry about mortgages or affordable rents, or to directing resources to building banks or aircraft carriers.

Meeting safety needs will be a crucial issue too. If we include healthcare under this heading, there will need to be a focus on providing adequate medical care for all, from doctors, nurses, pharmacists, etc. Reducing as far as possible the number of women who die in childbirth, for instance, may well require immediate ‘investment’ in appropriate people and equipment. Depending on the extent of global warming and other aspects of climate change by the time socialism is established, there may need to be attention to supporting people who live in areas with unbearable temperatures or in danger of flooding or prone to hurricanes.

As for love and belongingness, satisfying these in socialism can hardly be guaranteed now. People may want a range of friends, a loving partner, perhaps an affectionate pet cat or dog. Friendship and relationships cannot be ensured by a social system, but a society based on co-operation rather than competition will make it far more likely that people will relate to each other in friendly and egalitarian ways. In the case of esteem, people who are no longer at the beck and call of capitalism will surely feel more independent and in control of their lives. Self-actualisation is harder to discuss, though we can say that people in socialism will be able to enjoy education, perhaps at different stages of their life, that makes them happier and better-informed, rather than fitting them for a life of wage slavery. The availability of good-quality childcare will help parents to spend time learning. People may discover skills they did not know they had.

An article in the August 2019 Socialist Standard argued that in socialism it would be possible to establish a hierarchy of needs (perhaps using Maslow’s ideas) and so classify different consumer goods to guide resource allocation. This would not mean just accepting Maslow’s views but adapting them to the situation at the time. It would also be necessary to take environmental problems into consideration, and determine whether growth should continue or whether the state of the planet would impose restrictions. But satisfying human need would be the key criterion for socialism.


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One Reply to “According to Need”

  1. I need a lot of things that I’m not getting now. I’m also getting a lot of things I don’t need. I would much prefer living in a society where I can get what I need, as long as getting it didn’t degrade the ecosphere more or cause harm to someone else.

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