Work, Capitalism, and Socialism

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“It sounds good on paper, but socialism will never work, because if everybody gets everything they need whether they work or not, then there is no incentive to work at all!” This is one of the most typical and caricatured arguments against socialism.

low-wage-factory-workersCapitalism has had over two centuries to prove to the working class that it is the best system possible and that working under capitalism will make you happy as long as you work hard. Strangely enough, a report published in 2010 shows that the U.S. job satisfaction is at the lowest level it has been for two decades, and it also indicates that job satisfaction despite up-and downswings in the economy—is continuously spiraling downwards. A recent Gallup poll shows that 71% of American workers are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” from their work regardless of where on the income ladder they fall.

These findings seem to confuse bourgeois economists because in an economy like this, people “should be grateful to have a job.” As they are not able to see beyond the narrow limits of capitalism, they are incapable of finding a real explanation and solution.

Among politicians and companies, the study has sparked a fear for decreasing innovation, and therefore, decreasing success among American companies, thus further exacerbating the economic crisis.

On the other hand, the survey has created an increased focus on what it is that makes workers happy in their jobs and therefore more productive. The results of this research might not surprise you—but the implications are much more far-reaching than most capitalists would like.

Side effects of the system: Sickness and suicides

Before moving on to describe the positive outcomes of working, let us take a look at the consequences of not being engaged in your job or being unemployed.

According to Gallup, “American workers who are emotionally disconnected from their work and workplace are about as likely as the unemployed—but far less likely than those who are engaged in their jobs—to report they are in excellent health.”

In previous articles in Socialist Appeal we have described the effects of lack of access to basic health care in the U.S. The already unequal health care system in the United States became even more inaccessible after the crisis, and this is not a phenomenon reserved for this great capitalist country alone.

According to Reuters: “Austerity is having a devastating effect on health in Europe and North America, driving [up] suicide, depression, and infectious diseases and reducing access to medicines and care . . . ”

At least 5 million Americans have lost access to health care directly because of the crisis.

A trend becomes clear when looking at all the recent statistics: not only are more people unhappy with their jobs, more people are depressed, more people are in bad health—and it is no longer the youth and older adults who dominate the numbers.

Since 2009, the number of deaths by suicide have exceeded the number of people killed in car accidents in the U.S. According to previous statistics, people under 35 or older adults are more likely to commit suicide, but the most recent numbers suggest a dramatic increase in suicides among middle-aged people between 35 and 64 years old over the last decade. Not coincidentally, the same age group dominated those disengaged in their work in the Gallup survey, as well as those who are more unhealthy.

The Centers for Disease Control states: “Possible contributing factors for the rise in suicide rates among middle-aged adults include the recent economic downturn (historically, suicide rates tend to correlate with business cycles, with higher rates observed during times of economic hardship).”

And further: “These results highlight the need for suicide prevention strategies that address mental health issues and the stresses and challenges that middle-aged adults are likely to face. Such stresses include economic challenges, dual caregiver responsibilities (children and aging parents), and potential health problems.”

What these strategies might be, we are not told.

No Confidence

Socialist Appeal has many times explained the impact of the crisis on American society. Below are some recent numbers from a report published in the beginning of this year called “Diminished Lives and Futures: A Portrait of America in the Great-Recession Era.” The report states that: “Some 73 percent [of Americans] either lost a job themselves, or had a member of their household, a close relative, or a friend lose a job at some point in the past four years . . . Those who were laid off during the recession and fortunate enough to find new employment are generally settling for less in their new positions.”

The most disconcerting finding is that people generally do not have any confidence that the economy will recover any time soon. “Just 32% believe that economic conditions will be better next year. An equal number believes they will actually get worse . . . When asked how long they thought it will take before the economy is fully recovered, just 12% say they expect this to happen in the near future (one or two years). One-third think full recovery is three to five years away. The majority (54%) either think it will take between 6 and 10 years (25%), or say that America will never (29%) fully recover from the Great Recession, or that they don’t see this happening within a decade.”

Though the U.S. technically isn’t in a recession any longer, this shows that the Americans don’t have much confidence in an improvement of their lives in the future. One might say that though capitalism sounds good on paper the reality is nothing but a human disaster—even in the most advanced capitalist country on earth.

Alienation, or, What work is like under capitalism

“I did not understand till long afterwards why this labor was really hard and excessive. It was less by reason of its difficulty, than because it was forced, imposed, obligatory; and it was only done through fear of the stick . . . It once came into my head that if it were desired to reduce a man to nothing—to punish him atrociously, to crush him in such a manner that the most hardened murderer would tremble before such a punishment, and take fright beforehand—it would be necessary to give to his work a character of complete uselessness, even to absurdity.”

These words of Dostoyevsky describe the torture of prison work, i.e., the torture of being forced to do endless work for no real purpose or recognition. It should not be a surprise to anybody that the recent research in well-being and productivity show that this kind of work—cyclical, boring, routine work, even when it is remunerated, is demoralizing and does not increase productivity, but quite the opposite.

Not being engaged in your work is the result of being alienated from it. Capitalism exists on the basis of social production of wealth, with private appropriation of the surplus. What does this mean? It means that production under capitalism has been concentrated, expanded, and developed on such a vast scale that only on the basis of some form of planning and collaboration can society produce the things we need.

It also means that although the majority of the population works to produce commodities and services, we do not own the means of production, which are owned by a handful of capitalists. Nor do we get much more than the bare necessities as the fruit of our labor. The product of our creativity, brains, nerves, and bodies is not our own. What we produce while at work belongs to someone else, as what we produce is intended above all for sale by the capitalists on the market. This is what Karl Marx termed alienation.

“The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it.”

One might think that if working is so unpleasant, people should be happy to be unemployed. But this is simply not true. Loss of income and access to housing and health care for yourself and your family is devastating. Even in countries with free health care, free education, and high unemployment benefits, unemployment causes higher rates of mortality, depression, high blood pressure, diabetes, stress, heart diseases, and suicide. It is not just the loss of income that matters, but also the loss of social contacts in the workplace, and not feeling productive or valued as a contributor to society.

What is work—and why do people do it?

Work is to a large extent what differentiates humans from the animal world. Labor—human interaction with, manipulation, and modification of our natural surroundings—played a decisive role in the development of the human brain and the transition from ape to man, as explained by Frederick Engels back in 1876.

But in capitalist society, work usually is only acknowledged as “real” work if it is productive, i.e., if it creates a profit for the capitalists. This has led to a limited understanding of work as only being work if it is paid for. From that conclusion flow many misunderstandings as to how capitalism works, and how class exploitation functions generally. In fact, if you look the word “work” up in the dictionary, it is defined as an activity that involves mental and/or physical effort in order to achieve a purpose or a result.

Thus, work and labor are almost everything we do as humans, and most work we do is unpaid. Even when you work a paid job you are performing both paid and unpaid labor. Average wages are calculated so they cover the basic needs of the worker, and do not equal the actual amount of value the worker has created while on the job. As Marx explained, the surplus value produced by the worker over and above that which he receives back in wages is unpaid labor, and it is this that forms the basis of rent, interest, and profit.

Marx described human labor as a positive and a creative activity, but under capitalism, the result of this activity is alienated from the worker. The argument that the main incentive to work is the money you get paid, might in many cases be true for workers under capitalism, but it is by no means the only reason why people work—and a wage alone is not enough to make people satisfied with their job.

Even under capitalism we see a positive but limited creative activities in all corners of society. People go through tremendous and tedious challenges and effort for no real “productive” purpose whatsoever. How do you explain why people bother learn how to sew or knit, when it is often a lot cheaper and better quality to buy the mass-produced products at the store? How to explain the fact that people spend endless of hours planting and keeping a garden, or doing work in their back yard, instead of just laying on the couch? How do you explain the endless hours people spend learning to play an instrument even though the chances that they will be famous and rich as a result are abysmally small? Why do people spend months training to run a marathon, which is extremely exhausting and painful, and yet after having done it once, they often do it again?

The answer is simple. It is an answer that psychologists and occupational therapists have known for decades: doing work with a clear result, having an impact on your work, seeing progress in your work, and working with other people increases your self-esteem and gives you more energy. In short—it makes you more happy.

New York University psychologist Robert Reiner and others have conducted research that shows that doing crafts is de-stressing, produces drops in blood pressure, heart disease, anxiety, and depression. In fact, doing crafts as a hobby has the same basic effect as meditation. It is clear that though capitalism only values waged labor that produces profits, it does not mean that humans are “lazy by nature” or that humans prefer not to work at all.

Under capitalism, despite being alienated from the work they get paid for, many workers voluntarily spend a lot of time and energy trying to improve their communities or helping other people. More than a quarter of all Americans above age 16 do volunteer work every year. This means they work for a company or organization without being paid. Many cultural institutions like museums and libraries have a permanent volunteer workforce.

In addition, schools, hospitals, and churches, which provide many social services, have a sizable number of volunteer workers. In 2011, Americans spent 7.9 million hours working for free as volunteers. The value of these volunteer labor hours has been estimated at an average of $22.14/hour, which is high above minimum wage, but generally below what it would cost to hire a worker to do the same kind of work. This amounts to $171 billion dollars that Americans have done for free in the middle of an economic crisis.

Some of this is likely intended to pad resumes, or in the hopes of being hired on as a regular employee; but nonetheless, millions of hours have been donated without compensation to “make the world a better place.” In fact, the biggest group of people who volunteer are those between 35 and 44 years old, people who often already have a job and a family to look after.

Most of the jobs performed by volunteers are not particularly interesting, unique, or challenging. So what is the incentive for people to work for free? The biggest incentives cited are a desire to help their communities, increase self-esteem by “making a difference,” make new friends, help others, develop new skills, and enjoy something they love. In other words, people volunteer in order to be part of and have an influence over their community and environment; to help plan and carry out meaningful work; to improve social relations with the people around them; and to learn.

On the surface, these are all values or missions described by any company that is trying to make its workers care more about the work they do, or at the very least give workers the illusion that they are making a difference. Research shows that even when working a low-paid and low-skilled job, working for a goal that is of personal value, and not merely to create more profit for your boss or for the company, will make workers happier and a lot more productive.

Paid or unpaid, people want to work; people want to be good at something; they want to be part of something­­­—as long as it has some meaning to it. But the reality is that as long as you are working for a wage, the only real difference and impact you are going to make is on the profits of the capitalist class—and this is becoming clearer and clearer to the working class every day.

How to get to more productive workers

The above-mentioned research showed that first of all, a positive work environment improves workers’ satisfaction and productivity. Secondly, giving the workers at least some influence over how and where they want to work—e.g., do they want an office or not, do they want to start working at 8 a.m. or at noon, do they want to design their own work desk if they use one—also increases productivity. Thirdly, space and time for leisure and socializing while on the job, including things like good coffee, good food, and maybe even a ping pong table or bowling alley, increase productivity. Fourthly, a nap room and time off also helps, as well as making sure workers are being recognized for their work and have at least a nominal say in decision making.

In short, if you treat your workers well, they will perform better. This was already discovered by the great utopian socialist, Robert Owen, at the beginning of the 19th century, before capitalism had even developed on a full scale. Today, these practices are to some extent being realized at big and wealthy software companies like Google and Apple, which depend on the creativity of their workers in order to compete with other big companies. But for the most part, research and practice in improving work environments is strictly limited to work places that are part of the so-called “knowledge economy.”

This means that for most jobs, where the workers are not supposed to “think outside the box,” but instead merely perform certain predetermined tasks, companies aren’t as willing to spend money on improving the work environment or conditions. In fact, most office work is now organized along factory lines, and workers have little control over their work. This is humorously, but nonetheless accurately portrayed in the film Office Space. The only way the workers are really being involved in the work process is by including them in low-level management, which means making them responsible for scheduling and finding other ways to improve productivity and efficiency­­—and to carry out the bosses’ cuts.

Companies like Apple have done a great deal to foment the illusion that they are not there for profits alone, but to “innovate and further the boundaries of human creativity.” But they had an explanation problem when reports from the Foxconn factory in China, which is one of Apple’s main suppliers, reached the public. In May of this year, three workers from the factory committed suicide. In fact, suicide attempts are so common there, due to the monotonous conditions and merciless pressure from management, that the factory has huge nets spread out around it in order to catch workers attempting to end their lives by jumping off the buildings.

What will work be like under socialism?

The specifics of what life will be like under socialism will of course depend on the technology and resources available once the working class comes to political and economic power. The specifics will have to be collectively and democratically decided by the members of the future society itself. Nonetheless, it is possible to extrapolate some of the possibilities, based on how things are done today.

The main point to make is that work under socialism—while on the surface looking more or less like much of the work currently performed under capitalism—will be qualitative different. The means of production will be publicly owned and rationally planned under democratic workers’ control. What does this mean? It means that all workplaces and all products of society will be collectively and democratically produced, distributed, and exchanged, on the basis of collective needs and wants, not private profits.

It means that instead of producing food, pharmaceuticals, cars, clothes, and more for the purpose of making a profit while competing against other companies, the workers of these now stated-owned companies will have a direct say as to what and how things are produced, with high wages and exceptional conditions and benefits, in cooperation with society generally.

In other words, we would build on the socialized wealth production we already have under capitalism, but instead of private appropriation of the surplus created by our labor, we would have social appropriation. By cutting out the profits of the parasitic capitalist class, there would be more than enough wealth in society to not only fully fund schools, hospitals, repair the roads, etc., but also to dramatically reduce everybody’s workweek, with full employment to boot. Workers who are now unemployed, would be employed; those who are now homeless would have a place to live. There are millions of people today who cannot afford to go to the doctor; under socialism everybody will have free, high-quality health care.

Under socialism, the line between the necessary labor we need to do to cover our basic needs, and the labor we do to realize ourselves as humans—often referred to as “hobbies”—would melt into each other. With more free time to pursue our real passions and interests, and with more and more menial, repetitive jobs automated through advances in technology, labor would lose the ugly character and connotations it has under capitalism.

Under socialism you could work on an organic farm, help cure cancer, help develop an industry that does not destroy the environment, and play a concert­—all in the same day! Not only would workers be part of projects that include everybody, they would make a tangible difference at their job every day, they would be fully realized members of society, and work to make it better, more efficient, and more fun.

Socialism will not only be infinitely more productive and efficient than capitalism, it will finally allow humanity to unleash and achieve its full potential.

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