Note: I wrote this essay a while ago, it was among the first essays I wrote for the sake of writing an essay, a lot of my ideas about capitalism, socialism, the state, economics, and work weren’t as developed as they are now, but I still think it’s pretty good overall. Enjoy!
Recently I was told that “socialism destroys incentive to work”. Let’s take a moment to examine what exactly people mean when they say that, or things like it. Because I have qualms with this statement both as someone who is pro-socialism, and someone who is anti-“work”.
First we should define our terms. “Capitalism”, though it is far more nuanced than this, for the sake of brevity I like to define it as an economic system based on three principles: 1) private ownership over the means of production (things such as factories, farms, offices, and machinery), 2) buying and selling of goods and services on a market for profit, and 3) wage labor (people receiving certain amount of money from their boss/business per certain amount of time that they work). Without these qualifications, it’s not capitalism, and if it does have these qualifications, odds are it’s capitalism. Defining exactly what capitalism is and how it works could be a book of a few thousand pages (and many people would disagree), but I think this quick definition should suffice for now.
“Socialism”, can really mean one of three things, 1) the broad definition, 2) the Marxist definition, and 3) the bastardized definition. The broad definition is that it is an economic system, or a proposed economic system, which claims to solve “the social question” of the 19th century (i.e., what to do about increasing unemployment and growing inequality between the rich and poor, basically all of society’s economic ills). By this definition, various things including Proudhonian mutualism, anarcho-communism, Marxist socialism, even social liberalism are examples of socialism. Generally they tend to include some sort of social ownership over the means of production and/or distribution, feel free to argue over what the “truest” form of socialism is. The next two definitions both fall under this broader definition, but are distinct in that the reasons people call them “socialism” generally aren’t because they’re thinking about 19th century labor economics. The Marxist definition of socialism is that socialism is the transition phase between capitalism and communism, a time in which the state (a so-called “workers’ state”) centralizes control over the means of production in the name of the workers, provides employment, education, and necessities to all citizens, and advances technology until they have reached significant productive capabilities so that property can be distributed to the people and we’ll arrive at communism, a stateless, classless, and moneyless society based on the principle “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”. I’ll save my criticisms of Marxism for another time. The third definition of socialism, the bastardized definition, which is typically used to refer to social democracy, is “anything the government does”. When you hear some dipshit like Cenk Uygur calling the police or the military a “socialist institution”, this is the buffoonery he’s talking about. Personally I advocate a form of socialism that would fall under the first definition, most simply called “anarcho-communism”, what I want is communal control over the means of production and distribution. Some of these definitions I would say are more or less correct (if you couldn’t tell, I ordered them from most to least correct in my opinion). However, no matter the level of correctness of any of these definitions, they all have one thing in common: that people’s basic needs are met regardless of their ability or willingness to work.
But what is “work”? How are we defining “work”? Is “work” even a good thing for people or society? If such needs as food, water, housing, education, and healthcare being provided is the result of hard work, then we must look at the way people acquire such things and determine that that is what work is. Under capitalism, how does one acquire food, shelter, water, and healthcare? The answer, which I hope is obvious, is money. But money doesn’t just appear in your wallet out of nowhere, it must be awarded as either a wage or a salary from a job, or, far more lucratively, from owning capital. So having a job or owning capital (means of production, or simply money used to make more money) is what is considered work, especially a well-paying job or large amounts of capital, because the more money you receive the more or better resources you can acquire.
So the work of farmworkers, who are often paid under the minimum wage at longer hours with fewer breaks than most jobs, who produce the food that everybody needs to eat to survive, who work long days in incredible heat or in freezing cold weather, is not as hard of work as the work of hedge fund managers, that make billions of dollars manipulating money and not actually producing anything necessary or beneficial to human life. This is the “work” that capitalism encourages and rewards. It “incentivizes” people to make as much money as they can, regardless of its contribution to the community or humanity as a whole. Capitalism punishes those who accept the humble and noble role of producing food, building houses, teaching children, and carrying out other important duties such as waste disposal, maintenance, sanitation, food service, mail carrying, and countless others, by severely underpaying them and thereby limiting their access to things such as food, shelter, healthcare, and education. Apparently bankers, shareholders, corporate lawyers (however, not so much environmental lawyers, civil liberties lawyers, and human rights lawyers), and celebrity personalities work significantly harder than any of the previously mentioned jobs (I’d say that doctors are an exception here, but also, the work of most doctors, along with jobs such as farmworkers, garbage collectors, etc., is so important, so vital to society that I’d say putting a monetary value on it is an insult to the work and the people doing it). This idea that hedge fund managers and celebrities work hundreds of times harder than farmworkers and construction workers is, to most people, clearly not true. Obviously something is wrong here, and that’s that capitalism does not actually reward hard work. Capitalism rewards 2 things: access to capital, and an ability and willingness to produce profits for those who have access to capital. Unfortunately, most of us do not have access to capital, so we must fall into the second category otherwise we won’t have money and therefore no access to the means of survival.
Now, most of us find our jobs to be boring, exhausting, or unimportant. We find little-to-no joy in our work and we feel it does nothing for society or ourselves other than make us tired and bored. On top of this, work is bad for us. The International Labour Organization estimates that 2.3 million people die work-related deaths (and I’d probably argue that this is underestimated, as it likely excludes people who died after retiring but whose lives were shortened by work-related stress or illness). This is not to mention the countless injuries, illnesses, and just downright stress and frustration that people get from doing work. On top of that, the psychological wear of doing this work for at least 40 hours a week and the effect that has on people’s social skills and lives is awful; to quote Bob Black, from his essay “The Abolition of Work”, “You are what you do. If you do boring, stupid, monotonous work, chances are you’ll end up boring, stupid and monotonous.” People deserve to spend their time socializing, playing, doing meaningful tasks and, most of all, enjoying life; not sitting in a cubicle or on an assembly line, going to boring meetings, being yelled at by bosses, and having their labor exploited.
So why do we work such jobs for long hours and little reward rather than doing more enjoyable tasks like gardening, hiking, playing sports, lying on the beach, watching television and movies, reading books, going to parties, building things, and learning arts, sciences, and crafts? It is because we cannot begin to fulfill such emotional, developmental needs until we have our basic needs met. The basic needs that I’ve talked about this whole time—food, water, shelter, health care—the basic needs that we need money in order to have, the money we spend about 40 hours a week trying to earn. We think of ourselves as living in futuristic times of luxury, as opposed to barbarous times where we spent most of our waking lives procuring basic essentials of life, and yet though the methods may have changed and technology become more sophisticated, the principle is still the same. We spend most of our time simply trying to survive, and most of the remainder is spent recovering from the time we spend working.
So when people say “socialism destroys incentive to work”, what they really mean is “having your basic needs met destroys incentive to subject yourself to exhausting, monotonous labor for the benefit of a rich minority”. Well duh. Why would you subject yourself to domination and exploitation by rich assholes if you didn’t need to to survive? So let’s talk about one last part of this statement before we conclude. What about that wondrous word that capitalist-apologists love to throw around in defense of a system they don’t understand, “incentive”? Based on what we’ve already established, you work to meet your basic needs, but what is the alternative? What fate befalls you if you are to refuse to work for a living? If you refuse to work, to take part in their system, to subject yourself to their rule, then you don’t get any money, it’s pretty simple. You don’t get money, you can’t afford food, a home, healthcare, or water. If you don’t have those things, then, odds are, you are going to die, or at least suffer. If you refuse to work, you suffer and die. In effect, the hope of all who oppose socialism due to the destruction of “incentive”, whether they realize this or not, is that everybody who refuses to produce profitable labor will be issued the death penalty. This may seem a bit dramatic to some, but to those hundreds of millions of people who spend their whole lives working two or three jobs just trying to make ends meet, this is reality.
This “comply or die” mantra of capitalism is the single most destructive, authoritarian system ever conceived. All of the horrible dictators and military leaders such as could not even dream of a better way of controlling their subjects, commanding their armies, and enslaving their conquered peoples (except they did, hence the nazi slogan “work makes one free”). The ultimate, terrible beauty of this monster is that, if you should fail, if you end up starving, homeless, drug-addicted, and/or dead, you and the world believe it is entirely your fault, and those who do subject themselves to the toil of work do so believing they have something called “freedom”. Capitalism has done a better job of convincing people they are free while controlling their very bodies and minds better than any dictator, any drug, any fictional Orwellian regime, ever has, ever will, and ever could. Regarding capitalism as “libertarian”, or anything other than the authoritarian monstrosity that it is, is a delusion so farcical that I would laugh if it wasn’t so terrifying. Capitalism is a machine designed to kill all who refuse to bow their heads, it will eventually destroy our environment and ourselves if we don’t shut it down, and all under the guise of freedom and liberty.
So when people say that socialism destroys incentive to work, they are both right and wrong. Does socialism discourage people from inventing things, making art, helping the community, and meeting needs? No, socialism encourages this far more than capitalism does because we would not have to spend over 40 hours a week producing profits for rich jerks simply to meet our basic needs. Does socialism discourage people from subjecting themselves to the tyranny of capital and liberate people from the chains of oppression and exploitation by meeting their needs and freeing up more time for leisure, creative work, intellectual study, innovation, and community work? Yes, yes it does. Socialism (anarchist socialism in particular, but that’s a whole other essay), can and will be the great liberator of humanity. Socialism respects your humanity and right to be alive regardless of your ability or willingness to produce profitable labor.
It’s time to end capitalism, it’s time to end work.