Paying people in work

by Rob Horning

11 April 2007


In the course of my reading recently I somehow ended up on some anarcho-capitalist blogs and stumbled across a link to a 20-year-old article from Theory and Society called “A Capitalist Road to Communism.” The authors, Robert Van Der Veen and Philippe Van Parijs, take the Marxist recipe for a society worthy of humankind and argue that socialism may not be a necessary historical stage on our way there. I found it interesting in light of the confused ideas I was trying to express about productivity the other day. The gist of the most idealist Marxist vision of society is that work will become so meaningful to people that they won’t need to be motivated to perform it by material gain. In fact people will be “paid” in the ability to work more, as work itself will be the essence of a person’s fulfillment—work will have become “life’s prime want” to use Marx’s description (which Van der Veen and Van Parijs cite). In the most utopian vision of society, productivity gains, which are necessary to fulfill material wants, will be effortless to achieve, since work itself will grow ever more meaningful, and people will be ever more dedicated to its completion. (The only way this would be possible is if technology improvements had advanced to the point where all drudge work could be automated, performed by robots or something—this quickly turns into science fiction.) The distinction between work and leisure would disappear, and altruism would be indistinguishable from self-interest (and the sky would always be full of rainbows and it would rain lollipops every Sunday).

Anyway, if that’s the goal, if improved productivity accelerates us toward the time when we are all liberated from exploitation and alienation via our grubbing after our material interests, then what sense would it make to stage silent slowdowns, to retard productivity as a way to trip up the bosses extracting it from you? Why would it be a worker’s instinct to find ways to subvert productivity, as De Certeau, for one, seems to suggest in The Practice of Everyday Life? One way to look at it is this: Subversive nonproductive actions on the clock are a way of extracting more wages (when increased productivity suggests they are due—theoretically the percent increase in productivity should eventually provoke an equivalent bump in wages) in the form of time or office supplies or internet access when the cash is not forthcoming in one’s paycheck. But in Marxist theory, the point when workers begin to work against the system—when their working conditions are so perverse and contrary to their interests that they become intentionally unproductive—is the point at which socialism (workers’ collective ownership of the mean of production) is supposed to become a better arrangement for society than capitalism (which pits individuals against each other in exploitative arrangements that suddenly no longer serve the common good through the workings of the invisible hand Adam Smith posited). If you are a true fellow traveler, you can perhaps see in these petty moments of office rebellion—IMing at work all day long, stealing reams of paper, etc.—the first inklings of socialist revolution. The same goes for the the alleged epidemic of workplace boredom—a sign that the current social relations of production have outlived their usefulness.

Here arises a conundrum: the capacity for boredom seems to run counter to the self-motivation a socialist system would seem to require. If workers are going to be more productive under some scheme of self-management, then they would need to be able to supply themselves with meaningful tasks—they would be in a position to see what needs to be done and do it on account of its own needfulness. If boredom is a consequence of having that impulse thwarted, that’s one thing. But it often seems that people grow bored not from having their natural incentive to get things done thwarted but from having grown complacent with being told what to do. One’s internal initiative atrophies, and one waits for one’s orders while reserving the snarky right to complain about them. Boredom is at once a symptom and a cause of the workplace alienation problem socialism is supposed to solve. Theoretically, socialism removes the parasitic management class, but what will become of us if the managers vanished and left behind the bored, scratching their heads, no longer able to motivate themselves to accomplish anything without management’s contrived blandishments?

Capitalism, of course, offers entrepreneurship as the next step for thwarted, bored workers—they can become their own boss by starting their own business. (This, according to a Danish guy I met on vacation, is the beauty of America. “Do you do your job better than the other guy?” he asked me, over and over again. “Then you start your own business! It’s so easy! The American dream!”) If the management class ever withers away like the state is supposed to, will it be because enough workers will have embraced capitalism to the extent that they feel obliged to become entrepreneurs? Should the aim of technology be not only to provide a material surplus sufficient to fulfill everyone’s basic needs but to enable more small business and independent proprietorships? Is the future of socialism a bunch of 1099s?

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