IN THE last issue of the ISR (#74), I wrote a column about Marx’s concept of alienation and why work—which Marx claims should be “life’s prime want”—is typically unpleasant and frustrating under capitalism. My article elicited an e-mail response from someone named Jeff. Here (edited slightly for grammar) is what he wrote:
- I know 5 billion people that would love to have some work, albeit frustrating and unpleasant.
- I also know millions of people that would love to live a commodified existence instead of starving to death.
- If socialists believe they can feed the world better than capitalism can, they have to prove it.
- Either system requires humans to do work, including unpleasant work, to support society, whether it be coal mining, working in a meat -packing factory, or picking corn.
- Industries required to support human existence will never disappear. Mass production facilities are required to support 9 billion people. There will always be mundane, unpleasant work.
- Unfortunately, socialists have never had a way to price labor, goods, and commodities within a socialist economic system, because there is no market. Stalin looked to the West to find a price point.
- Nationalizing certain industries makes sense, but the success or failure still depends on capitalism, which is the source of ongoing revenue and taxation. You are back to square one.
There’s nothing especially original about Jeff’s arguments, but for that very reason I thought it might be useful to respond to them. Socialists hear this kind of stuff all the time, and every now and then it’s worth reiterating why the common arguments criticizing our views and defending capitalism are so unconvincing.
To begin with it’s worth noting that supporters of capitalism generally make two kinds of argument. The first kind involves claiming that capitalism is a wonderful system that guarantees freedom, democracy, opportunity, prosperity, and apple pie. But when it becomes obvious that capitalism is failing to live up to these promises, its supporters make a second kind of argument. Yes, they say, capitalism may be less than perfect, and in many ways it may even be pretty awful, but it’s still better than anything else. In Margaret Thatcher’s famous words, “There is no alternative.” So criticize the system as much as you like, it’s still the best way to organize the economy. Or so we are told.
Jeff’s arguments fall into this second category of “lesser-evil” defenses of capitalism. And so far as I can make out, he has three of them. The first is in his opening two paragraphs: it’s better to have a job under capitalism than to be unemployed, and being exploited is better than starving to death. Fair enough. I agree. But this is still a terrible argument. First, people who are starving to death would obviously prefer to eat unhealthy food than nothing at all, even if it’s laced with carcinogens, but that obviously doesn’t mean that there’s nothing wrong with carcinogenic food or that’s there’s no alternative to it.
Second, why are there people unemployed and starving in the modern world to begin with? The fact is that mass unemployment, poverty, and hunger are all byproducts of the way that capitalism operates as an economic system. Marx long ago pointed out that capitalism routinely creates a reserve army of the unemployed, which forces workers to compete for jobs and drags down wages and conditions for everyone.
Similarly, even though we live in a world that produces enough food to give an adequate diet for a population two or three times the its present size, half the world goes hungry because of the way that food distribution is organized under capitalism. Of course people want jobs and food. But to claim that capitalism is vindicated because being exploited is better than starving is twisted logic, to say the least.
However, Jeff’s argument does give me the opportunity to say something about an issue that I didn’t discuss in my original piece. In his writings on alienation Marx emphasizes the way in which alienated labor generates alienation in the rest of our lives. Does that mean that people who are out of work are less alienated?
Of course not. Not only do the unemployed have to scramble to meet even life’s most basic necessities, they also frequently lack even the minimal sense of self-worth and self-identity that having a job provides. Work is a central aspect of our lives. Almost the first thing you are asked when you meet somebody new is, “What do you do?” They’re not asking you about what TV programs you happen to enjoy, they’re asking you about what kind of employment you have.
The unemployed—at least the involuntarily unemployed—have a huge void in their lives, which often leads to loss of self-worth, withdrawal, depression, and worse. For workers, the one thing worse than being exploited under capitalism is not being exploited. But it’s not an argument in favor of exploitation to say that some things are even worse.
JEFF'S SECOND argument is that unpleasant and mundane work is a fact of life, and so we presumably shouldn’t blame capitalism for the fact that work is so often frustrating and unsatisfying. But what this argument entirely ignores is the way in which production for profit systematically makes work much more unpleasant than it needs to be. Even the great eighteenth-century Scottish political economist Adam Smith—who is revered, but rarely read, by defenders of the free market—acknowledged this fact.
In his most important work, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), Smith explains how breaking a complex process into a series of smaller, simpler tasks that can each be performed quickly by a single person, can greatly increase efficiency. But he also goes on to point out that
the man whose life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding ... and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to be.... But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes pains to prevent it.
Yes, you read that right—the patron saint of the free market argued that government intervention is necessary to prevent the market’s destructive effects. Seventy-two years later, Marx and Engels noted the same destructive effects in the Communist Manifesto:
Owing to the extensive use of machinery and to the division of labor, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him.
More recently, in his book Labor and Monopoly Capital (1974), the American Marxist Harry Braverman, showed at length how modern capitalism has used managerial control and technological innovations to increase worker output, while simultaneously degrading the nature of work itself—a point made earlier and more vividly by Charlie Chaplin in his comic masterpiece Modern Times.
More generally, there is typically little incentive under capitalism to improve working conditions, and in fact very often quite the opposite. In a socialist society run democratically by workers, on the other hand, technology could be used to ensure that the most unpleasant, difficult, and dangerous work is mechanized as far as possible, and certainly made much safer for those who have to do it. Even if coal mining continued under socialism (although personally I hope it will be phased out as quickly as possible for environmental as well as health and safety reasons), thousands of miners would not die every year, as is the case around the world today.
But there are two other points that need to be made here. First, what often makes work unpleasant is not the intrinsic character of the physical and mental activities involved, but the fact that those who do the work lack control over both their own work lives and over the larger work process. When people engage in activities because they care about the outcome and when they have a role in determining the goals, they are generally much more fulfilled. Digging a hole for minimum wage for a hedge-fund manager who is having his 20-acre estate landscaped, for example, is a very different experience from digging a hole as part of a reforestation program in which you participate in the decision-making process.
Second, to the small extent to which some unpleasant work is an ineliminable feature of a complex society, it can be distributed in ways that minimize frustration. In the early stages of socialism, those who do perform it might receive additional compensation (higher wages or more leisure time, for example), which would contrast with capitalism, under which some of the most unpleasant work is also the lowest paid. Ideally, though, the work would be distributed equally, so that everyone capable of doing so would perform some portion of it. I might be a college lecturer during the day, but also spend a couple of hours each week cleaning out the bathrooms. The work might still be unpleasant, but it would not be deeply alienating.
The third argument that Jeff makes is that there is no global alternative to capitalism: a planned socialist economy either won’t work because, in the absence of a market it won’t have a way of accurately pricing goods and services, or it will have to model it’s pricing on what happens in outside capitalist economies. This is the so-called calculation problem or debate, first raised in the 1920s and 1930s by right-wing economists like Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. The idea is that prices reflect information about supply and demand and thus provide signals that allow economies to coordinate production and distribution efficiently. In the absence of such price signals, von Mises and Hayek argued that it would be either theoretically or practically impossible to coordinate a complex economy, because it would be impossible to gather and process relevant information in real time.
There have been plenty of responses to this argument over the decades, but perhaps the most important thing to point out is that it rests on the utterly false assumption that free markets do a good job of coordinating production in complex economies. Is it really necessary to mention what a good job our deregulated financial system did of wrecking the economy over the past decade and how the system was only saved by a massive government bailout? In fact the history of capitalism since the seventeenth century has been marked by periodic speculative frenzies in which prices lose all contact with the real economy and which have always ended in tears.
Economists like Hayek argued that the market would eventually correct speculative excesses by itself. But the problem is that in an integrated global economy in which banks and corporations are often bigger economic players than most national economies, a market correction can bring the whole system crashing down and precipitate an economic depression. Governments then step in, but always in the interests of the rich and powerful. Socialists argue that the intervention should be in the interests of the vast majority of the population, who do the work that creates society’s wealth.
There is a second serious problem with free-market economics—prices at best reflect only immediate costs to buyers and sellers. They don’t take into account what economists call “externalities”—the broader impact that economic transactions have on society and the environment. This problem has now of course become critical, and it is increasingly obvious that the free market has no solution to the dire threat of catastrophic climate change.
So what would a socialist alternative to this look like? It would have to be based on a model of democratic participation and workers’ self-management, not a top-down command economy of the kind that eventually failed in Stalinist Russia and Eastern Europe. Such a model would take into account social and environmental costs, and would plan production based on meeting everyone’s needs, not on making profits for a small minority.
As the Marxist economist Ernest Mandel once pointed out, “The bulk of current production corresponds to established consumption patterns and predetermined production techniques that are largely if not completely independent of the market.” Mandel argued that “the problem of allocating the resources needed for those products which are by and large known in advance [can] be solved by the associated producers, with the help of modern computers…”
Democratic planning of this kind might never be perfect, but the economist Mike Kidron once estimated that at least forty percent of production under capitalism is wasted, even without taking into account such phenomena as built-in obsolescence and the inflation of consumer demand through mass advertising. Socialism could certainly do a better job than this. In any event, it is urgent that we find out. Capitalism is leading the world to disaster, and that can only be averted by building the struggle for a different kind of world.