An interesting contrast between political debates of the last few decades and those before is the way that the idea of ‘receiving what you worked for’ has shifted sides.
That is, in the 19th century, the claim that the products of people’s labour were being taken from them unfairly for the benefit of those who hadn’t worked as hard was a typically socialist claim – the workers should throw off their ‘parasitic’ employers and establish the sort of just society in which people are given only as much as they produce. The value of work and effort was affirmed, the way that it justified and ennobled the worker.
Since the establishment in many Western countries of a substantial welfare state, though, that same idea has to some extent become a conservative and pro-capitalist talking point: that ‘the state’ is ‘robbing’ productive people of the wealth that they’ve earned and then unfairly lavishing it on the feckless and workshy. It’s more common now to see people on some sort of ‘left’ defending the idea, not of everyone receiving as much as they contribute, but of people receiving even if they haven’t contributed.
Now this presents an interesting spectacle for those who want to both maintain an ongoing connection with the 19th-century socialist tradition, and also deal fully with modern developments. In particular, it poses the question: what should socialists think about this principle, of receiving only what you put in?
Now of course something that needs to be stressed is that in practice, many extraneous factors come into play. For example, conservatives who protest about the rich being deprived of the wealth that ‘they have earned’ can be criticised not by attacking or defending the abstract principle of ‘receiving what you have earned’ but with the accusation that the ‘earning’ they talk about is misdescribed: that wealth was largely created by other people’s effort and work, not theirs.
Similarly, when considering the issue of unemployment benefits, it’s obviously not sufficient to think only of the abstract question of justice: there is also the fact that if unemployment benefit exists, then workers will have less fear of unemployment, and thus be able to demand higher wages and better conditions. That is, the welfare state strengthens the position of the working class. For class-struggle socialists, that is held to be the most important factor in practice.
However, there’s no reason to think that this sort of question and the clash of principles involved will vanish with the abolition of capitalism. Post-revolutionary societies will have to ask similar sorts of questions, though in a quite different context. So it is of philosophical interest to consider such questions today.
The second big thing to note, then, is that one interesting suggestion has already been made by a Mr. Marx, who in his Critique of the Gotha Program distinguishes between “communist society…as it has developed on its own foundations” and “communist society…as it emerges from capitalist society”.
In the latter society, which is “economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society”, and which Marxists have sometimes called ‘socialism’ to distinguish it from more fully developed ‘communism’, there remains the principle of ‘equal pay for equal work’ – a right that Marx explicitly calls ‘bourgeois’.
So labour is measured and quantified, and in proportion to that each individual is given a certain amount of ‘labour vouchers’ or some such, with which to purchase consumption products. This co-exists, of course with a greatly extended version of what we would now call ‘welfare’ and ‘public services’, but nevertheless it remains – and it generates a low level of ‘inequality of wealth’ that replicates ‘inequality of talents’.
In the more fully developed form of communism, however, it’s suggested that “the narrow horizon of bourgeois right [can] be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”
Now I think this overall picture is a good one.
One might wonder about the idea of the ‘transitional stage’, and be concerned that the power-relations involved in this kind of ‘maintenance of bourgeois right’ might have their own potency, might hold back of affect the ‘progression’ to a fuller communism. This kind of concern mirrors the concern over the idea of the ‘workers’ state’ overseeing socialism before eventually ‘withering away’ of its own accord, and so it’s not surprising that it is often found among anarchists – Kropotkin for example is emphatic on this point.
But be that as it may, the basic judgement on the principle at issue is clear and I think correct. That judgement is two-fold:
- firstly, that it is a capitalist principle, appropriate to a capitalist frame of mind, and flawed and false insofar as capitalism is a flawed and unjust society; but
- secondly, that capitalism violates it, and that a society which upheld it (by abolishing income from capital, hence abolishing private ownership thereof) would be in its essential content socialist.
This principle is thus one of the ‘contradictions’ of capitalism: though in the abstract, and in the long run, it is reactionary and wrong, and should be set aside, it simultaneously functions as an internal criticism of capitalism.
In my next post I’ll talk about the principle itself in more detail, laying out precisely why it’s a false one and how it relates to capitalism.