Why do I think that the principle ‘everyone should receive only as much as they contribute’ is in the long term a bad one? I’m going to develop a three-part answer to that.
Firstly, attempts to apply it in practice will tend to involve a lot of power-over, a lot of judgement and control, which will tend to discriminate in favour of the powerful, and against the weak, especially women and disabled people.
Secondly, the reason why it involves this element of control is that it rests on the fact of alienation, and as society reduces alienation it will become less and less relevant.
Thirdly, the more strenuously the principle in question is applied, the more it will hold back social trends towards reducing alienation.
So that first point. To give any practical meaning to ‘rewards proportional to work’, the concepts involved must be, as an experimental scientist might say, ‘operationalised’: made capable of rigourous measurement and quantification. But it makes no sense to let people record their own level of work – if you trust people that much, why not dispense with the whole affair and make consumption goods freely available, trusting people to take appropriate amounts?
So someone else has to record and evaluate how much work people have been putting in – and such a situation is obviously an incipiently hierarchical one, where the evaluater has power over the evaluated. This is why traditionally, and even now, the definitions of ‘work’ and ‘earning’ reflect the interests of the powerful.
For example, the average advertiser does, overall, zero (or less) useful work. Whatever custom they gain for their company is mainly taking custom away from other companies, and this redistribution is acheived by bombarding people with unwanted cacophonies of images and noises. But because they win custom for one company, that company judges them to have performed useful work, and they thereby ‘earn’ money.
In particular, though, this means that when payment (and recognition as work) is not required as a necessary condition of the work being performed, it is likely that such payment and recognition will not be given. Historically this has always been a major issue for women, not just with ‘housework’ but with the more intangible ’emotional work’ of maintaining people’s egos that they tend to bear most of the burden of.
After all, most people provide a lot of ‘utility’ to others through their personal relationships: they ‘enrich’ each other’s lives. Often this involves effort – sometimes it involves doing something you might not want to do otherwise. Is that ‘work’? Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t, but certainly the reason why it isn’t regarded as work under capitalism is a bad reason – that you would provide even without being paid (otherwise it’s a rather odd friendship).
A final note concerns people with various forms of disability. They often, apparently, ‘cannot work’ (though of course often they can, even in the conventional sense). But if they are not doing any work, doesn’t that suggest that having a serious incapacitating disability is, um, easy? Relaxing? (this inference sometimes hovers unavowed around discussions of benefit policies) But of course that’s ridiculous. It’s fucking hard having a serious disability – i.e. you’re doing a lot of ‘work’ all the time. The thing is, it doesn’t get counted as ‘work’, for the simple reason that it only benefits you, and you can’t pay yourself.
Now of course the fact that a principle has involved unequal power and oppression in the past doesn’t mean that it will always – it might be felt that if the task of evaluating other’s effort was to be distributed equally, so that each person was judged equally by, and equally judged, each other person, there would be no problem (this is roughly what is done, I think, in parecon).
Now I’m sceptical of that – I think there would be much less of a problem, but I also think it’s possible for a group to equally oppress all of its members, in a sort of ‘tyranny of the majority’ way. But even so, let’s ask – why does this principle necessitate control over others?
The answer is that the terms involved, ‘work’ and ‘reward’, testify to a condition of alienation. What do I mean by that?
I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that the happiest people tend to be those who love their jobs, who spend their time on an activity that they find rewarding for itself. Nor is it too controversial to say that the attempt to compensate for a horrible and unrewarding job by using the money you earn from it to buy nice objects, is not generally a hugely successful attempt. In the latter case, the person is ‘alienated from their work’ in the sense that the satisfaction they would ideally find in what they spend so much time doing is separated out, solidified into a paycheque and the commodities that can be bought with it.
To put it another way, we might observe the distinction between work and play: work is something done for the sake of something beyond it, its eventual result, while play is something do for its own sake, just because its a good thing to spend time doing. So we could then say – the best form of work is work which is simultaneously play, and conversely, if you have that, play in its ‘pure form’ becomes less important. That is, the best situation is one where work and play have merged together into a single form of activity. That’s what lets people flourish the most.
Now of course that’s always going to be an asymptotic goal, not one that can be fully realised. But we can approach nearer to it. And the major way to approach nearer to it is to give people greater and greater control of when, where, and how they work, over how society uses the products of their work, over all the general conditions of their life. And where they can’t have complete control, I think it would be beneficial to have whoever else also exercises control do so on the explicit basis of solidarity and caring about and respecting the worker, not treating them as a mere means to profit.
But wait! That sounds exactly like the goal and vision of socialism!? Society humanised, planning that centres on human needs rather than mechanical pursuit of profit, control over the conditions of one’s own work and life? It’s almost as if socialism was designed to avoid needless alienation and re-unite human beings with each other.
Anyway, the point is that whatever progress we make in that direction, it will make it harder and harder to meaningfully apply the concepts of ‘work’ and ‘reward’, because work will come to be its own reward.
The third argument is then that strenuously applying the principle ‘you only get back what you put in’ is liable to not be conducive to that eventual goal.
It is, so to speak, an ‘ascetic’ principle – it links up the wire saying ‘bad, unpleasant stuff’ to the wire saying ‘good, worthy stuff’, so as the generate a positive feeling (I worked hard, good for me!) when we do unpleasant things, and a negative feeling (I’ve just been having fun, what a bad person I am) when we do pleasant things. We can immediately see how it’s liable to be inconvenient if we actually want people to be as happy as possible.
Of course, it shows this effect most strongly in the very alienated system of capitalism, which as I have argued earlier, is built so as to systematically prevent the acheivement of meaningful abundance, by responding to any increase in social wealth by making people poorer.
But even in a money-using non-communist socialist society, the insistence on quantifying how much people had worked would still entrench a habit of demanding that others do unpleasant work in order to have access to resources, independently of whether that unpleasant work was really needed or beneficial (that is, there would be a psychological motive for such an insistence, and potentially for accompanying discipline, that would be independent of the question of whether it’s really necessary).
Thus as unpleasant work became rarer (or rather, it became possible to take pleasure and satisfaction in more forms of work for their own sake), the asceticism of ‘equal work for equal pay’ would come to be a barrier, that would need to be overcome for people to take full advantage of the opportunities for happiness.
A final note – of course it’s much easier to say all this for those who haven’t spent 30 years of their lives doing a miserable dead-end job: there’s a certain privilege that makes it easier to avoid becoming psychologically wedded to unpleasant work, which is not having to do much of it…