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Saturday, June 6, 2015


Today I begin a series of reflections on the question, What would socialism be like?  Several caveats:  First, my thoughts are not at all organized in the way I would prefer, both because I have not thought things through sufficiently, and because we cannot really know what socialism will be like until we [or our great grandchildren, alas] see how it turns out.  Second, I will not be able to reply to all the intelligent and thoughtful things so many people posted as comments.  I shall just keep these reflections going until I run out of things to say [yes, that does actually happen, although my students would doubt it.]

Let me start with a very interesting line of argument developed by one of the Philosophy graduate students in my Marx course at UNC Chapel Hill last semester.  I shan’t tell you her name because I am not totally sure which of two grad students it was who wrote the paper, and all of my notes are back in America.  I had posed, as one possible paper topic, the question, Won’t there be a great many boring, alienating jobs that still have to be done under socialism?  What can we say about the men and women consigned to those jobs? 

The student chose to write about the work of child care, which involves a good deal of changing dirty diapers, spending boring hours watching little kids play, sitting with a screaming child, and so forth.  Here, roughly speaking, is an elaboration of what she argued.

Many fulfilling, demanding, satisfying completely unalienated jobs involve enormous effort, long boring stretches of repetitive work, and even intrinsically disgusting tasks.  Consider three examples:  concert violinist, research biologist, and thoracic surgeon.  These are all high status jobs, satisfying and surely unalienated if any jobs are.  Well, to become a concert violinist, you must spend endless hours every single day playing boring scales and arpeggios and double stops, over and over and over, until you get them right.  And even then, you must continue practicing to maintain your skill.  That, as every concert violinist understands, is the price you pay to be able to craft a breathtakingly beautiful interpretation of the Beethoven violin concerto.  If anything meets Marx’s ideal of unalienated labor, playing the violin does.  [I do not wish to romanticize this, however.  I will simply remind you that several years ago, in a contract dispute, the first violin section of a German orchestra demanded higher pay than that given to the timpanist or the double bass player on the grounds that the first violins played more notes!  No kidding.  Trust the Germans to find exploitation where the rest of us would not think to look.]

Research biologists frequently engage in the testing of hypotheses by repeating an experiment hundreds or even thousands of times to assemble statistics from which they can infer whether a hypothesis is right or wrong.  The design of the experiment is fun, I am sure [I have never done it], but the required repetitions are surely not.  Again and again, one reads of famous scientists whose world-changing discoveries emerged not from a moment of inspired insight but from years of tedious labor.  No one, surely, would describe research biology as alienated labor, but it involves large amounts of what would be called alienated labor if it were someone’s sole occupation.

Thoracic surgery is, I would imagine, deeply satisfying work.  But it involves taking a very sharp knife and cutting open someone’s chest, with all the blood, bad smells, and generally disgusting concomitants of such an activity.  On occasion, it is necessary to plunge your hand into the open thoracic cavity of an old, fat, slimy patient and grab his heart in your hand, massaging it while blood and goo oozes between your fingers.  Yuck! 

What makes these jobs satisfying, fulfilling, unalienated?  My student suggested that the key is that when you do them, you are in control of the entire process – the rationale, the planning, the design, and the implementation – and you have chosen to engage in that integrated activity freely, accepting the boring or repetitive or even smelly and disgusting parts as a necessary component of the entire activity.

This, my student went on, is part of what makes child-rearing rewarding.  Spending your entire work life changing dirty diapers could be a real drag, but changing your own child’s diapers is part of the life-affirming and deeply satisfying activity of being a parent.

So, returning to ac’s comment:  could factory or office work in a socialist economy be, if not thrilling or life-affirming, at least a good deal less alienated than it is now?  Perhaps so, if those doing the work play a significant role – not a merely symbolic role – in the planning, designing, and overseeing of the work they are doing, and if ways are found to vary the tasks they perform.  One word of caution:  We probably ought not to take too seriously Marx’s famous statement about being a hunter in the morning, a fisherman in the afternoon, and a critic after dinner.  Here it is:

“For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

 Well, the “critical critics” were a group of young Left Hegelians for whom Marx had great contempt, so the entire passage strikes me as something of a joke.  At any rate, Marx knew little or nothing about capitalism when he wrote it, so we ought not to imagine that the problem is solved merely by quoting him.

Note, this line of argument is different from suggesting that the alienating jobs be paid better or be passed around in some manner so that no one is stuck doing them forever.  That is a thought I will explore tomorrow.



Chris said...

There's a key element missing though from this discussion of alienation, which is that the full realization of our species-being requires that the labor be recognizable, and appreciable by others. The biologist, doctor, and violinist all have this aspect. As do many office jobs. Nevertheless, it's a key component, according to Marx, for one's labor to actually be non-alienating: you have to be doing work for someone else; you have to have others in mind. And it’s best when those others appreciate what you’ve done sincerely.

A common problem under capitalism is that the incentive to do any or all of these tasks replaces the other with money. Michael Tomasello, and Daniel Pink, have done fascinating work, unintentionally proving Marx's point, that once you reward labor with money, and not its intrinsic reward which is integral to our species-being nature, people lose a level of reward and satisfaction in the work their doing, and become less cooperative (see Tomasello’s book: why we cooperate).

A socialist society needs to be one where people are capable of finding reward in their work through mutual satisfaction and recognition of others, and study after study shows money only perverts that attainability. It hinders are capacities for seeing good deeds as intrinsically good. As Tomasello shows, as soon as you start rewarding children with material goods and not praise of their intrinsic worth, their species-being capacity is perverted. They become less creatively cooperative.

[This is why I was so upset before, when you said a socialist society would still have credit and cash, I argued well great, you're letting alienation in the back door, and scientifically that claim is true].

classtruggle said...

Yes, one could examine all four dimensions of Marx's alienation theory: labour alienation, product alienation, species/fellow beings alienation and human nature alienation. These dimensions are not separate processes with discrete sets of symptoms but rather aspects of a generic process that is endemic to capitalism [see for example, Meszaros, 1970]

Now these points may very well may be addressed in one of your upcoming posts -- in Chapter 17 of Volume One (Changes of Magnitude in the Price of Labour Power and in Surplus Value) which is about the relation between the price of labour power and surplus labour [the concepts wages and profits are not used here because of the ideology behind wages and because the concept of profit is much narrower than the concept of surplus value] Marx examines the effects of certain changes on the price of labour-power under capitalism. But then he turns to compare these effects with the same changes with ‘the abolition of the capitalist form of production’ (p. 667, Fowkes). Specifically, he analyses the role that labour time would play in a post capitalist future ['in capitalist society, free time is produced for one class by the conversion of the whole lifetime of the masses into labour-time' p.667 -- although Marx could have added, as he examines in Chapter 25, that a growing part of the working classes are destined for obligatory 'free time' in the form of unemployment or underemployment]

In this situation, the ‘reduction of the working day to the necessary labour-time’ would mean that necessary labour-time would ‘expand to take up more of the day.’ And this for ‘two reasons: first, because the worker’s conditions of life would improve, and his aspirations become greater [i.e., needs or ‘means of subsistence’ expand], and second, because a part of what is now surplus would then count as necessary labour, namely the labour which is necessary for the formation of a social fund for reserve and accumulation’ (667).

Note that Marx does not use the concept of value, but labour-time because under socialism there would be no exchange of commodities and hence no market. Production and distribution of the product would be by means of democratic planning. Note too that here all production is now necessary because it is for the well-being of all and the planned future well-being. But this would not eliminate surplus labour because as you point out there will always be a part of society that it not 'productive' and will have to be provided for. But you could add to your list the exploration of space, the on-going development of science, math, the arts, etc. the whole gamut of intellectual endeavours, disasters, unforeseen events, etc. and more to be determined by the people themselves.

Marx also makes a few criticisms of capitalism in this section. ‘The capitalist mode of production, while it enforces economy in each individual business also begets, by its anarchic system of competition, the most outrageous squandering of labour-power and of the social means of production, not to mention the creation of a vast number of functions at present indispensable, but in themselves superfluous.’ Here he is making the distinction between efficiency of the individual firm and the wastefulness of market based production. Japanese car companies may be efficient in auto production, but auto production in general is inefficient in itself (not to mention the negative social effects that arise from driving in an isolated, atomised embodiment of private property). Other functions that are indispensable under capitalism but in themselves superfluous might include banking/insurance, legal services, security/surveillance, etc.

K.Reader said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Magpie said...

That't me, the proletarian,

asking for an answer.

Man, I'm really in hell

Magpie said...

Answer my questions, now!

You too, Chris! You too, Andrew!

Answer! Now! Now! While you have time.

Chris said...

Is your question about whether or not fiat currency really 'kills' the LTV? The obvious strikes me as no. Money is a "form of appearance" of value. It may initially come into being as a commodity amongst commodities, but why it can't perform its function, and cease being produced, seems beyond me.