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.