How does distribution of wealth work in a socialist society?

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A redditor recently made the following question

how would a socialist society deal with members who do not want to work, yet still claim to be entitled to the fruits of other people’s labor? Also how would under performing or laziness be dealt with?

I’ve dealt with the similar concept of stagnation in a previous post but to this question, another redditor gave a very well thought out response that I believe should not be lost in comment history.

UPDATE: I’ve been informed by a commenter that this was actually lifted from the Anarchist FAQ. That’s why you should give attribution people…

Anarchism (Libertarian Socialism) is based on voluntary labor. If people do not desire to work then they cannot (must not) be forced to. The question arises of what to do with those (a small minority, to be sure) who refuse to work.

On this question there is some disagreement. Some anarchists, particularly communist-anarchists, argue that the lazy should not be deprived of the means of life. Social pressure, they argue, would force those who take, but do not contribute to the community, to listen to their conscience and start producing for the community that supports them. Other anarchists are less optimistic and agree with Camillo Berneri when he argues that anarchism should be based upon “no compulsion to work, but no duty towards those who do not want to work.” [“The Problem of Work”, in Why Work?, Vernon Richards (ed.), p. 74] This means that an anarchist society will not continue to feed, clothe, house someone who can produce but refuses to. Most anarchists have had enough of the wealthy under capitalism consuming but not producing and do not see why they should support a new group of parasites after the revolution.

Obviously, there is a difference between not wanting to work and being unable to work. The sick, children, the old, pregnant women and so on will be looked after by their friends and family (or by the commune, as desired by those involved). As child rearing would be considered “work” along with other more obviously economic tasks, mothers and fathers will not have to leave their children unattended and work to make ends meet. Instead, consideration will be given to the needs of both parents and children as well as the creation of community nurseries and child care centers.

We have to stress here that an anarchist society will not deny anyone the means of life. This would violate the voluntary labor which is at the heart of all schools of anarchism. Unlike capitalism, the means of life will not be monopolized by any group — including the commune. This means that someone who does not wish to join a commune or who does not pull their weight within a commune and are expelled will have access to the means of making a living outside the commune.

We stated that we stress this fact as many supporters of capitalism seem to be unable to understand this point (or prefer to ignore it and so misrepresent the anarchist position). In an anarchist society, no one will be forced to join a commune simply because they do not have access to the means of production and/or land required to work alone. Unlike capitalism, where access to these essentials of life is dependent on buying access to them from the capitalist class (and so, effectively, denied to the vast majority), an anarchist society will ensure that all have access and have a real choice between living in a commune and working independently. This access is based on the fundamental difference between possession and property — the commune possesses as much land as it needs, as do non-members. The resources used by them are subject to the usual possession rationale — they possess it only as long as they use it and cannot bar others using it if they do not (i.e., it is not property).

Thus an anarchist commune remains a voluntary association and ensures the end of all forms of wage slavery. The member of the commune has the choice of working as part of a community, giving according to their abilities and taking according to their needs (or some other means of organizing production and consumption such as equal income or receiving labor notes, and so on), or working independently and so free of communal benefits as well as any commitments (bar those associated with using communal resources such as roads and so on).

So, in most, if not all, anarchist communities, individuals have two options, either they can join a commune and work together as equals, or they can work as an individual or independent co-operative and exchange the product of their labor with others. If an individual joins a commune and does not carry their weight, even after their fellow workers ask them to, then that person will possibly be expelled and given enough land, tools or means of production to work alone. Of course, if a person is depressed, run down or otherwise finding it hard to join in communal responsibilities then their friends and fellow workers would do everything in their power to help and be flexible in their approach to the problem.

Some anarchist communities may introduce what Lewis Mumford termed “basic communism.” This means that everyone would get a basic amount of “purchasing power,” regardless of productive activity. If some people were happy with this minimum of resources then they need not work. If they want access to the full benefits of the commune, then they could take part in the communal labour process. This could be a means of eliminating all forces, even communal ones, which drive a person to work and so ensure that all labor is fully voluntary (i.e. not even forced by circumstances). What method a community would use would depend on what people in that community thought was best.

It seems likely, however, that in most anarchist communities people will have to work, but how they do so will be voluntary. If people did not work then some would live off the labor of those who do work and would be a reversion to capitalism. However, most social anarchists think that the problem of people trying not to work would be a very minor one in an anarchist society. This is because work is part of human life and an essential way to express oneself. With work being voluntary and self-managed, it will become like current day hobbies and many people work harder at their hobbies than they do at “real” work (this FAQ can be considered as an example of this!). It is the nature of employment under capitalism that makes it “work” instead of pleasure. Work need not be a part of the day that we wish would end. As Kropotkin argued (and has been subsequently supported by empirical evidence), it is not work that people hate. Rather it is overwork, in unpleasant circumstances and under the control of others that people hate. Reduce the hours of labor, improve the working conditions and place the work under self-management and work will stop being a hated thing. In his own words:

“Repugnant tasks will disappear, because it is evident that these unhealthy conditions are harmful to society as a whole. Slaves can submit to them, but free men create new conditions, and their work will be pleasant and infinitely more productive. The exceptions of today will be the rule of tomorrow.” [The Conquest of Bread, p. 123]

This, combined with the workday being shortened, will help ensure that only an idiot would desire to work alone. As Malatesta argued, the “individual who wished to supply his own material needs by working alone would be the slave of his labors.” [The Anarchist Revolution, p. 15]

So, enlightened self-interest would secure the voluntary labor and egalitarian distribution anarchists favor in the vast majority of the population. The parasitism associated with capitalism would be a thing of the past. Thus the problem of the “lazy” person fails to understand the nature of humanity nor the revolutionizing effects of freedom and a free society on the nature and content of work.

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50 thoughts on “How does distribution of wealth work in a socialist society?

      1. There should be an edit link next to the "Post Reply" button. It will not be there after 15 minutes of posting if you're anonymous (without an IDC account)

    1. Well that is disappointing, though I should have known better having read that FAQ at least a dozen times.

      1. I thought it looked familiar, but it took me a while to remember where it was from. Well, at least now more people are going to read the FAQ. I do wish the commenter had linked to the source, if only so more reddit users would know where to look in the future. The original is under a GNU license and I'm not sure what rights are reserved.

  1. Fundamentally, unless you want to define "anarchism" as the lack of an arbitrarily defined subset of coercive measures, an anarchist society has to tolerate people pretty much doing anything they choose to do. It might be small-ell libertarian to have a society that uses coercive measures — whether violence, social pressure or ostracism — to maximize overall liberty, but it seems like anarchism is not anarchism if there are any coercive measures used against those not medically insane.

    I think this argument too shows a philosophical tunnel vision and an acceptance of capitalist framing. Under capitalism, "work" is defined to be an activity that has intrinsic negative utility. Under this view of course you have to somehow "force" people to work, directly or indirectly. Why participate in an activity that has intrinsic negative utility unless this activity is required to obtain items of positive utility?

    But this is a Calvinistic view of human nature. Why shouldn't instead the production of items of positive utility itself be an activity of intrinsic positive utility? In this sense, "free riders" wouldn't be "parasites"; they would be simply be pitied for their narrow-minded refusal to engage in a rewarding activity.

    The entry acknowledges this position, but seemingly only as an afterthought.

    Repugnant tasks will disappear, because it is evident that these unhealthy conditions are harmful to society as a whole. Slaves can submit to them, but free men create new conditions, and their work will be pleasant and infinitely more productive. The exceptions of today will be the rule of tomorrow.

    But this is not an afterthought, it's the crux of the biscuit, rendering obsolete everything preceding in the entry.

    1. Fundamentally, unless you want to define "anarchism" as the lack of an arbitrarily defined subset of coercive measures, an anarchist society has to tolerate people pretty much doing anything they choose to do

      I think we may have a definition problem here. When the author says 'anarchism', He does not mean the etymological meaning of the word but rather the historical one in the legacy of Bakunin. That's what he means when he included 'Libertarian Socialism' in parenthesis at the start.

      So in this sense, anarchism does indeed lack an arbitrarily defined subset of coercive measures. Specifically it does not shy from the coercive measures which would lead to egalitarianism.

      The kind of anarchism you are thinking of sound more closely related to Mutualism (old-school anarchism, Proudhon etc) of which I do not know much so I cannot defend it.

    2. In this sense, "free riders" wouldn't be "parasites"; they would be simply be pitied for their narrow-minded refusal to engage in a rewarding activity.

      The problem with this tactic is that you do not provide an disincentive for people not to be a parasite. If being a parasite was a risk free proposition, then more and more people would do it which would lead a society to implosion.

      In any case, you can't stop people from shunning or ostracising other people they do not want without enforcing that with authority. The point of anarchism is that such actions would not be decided by a state but rather by the cumulative actions of the people themselves.

    3. But this is not an afterthought, it's the crux of the biscuit, rendering obsolete everything preceding in the entry.

      I do not see why. What this basically says is that since nobody will want to do (say) coal mining and nobody would be forced to do coal mining, then this task would disappear. Why would this not happen?

  2. Etymological anarchism yes. Libertarian Socialism no.

    EDIT: Even etymologically btw, anarchism is not about lack of coercion (rules) but rather about lack of rulers.

    1. He does not mean the etymological meaning of the word but rather the historical one in the legacy of Bakunin.

      Why go out of one's way to be etymologically misleading? Why not just say libertarian socialism.

      How do you have rules without rulers? You might have a set of social and psychological constructions to the point where people typically want to live cooperatively, but those aren't rules. If someone is forced to do something he doesn't want to do, he's going to look at the people who make him do so as his rulers. Even if the majority of people set the rules, then you're not talking about a lack of rulers, you're talking about who should be the rulers.

      See, this is the problem that a lot of skeptics have with radical political philosophies. Proponents are imprecise, use confusing terminology, and seem to hand-wave around serious practical problems. Saying "thus-and-such will somehow happen" without talking about the specifics is not at all persuasive.

      1. . Proponents are imprecise, use confusing terminology, and seem to hand-wave around serious practical problems.

        You may not understand a term, or you may not be familiar with a philosophy (as per your misunderstanding of what Anarchism stands for) but this is different from Anarchism (Libertarian Socialism) being imprecise or confusing. The hand-waving comment is simply unwarranted (not to mention insulting)

      2. Why go out of one's way to be etymologically misleading? Why not just say libertarian socialism.

        The author DID say Libertarian Socialism right there, next to 'Anarchism' in the very first sentence!

  3. There's a severe practical problem with this methodology. The idea that an individual who does not choose to be in a commune can be independently self-sufficient appears naive. This method might have been tenable two hundred years ago, but our present level of economic development is so hyper-specialized that "unhooking" an individual from the social economy would entail such a loss of wealth that it must be seen as unacceptably coercive. Changing the choice from "conform or die" to "conform or live in grinding poverty" does not seem like a persuasive argument for anarchism.

    The amount of capital necessary for true individual self-sufficiency of just basic needs (food, shelter, clothing) is staggering: would an anarchist society give a dissenter an oil well and a refinery so he can heat his house in winter? And what about advanced medical technology? Dentistry? Communications?

    I think an alternative view is superior: In an advanced technological economy such as we have right now, it's much cheaper to provide basic needs at an acceptable level through the social economy than it is to capitalize dissenters sufficiently to allow them self-sufficiency. I say "bite the bullet": give a free ride — just the basics; there's no need to bend over backwards to provide extraordinary luxury — to who do not work, or who do not wish to work at tasks acceptable to the community.

    1. I think the article mentioned this problem already

      Paragraph 2:

      On this question there is some disagreement. Some anarchists, particularly communist-anarchists, argue that the lazy should not be deprived of the means of life. Social pressure, they argue, would force those who take, but do not contribute to the community, to listen to their conscience and start producing for the community that supports them.

      Paragraph 4

      We have to stress here that an anarchist society will not deny anyone the means of life. This would violate the voluntary labor which is at the heart of all schools of anarchism. Unlike capitalism, the means of life will not be monopolized by any group — including the commune. This means that someone who does not wish to join a commune or who does not pull their weight within a commune and are expelled will have access to the means of making a living outside the commune.

      Or are you arguing something different? (just in case I misunderstood you)

  4. Social pressure, they argue, would force those who take, but do not contribute to the community

    Force is force, whether by violence or "social pressure". I have no idea, however, how "social pressure" as I presently understand it would be able to force anyone to do much of anything. I am, for example, under considerable "social pressure" to be a Christian and a capitalist, but this social pressure has very little effect on me other than making me occasionally circumspect. It's certainly not enough to drag me into church on Sunday. To have any practical effect, "social pressure" would have to be a lot sharper than it is now.

    [S]omeone who does not wish to join a commune or who does not pull their weight within a commune and are expelled will have access to the means of making a living outside the commune.

    Did you not read the actual text of my comment? My argument is that providing this means to isolated individuals is grossly inefficient if an anarchist society wishes to make this "living outside the commune" more than grinding poverty. The capital requirements exceed the cost of a free ride within the social economy.

  5. Social pressure, they argue, would force those who take, but do not contribute to the community

    Force is force, whether by violence or "social pressure". I have no idea, however, how "social pressure" as I presently understand it, would be able to force anyone to do much of anything. I am, for example, under considerable "social pressure" to be a Christian and a capitalist, but this social pressure has very little effect on me other than making me circumspect in some circumstance. It's certainly not enough to drag me into church on Sunday. To have any practical effect, "social pressure" would have to be a lot sharper than it is now.

    [S]omeone who does not wish to join a commune or who does not pull their weight within a commune and are expelled will have access to the means of making a living outside the commune.

    Did you not read the actual text of my comment? My argument is that providing this means to isolated individuals is grossly inefficient if an anarchist society wishes to make this "living outside the commune" more than grinding poverty. The capital requirements exceed the cost of a free ride within the social economy.

  6. Social pressure, they argue, would force those who take, but do not contribute to the community

    Force is force, whether by violence or "social pressure". I have no idea, however, how "social pressure" as I presently understand it would be able to force anyone to do much of anything. I am, for example, under considerable "social pressure" to be a Christian and a capitalist, but this social pressure has very little effect on me other than making me occasionally circumspect. It's certainly not enough to drag me into church on Sunday. To have any practical effect, "social pressure" would have to be a lot sharper than it is now.

    [S]omeone who does not wish to join a commune or who does not pull their weight within a commune and are expelled will have access to the means of making a living outside the commune.

    Did you not read the actual text of my comment? My argument is that providing this means to isolated individuals is grossly inefficient if an anarchist society wishes to make this "living outside the commune" more than grinding poverty. The capital requirements exceed the cost of a free ride within the social economy.

  7. See, this is the problem that a lot of skeptics have with radical political philosophies. Proponents are imprecise, use confusing terminology, and seem to hand-wave around serious practical problems. Saying "thus-and-such will somehow happen" without talking about the specifics is not at all persuasive.

    You may not understand a term, or you may not be familiar with a philosophy (as per your misunderstanding of what Anarchism stands for) but this is different from Anarchism (Libertarian Socialism) being imprecise or confusing. The hand-waving comment is simply unwarranted (not to mention insulting)

  8. Force is force, whether by violence or "social pressure"

    Certainly, but as you say yourself, coercion is unavoidable. The point is to which purpose does coercion aim for. I also believe that the social pressure would be a lot sharper than it is now. I believe it would be akin to the social pressure one has within the workplace where they know that if they do not pull their own weight, they are going to be marginalized and/or eventually fired. Only even moreso as they wouldn't be able to simply hide from the manager but they would have to hide from the whole society.

  9. The capital requirements exceed the cost of a free ride within the social economy

    I guess one could manifest this exile simply social instead of physical. In the sense that people shun the lazy ones while still allowing them to free ride.

  10. Ok, now I found it, it was only in the wordpress comment moderation (for some unknown reason). Did you comment outside of IDC (ie did you have javascript disabled?)

    EDIT: It seems there was some kind of bug, the comment now appeared in IDC moderation as well. I have approved it and replied

    I have now approved it but I don't know if (or when) it will be imported in IDC. I will reply normally though

  11. Since you don't wish to publish my comments without prior moderation, I'll show you the respect of not bothering you with my unwanted participation.

  12. What? huh? Your comment got put in moderation? *looks* I honestly don't see anything and I did not receive any email about it. I seriously have not put you up for moderation. IDC does catch random comments for moderation based on heuristic scanning but I don't do it manually. Hell I haven't done it for the AnCaps, why would I start with you?

    In any case, I don't see your (new?) comment. Are you sure the posting went ok?

  13. How do you have rules without rulers? You might have a set of social and psychological constructions to the point where people typically want to live cooperatively, but those aren't rules. If someone is forced to do something he doesn't want to do, he's going to look at the people who make him do so as his rulers. Even if the majority of people set the rules, then you're not talking about a lack of rulers, you're talking about who should be the rulers.

    That is untrue. When you are at your workplace and you feel the want to take out your dick, load up some hardcore porn and masturbate but don't do it because you know of the social condemnation that is going to cause, do you consider everyone else to be your rulers? Of course not. You simply follow social norms. There are no rulers in this situation no matter how you look at it.

  14. So anyone could join a commune, as long as the other people in it agree, and they might be able to stay or not, depending on whether the other people agree, and they'd still have to work. People who don't agree with the rules can go off on their own.

    How exactly is this system different from mutualist businesses, apart from the name?

  15. You tell me. I don't know much about Mutualism 🙂

    But I don't think it's that simple. For example private ownership of Capital wouldn't be allowed. People "going off on their own" would still be provided basic needs etc.

  16. Goddamnit, IDC bug ate my comment. Reposting:

    You tell me. I don't know much about Mutualism 🙂

    But I don't think it's that simple. For example private ownership of Capital wouldn't be allowed. People "going off on their own" would still be provided basic needs etc.

  17. Well, the difference between Communism and Socialism is that the later is simply a transitional period to the former so I'm not certain I can see the similarity.

    Perhaps the difference between mutualism and (Marxist) Socialism is how each tries to achieve it? Specifically in that the second is based on the concept of worker self-emancipation?

  18. Actually, you did find one: "private" ownership of capital is not allowed, which I assume means that if I am working for myself I am not allowed to own my own capital. In mutualism, capital is collectively owned by the workers using it, so if you are working alone you are sole owner.

  19. which I assume means that if I am working for myself I am not allowed to own my own capital

    Incorrect. Under Marxian socialism as well, you own what you use.

  20. I am not part of any group or collective. I own my own farm (in accordance with use/occupancy rules) and I have a tractor. Am I allowed to be the only decider in what happens to that tractor or how it's used?

  21. Again, we're talking about non-trivial means of production. In the grand scheme of things, a single tractor is trivial. To answer your question, you would decide what happens to the tractor, but good luck convincing people that you "own" a whole farm.

  22. I think this example is too abstract to really tell you what I would propose. It seems to me that I would take one side or the other on the ownership of the farm depending on the circumstances of the world at that point. If there is ample land and food to go around for everyone for example then people wouldn't complain if a you used a large amount of it as long as you didn't use it to turn people into wage-slaves.
    But if there wasn't enough to go around, then the land that everyone else agreed you could own would probably be less so that other could survive as well by toiling it.

    So to be more concice. If you were the only person working on the farm, you would own it, but if someone needed to own part of the farm in order to survive (you obviously can't work all the land together) and you didn't need that yourself for your own survival, he would be able to use and own it in turn. You wouldn't be able to prevent someone just because you laid claim there first.

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