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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