Response to an Ultra-leftist Critique of Cybersocialism
In a recent blogpost, Simon Sutterlütti criticises my model of a cybersocialist economy from an ultra-left perspective. His account of my proposal is largely accurate, so I will not have to waste much time to clear up misunderstandings. I do, however, think that his characterisation of my proposal as “wage-socialism” is a gross trivialisation of the, often brutal, exploitation of wage labourers under capitalism. I will outline the important difference between socialism and wage-capitalism and show that this difference is sufficient to overcome the essential problems of wage-capitalism. I will then respond to Sutterlütti’s views on the human motivation to work.
Under capitalism, wage labourers are deprived of the ability to provide their own livelihood because they lack access to the means of production. Instead, they are left with no choice but to sell their labour power to a capitalist class that has monopolised the means of production and excludes the rest of the population from free access to them by the threat of state violence. Under capitalism, everything (or almost everything) is produced through the effort of wage labourers who must spend their time toiling for the capitalists instead of engaging in freely chosen activities that make a life worth living.
A self-sufficient farmer in economic isolation must also plough her fields or face starvation. But when she does so she will get to keep and consume her entire harvest (except for what she keeps to sow in the next year or looses to mice). Wage labourers are not so lucky. While the product of their labour is much larger due to the advantages of modern technology and the division of labour, it does not belong to them but to the capitalist that they had to sell their labour power to. Since capitalists make a profit, the value of the pay that labourers receive is less than the value of the product of their labour. While labourers are the only ones who, through their sweat and blood, create products, they do not get to enjoy the full benefits of those products. The labour that they must perform is significantly more than what is necessary to produce the use values that they get to enjoy. Due to class-exploitation, workers are thus forced to engage in more work than is necessary to support their standard of living, given available technology and production methods. Workers are thus robbed of both their time and the fruits of their labour.
I do not object to this “robbery” because I believe that people have some sort of natural right to the product of their labour, as philosopher John Locke believed. Instead, I object to it because the time that workers spend on fields, in factories or in offices, engaging in soul-crushing endeavours, should rather be spend engaging in activities of their own choosing which contribute to, rather than destroy, their flourishing as human beings.
Why then does Sutterlütti equate my model of socialism with wage labour? My crime is that I argue that access to consumer products should be partly linked to the contribution of one’s labour power towards socialised production. As in Marx’s initial phase of communism, workers would receive tokens in proportion to their labour contribution. These tokens can then be redeemed to receive consumer products out of the general supply of goods.
There is a somewhat technical reason that I don’t call this wage labour. The tokens given to workers are not money as they are not a medium of exchange but can merely be redeemed for consumer products. Once they have been redeemed, they will be deleted, so they don’t circulate to facilitate private exchange, or at least this is not their purpose. But there is a much more important difference between my model of socialism and the capitalist system of wage labour. While in both systems workers must contribute labour to gain access to consumption goods, under socialism they will not provide their labour to an alien power. They will only have to work as long as is necessary to support their own consumption and to support projects administered according to rules set collectively by a society that they themselves are a part of. Their work will, in other words, not be exploited to support a distinct ruling class. To me this difference matters significantly.
Nonetheless, people will be compelled to work in order to access consumption goods. How does this square with the demand that people should be able to engage in freely chosen activities? Well, much like Marx, I believe that activities that are necessary to satisfy important needs are not freely chosen and many of these activities would not be freely chosen if it wasn’t for mere necessity. These activities nonetheless need to be carried out. Fields must be cultivated, and assembly lines staffed if we want to uphold the material standard of living that industrialisation has made possible. But the “realm of freedom” begins only when these needs are taken care of, after the mundane tasks of necessity are out of the way. The goal must thus be to minimise the time that humanity must work on fields and in factories, in other words to minimise the length of the workday. This can be achieved through a rational organisation of the economy, technological progress and removing excess work for the benefits of the capitalist class. But it can also be achieved by distributing the labour burden on all capable shoulders. Requiring people to do their fair part is precisely necessary to ensure the freedom of others.
The Human Motivation to Work
In a private discussion with Sutterlütti, it has become clear to me that this is not his primary concern though. His objection to compelling people to work through material compensation is not that this restricts their freedom, but that it changes their motivation to work. Sutterlütti believes that people would still engage in productive activities and would actually do a better job if they do so in order to accomplish some useful goal, rather than to get paid. He also believes that this will lead to people taking into account factors that would otherwise be externalised because they are not reflected in material incentives. For example, a production unit that gets paid irrespective of its carbon emissions would be unlikely to take these into account. But if their motivation is not to get paid, but to accomplish some benefit to society, they would, according to Sutterlütti, be more likely to make efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
If Sutterlütti is right, then most people would still contribute a reasonable amount of their time to produce the necessities of life and it would thus not be left to others to pick up what they refuse to do. Consumption would thus not have to be linked to labour burden to ensure that that burden is distributed fairly. But is Sutterlütti right? I think not, or at least not right enough that there is no need for a material incentive to work at all. Our disagreement stems, at least in part, from our different understanding of human productive needs. We both agree that humans have a need to engage in meaningful productive activities. But while Sutterlütti believes that this will lead people to engage even in tiring or mundane work should this be socially necessary, I believe they will mostly do so only if they expect some direct benefit to their own individual condition.
Moreover, I don’t think that this sort of activity fulfils a human need. We do, at least for the most part, not flourish as human beings when working in fields or factories. The sort of activities that I think fulfil an important need are those that draw on our creativity or help us foster meaningful relationships to others. The creation of some piece of art is perhaps the best example of a human activity that is both productive, in the sense that it has a meaningful purpose, and is at the same time intrinsically enjoyable and helps us to flourish not just through the created output. But the sort of activities needed to grow food for 7 billion people and to provide them with computers and rail infrastructure are not of this sort and I don’t think people would voluntarily engage in these activities to the degree that is necessary and justified by their useful effect.
To illustrate this point, we can divide labour tasks into three categories. The first category consists of labour that is unpleasant and that people would not voluntarily engage in. The useful effect of the labour in this category is also not great enough to justify people engaging in this sort of activity. In other words, this sort of activity does more harm than good. Both Sutterlütti and I would presumably agree that no one should be made to engage in such activity. The second category consists of the sort of labour that people would voluntarily engage in as it fulfils some productive need. I agree with Sutterlütti that this category is not empty. There really are such activities that people will readily undertake. For all I care, socialist society does not have to incentivise them to do so. There is however a significant third category. The third category consists of labour that people will not engage in out of their own motivation, but it is important enough that it should nonetheless be carried out. It creates something that can be deemed useful enough that it justifies the hassle required to produce it, yet people will not engage in it without some reward or individual benefit. Sutterlütti must show that this category is empty, i.e. that there is no such work. It is not enough to show that there is some work that people will readily engage in (category 2), but also that there is no important work that they will not readily engage in (category 3). I for one remain unconvinced and for this reason maintain that there must be some mechanism to distribute the labour in category 3 fairly between all.
I maintain that my model of cyber-socialism does not restrict freedom or the satisfaction of productive needs. Instead, it fosters these, by reducing the time that is needed for the social provisioning of goods through efficient planning of the economy and by sharing the burden fairly on all shoulders. I believe that an efficiently planned socialist economy could substantially reduce the length of the workday, thus giving people sufficient free time during which they can engage in meaningful activity.