Free Work Versus Forced Employment

Why do you go to work? Is it because you enjoy what you do? Did you choose to work at what you do in the way you do? Would you do your job were it not for the money?

A few lucky people can do what they like. These include a certain class of people who have the economic privilege of not needing to work. They can live by exploiting the work of others. This exploitation enables them to live by appropriating rent, interest and profit. They can do what they like with their lives. They can sleep all day. They can travel. They can spend their time shooting animals for fun or shooting drugs into their bodies. If they wish, they can be philanthropists and “do good” for the poor—who are poor only because the rich are rich.

While the capitalist minority who own and control the means of producing and distributing wealth are free not to have to work, the majority of us are unfree. We are dependent upon working in order to obtain a wage or salary. We sell our mental and physical abilities in a relationship called employment.

Work and employment are not the same. Humans need to work because work is the expenditure of energy and unless we use some of it we rot away. Even the most parasitical aristocratic layabout occasionally does the odd stroke of work. Looking after a garden or painting pictures or cooking fine food are all work activities, but if you do them freely they are not employment. To be employed is to work for someone else: to be at their beck and call; to be given money by them in return for producing values for them. Capitalists will only employ workers if there is a prospect of them making a profit out of us. They make their profit by receiving from us more value than the value of our wages or salaries. Without this surplus value they would not employ us – which is why millions of able-bodied and skilled people who want to find jobs are unemployed; there is no prospect of a profit in making them work. There is no point in asking the capitalists to give everyone employment regardless of profit. That would not be in their interests and we should not expect them to invest in us unless they can exploit us.

So, the majority works not by choice but in an unfree relationship of employment. We are wage or salary slaves. We are employed not for the good of our health but so that capitalists can live in luxury without working. Employment is a form of institutionalised exploitation – or legalised robbery.

Increasing Misery—How Work’s Getting Worse

Karl Marx, who was the first to explain scientifically how capitalism turned the producers of wealth into exploited wage slaves, argued in the last century that conditions for workers would get worse: the increasing misery of the working class. Some reformists believe that Marx was wrong: that life under capitalism has been greatly improved for the workers as a result of philanthropic legislation and higher wages. Even certain pseudo-Marxists have declared that Marx was wrong about this and that capitalism has produced a working class which, though technically exploited, is pretty affluent and no longer in poverty. Even discounting the condition of the majority of the world’s working class who live in conditions of poverty comparable to those suffered in Victorian Britain (which such pseudo-Marxists do, because they are essentially only interested in British rather then global capitalism), it is nonsense to suppose that the exploited working class is now somehow well off. In fact, in many respects, the late 1990s are one of the worst times to be employed this century.

Employment is the sale of time. Capitalists want to be sure that they get their full chunk of our lives, down to the last second. So they’ve invented new electronic timesheets, such as Tempo, VizTopia and Carpe Diem, which measure what we are doing during every minute of their day. Arthur Andersen, the management consultants (the new holders of the foreman’s whip) have invented a new 70-unit day, divided up into six-minute periods, each of which must be accounted for by the employee. At a recent socialist meeting we heard from a worker at one of the major banks whose useless job was to sit in front of a computer transferring money. There is a button labelled “More Work” which she had to press on her computer each time she had completed a task. By comparison, the Victorian factory sounds pretty civilised–certainly no worse. The New Labour-supporting Daily Mirror reports enthusiastically on the Nissan factory in Sunderland where workers have a fixed 35-minute lunch break (16 July).

The “good old days” when even the humblest wage slave got an hour off for dinner and a chat have been replaced. All over the industrialised world workers are being encouraged to arrive on the job earlier, stay later and take less time out for a pee or a pie. Little wonder then that the same newspaper reported that “soaring stress levels at work are making it Britain’s biggest health hazard . . . It is affecting a third of the country’s workforce and costing industry 90 million working days a year” (19 October) The TUC report from which the newspaper quoted this information also stated that nearly a quarter of Britain’s firms were not meeting legally required safety obligations. And with trade-union membership having fallen–largely due to the smaller full-time workforce and increased job insecurity—most workers simply have to grin and bear it. Without organisation for self-defence the bosses can impose whatever lousy conditions they think they can get away with

In the Post Office in North London workers, whose paid job began at 6 am, were arriving half an hour early in order to complete the extra workload that management was expecting of them. They didn’t arrive early because they were insomniacs and couldn’t sleep; they were scared that unless they delivered what the managers were demanding they’d be replaced by other wage slaves fresh off the dole queue. Now the managers (who are merely the errand boys for Capital) have insisted that the official working day must begin at 5.30—after all, most workers are arriving then anyway. So, more work will be piled upon them and the next step will be for some to have to arrive at 5 am to deliver their pounds of flesh. This is the increasing misery of the working class.

A World Without Wages

Most of us want to work. What we hate is employment. We want to work for ourselves, our families and friends, our community, not some thieving parasite who can laugh as long as we’re dependent on his wages.

The abolition of wage slavery is no less than the abolition of class society. Because there are only two main classes left in society today–capitalists and workers—the abolition of capitalist exploitation must mean the beginning of free labour.

How will work be organised in a socialist society? Everyone who can work will work. They will work at what they do best, not for wages but as co-operative contributors to society. In return for giving according to their abilities they will be free to take from the common store according to their needs. There will be no wages. There will be no money. Instead of the market there will be free access for all to goods and services. It will be a more relaxed society. People in a socialist society will not have jobs but will do work. It is unlikely that any of us will choose to do only one kind of work all week or between the ages of sixteen and sixty-five. It is quite probable that the hours each week that each of us will be needed to work will be less than at present. Certainly, working conditions will be pleasant–because the object of work will be social satisfaction and not pumping as much toil out of each person as is humanly possible. People in a socialist society will have much more control than now over how their work is organised; the labour process will be democratised and no longer under the dictatorship of Capital and its managerial Gestapo.

Under capitalism what we call leisure is a snatched period of free time to use for rest and relaxation. In a socialist society the distinction between work and leisure will diminish—perhaps even disappear. People will have an opportunity to use their hobbies and enthusiasms for the social good: to enjoy being useful. Whereas now much of the work that most workers perform is totally useless—from counting money to making munitions to guarding property—every human in a socialist society will know that their work is part of a process of producing for use.

We are not presenting the socialist alternative of a world without wages as a utopian dream for the century after next. This is practical now. Socialism is the sensible next step for humankind to take, away from a social system that wastes our energies, abuses our skills and stunts our creativity.