How would a socialist system keep workers industrious?

The People
October 6, 1990
Page 6


How would a socialist system keep workers industrious? What would be the penalty, if any, for a worker becoming lazy on the job?


In socialist society, as in capitalist society, there would be both material and moral (or ideological) incentives for workers to be productive. However, the character of both kinds of incentives would change -- for the better.

It should be understood from the start that by "socialist society," we are not referring to the class-ruled bureaucratic system in the Soviet Union nor to any system with nationalized or state-run industries. We are referring to a genuine socialist society based on social ownership and workers' collective, democratic control of the means of production. We underscore that because the widespread view that socialism "doesn't work in practice" since "there's no incentive to produce" stems from the wrongful association of socialism with the moribund Soviet economy. From our perspective, it is no surprise at all that workers' incentive to be productive has been crippled under the oppressive and exploitative Soviet system.

In capitalist society, the material incentives to be productive are mostly of a negative character: the worker is driven mainly by an underlying fear of being fired and falling into poverty and starvation. The motive is survival. The workers' only material reward is a living wage, with the bulk of workers' product, and the gains of improved productivity, going to the benefit of the capitalist owners.

True, workers are also motivated by the promise of getting promoted and "getting ahead," but that is more of an ideological than an actual material incentive. The great mass of workers do not "get ahead" no matter how hard they work, and the few who are promoted to managerial positions are but slightly better rewarded wage slaves, in charge of directing and pushing the other wage slaves. The people who really "get ahead" are the capitalists, most of whom were already "ahead" at birth, and whose enormous material rewards come not from productive labor but from owning capital and exploiting those who do perform productive labor.

Moreover, it is a fact of economic life under capitalism that the more productive workers are, the more easily market demand can be surpassed and the more quickly some workers will have worked themselves out of a job.

Considering the poor material rewards workers receive under capitalism, the amazing thing is that they are as industrious as they are. But there is another, instinctive and moral incentive involved that capitalism did not create: the desire to be a productive member of society, to contribute something to the social good. Coupled with that is the natural desire to be creative-a desire that is trampled upon under capitalism, which demands tedious, repetitive, strictly channeled and intensive labor from most workers.


In a socialist society, the natural, moral and creative incentives to be productive would not only be preserved; they would be strengthened along with vastly improved material incentives and working conditions.

When every member of society is a co-owner of the means of production; when every able-bodied member of society is a worker, and the workers collectively administer the means of production and control the distribution of their collective product; when the workers no longer have the vast majority of the value of their product stolen from them by a class of idle owners but enjoy the full fruit of their labor-then the material incentive to be industrious will be far greater than it is today.

So too will be the incentive to improve productivity through better machines and methods. In socialist society, when productivity is improved, no one loses the opportunity to work. Rather, each improvement in productivity lessens the amount of socially necessary labor time needed to acquire goods and services; the result is hours kicked out of the workweek, not workers being kicked out of jobs.

In socialist society, with the workers in democratic control of the production process itself, ample labor and resources could be devoted to make workplaces safe and pleasant.

With the emphasis placed on improving the machinery and methods of production, the pace of production itself could be regulated at a constructive, but not oppressive or unsafe, level.

Jobs could be rotated or redefined to make them less repetitive or tedious. Of course, with exploitation eliminated, and, consequently, workers able to live well on something on the order of a 15-hour workweek, tedium would be less of a problem. Moreover, with education and job training freely accessible to all, people would be able to experience different occupations far more readily than is the case today.


When all these things are considered, it is evident that the natural and moral desire to contribute to society would be enhanced, for in contributing to society, the worker under socialism benefits himself or herself at the same time. Under capitalism, the worker is constantly tempted to think, "Why work hard? I get paid the same lousy wage anyway." Under socialism, the worker realizes, "If I work conscientiously, society benefits and I benefit."

Furthermore, the opportunities for applying oneself creatively, both on the job and in one's expanded leisure time, would be greatly increased.

With the capitalist no longer controlling the distribution of workers' product, and with the flourishing of a cooperative spirit emanating from cooperative production, workers would take unhindered pride and pleasure in their ability to fulfill the needs of others. As Marx put it: "In your joy or in your use of my product, I would have the direct joy from my good conscience of having, by my work, satisfied a human need ... and consequently, of having procured to the need of another human being his corresponding object."

Considering that socialism would create such a different, productivity-enhancing social environment, the second question accepts a dubious premise in its assumption that socialist society will have to contend with "lazy" workers. Supposing that, as a legacy of capitalism, incidental cases of laziness exist in socialist society when it is first established (especially among the former capitalists), then action by the lazy worker's peers should be sufficient to solve the problem.

Through their socialist industrial union, the workers could, for example, establish certain minimum standards for quantity and quality of work. The workers' elected management committees could discipline or penalize any who failed to perform their fair share of the work, by proportionately reducing their "draw" of goods from the social "store" -- in keeping with the principle that workers are entitled to products of labor commensurate with the labor they actually contribute.

Such "negative controls," however, would only prove necessary so long as the antisocial influence of capitalist exploitation and oppression persisted. Once the fulfilling social environment of socialism takes hold, such incidental laziness on the job will become a thing of the past.