Friday, September 5, 2008

Proposed Roads to Freedom, Chapter IV

Chapter IV (pages 86-110), “Work and Pay ”

[An e-version of Chapter IV is available here.]

With Chapter IV, we move from Part I of the book (“Historical”) to Part II (“Problems of the Future”).

The standard of living is constrained both by natural forces that are independent of social institutions as well as by limits associated with those social institutions. Among the possible natural constraints are Malthusian population considerations and the requirement that most men engage in long, arduous toil, with little time for leisure, in order to produce a level of output that significantly exceeds subsistence for the whole population. But Russell thinks that neither of these potential natural constraints are currently real constraints, nor are they likely to become actual limitations for a long time – improvements in the technology of production allow for tremendous growth in output. Kropotkin himself is very convincing on the possibility, using known techniques, of raising agricultural output considerably. Malthusian pressures already do not apply to the advanced countries, which, since the time that Malthus wrote, have seen large declines in birthrates and large increases in living standards. Still higher living standards could be achieved if fewer people were engaged in war-making.

Kropotkin suggests that most agricultural work “could be carried on by people whose main occupations are sedentary, and with only such a number of hours as would serve to keep them in health and produce a pleasant diversification [p. 91].” Kropotkin promotes such diversification, where a single laborer undertakes both mental and physical tasks, and works in agriculture as well as in industry. Industrial output is perhaps even less likely to be constrained by decreasing returns than is agriculture, as manufacturing frequently is more efficient when undertaken at a larger scale. [Recall Marx in The German Ideology: " communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic."]

What about human as opposed to technical constraints? Many reformers want to abolish the wage system, but their opponents point out that people might not be willing to work hard unless arduous work were rewarded more liberally than leisure or easy tasks. Would the adoption of Socialism or Anarchism require a decline in living standards? Of course, Socialism and Anarchism are different. Many strands of Socialism would allow wages to reflect productivity, and impose an obligation to work upon the able-bodied. Anarchism aims at letting people have as much consumption of ordinary goods as they want, without requiring work in compensation. (For rare, scarce goods, equal division would be the rule. Russell later (pages 97-8) points out that prices of sorts would have to be placed on these goods to allow individuals to choose only those luxuries that most appeal to them.)

“Socialism with inequality of income would not differ greatly as regards the economic stimulus to work from the society in which we live [p. 94].” The differences that do exist are favorable to Socialism – the idle affluence that arises through inheritance, for instance, would disappear, along with the huge returns available in fields like finance that have little connection to their social utility. In the current system, highly paid jobs generally are available only to those with costly schooling, so children of the middle class are excluded from highly paid professions. And loyal, hard workers can become destitute through no fault of their own. “Such destitution is a constant fear, and when it occurs it produces undeserved suffering, and often deterioration in the social value of the sufferer [p. 95].” [This quick mention of the “social value” of people is reminiscent of Russell’s (later?) dalliance with eugenics.]

I [RBR] found the passage on undeserved suffering to be reminiscent of Friedrich Engels; consider this extract from Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England:
True, it is only individuals who starve, but what security has the working-man that it may not be his turn tomorrow? Who assures him employment, who vouches for it that, if for any reason or no reason his lord and master discharges him tomorrow, he can struggle along with those dependent upon him, until he may find some one else "to give him bread"? Who guarantees that willingness to work shall suffice to obtain work, that uprightness, industry, thrift, and the rest of the virtues recommended by the bourgeoisie, are really his road to happiness? No one. He knows that he has something today and that it does not depend upon himself whether he shall have something tomorrow. He knows that every breeze that blows, every whim of his employer, every bad turn of trade may hurl him back into the fierce whirlpool from which he has temporarily saved himself, and in which it is hard and often impossible to keep his head above water. He knows that, though he may have the means of living today, it is very uncertain whether he shall tomorrow.
Russell argues that the abolition of the wage and price system is not fantastical. The rich already have no effective budgetary limitation on the amount of bread that they eat, but they consume little more than the poor. Most people have access to free water, but they do not leave the tap running. Free access could be extended to all the necessities of life, and even to education (including higher education). The Anarchist idea of free distribution of basic goods is technically feasible.

Will people work without direct payment? Given the way tasks are currently organized, the worst of these jobs would find few takers. But if society had to entice people to work, instead of using the threat of starvation to drive them to work, society would find ways to make work more pleasant. Already, much highly paid work is pleasant, and people who engage in this work are better off than they would be with the same income, but without the work. “A certain amount of effort, and something in the nature of a continuous career, are necessary to vigorous men if they are to preserve their mental health and their zest for life. A considerable amount of work is done without pay [p. 101].” Much work is disagreeable only because of long hours, and these are not necessary, especially with better organization. Nevertheless, truly onerous or monotonous work like coal mining will undoubtedly require special inducements for the (otherwise) Anarchist system to function. If a few folks prefer idleness, that is OK, so long as it is only a few. In the current system, many potentially talented writers or poets, for instance, cannot indulge their talents due to the insufficiency of means that accompanies the lack of popular appeal. Under an Anarchist system, these people could produce works that now are economically unsupported.

The Anarchist-style free distribution of goods can be introduced gradually, and it would be easy to reverse if it did not work. The Anarchist notion that most people would work in the absence of compulsion or reward is not likely to work in practice, however, despite Russell's earlier argumentation. The Socialists would provide compulsion to labor, but surely they will not permit any type of labor to count: writing anti-government tracts will not be countenanced, nor would unfamiliar artistic styles or ideas not congenial to the censors receive official imprimatur. Socialists don’t recognize this problem, because they think that those future bureaucrats will be broad-minded individuals like themselves – but they won’t be.

“Anarchism has the advantage as regards liberty, Socialism as regards inducements to work [p. 108].” A combination might be better than either of the pure forms. One such combination would be to distribute necessities freely to all. Only luxuries would be rationed. Most people would work to acquire luxuries, but some people, who needed time for their artistic creation, say, would choose to forgo luxuries. The plan Russell advocates, then, provides a small, unconditional income to everyone, while those who work can achieve much larger incomes. A system based on such a plan “combines freedom with justice, and avoids those dangers to the community which we have found to lurk both in the proposals of the Anarchists and in those of orthodox Socialists [p. 110].”

No comments: