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Socialist Freedom, Economic Security, and Work

The line on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s website supporting “economic security to all those who are unable or unwilling to work” has gotten its fifteen minutes of fame. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and her chief of staff ultimately conceded the phrase’s authenticity but said it was mistakenly placed on the website. Robert Hockett, an advisor to Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, went further, dismissing the substance of the policy suggestion saying, “We never would [pay people unwilling to work], right? And AOC has never said anything like that.”

While Hockett’s answer was politic given the backlash the phrase received, it shouldn’t surprise us that at least some of the groups and constituencies supporting Rep. Ocasio-Cortez would believe and float such a policy.

To be sure, the face of American socialism in its current public manifestation is about expanding the social insurance system, reducing economic and social inequality, and promoting economic redistribution. This, however, is a tame version of socialism, one might say even a neo-liberal variant of socialism, concerned as it is preserving economic incentives for work and productivity.

Indeed, given that Americans would broadly reject the idea of supporting people unwilling to work no matter where they are on the ideological continuum, this tame version of socialism is the only realistic socialist game in town. But in America’s not-so-distant past with greater ideological extremes than Americans got used to in their post-WWII experience—broad swaths of more-radical socialists held economic equality and redistribution were merely means to an end. The true telos of socialism was liberating humans from the inhumanity of wage work itself.

In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, for example, Karl Marx sneers at reforms like increasing the minimum wage, and at even more-radical proposals for wage equality. He writes:

A forcing-up of wages (disregarding all other difficulties, including the fact that it would only be by force, too, that the higher wages, being an anomaly, could be maintained) would therefore be nothing but better payment for the slave, and would not conquer either for the worker or for labor their human status and dignity.

Indeed, even the equality of wages demanded by Proudhon only transforms the relationship of the present-day worker to his labor into the relationship of all men to labor. Society is then conceived as an abstract capitalist.

According to Marx, humans naturally desire to work, that is, humans desire to work even when they are not in physical need. This is a critical distinction between humans and animals for Marx. Even further, people are truly free in their work—and free to create beauty—only when their work is freed from the imperative of physical necessity.

[An animal] produces only under the dominion of immediate physical need, whilst man produces even when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom therefrom.  . . . An animal’s product belongs immediately to its physical body, whilst man freely confronts his product. An animal forms things in accordance with the standard and the need of the species to which it belongs, whilst man knows how to produce in accordance with the standard of every species, and knows how to apply everywhere the inherent standard to the object. Man therefore also forms things in accordance with the laws of beauty.

In this view of human nature—in this more optimistic anthropology—providing economic security to those “unwilling” to work does not disincentivize work. Rather, it frees individuals to work freely.

Most Americans would reject this claim out of hand—hence the quick walk back from Rep. Ocasio-Cartez and her supporters. And yet there is some truth to the observation, even if it is not the whole truth. After all, we all know extremely wealthy people—people in no need at all—who nonetheless work very hard.

More classically, Tocqueville notably discusses how being without physical need affects the behavior of aristocrats. The impact is bimodal. On the one hand, Tocqueville describes the spectacular debauchery and indolence among aristocrats. At the same time, he also argues that leisure without need to meet physical requirements allows aristocrats to pursue and patronize truth, goodness and beauty. We see higher highs as well as lower lows within the aristocratic population because they have economic security even when they are unwilling to work.

Of course, the trick to aristocratic society is that the aristocrats are a small slice of the population, one effectively supported by the labor of the rest of the population. It is unclear a society composed entirely of aristocrats could support itself. And it is here where the Marxian anthropology, indeed, the socialist anthropology more generally, turns utopian. That is, in the belief that, once freed of need and wage-labor, people generally would mimic the behavior only of virtuous aristocrats. (Let alone answering the more practical question of how would a society composed entirely of Tocqueville’s virtuous aristocrats produce enough to sustain physical life.)

Whatever the intellectual merits of the claim—and there are many socialists (and non-socialists) who embrace the anthropology that “people are naturally good”—I don’t find it at all odd that the process described by Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, would produce a line about providing economic security to people unwilling to work. Chakrabarti explained in a tweet,

We did this in collaboration with a bunch of groups and offices over the course of the last month. As a part of that process, there were multiple iterations, brainstorming docs, FAQs, etc. that we shared. Some of these early drafts got leaked.

We shouldn’t be surprised that the rise of critics of “neo-liberalism,” on both the left and the right, will increasingly suggest policy proposals at greater variance than the range of policies debated within the post-WWII policy consensus. But then that consensus reflected a much-narrower range of opinion than before the War in the U.S.

So buckle in everyone, I think we’re just at the start of what will be a wild ride.

Reader Discussion

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on February 27, 2019 at 10:20:28 am

"This, however, is a tame version of socialism, one might say even a neo-liberal variant of socialism, concerned as it is preserving economic incentives for work and productivity."

Fabianism; capitalist production and state confiscation and distribution of the same...

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Image of OH Anarcho-Capitalist
OH Anarcho-Capitalist
on February 27, 2019 at 12:46:47 pm

Why restate Marxian fantasy (while in 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.) rather than refute it with facts?

There are approx. 95 million people above the age of 16 in the USA right now who do not work. Do we see them starving in mass famines? Plagues? Do we see 95 million homeless persons? 95 million people freezing to death in the winter because they haven't sufficient clothing? No, no, no and no. This means that 95 million adult persons--and let's just cut that in half, for good measure and say 47 million adults--in the USA are provided with the necessaries of existence without having to work. 47 million people (and that' s just the US) free from wage drudgery to pursue truth and beauty. With such an army in pursuit truth and beauty ought to have been completely conquered by now. Which, of course, they haven't.

Release millions upon millions form the necessity of work and you leave them with nothing but time and no obvious ways in which to fill it. That is just a fact. Artists and philosophers, scientists and engineers, these have always been a small minority of any population (even in Periclean Athens). Abject poverty having been almost entirely eliminated from the developed world (replaced by relative poverty, as starvation has been replaced by "food insecurity"), Marx's "communist society" is effectively realized, yet people are as dissatisfied as ever, maybe more so, and according to Rogers we are in for a "wild ride."

Why? Is it possible that the answer has nothing to do with whether "human nature" is "good" or "evil"? Is it possible that all socialist and communist theories and hypotheses have been falsified? Maybe we should detach ourselves from the mooring cables of falsified theories and their categories and lexicons and re-think how we understand civilization and its discontents?

(Strauss got at this paradox in his reply to Kojeve in their debate over On Tyranny).

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Image of QET
QET
on February 27, 2019 at 20:29:25 pm

Americans would broadly reject the idea of supporting people unwilling to work no matter where they are on the ideological continuum….

Really?

Consider Brother Josiah, who spends every waking hour praying for the sins of the world. You’re saying that Americans would oppose having an ambulance pick him up and take him to an emergency room? They’d oppose having the fire department put out a fire in his house, or having the police defend his property? They’d oppose letting him drive on public roads, visit public parks, or attend public schools? I suspect Rogers is mistaken.

(Indeed, Israel seems to support quite a few Brother Josiahs, and even excuse them from military service. They make it work somehow….)

Ok, perhaps Rogers is not mistaken—just under-specific. But my point it this: Americans DO provide LOTS of support to people REGARDLESS of people’s work history. WE LIVE IN A SOCIALIST COUNTRY!. Our disputes are not about whether to have capitalism or socialism; we have both. The disputes are about the appropriate mix of socialism and capitalism.

[P]roviding economic security to those “unwilling” to work does not disincentivize work. Rather, it frees individuals to work freely.

Most Americans would reject this claim out of hand…. And yet there is some truth to the observation….

Indeed. When we did experiments with guaranteed basic income in the 1970s, this is what we observed: Men didn’t change the number of hours they spent in the paid labor force much. Women reduced their hours in the paid labor force—and increased their hours caring for kids and parents. That is, they continued to do productive work—freely.

[H]ow would a society composed entirely of Tocqueville’s virtuous aristocrats produce enough to sustain physical life[?]

How would Tocqueville characterize an aristocrat? Perhaps as someone who doesn’t have to work his own fields, shoot his own game, gather his own firewood, scrub his own clothes, break his own horse, or dig his own latrine. I suspect the great majority of us enjoy a lifestyle that Tocqueville would characterize as aristocratic.

In 1930, while staring into the mouth of the Great Depression, John Menard Keynes wrote his “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” wherein he predicted that technology would make productivity so great that our standard of living would be eight times greater within 100 years—and that the average workweek would fall to between 0-15 hrs/wk. He noted that people would find this hard to believe, given that the human race evolved in an era of scarcity and thus can barely conceive of any other condition.

And Keynes’s predictions have largely come true: GDP per capita is on pace to achieve an 800% increase by 2030. And the number of leisure hours has increased tremendously, mostly due to all manner of home appliances. True, the GDP is not evenly distributed. But that fact merely supports arguments for better distribution.

So buckle in everyone, I think we’re just at the start of what will be a wild ride.

Eh. Not bad, but Rogers is no Bette Davis.

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nobody.really
on February 27, 2019 at 20:49:48 pm

Fair enough.
Americans do support their fellow citizens. Indeed, we appear to also support a large chunk of citizens of other countries.
BUT - if asked: Would you / do you want to provide monies to an able bodied person who simply does not wish to work?
What do you suppose the answer will be?

Of course, you are correct to point out that Americans DO support such types - BUT only because we do not, as private citizens, determine to whom such monies will be given. Look only to the streets of many a community. What percentage of people give to the drug addled "homeless" person on the street corner?
Given a choice, these poor souls would find themselves in even more dire straits, would they not.

And that is precisely the point.
The citizenry NO LONGER has a say in such matters. All is now determined by our Administrative Agency experts who a) presume to know the *will* of the people; curiously the divination of that will so regularly coincides with the preferences of those *experts*, b) and in the rare instances where the experts manage to determine the actual will of the people, should the peoples will conflict with the agency's "expertise", the people's will be damned.

Perhaps, we shall be in for a wild ride should the people insist that their actual will be recognized and implemented.

Jus' sayin'

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Image of gabe
gabe
on March 01, 2019 at 05:52:10 am

[…] faces certain tensions within itself, certain contradictions. Earlier this week I mused over American socialists who ran away from the proposal that “economic security” should be provided to those “unwilling to work”—no doubt because […]

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Image of Is Identity Politics a Capitalist Plot?
Is Identity Politics a Capitalist Plot?
on March 01, 2019 at 14:00:01 pm

The human weakness that we are all born with messes up all humanist utopias, and makes them unworkable.

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Image of Peter Aiello
Peter Aiello
on March 05, 2019 at 00:30:20 am

[…] Socialist Freedom, Economic Security, and Work James R. Rogers, Law and Liberty […]

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Image of PowerLinks 03.05.19 – Acton Institute PowerBlog
PowerLinks 03.05.19 – Acton Institute PowerBlog
on March 06, 2019 at 00:30:11 am

[…] Socialist Freedom, Economic Security, and Work James R. Rogers, Law and Liberty […]

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Image of PowerLinks 03.06.19 – Acton Institute PowerBlog
PowerLinks 03.06.19 – Acton Institute PowerBlog
on March 24, 2019 at 21:35:52 pm

[…] faces certain tensions within itself, certain contradictions. Earlier this week I mused over American socialists who ran away from the proposal that “economic security” should be provided to those “unwilling to work”—no doubt because […]

read full comment
Image of Is Identity Politics a Capitalist Plot? | Yellowos
Is Identity Politics a Capitalist Plot? | Yellowos

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.