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.