LeftEast was a co-sponsor of an online conference on non-capitalist mixed economies from June 23–26 2021. Co-sponsors of the conference included the Karl Polanyi Center, Eszmélet Journal, Social Theory College in Budapest, Polanyi Institute, Geopolitical Economy Research Group, Institute of Political History Social Theory Research Group, The Study Group on Global Labour History and Social Conflicts – IHC Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Left East, Institutul pentru Solidaritate Socială, Working Group for Public Policy, Helyzet, Fordulat, CriticAtac, Transform Europe, and the International Karl Polanyi Society. A selection of the talks has been published by the Eszmélet Foundation in a special issue of Eszmélet (2021), entitled “In Need of Alternatives: Problems and Issues of Non-capitalist Mixed Economies”. We offer our readers the chapters of this volume as a special series on LeftEast, which have been published on Wednesdays of the last few weeks.
The question posed in the title has been haunting me for several years. A more precise question would be: how do we imagine labor? Why is it important? I think the struggle for and our debate on socialism has been misleading as we have always been just criticizing capitalism, and we rarely asked how we foresee other types of societies, or how we foresee a socialist society.
In this paper I reflect on these questions. First of all, a lot has been written about this.1 What I realized through my study is that currently there is a change in labor practice, labor production. In Portugal new research is being conducted, in which under my supervision a team of 20 researchers, including medical experts and psychiatrists, have been surveying workers in major sectors of the economy.2 We have been able to collect 19,000 answers from teachers. We have also studied automobile industry workers, nurses, railway workers, subway workers, truck drivers, and aircraft sector employees. We started with studying “burnout” but eventually expanded our investigation into labor and living conditions. Based on this analysis, we can clearly see that there is a huge contrast between how these people worked in 1974/75 and how they work now. How can we reflect on these changes via available theories?
First of all, I think we have been too pressured by the ideals of “real socialism” systems, labor as a “necessity”, the scientific rationalization of work. Labor, of course, as a way of making ends meet in capitalism, is a necessity, since you cannot live without labor or family or social assistance. Recently, critical approaches to labor processes have been very strong at universities, in academia, where ideas of “anti-laborism” prevail. As in the case with the Crisis Group or other groups that we have looked at, from the viewpoint of academia they are “anarchists”. This is, however, a very reductionist approach in my opinion. These groups tend to look at labor as a “process of suffering”. As pointed out by John Bellamy Foster,
“The narrative found today in every neoclassical economics textbook portrays work in purely negative terms, as a disutility or sacrifice. Sociologists and economists often present this as a transhistorical phenomenon, extending from the classical Greeks to the present. Thus Italian cultural theorist Adriano Tilgher famously declared in 1929: ‘To the Greeks work was a curse and nothing else,’ supporting his claim with quotations from Socrates, Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, Cicero, and other figures, together representing the aristocratic perspective in antiquity” (Foster 2017, 2).
Well, if we recall some of the Marxist approaches to historical analysis, especially Lukács’, we can of course see that Marx is the founder of the idea of labor as an ontological, both humanizing and dehumanizing process under capitalism:
“Marx’s rigorously and exactly defined relegation of teleology to labor (to social praxis) eliminating it from all other forms of being, does not limit its scope. On the contrary, its significance grows through the insight that social being, the highest level of being known to us, is originally constituted through this actual teleological force active within it. It emerges from organic life, the level upon which it is based, by developing into a new and independent form of being. We can rationally speak of social being only if we comprehend that its genesis, its becoming distinct from its basis and the emergence of its reliance upon labor, is a function of the continuous realization of teleological projects” (Lukács 1970, 165–166).
Also along these lines a very strong current in psychology was developed in the Soviet Union with authors like Leontiev, Vigotsky, Luria, etc. (Rossler 2004, 100–116; Eilam 2003, 551–577, Vigotsky 1993). This approach underlined the role of labor in developing Higher Psychological Functions:
“Closer analysis reveals that HPFs are either not defined at all or if defined, then by a set of characteristics not justified theoretically. It is not possible to determine whether HPFs exist or not, unless they are defined. Most commonly the idea of HPFs is related to Vygotsky’s theory. According to him, HPFs are: (1) psychological systems, (2) developing from natural processes, (3) mediated by symbols, (4) forms of psychological cooperation, which are (5) internalized in the course of development, (6) products of historical development, (7) conscious and (8) voluntary, (9) active forms of adaptation to the environment, (10) dynamically changing in development, and (11) ontogeny of HPFs recapitulates cultural history” (Toomela 2015, 91).
In contrast to the above developments, labor is part of the “humanization” of people. So, we cannot be really human without labor, because historically, labor is the way to become both social and therefore also individual. It is the universal achievements of labor that allow you more freedom and social emancipation. Of course, I am speaking of labor as a process of the developing brain, in terms of learning languages, etc.; it is related to this necessity, but it is much more than a necessity. It is the source of creativity and leads to a humanization. In the last 30 years, the political discourse on labor has focused on the neoliberal approach of the flexibility of labor and of securing profit. Agreeing with amusing remarks of Alan Freeman during the conference, I would say that it has been about “organizing labor” and “planning profit”. Profit has been extremely well-planned as opposed to the security and stability of labor.
Not even “full employment policy” is defended anymore; the last time social democratic parties in western Europe defended the right to have a job (instead of social assistance) was in the late 1980s. What is defended now by the majority of the Left, including academics, is of course social assistance systems. So, workers should have employment subsidies, food, health care, etc. but nobody really speaks about workers having employment and humanized labor.
In my opinion, this has strengthened the extreme right, because it has opened space for a right wing discourse that some people cannot work and cannot contribute to society by labor, and thus they become dependent on subsidized social assistance. So, I think, defending social assistance systems without defending the “dignity of labor” gives space for the extreme right to condemn non-labor practices. From a leftist critical point of view and concerning a socialist society, it is mandatory and a matter of justice to defend the principle that everybody should have access to labor, have a job, except those who cannot work, such as the elderly, children, disabled people, etc., the support of whom should be realized through redistribution by solidarity systems. Thus, it is very difficult to defend a “full-employment” labor policy, since we are always debating with the post-modern approach that says that labor is just about suffering, exploitation, when we should in fact defend everyone’s right to have a creative job, by reducing working hours, socializing technology, and by an increase in the number of creative jobs where a strict separation between manual and intellectual work should not exist.
The second thing is that we see that in workplaces there is a general “burnout”, or “presentism” or “absentism”, “labor suffering.” Things appear differently now but these phenomena are just new names for the broad “alienation process of labor in capitalism”. In fact, all these processes didn’t exist in 1974–76 in Portugal among conditions of self-organized labor, although people worked more and the objective conditions of living and everyday life were even worse than nowadays. So, what happened in Portugal in the mid-1970s was that people went to work, both to work and to do organized work, for 10, 12, 14 hours a day, to build something. They did this by applying self-organization methods, and in a new political regime that was called socialism by all working classes at the time.
What needs to be pointed out here is that mental health problems dominate everyday life today in labor, and in factories. However, it is apparent not just in factories, because Fordism is everywhere now, including hospitals, schools, etc. (Huws 2006). In fact, we are not in a “post-Fordist” society, but we are rather spreading Fordism everywhere as the management techniques of the 1930s in the automobile industry are now being used in hospitals and schools, and in public services that are being industrialized, marketized and “rationalized”. Sectors that were out of capitalist western societies for some years, in fact, are now totally under such management processes. Although they are “state services,” they are not “public” anymore. It is important to make a distinction between “public” and “state”, because they are not the same. This is connected, in fact, to “democratic management” problems.
What, I think, was happening in 1974 in Portugal, what made people work so hard every day in more than 600 companies under workers’ occupation or even in the big companies under workers’ control including the bank sector, was the feeling and the awareness that they were working for society. So, the alienation process was disrupted. The division between “production” and “consumption” was not there anymore or it changed dramatically. Labor, in the ontological sense, was regained among these workers. They believed that they were building things that were actually needed, such as schools for their children, or the best hospitals for themselves. These workers included nurses, doctors, professors, etc., not just industrial workers. Everybody was involved in this process. So, I think, alienation was eliminated.
Nowadays, what we see is that just in time production, the process of alienation is so strong that you see mental health problems everywhere. Of course, I am saying “mental problem” but these are “social problems,” problems of capitalist social relations. People do not have real mental health problems but they are depressed, stressed, tired, and they regard themselves as “burnt out” or not “sufficiently resilient” etc. However, all these have to do with a specific “labor organization” prevailing in today’s society. Fortunately, very few people have real mental problems, but even they are, in fact, struggling with social problems. Yet, the social impact of these health problems is huge, because what we have is a low quality of labor. The capitalists observe this as low productivity. Productivity is, of course, a huge problem for capitalism to guarantee surplus. They realized that even with automation, productivity is not rising as previously expected. I think one of the main problems is that people are not working well, they are not producing quality because they are working for profit. In a non-capitalist society the aim of labor would be to create abundance, goods, and not profit. This means that people would produce aiming for quality, and to meet needs. Accordingly, this would completely change two main issues: low productivity and ecological distress, which is programmed obsolescence. For instance, you produce foreseeing that your fridge will work for 10 years, not for 60 years. This is “planned obsolescence.” We are now in capitalism producing goods and using the labor force for a short time as a result of the commodification of labor itself. That is when your product is to be discarded in a short period of time, and people that produce it are also destroyed – the average life expectancy of a manual worker in the UK is 18 years less than that of a manager, and the life expectancy among health workers in Southern Europe is 10 or 15 years less than in Scandinavia, for example. This means that we do not produce for long term use, and we do not respect workers’ health.
This planned obsolescence is also applied to labor. I believe that companies are managing labor with the idea of planned obsolescence. The working hours, the wages and the management system of quality, as well as the mechanisms of individual evaluation of workers lead to workers’ physical and mental distress. Around the age of 40–55 years, workers are collapsing, and they are forced to rely on social security. I believe this is a planned obsolescence imposed on the workforce.
We are in a highly rotating system of capital, workers are pushed to the limits, both mentally and physically. I am emphasizing this because all the European laws have aimed at increasing the retirement age, while at the same time allowing pre-retirement due to disabilities. All the laws are formulated in such a way that allow social security payments as soon as you are disabled. That is why many companies, today, have a different notion of recruitment. They only hire workers between 20 to 35 years of age, as common in the automobile industry, because they know that after the age of 35 the workers cannot handle the job under such labor conditions.
Finally, I shall focus on the huge cost of labor in free market society by looking at two sectors: education and health. The health sector in capitalism focuses on managing the return of workers to labor, or to pre-retirement, or social security, but not on preventing health problems. We would have huge gains arising from the labor process, if the health sector applied a preventive approach instead of trying to address health problems only after they manifest. Similarly, the second important sector, i.e. the education system, is directed towards the labor market. This means that we are not using the capacities of labor, which, I believe, could be used in a different way in socialism. On this, I recall Alexandra Kollontai; she wrote that we are so backward in humanity that even our words for feelings are limited (Kollontai 1923). For example, we use “love” and “friendship” to describe many different feelings; not all of them are love and friendship, but we simply do not have other expressions. Why don’t we have more words? It is because we don’t have more feelings. With labor and a non-capitalist society, even our words for our feelings would be improved.
I believe that the best conclusion for this essay is a quote from Bellamy Foster:
“In a prospective socialist society characterized by sustainable prosperity that recognizes material limits as its essential principle – in accord with Epicurus’s notion that ‘wealth, if limits are not set for it, is great poverty’ – it is crucial to envision entirely new socially and ecologically reproductive work relations. The received notion that the maximization of leisure, luxury, and consumption is the primary goal of human progress, and that people will refuse to produce if not subject to coercion and driven by greed, loses much of its force in light of the deepening contradictions of our over-productive, over-consumptive society. The prevailing view goes against what we know anthropologically with respect to many pre-capitalist cultures, and falls short of a realistic conception of variable human nature, one that takes into account the historical evolution of human beings as social animals. The motivation to create and to contribute in one’s life to the social reproduction of humanity as a whole, coupled with the higher norms enforced by collective labor, provide powerful stimuli for continuing free human development. The universal crisis that marks our time necessitates an epoch of uncompromising revolutionary change; one aimed at a harnessing human energy for creative and socially productive work within a world of ecological sustainability and substantive equality. In the end, there is no other way in which to conceive a truly sustainable prosperity” (Foster 2017, 12–13).
Grespan, Jorge 2021: Marx: Uma Introdução. São Paulo: Boitempo.
Eilam, Gavriela 2003: The Philosophical Foundations of Aleksandr R. Luria’s Neuropsychology. Science in Context 16 (4), 551–577.
Foster, John Bellamy 2017: The Meaning of Work in a Sustainable Society. Monthly Review 69 (4), 1–14.
Huws, Ursula (ed.) 2006: The transformation of work in a global knowledge economy: towards a conceptual framework. Workpackage 3: Theories and concepts. Available at: http://www.ftu-namur.org/fichiers/WORKS-Conceptual_framework.pdf (Last accessed 17 November 2021).
Kollontai, Alexandra 1923: Make way for winged Eros: A letter to working youth. First published in Molodoya Gvardiya (Young Guard) magazine #3 in 1923 by Komsomol. Marxists Internet Archive Library. Available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1923/winged-eros.htm (Last accessed 17 November 2021).
Lukács, Georg 1970: The dialectic of labor: Beyond causality and teleology. Telos 6, 162–174.
Rossler, João Henrique 2004: O desenvolvimento do psiquismo na vida cotidiana: aproximações entre a psicologia de Alexis N. Leontiev e a teoria da vida cotidiana de Agnes Heller. Cadernos CEDES. Centro de Estudos Educação e Sociedade 24 (62), 100–116.
Toomela, Aaro 2015: What are Higher Psychological Functions? Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science 50, 91–121.
Vygotsky, Lev Semiónovich 1993: Obras escogidas II. Madrid: Centro de Publicaciones del M. E. C. y Visor Distribuciones.
1 See, among others: Grespan 2021; Foster 2017.
2 For the survey, see: Workers Inquiry, Observatório para as Condições de Vida e Trabalho. https://observatoriocondicoesvidaetrabalho.wordpress.com
Original publication: Varela, Raquel 2021: What Would Labor Be Like in a Socialist Society?. In: A. Melegh (ed.), In Need of Alternatives. Problems and Issues of Non-capitalist Mixed Economies. Budapest: Eszmélet Foundation, pp. 44–50.