Friday, November 14, 2014

The Right to be Lazy (1971)

From the November 1971 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the course of the French revolution of 1848 the workers of Paris  went into the streets to demand "The Right to Work".  Ever since, whenever unemployment has grown, trade unionists have demanded the same "right". In fact the Clydeside shipworkers are supposed to be asserting it at this very moment

But what is this high-sounding Right to Work? To the average trade unionist it is probably the "right" to have a job and the pay packet that goes with it. It would, in other words, be more accurately called "The Right to Employment" or "The Right to Work for Wages"

It should not be necessary to argue that under capitalism no such right exists, nor could it. Capitalism is based on the ownership of means of production by a minority.  The rest have no alternative but to sell their ability to work — when they can — to one or other of these  employers.  But the employers are not philanthropists. They do not employ people in order to give these employees a living. They  only employ people when they have calculated that they themselves can make a profit from selling the goods the workers produce.

Production, and therefore employment, is determined under capitalism by the profit motive. The rule "no profit, no production" is the guiding economic principle. If those who own the means of production calculate — as many have done recently — that they cannot make a profit by selling the goods their factories could turn out, then they will run those factories below full capacity or even close them down altogether. The result is the mounting redundancies and growing unemployment we are now experiencing.

This is the normal way capitalism works and is one reason why the Right to Work is a completely unrealistic demand. It amounts to demanding that employers abandon the profit motive and operate their system on some other principle. But they could not do this even if they wanted to, since what they can do is limited by the working of capitalism's market forces. Nor could they be forced to do it even by the most militant trade union or political action. If pressed too far, they would merely shut up shop. The stark fact is that capitalism creates, and needs to create, rising unemployment from time to time.

So, our average trade unionist may now be thinking, are you saying that in order to get the Right to Work we must get rid of capitalism and establish Socialism? No, we are not! We are not in favour of the Right to Work in the first place. Remember the Right to Work is merely a fancy way of referring to the Right of Employment, the Right to Work for Wages. In our view, this is demanding the Right To Be Exploited. It involves accepting capitalism and its wages system. The employer/employee relationship is based on exploitation since, if the employer is to make a profit, the wages he pays his employees must be less than the value of what they produce. The system of employment for wages shows that human brain and muscle power has become a mere commodity, to be bought and sold like some object. It signifies that those who actually produce the wealth of society are excluded from ownership and control of the means of production and so have no choice but to operate them for the employers on the employers' terms — and at the employers' convenience. The wage packet is in fact a badge of slavery.

No, Socialists don't want the Right to Work. It would be more accurate to say that we want its opposite, the Right To Be Lazy. This isn't as way-out as might seem. Just think of developments in technology over the past hundred or so years, developments which  are still going on, and you will see that the bulk of the hard grind of production is now done, and could be done even more, by machines. Automation could now relieve human beings of the burden of boring toil. Nobody need do a job he doesn't like doing. The set working day could be reduced to two or three hours, freeing men to engage in the activities of their choice, including even producing useful things.

Of course, this will never happen as long as the means of production are the property of a minority. It could only happen in a society where the factories, farms and other places where wealth is produced are commonly owned by all the people. There would then be no employers, nor wage-earners. Instead everybody would be an equal member of a free community organised to produce an abundance of good-quality consumer goods for people to take freely according to their needs.

Actually, so long as it is enjoyable, work is a natural human activity, not to say need. In this sense to talk of the Right To Be Lazy can be misleading. But although men will always work, there is no reason for it take the form of boring toil. It could and should be interesting and so become like some of today's leisure-time activities — done for the fun of it.

To convert work from boring toil to creative activity is now possible. The ethic of hard work — necessary perhaps in the past to build up the means of production to the point where they can now turn out abundance — is outdated, and worse: it helps to keep capitalism going. No five words better sum up the Socialist's emphatic rejection of the dogma that boring toil must be the lot of mankind than the slogan "The Right To Be Lazy". Speed the day when trade unionists begin to demonstrate for this rather than some spurious Right to Work.

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