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The economics of laziness

May 4, 2007 | Page 8

PAUL D'AMATO explains why a socialist society would produce a flowering of universal creativity.

"IT HAS been objected that upon the abolition of private property," Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto, "all work will cease, and universal laziness will overtake us."

This is probably still the most common argument--the natural competitiveness and greediness of human nature excepted--against the feasibility of socialism. Defenders of capitalism fail to notice that the two ideas--"people are naturally lazy," and "people are naturally competitive"--cancel each other out!

Marx's clever response to the laziness argument is still the best one: "According to this, bourgeois society ought long ago to have gone to the dogs through sheer idleness; for those of its members who work acquire nothing, and those who acquire anything do not work."

Laziness, looked at another way, is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, if an invention can be found that cuts the amount of work necessary to accomplish a task, isn't laziness then an incentive to invent?

It's difficult to notice the truth of this observation in a capitalist society because for workers, inventions appear not as a means to cut hours, but merely to intensify production, or increase the amount of work each worker can perform in a given amount of time. Inventions of labor-saving devices don't ease the burden of the working class, but merely allow the capitalist who employs them to increase his or her market share by cheapening products and underselling competitors.

So long as profit is the motivation for invention, the result for the majority--that is, for the nine-tenths of people who have to work for a living--is not increased free time, but merely higher rates of exploitation.

The desire to avoid alienating and tedious work doesn't lead workers to stay at home, since doing so would mean starvation. What it does do, however, is lead workers to find all sorts of creative ways to increase their productivity on the job in such a way that the boss doesn't notice. This gives them more free time on the job (which they must also hide).

It is common to portray ancient hunter-gatherer societies as constantly living on the edge of starvation, doomed to endless toil to stave off disaster. The truth is that foraging societies were very good at figuring out the minimum labor necessary to keep the band living comfortably, leaving them plenty of free time.

One observer of the Kalahari Bushmen in Africa noted, for example, that "a woman gathers on one day enough food to feed her family for three days, and spends the rest of her time resting in camp, doing embroidery, visiting other camps or entertaining visitors from other camps." She spent about three hours a day performing other tasks.

As for men, "It is not unusual for a man to hunt avidly for a week and then do no hunting at all for two or three weeks...During these periods, visiting, entertaining and especially dancing are the primary activities of men."

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IN A society where the market is abolished, and goods are produced and distributed by a social plan according to human need, invention will become a means by which the necessary labor of all--that labor required to reproduce the basic necessities of life (food, shelter, transportation, education)--is continually reduced, leaving greater and greater amounts of free time in which everyone is free to pursue their interests and desires, whether that involves music, art, dance, surfing or napping.

Even more odious tasks, such as collecting garbage and mining, are far less odious if the workers have control over the work process. The combination of control over working conditions and processes, the application of the safest and fastest methods, the reduction of work hours, and finally, the rotation of the population into those jobs so that no single person is stuck with it would make even this kind of work far more enjoyable than it is now.

As a result of these changes, work becomes less stressful and more fulfilling, less stigmatized and more valued for its socially necessary character.

One of the absurdities of the capitalist market is the constant drive of each capitalist to sell more and more of a product. Inbuilt, then, is also invention for its own sake.

Such is the nature of certain industries that a "new" version of something, not necessarily that much different from the earlier version, is periodically released, and everyone who has the "old" version is encouraged to buy the new one, even if the old one isn't broken. Another feature of this frenzy to sell is what has been called "planned obsolescence": making things that don't last.

Naturally, it is not in the interests of the majority of people that things break. In a society without a profit motive, planning would be far more rational--that is, devoted to making things that last as long as possible. This, too, would reduce the amount of total social labor necessary to keep society running.

In a capitalist society, mental and manual labor is split, and everyone is pigeonholed into certain jobs. "Each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape," wrote Marx and Engels. "He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood."

However, "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...without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic."

No one can deny that people cease to be bored as soon as they are engaged in an activity they enjoy and are not compelled to do. Socialism eliminates these compulsions. By doing so, it does not bring "universal laziness" so much as a flowering of universal creativity.

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