- Capitalism and Alternatives -

The ruling class determines which abilities are worth what

Posted by: Barry Stoller on January 20, 19100 at 22:24:28:

In Reply to: Another Problem posted by Gee on January 20, 19100 at 12:27:46:

I am consolidating your two other posts, 12289 and 12285 into my response to this one.


: Version 1: "From each according to ability to each according to need"

: This version implies that need is a 'blank check' claim on ability and that (if the maxim is to have meaning) its enforceable. Implying that if you have ability and do not use your ability to meet other people's needs you will be held responsible for whatever becomes of them, as if you were somehow the cause of their need...

: ...The more able you are the less freedom you have, your enforced obligation sees to that. The less able you are and the more needs you have the more free you are, there are no obligations upon you then. So what will be the result? People will play down or deny their abilities and exaggerate or focus on their needs so as to avoid becoming a slave to needs.

: More entertaining is the society that states ability and needs are 'self defined' and that each definition is equally valid. I can see it now. "by my definition I need 3 yachts and I can't do anything...get on with it then!". If Barry recognizes the problem of freeloaders I can see why he didn't quote this version.

First off, I DID quote this 'version.' I have argued (in a post perhaps too lengthy to merit your time and attention) AGAINST the socialist principle 'from each according to their ability, to each according to their work' here.

Briefly summarized, what a worker produces is determined not only by their effort and ability, but by the general level of material development, i.e. machinery, technology, and raw materials. Since most workers (in socialized, i.e. industrial society) do NOT determine the investment (hence, technological) level of the TOOLS they work with, they can NOT be really held accountable for what they produce.

Example: the hard worker who makes telephones using crude machinery could not hope to compete with the goof-off who makes telephones using the most sophisticated, productive machinery. To penalize the first worker, to reward the second worker, because they access differing levels of technology (determined by people other than those workers) would be COMPLETELY ARBITRARY.

Therefore, the principle 'to each according to their work' is actually nonsense. Only if workers worked as (preindustrial) isolated single laborers (on that theoretical desert island you libertarian free market proponents insist represents our industrialized, interconnected society) could that principle be fair. Because labor is (now) socialized, 'receiving according to work' has become meaningless.

That's why I advocate equal pay, i.e. the application of the communist principle, 'to each according to their need.'


: Version 2: "From each according to ability to each according to work"

: You'll have to help me out here. What does it mean by 'work'? Does that mean any work, any contribution is an equal claim on ability?

These two question get to the essence of things.

What indeed is ability?

Who determines which abilities are more valuable than others?


In the social production of their existence, men inevitable enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but the social existence that determines their consciousness.(1)

Taking this a step further, Plekhanov:

The personality of every one who has attained eminence in the intellectual or social field belongs to those chances whose appearance does not conflict in any way with the tendency of the average line of the intellectual development of mankind to follow a course parallel to that of its economic evolution.(2)

There are two very important conclusions to be drawn from these statements (which I hold to be true).

One: ideas correspond to the material development of an epoch. The epoch of feudalism did not require the steam engine, the capitalist epoch did. Indeed, the capitalist forces within the feudal era called forth the steam engine, and, in turn, the steam engine called forth the capitalist hegemony over the forces of feudalism.

Two: ideas, materially and historically called forth, are invented by men---but only so far as the general development of society supports these ideas. Babbage may have anticipated computers, but his epoch didn't support the fruition of these ideas; the computer had to wait for another epoch (and another inventor) in which to appear. This means that while men invent things, men are in many ways mere players in the development of ideas; ideas leading to new inventions are discovered primarily by the material forces of the society that conditions the men who, in turn, invent them. In other words: if an individual did not invent something, another individual would have.

Thus, ability is as much a product of social development as the 'private possession' of an individual. Hence, the (communist) social claim upon the invention of an invention---which you (following Rand's thesis) melodramatically call the 'communalization' or 'incarceration' of a person's mind. I reject that. With the dialectic of historical materialism to guide me, I see instead in your claims for an inventor to retain their invention the privatization, even ransom of social development.


As a matter of fact, following the rigor of Marxian logic, one could easily assert that it is capital---the accumulation of surplus expropriated by workers---that needs fresh labor (daily) in order to keep from drowning.

: Again - this makes a nice argument against the lazy inheritor - but what does it say about the creative fellows (those that do design goods and systems to produce them) who are the birth point of value who may desire to *own* the product of their mind (which isn't, to my knowledge, 'Randian terminology')?

Like you said elsewhere, chicken or the egg?

No invention goes anywhere without labor, no labor goes anywhere without purpose.

Each of us emphasize a different component of this relationship, a relation that is not equal.

However, you always omit another participant when you present (in the Randian manner) the mind / labor relationship as a relationship that is complete: the propertied interest.

Example: the architect cannot build a house without workers, the workers cannot build a house without a plan. You will say---as you have so often said before---the architect's ability is scarcer, more valuable than the ability of the laborers required to build the house. However, the third participant is the landowner, who seems to possess so much ability that he / she will earn MUCH more than the architect and the laborers combined.

And that participant is involved only because private property is more powerful than ability.

Yet, according to your logic, private property is precisely what motivates those with ability in the first place.

Perhaps it does, Gee.

But private property always devolves into the negation of ability: those with capital RENT (other's) ability, expropriate the surplus of that labor, become more powerful, dictate even harsher terms to those possessing ability, introduce division of labor and machinery, devalue skill, lower the standards of living for (formerly) skilled workers---and continue feeding off ability until they are in a position to dictate absolute terms to all workers.

All because of the private property you claim motivates ability.

There's a new chicken and egg for you to ponder...


Which brings us again to the question: what is ability? Or more importantly:

Who determines which abilities are worth more than others?

The capitalist ruling class does.

If we were living in the Soviet Union (circa 1960), my ability to spit out a lot of Marxist quotes would grant me a privileged lifestyle. You, on the other hand, might have to 'receive according to work' on terms that reduce you to shoveling sidewalks. Get it? What ability we have to offer those who decide what abilities are valuable is valued according to the needs of the ruling class.

The ruling class in every epoch determines which abilities are more important than others.

Right now, in this society, professional basketball players are more valued than child care workers---although both are singular skills.* In another society, with a different ruling class and different values, those who could not provide children with excellent care might play basketball, if they so chose, for minimum wage and no benefits---while excellent child care workers earned fortunes (perhaps competing on TV).


And finally...

Speaking of the socialist principle, 'from each according to ability, to each according to work,' Marx clearly acknowledges unequal abilities...

: I think that the more popular "from each according to ability, to each according to need" needs to be addressed and differentiated from the above. Its *very* different from the above.

Yes it is.

Marx specifically called the socialist principle 'from each according to their ability, to each according to their work' a principle based on bourgeois right:

In spite of this advance, this equal right is still stigmatized by a bourgeois limitation. The right of producers is proportional to he labor they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made with anequal standard, labor.

But one man is superior to another physically or mentally and so supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor. It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment and thus productive capacity as natural privileges. It is therefore a right of inequality in its content, like every other right.(3)

And so, when the socialist order releases the FULL potential of the means of production---no longer hampered by capitalist competition, monopoly, market anarchy, and periodic crises of overproduction---there will be enough goods to distribute all goods 'according to needs.' That is the higher phase of communist society to be achieved.

Yet you say:

: What if those of greater than average ability wish to retain value equal to that they've produced? what is to be done with them / to them?

If social status, pride in accomplishment, and schedules of reinforcement do not encourage creativity in one person, then others will take that person's place (following Plekhanov).

You insist that only people with 'greater than average ability' can throw the drowning proletariat a rope.

We do not know how many people with 'greater than average ability' there are, however---because capitalist society rations education and opportunity (75% of American jobs require no skill above a high school level). Your question assumes a (minimal) proportion of 'greater than average' ability that has yet to be determined.

As far as those people who refuse to work entirely, they will either work or starve.

Just like it goes in capitalist society.

(And that's the part of all my posts you keep dodging.)


* The ability to jump hoops (as a professional basketball player) and the ability to care for children (as a 'human service' worker) have a very important characteristic in common: these are tasks that cannot be subjected to the detail division of labor, or mechanization. It is obvious that skilled labor, once atomized into aliquot parts, becomes semi- and unskilled labor (worth less in wages); it is also obvious that skilled labor, once replaced by mechanization, supplants labor (and workers). Skills that cannot be atomized into aliquot parts or mechanized, therefore, retain their special status as whole jobs requiring fully skilled labor. Excellence in both basketball playing AND child care is equally singular.


1. Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Progress 1970, pp. 20-1.

2. Plekhanov, Fundamental Problems of Marxism, International n.d., p. 70.

3. Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, International 1938, p. 9.

Follow Ups:

The Debating Room Post a Followup