- Capitalism and Alternatives -

A Problem with Receiving 'According to Oneís Work'

Posted by: Barry Stoller on October 28, 1999 at 12:10:27:

It is a Marxist axiom that, once the proletariat has successfully freed him- and herself from the social relations of the bourgeois, the new social relations will be socialist, i.e. all workers will be expected to work according to their abilities and shall receive goods according to their work.

Both Marx and Lenin explained in assiduous detail that this initial stage of communist society was transitional---and fraught with inequities inherited from the bourgeois social relations. Put simply, a worker could work very hard but he or she might receive less than another worker---simply due to being less physically strong, or having children to feed, etc.*

I believe these circumscriptions of the first phase of communist society---receiving 'according to work'---should be include yet another inequity.

One of the problems with workers receiving according to their work is the lack of attention given to inequities created by differing levels of investment (constant capital) in various industries.

Getting paid according to one's work certainly sounds fair. After all, bourgeois minds might insist, stronger workers should receive more and weaker workers would be wise to refrain from producing dependents. (Sounds like Nietzsche, eh?)

But, in fact, such a method of payment would be arbitrary.

Here's why.

The level of productivity in any industry will determine the worker's output more than the exertions of the worker.

A worker who makes, say, telephones using the highest degree of machinery (perhaps up-to-date American-made machinery) will crank out many telephones per hour. This will result, if that worker receives according to her or his work, in a high wage. Logically enough, a worker who makes telephones in a factory using the lowest degree of machinery (say, Third World machinery ten years out of date) will produce far less telephones (assuming quality remains constant).

Therefore, the first worker could afford to goof off at the water cooler half the day while the second worker labored all day long and the first worker would have produced more telephones than the second worker. If telephones are the criteria of work---and certainly something as subjective as 'working very hard' or 'being tired at the end of the day' is no reasonable criteria---then the first worker will have a higher wage than the second worker.

Which isnít 'fair.'

It isn't 'fair' because the wages would be outside the control of the workers. A worker in a factory using high-quality machinery will have an 'edge' over a worker in a factory using lower-quality machinery. This 'edge' has nothing to due with the work performed by the workers.

Investment decisions concerning how sophisticated the machines in any branch of industry are will have a much more significant effect upon worker's wages than their actual efforts.

Of all the famous Marxists (I have read), only Trotsky got close to this problem. He wrote:

If we translate socialist relations, for illustration, into the language of the market, we may represent the citizen as a stockholder in a company which owns the wealth of the country... On the lower stage of communism, which we have agreed to call socialism, payments for labor are still made according to bourgeois norms---that is, in dependence upon skill, intensity, etc. The theoretical income of each citizen is thus composed of two parts, a + b---that is, dividend + wages. The higher the technique and the more complete the organization of industry, the greater is the place occupied by a as against b, and the less is the influence of individual differences of labor upon standard of living.(1)

Or, to state that negatively: The lower the technique and the less complete the organization of industry, the smaller is the place occupied by a as against b, and the more is the influence of individual differences of labor upon standard of living.

Therefore, in industries with relatively primitive development, the worker is 'on his or her own.'

A hand-made telephone, the result of a low level of industrialization (which may delight one or two collectors of the arcane---but not many!), could take a month to make but it would only compete with telephones that were mass produced. That is to say mass produced telephones, the consequence of a higher rate of productivity, determines the expected cost of telephones.** A hand-made telephone, the result of much labor to be sure, would be worth no more than one that an assembly-line spit out in two seconds flat.***

Trotsky concluded:

The differences in income are determined, in other words, not only by differences of individual productiveness, but also by a masked appropriation of the products of the labor of others.(2)

That 'labor of others' being the dead labor of the machinery (constant capital).

But (it seems to me) that while Trotsky only saw the worker getting the undeserved boon of the dead labor (of others) mixed with his or her fresh labor, he fails to sufficiently acknowledge that a worker---in inverse circumstances---will also undeservedly be penalized for for laboring in an industry that (simply) lacks the investment prioritization of other comparable industries.

Of course, job rotation solves that problem---but that necessitates the higher level of communist society, one in which all workers receive according to need, does it not?


* See Marx's exposition of the subject in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, section 1, <ß> 3 (International 1938, pp. 6-11)---and his qualifications---, as well as Lenin's interpretation in Revolution and the State, section 3 (Selected Works, International 1975, pp. 304-07).

* * Of course a closed market, such as would be expected of a communist state, would annul any 'comparison' of telephones made by differing industrial standards (presupposing different telephone manufactures, hence a telephone market) but the issue is comparable industries within the closed economy, industries that would pay workers conspicuously diverging wages because their organic composition of capital (amount of invested machinery to labor employed) differed. Such discrepancies would only be evinced in comparable fields.

* * * 'Some people might think that if the value of a commodity is determined by the quantity of labor spent on it, the more idle and unskillful the laborer, the more valuable would his commodity be, because more time would be required in its production. [Are you reading this, Gee?; this is one of the classic libertarian straw man rebuttals to Marx's labor theory of value---you might want to memorize it for future use.] The labor, however, that forms the substance of value, is homogeneous human labor, expenditure of one uniform labor-power. The total labor-power of society, which is embodied in the sum total of all the values of all commodities produced by that society, counts here as one homogeneous mass of human labor-power, composed though it may be of innumerable individual units. Each of these units is the same as any other, so far as it has the character of the average labor-power of society, and takes effect as such; that is, so far as it requires for producing a commodity, no more time than is needed on average, no more than is socially necessary. The labor-time socially necessary is that required to produce an article under the normal conditions of production, and with the average degree of skill and intensity prevalent at the time.' (Marx, Capital, vol. 1, International 1967, p. 39, emphasis added.) For further reading, I would recommend Marx's discourse on differences between the commodities of varying nations (Capital, vol. 3, International 1967, page 238).

1. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, Pathfinder 1937, p. 240, emphasis added.
2. Ibid.

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