The Work Ethic Under Socialism

Will the work ethic decline under socialism? No — socialism empowers ordinary people to be active participants in shaping the economy. And that’s a lot more motivating than fear of losing your job.

Norcal Waste worker Manuel Vera moves a bin with compostable materials while collecting recyclable materials in a Sunset district neighborhood June 11, 2009 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

We’re lucky to be living in a time when the word “socialism” is not anathema in the United States, the beating heart of global capitalism. A new poll by the Pew Research Center reveals that 42 percent of Americans have a positive view of socialism. Those who have a negative view still constitute a majority, but a slim one: 55 percent.

Other surveys have turned up similar results in the last few years, ever since Bernie Sanders first ran for president as a democratic socialist and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won office calling herself the same. This poll is particularly interesting, though, because respondents were also asked to identify reasons they liked or didn’t like socialism. Of the 55 percent of respondents who had a negative view of socialism, the top reason they gave was that it “undermines work ethic.” This invites a discussion about the nature of work today, and what it could become.

Work ethic is a value that Americans have always held close to their hearts — a mixture, as many have pointed out, of both early Protestant and capitalist ideologies. There are exceptions, of course, but many Americans believe that there’s something inherently virtuous about working like a dog; and we do. At least 134 countries have laws establishing the maximum length of the work week, but the United States doesn’t. And, unlike many other countries, US workers aren’t federally entitled to paid holidays, vacation days, sick leave, or parental leave. As a result, “Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers.”

Every hour worked is an hour that can never be retrieved. It’s also an hour from which economic elites profit, and they aren’t sharing those profits. The ideology that places a premium on “work ethic” helps keep this unequal system in place. It shames workers for being lazy if they register an objection to how hard or long they’re expected to work, and it also rewards workers with a sense of pride if they spend their days making profits for somebody else without grumbling (think of that pride as a sort of consolation prize). It therefore benefits a tiny wealthy minority at the expense of the vast majority of people.

We should dispense with “work ethic” as it’s currently understood, and we should replace it with something way better: taking pride in and deriving meaning from the nature of our work itself, not from the mere ability to perform it without complaining.

Under capitalism, lots of workers hate their jobs, but they have to perform them anyway in order to afford the basic necessities of life. Karl Marx was concerned about the way that capitalism “alienates” labor, or turns the worker into a drone detached from the goods they’re producing or services they’re rendering, with no control over how they spend the majority of their waking hours and no clear sense of purpose. Marx concluded that alienation of labor is a natural consequence of a system where work is allocated not based on what society needs but on what’s profitable for a few. Under capitalism, everything firms do is to make money — and that’s it. The result is a proliferation of jobs that are as socially useless as they are demanding, and billions of people around the world performing those jobs with no input or sense of connection to the work itself.

Socialists propose to completely change the nature of work. In a truly democratic socialist society, no longer would anyone be allowed to make a profit without lifting a finger themselves and to use their wealth and power to set the terms and conditions of everybody else’s workday. Instead, people would come together democratically to decide what kind of society they want to see — what needs should be met, what problems ought to be solved — and would work backward from that to identify what kind of work needs to be done to make our collective dreams a reality.

This society would then empower democratically accountable planning agencies to figure out how to go about training and attracting people to these jobs. Once hired, workers would have the ability to make decisions collectively about how firms operate, including how much they internally compensate for what type of work. This would be much less chaotic and more logical than the current arrangement, where the vast majority of decisions about the economy and production are made by people with wealth who are driven by the sole ambition of acquiring more wealth. It would also be much more empowering to workers themselves, who would truly operate like a team — a feeling that corporations today try hard to mimic with management clichés, always laughably falling short.

Of course there will be work under socialism — though surely less of it — and we want people to feel motivated to perform it and to take pride in it. But rather than guilting workers into breaking their backs for somebody else’s profit and castigating them for not finding that particularly fulfilling, we should endeavor to deliberately create an economic and political system that motivates workers by empowering them as decision-makers, both in the civic sphere and in the workplace.

Our goal should be to foster a whole new type of “work ethic,” one that doesn’t just translate to grin-and-bear-it stamina, but instead to a hunger for active participation and avenues to exercise agency. Under democratic socialism, workers would not only be able to explain how their work contributes to society, but also endeavor to make change if they find the rationales insufficient — pathways that are completely blocked for most workers today.

Considerations about people’s relationship to work need not turn people off socialism. On the contrary, they ought to excite people about socialism’s potential. Under capitalism, too many people are simply biding their time, watching the clock, working for the weekend. We can have a new type of society, one in which people work not just to survive while the bosses live in luxury, but in which we work to meet our collective needs instead — and find much greater fulfillment in the process.