Spurred by the recent victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a Democratic primary and the continued popularity of Bernie Sanders as a national political figure, there has been a surge in interest in socialism since the 2016 presidential campaign. However, the renewed interest in socialism has been coupled with widespread confusion and misinformation about the meaning of socialism and the arguments in its favor - exemplified best perhaps by the claim of tech billionaire Elon Musk that he is a socialist. Sadly, Sanders himself has played some role in muddying the waters, often seeming to equate socialism with policies such as single payer healthcare and political figures such as Franklin Roosevelt. In this article, I present one of the classic arguments in its favor in order to help clarify the meaning of socialism. This discussion can work as an introduction for those who are considering socialism and can also serve as a guide for would-be socialists so that they are not led into the practical trap of co-option by forces who are hostile to socialism, such as the Democratic Party.
Like most concepts, socialism is neither unitary nor static in its meaning. Ultimately, it can only be defined by workers themselves through their own practice. Nonetheless, a central means by which we can begin to understand the concept is to locate it within the arguments and ideas that have historically been used to support it. To that end, I will here present what I call the “Humanist Argument” for socialism. The Humanist Argument simultaneously contains a diagnosis of the problems of capitalism and a vision for an alternative society which would move beyond the diagnosed problems. The Humanist Argument is premised on the idea that capitalism dehumanizes workers and calls for a society in which their humanity is respected and encouraged to develop fully.
The dehumanization of workers in capitalism may be understood in many ways. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on only a few. First, and most fundamentally, capitalism involves treating workers as mere instruments in the pursuit of profit. Primarily, this takes place through the commodification of their labor. That is, capitalism is premised on the practice of buying and selling workers’ labor as an item of exchange on a “labor market,” much like one would buy and sell bread or cars. In this process, workers are not viewed as fellow human beings with whom one should labor cooperatively and compassionately for mutual benefit. Rather, they are seen as a “labor force,” a pool of resources from which labor can be extracted and which must be “managed” to ensure the profits of owners. It is often remarked that workers fought for and won the forty-hour work week in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. It is less often remarked that many were previously working up to and even more than a hundred hours in a week. This should raise a couple of questions: Why were workers forced into such patently exploitative conditions? Why did it require legislative action to correct these abuses - rather than a simple conversation? The answer is clear enough: Workers were not treated as fully human by those who “employed” them, their labor was commodified and utilized with the goal of profiting from their toil. The other aspects of the dehumanization of workers stem from this most basic one.
To elaborate on this dehumanization consider the following. Under capitalism, workers generally find their work anything but fulfilling; rather, it is exhausting, mechanical, toilsome, boring, and repetitive. Workers often feel like animals or machines, disengaged from their bodies and merely going through the motions. For the most part, work is not creative and, generally speaking, does not engage the intellect. Much is made these days over the fact that the retail, service, and cultural industries represent a much greater share of the economy than in the past. Labor is thus more “immaterial” than in preceding centuries. Yet, those whose work is primarily intellectual or emotional will almost certainly agree that they often feel themselves split in two, one aspect of them involved in the menial, intellectual or emotional work required of them and the other detached and free to think of other things. Simply put, workers do not generally feel like they are fully themselves at work.
Moreover, workers tend to feel that their talents are wasted securing the private profit of a few, rather than contributing to the well-being of all. Many of my students, for example, are studying to become nurses. When I ask them, they rarely say that they chose nursing for the paycheck (though, of course, this matters). Instead, they say that they want to become nurses to help people. Within a capitalistic healthcare system, unfortunately, they are only allowed to do so if their help is profitable for those at the top. Otherwise, they may be left “unemployed” or prevented from offering care to those who need it.
Finally, work in capitalism is typically specialized and broken into component functions and actions. This prevents workers from developing their skills and abilities in a well-rounded way. Often intellectual and manual labor are entirely separate, so that workers perform a small number of physical actions and have only a limited understanding of the goal and meaning of these actions. Even those who are engaged in intellectual labor, however, are not free to think for themselves and must generally focus exclusively on a limited set of tasks and problems chosen for them. While some skills and abilities are overtaxed, then, others atrophy.
Overall, workers are denied the possibility to fully develop themselves as human beings and as individuals because their humanity is not socially recognized and respected. Even when workers are encouraged to develop themselves, this is a matter of enhancing their “human capital” and making themselves more attractive on a competitive labor market. Thus, for example, many students pursue higher education, not because it is inherently valuable and allows them to develop as human beings and individuals, but because they require a credential to certify that they have a range of skills and abilities which may be easily and efficiently utilized by owners for profit-making.
We now have the diagnosis in broad strokes. What about the vision for an alternative society? From what has been said so far, one should be able to discern the contours of a socialist vision in which the full humanity of workers would be respected and its development encouraged. In such a society, workers’ labor would not be treated as a commodity and they would not be viewed as mere instruments for the private gain of a few. People would instead work together companiably and cooperatively for their mutual benefit. They would find their work fulfilling as they would be able to engage fully and creatively in all aspects of their labor and they would see how their work contributes to the good of all. Finally, a socialist society would organize labor in such a way as to encourage the well-rounded development of all. Rather than a few highly specialized functions and routinized actions, work would involve variety, integration, and a holistic view of and say in the labor process.
I mentioned at the outset that reviewing this argument for socialism could help would-be socialists understand the concept in greater depth and avoid the practical trap of co-option. Co-option occurs when entrenched interests accept a few members of the opposition into their ranks and agree to minor reforms in order to head off real challenges to their power and the system that sustains it. The platform of Ocasio-Cortez contains many exciting proposals: medicare for all, a federal jobs guarantee, free college tuition, etc. But these proposals do not - at least not explicitly - take aim at capitalism itself or seek to replace it with an alternative system in which the humanity of workers is recognized and encouraged to develop fully. Some, if not all, of the reforms could be met within an organization of society in which basically exploitative conditions remain and workers continue to be treated as tools to be “employed.” A socialist can, of course, demand reform, but must always understand any such demand as part of a larger strategy to transform society to bring an end to the dehumanization of workers. Otherwise, their demands and proposals may be easily co-opted.
One helpful measure of this is the explosion of interest in the Democratic Socialists of America, of which Ocasio-Cortez is herself a member. ↩
By “worker” I mean anyone whose primary form of income is a wage or anyone who depends on a wage income. Those who are currently unemployed, but would otherwise earn a wage income, as well as children, seniors, etc. are “workers” in this broad sense. Conversely, I use “owner” to mean anyone whose primary form of income is return on investments or some other form of capital appreciation. ↩
It is remarkable that even relatively privileged groups internalize this view of themselves. Thus, for example, academics frequently refer to the “job market” and discuss whether or not they are “on the market” and how best to “brand” themselves. ↩
Although these figures are problematic for a number of reasons, the Pew Research Center shows that less than half of American workers report that they are “very satisfied” with their job, with the figure dropping to 45% among workers making between $30,000 and $74,999 and even lower for workers making less. It is important to consider that according to Census data half of US workers make less than $59,000 annually. ↩
This is reflected in Pew data that show that workers who are self-employed, work for non-profit organizations, or work in government are much more likely to report that they view their job as a “career” from which they get a sense of identity. These numbers are especially high among people who work in healthcare and education. ↩