A reader of our magazine recently asked “Aren’t people too greedy for socialism?” Below our Ask The Socialist column answers.
This is a question we often get asked. Most people recognise that we live in a system that favours the rich. Most understand why we want to redistribute the wealth of society to benefit everyone.
But they see the selfishness that people are capable of and worry that, as humans, we can’t build a fairer system, because people will always want it all for themselves. We are told that capitalism takes account of people’s selfishness.
But capitalism spends enormous amounts of energy on convincing people to act against their own self-interest.
It is the capitalists who are constantly asking us to sacrifice for the sake of a benefit that we will never see. When staff are asked to forego pay rises or give up hard-won conditions, when people are expected to put up with cuts to healthcare, welfare and education, we are told this is for ‘the common good’. In reality, it is for the profits of the ruling class.
The whole history of the labour movement shows that, when united in struggle, working-class people have achieved far, far more for their own self-interest than through any capitalist pursuit. All of the rights and freedoms we have won have been through collective struggle.
The idea that capitalism caters to a selfish human nature is just a convenient story for the ruling class.
For the majority of our history, humans lived in hunter-gatherer societies, organised for mutual benefit. These kinds of societies often have a very different concept of ‘human nature’ to the capitalists. Every culture on Earth is descended from this type of society.
After the development of a ruling class, we began to see very different stories about human nature. Thinkers like Aristotle and Confucius, who lived in slave-owning societies, claimed it was natural for slaves to obey their masters. Aristocrats thought it was natural for subjects to obey their lords. And now under capitalism, ‘human nature’ means behaving as the capitalist class does – engaging in selfish competition.
It’s an amazing coincidence that every class society ‘discovers’ that human nature is whatever benefits the people in charge!
In reality, human nature is shaped by the kind of society we live in. Selfishness is to be expected in a society marked by poverty and cut-throat competition. But there is a difference between selfishness and self-interest, and socialists want to a build a society where people can work in their own self-interest.
We are told that without ‘greed’ and competition, nobody would do any of the important but ‘menial’ work. But most of us are not rewarded for hard work with anything more than a living wage, and many of us get much less. Workers are systematically paid less than they are worth – this is how profits are created.
There is little link between the difficulty of a job in the real world and the reward from it. If this were the case, we would have to believe that CEOs and investors face jobs more dangerous than firefighters, more arduous than janitors, more difficult than nurses.
Socialists say that all workers should have a high quality of life. So-called menial work should not be associated with poverty or stigma. Everyone should have the available time to pursue interests outside of work. This could mean engaging in research or art to take the whole of society forward, or it could mean simply enjoying life.
Would people be driven to innovate? Under capitalism, there is little reason for workers to worry about innovating or increasing productivity – because that increased productivity does not even go to them. It is spent in the form of layoffs or profits.
If our workplaces were collectively owned and run, then an innovation by any worker could mean fewer worker hours and more prosperity. This is a far more powerful incentive than creating value for investors. Instead of incentivising investors, a socialist society would see people democratically decide which areas to invest in, based on everyone’s needs.
Socialism seeks to place our collective workplaces under collective control, rather than the private control of a small class of capitalists. We want to organise society democratically. This way, the people actually doing the work will have a real stake in it.
The truth is that when capitalists talk about how greed drives hard or innovative work, they are talking purely about themselves. They expect the rest of us to be self-sacrificing. For ordinary people, it’s socialism that asks us to build a system for our own self-interest.
Do you have a question for The Socialist? Email in your question and we will publish our responses in future editions of this column.