Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain - Marx Studies - Marx and Labour Vouchers

In THE CRITIQUE OF THE GOTHA PROGRAMME, Marx considered the use of Labour Vouchers in the early stage of socialism something which are still held as necessary by many groups and parties claiming to be socialist.

Labour vouchers were originally proposed by the utopian socialist and reformer, Robert Owen in 1820 and were taken up again by Marx some 55 years later in his CRITIQUE OF THE GOTHA PROGRAMME, to deal with events immediately after capitalism had been abolished. Labour vouchers were to act in a similar way to money by governing access to goods and services.

Like the “lower phase of communism”, labour vouchers are no longer necessary once socialism has been established globally by a socialist majority.

Marx referred to a “lower phase of communism” because he thought that production levels were not sufficient to allow for “free access”. He also said that many people would still retain a “narrow bourgeois outlook” and would at first not have the ability or experience to run a socialist society. This would mean that a labour voucher system would have to be introduced until such time as these organisational problems had been resolved.

Marx envisaged that, each and every person who could work would be issued with a labour voucher according to either the duration or intensity of the work they carried out. On the strength of whatever was marked on the paper the individual would then withdraw consumer goods from the communal store.

Over a century later, socialists say that the introduction of labour vouchers is totally unnecessary. Socialists would not establish socialism with a sizeable number of the population still retaining a “narrow bourgeois outlook”. Far from it, socialism will be established by a socialist majority understanding the need for socialism and actively wanting it. There are no short cuts to socialism. A socialist majority is a perquisite for socialism being a practical and feasible proposition at all.

And in any case, clinging to what Marx said over a hundred years ago made under more primitive technological circumstances is a perverse dogmatism. Marx expected socialists to think for themselves and doubt everything, which would include his own pronouncements about a future socialist society.

If we look at the question of labour vouchers a little more closely, we can see what an absurd proposition labour vouchers they really are. Labour vouchers would be given out based upon the length and intensity of the work given. Marx admitted that some people would get more labour vouchers than others because they some workers would be mentally and superior to other workers. This would result in differing standards of living.

Then there is the administration of vouchers and the distrubution and collection of vouchers which would be bureaucratic nightmare. Also, there is the risk that some workers still with a “bourgeois” way of thinking would exchange the labour vouchers on a “black market”. And finally what about the different size families, those unable to work due to mental and physical illnesses, the young and the old and so on? On examination, such a scheme of labour vouchers was rightly rejected by the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

Nevertheless, socialists will more than likely be faced with problems bequeathed by capitalism: environmental degradation, the desperate need for medical health provision, insufficient and poor housing and other similar problems which will need urgent attention. Free access will exist immediately but it will be a free access during a period where socialists will be clearing up capitalism’s mess and increasing production and distribution to the level of abundance to meet the needs of all society. This will require responsibility, patience and understanding.

How these problems impact on socialist planning and organisation at the time we just do not know nor can we anticipate the level and sophistication of the techniques of production available to socialists after abolishing capitalism. We also do not know how long it will take to eradicate the problems left behind by capitalism. However, socialists will be in the majority, common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution will prevail and right from the beginning the dictum would be: “from each according to ability to each according to needs”.

Socialism: Producing in Abundance to solve Poverty, Hunger and Starvation

Socialists, including Marx and Engels, recognise that capitalism has laid the foundations for science and technology to be developed and used to create the conditions for an abundance of wealth. And by abundance, socialists do not means a society flowing with milk and honey but one in which sufficient food, clothing, medical services, transport and communication systems and so on are produced to allow men and women to flourish and take part in the democratic affairs of a socialist society.

Advances in science and technology, as well as skilled, co-operative and social labour, have made redundant the use of the wages system to ration what the working class need to live as a subject and exploitive class. Commodity production and exchange for profit has now become an obstacle preventing human needs from being met.

Economists claim that there is “natural scarcity and infinite desires” requiring the continued existence of capitalism with all its contradictions, waste, war and poverty. This is a disingenuous argument. Natural scarcity might have existed in the past but under capitalism scarcity is artificially imposed because the market system for profit prevents the forces of production, including co-operative social labour from being developed to its fullest extent to the meet the needs of all society.

And “infinite desires” is a meaningless expression. It assumes passive consumers only interested in their own self-gratification with no interest at all in the wider concerns of society. We are constantly bombarded with images of a consumer fantasy world of jewellery, fast cars and luxury houses. It is a capitalist concept of the “individual” who cries out “I, I, I”, “me, me, me" “I want, I want, I want” fixated to “a vast accumulation of commodities”. Commodity fetishism, Marx called it. Socialists, instead, deal with real practical needs within a social and historical context not a fictional one used to justify the anti-social pursuit of capital accumulation and profit-making.

Real needs, with respect to food, transport, health, education, housing and general well-being, could be met now by the developments that have taken place in agriculture, technology and science. Starvation and hunger, for example, need not occur. In an article in Nature for October 2011, researchers at the University of Minnesota showed that sustainable agriculture could deliver sufficient food for the entire planet’s population.

However, they went on to say that this could only occur if humanity “worked together to make it happen”. They proposed a policy of sustainable production by halting farmland expansion in the tropics, closing ‘yield gaps’ on underperforming land, increasing cropping efficiency, using agricultural inputs more strategically, altering diets and reducing food waste. All practical proposals with one drawback: the private ownership of the means of production and distribution to the exclusion of al society. Under capitalism it is has no chance of happening but it would do in socialism where production would be directly to meet human needs.

Capitalism, for example, either wastes or destroys literally tons of food each year. About a third of all food is wasted under capitalism, enough to feed the world’s population. However, the waste is not a technical issue about storage, transport and distribution but a question of prices, markets and access to markets and profit.

Reducing food waste can improve the efficiency of food chains and help to distribute food more evenly to those who are in need. However, capitalism only responds to paying customers not in meeting human needs even if that means destroying unprofitable crops and farmers receiving subsidies from governments not to produce.

Food just cannot be given away under capitalism, otherwise prices will collapse and farmers will go bankrupt. The response under capitalism to starvation is charity and food banks. Charity and food banks cannot get anywhere near the problem of poverty, starvation, hunger and the inability to buy food. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture organisation (FAO):

There is sufficient capacity in the world to produce enough food to feed everyone adequately; nevertheless, in spite of progress made over the last two decades, 805 million people still suffer from chronic hunger.

However the UN cannot criticise capitalism. The UN cannot tell the truth about why there is sufficient capacity in the world to feed everyone. It cannot point to the private ownership of the means of production, the existence of nation states, commodity production and exchange for profit as the reason why 805 million people still unnecessarily suffer from chronic hunger. And that is the figure suffering “Chronic hunger” not the millions of others who live and die in poverty due to lack of medical treatment.

The only solution to these seemingly intractable problems is to replace a system producing for profit with a system producing for social use. Production and distrubution will have to become the common ownership under democratic control of all society if we are to eradicate starvation, hunger and poverty. A global socialist system will have to replace a global capitalist system otherwise these solvable social problems will just persist

Growing food under capitalism is a business driven by the need to make a profit. What the media will not tell you, when you see images of starving children, is that the problem of feeding the world is not growing the food but the economic system of commodity production and exchange for profit in which we live which prevents direct distrubution to those who need it. The private ownership of the means of production and distribution is the barrier preventing food production to taker place to meet the needs of all society.

If socialism was faced with a drought in some part of the world, food would just be directly transported to meet the problem. Socialism would not be burdened with funding constraints currently imposed on organisations like of the United Nations and charities, but would move food and resources from elsewhere in the world to enable the shortfall in food to be met efficiently, quickly and directly. Nor would socialism have to worry about prices, markets and profit. Socialism will produce in abundance and solve the unnecessary problems of poverty, hunger and starvation

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