Paul Ryan has released a lengthy document decrying how progressive policies have injured the poor, making the well-rehearsed argument that welfare programs encourage people to stay in poverty. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: if people get less welfare the more money they earn through their own labor, then they are incentivized to work less. Heard it before? I’m not surprised. Decrying the dangers of the supposed moral hazard created by welfare programs is boilerplate conservatism, but the problem for conservatives is that just repeating a slogan doesn’t make it true. The conservative looks at the safety net and posits that it encourages people to slack off, concluding that socialist policies encourage people not to work. On the contrary, capitalism encourages people not to work by alienating them from their labor.
Engels on Labor in a Capitalist System
For Engels, labor is social, in that the ends of labor are exchanged in a social context, such that in individual production the
producer owns his products and thus, he is in control of the exchange of those products and consequentially his inter-relations with other men. In commenting on the producer’s ownership of the product, Engels notes, “It belonged wholly to him, as a matter of course. His property in the product was, therefore, based upon his own labor” (Socialism: Utopian and Scientific). In individual production it is the producer’s labor that gives him ownership of his products. Thus, in individual production labor determines the ownership of products, such that the producer determines his social-relations with other men based on the way he chooses to exchange the products that he owns.
In a system of socialized production, such as in capitalist market, labor does not determine the ownership of a product. Rather, in socialized production the owner of the instruments of labor appropriates the product. Engels remarks that in socialized production,
The means of production, and production itself, had become in essence socialized. But they were subjected to a form of appropriation which presupposes the private production of individuals, under which, therefore, every one owns his own product and brings it to market. The mode of production is subjected to this form of appropriation, although it abolishes the conditions upon which the latter rests (Socialism: Utopian and Scientific).
Thus, Engels charges that the socialized production of capitalism is based upon the idea in individual production that products are privatized in order to be exchanged in the marketplace. Yet, this gives ownership to the capitalists who have not labored on the product, but appropriate the product by ownership of the instruments to make that product. In this way, socialized production embraces the individualized exchange of products by capitalists, while maintaining the socialization of labor to produce those products.
In socialized production the producers do not own the products of their labor, but rather, they own their labor. Engels remarks of this inequality in stating, “The separation was made complete between the means of production concentrated in the hands of the capitalists, on the one side, and the producers, possessing nothing but their labor-power, on the other” (Socialism: Utopian and Scientific). The means of production determine the ownership of products in both individualized and socialized production, but whereas in individualized production the means of production are considered the labor of the producers, in socialized production the means of production are considered the tools that the producers use. Therefore, in a system of socialized capitalistic production the producers own only their labor-power.
Yet, because the producers own only their labor-power, this is the only thing they have to exchange in their social inter-relations with other men. Engels posits that, “we have seen that the capitalistic mode of production thrust its way into a society of commodity-producers, of individual producers, whose social bond was the exchange of their products. But every society based upon the production of commodities has this peculiarity: that the producers have lost control over their own social inter-relations” (Socialism: Utopian and Scientific).
Socialized production denies producers ownership of their products, such that they cannot exchange the products they produce. If the producers cannot exchange the products they produce then they do not control the way they interact with other men, as Engels posits that the only persistent form of social interaction is exchange (Socialism: Utopian and Scientific).
So, because the only thing producers have to exchange is their labor, they must enter into contracts with capitalists so that they may have money for the exchange of necessities. That producers must enter into such contracts is evidence of their lack of control in their interactions with other men, as they must enter into exploitative working conditions in which they are inferior to the capitalist, despite that the legality of the contract is based in part on the supposed equality between the two parties. Man can only withstand such alienation from his labor and unfair treatment for so long before he drops out of the system in a passive revolution against the system, even if his revolutionary nature is unknown to him.
Paul Ryan is wrong; socialist policies that create a safety net do not encourage persons to work less, rather, the alienating nature of capitalism marginalizes poor workers, forcing them to take any means that they may to avoid the humiliation and mistreatment they experience in a capitalistic system.