Is socialism just for low-wage workers?

BY: Scott Hiley| September 14, 2017
Is socialism just for low-wage workers?
QI have a marketable skill, which puts me miles ahead of the average worker, but below business owners/investors.  Granted, for the unskilled or uneducated, socialism may improve their lot some, but at the loss of exceptionalism.  It's better to have some do extremely well so that most can do very well.  Sadly, some will always do poorly, but that is on them.  You can't help those who don't want help. --Mike  
AHi Mike,

Thanks for writing in.  You raise a number of important points--about the status of investors, the difference between workers with and without specialized training, and compensation--but they all have to do, I think, with the way capitalism has changed over the course of its history.

I'll try to take each of the points and expand a little on what I mean.

1.) Workers and investors

For much of the history of capitalism, the capitalist took an active role in organizing production.  Henry Ford is a good example--he implemented a new way of organizing production in his plants.  Not the case today, especially when we look at firms big enough to shape how the economy works.  Most capital is controlled by shareholders with no direct involvement in, or even knowledge of, production.  The actual work of organizing production--the logistics, inventory, IT support, engineering, even management--is done by skilled wage workers.  In economic terms, this means that most of what we think of as profit (income from production) is actually rent (income from ownership).  In other words, today's capitalist is less Henry Ford and more "Pharma Bro" Martin Shkreli.  Big investors now occupy the same position as aristocrats on the eve of the French Revolution: holders of wealth and political power despite being largely disconnected from the actual process of economic production.  This, in turn, raises another question: does our economy require a class of people whose only function is to own things? Is that the most efficient use of resources?

2. 'Skilled' and 'unskilled' labor

I don't think it's accurate to qualify most workers as unskilled.  When I use the term 'working class', it includes everyone who depends on a wage or salary to survive--everyone from retail cashiers to plumbers to engineers and physicians and university professors.  At one point, most of the working class had no specialized training. Over the past 40 years, however, automation has replaced more and more of that kind of labor (including in retail and health care). This move has two consequences: first, it means that most jobs now require at least some specialized training; moreover, it means that highly trained workers (like engineers and physicians) now face the same pressures that workers without specialized training do--increasing productivity requirements, downward pressure on wages, being treated as disposable/replaceable, not having a say in their workplace, etc.  The benefits of automation have gone to the owners of the machines, rather than the workers who design, build, use, and maintain them.

3. Fair compensation under socialism

Before I talk about what socialism is, let me be clear about what it is not.  Socialism is not about taking pay and benefits away from one set of workers and giving it to another set.  We are a party of the whole working class: college degree or no, minimum wage or comfortable salary.  Socialism doesn't mean that everyone makes the same amount of money, or that hard work, talent, and innovation shouldn't be rewarded--just that the threats of poverty, eviction, loss of health care, etc, can't be used to coerce and control workers.

In fact, I would argue that it is capitalism that prevents hard work and skill from being rewarded fairly.  When the primary function of labor is to make money for the owners of capital, you only have a limited degree of control over your own work.  You can show up early, exceed expectations, give 110%--and it might get you a bonus or a promotion, but it might also get you laid off if demand for a product decreases, or if someone else is willing to work as hard as you for a little less.  Sort of a race to the bottom scenario--so I don't think that most workers (even most highly skilled workers) are doing very well under capitalism.

Time to wrap up, so I'll end with this.  Labor, not ownership, is what creates all wealth. Building socialism means putting those who produce wealth in charge of the wealth they produce.  Balancing collective well-being with individual incentive, creating democratic structures for organizing production, making work an expression of our human nature rather than a burden--these are challenges, to be sure, but they are challenges that can be met when we put the interests of working people at the center of our vision of society.

Thanks again for writing in, and


    Scott Hiley has taught French, literature, history, and philosophy at the high school, college, and post-graduate levels.  A member of CPUSA since 2010, he is active in struggles against austerity and for education justice and labor rights. His articles have appeared in the People's World (US), the Morning Star (UK), and l'Humanité (France). He lives in a rural town in upstate NY.

Comments (3)

cameron | September 22, 2017 at 12:41 PM

will people who work more get more?

    Scott Hiley | September 22, 2017 at 1:25 PM

    Great question! The short answer is, yes. Under capitalism, we force people to work by threatening them with joblessness, poverty, homelessness, etc–“you can always be replaced.” This enables business owners to keep wages low. Under socialism, those coercive methods will not be available. The minimum wage will be a living wage, health care, housing, and education will be free and guaranteed. Firms will have to incentivize work. Those incentives might take the form of higher pay, shorter hours, earlier retirement, onsite child care, etc. But basically, socialism means that work will be compensated fairly, based the value it produces for society.

Gary Mueller | September 18, 2017 at 4:16 PM

That was brilliant

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