Front Page Titles (by Subject) 2: The Disutilities and Satisfactions of Labour - Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis
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2: The Disutilities and Satisfactions of Labour - Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis 
Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, trans. J. Kahane, Foreword by F.A. Hayek (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
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The Disutilities and Satisfactions of Labour
Socialist writers depict the socialist community as a land of heart’s desire. Fourier’s sickly fantasies go farthest in this direction. In Fourier’s state of the future all harmful beasts will have disappeared, and in their places will be animals which will assist man in his labours—or even do his work for him. An anti-beaver will see to the fishing; an anti-whale will move sailing ships in a calm; an anti-hippopotamus will tow the river boats. Instead of the lion there will be an anti-lion, a steed of wonderful swiftness, upon whose back the rider will sit as comfortably as in a well-sprung carriage. “It will be a pleasure to live in a world with such servants.”47 Godwin even thought that men might be immortal after property had been abolished.48 Kautsky tells us that under the socialist society “a new type of man will arise ... a superman ... an exalted man.”49 Trotsky provides even more detailed information: “Man will become incomparably stronger, wiser, finer. His body more harmonious, his movements more rhythmical, his voice more musical ... The human average will rise to the level of an Aristotle, a Goethe, a Marx. Above these other heights new peaks will arise.”50 And writers of this sort of stuff are continually being reprinted and translated into other tongues, and made the subject of exhaustive historical theses!
Other socialist writers are more circumspect in their pronouncements but they proceed on essentially similar assumptions. Tacitly underlying Marxian theory is the nebulous idea that the natural factors of production are such that they need not be economized. Such a conclusion indeed follows inevitably from a system that reckons labor as the only element in costs, that does not accept the law of diminishing returns, rejects the Malthusian law of population and loses itself in obscure fantasies about the unlimited possibility of increasing productivity.51 We need not go further into these matters. It is sufficient to recognize that even in a socialist community the natural factors of production would be limited in quantity and would therefore have to be economized.
The second element which would have to be economized is labour. Even if we ignore differences in quality it is obvious that labour is available only to a limited extent: the individual can only perform a certain amount of labour. Even if labour were a pure pleasure it would have to be used economically, since human life is limited in time, and human energy is not inexhaustible. Even the man who lives at his leisure, untrammelled by monetary considerations, has to dispose of his time, i.e. choose between different possible ways of spending it.
It is clear, therefore, that in the world as we know it, human behaviour must be governed by economic considerations. For while our wants are unlimited, the goods of the first order bestowed by nature are scarce; and, with a given productivity of labour, goods of a higher order can serve to increase the satisfaction of needs only by increasing labour. Now, quite apart from the fact that labour cannot be increased beyond a certain point, an increase of labour is accompanied by increasing disutility.
Fourier and his school regard the disutility of labour as a result of perverse social arrangements. These alone in their view are to blame for the fact that in accepted usage the words “labour” and “toil” are synonymous. Labour in itself is not unpleasant. On the contrary, all men need to be active. Inactivity entails intolerable boredom. If labour is to be made attractive it must be carried on in healthy, clean workplaces; the joy of labour must be aroused by a happy feeling of union among the workers and cheerful competition between them. The chief cause of the repugnance which labour arouses is its continuity. Even pleasures pall if they last too long. Therefore the workers must be allowed to interchange their occupations at will; work will then be a pleasure and no longer create aversion.52
It is not difficult to expose the error contained in this argument, though it is accepted by socialists of all schools. Man feels the impulse to activity. Even if need did not drive him to work he would not always be content to roll in the grass and bask in the sun. Even young animals and children whose nourishment is provided by their parents kick their limbs, dance, jump and run so as to exercise powers yet unclaimed by labour. To be stirring is a physical and mental need. Thus, in general, purposeful labour gives satisfaction. Yet only up to a certain point; beyond this it is only toil. In the following diagram the line 0 x along which the product of labour is measured, marks the dividing line between the disutility of labour and the satisfaction the exercise of our powers affords, which may be called immediate satisfaction due to labour. The curve, a, b, c, p represents labour disutility and immediate labour satisfaction in relation to the product. When labour commences it is found disagreeable. After the first difficulties have been overcome and body and mind are better adapted, then the disagreeableness declines. At b neither disagreeableness nor satisfaction predominates. Between b and c direct satisfaction prevails. After c disagreeableness recommences. With other forms of labour the curve may run differently, as in 0 c1p1 or 0p2. That depends on the nature of the work and the personality of the workers. It is different for ditchdiggers and for jockeys: it is different for dull and for energetic men.53
Why is labour continued when the disutility which its continuance occasions exceeds the direct satisfaction deriving from it? Because something else beside direct labour satisfaction comes into account, namely the satisfaction afforded by the product of the labour; we call this indirect labour satisfaction. Labour will be continued so long as the dissatisfaction which it arouses is counterbalanced by the pleasure derived from its product. Labour will only be discontinued at the point at which its continuation would give rise to more disutility than utility.
The methods by which Fourier wished to deprive labour of its unattractiveness were indeed based upon correct observations, but he greatly overrated the bearing of his argument. It is clear that the amount of work which affords direct labour satisfaction supplies such a small fraction of the needs which men consider imperative that they readily undergo the hardship of performing irksome work. But it is a mistake to assume that any significant change would take place if workers were allowed to change occupations at short intervals. For in the first place the product of labour would be reduced because of the diminished skill acquired by the individual as a result of diminished practice in each of his various occupations; also because every changeover would cause loss of time, and labour would be expended in the shuffling. And in the second place only a very slight part of the excess of labour disutility over direct labour satisfaction is due to weariness with the particular job in hand. Hence the capacity to derive direct satisfaction from another form of labour is not what it would have been if the first job had not been performed. Clearly the greater part of the disutility is due to general fatigue of the organism and to a desire to be released from any further constraint. The man who has worked for hours at a desk will prefer to chop wood for an hour rather than spend another hour at the desk. But what made his labour unpleasant was not only the need for change but rather the length of the work. If the product is not to be diminished the length of the working day can be reduced only by increased productivity. The widespread opinion that there is labour which only tires the body and labour which only tires the mind is incorrect, as everyone can prove for himself. All labour affects the whole organism. We deceive ourselves on this point because in observing other forms of occupation we see only the direct labour satisfaction. The clerk envies the coachman, because he would like a little recreation in driving: but his envy would last only as long as the satisfaction exceeded the pain. Similarly hunting and fishing, mountain climbing, riding and driving are undertaken for sport. But sport is not work in the economic sense. It is the hard fact that men cannot subsist on the small amount of labour yielding direct labour satisfaction which compels them to suffer the irksomeness of toil, not the bad organization of labour.
It is obvious, that improvements in the conditions under which labour is performed may increase the product with unchanged irksomeness or lessen the irksomeness for the same product. But it would be impossible to improve these conditions more than actually occurs under capitalism without rising cost. That labour is less irksome when performed in company has been known from of old, and where it seems possible to let workers work together without reducing output, it is done.
There are, of course, exceptional natures that rise above the common level. The great creative genius who perpetuates himself in immortal works and deeds does not when working distinguish the pain from the pleasure. For such men creation is at once the greatest joy and the bitterest torment, an inner necessity. What they create has no value to them as a product: they create for the sake of creation, not for the result. The product costs them nothing because, when working, they forgo nothing dearer to them than their work. And their product only costs society what they could have produced by other labour. In comparison to the value of the service this cost is nothing. Genius is truly a gift of God.
Now the life history of great men is familiar to all. Thus the social reformer is easily tempted to regard what he has heard of them as common attributes. We continually find people inclined to regard the mode of life of the genius as the typical way of living of a simple citizen of a socialist community. But not every one is a Sophocles or a Shakespeare, and standing behind a lathe is not the same thing as writing Goethe’s poems or founding the Empire of Napoleon.
It is therefore easy to see the nature of the illusions entertained by Marxians with regard to the satisfactions and toil of the inhabitants of the socialist community. Here, as in everything else it has to say about the socialist community, Marxism moves along the lines set out by the Utopians. With express reference to Fourier’s and Owen’s ideas of restoring to work “the attractiveness lost through division of labour,” by arranging for each form of work to be performed for a short time only, Engels sees in Socialism an organization of production “in which productive labour will be not a means for enslaving but for liberating mankind, which will give every individual the opportunity to develop and to exercise all his capabilities, bodily and mental, in all directions, and will transform a bane into a boon.”54 And Marx talks of “a higher phase of communist society after having done away with the slavish subjection of the individual under the division of labour, a society in which the contrast between mental and physical work has disappeared” and “labour has become not only a means of life but the first need of life itself.”55 Max Adler promises that the socialist society will “at the very least” not assign to anyone any work “which must cause him pain.”56 These statements distinguish themselves from the utterances of Fourier and his school only by the fact that there is nowhere any attempt to provide them with a basis of proof.
Fourier and his school, however, had another device, apart from changes of occupation, for rendering work more attractive: competition. Men would be capable of the highest achievement if inspired by un sentiment de rivalité joyeuse ou de noble émulation (a feeling of joyous rivalry or noble emulation). Here for once they recognize the advantages of competition, which everywhere else they describe as pernicious. If the workers show a deficiency in achievement it will be sufficient to divide them into groups: immediately a fierce competition will blaze up between the groups, which will double the energy of the individual and suddenly arouse in all un acharnement passioné au travail (A passionate tenacity for work).57
The observation that competition makes for greater accomplishment is of course correct enough, but it is superficial. Competition is not in itself a human passion. The efforts put forth by men in competition are not made for the sake of the competition but for the end attained thereby. The fight is waged not for its own sake, but for the prize which beckons the victor. But what prizes would spur to emulation the workers in a socialist community? Experience shows that titles and rewards of honour are not estimated too highly. Material goods to increase the satisfaction of wants could not be given as prizes since the principle of distribution would be independent of individual performance, and the increase per head through the increased effort of a single worker would be so insignificant that it would not count. The simple satisfaction from duty performed would not suffice: it is precisely because this incentive cannot be trusted that we seek others. And even if it were so, labour would still be irksome. It would not thereby become attractive in itself.
The Fourier school, as we have seen, regards it as the main point of their solution of the social problem that work will be made a joy instead of a toil.58 But unfortunately the means which it provides for this are quite impracticable. If Fourier had really been able to show the way to make work attractive he would have deserved the divine honours bestowed on him by his followers.59 But his much lauded doctrines are nothing but the fantasies of a man who was incapable of seeing clearly the world as it really is.
Even in a socialist community work will arouse feelings of pain and not of pleasure.60
[47. ]Fourier, Oeuvres complètes, Vol. IV, 2nd ed. (Paris, 1841), pp. 254 ff.
[48. ]Godwin, Das Eigentum, Bahrfeld’s translation of that part of Political Justice which deals with the problem of property (Leipzig, 1904), pp. 73 ff.
[49. ]Kautsky, Die soziale Revolution, 3rd ed., (Berlin, 1911), II, p. 48.
[50. ]Trotsky, Literatur und Revolution (Vienna, 1924), p. 179.
[51. ]“Today all enterprises ... are first and foremost a question of profitability ... A socialist society knows no other question than of sufficient labour forces, and if it has these the work ... is done.” (Bebel, Die Frau und der Sozialismus, p. 308. Publisher’s Note: p. 427 in the English edition.) “Everywhere it is the social institution and the methods of production and distribution connected with these which produce want and misery, and not the number of people.” (Ibid., p. 368. Publisher’s Note: p. 492 in the English edition.) “We suffer not from a lack but from a superfluity of foodstuffs, just as we have a superfluity of industrial products.” (Ibid., p. 368, p. 429 in the English. Also Engels, Herrn Eugen Dührings Umwälzung der Wissenschaft, p. 305. Publisher’s Note: pp. 390-391 in the English edition.) “We have ... not too many but rather too few people.” (Bebel, op. cit., p. 370; p. 494 in the English edition.)
[52. ]Considerant, Exposition abrégee du Système Phalanstérien de Fourier, 4th Impression, 3rd ed. (Paris, 1846), pp. 29 ff.
[53. ]Jevons, The Theory of Political Economy, 3rd ed. (London, 1888), pp. 169, 172 ff.
[54. ]Engels, Herrn Eugen Dührings Umwälzung der Wissenschaft, p. 327. Publisher’s Note: p. 408 in the English edition.
[55. ]Marx, Zur Kritik des sozialdemokratischen Parteiprogramms von Gotha, p. 27. Publisher’s Note: This passage can be found on p. 7 of the Eastman edited Modern Library edition and p. 10 of the International Publishers edition.
[56. ]Max Adler, Die Staatsauffassung des Marxismus (Vienna, 1922), p. 287.
[57. ]Considerant, Exposition abrégée du Système Phalanstérien de Fourier, p. 33.
[58. ]Considerant, “Studien über einige Fundamentalprobleme der sozialen Zukunft” (contained in Fouriers System der sozialen Reform, translated by Kaatz, Leipzig 1906), pp. 55 ff. Fourier has the distinction of having introduced the fairies into social science. In his future state the children, organized in “Petites Hordes” (small groups), will perform what the adults do not do. To them will be entrusted, amongst other things, maintenance of the roads. “C’est à leur amour propre que l’Harmonie sera redevable d’avoir, par toute la terre, des chemins plus somptueux que les allées de nos parterres. Ils seront entretenus d’arbres et d’arbustes, même de fleurs, et arrosés au trottoir. Les Petites Hordes courent frénétiquement au travail, qui est exécuté comme oeuvre pie, acte de charité envers la Phalange, service de Dieu et de l’Unité.” (It is to their own self-esteem that “Harmony” will be indebted for having, everywhere, roads more magnificent than the walks in our flower gardens. They will be maintained with trees, shrubs, even flowers, and they will be irrigated along the footpaths. The small groups run frantically to their work, which will be carried out as a pious duty, an act of love [charity] for the Phalanx [community], a service for God and Unity.) By three o’clock in the morning they are up, cleaning the stables, attending to the cattle and horses, and working in the slaughter houses, where they take care that no animal is ever treated cruelly, killing always in the most humane manner. “Elles ont la haute police du règne animal.” (They are the eminent police of the animal kingdom.) When their work is done they wash themselves, dress themselves, and appear triumphantly at the breakfast table. See Fourier, Oeuvres complètes, Vol. V, 2nd Edition (Paris, 1841), pp. 141, 159.
[59. ]Fabre des Essarts, Odes Phalanstériennes, Montreuil-sous-Bois 1900. Béranger and Victor Hugo also venerated Fourier. The first dedicated to him a poem, reprinted in Bebel (Charles Fourier, Stuttgart 1890, pp. 294 ff.).
[60. ]Socialist writers are still far from knowing this. Kautsky (Die soziale Revolution, II, pp. 16 ff.) considers that the main task of a proletarian regime is “to make work, which today is a burden, into a pleasure, so that people will enjoy working and the workers go joyfully to work.” He admits that “this is not such a simple matter” and concludes that “it will hardly be possible to make work in factories and mines attractive quickly.” But he cannot naturally bring himself to abandon completely Socialism’s fundamental illusion.