In contrast with libertarians, socialists take equality to be the ultimate political ideal. In the Communist Manifesto (1848), Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) maintain that the abolition of bourgeois property and bourgeois family structure is a necessary first requirement for building a society that accords with the political ideal of equality. In the Critique of the Gotha Program (1891), Marx provides a much more positive account of what is required to build a society based upon the political ideal of equality. Marx claims that the distribution of social goods must conform, at least initially, to the principle from each according to his/her ability, to each according to his/her contribution. But when the highest stage of communist society has been reached, Marx adds, distribution will conform to the principle from each according to his/her ability, to each according to his/her need.
At first this conception might sound ridiculous to someone brought up in a capitalist society. How can people be asked to contribute according to their ability if income is distributed on the basis of their needs and not on the basis of their contributions?
The answer, according to a socialist conception of justice, is to make the work itself as enjoyable as possible. As a result, people will want to do the work they are capable of doing because they find it intrinsically rewarding. For a start, socialists might try to get people to accept existing, inherently rewarding jobs at lower salaries—top executives, for example, would work for $300,000, rather than the much higher salaries they can actually command. Ultimately socialists hope to make all jobs as intrinsically rewarding as possible, so that when people are no longer working primarily for external rewards and are making their best contributions to society, distribution can proceed on the basis of need.
Socialists propose to implement their ideal of equality by giving workers democratic control over the workplace. They believe that if workers have more to say about how they do their work, they will find their work intrinsically more rewarding. As a consequence, workers will be more motivated to work because the work itself will be meeting their needs. Socialists believe that extending democracy to the workplace will necessarily lead to socialization of the means of production and the end of private property. Socialists, of course, do not deny that civil disobedience or even revolutionary action may be needed to overcome opposition to extending democracy to the workplace.
Even with democratic control of the workplace, some jobs, such as collecting garbage or changing bedpans, probably cannot be made intrinsically rewarding. Socialists propose to divide up such jobs in an equitable manner. Some people might, for example, collect garbage one day a week, and then work at intrinsically rewarding jobs for the rest of the week. Others would change bedpans or do some other unfulfilling job one day a week, and then work at an inherently rewarding job on the other days. By making jobs as intrinsically rewarding as possible, in part through democratic control of the workplace and an equitable assignment of unrewarding tasks, socialists believe people will contribute according to their ability even when distribution proceeds according to need.
Another difficulty raised concerning the socialist conception of justice involves the proclaimed necessity of abolishing private property and socializing the means of production. It seems perfectly possible to give workers more control over their workplace while the means of production remain privately owned. Of course private ownership would have a somewhat different character in a society with democratic control of the workplace, but it need not cease to be private ownership. After all, private ownership would also have a somewhat different character in a society where private holdings, and hence bargaining power, were distributed more equally than they are in most capitalist societies, yet it would not cease to be private ownership. Accordingly we could imagine a society where the means of production are privately owned but where—because ownership is so widely dispersed throughout the society and because of the degree of democratic control of the workplace—many of the criticisms socialists make of existing capitalist societies would no longer apply.
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