U.S.S.R. and communism historical discussion.
[ Login ] [ Active ]

Anarchist David Graeber praises the 'laziness' of the USSR

Log-in to remove advertisement.
Post 02 Jun 2014, 04:10
David Graeber is an Anarchist Antropologist, who has gotten a lot of attention, by being considered by some to be the main theorist behind Occupy Wall Street. He is very much an anti-leninist.

So it was interesting to read an interview with him, where he praises the aspect of Soviet life, which is most condemned by capitalists. Mainly the whole breeding of laziness. He sees the idea of not having to work very long and hard as a virtue. And he condemns the Soviet Totalitarian system for cracking down on absenteeism. Rather he sees this as the greatest accomplishment of the USSR.

Well, we can talk about the decline of the union movement, but it runs deeper. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the great divisions between anarcho-syndicalist unions, and socialist unions, was that the latter were always asking for higher wages, and the anarchists were asking for less hours. That’s why the anarchists were so entangled in struggles for the eight-hour day. It’s as if the socialists were essentially buying into the notion that work is a virtue, and consumerism is good, but it should all be managed democratically, while the anarchists were saying, no, the whole deal—that we work more and more for more and more stuff—is rotten from the get-go.

I’ve said this before, but I think one of the greatest ironies of history is how this all panned out when workers’ movements did manage to seize power. It was generally the classic anarchist constituencies—recently proletarianized peasants and craftsmen—who rose up and made the great revolutions, whether in Russia or China or for that matter Algeria or Spain—but they always ended up with regimes run by socialists who accepted that labor was a virtue in itself and the purpose of labor was to create a consumer utopia. Of course they were completely incapable of providing such a consumer utopia. But what social benefit did they actually provide? Well, the biggest one, the one no one talks about, was guaranteed employment and job security—the “iron rice bowl”, they called it in China, but it went by many names. You couldn’t really get fired from your job. As a result you didn’t really have to work very hard. So on paper they had eight- or nine-hour days but really everyone was working maybe four or five.

I have a lot of friends who grew up in the USSR, or Yugoslavia, who describe what it was like. You get up. You buy the paper. You go to work. You read the paper. Then maybe a little work, and a long lunch, including a visit to the public bath… If you think about it in that light, it makes the achievements of the socialist bloc seem pretty impressive: a country like Russia managed to go from a backwater to a major world power with everyone working maybe on average four or five hours a day. But the problem is they couldn’t take credit for it. They had to pretend it was a problem, “the problem of absenteeism,” or whatever, because of course work was considered the ultimate moral virtue. They couldn’t take credit for the great social benefit they actually provided. Which is, incidentally, the reason that workers in socialist countries had no idea what they were getting into when they accepted the idea of introducing capitalist-style work discipline. “What, we have to ask permission to go to the bathroom?” It seemed just as totalitarian to them as accepting a Soviet-style police state would have been to us.

That ambivalence in the heart of the worker’s movement remains. Growing up in a lefty, working class family, I felt it all the time. On the one hand, there’s this ideological imperative to validate work as virtue in itself. Which is constantly being reinforced by the larger society. On the other hand, there’s the reality that most work is obviously stupid, degrading, unnecessary, and the feeling that it is best avoided whenever possible. But it makes it very difficult to organize, as workers, against work. ... ew_scheme/
Post 02 Jun 2014, 05:24
This is an interesting issue. My understanding is that during the period of industrialization, Soviet workers did indeed work very hard and often under bad conditions. Workers were encouraged to work as hard and as productively as possible (for example, the Stakhanovite movement) and shirkers were punished. This was necessary in order to develop the productive forces of the country and to defend the USSR from outside threats. However, after the country had recovered from World War II and became a modern industrial state it became harder to enforce work discipline for the reasons Graeber discusses.

The Polish economic Michal Kalecki advocated the introduction of workers' councils in addition to the planning system. Central planners would determine things such as prices, major investment projects, net value of output, the wage fund, etc., but production organization would be determined by the workers themselves though their council. This and the application of modern computer technology to planning would probably reduce the need for big managerial bureaucracies and "bullshit" jobs that Graeber describes while maintaining morale as workers would have a say in how production is organized.

Perhaps this is why socialism must come about in an advanced industrial country where the transition may be easier. The USSR and China had the difficult task of winning civil wars, fighting foreign threats, and transforming backward agricultural societies into modern industrial ones, all in a very short amount of time. This made Leninist authoritarian structures necessary. But these structures became outmoded after World War II ended and industrialization was complete. Work discipline suffered because you had an authoritarian structure but one that could not discipline its workers as effectively as under capitalism. The answer, as I see it, is not more discipline or more laziness, but giving workers more power over the process of production and reducing the role of bureaucracies and "bullshit" work that people find so aggravating. People will work well if they enjoy their work and find it meaningful and if they see some benefit coming from it.
Post 02 Jun 2014, 08:42
I can generally agree with Graeber's analysis, and his line of thinking about work in general... In certain areas Russia is still dealing with this issue, the May holidays (from the 1st to the 9th) and New Year's (from the end of the year until after the 7th of January) being the most obvious examples, where the country almost seems to stop to celebrate these holidays for over a week at a time. I agree that it was rather ideologically constricted of the Bolsheviks not to draw so much attention to this matter. However, I will say that it's also important to recognize that there are a lot of exceptions to this idea of laziness at work, in the USSR and today in Russia. There is a small group of people -in industry, in agriculture, in government, that dedicated themselves to their work so thoroughly, that the buildup and strength of the country came to rest entirely on their shoulders. There were a great many such men and women in the Soviet period, and they continue to exist today, now preserving the very existence of Russia, often despite low pay and difficult conditions. For this reason I have always hated the joke 'they pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work'. It insults the millions of such men and women, without whom the USSR could not have become a socialist superpower.

Also, Piccolo makes a very important point about distinguishing the pre-war and post-reconstruction attitudes toward work. In my mind, the selflessness and heroism of those generations caught between industrialization and the war is unparalleled in Russian/Soviet history, and it is thanks primarily to their intense efforts in work that future generations could live easier and better.
Post 03 Jun 2014, 14:22
We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us!
As the old joke they used to tell is state owned factories and other places where the state ran employment.
Post 06 Jun 2014, 12:20
I doubt the USSR had much laziness. In any job in any country a person is required to put in a certain amount of effort to get the job done. It means that it is not really possible to be lazy. It was possible to lose one's job in the USSR and unemployment and even homelessness did exist. It is doubtful that a person could just sit around all day getting nothing done or being unproductive.
Post 16 Jan 2015, 08:02
But these structures became outmoded after World War II ended and industrialization was complete. Work discipline suffered because you had an authoritarian structure but one that could not discipline its workers as effectively as under capitalism. The answer, as I see it, is not more discipline or more laziness, but giving workers more power over the process of production and reducing the role of bureaucracies and "bullshit" work that people find so aggravating. People will work well if they enjoy their work and find it meaningful and if they see some benefit coming from it.?
Post 03 Jan 2016, 02:25
How the Soviets combined all their efforts to build houses for everyone is what I find fascinating especially if work is accompanied by songs and accordions. What a lovely sight to see. A beehive of the utmost efficiency!
Post 30 Jun 2016, 18:24
Laziness was not an achievement of socialism but a serious problem, arguably mores o than some people realize. The example provided by Graeber who in turn had it from his ex-USSR & Yugo friend seems a perfect illustration for that even if Graeber himself thought it was not a problem but an achievement. The thing was that numerous workplaces were notorious for laziness in particular many office desk jobs, in addition also service providers and in Poland (perhaps a local peculiarity) construction sites were infamous for laziness.

This had twofold or even threefold negative effects. First of all and sort of obvious this meant that a lot of thing which should have been done were not done, productivity, output and so on were lower than they should and could be. If that was not bad enough there were demoralizing effects as well. Namely the slacking of some became quickly obvious and generated altitudes of the sort of “if he can be lazy why can’t I be lazy too?” or “why should I work my back off if he hardly makes a move?” Moreover because of laziness thing were not done, services were not provided and so on it angered a lot of people who because of the laziness of others were unable to get what they needed. This greatly undercut the belief of a lot of people in the effectiveness of socialism , the faith in the system so to say. These moral effects were perhaps even worse than material ones because things which were not done one day could be made on the second day but people who become disappointed, sometimes outright angry with socialism usually stayed that way. This in my opinion played some part (of course it was not the only reason) in that socialism in the Soviet Union and particularly in Eastern Europe was in the end rejected by many and came to an end at least for now. This is why I opine that laziness was a big problem for socialism.

Having said all this of course there were places where one could not be lazy and just had to work for any slacking became immediately visible. For example working at an assembly line which moved at a certain pace set by the technological process. Either whatever was being made came off the line or it did not (at least not complete) so there was little room for laziness there.

Last but not least while laziness was a serious problem socialism would not have lasted but for a couple of years at most while people would have been walking covering their private parts with leafs, holding tools made from broken off tree branches and stones if it was not for a lot of hard toiling laborers who made a lot of things despite all the difficulties around such as the laziness of others.
More Forums: The History Forum. The UK Politics Forum.
© 2000- Privacy.
[ Top ]