TOP 2016-10-06

Why Working Has To Be Voluntary

If all the means of production were held in common and money abolished, we would no longer need to work for a wage, but work would still need to be done. In such a society - socialist, communist, anarchist, resource-based economy or whatever term you consider most fashionable - would there nevertheless be an obligation to contribute labour? Would we have to compel people to work (so long as they are able) and penalise people who don’t? (Although I’ll be focusing on hypothetical anarchist societies, this question is also relevant to the current debate about introducing a citizen’s basic income, which would effectively make work optional.)

Discussion of these issues is surprisingly rare in the relevant literature. Writing for a volume on anarchist economics, Scott Napalos mentions the issue of a labour contribution requirement only in a footnote[1], saying that yes, there should be a labour obligation and that this was the position of the CNT[2] and (apparently) of Bertrand Russell and Noam Chomsky.

The CNT’s Isaac Puente, writing about the workings of libertarian communist society in the 1930s, indeed upholds the labour obligation, saying: “No one must shirk this necessity to join in the comparative effort of production, for it is nature itself which imposes this harsh law of labour”[3]. Of course, people who are unable to work - “children, the aged and the infirm” - are always usually excluded from the labour obligation whenever it is discussed, although I have never seen a discussion on how these exemptions should be decided and enforced.

The opposing theory is that only a society of compulsion creates the conditions for ‘free riders’ (people who refuse to work) in the first place. Kropotkin[4] and Emma Goldman[5] held this view, and it’s also implied in some more recent anarcho-syndicalist literature[6].

The latter is the view that I share, but I will go further, arguing that a system of compulsory labour contributions is not only immoral but replete with technical hurdles and political dangers, whilst voluntary labour is in fact more efficient and more practical. That’s probably not obvious to most people, which is why we have to think about this for a few thousand words[7].

How would voluntary labour even work?

From the outset let’s just confirm that voluntary labour is feasible at all. Obviously we cannot have a system where most people can decide to do one or two hours of work a week if the average amount of work to do is more like twenty hours a week. Therefore it makes sense to calculate the average labour contribution and tell people what it is, then allow them to choose their own contribution based on their own ability and personal wishes. These pledges must then be added up, and if it turns out that not enough has been contributed in total, people should be given the opportunity to adjust their contribution again. This iterative process of offers and counter-offers can be done in person, within a community or project, or it could potentially be done over the internet.

There are probably many other ways that it could work. This system is based on a common practice in CSA (community-supported agriculture) projects in Germany and Austria[8], except that they use it primarily for financial contributions.

What about dirty and unpleasant work that nobody really wants to do? A good solution is to weight these tasks higher than other tasks based on their low popularity. Then, if your guideline contribution is twenty hours a week, you could fulfill this guideline either by doing twenty hours of popular tasks, or by doing, perhaps, fifteen hours of less popular tasks, and still feel that you are doing “enough”. In other words, the incentive for doing less popular work is that you’ll have more free time.

Why compulsory labour is a bad idea

There are good economic, technical, moral and psychological reasons why compulsory labour is a bad idea, and perhaps even unworkable in a commons-based or anarchist society. I’ll start with the economic reasons.

Alienated Labour

Imagine a society without money where all able-bodied people are obliged to contribute twenty-five hours of work a week[9]. Now imagine what happens when some part of the economy - say, grain production - expands. Inevitably, more labour will be needed in grain production and its associated industries. The average labour requirement therefore increases to, say, twenty-six hours per week. But how would somebody who works in a shoe factory contribute an extra hour of labour every week, considering that the only extra labour available is in grain production, which our helpless shoemaker knows nothing about?

What’s supposed to happen is that a number of people shift over into grain production and the remaining workers expand their labour time to fill in the gaps that they leave. But it is very unlikely that there will be gaps left over in every relevant workplace. Our humble shoemakers may find themselves unable to fulfill their labour quota and will soon face whatever penalty has been agreed for this situation - probably having their consumption rationed. Yet it isn’t even their fault.

One potential response to this situation is to make sure that whenever one part of the economy grows, the entire economy grows along with it. In other words, the shoemakers simply make more shoes so that they can fulfill the new quota in a familiar way. For this to be possible, consumption and production would always have to be increasing. Sound familiar? Capitalism works in precisely this way, and doesn’t care about the material and ecological consequences of an ever-expanding production system.

In a capitalist system, people’s primary goal when working is to earn money, and any other goals are of secondary importance. This is what Karl Marx calls entfremdete Arbeit, or alienated labour. Shoemakers are working primarily for a wage, and their desire to fulfill society’s need for footwear is of secondary importance, or perhaps of no interest at all.

In a commons-based society with a compulsory labour quota, there would also be alienated labour. Your primary goal as a worker is to fulfill your labour quota. It’s not so important what you achieve by working, or whether the work is really necessary. The important thing is just to reach that target. As a result, labour time would become a new universal standard of value, an easy target for being denominated as currency - especially if rationed consumption is the penalty for not working - and this would sow the seeds for capitalism’s return.

An economy based on alienated labour can very easily end up with a growth imperative, and can very easily forget about the effects that increased economic activity has on ecology and health, because economic activity - whether measured in money or in labour quotas - has become an end in itself.

Flexibility, Part One

This appearance of a growth imperative in an otherwise non-capitalist system is unexpected. There is a possible solution to it, however, still retaining the compulsory labour quota. The solution is to turn the labour quota into a range of acceptable values. For example, to require at least twenty hours but no more than thirty hours[10]. Then, if grain production expands, the range might shift to being twenty-one to thirty-one hours. The shoemaker, who was doing twenty-five hours, is then still within the allowable range.

Nevertheless, if someone had been doing just twenty hours, the previous minimum, they would be obliged to find extra tasks to do. Labour would still be alienated to some extent, as everyone would have an incentive to find a job that gives them more work rather than less, to avoid getting ‘caught out’ in the future. This is how the economy would signal to people that they should move into grain production if they can, since that’s the growing industry in this example. This is comparable to the function of money as “command over labour”.

With this “flexibility mechanism” it is less likely that there would be a growth imperative, but it is a risky situation. If the acceptable range is too narrow, then the logic of growth might creep back in. But the acceptable range can’t be too wide, either, because then it would take a long time for new tasks in society to be taken up, as well as arguably defeating the object of the quota altogether (that is, to have equal working times).

There is also an issue when the economy shrinks. Suppose that the shoemakers introduce a productivity improvement that allows them to cut down their working time, so that they only have to work twenty-three hours a week. They are now in more danger of losing their jobs if the rest of the economy “catches up” with them. What’s supposed to happen is that one or more workers should move over into a relatively “overworked” profession, such as grain production, before the shoemakers hit the lower limit of the quota. But it’s also possible that people might just avoid introducing productivity improvements altogether, which is clearly undesirable.

This sort of thing can happen all the time in capitalism, where machines can force workers out of their jobs. Capitalism’s response is to keep the economy growing so that new jobs become available. If there were a basic income, the economy would still need to grow, because the funding for the basic income would depend on a strong economy. But in a moneyless system with voluntary contributions of time, these problems would not arise. On the contrary, productivity improvements would benefit workers directly, and there would be a small incentive to keep production as low as possible if it means that unpleasant labour can be saved.

Flexibility, Part Two

In a socialist or anarchist society with a compulsory labour quota, there would be practically no unemployment - everyone who was able to work would either be working or else suffering the penalty for not working. Therefore, when parts of the economy expand, the only way of attracting more labour is by expecting existing workers to switch jobs. This might work some of the time, but it would often require a lot of retraining and maybe a considerable inconvenience for the workers involved. A growing population would mitigate this issue to some extent, but we should not expect the population to be growing all the time.

In general, capitalist societies “solve” this problem using what Marx called “the reserve army of the unemployed”. Unemployed people serve an important economic function: they represent “spare labour” which can be deployed at the economy’s whim as soon as new jobs become available. This is one way in which the economy is said to be “flexible”, meaning that it’s always “good” to have some unemployment.

In a capitalist society, unemployment is accompanied by (relative) poverty. It’s good for it to be only relative poverty: if unemployed people were living in absolute poverty and in danger of death, then they would be of no use to the expanding economy. This is why capitalism benefits from the introduction of the welfare state, since this keeps spare workers in a decent enough shape for future work assignments, but not such a good state that they have no reason to work at all.

Now consider a moneyless society with voluntary labour. If the economy shrinks (which it can safely do), then some people may stop working or reduce their working time, but they would still be able to meet their needs. If the economy expands, then labour is available; so existing workers would often not need to switch jobs. Hence voluntary labour is potentially more efficient because it has built-in flexibility. People would be motivated to contribute based on their enthusiasm and aptitude for the new use value that the expanded economy will produce, and in order to prevent the output from being rationed. If nobody at all contributed, this would be a clear signal that the expansion of the economy was probably not worth the effort anyway.

Technical, Administrative and Decision-Making Burden

In Germany it used to be the case that you had to pay a small fee every time you saw a doctor within a given quarter. Later they discovered that it was costing more to organise this system than the money they were making from it. What this suggests is that when you require contributions, whether of money or of time, it takes a lot of additional money or time just to administrate it.

In a moneyless economy with required labour contributions, it would be necessary first of all to make a lot of decisions: what is the range of allowable labour contributions? Who is exempt from contributing labour? Are partial exemptions allowed, and under what circumstances? How much time should you be given to correct a deficient labour contribution? What should be the consequence of not contributing enough labour? Should people accumulate a “labour debt” when they aren’t contributing enough work, which they then have to repay later by working extra, and if so, what are the terms of the “repayment”? All of these are difficult decisions with no obvious answers, and it’s likely that a society would spend a lot of time revising and tweaking all of the rules, just like we do now in societies with a welfare state.

Once these rules are decided, more effort is needed to administrate the system. People’s exemption status has to be assessed and verified. If the penalty for deficient contributions is to ration your consumption, then these rations also need to be administrated. That could mean requiring everyone to identify themselves or use a checkout every time they take goods or try to use services. Thousands of hours of boring, repetitive and often degrading labour could be saved, but they won’t be in a society that has an obsessive desire to eliminate all traces of the evil “free rider”.

In a money system we have countless jobs, technologies and policy instruments that are designed not to meet people’s needs but to prevent them from meeting their needs when they can’t pay. Not just eviction orders and repossession, but also credit checks, security tags, travel tickets, electricity meters, car park barriers, cash registers and Digital Rights Management - that is, anti-piracy software, a technology specifically designed to make something scarce out of something that’s freely copiable. It’s easy to describe capitalism as a society of exclusion, a society that profits from keeping people out.

A moneyless system with required labour contributions would still need a lot of these technologies, and could easily end up getting its priorities totally wrong as a result. A capitalist system that has a basic income would also not be able to free itself of these burdens, and might just end up creating a new set of exclusions between those who are entitled to the basic income (“citizens”) and those who aren’t (“foreigners”).

Subversion and the Danger of Bureaucracy

The next problem with compulsory labour is the question - who actually decides on all those rules that we would need? Even more seriously, who enforces them and what is their motive for doing so? There’s a real danger that a supposedly anarchist society might reintroduce oppressive hierarchies when the bureaucratic institution in charge of enforcing and assessing work exemptions ends up turning into an oligarchy with the power to manipulate the economy and send people effectively to their deaths because “they don’t qualify for a work exemption”, flimsily justified by anti-free-rider propaganda.

In a society supposedly based on the self-organisation of workers, it would also be quite easy to subvert any system of required labour contributions. Since the labour quota has to be calculated based on the current requirements of production, workers could simply fabricate their requirements, pretending that they need more labour than they actually do. By doing so, they might get away with 20 hours a week, whilst “officially” they’ve done their full quota of 26. This is reminiscent of the sort of subversive tactics that workers used in the Soviet Union. Any workplaces that aren’t subverting the system would likely find that they don’t have enough work to fulfill the official quota, so some sort of compulsory auditing process would be necessary, and the danger of an oppressive bureaucracy would only increase.

Moral Considerations

The Anarchist FAQ states that anarchism is “based on voluntary labour”. It goes on to quote Camillo Berneri, saying that in an anarchist society there would be “no compulsion to work, but no duty towards those who do not want to work”. Strictly speaking there is no contradiction here: you’re entitled to not work, it’s just that if you don’t work, you’ll die! Exactly the same logic applies to capitalism, where strictly speaking nobody is compelled to work, but you may be faced with poverty or death if you don’t. We need to jettison this barbaric and twisted definition of “voluntary”, as I have done implicitly throughout this article. Voluntary labour means that you can decide not to work and still survive. If it’s a Hobson’s choice, it’s not a choice.

The FAQ’s author goes on to say: “Most anarchists have had enough of the wealthy under capitalism consuming but not producing and do not see why they should support a new group of parasites after the revolution.” But this is nonsense. It suffers from a fixation on the idea that “everyone has to be producing” which is a carry-over of capitalist, expansionist logic. Moreover, in a society of voluntary labour, the amount of your contribution is entirely up to you. This might mean that not enough can be produced, and in that case, we would have to try prioritising the necessities like food, water and healthcare. Then, the rest of the goods and services - mostly the luxuries - would have to be rationed until more contributions were pledged[11]. Under those conditions it should not be difficult to secure enough contributions because everyone would feel their effects. Any further attempt to restrict people’s access to goods and services would be purely ideological - the ideology that a society with free riders is worse than a society with forced labour.

More Moral Considerations

A serious problem with compulsory labour concerns the assessment of exemptions. All left-leaning people agree that children, the elderly and the sick and disabled have to be properly exempted from work, and even right-leaning people simply have to accept this as a fact of life: these kinds of people either cannot work at all or have a reduced capacity for work. But deciding who counts and who doesn’t count is far from easy. Children above a certain age actually are capable of working, but child labour is often viewed as immoral. Many people of retirement age could carry on working, but probably shouldn’t be expected to. Meanwhile, many people under the retirement age might, through no fault of their own, already be suffering from a range of age-related conditions which reduce their capacity for work. As soon as the exemptions system fails to recognise these subtleties, it can easily end up in morally dubious territory, sending people to work who can’t cope with it, causing an even greater degradation of their health (not to mention a greater burden on the health system).

It’s worth noting that a moneyless labour obligation system faces a problem that a money system doesn’t. In a money system, it’s sometimes possible for people to use their personal savings, or the savings of family members, to overcome hardships that other services can’t cover. In a moneyless society, however, it’s not possible to “save up” and hence to accumulate a “reserve”. Therefore, if you’re not considered exempt, you have far fewer options open to you.

Mental health conditions pose a particularly difficult challenge, as the range of potential diagnoses and the criteria for diagnosing them are still constantly in flux. Many people dispute the very concept of diagnosis within psychiatry, and there are those in the anti-psychiatry movement who believe that mental health conditions are in fact rational responses to conditions imposed by society, rather than individual dysfunctions that can be corrected with individual therapy. Moreover, so-called medically undiagnosed symptoms can leave people with significant functional difficulties which nevertheless have no medical label and aren’t currently understood.

Any labour exemptions system would have to be based on some kind of arbitrary division between “fit” and “unfit”, whether it’s based on the already imperfect clinical system of diagnosis, or on some other yet-to-be-determined standard of functional impairment.

I consider these work assessment criteria to be not just unwieldy, not just imprecise and logistically burdensome, but fundamentally immoral. Whatever the system, the experience of having your needs and your difficulties - whether physical or psychological - determined and defined for you, under the suspicion of being a “free rider”, is degrading and even dehumanising. Furthermore, people who are perceived as free riders may end up being subject to societal stigma and perhaps even abuse, beyond the abuse of forced labour itself.

Yet the stigma arguably only exists because labour is compulsory: it seems unfair if you can’t get around your labour obligation but someone else can, which leads to indignance towards perceived “free riders”, benefits claimants or even people who take a long holiday. If working weren’t compulsory in the first place, and every contribution were freely undertaken by choice, there would also be less indignance and less stigma.

Everyone’s contribution would be valuable, no matter how small. As a consequence, it would be all the more important to treat your colleagues well, because you couldn’t guarantee being able to replace them if they decided they couldn’t cope with this anymore. Rather than an atmosphere of pressure and obligation, putting a negative value on “laziness”, there would be a positive reinforcement of every contribution, which is likely to be much more motivating. Instead of “that person isn’t pulling their weight” we would say “that person is helping out in a small but necessary way” or “I have chosen to work more because I enjoy this”.

Another positive consequence is that the elderly, who are not normally expected to work, could still do so if they wanted to and were able to. This contrasts with our current society, where some retired people can end up feeling useless; they often aren’t allowed to keep any money that they earn. Similarly, young people are forced into years of education when sometimes their talents are calling them elsewhere. Especially with the psychological benefits of voluntarism, a society of voluntary contributions might even find itself with a higher level of employment than we have now.


Compulsory labour is alienated labour, and this may encourage the economy to grow, burdening us with more work. It also necessitates a massive administrative and decision-making burden, which increases the workload still further. It’s partly for these reasons that work is so stressful, and this makes people want to free themselves from it. And because people want to free themselves from it, it appears to be necessary to make it compulsory! The argument is circular.

By abolishing money we would make whole sectors of the economy redundant, saving ourselves thousands of hours of work. Abolishing the obligatory labour requirement would allow us to go further, giving us even more time for art, music, scientific enquiry for its own sake, adventure and play, and making further progress in individual liberty. We should not waste that opportunity out of some morbid obsession with equal quantities of misery.

  1. Scott Nappalos, Ditching Class: The Praxis of Anarchist Communist Economics in Shannon, D., Nocella II, A., Asimakopoulous, J. (eds.) (2012), The Accumulation of Freedom: Writings on Anarchist Economics, endnote 21.  ↩

  2. The CNT is a revolutionary union of workers which was instrumental in organising an anarchist revolution in Spain in 1936.  ↩

  3. Isaac Puente (first 1933), El Comunismo Libertario. Partial English translation.  ↩

  4. Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread, chapter 12: “We very much doubt that we need fear this contingency in a society really based on the entire freedom of the individual.”  ↩

  5. Emma Goldman, Anarchism and Other Essays  ↩

  6. Solfed, The Economics of Freedom  ↩

  7. My arguments relate to a hypothetical society that is industrialised and still has a specialised division of labour. The situation is different for a less technologically advanced society made up of more or less self-sufficient communities, but many of the arguments still apply.  ↩

  8. See this article on commons associations for more details, or in German, see Christian Siefkes, “Das Freiwilligenspiel ↩

  9. Here I’m assuming that everyone would have the same labour quota. It’s also possible to give people a quota that scales with their consumption, but that doesn’t affect the argument.  ↩

  10. This is a simplification. If it worked liked this then you might have too many people working at the upper end of the scale and leaving some people unable to fulfill the lower limit. A better option is to base the quota on, say, 80% of the needed labour and leave the remaining labour to be distributed according to a separate system on the level of each individual workplace. This doesn’t affect my argument.  ↩

  11. The “prioritising” stage could be decided by democratic communal decisions, but this might be unnecessary. People know what their most urgent physical needs are, so they would know which projects require their most urgent attention. Since everyone needs food, water and healthcare, they would already have the largest potential contributor base. Furthermore, the task weighting system can be used to make any unpopular tasks more attractive. The “rationing” stage should be easy so long as equal rations are given, but if unequal rations are desired then it would require more administration. Remember, an absolute labour shortage can always be overcome in a moneyless system, whereas my criticisms of compulsory labour are systemic issues that can’t really be solved within that system.  ↩