May 26, 2020

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

The phrase is not original to Marx, nor is the idea exclusive to Marxism. Yet, with remarkable economy, it captures the essence of the idealised communist society.

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Of course, the reality of communism was best summed-up in the old Soviet-era quip — “the bosses pretend to pay us and we pretend to work,” but let’s stick with the ideal — and what makes it so attractive.

The first half of the slogan suggests a society in which everyone does their bit; and the second half, that there’s always enough to go round. It all seems so fair, so reasonable — until, that is, you notice that what you put into the system (“from each…”) is unrelated to what you get out of it (“to each…”). That’s a problem because “ability” isn’t the only determinant of productivity. In fact, the real difference is made by effort, determination, creativity and risk-taking — all of which respond to reward. So if people don’t get rewarded for the all-important extras they put in, what happens to the economy? Nothing good.

In any case, who decides what each person’s needs are — or, for that matter, what their abilities are?

If you look at Marx’s use of the phrase in context, you’ll see that he was applying it to the “higher phase of communist society” — a socialist wonderland in which material wealth flows abundantly and labour has become “life’s prime want” (because it’s all such fun). So no need for some oppressive state to direct your efforts and distribute the product, you just do what you want and take what you need.

Unfortunately, the path to this “higher phase” has never been clear and the radical Left has struggled with it ever since.

At this point, I ought to say that capitalism, though evidently more successful than communism, has also fallen short. It may be less overtly utopian, but free market economics has its own unrealistic assumptions — rational actors, perfect information, level playing fields etc. All too often, the reality is one in which asymmetries of knowledge and power allow the few to exploit the many.

Hence the enduring appeal of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”: twelve words which describe a clear alternative to a deeply-flawed capitalist system. The interesting thing, though, is that they present as much of a challenge to the contemporary Left as they do to the free-market Right.


Leftwingery is not, and has never been, a monolith. In the 20th century, communism achieved a position of dominance on the far Left, but had to overcome rival ideologies, like anarchism. In the 21st century, it is just one of many strands of radical thought. It struggles to stand out from and is sometimes co-opted by its rivals.

The old primarily class-based analysis of society now has to contend with other kinds of identity and inequality. A non-exhaustive list includes sex, sexuality, gender, disability (problematic word), race (ditto), religion, language, culture, lifestyle, age, body shape, and all the intersections thereof. It’s all so multidimensional that it’s difficult to decant into neat ideological categories like ‘Leninism’, ‘Trotskyism’, etc. Thus, we have to rely on informalities like ‘Woke’. Yes, it’s a word that been sucked-dry by continual mockery, but it’s useful nonetheless.

The Woke Left dominates today’s radical politics — yet it is also neutralising it. For a start, we’ve seen the culture wars alienate the Left’s traditional working-class support. I’ll say no more about that, because it’s been extensively documented and debated already. Less appreciated, though, is the failure of the radicals to mobilise mass support along other dimensions of identity.

Look at what happened to the Presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Their failure to enthuse the kind of voters the Democrats need to win back from Trump was bad enough. Worse was the disconnect with black voters — who swung firmly behind Joe Biden, the candidate of the centrist establishment. Neither Warren, nor Sanders, were able to extend their appeal much beyond a fanbase of young, mostly white, college-educated activists. In fact, compared to his 2016 run, Sanders went backwards.

It’s the same story across the Western world. With capitalism in crisis, the radical Left gets a hearing, but the establishment stays in power.

In the 20th century, the Left was able to build history-changing movements because their class-based politics had a clear economic programme. The identity-based politics of the contemporary Left does not. Yes, there are promises of lavish state spending — on free broadband and the like. But it doesn’t add up to a transformation of the economic order.

The old Left had the advantage of having a much simpler and clearer model of the society it wanted to change — i.e. the class system. Furthermore, the components of that system can be concretely defined by their economic relationships to one another — workers and management, labour and capital, etc.

The Woke model of society provides no such clarity. There are many more components, most which are not defined by their economic relationships to one another. The Woke Left has plenty to say about inequality, of course — but it’s expressed in terms of concepts like ‘privilege’ and ‘voice’, instead of the solid language of wages and ownership. The proposal that everyone should be paid the same, though lunacy, is at least comprehensible — but what the heck does ‘check your privilege’ mean?

Inequalities of whatever kind can have economic causes and/or consequences, but unlike orthodox Marxism, the Woke Left is not underpinned by a unifying economic theory. While Marxist economics is a major school of economic thought, there’s no such thing as Wokenomics.

Or is there?


While, as I say, there’s no defining economic platform — we have seen ideas emerge from various corners of the contemporary Left that would re-order economic relationships across society.

One example is the proposal that reparations should be paid to the descendants of slaves. It’s the subject of an ongoing debate that’s especially current in the United States. Those opposed say that requiring some Americans to compensate other Americans for something that was abolished in the 19th century is deeply unjust — and, indeed, racist. Those in favour argue that the injustice of slavery is not “all in the past”, but can be seen in racialised patterns of advantage and disadvantage that persist to the present day.

And yet it’s hard to think of anything in the modern world that hasn’t been influenced by some past injustice. The principle of reparations, if seriously and consistently implemented, would certainly reorder economic relationships in a pretty fundamental, if immensely complicated, way.

There’s another branch of Wokenomics that is also about compensating people — only not for some historical legacy, but for unpaid labour carried out in the present.

For instance, there’s the idea that mothers should be paid for the work of mothering. It’s a case made in the New York Times by Kim Brooks:

“…if garbage collectors and grocery store workers and hedge fund managers expect to be paid for their labor, why not those who create and sustain the human race? Why can’t we imagine some form of universal basic caretakers income to support the work mothers (or fathers or other extended kin) do at home?”

To be clear, Brooks is not merely asking for a more generous social security system — she’s demanding to be paid as a worker:

“This work, despite bringing joy and meaning to my life, shared many of the qualities of the menial jobs I’d done before… But there was one important difference: The work I’ve done as a mother I’ve done for free.”

Brooks is far from alone in seeing the world in this way. For instance, she mentions the Wages for Housework movement that dates back to the early 1970s. Then there’s the splash made by Sophie Lewis’s 2019 book, Full Surrogacy Now — which advocates a radically different view of family relationships. If I understand her correctly, all pregnancy in the capitalist system is ‘womb-work’ (though, for the most part, unpaid).

The issue here is that if the activities undertaken by a paid surrogate, childminder or cleaner are defined as work, then why is what parents do for themselves considered to be something else?

An answer is provided by Oren Cass in a counterblast for American Compass:

“Suppose we grant the premise that child-rearing is work and that by definition work should be paid. The next question would be: paid by whom? Presumably, by the child’s parents. So if Ms. Brooks wishes to charge Ms. Brooks for Ms. Brooks’s work, she is welcome to do so. But she will find the credits and debits in her account cancel out.”

(Also, think of the paperwork — would one have to pay oneself for that too?)

I presume that Kim Brooks thinks that she should be paid by the state, not by herself — on the grounds that mothers “create and sustain the human race”, which indeed they do. But as Cass points out, the state, in taking responsibility for payment, would thereby take control. That, after all, is the thing about getting paid — your employer decides what you do and how you do it. They also get to own what you produce. Is this really an arrangement we want to apply to motherhood?

Even more than the reparations argument, what is being proposed here is a fundamentally different social and economic order. Firstly, there’s the expansion of the state into private life. Secondly, there’s the transformation of family relationships into transactional relationships. And thirdly, there’s the redefinition of voluntary action as work.

One has to ask, where will it end?

One of the tenets of the Woke Left is that “sex work is work” — and therefore must not be stigmatised or criminalised in any way, but rather regulated and unionised just like the older professions. But I wonder if they’re missing a trick. Why not also argue that “sex is sex work” — and, therefore, should be remunerated in all circumstances. If parents should be paid for looking after their own children, and mothers for gestating them, then shouldn’t we apply the same logic to the start of production line?


OK, leaving aside the reductio ad absurdum, the fact remains that eroding the distinctions between public and private life, and between work and voluntary action, gets you into all sorts of nonsense.

In a celebrated essay for Buzzfeed last year, Anne Helen Petersen writes about the causes of “Millennial burnout”. She repeatedly uses the word “labour” (or rather “labor”) to describe the never-ending demands made on young people trying to survive in a hyper-competitive economy. She makes a lot of powerful points — for instance, having to respond to out-of-hours work emails is indeed labour, not to mention an intrusion into home life. But she also uses the word inappropriately, for instance referring to self-promotion on Instagram as “the labor of performing the self for public consumption.”

Except it very clearly isn’t labour, it’s posting on social media — and you don’t have to do it. I don’t think Petersen is demanding ‘wages for selfies’ or anything like that, but she does go on to ask what can be done “until or in lieu of a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system.” Deleting your apps would be a good start.

The concept of ‘emotional labour’ is another example of seeing everything as work. It was originally used to describe the undervalued emotional content of what a lot of employees (often in female-dominated occupations) do in the workplace — for instance the compassion of a nurse or the friendliness of a receptionist. However, it’s been extended to describe what happens in private life too — not only in caring for children and elderly relatives, but also things like consoling a friend or mediating between feuding flatmates.

Caring for others is not cost-free. Nor is the burden always equally shared — and certainly not between men and women. But there is something deeply dehumanising about applying the language of work to something that should be freely given. Moreover, if it is coerced then that should be treated as the domestic abuse that it is, not a breakdown in industrial relations.


What a volunteer does for a good cause is, by definition, freely given. But even here we see confusions between voluntary action and the world of work. For instance, well-meant schemes to provide incentives for volunteering — such as discount cards — introduce an element of payment. Other line-blurring elements include the dangled possibility of a paid job with the organisation one volunteers for — or merely the opportunity to embellish a CV. There’s not much difference between that and the exploitative practice of unpaid internships.

It may sound corny and clichéd, but the idea of virtue being its own reward is a life-enhancing one. The things in life that don’t get dragged into the transactional sphere of economics are literally and figuratively priceless.

But Wokenomics takes the opposite view, which is that if we do value something then we must value it economically.

In a recent article (also in the New York Times) the Australian economist Justin Wolfers argues that GDP figures should record “the immense value of the sacrifices being made by millions of people who have stayed at home to stop the spread of the coronavirus”. He says that the GDP figures include the “defense services” produced by soldiers going off to fight wars, so why not also put a direct value on the contribution made by those staying at home to fight Covid-19? Why do we include soldiers’ pay in GDP, but not the support payments made to those who can’t work because of the lockdown?

The answer is straightforward: soldiers are doing a job; people staying at home are not (indeed they are supported by the state precisely because they can’t work). They are, of course, doing the right thing — by not engaging in risky behaviours that would cause themselves and others harm. But if we were to consider that as part of economic production, then why not also include what people ‘do’ by not speeding on the roads, not getting addicted to crack cocaine or not eating junk food all day? There’d be no end to it.


This is the trouble with Wokenomics — it turns absolutely everything into a series of politicised, administrative value judgements. As such it goes even further in its ambitions than Marxist economics. Arbitrarily putting a price on a tonne of wheat or a tractor factory is economic insanity, but doing the same for motherhood, friendship, volunteering or personal responsibility is moral madness.

That people take care of their families, respect the law, show consideration for others — and do so without incentive or recognition — is what makes a society great. We should very much value it, but not within any kind of economic paradigm.

To resort to another clichéd but true sentiment, the best things in life really are free.