Communism and Computer Ethics

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Work Ethic and Motivation


Communism is often criticized for its inability to create a sustainable economic system where people have incentive to perform efficiently and act ethically in their work. The abolishment of private property is often cited as a major cause for laziness and corruption. In non-communist societies, private property is often a “necessary motivation to work”, Giannis Starnatellos argues in his overview of computer ethics.   Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, the fathers of Communism, disagree and find that property actually stifles motivation to work in existing non-communist systems. In the Communist Manifesto, they argue:  

It has been objected that upon the abolition of private property, all work will cease, and universal laziness will overtake us. According to this, bourgeois society ought long ago to have gone to the dogs through sheer idleness; for those who acquire anything, do not work. The whole of this objection is but another expression of the tautology: There can no longer be any wage labour when there is no longer any capital.

Their argument makes the subtle assLiu Shaoqiumption that all resources in the world are evidently finite. Within non-communist societies, people compete ruthlessly to obtain the largest amount of resources and property for the end goal of wealth. Because property is scarce, once all capital is privatized, the incentive to work will be non-existent because all resources will be exhausted. Since all non-communist systems will eventually succeed to this condition, the only solution, Marx and Engels argue, is to ensure no privatization of property is allowed.  

The introduction of computers and the computer industry into communism complicates finiteness of capital. Unlike the traditional sense of physical property such as land or factories, computers produce a new bountiful medium of ownership. Computers provide a means and way to create seemingly endless capital since the barriers of documenting ideas are significantly lifted through the use of applications and networking. The limited capital within the world, as described in the Communist Manifesto, has expanded to apparent infinity with the introduction of computing. Hence, the study of how computers have affected work motivation and ethics in Communism is needed.

The Ideal Communist Worker

Within a communist society, people are expected to act in the interest of the Communist Party and the majority of society. Specifically, the individual is expected to work and act to promote the betterment of the community. Chairman Mao Zedong elaborates, “At no time and in no circumstances should a Communist place his personal interests first; he should subordinate to the interests of the nation and the masses. Hence selfishness, slacking, corruption, seeking the limelight are most contemptible, while ... working with all one’s energy, whole hearted devotion to public duty, and quiet hard work will command respect.” Hence, communists are expected to work diligently and thoughtfully in order to ensure he or she provides the most benefit to society. As a result, any worker in the computer field is expected to manufacture computer products without the wish for acknowledgment or excessive monetary reward.

Most importantly, communists are expected to surrender their own personal interests when they are in conflict with those of the Communist Party. The most fundamental philosophy of work in communism is expressed in a quote from the 2nd Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, Liu Shaoqi. He writes, “[The ideal communist] is the first to worry and the last to enjoy himself.” Communists, in this regard, must become selfless in providing for society. When one’s individual interests contradict those of the public, the individual is expected to yield. Most importantly, this means that individuals can not refuse a work assignment due to personal reasons. However, this does not mean that the Party is blind to one’s abilities or strengths. Shaoqi continues, “Naturally, in assigning work to members, the Party organization and the responsible Party comrade should, as far as possible, take their individual inclination and aptitude into consideration, develop their strong points and stimulate their zeal to go forward.” Hence, work ethic and motivation, regardless of profession, comes from one’s duty to better benefit the communal community without question or hesitation.

Worker Practicies in Communist Societies

Historically, Communism has been found to not foster good work ethics. Michael Lindsay explains, “The actual Communist choice is almost certainly that “Socialism” defined in Communist terms, is a more important objective that productivity or raising the standard of living.” Hence, in all transitional societies working toward Communism, work ethic and motivation appear to be extremely lacking even though everyone is assigned some task or job. For example, in a study conducted in the former USSR, over 50% of the work force admitted to drinking alcohol while on the job. Furthermore, unbeknownst to the communist party, nearly 40% chose to work a second job privately to attain more wealth (Pereira) .

A reason for failure in work ethics and motivation is the necessity that all communists must be employed. Overmanning positions trivializes the work needed to be performed and placed the concentration on quantity rather than quality. “This fact,” according to David Lane, “gives rise to economic pressures that keep wage low and demand for labour high, which leads to widespread overstaffing and slack work standards.” Instead of each person contributing, each additional excessive worker lowers the overall quality of the product. Many communist societies force upon jobs out of theoretical necessity without providing a way of sustaining interest or providing training. Therefore, Communism in practice appears to counteract the goal of making society better through communal collaboration.

Corruption and laziness also affected the computer industry in communist societies. Instead of using computers to produce more efficient and ethical businesses, workers often used software to cause delays or discrepancies to gain personal profit. For example, an accounting computer program was implemented to help import journals and books. The software was lauded for its apparent efficiency and easy of use. However, underneath the façade, the software was programmed to pay the foreign supplier instantly but charge the domestic consumer as late as possible. This helped capitalize on the high inflation rate within the communist society and charge higher prices domestically while paying for cheap inventory (Kalpic 1) . Hence, software was used to cheat the society in general because there was incentive to make more money. There have been multiple cases of unethical business practices in the same vein.

In some instances, the reinstatement of some private property was needed to provide incentive for workers to produce useful programs and inventions. In one analysis by Tao-Tai Hsia and Kathryn Haun, they found that the Soviet Union had “to offer the inventor the choice between a patent, which conferred the right to exclude others from the use of the invention, and a certificate of authorship, which vested ownership of the invention in the state, but entitle the inventor to various privileges and to remuneration based upon the economic benefits realized by the state through use of the invention.” However, the very introduction of acknowledgement and reward contradicts the belief the notion of the unselfish worker. Instead of working for the betterment of the society, the introduction of patents and certificates of ownership placed work motivation on personal interests, a direct conflict of communist theory. The computer industry, along with every other industry, faces problems of inefficiency, waste, and corruption under a Communist socioeconomic policy. Communal Communities in Computing

Although Communism in practice appears to fail in promoting work ethics and motivation, some segments of the computer industry have successfully created communal communities that work together effectively. Furthermore, instead of working in expectation of economic gain, these computing communities exist simply to provide welfare to the public. The recent rise of wiki and meta websites has allowed multiple users to contribute and collaborate together without any economic incentive. Furthermore, open-source initiatives such as Linux or Firefox have allowed the conglomerate knowledge of the public design and produce programs free to the public for use. Robert Glass elaborates, “There is a faint whiff of communism about the concept of working for no financial gain . . . The sense of nobility that open source proponents feel, in working for no financial gain, resonated with some of the other basic communist philosophies.” The computer industry appears to be a haven for communities that hold reminiscent characteristics of Communism.

Despite the communal aspect of these computer communities, China has been cautious in welcoming them. Most recently, the Chinese Communist Party has blocked Wikipedia since August 31, 2007, “continuing a saga of on-again, off-again availability” (Schwankert). Although wiki and meta websites providelouging a means so that the public can contribute knowledge, the Chinese site continuously blocks sites of similar nature since they do not align or harmonize with the Party’s interest.

Communal computer communities have also been met with mixed reception outside China. For example, Jaron Lanier, a director and computer scientist, writes in his article, “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism” , about the dangerous by-products of computer collectivism. His main concern is that the inundation of collective knowledge may lend people to believe that this communal information is always correct and “all-knowing”. He writes, “In the last year or two the trend has been to remove the scent of people, so as to come as close as possible to simulating the appearance of content emerging out of the Web as if it were speaking to us as a supernatural oracle. This is where the user of the Internet crosses the line into delusion.” The continual erasure of identifiable individual thought and personality is seen to have dire consequences when manipulated with malicious intent.

However, it appears that Communism, especially Maoism, attempts to ameliorate the distinct loss of individual personality and credit in communal works. Within Shaoqi’s book regarding “How to Be a Good Communist”, he attempts to resolve the problem of losing individualism. Instead of the Communist Party trying to wipe out individuality, it must develop the people’s “inclinations and aptitudes in conformity with its interests, furnish them with suitable work and working conditions and commend and reward them.” Therefore, the communal community found within computer science is not faceless. The individual continues to take responsibility for his work and actions judged upon by the public. Yet, while society is still in socioeconomic transition, the Party’s interest takes precedence when the two “are at variance”.

Communism theoretically supports work ethics and motivation within the computer industry by stratifying personal, public, and Party interests. However, in practice, the computer industry within Communist societies suffers from laziness, greed, and unethical behavior. Although Communism does not appear to support work ethic and motivation, sectors of the computer industry do appear to mimic the communal communities valued within communism. Unfortunately, these sectors are sometimes blocked from developing Communist states in the interest of the Communist Party.