Ayn Rand’s Anthem and the Politics of Compulsory Work

By Published On: 15 August 20235 min read
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Buse Kaplan

Marketing Manager at the Objectivist Network

In the dystopian world of Anthem, the government assigns each citizen a job at the end of their mandatory education period which they have no chance to switch or quit. We see the main character of the book secretly working in a different field than is assigned to him and presenting the results of his work to the Council, knowing that it will be expropriated. In other words, he still works for the collective good (until he is rejected, at least) even if he defies the authority of the state. Being able to change careers is clearly a must-have for an Objectivist, as it is one of the most salient manifestations of freedom of choice. But how would Objectivism view an individual who chooses not to work at all? To what extent could this right-wing philosophical system that highly values self-sufficiency and productivity consort with the idea of voluntary unemployment?

The Soviet Constitution of 1918 stated that work is the duty of all citizens of the Republic, and rejecting work was punishable by law since they were refusing to contribute to the common good. In a system where the individual exists solely for the benefit of the community and all the goods and services are distributed from the center, it only makes sense to punish the “free riders” to avoid market inefficiency. However, while being unemployed was both easier to detect and punish, slacking off at work was a much easier option for people who did not want to work in their assigned job (or at all). As a result, in regions where the iron fist of the totalitarian regime did not reach as much, people created a culture of slacking off. This phenomenon is especially noticeable in various artworks such as photographs and movies in Eastern Europe during that time.

Štreit, J. (1985). Working Women of Arnoltice [Photograph]. Retrieved: 31.05.2023.

Jiří Menzel’s 1969 film Larks on a String (which was banned by the Czech government and released after the collapse of the Communist regime) takes place in a labor camp for the re-education of the bourgeoisie. The film is a light-hearted comedy that touches on heavier issues, but never for too long. It depicts how, even under a nightmarish labor camp full of guards, people still find a way to do mundane daily activities such as playing games, having philosophical conversations, having fun and falling in love. Contrary to what USSR law stated, these characters (a lawyer, a professor, an artist and a milkman) were not (informally) refusing to work because they were lazy “parasites”, they were simply forced into a job that neither fit into their qualifications nor brought any benefits. As can be seen on the photograph above by Jindřich Štreit, the combination of coercion and the fact that these people were able to free-ride as long as they seemed to work regardless of actual output has created an environment where people spent their long working hours having fun and socializing instead. Although it was economically a total disaster, I see it as a wonder from a humanitarian perspective, a living proof of how humans manage to create and hold on to their own pockets of freedom and individuality even under the most oppressive regimes. It is a quiet but honourable act of rebellion against one of the world’s strongest totalitarian collectivist governments.

From an Objectivist point of view, there is nothing necessarily wrong with refusing to work. Why should anyone be forced to contribute to the society, to produce an output as if they were a machine? It is of course unethical for a person capable of working to refuse to work and still demand to get paid by a social welfare system, but what if that person has a partner willing to take care of them? What if they have the money or some other means to sustain themselves for a long time? It is hard to determine how ethical an act is under theexample of USSR, since the individual is forced to benefit from the labor of the others to sustain their own life either way. The Objectivist principle of “sacrificing no one, and not being sacrificed for anyone in return” is inevitably violated, self-sufficiency is impossible so why should one needlessly endure inhumane working conditions and working hours if it harms the individual while granting them nothing in return? It is much more rational to avoid working (if possible at a mass rate) in hopes of harming the economy enough that it inevitably incites some form of change while still staying safe and undetected as an individual.

This refusal of work is also compatible with Rand’s notion of productivity. Productivity stems from a desire to achieve, but there is nothing to be achieved by doing compulsory work under USSR other than living another day. Under these conditions, working actively undermines productivity by wasting the individual’s time and energy inefficiently. Picasso does not only spend his time sweeping the streets when he is assigned to compulsory manual labor, more importantly he spends his time not painting. This opportunity cost of individual productivity is often much higher than what one can produce under their assigned jobs. It could be equal in rare cases that one is assigned to an optimal position, but it never increases total productivity. Also keeping the impossibility of one central authority knowing what’s best for all its people in mind, compulsory work is a disaster for productivity even if it increases employment rate.

As illustrated, being forced to work and having a job assigned to one by a central authority is both unethical and unproductive. One has the right to choose what job they do, or if they work at all. Although compulsory work is built on this widespread collectivist misconception, the individual has no responsibility to contribute to the society or its economy at all. Productivity not only comes from work in the traditional sense. In contrast, compulsory work almost always harms the productive capabilities of the individual. Therefore, from an Objectivist perspective, refusal of compulsory work or undermining it by being purposefully unproductive is an ethical stance.

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