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Labour vouchers (also known as labour cheques, labour certificates, and personal credit) are a device proposed to govern demand for goods in some models of socialism, much as money does under capitalism.
Unlike money, vouchers cannot circulate and are not transferable between people. They are also not exchangeable for any means of production hence they are not transmutable into Capital. Once a purchase is made the labour vouchers are either destroyed or must be re-earned through labour. Therefore, with such a system in place, monetary theft would become impossible.
Such a system is proposed by many as a replacement for traditional money while retaining a system of remuneration for work done. It is also a way of ensuring that there is no way to 'make money out of money' as in a capitalist market economy.
Additionally, the only kind of market that could exist in an economy operating through the use of labour vouchers would be an artificial market (arket) for mostly non-productive goods and services; as with the dissolution of money, capital markets could no longer exist and labour markets would also likely cease to exist with the abolition of wage labor which would by necessity occur with the adoption of vouchers.
Author and activist Michael Albert and economist Robin Hahnel have proposed a similar system of remuneration in their economic system of participatory economics (parecon). A difference is that in parecon "credits" are generally awarded based on both the time spent working and the amount of effort and sacrifice spent during labour, rather than simple contribution. Some later advocates of participism and parecon have also proposed awarding more based on job difficulty or danger. Also, in contrast to the physical note or cheque format used for labour vouchers in the past, parecon credits are proposed as being entirely digital in keeping with advances with technology and are stored in electronic accounts and usable through cards similar to current day debit cards.
Labour vouchers were first proposed in the 1820s by Josiah Warren and Robert Owen. Two early attempts at implementing labour vouchers (called labour notes at the time by their proponents) were made by both following their experiences attempting to establish a utopian community at New Harmony, Indiana, in which currency was prohibited.
In 1827, Josiah Warren established the Cincinnati Time Store where goods could be purchased with labor vouchers representing an agreement to perform labor. He folded the store in 1830 in order to devote his effort to establishing communities that implemented his principles of labor-based prices.
Beginning in 1832, Robert Owen and his followers attempted to implement labor notes in London and Glasgow by establishing marketplaces and banks that accepted them.
The followers of Robert Owen stood for a society of co-operative communities. Each community would own its own means of production and each member of a community would work to produce what had been agreed was needed and in return would be issued with a labour voucher certifying for how many hours he or she had worked; a person could then use this labour voucher to obtain from the community's stock of consumer goods any product or products which had taken the same number of hours to produce.
Owen believed that this co-operative commonwealth could begin to be introduced under capitalism and in the first half of the 1830s some of his followers established "labour bazaars" on a similar principle: workers brought the products of their labour to the bazaar and received in exchange a labour voucher which entitled them to take from the bazaar any item or items which had taken the same time to produce, after taking into account the costs of the raw materials. These bazaars were ultimately failures but the idea of labour vouchers appeared in substantially similar forms in France in the writings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.
Although he disagreed with the manner in which they were implemented by Owen, they were later advocated by Karl Marx in 1875 as a way of dealing with any immediate and temporary shortages upon the establishment of socialism. Marx explained that this would be necessary since socialism emerges from capitalism and would be "stamped with its birthmarks". In Marx's proposal, early socialist society would reward its citizens according to the amount of labour they contribute to society.
" . . . the individual producer receives back from society -- after the deductions have been made -- exactly what he gives to it. What he has given to it is his individual quantum of labor. For example, the social working day consists of the sum of the individual hours of work; the individual labor time of the individual producer is the part of the social working day contributed by him, his share in it. He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such-and-such an amount of labor (after deducting his labor for the common funds); and with this certificate, he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labor cost. The same amount of labor which he has given to society in one form, he receives back in another." --Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875
Marx was adamant in saying that labour vouchers were not a form of money as they cannot circulate - a problem he pointed out with Owen's system of labour-time notes.
During the Great Depression, European communities implemented local currencies with varying success. More modern implementations as time-based currencies were implemented in the United States starting in the 1970s.
Systems that advocate labour vouchers
The following political and economic systems propose the adoption of labour vouchers (in some form or another) either permanently or as a temporary means of remuneration during a transitional stage between a monetary economy and a completely moneyless economy based on free association.
Inclusive Democracy is unique in proposing two kinds of vouchers. Basic vouchers (BVs) issued to each citizen according to need; are used for essential goods and services such as health care. And non-basic vouchers (NBVs) awarded to each worker for labor contributed are used to pay for non-essential commercial goods and services.
Capitalists, whether statist, minarchist or anarcho-capitalist generally oppose labour vouchers as they are not money and thus claim an economy using them could not set prices according to marginal utility and would theoretically have to rely on the labour theory of value which adherents of the subjective theory of value generally see as inflexible and restricting economic freedom of choice for the consumer. Although some proposed systems which advocate labour vouchers (namely participism) reject the labour theory of value.
The system has also been criticized by many libertarian socialists, particularly anarcho-communists; who propose abolishing all remuneration and prices and advocate instead a gift economy with value determined by calculation in kind. Peter Kropotkin, in criticizing anarcho-collectivism's retaining of labour vouchers/cheques said,
"for after having proclaimed the abolition of private property, and the possession in common of all means of production, how can they uphold the wages system in any form? It is, nevertheless, what collectivists are doing when they recommend labour-cheques."
The World Socialist Movement has argued against using labour vouchers either as a permanent or a temporary system while transitioning to their desired libertarian communist economy based on free access. They claim that seeing as most of the occupations that currently exist under capitalism will no longer exist, scarcity would no longer be an issue. They also state that,
Labour vouchers would tend to maintain the idea that our human worth is determined by how much or how many goods we can own (or produce). Labour vouchers imply that someone must police who takes the goods produced by society. In other words there must be people who spend their time ensuring that other people do not take things without paying for them. That is normal in a profit oriented society, but a waste of human labour in socialism.
- Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, Part I.
- Takis Fotopoulos, “Beyond the Market Economy and Statist Planning: Towards Democratic Planning as part of a Confederal Inclusive Democracy,” The International Journal of Inclusive Democracy, Vol. 6, No. 2/3 (Spring/Summer 2010).
- Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread (G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York and London, 1906), Chapter XIII - The Collectivist Wages System.
- "Labour Vouchers," World Socialist Movement. (Explanation and critique of labour vouchers by the World Socialist Movement). Retrieved 10 April 2013.
- "The Marxist Market Economy," De Leonist Society of Canada. From the Discussion Bulletin #107 (May-Jun 2001), pages 21-22.