Motivation and Marx

On this (US) Labor Day weekend, I’m thinking about motivation, and the role it plays in creating great products that consumers love. It seems patently obvious that products created for love or passion are superior than those created for money or fear, yet the compensation model used in most of business hews much more closely to the latter.

I’m hardly the first to consider motivation and work; the means by which one’s work is valued is a critical part of Marxist theory.1 According to Marx, under capitalism, labor is priced according to the law of value, i.e. the price of labor on the market. This allows the owners of the means of production – factories, and whatnot – to profit off of the surplus value produced by labor.

Socialism, the next step past capitalism, values labor according to its use value; the laborer is paid based on what he produces. Because society owns the means of production, there is no need to profit. Marx predicted socialism, combined with increased technology and automation, would eventually produce a vast surplus that would allow goods to be distributed based on need, rather than merit.

The next stage in Marx’s theory enabled by this surplus is most commonly known as communism. Here, to quote Marx, “labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want.” In other words, you do work because you love the work, not because you have to work.

Sounds familiar.

I certainly don’t endorse a communist form of government – history speaks for itself – yet I don’t believe in dictatorships either. However, we have no trouble with the modern corporation being a de facto dictatorship, and we glorify the most dictatorial of CEOs; there are clearly efficiencies to be gained by dictatorships, particularly if the dictator is a visionary.

The difference in our standards, of course, is that the downside of a poor dictator in a corporation is capped at bankruptcy, so we don’t mind the risk; in a state the downside is far more terrible, and our tolerance for dictatorship commensurately lower.

And so, what about pay, or more precisely, what about motivation? What is the best way to ensure creativity and inspired design? A state depends on all types of labor, some less inspiring than others, so a communist society where one’s motivation is solely intrinsic is doomed to failure.

But is that the case with companies, particularly those producing consumer technology? There’s no question the means of production have become rapidly commoditized. Cloud providers like AWS let anyone build at Internet scale, and software is freely available through the open source movement. The same open source movement, in fact, that Bill Gates has famously decried as communism. While Gates meant it as an insult, he was absolutely spot-on: open-source is, if nothing else, people doing work simply for the love of the work.

The same motivation that produces something truly great.

Of course open source doesn’t have the strongest record in design, perhaps because it lacks the dictatorship of a single individual with the taste to create something amazing. The sort of dictatorship, in fact, that exists in the modern corporation, particularly ones that are functionally organized.

Maybe that is the winning formula: a tastemaker setting direction, and those inspired by nothing more than the love of their work doing what they do best.

Or maybe not. One’s mind does wander on a holiday.

  1. If you’re a political theorist, brace yourself; I’m going to simplify