North Korea is in the news again, this time for opening a special village called “Samjiyon,” which the state-run media dubs a socialist utopia. Allegedly built by volunteers, it masquerades as “the utopia town under socialism.”
This piece of news serves as a useful reminder that volunteer work under socialism is very close to forced work even if it does not involve guns. I have no doubt, however, that in North Korea it is actually forced labor with guns. This is how work and volunteering often work under socialism. You live to work for the state.
The Soviets even tried to abolish the weekend — or, more precisely, the week itself — to compel people to work more. They experimented with a five-day week with rotating days off, and that often meant family members’ days off would fall on different dates. While this disturbed family time, some speculate it was seen as a bonus from the Soviet government’s standpoint. The less time people spend together, the more difficult it is to form groups, complain about living conditions, or brew dissent.
When the Soviets reverted back to the seven-day week, Saturday was either a workday or an official “volunteer” day (subotnik) where you would do an extra shift at work or public works. Real volunteering is rewarding, and I encourage everyone to do it. But volunteering under socialism means those who do not show up on Saturday are labeled “counter-revolutionaries.”
You see, under socialism the government owns the means of production (think factories, machinery), but in reality, it also owns the people who operate that machinery. The government wants more output? It puts the students on trucks, takes them to the fields, and forces them to do farm work (that happened regularly in Soviet times; it has been revived in Venezuela). Because it is the government doing it, to whom will you complain? Under capitalism, if the employer forces you to work without pay, you can file a complaint and possibly get fired. Under socialism, you can face the firing squad.
If you think socialist state-sanctioned forced labor is something from the 1930s, think again. Even now, the governments of socialist countries like North Korea engage in renting out their people for work in foreign countries and take their pay. Why don’t these workers just escape considering they are in a foreign country? Their families are held hostage in North Korea. Cuba, another “but it’s really not socialism” country, has done something similar by sending its doctors to Latin America.
Now back to the new North Korean town dubbed a “socialist utopia.” What makes it a utopia? Electricity? Sanitation facilities? Or a much-lauded swimming pool? If that seems utopian to North Koreans, it just shows how hopelessly backward socialist economies are when it comes to living conditions.
Company towns are nothing new or extraordinary. Olivetti, the maker of typewriters, tried (and failed) to build a utopia, but at least he did it with his own money and not forced labor. The US at one point had around 2,500 company towns. If a new company town with electricity and running water is something that takes 10 years to build with unlimited forced labor, and this is something North Korea is actually proud of, isn’t this the most obvious illustration that socialism doesn’t work?
Well, not only does socialism does not work, but it also does not work at a terrible cost to regular people. Sure, even in free-market economies some jobs are terrible, some pay low wages, and some of the jobs are not what we imagine. But at least you can walk out and try to change jobs, often a better one. If the employer is an awful person, you can quit; if he breaks the law, you can sue. For better or worse, the law is usually on the side of the worker. Worse comes to worst, you can leave the country and try your luck elsewhere.
Under socialism, the employer and the government are pretty much the same. No quitting, no leaving, no choice. In capitalism, employers buy your work hours. In socialism, government nationalizes your life.
Zilvinas Silenas is the president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). He served from 2011-2019 as the president of the Lithuanian Free Market Institute (LFMI), bringing the organization and its free-market policy reform message to the forefront of Lithuanian public discourse.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.