Over time, our increasingly marketing-saturated life spaces make us dumber, lazier, fatter, more selfish, less skillful, more adolescent, less politically potent, more wasteful, and less happy than we could and should be.
–Michael Dawson, The Consumer Trap (University of Illinois Press), 2005, p. 2.
WORK; What is it?
After watching “Hold Me Down”, one reaction was (along the following lines):
Well, some people don’t want to work….
Which is to say, I take it that
(Some) poor people – those who don’t want to work – get what they deserve.
For short, poor people get what they deserve.
Now, it is a profound truth in our society that no one gets what they deserve. Most of us are all, in varying degrees, mis-measured. Our capacities are not encouraged and society misses out on our real potential. And those who are most fortunate achieve less than they might if they lived in a more just society.
Or, so I would argue. One problem is that we have no adequate way to measure anyone’s contribution.
The myth which we are all taught says that if you work hard, you will get a reward.
It is my considered opinion that this piece of common sense (or is it propaganda?) simply is not true.
In the first place, there are those whose reward far exceeds their contribution. To paraphrase the American Sociologist Michael Dawson, there is the case of those who work for marketing agencies or public relations firms and promote dictatorships, or help companies pollute by green-washing, or who promote the sale of nuclear and other weapons, or who promote technologies used to spy upon citizens, or who encourage us to eat junk food (and the list could be extended)–All of those professions are well-paid, but what they contribute is not social well-being, but bad-being or ill-being, or disease, mental illness, and other harmful effects, including species extinction and climate destruction. (Greta Thunberg is right.)
So, what we call work is not often something deserving of respect, not praise-worthy, not positive or helpful, not admirable–even if it is well-paid. And, a person who does not want to participate in that harmful business (socially harmful) deserves praise, not condemnation.
Well you may say, even if all that is true, that’s not why poor people escape work. People don’t want to work because they are lazy!
Well, what is work? What is the thing from which (according to the objection) poor people wish to escape from?
The distinguished Political Philosopher Elizabeth Anderson recently described the sort of thing work is, of the sort of thing the contemporary workplace is. (1)
According to Anderson, the contemporary workplace is run by a “private government”, and (as she puts it) that form of government is a “communist dictatorship”. By “communist” she means that it is unelected, and cannot be changed. Moreover, workers in the average workplace have no freedom to express their opinions, choose their working conditions, are carefully monitored (spied upon) by their managers and supervisors.
The typical or ordinary workplace is not a place which encourages creativity, and it especially involves the regimentation—restriction, censorship—of emotions. This emotional phenomena was first discussed by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild many years ago, and has been further documented since then. (2)
Someone who wishes to escape from that sort of workplace is showing sanity, not illness.
Are there alternatives? The economist Richard D. Wolff has been arguing for employer-owned and employer-managed workplaces. That is one alternative. A real world existing example is the Mondragon Corporation in Spain. (It is easy to get information about Wolff or Mondragon on line.)
The political activist Michael Alpert (sometimes working with the economist Robin Hahnel) has also been advocating a new sort of workplace under the label “Participatory Economics.” He, also, can be easily found online.
Lastly, someone with knowledge of Economics might suppose there are scientific reasons to suppose the contemporary capitalist workplace rewards workers according to their contribution. This is not true. Standard economics is not able to prove that. Useful sources here include Yanis Varoufakis’s Foundations of Economics; A Beginner’s Companion, especially Chapter 7, pp. 181-184., or Steven Keen’s Debunking Economics. You will also find discussion of the ‘Cambridge Capital Controversy’ at the economist Matias Vernengo’s blog, “Naked Keynesianism”. The general topic is also discussed at the financial blog “Naked Capitalism”.
Now, I can well imagine that someone might say:
OK, so the contemporary capitalist workplace is unfair, undemocratic, and it doesn’t fairly reward our work. It is bad for our minds and bodies. It is also harmful for society. But we have got to go there. “WE” or most of us do have to go there, and we have no choice! But poor people escape. We pay, and they don’t! –And that’s not fair! (3)
I take it that the film “Hold Me Down” shows that the world they escape to is not one you would choose. How free poor people are, and to what extent their choices are constrained is, I think, most helpfully discussed by considering the evidence presented in Erik Olin Wright and Joel Rogers, American Society; How it Really Works—especially Chapters 13 and 14.
- Originally presented as a lecture “Liberty, Equality, and Private Government”, The Tanner Lectures, available at https://tannerlectures.utah.edu/Anderson%20manuscript.pdf . Lecture Two is titled “Private Government”, with the subtitle “Communist Dictatorships in our Midst”. In other words, she is making the deliberately provocative remark that Capitalist Firms are run like Communist Dictatorships.
2. see, e.g., Talbot Brewer, “Emotional Alienation” and the references therein, in Carla Bagnoli, ed.,
Morality and the Emotions, Oxford University Press 2011.
3. A sub-text (or unconscious thought?) here might be: “They deserve to suffer. They deserve to be miserable. They deserve to be punished for not working.” I cannot agree. Moreover, I would actually be prepared to argue, following Socrates, that retribution makes no sense. In other words, no one “deserves” to suffer. Any pain inflicted upon a person does not connect in a sensible way, or correspond to the alleged or imagined wrong a person does. Punishment only increases the amount of cruelty in the world. It cannot eliminate bad choices. We can minimize bad choices with social progress—social reform, changing the way in which our society works. But, to do that we must first describe how the system actually works—exactly what Wright and Rogers are doing.