(This essay is the ninth part of the series ‘How Jobs Destroyed Work’)
There is this commonly-held belief that there are people who ‘don’t want to work’. I find it hard to believe that any such person really exists: that there could be anyone who would wish to avoid productive activity that is meaningful, enhances one’s talents and improves quality of life. But, of course, when people say of others that ‘they don’t want to work’, what they always mean is that some people would rather not submit to paid employment unless forced to. If employers strive to reduce or eliminate the very qualities work needs to become a calling, though, is it any wonder if people turn their noses up at such labour? Who would willingly submit to a job that has had engagement designed out of it and is performed primarily for the enrichment of strangers?
At this point, it may be worth uncovering an important way in which ‘human nature’ differs from ‘nature’. Nature is in no way influenced by our theories regarding its workings. For example, it does not matter how many people believe nuclear fusion powers the Sun, nor how fervently this belief is held. Nature either does power stars using fusion, or it does not. What we believe has got nothing to do with it.
But human nature can be influenced by our theories of human nature. How? If we believe certain things about people, and society is designed in such a way as to amplify those traits, people may well be influenced to turn out that way. If we then take how people happened to turn out in the society we created as proof that our theories of human nature are correct, that may further persuade us to build societies around such beliefs. We have created a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Take the belief that people don’t want to work and that only wages motivate us. As we saw in part one, Adam Smith believed this was the case. Now, suppose that this Smith chap is influential enough to have his beliefs adopted by others. Business owners, fearing the disastrous consequences of laziness and inattention, set about designing systems to manage people based on such beliefs. Industrialists, believing workers are only motivated by pay, construct assembly lines that reduce work into essentially meaningless units.
What is happening, then, is that workplaces are being designed to focus on efficiency only, counting on the pay to compensate. If we put people into environments such as these, it would hardly be surprising if they acted in stereotypical ways predicted by their superiors’ theories of human nature: Finding no meaning in the labour they are performing and having no reason to do such a job apart from needing the wages. And now that feedback loop of self-fulfilling prophecy really kicks in. Discretion, autonomy, and creativity have been designed out of work, making it hard to find meaning and engagement in what one is doing. Therefore, people feel less satisfaction and chances are that if they feel a lack of satisfaction they will not perform very well unless pressured to. As they work less well absent coercion from superiors, this reinforces the belief about human nature, and so the system is reconfigured to impose even tighter controls and take away even more autonomy. As Barry Schwartz wrote in ‘Why We Work’:
“The concept of ideology, and the self-fulfilling feedback loops that ideology can give rise to, helps explain, I think, why it is that most workplaces have come to be dominated by excessive reliance on close supervision, routinized work, and [monetary] incentives”.
If there is more than one reason to tempt those with power to design workplaces along certain lines, that obviously increases the likelihood of such practices being adopted. In the case of reducing or eliminating the qualities of work that make it a calling, the advantage (to owners, at least) is that workers need less training, less skill, and are therefore more expendable. That enables owners to squeeze more value out of labour, as the reduced bargaining power that results means the working classes are more likely to ‘agree’ to longer hours and fewer benefits, knowing full-well how much easier it is for their superiors to replace them and throw them on the scrapheap of unemployment. During the rise of the lean-and-mean model, a time when lack of commitment to employees was regarded as something business should boast about and aspire to, and when the benefits of prosperity were largely monopolised by those at the executive level and professional investors, workers at lower scales of the hierarchy increasingly adopted similar attitudes to those of their superiors, as self-protection, cynicism, and preoccupation with short-term material rewards proliferated. As Frazer put it:
“A new breed of careerists began to multiply, a group that felt as little attachment to their jobs or employers as the era’s day-trading investors had for the stocks and shares they bought and sold at a rapid-fire rate”.
Why wouldn’t they feel that way? After all, the workplace had commodified their labour power to the extent that hiring and firing was proceeding at a similarly frenetic pace, and not for their benefit but rather to increase the paper-profits of executives who were not beholden to the same merciless standards. People, looking around for missing meaning, received plenty of advice on where it might be found: Through the consumption of material wealth. Advertisements and other forms of propaganda were insistent that satisfaction and happiness could be bought on credit.
But there is more to this sorry tale than just individuals seeking meaning by maxing out their credit cards. We are encouraged to believe that if individuals get deeply into debt it is all down to their own reckless behaviour. But the fact is we are all in debt regardless of how prudent we may have been. This is because we are now in a situation in which entire countries are mired in debt and when their governments bail out banks that are too big to fail by engaging in massive deficit spending, what this amounts to is the stealing of future generations’ prosperity. Also, according to David Graeber, when it comes to personal debt:
“Very little of this debt was accrued by those determined to find money to bet on the horses or toss away on friperies. Insofar as it was borrowed for what economists like to call discretionary spending, it was mainly…to be able to build and maintain relations with other human beings based on something other than sheer material calculation…most ordinary Americans- including Black and Latino Americans, recent immigrants, and others who were formerly excluded from credit- have responded with a stubborn insistence on continuing to love one another. They continue to acquire houses for their families…insist on continuing to hold weddings and funerals, regardless of whether this is likely to send them skirting default or bankruptcy…Granted, the role of discretionary spending itself should not be exaggerated. The chief cause of bankruptcy in America is catastrophic illness; most borrowing is simply a matter of survival (if one does not have a car, one cannot work); and for most, simply being able to go to college now means debt peonage for at least half of one’s subsequent working life”.
Graber summarised the plight of the blue and white collar worker:
“One must go into debt to achieve a life that goes in any way beyond sheer survival”.
When he says ‘one must’ he is not referring to any law of nature but rather a consequence of how we have allowed our economy to develop. The role money plays in destroying work will be our next topic.

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2 Responses to HUMAN NATURE (?)

  1. Daniel Ullfig says:

    I don’t entirely agree. You said that industrialists created assembly lines, because they are focused on efficiency only. But what is the purpose of a factory, if not to provide a product at the best possible price to the largest number of consumers? Take Henry Ford. Should he have focused on making a few thousand workers happy, or should he have focused on making millions of people happy that could now afford to buy a car? Factories are not job programs.

    • Hi Daniel. As I said in an earlier essay in this series, the purpose of a factory or office or store or anything that is a business is to enrich its owners. That is its primary purpose and other supposed purposes like providing jobs and providing goods and services are secondary: Businesses provide jobs and goods/services because that is what they have to do in order to achieve their real purpose, which is making profit for the owners. If they could find a way of making profit without providing anyone with jobs and/ or without providing goods and services for people, they would do so. In later installments of this essay I shall talk about modern and future businesses that do make money selling nothing in the real economy of goods and services, and which provide no jobs for anybody.

      Anyway, to your point, the argument is not that factories are not providing jobs- they are (for now). My argument is that they are not actually providing work. In a previous installment of this essay, I said that work should not be defined as ‘productive activity you are paid to do’ which is what most people think work is. I said work is ‘productive activity that is meaningful to the person actually doing it, and rewarding enough to fully compensate for the time spent doing that productive activity’. If you ‘don’t want to work’ but are forced to because of economic coercion (‘it’s a shit job but I need the money…’) you are not working. You are submitting to wage slavery.

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