The Case for Human Labor: Hello, Yin? Yang Calling


What is the value of labor to a capitalist? Ideally, of course, it is zero, because to a capitalist, labor is a cost. This, at bottom, is the justification for opposition to a minimum wage. It is also the reason for slavery.

GoodtimesIt is the reason, too, that executives make – not “earn,” but “make” – hundreds of times the rates of pay of employees in large companies. Those employees are just costs, just a drag on the companies’ bottom lines, while the executives, who are rewarded not just with cash but with shares, are the beneficiaries of profit.

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If nothing about that arrangement strikes you as wrong or even lopsided, it may be because you worship capitalism, regarding the market as a god. A god, by definition, cannot be improved upon.

Some considerable number of people actually believe this sort of nonsense quite fervently, but here’s guessing that most people don’t.

Here’s just guessing that some people bridle at the thought that they’ve been given jobs. You want to “give” me a job? I don’t think so, says the mid-level, mid-career corporate employee, because I don’t feel I’ve been given a damned thing. Quite the contrary. I think I have something to sell, something quite valuable in my time, talent and skill, and I think if you want to buy all that, then you’ll have to pay.

You changed the name of your personnel department to “human resources.” I am not a resource, thank you, precisely because I am human. I can contribute to your organization if you contribute to my lifestyle standards, which, by the way, are not much different from yours. Pretty simple deal. By the way, if I’m black, I’m particularly sensitive to being called a resource.

While we’re at it, please don’t condescend to me by calling me an asset, either. A pallet loader is an asset. It’s a pile of beans you can count. I’m just someone you’re doing business with. Consider me a vendor.

You took on all the risk, did you? I don’t think that, either. You risked some of your money. What about those guys in the back shop who are risking their fingers every day? What about me? I’m risking the better years of my productive life and my reputation, all dependent on your behavior as well as my own. Maybe there should be some reward in that?

I know, I’m sounding all huffy and negative. I really don’t mean to be that way. It’s just that I think you’ve been to too many Chamber of Commerce breakfasts and banquets where you guys identify leaders by their bank accounts and congratulate each other on running the world; indeed, on creating the world as we know it. You know what I’m talking about: calling yourselves job creators while creating the fewest possible jobs at the lowest possible rates of remuneration – most of them in dangerous places overseas where you’re free to pollute and collude and so on.

It’s just that I think the relationship between business and everything else is a lot more complicated and a lot less one-sided than you’ve been told.

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It’s just that I think your corporation exists by the consent of society, and has some obligations to society, starting with its employees. I think you are responsible for jobs, which is a good thing, but that the school system, the government and the other institutions of our wider community make the world worth operating in. You just operate. It’s possible to encourage responsibility, and inculcate it in business thinking.

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I mean, business just isn’t all there is. It’s not even the most important thing. Business gets nowhere fast without technology, which, in turn, gets nowhere without science, which, in its turn, is a creature of philosophy.

How would you like to live in a world devoid of higher culture, by which I mean the fine arts? The kind of world where the best music is played on the kazoo, the finest literature is a technical manual, the best thing on stage is Miley Cyrus, and the best television stars a bunch of bearded buffoons who make duck calls.

You can argue that business provides for higher culture. It does. And that, in turn, provides for business, in that it makes a world in which business can flourish, and without which business will wither.

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OriginalSo it seems to me that if you start a business, or rise in management of the business world, you deserve to be compensated well. But not compensated greatly more than an English professor, a symphony violist or a fine journalist, and not hundreds of times more than the people in your organization who actually produce things.

In your world, though, you buy what you want, including all the politicians, and you take more and more, leaving less and less for everyone else. It’s true.

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So what to do about that? How about a reinvigorated labor movement? No one else, it seems, speaks for the real producers. No one else, certainly, is addressing the corrosive, tragically growing disparity of wealth and income in this country. Just labor and the ragged few groups that support labor, and labor is on the ropes.

I guess you wouldn’t agree with me. We’re probably headed for a fight, I’m afraid.

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