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Dignified Work


Michael Albert

The

issue of Dignified Work has two primary components:

(1)

what is a just division of tasks for each person; and

(2)

what division of tasks do we need to adopt in order to have our work foster

self-management?

 

Just

Work

A

just division of tasks requires that each person should have a fair share of

good and bad quality of life attributes in their workday or, if they don’t, that

they be remunerated accordingly. That is, why should one person have nice work

conditions and another person horrible ones, unless the latter person is given

extra pay to offset this burden?

But

conveniently this element of Just Work is already accomplished in our unfolding

vision because remunerating according to effort and sacrifice, as per our

earlier commentaries, automatically offsets any disparity in quality of life

attributes. That is, if we remunerate according to effort and sacrifice,

whenever Betty works at a less fulfilling and more demanding job than Salim,

Betty will also exert more effort and sacrifice at work and will therefore get

higher pay. So we already have Just Work due to our prior agreements about Just

Rewards. But is that all there is to Dignified Work?

 

Equally

Empowering Work

We

also want our economic actors to influence outcomes in proportion as they are

affected by them, in accord with self management. Suppose Betty spends all day

cleaning floors and Salim spends all day doing empowering financial and social

tasks that increase his decision-making related skills and knowledge. Even if

Betty and Salim have the same workplace voting rights and even if they are

remunerated justly, after months of working at these differently empowering

jobs, Betty will have neither the energy, knowledge, confidence, nor skills to

play a role comparable to Salim’s in influencing decisions.

Workplace

council meetings involve discussions, presentations, debates, and votes. If

Salim comes to meetings with extensive knowledge, social skills, confidence, and

energy due to his empowering job and Betty comes to the same meetings with

obliterated knowledge, social skills, confidence, and energy due to her dis-empowering

job–Salim is going to have way more impact at the meetings than Betty, In fact,

the relatively few workers with highly empowering jobs will by virtue of their

on-the-job situations dominate discussions. Even a fair vote will regularly

select among proposals that the empowered few offer and settle on proposals that

they favor. Betty will at best ratify the will of the empowered, informed,

energetic few. At worst she and everyone else who has a dis-empowering job will

be completely excluded.

It

follows that attaining Self-Management requires not only the formal right to

participate in decisions, but also that everyone enjoys conditions that prepare

and promote their effective participation. If an economy is class divided so

that those with empowering jobs make decisions others obey and those with

disempowering jobs merely obey decisions others make, there will no be self

management, clearly. This is why we highlight Dignified Work as a theme unto

itself. If workers are to participate equally in economic decision-making, their

diverse jobs must affect their decision-making inclinations and competence

comparably. The old slogan that you are what you eat may or may not be

economically meaningful. But the new slogan that you become what you do, is

surely economically pivotal.

 

Balanced

Job Complexes

Our

third thematic goal (after Just Rewards and Self-Management) is therefore about

what we call Dignified Work and Balanced Job Complexes. 

In

any economy, each job combines many tasks which, taken in combination, have an

overall "empowerment index." This index is higher if the sum total of

tasks in the job are more empowering, and lower if they are less empowering.

Jobs in typical corporations combine quite similar tasks into such jobs as

secretary, mail boy, janitor, CEO, finance officer, assembly line operator,

manager, and so on. Most people in these corporations do jobs that have a low

empowerment index. A very few do jobs that have a very high index. 

To

attain Balanced Job Complexes, we instead advocate apportioning tasks to jobs so

that each job in the economy has an average overall index. In other words, we

allot to each job not a homogenous batch of tasks at only one empowerment level,

but a combination of tasks with varied empowerment qualities whose total

empowerment effect is the average for society. Instead of Judy being a

secretary, John being a Comptroller, and Jerry cleaning bathrooms, Judy, John,

and Jerry all have a variety of tasks in their designated job with various

levels of rote and empowering implications. The overall empowerment effect on

Judy of her combination of tasks and on John of his and on Jerry of his, are, as

best we can manage it, the same.

In

other words, with balanced job complexes we of course each have a job in which

we enjoy our own particular and perhaps even unique conditions of work. However,

despite differences in specific content from what others do, our job and all

other jobs are comparably empowering.

As

a result of balancing job complexes there is no longer a fixed management with

uniquely informative and uplifting tasks. There is no longer a set of rote jobs

whose conditions are only deadening. Indeed, there is no hierarchy of jobs

vis-à-vis empowerment effects. We define all this away by combining tasks into

jobs in this new way, balancing tasks for empowerment effects. Thus, each person

working in the economy does a combination of tasks sensibly accommodated to the

needs of particular work situations, of course, but also designed to balance

empowerment impacts rather than to monopolize the most empowering circumstances

for a few folks at the top of a workplace hierarchy of power.

Okay,

it is clear that by its very definition balancing job complexes accomplishes

both being fair and also laying a proper foundation for self-management. It

avoids dividing the workforce into a highly-empowered "coordinator

class" and a subordinate, disenfranchised working class, instead giving all

workers comparable empowerment in their economic lives. But are there offsetting

problems with the approach? For example, can it get the work done, and can it

get it done well?

 

Individual

Options

Folks

at largely rote jobs will generally like the idea of balanced job complexes,

because their lives would improve as they get their share of empowering tasks of

one sort or another. They will see the switch from unbalanced to balanced jobs

as justly redressing a demeaning and unfair situation they have long suffered.

On

the other hand, folks who occupy or aspire to cushier and more empowered jobs

such as managers, doctors, lawyers, empowered intellectuals, etc., will often

see this proposal as threatening because after job complexes are balanced, their

old jobs would no longer exist in the same form. A person in an economy with

balanced job complexes may of course do some managing (of a sort), doctoring,

lawyering, conducting, researching, designing, composing, etc., but this person

would also have to do a fair share of less empowering tasks to attain an overall

balance like everyone else’s. Thus, people’s jobs who are now in relatively

commanding positions will lose some empowering tasks and incorporate their share

of less empowering, rote, or even deadening labor.

In

any event, whoever enunciates it, opposition to job balancing most often employs

one of two rationales:

1.

Balancing would impinge my freedom to do what I want which would be immoral.

2.

Balancing would consign even the most talented to rote tasks and thereby reduce

the social product to everyone’s disadvantage.

Let’s

consider each complaint in turn, to close out our case on behalf of Dignified

Work.

 

Freedom

It

is true that allowing only balanced job complexes would by definition preclude

anyone having an unbalanced job complex and would thus also preclude complainant

1 above from doing only empowering tasks as her job. However, this is true in

the same sense that reshaping an economy to have no slave-holding options

precludes anyone from owning slaves. That is, owning a slave means the

slave-owner freely expresses his slave-owning aspiration, but it also means that

someone else is owned. If we rule out that anyone should be owned, we

simultaneously rule out that slave-owning aspirations should be honored.

Similarly, having a job complex that is more empowering than average is only

possible at the expense of someone else having a job complex that is less

empowering than average. If we rule out that anyone should be saddled with a

less than an average complex, yes, we must also rule out that anyone can have a

more than average complex.

But

freedom to act on one’s aspirations is a valid and wonderful thing only so

long as it is contingent on everyone else having the same freedom. Some

aspirations — owning slaves, killing a neighbor, employing wage slaves, having

an unbalanced job complex – intrinsically impinge on others’ rights to

similar advantages. In other words, it is no more immoral to impose job

balancing on society to eliminate a class hierarchy of those who order and those

who obey, than it is to impose abolition of slavery on society in order to

eliminate a class hierarchy of those who own others and those who are owned by

others. All people’s rights to never be a slave trump Mr. Plantation’s right

to own slaves. Similarly, all people’s rights to enjoy conditions prerequisite

to self-management trump Ms. Manager’s right to monopolize empowering job

circumstances.

 

Productivity

But

how about output? Seeking to avoid a class division between order givers and

order takers, are we also reducing society’s overall productivity by

under-utilizing some folks capacities? If so, is the loss in output so great

that it makes balancing job complexes unwise?

I

should first clarify that even if job balancing would in fact sacrifice some

output, it wouldn’t cause me to renounce Dignified Work as a goal since I see

self-management and classlessness as far more worthy aspirations than attaining

maximum output. In fact, however, it turns out that we can make our cake with

dignity and still eat plenty of it too.

First,

normal human beings generally don’t work endless hours at empowering and also

more productive tasks. Rather, folks with a relative monopoly on empowering

tasks often do them some limited amount of time each week, spending a lot of

other time chatting, loafing, meeting, bossing other people around, or playing

golf. Realignment of their responsibilities so they are balanced can often be

done without much incursion on their most productive capabilities. We instead

replace their excessive time off or their bossing by more rote responsibilities.

But

second, suppose that I am wrong. Suppose that every hour that someone now doing

highly empowering tasks is asked to do more rote tasks is an hour subtracted

from time going to their most talented focuses. As complainant 2 fears, that

would certainly entail a loss in output from that person. For example, if a

surgeon who now works all day long on surgery (no desk work, no loafing, no

golf, etc.) suddenly has to do her share of less empowering work such as

cleaning bed pans, then to make room she must of course do less surgery, and she

will in total therefore generate less valuable output.

But

what about the other side of the coin? What about the nurse who in this new

context is better trained and able to more fully use her talents? Indeed, how

about all the people previously "dumbed-down" by schooling and then by

on-the-job boredom and who have been previously constrained to do only rote

tasks but now have Dignified Work to do? What about the creativity, talent, and

skills that would be newly-tapped for society due to about 70% to 80% of the

population now being prepared to fulfill their capabilities rather than

channeled as before into rote obedience and subservience? Does anyone really

believe that the sum total of creative talents and energies available for

production would be reduced by opting for an economic arrangement that enjoins

every actor to become as able and productive as they can and that provides the

means for them to do it, but that then also requires each to do a fair share of

non-empowering work as well as a fair share of what their talents are best

suited to?

If

current class-divided societies were perfect meritocracies in the sense of

welcoming every person to become as productive as possible, and then rewarding

with better work conditions and more empowering circumstances only those who

produce more so that any effort to balance circumstances among workers would

reduce output, we should still overwhelmingly favor balanced job complexes. Our

guiding value should not not be the size of output of an economy – but instead

equitably meeting needs and developing capacities while furthering values we

aspire to such as self-management, solidarity, equity, and diversity. But of

course, in reality societies with hierarchical distributions of tasks don’t even

remotely approach being perfect meritocracies. Instead, in such societies an

educated and credentialed elite monopolizes empowering and knowledge-enhancing

tasks partly due to their talents, but overwhelmingly due to their

circumstantial advantages and their willingness to trample those below. Without

job balancing, most members of an economy are propelled into relative

subservience not by a lack of potential, but by socialization, schooling, and

on-the-job circumstances. They could certainly partake in decision-making and

creative work given the opportunity to enjoy a balanced job complex, and the

gains would be enormous.

The

second complainant also fails to notice the amount of time, energy, and talent

that goes into maintaining the exploitative exclusion of most actors from

empowering work and into coercing their obedience to instructions that they are

alienated from. If we account for the difference between class-divided

workplaces and dignified workplaces regarding time given to oversight and

enforcement, time lost due to outright struggle and strife, and the new pools of

talent salvaged by utilizing previously squelched potentials, not only does the

switch to balanced job complexes emerge as preferable on moral grounds and on

grounds of laying a basis for real self-management, but also on grounds of

economic output. 

Indeed,

the only debit for balancing job complexes, at least viewed from the angle of

those now enjoying a relative monopoly on empowering work, is that it removes

their relative advantages. But that is precisely the purpose of job balancing,

at least when viewed from below — and that’s where our eyes ought to be seeing

from.