Socialism: Disputing Balanced Jobs

 [This is the tenth essay in a multipart series addressing the surge in interest in and support for Socialism, what the surge means, what it seeks or will seek, where it might extend, and how it might unfold.]

To eliminate the class hierarchy of empowered employees bossing disempowered employees, our last essay claimed we must apportion empowering tasks in a balanced way.  Instead of 20% of the workforce monopolizing tasks that give them skills, social ties, information, and confidence essential to making decisions, and 80% enduring tasks that deskill them, isolate them, uninform them, and shatter their confidence such that they are neither prepared nor inclined to participate in decision making, each worker needs to do a mix of tasks such that all workers are prepared by their situations to participate in self managed decision making.

I claim it’s virtually beyond dispute that to have equitable, self managed work for all, we can’t have a coordinator class operating above a working class. Instead, to have a worthy economy, however large-scale and difficult it may be to imagine, we must replace the corporate division of labor with jobs balanced to have comparable empowerment effects on every employee.

But what if opting for balanced job complexes is an unworkable or destructive choice? What if we need balanced job complexes to attain equity and self management, but having balanced job complexes would cause damage even exceeding that of inequity and coordinator class rule? In that case, we would have to forgo the change. And that is exactly what dissenters from balancing jobs for empowerment assert.

First, critics point out that if everyone has to do a mix of empowering and also of disempowering tasks, then excellent brain surgeons have to spend time away from doing excellent brain surgeries to instead clean patient’s rooms or change their bed pans. But time taken from a surgeon’s surgical work will incur lost output from that surgeon because the value of Joe the surgeon cleaning a patient’s room is vastly less than the value of Joe the surgeon saving that patient’s life. So extrapolating to other jobs, the critic says that balancing jobs for empowerment will lose valuable product.

Our answer is that we can’t only consider Joe, or even all members of the coordinator class. It is true that Joe’s contribution to society’s social product and also the total of all contributions by all members of the current coordinator class will decline if they have to spend some time doing rote, repetitive, or otherwise disempowering tasks. Widening our view, however, it is also true that this loss will be more than offset by society getting more social product from the other 80% of the population who would no longer have their most productive potentials curtailed but instead have them liberated and utilized. For every Joe contributing somewhat less due to doing a fair share of disempowering tasks, there would be four people contributing more than they did before due to having better education and training, more confidence, and jobs drawing on and enlarging their capacities. Overall,  if we divide up tasks to balance jobs for empowerment, we will not only create conditions facilitating rather than subverting equity and self management, we will also unleash more creativity and value in society from those who were previously subordinate, and also create strong pressure for reducing the number of disempowering and enlarging the number of empowering tasks.

Sounds good, but critics are not swayed so easily. “What are you talking about?”, they rejoin. “The 80% who now do disempowering work are incapable of much more. Even four of them freed from some rote wok won’t b able to make up for the tasks I have to forgo. They certainly won’t be able to do my tasks well. In fact, it isn’t just that they won’t be able to do empowering tasks well enough to make up for lost output due to surgeons, engineers, and others having to do less of their most valuable tasks, they will be unable to do their new empowering tasks at all so society will suffer catastrophic incapacity.”

I have to admit that if 80% are incapable of doing sufficient empowering tasks to make up for lost output from 20% doctors, engineers, etc., or are literally so poor at the tasks that they would make a mess of them, then the critics are correct. Balancing jobs for empowerment would in that case be well intentioned but ill conceived. But the critics are wrong.

First, we are not talking about 80% moving from having endured impoverished living conditions, debilitating cultural messages, stultifying education designed to teach taking orders and enduring boredom, and years of cleaning bedpans, to overnight conducting surgery, or from all that and working an assembly line to overnight conceiving operational relations at work. We are instead talking about everyone growing up in families with ample income, enjoying good schooling, and then doing work that empowers them from the first to the last day of their working lives. So a critic is really saying that 80% of humanity is intrinsically incapable of more than passively obeying the will of others. Eighty percent wind up in rote and repetitive jobs because that is all they can do. The critics don’t just say that a particular person can’t do surgery well, which would be true of huge numbers of people, of course. The critics say “everyone in the 80% can’t do any empowering work well. There are no empowering tasks that could balance any job suitably for each of 80% of all employees. People wind up in the working class, not in the coordinator class, because regardless of people’s very different living conditions as children, regardless of different quality of schooling, and regardless of different tasks during their entire working lives, no changes in any of that would leave those in the 80% able to do any balanced job well.”

Is this even a little credible? A first response is to point out that childhood family income being seriously lower, education being vastly worse, and conditions on the job being stultifying are all quite consistent with claiming that the negative effect of these circumstances disempowers 80% of each new generation into becoming working class adults, and then entrenches them into their intended subordination ever more strongly every day on the job. But, no, the critic says that is backwards. The problem isn’t that circumstances create lack of means and inclination. The problem is that people’s genetic endowment makes them incapable. For the critic, people are born unable to do empowering tasks, and then family, school, and work just make the best of their limits, rather than imposing limits on them.

Here is my response to the now fully committed criticism. I say it superficially fits the fact that 80% don’t do empowering tasks, but the causality is not from genetic endowment to outcome, but rather from conditions of life and then of work to outcome. This face-off of opposed interpretations of the cause of hierarchical performance by contending constituencies is not, I should like to add, new. We have seen it often.

Imagine it is 70 years ago. All surgeons in the country are assembled into a massive stadium. A noted surgeon looks around and sees, rounding off the minor exceptions, no women and no Blacks. He deduces that women and Blacks are simply incapable of doing surgery well, or even without horrific results. It is simple logic. There are no 5-year-old surgeons in the stadium, either. The obvious explanation for five-year-olds being absent is that five-year-olds can’t do it. The equally obvious explanation for the surgeon of why women and Blacks are absent is that women and Blacks can’t do it. What’s more, outside the stadium, many women and many Blacks sadly, in their deepest beliefs, 70 years ago, agreed. Cultural messages ceaselessly trumpeted their inadequacy. Relative situations seen in every direction seemed to bear it out. Accepting the explanation was a lot easier than fighting against it. And so on. But then along came the civil rights movement and the women’s movement and 70 years later, save for the most jaundiced and self deluding defenders of past injustice, the explanation has reversed. Why? For the simple reason that 70 years later women and Blacks are doing surgery (and other empowered work) in such high numbers that it is obvious that there was never a genetic impediment, genes haven’t changed over the last 70 years, there was, instead, social subjugation, and society has changed over the last 70 years.

We are still waiting for a movement of working people that attains the level of power and self awareness at challenging and reducing classism as the movements that have reduced sexism and racism have attained in the past seven decades. But isn’t it obvious, for those not defending or rationalizing the hierarchical circumstance, power, and income advantages of the coordinator class, that among the 80% virtually everyone can do a mix of empowering and disempowering tasks rather than only do disempowering tasks? This doesn’t say what is obviously false and unnecessary…that everyone is the same, or that everyone can be a genius surgeon, genius musician, or genius anything. Some can, some can’t. Just like there was never a claim that every woman or every Black would with proper background do what the most accomplished white man in some discipline did. (Nor can every other white man do what the most accomplished white man does.) It instead says every person who will work in the economy is with desirable background and training able to do a mix of some empowering and some disempowering tasks that prepare them to participate in decision making comparably to all other people working in the economy. 

I don’t think absolute proof that convinces all classists can exist before we see it in practice, just as there was no absolute proof convincing all racists and sexists that women or Blacks could do empowering tasks before we could see it. But I do think that while doubting workers’ potentials occurs sometimes due to an honest carefully considered mistake, most often it occurs due to echoing what coordinator class dominated culture, coordinator class defined education, coordinator class managed economic life, and the presumed inevitable coordinator enforcing corporate division of labor constantly tell everyone. It is debilitating class hierarchy that restricts potentials, not limited potentials that create debilitating class hierarchy. 

If a society has 20% jobs that are empowering and 80% that are disempowering, it needs a workforce that fits. If all workers expected and were prepared for dignity, respect, and an appropriate degree of control over their circumstances and efforts, there would be incredible rebellion against current relations. To avoid that rebellion we need to have a workforce 80% of which expects subordination and even feels it deserves it. Schools, culture, and homelife need to educate, entertain, and even nurture 80% of each new generation to that end – until we replace the corporate division of labor with balanced jobs.

Here is John Lennon providing a poetic enunciation of essentially the same message we have offered in this essay. Go online, or to your own music collection, and give it a listen…

Working Class Hero

John Lennon

As soon as you’re born they make you feel small

By giving you no time instead of it all

Till the pain is so big you feel nothing at all

A working class hero is something to be

A working class hero is something to be

They hurt you at home and they hit you at school

They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool

Till you’re so fucking crazy you can’t follow their rules

A working class hero is something to be

A working class hero is something to be

When they’ve tortured and scared you for twenty-odd years

Then they expect you to pick a career

When you can’t really function you’re so full of fear

A working class hero is something to be

A working class hero is something to be

Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV

And you think you’re so clever and classless and free

But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see

A working class hero is something to be

A working class hero is something to be

There’s room at the top they’re telling you still

But first you must learn how to smile as you kill

If you want to be like the folks on the hill

A working class hero is something to be

A working class hero is something to be

If you want to be a hero well just follow me

If you want to be a hero well just follow me

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