Socialism: Who Does What?

[This is the eighth 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.]

“Who Does What” asks how we ought to apportion tasks to form jobs in each workplace in a good economy.

Regarding income, prior essays, rejected workplace owners taking profits and advocated workers getting income for how long they work, how hard they work, and for the harshness of conditions under which they work on socially valued products. Regarding decision-making, prior essays urged the merits of self management  via workers councils. No more capitalists, no more ethically unwarranted income differences due to bargaining power, innate traits, having better tools, or producing something of greater value than someone else, and no more decisions governing workers from above.

Returning to who does what, while it is rarely acknowledged, what distinguishes how we allot tasks in capitalism is that among all the multitude of jobs people hold, around 20% of all workers do a mix of tasks that convey to them information, skills, confidence, and social ties facilitating participation in decision making. The other 80% do a mix of primarily rote and repetitive tasks that exhausts, deadens, deskills, isolates, and un-informs them to the point where they are neither prepared for nor inclined to participate in decision-making. The difference is built into the skewed distribution of empowering tasks. I call those who monopolize empowering tasks coordinators, and those who do overwhelmingly disempowering tasks, workers. More, I claim this is a class division intrinsic to the corporate division of labor so that even in a workplace that wants to be democratic, if it has a corporate division of labor, the class division between empowered and disempowered employees will subvert democratic desires. The 20% coordinator class will dominate the 80% working class, even with owners no longer present. The history of what’s now called 20th century socialism, as well as of non profits and publicly owned firms within capitalism, demonstrates this claim. Indeed, the observation is virtually self evident. Out with the old owner-boss can mean elevating a new empowered employee-boss who makes virtually all decisions, not least to enlarge their own incomes in the distorted belief they deserve more than the workers they rule over. The division is structural. The opposed situations and interests are blatant. The hierarchical results are undeniable. That nearly everyone accepts that this division is simply the natural order, is also evident.

To have some employees such as managers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, and public officials empowered, and to have other employees who do only rote and routine tasks disempowered, with the empowered employees dominating outcomes, accruing excessive incomes, and feeling that they deserve their greater power and wealth, and that the disempowered workers deserve their subservience, clearly demolishes prospects for equity, self management, and solidarity. It follows that maintaining the corporate division of labor subverts prospects for a desirable economy. But is there any alternative?

While quite foreign to widespread beliefs and habits, once we ask if an alternative is possible, a solution is clearly evident. If we must reject defining jobs so 20% of the workforce has means and inclination to rule over 80% who lack means and expect to be ruled, then the solution must be to define jobs so all employees are comparably prepared to contribute to collective self management.

Suppose we visited a world where we saw that the workforce had two parts, one ruling and the other being ruled, and the ruling part’s members all ate good food, and the ruled part’s members all ate horrible food, and it was clear that the good food strengthened, enlightened, and inspired people, and the bad food weakened, stunted, and depressed people. We would easily see that to eliminate its class division this world would have to let everyone share the good food. It would need to balance good food apportionment. 

In our world, I claim it is just as evident that to eliminate the worker/coordinator class division we need to share the factors that cause its existence, not good food, but empowering tasks. We need to balance jobs so that we all do a fair share of empowering and disempowering tasks and so we all are therefore comparably equipped and inclined by our situations to participate in decision making.  No group monopolizes empowering tasks and thereby dominates another group denied empowering tasks. Not only are capitalists no longer present due to having eliminated private ownership of productive assets, but all remaining employees have shared interests due to there no longer being a corporate division of labor but, instead, a balanced distribution of empowering tasks.

Where retaining a corporate division of labor will preserve inequity, prevent solidarity, and destroy self management, establishing balanced job complexes will not only allow but propel all our aims. It answers the question who does what?

Consider any workplace you like. Balanced job complexes means no one does just surgery or just cleans up after surgeons. No one only teaches, or only sweeps. No one only digs resources from a mine, or only schedules the mine’s operations. All workers do a mix of tasks such that each job’s overall empowerment effect is like that of all other jobs. I apply to some workplace for a job I like. Unlike now, however, all available jobs are balanced so my work prepares me to make decisions.

If we can implement them without incurring some dire offsetting damage, balanced job complexes will answer our question who does what and will eliminate the coordinator/worker class hierarchy. But can we? In the next essay I consider why some people may feel balancing jobs is unviable and would even impose economic disaster on society, and also offer our contrary view.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Michael April 17, 2019 12:38 pm 

    Michael Albert says the key is “All workers do a mix of tasks…”


    Once I worked as an editor, there were four of us at the highest management level. I suggested one day that since each of us have an “assistant” who earns significantly less (the old corporate division), let’s try something new. Take the editor and his/her assistant and make one salary amount, then have a simple arbitration protocol to divide the salary more equitably. At that point, the editor would still probably have made more, but not as much more. Plus, an editor with a skilled, hard-working assistant is able to do more work than, for example, I could do when at one time I had an assistant that simply did not know how to do the work and did not have great interest in improving.

    You would have thought I had just placed a bomb on the table that was going to explode any second. But I was thinking in terms quality of output and not hierarchical titles and privileges. Plus, I already did my own typing and other related tasks that were often assigned to “secretaries” who were all women–another issue.

    Added to this, I grew up in a working class family and worked in construction until I graduated from college. I knew what hard work it was, how skills needed to be acquired or learned, and the physical stamina that was needed to work 8 to 9 hours a day.

    This seems like a huge undertaking, but if fairness, welfare, mutual respect, and higher quality output mean anything, Michael Albert’s comments are powerfully important. Otherwise we are just up-dating ancient feudalism or brutal hierarchical capitalism.

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