What Do Workers Want?
I’m reading Capitalism: A Short History by a German, Jürgen Kocka. It’s pretty conventional, mouthing all the right pieties. But it does try to look back to the old days of “merchant capitalism” when powerful merchants in long-distance trade were usually thick as thieves with the political ruling class.
But when it comes to “industrial capitalism” and wage labor then the narrative implies that the old days of domestic labor, such as hand textiles and the putting out system, was gentler and more equitable than the factory system.
Oh, and, of course, the horror of plantation slavery and its kissing cousin “indentured servants.”
Kocka has a tendency to give the old system the benefit of the doubt:
Between the lord of the manor or estate and “his” peasants, cottagers, and farmhands there was a multilayered system of privileges and dependencies.
Well, yes. But I would say that as the factory system developed it also developed a system of informal rights and obligations, both for the employer and the employee. There is a tendency for employers to work employees too hard; but there is a tendency for employees to slack off. There is a tendency for employers to keep the slackers employed, because.
Thing is, almost all humans earn their living in a subordinate manner. Very, very few people have ever been self-employed people that make their living from buying and selling directly on the market. Instead they exchange their freedom for a bit of security. And this applies to everyone from a corporate executive, even a CEO, down to the ordinary checker at the supermarket. Almost everyone exchanges straight profit and loss for a regular income.
So workers get screwed? Of course, especially in a recession, or when they are working in a declining industry. And especially during a period of monetary deflation after a war.
Yes, especially during deflation: the Captain Swing riots took place in the years after the Napoleonic Wars when Britain was getting the pound back to its prewar value; the labor unrest in the US in the 1870s was in a Long Depression after the post Civial War deflation. And the British General Strike of 1926 took place after World War I and the government returning the pound to its pre-war value.
The point is that the unspoken deal, when a worker works for wages, is that the deal is good forever. That’s what the worker feels, anyway, even under “employment at will.” But what happens when the universe changes for the worse? Simple. The worker feels screwed.
Let’s review a few ordinary employer-employee setups.
If you work for the government, then you probably have lifetime employment plus a pension. It’s tops in security, but — I kinda get the impression — soul destroying.
You can work at a union job for a big company. Again, good wages, good security, plus a pension. The problem, I’d say, is that your union might have bargained your wages above the market. That works great, for a while. And the company may be run by executives that know how to run the company today but don’t know what to do next.
You can work for a small company, that rises and falls with the market. It might go on forever, or it might go under in the next recession. But you probably know the owner personally.
You can work as an independent contractor rather than an employee, for as long as the project continues. It’s not secure, and there are no benefits, except that you keep abreast of the market for your skills. Unions don’t like this: that’s why they got California to pass AB5.
You can work off the books. Like Sgt. Schultz, I know nothing about this.
You can live off government benefits. Is this slavery or serfdom? Seriously, in 1000 AD you could apply to your feudal lord to become a slave. Today you can go to your local welfare officer and apply to get benefits.
The thing about social animals is that we all live in a hierarchy. Life is easier that way, especially if there is a bear in the woods.