Are Jobs Inherently Exploitative?


Capitalism leads to a lot of finger pointing - from the top down.

Capitalism leads to a lot of finger pointing – from the top down.

Getting back on my Abolish Work to-do list I read Freedom From Jobs by Elliot Sperber and was intrigued by much of it. I’ll start with those parts I find intriguing and convincing before I move into the parts I thought were questionable.

Early on in the article Sperber makes this remark which I quite liked:

This lack of change is observable in, among other places, the fact that it’s five decades later and people are still talking about jobs – coveting jobs as though jobs were those necessities and luxuries that work is obtained to secure.

I haven’t yet done much of a detailed historical analysis with regards to how jobs were talked about in the US but it seems right to me that they haven’t progressed much, if at all. We constantly see politicians valorizing jobs for the sake of jobs themselves, treating jobs as an inherent source of wealth and a mainstay of any healthy economy.

But in fact this sort of language about jobs only  ends up empowering capitalists and their abilities to control workers. This is because the valorization of jobs are de facto also the valorization of capitalism and thus the capitalists who tend to be at the front of that system. Capitalism isn’t some sort of neutral arbiter of value and instead relies on a state to make its economic arbitration, to artificially fund its resources and development/ This in turn funds the state and helps its empires through the making of many bombs and technologies used to surveil us inside and outside of work.

Capitalists can claim, through this valorization of work, that they are the cornerstone of any sort of healthy economy. That workers need them so business can go on as usual and that local communities would fail without them. Politicians give this sort of implicit support to capitalists that isn’t economic but cultural and yet turns into economic support as well down the line. And capitalists use it to prop up their cultural significance just like they use the state to prop up their economic significance even in the wake of failing at whatever they are doing.

This theory isn’t exactly a new one but it’s particularly striking how synchronistic the aid the state gives to capitalism to keep it afloat. Some try to argue that capitalists have the upper hand in this relationship but it seems to me that the capitalists are particularly vulnerable without the state valorizing jobs and giving them financial support.

As Roderick Long, a professor of philosophy at Auburn University argued in Remembering Corporate Liberalism, the relationship is similar to a much (deservedly) maligned prequels from an otherwise beloved movie franchise:

The main plotline of the Star Wars prequel trilogy concerns an apparent conflict between the central government (the Senate) on the one hand and a coalition of mercantile interests (the Trade Federation, the Commerce Guild, etc.) on the other. As events unfold, however, it quickly becomes obvious to the audience (though much less quickly to the protagonists) that the conflict is largely a ruse, with the leadership of the two sides (Chancellor Palpatine and Count Dooku, respectively) secretly working hand in glove.

Which isn’t to say that all is rosy between them. Each wants to be the dominant partner; witness Dooku’s failed attempt to betray Palpatine in Episode II, and Palpatine’s successful backstabbing of Dooku and his corporate allies in Episode III. Still, the partnership is stable enough to succeed in manipulating the protagonists into unwittingly undermining the very liberty they have been seeking to protect. As the pseudo-conflict escalates, there are, in the words of Episode III’s opening crawl, “heroes on both sides” – but the good guys on the two sides have been duped into fighting one another, each side grasping the evil of the other side’s leadership but not yet that of its own.

Unfortunately, this is not just science fiction.

Another interesting point that Sperber makes is in this sentence:

Moreover, that people are compelled to work a job – in spite of the job’s actual function – demonstrates the consanguinity of jobs and dependency, rather than in-dependency.

This harkens back to David Graeber’s notion of a “bullshit job” which tends to be things like corporate accounting or some sort of white collar job which is just there for the sake of appearances. At one of my talks a friend mentioned that he once worked at an institution in Vermont that helped verify documentation. But this institution was actually the second in a series of three institutions that do the same thing for a given bank.

Jobs like this are seemingly created for the sake of existing or perhaps for the sake of more official paperwork which makes it harder for others to call them bullshit. Or perhaps it’s for the sake of flooding the employees or making them important or maybe the bosses get some sort of high off of the experience of giving people more work.

Whatever the reason, it’s clear that in this economy the fact that you’re doing a job is infinitely more important than what you are actually doing during that job.

Continuing down the article I found this argument a bit of a misnomer:

Contrary to popular opinion, then, people don’t actually need jobs; we work jobs in order to acquire money. And money’s another thing we don’t in truth need – we need those things that this socioeconomic system only provides in exchange for money: food, housing, clothing, etc. Jobs are but a middleman – a means to acquire resources, not an end.

There’s really no argument to why we don’t need a middleman, it’s just presumed we don’t need money because it’s a middleman and by itself I don’t find that a convincing argument. If we don’t need middlemen then what would replace money, exactly? Sperber doesn’t give any sort of alternative to money other than implying that perhaps the economy should just give us food, housing, clothing, etc. but gives us no ideas about how that could actually be done.

My claim isn’t particularly strong here. For example, I’m not saying that there isn’t a way we couldn’t do these things, but if you’re going to make some sort of sidebar mention to the fact that we don’t need money, you may want to actually mention some examples of alternatives. Sperber technically does at the very end (a “basic income law”) but it seems to be more in response to a lack of freedom from jobs then a lack of freedom when it comes to money.

Not to mention the fact that the UBI is all about money.

But here’s the passage I really wanted to address:

For a hire to make “business sense,” an owner will only hire a worker if the value that that worker creates for the owner exceeds what s/he is paid by the owner. Another way of saying this is that jobs are exploitative. Workers provide more value to owners than they receive in return. As such, in asking for jobs, people are asking to be exploited – which, by definition, is the opposite of freedom.

As someone who reads lots of philosophy, I think it’d be helpful to ask: What is exploitation?

And I’m not saying that to get capitalism out of anything. Capitalism treats our individual bodies as a cog in a collective wheel whether we like it or not. In fact, capitalism is a deeply anti-individualist economic system whereby individual desires and needs are compressed so they can better meet the needs of collectives, i.e. the rich elite.

Regardless, for my definition of exploitation I’ll take the one Matt Mackenzie uses in his Exploitation: A Dialectical Anarchist Perspective which in turn takes from the liberal thinker Alan Wertheimer who defined exploitation as:

[O]ne party A exploits another party B when A takes unfair advantage of B.

Within this broad conception of exploitation, Wertheimer makes two further distinctions. First, he distinguishes between harmful and mutually advantageous forms of exploitation. Second, he distinguishes between nonconsensual and consensual forms of exploitation. Notice also that each of these types of exploitation will have three elements: benefit to the exploiter, an effect on the exploited, and a defect in the process by which the exploitative outcome is achieved.

So exploitation is therefore a rather tricky question and thus it’s worth examining whether jobs will always fit that bill so long as someone doesn’t get as much as they put in. Its not clear whether that “as much as they put in” is in relation to how much economic value they give to their employers or some other sort of value, perhaps psychological.  But in any case, no matter what particular sorts of valuation we’re discussing I think there’s room for discussion.

Here’s some more elaboration from Mackenzie:

Harmful exploitation occurs when A takes unfair advantage of B in a way that is harmful to B.

Mutually advantageous exploitation occurs when A takes unfair advantage of B, but there is still a net benefit to B.

Nonconsensual exploitation occurs when “the exploited party does not give voluntary (or valid) consent.” This can occur through coercion or fraud or possibly some other defect in consent.

Consensual exploitation occurs when “the exploited party has given voluntary and appropriately informed consent to the transaction.” …  For the moment consider the case in which B is in a life-threatening situation and A is the only one who is in a position to rescue him. A offers to rescue B, but only if B agrees to sign over all of his current wealth as well as 50% of all future earnings. B, valuing his life, agrees. He benefits relative to the no-transaction baseline, which is death, but I think most would agree that he is not treated fairly.

So in the state-capitalist society which sort of relationship do we have?

First it’s worth questioning whether you necessarily are exploited if you’re getting less than you put into a given situation. If someone decides to put in $1 for a water bottle but only thinks their worth $0.50 are they being exploited?

Perhaps they are being exploited if it’s the only water bottle vending machine around and there are no other viable alternatives. In which case it seems like the person is being exploited. But on the other hand what if this person has an unreasonable idea of the production of water ? For example, if they’re underestimating the costs of making the bottle or harvesting the water via local rivers or something like this. What are we to make of all this?

Not much without a conception of fairness which Mackenzie sums up as a sort of conceptual model that helps us explain (much like justice) what people are due. So is the person owed a water bottle that’s $0.50 instead of $1? This doesn’t seem immediately obvious that they are entitled to a certain price of something, just because they have a given state of mind about the prices for it. And certainly their rights aren’t being violated even if they’re being treated unfairly through the prices of water in a given vending machine. It could only be otherwise if people have some sort of right (i.e. justly enforceable claim) to water at a particular price. But for sake of argument, let’s presume this isn’t the case.

Whatever the case may be in terms of exploitation, it seems to be the case that when individual agents in a given economy have no real options with regards to their ways to relate to said economy, they are being treated unfairly. This type of unfairness is more likely due to what Mackenzie calls background unfairness. So, for example, if the state economically props up the water corporation and allows them to take out their competitors thus restricting the ability of customers to engage in the market place how they’d otherwise like to, they are being exploited.

If the prices of water, however, came from each company looking at what people are most likely to pay and there are multiple options given then it seems harder to suggest that individuals are being exploited. Perhaps it’s the case they’re still being exploited but among plentiful choices and a lack of artificial economic subsidies to these companies to allow them to give higher prices than they would otherwise it at least seems like the exploitation is much more consensual.

Likewise, in a state-capitalist society where companies give jobs but tend to be the ones who have the power both during the interview process and thereafter, it would be hard to claim that the workers aren’t being treated unfairly in some sense. And given that they all have preferences that likely would have gone better fulfilled in an economy that didn’t treat them so unfairly, they are also being harmed and in a way they have lessened consent to, given their constrained options.

Giving a rigorous analysis of exploitation and fairness is beyond the scope of this article (and understandably much the same for Sperber) but Sperber seems to be at least presently correct that jobs are de facto exploitative.  But it doesn’t seem quite so obvious to me that they are inherently exploitative so long as the workers get less out of the transaction than they put into it. We all have psychological states that could be unrealistic in terms of their expectations for one thing and we sometimes voluntarily put our energy into things that seem more draining than fulfilling because that fulfillment means so much to us while it lasts. Perhaps these types of situations are untenable or inadvisable but they hardly seem like the black and white picture of exploitation that some want to talk about.

So in the current economy, yes, jobs tend to be exploitative more often than not but I wouldn’t argue that’s solely (or even primarily) because the workers get less out of it than get put into it. It seems much more relevant to me to consider the power relations of the worker and boss within a singular transaction as well as the general economy. On both of these fronts it’s much more often the case today that the boss has more power than the worker does and that this limits the ability of individuals to meaningfully consent to the work that they are engaged in.

But let’s think about an economy where there are many more options in terms of jobs and where people have much more bargaining power and tend to organize collectively or individually on their own. A secondary effect of this would surely be them receiving more out of the transaction than if they did it in a state-capitalist society. But more importantly they’d have much more autonomy to do the sort of work that they’d want to do.

The ability for individuals to seize power for themselves seems much more fundamental to flourishing and thereby not being exploited then simply making more money or breaking even in relation to what sort of energy or energies they put into a given project. The availability of alternatives, their own levels of autonomy and how much systematic fairness is actually occurring in the society all seem like much more central things to exploitation then whether the worker is or isn’t getting everything they would like to out of a given transaction.

Mackenzie gives us more to ponder about here:

My claim is not that every transaction that takes place in an unfair social context is itself unfair or exploitative. We must keep in mind the distinction between taking advantage (in conditions) of unfairness and taking unfair advantage, even if there are many borderline cases where we are not certain which is which. Rather, my claim is that, in the unfair background conditions of state capitalism, even some transactions that are voluntary and mutually beneficial are exploitative.

So, for instance, rent-seeking firms do not simply exploit taxpayers by getting handouts from the state. Firms can also capture rents through the regulatory cartelization of markets. In these cases, firms may be taking unfair advantage not just of the competition, but also those with whom it engages in mutually beneficial transactions. The unfair background conditions facilitate the unfair terms of the transaction.

What then counts as unfair terms?

Suppose that A is an employer and B is a potential employee. The labor market is an artificially maintained buyer’s market. B will not work for less than $6.00 per hour and A will not pay more than $12.00 per hour. Any wage within this range will be mutually beneficial. A, being relatively insulated from competition, is well placed to drive a hard bargain. Eventually they agree on a wage of $6.50 per hour. Is this a fair deal?

Now suppose that, in freer, more competitive market, B would probably be able to get $11.00 per hour. Wertheimer’s proposal for these types of case is that the fairness baseline should be “a hypothetical market price — the price that would be generated by a competitive market.” If A had agreed to pay approximately $11.00 per hour — the competitive market wage — the transaction would not be exploitative even though it took place in the context of background unfairness. As it stands, though, A takes unfair advantage of B.

I think I’ve exhausted this subject for now but there’s likely a lot left to think about and discuss for a later post.

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