How Liberal Centrism Kills Us

Why can’t we just get along, right?

On a previous version of this thread I had articles regarding liberal articles that are heavily critical on modern day capitalism. My takeaway was this: They’re well-meaning but lack political backbone in their solutions. For instance the “solution” to work isn’t to make it involve more play, to let workers get a couple dollars or to devolve a mild amount of autonomy is enough to fix the core problems with our current system.

Making workplaces “open”, making them have shorter hours, more breaks, fewer meetings, more time to cry and be yourself, none of that is cutting at the roots. Getting to the heart of what makes work so awful is capitalism itself as well as the governments that encourage it.

Unfortunately, for all of Jeffery Pfeffer’s solid analysis of the problems work creates for the workers, he doesn’t get this either. And so he becomes another case of liberal centrism and how that kills us, by short-circuiting our imaginations and convincing us only minor tweaks are possible, necessary and worth trying for. That’s a huge limitation to put on all of us and it’s one that robs the liberal vision of having any sort of political punch to it.

All of my previous articles on this subject are on the Internet Archive, so let’s start here instead:

Work harms employees in two fundamental ways. In the US, employment status and your employer determine your access to health-care … Second, employers affect the stress-inducing conditions of work: work-family conflict, long work hours, absence of control over one’s work environment, and economic insecurity.

It’s worth noting that Pfeffer is a “…A giant of business scholarship” and “…teaches one of Stanford’s most popular courses, on office politics and power.” So this kind of analysis is likely the pinnacle of the Educated Liberal who has some Serious Criticisms about how our system currently operates. Except both of the “fundamental ways” in which work harms workers is, while technically correct (the best kind!) is ultimately not actually getting at the fundamentals.

Because while lack of health care and workplace stress due to bosses are important facets of why work sucks, these are symptoms of a larger issue. These might be some of the biggest symptoms, I’d be willing to concede that much. But ultimately they are not the cause of the problem so much as they stem from the problem(s), that being capitalism, the state, hierarchy, etc.

Even if capitalism somehow self-regulated itself into a more caring and gentler version of itself you’d still have unjust power dynamics that lead to toxic relationships and unequal pay and decision making mechanics within a corporation. Which is, in of itself, an entity that is historically prone to corruption, greed and using violence against workers when they dissent.

So OK, disentangle the current apparatus from healthcare (without completely changing the system somehow) and make bosses a little nicer so employees don’t have to get addicted to alcohol or pills to deal with their jobs. What then? That leaves so many workplace based issues and issues that intersect with work very much untouched in the process. But that’s precisely the point for liberals who’d rather us make some “major” tweaks and then call it a day.

All of this said, it’s hard to disagree with Pfeffer says:

Companies do not act on the basis of the best evidence. They merge even though much research shows that mergers destroy value. They use forced-curve ranking systems for performance reviews even though extensive evidence documents the harmful effects. There is no reason to believe they would behave any differently with respect to their human capital.

Exactly! If companies don’t care about what studies show concerning the thing they constantly go on about (stocks, money, investors, etc.) then why would they care about the things they don’t constantly talk about (their workers, safety standards, autonomy etc.). There’s so many more press conferences about how a company is monetarily doing as opposed to how well they’re treating their workers and how they think they can improve on this in the future.

You can always treat people better and can always improve yourselves. But there’s only so many ways you can disappoint your shareholders for the millionth time. And all of this should go to show that the issues with this system go much deeper than just healthcare and basic humanity shown (or not shown) by bosses towards workers, but for Pfeffer it just doesn’t click.

Here’s another frustrating (but slightly valid) take, this time on AI:

Although governments might act to mitigate these adverse impacts through extensive job retraining programs and income maintenance efforts, most governments already face large budget deficits and an ageing population.

Moreover, states in the US and the government in Britain have been reducing their expenditures on higher education for decades. Thus, I see little reason to believe that state action will mitigate the disruptive effects of AI.

Well yeah, when governments are largely owned and operated by the rich and so is automated machinery, it makes sense it’s not going to go well for anyone else. Workers are likely going to see massive layoffs (and have in some cases)  and the reason they are is because they have very little say over what their workplace conditions look like in the first place. Never mind the kinds of conditions that may eventually replace them.

Then again, Pfeffer’s analysis here is slightly simplistic. Yes, it is likely many workers may lose their jobs but this also happened to farmers and the agriculture industry. Many of those people found jobs in other industries just the same. That doesn’t mean it’s the same exact situation (automation impacts many more industries than just agriculture for one thing) but that there’s at least some precedent for us to not be gloom and doom about it. There’s some reason for speculative positivity, especially if workers gain more power and bosses gain less.

But OK, what’s Pfeffer’s (lackluster liberal) solution?

We can—and should—measure the dimensions of work environments, including work hours, that we know affect health. Measurement would be the single most important thing we could do, particularly if we highlighted those workplaces doing the best—and the worst—on the various measures.

Ah, of course, legibility.

No one has ever thought to make corporations simply self-report their own statistics in order for them to be property regulated and then sorted out, right?

This is the kind of lackluster conclusion that is all but inevitable to most liberal analysis. Because the foundational analysis lacks any sort of political backbone, the conclusion shows it at its weakest point possible. That’s why it’s always the point I harp on the most, well, usually.

But this time, I think the “solution” speaks for itself.

If you enjoyed this article, consider donating to my Patreon!