Work and welfare

Suppose that, through the use of machines, sufficient resources could be produced without full employment. The balance between the forms of work and welfare that we are used to would have to change. Since we are arguably in the middle of a transition to such a state now we need to think about how they might change. Otherwise, and we can already see this happening, we will move back towards three broad tiers of society – the top wealth owners who can easily live and even get richer on what are basically rents; those with relatively secure jobs or other job related incomes like pensions or small businesses; and the “precariat” as they have been aptly called, who rely on occasional work, zero hours contracts, welfare benefits etc and for whom poverty is never far away. So far, so Victorian, but the enormous danger is that this structure of society is not stable, not in equilibrium. It depends at the very least on the acquiescence of the precariat, whether through the modern equivalent of bread and circuses, through apathy and inertia or, more likely, through a conviction that the order of things is too complex to change, one of the main axioms of neoliberalism.

The era after the industrial revolution led both to unprecedentedly nasty wars which were in large part the spilling over of commercial (imperial) competition into violence and to violent revolutions within some societies. Although ultimately better conditions for workers were brought about particularly by pressure from unionism and the labour movement generally, in many societies it was a close run thing. This degree of progress was accompanied by a partly successful push towards democratic control of societies, but not universally and not without some dark diversions through dictatorships of different kinds. We cannot be confident that the outcome of re-running the experiment will be equally benign, especially when democracy has been corrupted to the point of uselessness by the introduction of deliberately undemocratic structures like the European Union on one hand and on the other, by the blatant manipulation of public emotions without regard for truth or balance which is what now passes as political skill.

Thus it is important to consider how work and rewards are or can be related in society. In the ancient world the balance was very different and NOT working was often the prerogative of the citizen. Slaves worked, citizens didn’t, at least well-to-do citizens didn’t. There may have been other civic obligations, like fighting in the army, but labour for income was not something on which citizens prided themselves.

In fact, in aristocratic societies both yesterday and today the elite do not work but own most of the wealth and receive and spend most of the income. Typically these have been rentier societies, with the income of the elite coming from wealth (generally land) and very little else. In more modern societies the particular form of work we call entrepreneurial activity became more valued, although much of what passes as high entrepreneurship today remains rent-seeking behaviour dressed up with bustle. But in the twentieth century income distribution generally became more tied to work and median incomes were gradually and slowly raised as labour pressed for their effort to be recognised in income distribution. That process has been reversed or at least halted in the last few decades by neoliberalism, with huge pressure on wages except at the very top to benefit profits. The highest “wages”, those of the most senior executives, have become in effect rents on the holding of high office in a company, out of all proportion to effort or effectiveness.

All this is worth reciting only to show that the relationship between work and reward is and always has been complicated. It is simply a myth that work and reward were always linked closely together. “If you don’t work you don’t eat” may sound robust and fair and may be so in some limited scenarios, but as a depiction of real societies it has seldom if ever applied and it has very rarely applied to elites. It is not a principle on which any complex society has been based and it is doubtful, even by the time all the humane exceptions to it have been allowed, whether it ever could be. So although the new predicament of how to distribute the goods and necessities of life if sufficient were available without everyone working needs to be thought about very carefully, the link it seems to threaten between work and reward is not universal, nor eternal, nor even particularly common.


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