In the past, the notion of “a living wage” would often be regarded as some kind of socialist pipe-dream, but I think we are coming ever closer to a tangible realization of that goal, however incomplete or infantile it may be.
The idea of “always working” is fundamentally flawed.
There is a pervasive notion in most all “modern” cultures that the default state of all people in a society is to work, and then have free time after the work is complete. If you aren’t working, you’re either:
- A child, in which case you “should be in school”, which is just another form of work, or work training, at least.
- A bum, leeching off of society.
- Disabled, which by some (not I) are regarded as leeching off of society as well.
- Retired - the one “respected” non-laborer of the group, whom is often given respect, probably because of some notion of “having earned their right to retire”.
Let me try to convince you that this whole thing is fundamentally flawed.
Not Flawed for certain societies
I should point out, that it’s not flawed in all cases. In a society that adores inefficiency, one would expect a certain consistency in labor.
In a society where the populace is not united, there is going to be some chaos and lack of cohesion in goals, which manifests itself as incongruent philosophies and a general lack of “progression”.
Flawed for progressive societies
Having demonstrated a hypothetical (and arguably straw-man) example, let me just step back and look at a society where I consider this notion of “forever working” to be incongruent with, and flawed, for.
Here, I define a progressive society as one that “works” for its people to better their lives. What does this really mean? To me, it means the society:
- Induces a safe environment, both mentally and physically
- Induces a more peaceful attitude on the populace
- Promotes self-actualization (pursuance of passion, freedom to experiment with interests, etc..)
- Promotes higher intelligence, and critical thinking
- Promotes co-operation
- Promotes diversity and acceptance
- Does not tolerate coercive or combative attitudes
- Seeks to harmonize with natural ecosystems and find a balance that promotes biodiversity and sustainability.
- Recognizes differences and strengths/weaknesses but promotes equality.
Achieving all of these things in a society might be the key to a “utopia” or “golden age”; but I suppose it depends on who you ask.
Given these criteria, let’s systematically show how a society that does not provide a living wage might be incongruent with each ideal.
1. Induces a safe environment, both mentally and physically
This one is mostly innocuous here, but I might argue that having to work in a job you hate would promote both physical and mental stress. I’m not going to delve too far here as this borders on common sense, but I’m sure most people can relate either directly, or by proxy.
2. Induces a more peaceful attitude on the populace
See 1. This definitely cannot promote a peaceful attitude, since people are forced to work in conditions they do not like. You can use alternative methods, like yoga, meditation, focused breathing or exercise to help offset the effects, but ultimately you are fighting an uphill battle.
3. Promotes self-actualization (pursuance of passion, freedom to experiment with interests, etc..)
This one is perhaps the most obviously incongruent. A living wage promotes self actualization by design, because each individual is free to choose their own direction (so long as it does not conflict with the laws and morals of the society.) Lack of a living wage actively prevents someone from self-actualization. In capitalist societies, this gets worse: a capitalist society promotes an attitude of one-upmanship, meaning industry leaders must constantly fight to be better than their competition, simply to survive.
And even if a company happens to find itself a titan with no rivals, it has no reason to innovate, and simply stagnates, while still (contradictorily) trying to “grow”, for growths sake. After all, if a company has no reason to grow, it has no reason to continue employing many of its employees, and so reasonably would fire them. It has some striking parallels to a cell that just won’t die, growing and growing while stealing resources from the body (this is called cancer, by the way). I’ll refrain further from this tangent as it deserves a book in its own right.
4. Promotes higher intelligence, and critical thinking
This one is kind of a wash; a capitalist society may very well promote higher intelligence, and critical thinking, simply because it can be required to further ones financial situation. However, I would argue it also promotes misguided betterment. Lest one end up with a degree in the canonically unmarketable degrees of “communications” or “anthropology”, people are forced to move in the direction of the market, approximating their desires by finding a degree or job role that is only somewhat congruent to their interests. And later on, as I describe automation, this becomes worse, because fewer and fewer jobs will exist to cater to someones interests.
5. Promotes co-operation
As pointed out in 3 and 4, this flies in the face of capitalist society. At the corporate level, co-operation is only used insomuch as it benefits a company. It would be better labeled as “strategy” than co-operation (and often it is, alongside a handful of misused military idioms espoused by corporate leaders, such as “working in the trenches”).
6. Promotes diversity and acceptance
If not for the advocacy groups that exist in first-world countries, this would not exist except for the morals of the individual. But these groups do exist, and so we’ll accept this.
7. Does not tolerate coercive or combative attitudes
This is not terribly relevant to the point of this article, so I’ll just skip it.
8. Seeks to harmonize with natural ecosystems and find a balance that promotes biodiversity and sustainability.
As evidenced by countless eco-disasters, capitalism is and has been at odds with biodiversity and sustainability, unless the acceptance of it has direct strategic consequences to the bottom line of the corporation. What I mean here is that, while Shell, Exxon, BP or some other energy company may invest in solar panels, sustainable practices, or clever marketing departments, they do so only out of necessity, not out of some moral high-ground (no matter what glorious speeches a CEO gives, or green-washed commercials a marketing team may produce.) The moment a sustainability practice becomes cost-prohibitive (and is not mandated by law), you can bet your ass the company will drop it in favor of something more profitable. When the charter for a company is to increase dividends above all else (as it is for a corporation), you can’t be surprised that it behaves accordingly.
9. Recognizes differences and strengths/weaknesses but promotes equality.
Let’s step back for a second, to talk automation. Automation is really a crucial part of my argument, as it is the key force that will increase the bottom line of companies moving forward. All corporations will at some point seek to automate. There are two primary forms of automation:
Automation of business processes, where a typical group of people communicating and delegating becomes a complex task that is automated via software (and accompanying hardware), divided into business rules that can automatically trigger events and react, like a person.
Automation of repetitive tasks, where either a physical task (like spot welding parts to a car) or mental task (calculating mortgage adjustments or loan risk) are replaced by machines.
These both cover the two major job types: physical laborers or knowledge workers. Either job is at risk, and many jobs in each category are at risk. Not only that, while it has been argued that new jobs are being created to replace these, the automation is happening at a faster pace than job creation.
Enter Oscar Wilde
In “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”, a personal favorite quote of mine can be found:
At present, machinery competes against man. Under proper conditions machinery will serve man. There is no doubt at all that this is the future of machinery.
To me, his point is that machines are being driven by rulers seeking to drive the bottom line, by using machinery to remove the necessity of people (except the people in charge of the machines!)
Automation in jobs is not speculation or hypothesis; this is actively happening in all job sectors, and will continue to happen. The crux of this article really is “what is the logical conclusion of complete job automation”?
A system of self destruction
I argue that this system is bound for self-destruction, because it will collapse on itself. How so? Because as companies automate jobs, more jobs are lost across more industries, and since there is no living wage, people have less money to buy products, therefore there is inevitably a “tipping point” where the corporation reaps profits until there’s no-one left to buy, because all the jobs have been automated, and no-one has any money!
It has been said that a company should “find cheap workers and expensive customers”, because there’s no money to be made in investing in employees, while there is a treasure trove to be made from customers.
The irony here is that customers have jobs elsewhere, so at some point, if a competitor employs many of your customers, and decides to automate all of its jobs, then all those employees are no longer your customers!
This principle is associative, so lets explore how this would pan out.
Let’s say Company A has 1,000 employees, who happen to be customers for Company B. Let’s also say Company B has 1,000 employees, who just so happen to be customers for Company A!
Right. So now let’s say, Company A will have found a way to automate all its jobs. Company A promptly fires all its employees. This means, Company B has lost all of its customers. Company B is not doing so hot, so Company B goes under. Well now, Company A has lost ITS customers! Naturally, no one exists to buy their product, so Company A has to fold as well, even after they did so well with all that automation!
Real life is much more complex, but there are inevitably customers that are also employees in all businesses. This too, borders on common sense. The point here is that all companies, whether they are direct competitors or not, are intertwined in a complex relationship of customers, employees and competitors.
Propping up this tragic comedy
Ironically, automation leads to the inevitable dissolution of a corporation, albeit the timeline may be much longer, and short term gains are very desirable. The only way out of this mess, I think, are two options:
A living wage
A living wage acts as a buffer for the transition to a more advanced society. It is a permanent stimulus package to help prop up the businesses, as less and less people have money to put back into the system when automation takes their jobs.
Ultimately, this should be replaced by a more progressive society (using the principles I’ve described above).
Only time will tell, as to whether we need it fast, or if we can slowly iterate to a better governmental/societal model, but for now, it is a necessary stop-gap.
I hope you can agree a living wage is the most humane and logical thing we can do for our labor economy.