Monday, October 24, 2011

Real and Unreal “Work”

“Work” has positive connotation when its meaning is to create something or get some necessary task accomplished—be that using hands-and-bodies or using only hands-and-mind. The “creation” here, needless to say, is actually a kind of transformation, be it of physical substances or of ideas. For many people in corporate life today “work” has come to mean something quite different. The actual doing itself happens outside to the corporation. The employees’ job inside is to get other people to do the work—and the pressure is on Big Time to get the work done at ever lower prices. That’s what words like out-sourcing, farming-out, and contracting signify.

This sort of thing began with the industrial revolution—which itself began with textiles. So-called producers obtained cotton, flax, and wool. They farmed it out to individuals who spun the yarns in a highly fragmented cottage industry. Then the yarns were farmed out again, to a similar network of individuals working on their own, to be woven into fabric. The fabric, in turn, was farmed out to individuals who cut and sewed to the producer’s specifications, again paid only for the work accomplished, never for their time. Those who worked had virtually no power—many although in numbers. When we arrived in America as immigrants, the first job my mother held was in a textile operation where she was paid by the piece. Yes, she was an employee, but this practice, piecework, harked all the way back to the dark beginnings of industrialization. In this structure producers did no work and workers had but a minimum economic share in the manufacturing process.

In the evolution of industry there was a period—we’re still largely in that period—when workers were hired, paid for their time, had a stake in the enterprise, and also had a role in product design and creation (as defined above). But now we are gradually going in the other direction again. In many corporations, only tiny minorities of employees actually do work; they are either at the lowest administrative levels or they are engineers-designers who specify the work to be done. Its actual accomplishment is sourced out. Most employees do unreal work: they must find, qualify, negotiate with, and pressure outside agents who will then do the work specified.

Is it real work to lean on suppliers to produce to spec at ever lower prices? Or is that something else? What pride arises from being able to say: “I got the bastards to move up the deadline and to swallow the new price. They hated it, but I got the signature.” Now those who have to do this sort of work are themselves but peons, are themselves under pressure, and the more they succeed, the more the pressure mounts. They, but indeed also the people who live in more square feet above them, are all slaves of the Devil himself who wants infinite expansion of meaningless numbers to enrich the very few who only talk to lawyers and no longer actually really need the wealth.

History has cycles. Times of equilibrium, when justice more or less reigns, are transitory. Then the cycles either turn up—justice increases—or they turn down—the reverse effect. Our times now trend downward. May the process accelerate. May Modernity soon die its soul-less death. Here and there the change upward is sometimes glimpsed, but the instances are still too few. May they multiply.

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