Friday, January 18, 2013

Wage Slave History

This is a great piece with a wide historical sweep, which is to say, I wish I wrote it:

The Paradox of the Wage Slave (Metaphorical Web)

It tells the history of labor in this country, pointing out that a regular paying "job" for a major corporation is a historical aberration, not the norm, but we treat it like there is no alternative ("we need to create more jobs!"). It describes the economic changes we've seen over the twentieth century and why they happened, with an eye toward future development. There are a few historical inaccuracies, though. Naked Capitalism comments, "I have quibbles with some details of the history (for instance, the regimentation of workers started much earlier, with the large scale factories in the 1800s, and schools, not wars, were the means of getting the public used to regimentation)."

I just happened to be doing research on this very topic. Regimentation was indeed first employed by the military - the "drill and kill" method, and it first appears in the mass conscription of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, well before 1940. Gunpowder meant that armies needed infantrymen able to read and write, operate a rifle or cannon, work in unison, and blindly follow orders. These training methods were well understood when the time came to transform the masses of agricultural workers into industrial workers able to do basic reading and arithmetic and subservient to the clock rather than the rhythms of nature, along with dependable, obedient (to the state) civil service workers. In Europe, Prussia faced the task of forging a nation-state out of a diverse collection of German-speaking principalities. How to accomplish this?

In the nineteenth century, the Prussian educational model was established, with its rigid schedule of Pavlovian bells, and masses of children sitting in neat rows paying attention to a single teacher at the head of the classroom (similar to a drill Sergeant), along with advancement of grade by age. "Students" were taught to regurgitate prefed information, with disobedience swiftly punished (sent to the Principal's office, permanent record, etc.). Conformists were rewarded with high grades, and nonconformists with low ones (which is why there is so much homework - a willingness to do nonsense tasks separates the conformist from the nonconformist for sorting purposes). Tests and grades sorted students out for their new roles in the hierarchical industrial society emerging from the ashes of feudalism.  According to John Taylor Gatto, who has extensively documented the history of the American educational system, the primary goals of the model were to produce:

1.Obedient workers for the mines.
2.Obedient soldiers for the army.
3.Well-subordinated civil servants to government.
4.Well-subordinated clerks to industry.
5.Citizens who thought alike about major issues.

Education for the upper classes, who were presumed to be the natural leaders of society, was typically private and quite different, although some degree of regimentation was introduced as well, particularly in Britain where military service as an officer was expected of the upper classes to maintain the empire.

The system was imported to the United States by educational "reformers" such as Horace Mann. The United States faced a similar task of transforming independent yeoman farmers into obedient, salaried industrial workers, while forging a uniform citizenry from an even more diverse population. Schooling became mandatory, with time off in the summer for work on the farm, which still persists today as an anachronism. The one-room rural schoolhouse vanished, and schools were built  in cities all around the country to "educate" the newly urbanized industrial proletariat. It is no coincidence that school buildings look like factory buildings - often they were built at the same time by the same architects. Along with the "three R's," students were given lessons in civics, patriotism, and the free market.

What he's correct about is that the universal experience of the the Second World War drove the form of the post-war American corporation. Corporations took on the pyramidal organizational structure of the military, with the single general and his advisers on top, a wide middle management similar to an officer corps, and a broad swath of rank-and file specialist "privates". You were expected obey orders from on high, go where they sent you, and work your way up the pay-grade hierarchy on merit, with steady promotions and raises similar to military service. After twenty-five or so years of dedicated service to the organization, you were sent off with a pension (and a gold watch). This view of work in America is still widely held by the Baby Boom generation and older.

Today, America's corporations have transformed themselves into a pre-war "plantation" model. In the plantation model, owners and workers are two separate classes, with a small group of wealthy owners managing a large pool of poorly educated, poorly skilled, easily replaceable workers, and all profits go to the plantation owner with minimal compensation to workers. Plantation workers have little to no rights or benefits and can be fired at will. The managers are responsible for the minimal upkeep of the worker only while in their employ, with no obligations after that. There is no such thing as rising in the ranks; no matter how long a plantation worker slaves away in the fields, he or she will never sit on the plantation house veranda with the owners. See this: Wal Mart and the Plantation Economy (Of Two Minds)

Anyway, I agree with his conclusions and recommendations, although I wish I could feel better about it. What happens to those workers who aren't young, skilled and entrepreneurial? And I doubt there will be enough of these jobs to go around even with shrinking workforces when corporations can use any entrepreneur from Denmark to Dubai to Durban to meet their needs. And as he points out, the capture of the government by the rentier class prevents the very reforms to make a future society without regular salaried jobs work. Such reforms would take money out of their pockets, which is why it's hard to imagine it happening without some sort of revolution. The plantation model and government capture siphons wealth to the top, which is exactly the opposite of what's needed - broad ownership among society of houses, stocks, etc., so that one does not rely on the income stream of a steady job to make debt repayments.

Eventually, I would expect some countries will take the necessary steps and succeed, while other don't and fail. I think it's no secret which way we're heading.


  1. And the worst part is that people cannot imagine any other reality. To sit at home doing nothing is considered a sin nowadays, turning into a machine that runs by the clock is the de-facto norm.

  2. I think it extremely likely that most of your local primary teachers have much better and more defensible career motivations than this, just as the ones who taught me and my children had in the sixties and nineties. The industrial/military economy doesn't exist anymore anyway, and hasn't for the last 30 years, in connection with the worn out 19th century ideas and concepts most people still seem to drag out and use to think about it. I've been there, changed that, and my engineering discipline made most factory workers redundant and I'm proud of this. This kind of economy will never need to employ more than 10% of the working population again to create the food, energy and stuff we all need because robots are better at taking orders than people. Doesn't mean there isn't value to be found elsewhere by the capable looking after the needy, or the artistic making more sense of our world, or my organic box being more labour intensive to create better food, or a renewable KWh being worth more than one which comes with nuclear waste or GW pollution attached.


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