The Work Experience: WSDEs vs Capitalism (Blog)
In capitalist enterprises across the US, when the working day ends and employees return to their homes, many stop at bars along the way. Signs invite them in for a “Happy Hour” of drinking. The implication is that the previous hours – working – are the day’s unhappy hours. Similarly, current mainstream academic economics (“neoclassical economics”) ascribes “disutility” to labor, an absolute and universal characteristic of labor per se. It theorizes that workers suffering the disutility of labor are compensated by the utility of the consumption enabled by wages. This labor-bad-consumption-good presumption, so deeply ingrained in capitalist culture, also surfaces in countless popular songs, films, books, and stories.
Yet labor is not inherently negative. It need not be a “disutility. Workplaces could be (partly or entirely) creative, stimulating centers of people’s relationships, productive activities, and personal growth. Many young people enter the adult labor force with expectations and demands for what they term meaningful, creative, and educational jobs. Of course, many young people and even more older people have given up on that possibility, resigned to a life where labor is a burden whose compensatory offset is consumption.
Many workers view work and workplaces so negatively because they are not organized to be positive experiences for workers. In capitalist enterprises, the boards of directors organize work processes to achieve their priorities: typically, mixes of profit maximization, growing market shares, and enterprise growth. Employees’ educational and personal growth, individual self-realization, and the quality of their workplace relationships are not priorities of capitalist enterprises. The varying mixes of directors’ and major shareholders’ priorities for capitalist enterprises routinely subordinate workers’ well-being.
Thus, for example, capitalist enterprises are not organized to stress the development of their employees’ physical or mental capabilities. Even the basic safety and health of workers have been widely compromised by employers unless and until workers successfully struggled to gain some protections. Capitalist enterprises do not generally provide workers with time to participate in collective decision-making, neither inside the enterprise (to design, operate or change it) nor in politics and culture outside the enterprise. Skill development and personal growth derived from such activities – and the happiness and satisfactions thereby afforded workers – must be found outside the enterprise, if at all, rather like “happy hours” belong to bars, not workplaces.
The profits produced by the collective labor of all employees accrue to and are distributed exclusively by a tiny minority of the individuals engaged in capitalist enterprises: boards of directors and major shareholders. As designers and governors of the enterprise, they are concerned with the profit from work, not the majority’s (employees’) relationships and personal development in that work. Those atop the capitalist system occupy the comfortable offices, undertake the ultimate supervision and strategizing, and enjoy the perquisites including large pay packages.
For most employees, capitalist work processes are typically dull, repetitive, and isolating. Intrusive monitoring and pressure often worsen their conditions. Workers’ opportunities for creative or independent initiative are rare. Their chances to control or redesign the work process rarer. Workers are order-takers; boards of directors and major-shareholders are order-givers.
The daily lives of workers, at least 5 out of 7 days per week, revolve around their work. If that work has the organization and characteristics described above, it will stultify, frustrate, and deaden workers’ lives. What happens on the job usually carries over into the community during non-working hours. Major shareholders and directors of capitalist enterprises usually also dominate politics and culture in societies where enterprises are organized in the usual hierarchical capitalist way. Workers’ political and cultural needs are subordinated to their employers’ priorities.
In stark contrast, Worker's Self-Directed Enterprises (WSDEs) could and likely would organize work differently. The objectives of profit and growth would not have priority over the objective of making the work experience an exciting, creative, and continuously educational experience. The all-round development of a community’s population requires precisely that the workplace and work time – which absorb a huge portion of most adults’ lives – be made physically, mentally, aesthetically, and educationally positive. Consumption would no longer be privileged over production as human activities, nor would consumption be made any more beautiful and attractive than production.
A transition from capitalist enterprises to WSDEs would transform the experience and hence the meaning of work for most people. It would democratize the design, direction, and control functions of enterprises. Everyone would participate in, be educated for, and learn from making collective decisions about what, how and where to produce and how to use the enterprise’s net revenues. WSDEs would organize work to produce desired quantities and qualities of outputs (objective set A) but also and equally to yield work experiences that are productive of strong relationships and personal growth (objective set B). When contradictions arise between objectives A and B, neither will be prioritized over the other.
WSDE’s have different objectives and correspondingly different organizations of the place, time, and processes of work. In a transition to WSDEs, resignation to the burdensome work experience typical of capitalism would give way to the actuality and then growing demand for meaningful, self-realizing work as a basic human right in any civilized society.
Visit Professor Wolff's social movement project, democracyatwork.info.
Permission to reprint Professor Wolff's writing and videos is granted on an individual basis. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org to request permission. We reserve the right to refuse or rescind permission at any time.