Thursday, July 18, 2013

Harmony of Interests? Myths of Capitalism (continued)

In this series of blogs I have been trying to clear away some of the myths of capitalism, most of which are myths that capitalists hold. One of the things this indicates is that capitalists don't understand capitalism. For instance, the business person who complains about lazy workers has, of course, every right to free speech under the Charter, but he or she is simply a bad capitalist if this constitutes their plan to deal with a labour shortage. As I pointed out, a labour shortage is a labour shortage. The issue, if one is a capitalist, is using the market to address it. Its cause is irrelevant; its solution is known. Yet, a great number of people I know who would self identify as capitalists don't think this way. They think in terms of lambasting workers for not working more.  In other words, they don't really understand the economic system that they claim to support.

Let's get a bit more analytic. Rather than listing more myths of capitalism, let's think about the idea that what is good for the company is good for workers. You hear this all the time, usually from politicians, but also from business leaders. If my company makes more money … everyone benefits because I will hire more people. There is, as it is presented, a community of interest between workers and their employer. This is just not true and stating that it is just not true is not so much BS marxism. Instead, the market and its operation ensures that employers and employees have antagonistic relations. Said differently, antagonism between the boss and the workers is built into capitalism and to pretend otherwise is to engage in one of those myths.

I have my own ideas where this myth came from (I don't think its just capitalist propaganda that is designed to trick people), but I'll leave that off and focus on the issue at hand. Why are there antagonistic relations between workers and the bosses. In a market situation, an employer (or his or her representative) and workers (employees) are, as I have explained, engaged in a negotiation. Capitalists assume this negotiation involved individual self-interest. I've already written about the complexity and problematic quality of this concept, but that is not the point. Negotiations are structured as antagonistic relations.

I'll give you an example just to demonstrate my point. My union is involved in negotiations with Mount Allison University. I don't know all the issues, but I do know how the negotiations are set up. Each side appoints a negotiating team who draw up lists of demands (things they want from the other side, say wage increases or wage decreases) and then they meet and argue about these. From the beginning, then, negotiations place workers (faculty) and bosses (administrators) on separate sides and put them into situations that get very close to winner take all. There are compromises, to be sure, but you see my point: the processes is antagonistic. Now, I hasten to add that I am not making this up and if you don't like it … well … you don't like capitalism. I did not create this system. I'm just explaining it and, truth be told, I have no fondness for it in part because it creates antagonistic relations.  What is more, as a person who is supposed to be self-interested, the system tells me to look after my own interests (whether I am a boss or an employee). So, I go into negotiations with the goal of getting the most that I can from the other "side." For the boss, this might be the most work at the lowest pay; for the worker … precisely the opposite: the most pay with the lowest work. Moreover, because capitalist theory assumes my self interest, I am not doing anything wrong (regardless of which side I am on).  Bosses are right to treat workers as disposable factors of production; workers are right to treat bosses as cash cows.

The result of this process, then, is not a harmony of interests between the boss and the employee but a conflict of interests: we each have antagonistic designs that are realized by subverting the goals of each other. If I am a worker, I get an increase in pay by cutting into profit. If I am an employer, I increase profit by cutting into pay. And, we are each legitimate in doing so because we are supposed to behave in a self-interested manner.

One final thing: the idea of a harmony of interests is, of course, antithetical to the theory of capitalism in another way in that capitalist theory sees the individual as the basic unit of society. Remember Margaret Thatcher once said that there was no such thing as society. Her point was that there were only individuals. Other political theories work with -- in the sense that they accept -- the idea of collective social units of some sort (socialists think about class; nationalists think about the nation; feminists think about gender). Capitalists do not. They think about individuals. In this sense, the idea that there is some greater social unit that can function harmoniously is something that is denied from the beginning by capitalists. There are individuals with their own self interest. The idea, then, that one might ask a worker to buy into a company as a team or substitute family to which he or she owes allegiance and loyalty is something that is said regularly. But, from a capitalist perspective, it does not create a harmony of interests because it cannot. Because it is predicated on individuals and antagonistic economic relations, capitalism is not about harmony. From the get go … its about conflict.
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