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Three Essays on the Social Question

Frank Thomas Smith

II. Is Slavery Really Dead?

Roberto Cavallo leaves home at 5.30 a.m. in order to arrive at his job by 7. He is employed in a small company, which manufactures gas heaters, where he earns $500 per month. The country is Argentina, where the cost of living is approximate to that of the United States. Of course he and his family (two children) cannot live on his salary, so he has a second job as a gardener and his wife works as a maid. He considers himself lucky. The owners of the firm, two brothers in their early forties, send their children to exclusive private schools, own second country homes and vacation in Europe.

Slavery existed in civilized human society from the beginning of recorded history until the middle of the eighteenth century, when it was abolished in the United States, the last "civilized" country in which it was officially condoned, not as the result of a humanitarian impulse, but by means of a bloody civil war. To the Western mind, the fact that slavery was condoned in ancient Rome, Arabia, Africa, even the United States during its early period, is not particularly surprising. That the most enlightened souls in ancient Greece also accepted it and found it normal is, however, somehow shocking. How could Plato, Aristotle, Socrates justify such an inhuman institution? That they did not bother to justify it indicates that it was simply in the order of things and it never occurred to them or anyone else to question it. This implies a development of consciousness, for not even the reactionary elements today would try to reinvent slavery. In the southern United States the real reason for slavery was the economic need for free labor on the plantations. The rationale was that African Blacks were not quite human and it was therefore legitimate to treat them as what were thought to be: animals. This was probably sincerely believed by many, if not the majority. Even the Nazis needed a rationale for the murder of the Jews: their racial inferiority, which was a danger for the purity of the German nation.

Just as slavery was a natural condition for the ancients, a form of modern slavery is natural for us: we do not question it. The modern form of slavery deals in the buying and selling of human labor. Previously the whole person, body, soul and spirit, was owned by another, was bought and sold, abused or treated decently as animals still are, depending on the whim of the owner. The slave was an object, an intelligent means of production, no more. To what extent has this changed? It is no longer possible to buy a whole person. If we compare the modern industrial worker and the agricultural slave, we find that freedom exists today for the former, but only to a degree. If he doesn't like his job he can quit and try to find another. If he does, he will find that nothing has substantially changed. He still sells his work to the highest bidder. The employer is in the position of being able to buy (but not sell, except in professional sports) an essential part of the human being: his work. If this sounds at first glance exaggerated, observe the "labor market", in which the negotiations take place. Labor unions have the obligation to obtain the highest possible price for the labor they represent, and management attempts to buy the commodity as cheaply as possible. Trans-national companies seek out countries where labor is cheapest in order to invest in new plants. There is no question that labor has the nature of a commodity, an object, an intelligent machine - still, under the capitalist system.

The effect this has on the worker is profound. In Third world countries, where labor is exploited through miserable pay levels, there is constant friction between labor and ownership which often spills over into the political arena. Demagogues or military interests take advantage of the misery experienced by the lowest (working) levels of society in order to seize political power. They promise the workers much and usually deliver nothing except more misery. In any case, the development of democratic institutions is inevitably interrupted and set back for years. Hitler and Mussolini, to name only the most extreme examples, were originally the leaders of workers' movements. Such demagogues are able to seize power because they are supported by the masses. But even in economically "advanced" countries, where workers are paid decent wages, labor dissatisfaction is always prevalent as is evidenced by constant union demands for more pay and benefits. These demands are made even when wage scales and benefits are adequate. The results are higher production costs and inflation.

We can curse union lack of responsibility until we are blue in the face, or enact legislation which limits their influence, but it does not help because neither rhetoric nor superficial legal measures get to the heart of the matter. The fact that workers are forced to sell their labor, thereby consolidating their semi-slave status, results in a deeply felt sensation of being wronged, regardless of the amount of remuneration received. Until this situation is recognized and corrected, harmonious labor relations in industry will not be achieved.

The question is: how can this situation be corrected? History has shown that turning ownership and control of industry over to the state is a grave error. There is, however, an alternative. A look at the reasons for the astonishing success of Japanese industry reveals a clue. Japanese industrialists are no less capitalist than their western counterparts, but they do something essentially different. Despite their reputation for being an ant-like society, the reality is quite different. Japanese industrial culture considers the worker to be a human being - not a machine as in the west - and treats him accordingly. Kaoru Ishikawa states this unequivocally in his revolutionary book "What is Total Quality Control?" When workers are able to organize their own work through institutions like Quality Circles and are fully informed concerning the objectives and policies of the company they become motivated. An organization with motivated co-workers will out-perform by far one with unmotivated personnel. This does not mean that the Japanese have solved the social problematic which began at the inception of the industrial revolution. They have, however, taken a first, tentative, perhaps unconscious step in the right direction. In their society industry is still owned by anonymous shareholders as it is in the rest of capitalist society. The problem of ownership of the means of production remains unresolved. Their success, however, is certainly enhanced by the fact that foreign competition has not been willing or able to take even that first step, despite the fact that the philosophy behind the humanizing of industry originated with western industrial psychologists such as Douglas MacGregor and J.A.C. Brown.

Profit sharing is another baby step in the right direction. Unfortunately, the percentage of profit shared is usually infinitesimal and is therefore perceived by workers as being the cynical sop that it is.

These two steps, worker participation in decision-making (which does not mean control of the decision-making process, but only participation in decisions which directly affect them and their work) and profit sharing, can be grasped as already existing methods which could be expanded to the extent that justice is achieved. If all workers, including managers, are part owners of the company in which they work, and if there are no other part owners, the semi-slave status of workers would be eliminated. This is not communism. I am not advocating that industry should be turned over to the state which supposedly represents the workers, but that it should be owned by all those who actively participate in it, and only by those.

The obvious objection to this concept is based on a myth: the necessity of stock markets. Capital is indeed raised by the sale of company stocks in the market. But the main function of this market is a speculative one. It is little more than respectable gambling, somewhat safer that the racetrack or Las Vegas. It is the forum in which the rich increase their capital without the necessity of resorting to work. The myth is its necessity. Other means of raising capital for production exist: bank loans and bond issues. In both of these alternatives the lender may reap a reasonable profit, but has neither a voice nor a vote in the company's policies. In other words, he is not an anonymous owner with the capability of reaping profits for himself at the expense of those who do the work. The conversion of anonymously owned companies to worker-owned enterprises would be complex and would take time, but it could be done with the necessary basis of corresponding laws, which could be enacted by any democratic legislature not dominated by economic interests.

Banks of course are also anonymously owned, profit oriented enterprises. They should be required to convert to a special non-profit-making status. Not that there would be no profit, but it would be used only to cover the banks' own costs and reinvestment requirements. An important and immediate benefit deriving from such a conversion would be lower interest rates due to the abrogation of the need to pay dividends to stockholders. Dividends are, in reality, a cost; hence, lower costs and the resultant lower interest rates, meaning greater borrowing power for industry, which should more than offset the lack of anonymous investment capital.

Another myth, the motivating power of profit, will be considered in the next essay.


            Essay III: Motivation and Reality