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Why Don't People Work?

Frank Thomas Smith

The question "Why don't people work?" is provocative. People do work, or at least some of us. Most of us, when questioned, would answer that of course we work, although others might think that what we call work is hardly the real thing. A coal miner, for example, might not consider the white collar worker as being a worker at all, because for him work consists only of physical labor. Government bureaucrats and politicians are thought of as lazy and parasitic. A factory manager feels that his workers are shiftless and only do the minimum necessary to keep their jobs. The unemployable are looked upon with disdain by almost everyone. They are incapable of working because of innate character deficiencies, some say. That they are also victims of social injustice may be admitted; but what about the others - the few, to be sure - who, starting in the same conditions, "made it"? There are many other examples and in all of them there is some truth and much prejudice. let's look at the truth part of some of them.

There is little doubt that the Japanese work harder, better and longer hours than their counterparts in the West. This phenomenon has been extensively studied, but the conclusions reached are far from conclusive. Some think that the Japanese culture is a more fertile ground for a work ethic than is ours; others point to the Japanese organizational principles, in which workers from the bottom up are organized in quality control circles allowing decision-making at all levels instead of only at the top, thereby allowing for greater motivation and total quality control. it seems that both factors are important and valid. Can the West emulate the Japanese and become as productive, motivated and quality conscious as they are? The attempt has been and is being made, with relative success. The fact remains that western workers work less and less well than eastern workers in general. One obvious reason for inferior work results, at least in the west, is low motivation and antiquated, autocratic organizational structures. Ironically, the basic concepts for stimulating motivation in industry originated in the west through industrial psychologists such as Douglas MacGregor (The Human Side of Enterprise, 1960).

The next example is general system oriented. The free market system provides great material rewards for owners, investors and high level managers. At the lowest levels (where the greatest number of people are situated) these rewards are meager indeed. Therefore, why put out in order that the other guy - the anonymous shareholder or the tyrannical executive - reap the lion's share of the rewards. Why indeed? This attitude creeps in once the first primitive accomplishment of the free market is realized: that of providing employment - certainly an important one, because for the hungry any job is better than none.

The third example is the most extreme version of non-work: unemployment, another element built into the capitalist system. With increasing technological advancement it has become a veritable scourge of human work activity, inevitably related to any modern industrial system. Already now, but more so in the future, human labor will become less needed. A tremendously important social riddle is how the armies of the once employed, replaced by technology, will be able to even feed themselves and their children. Lack of motivation and increasing unemployment are dangerously related. The owner or manager may feel that as jobs become rarer the worker had better work and work well because he can be easily replaced. Furthermore, he can be paid less because, according to the law of supply and demand, the commodity "labor" is in excess supply and must therefore be cheap. This is a formula for revolution if there ever was one. The concept of lean management, although correct from the producer's point of view, is terribly short-sighted. By "downsizing" the company is made leaner and tougher, and there is greater organizational efficiency with motivational innovations and enhanced information systems. Production and quality actually increase. But what happens to the people who are made redundant in the process? It is obviously impossible for unemployment benefits to be paid indefinitely and in ever increasing amounts.

Without employment there is no place for the young to go except to the criminal underclass. A desperate young man recently said to me: "Well, 1 know one place where there's money: Drugs." He smiled, but I knew that he was very serious.

A human is a threefold being consisting of body, soul and spirit. His/her path through life has, or should have, meaning: to become a free individual in the profoundest sense of the word and to come to terms with his spiritual nature. When these urges are repressed-from within or from without - resignation, illness (mental and physical), dependence on authority or drugs can result; or rebellion, violence, crime. Consider then the worker, manual or clerical, who is bound to dedicate at least one-third of his life to boring, repetitive tasks within a hierarchy in some ways as rigid as the military or ecclesiastic ones, only without the trappings. Of course if one is lucky and has a strong enough will, fulfillment can be found outside the workplace. Nevertheless, even in this case one-third of life is wasted. The individual's bodily needs of nourishment, housing, clothing, etc. must be met. It is in order to obtain these that people work, in the first instance. However, even when work is available, these needs are not necessarily satisfied, at least not in the so-called Third World.

Experience in Latin America has shown me that many workers who toil for large, solvent first-world enterprises do not earn sufficient pay to lead lives worthy of human beings. They live in poverty or, in the case of the under and unemployed, abject poverty (usually called "miseria" in sítu). It is no secret that the attraction for investment in underdeveloped countries is the low cost of labor; or, in less diplomatic terms, the opportunity to exploit workers who have no choice but to accept less.

Generally speaking, in the developed countries the situation is different and the basic physical needs of the employed are satisfied. But humanity's soul has other needs. This is the area of feeling, where injustice is felt, where recognition, self-development and self-esteem are needed. They are the soul's demands. When the individual is forced to sell his work on the aptly named "labor market," thereby transforming it into a commodity, he himself is transformed into an object, or at least that essential part of him, his work, is so transformed. Higher pay is demanded and often received, but this is, for the soul, of little consequence as it only increases the price of the labor commodity.

Psychological human needs will not be satisfied in the workplace until the wage system is replaced by one which offers participation in all aspects of a company's processes, including its profits and, yes, its losses. Profit-sharing plans may be a forerunner, but they are more often than not palliatives in which a small percentage of profits is divided among personnel. What about the lion's share that goes to anonymous shareholders or owner-managers?

The only truly satisfying spiritual work experience is that of giving. in the case of some professions the element of giving is fairly apparent: educators, for example, or social workers give of their time, capabilities and labor and their remuneration is not something they receive in return, but a recognition of their needs. it is impossible to fix a monetary value for the work of an educator - which could be worthless or of enormous social value, depending on the individual and, to some extent, the institution in which she is active. The society which she makes possible should therefore provide for her needs. (That the economic support for educators is often shamefully inadequate - $300 per month for elementary school teachers in Argentina, a country in which the cost of living is higher than in Switzerland, for example - reflects the grotesque distortion of social values worldwide.)

The same principle should also hold true in industry, that is, the recognition that work is not a commodity to be bought and sold, but the element which transforms nature and gives it economic value. A new way of thinking about the nature of work is needed in order to free it from the shackles of the labor market and give it the dignity it deserves. Changing the name of the Personnel Director to Human Resources Coordinator will not do the trick.

The products of industry are finally received not by those who produce them, but by others: consumers. This process is a clue to the fraternal nature of economic activity. Rudolf Steiner recommended the introduction of "Associations" of producers, distributors and consumers into the economic process. These associations would be responsible for economic planning including, especially, prices. The term "free market" is oxymoronic. A market is always controlled by someone. Under Communism the state controls; under Capitalism, the producers. Consumers, who until now have been at the mercy of the producers or, in the best of cases, ineptly protected by the political state, would become part of the decision-making process.

Political-economic theory seems to be bedeviled by an either-or mentality: either Socialism or Capitalism. But Socialism (in the sense of state ownership of the means of production) simply doesn't work, as recent history has resoundingly proved. It is inefficient, corrupt, bureaucratic and leads to totalitarian political systems. As the Marxist ideologues lick their wounds and wait for the opportunity to raise their boring heads once more, the free marketeers lick their chops after savoring a long-awaited "I-told-you-so" indulgence.

Here we are referring to a third way, neither total Capitalism nor total Socialism. Of course the state should neither own nor operate industry, that should be the province of those who have the initiative and the know-how. But the state, the democratic state, does have the obligation to protect the rights of those involved in the economic process: workers, managers, technicians, etc. The consumers, given the legal right to do so, could protect their own interests within these economic associations.

Present and future unemployment has been traditionally relieved by increased production. Globalization and technology have upset this dogma. Training and retraining programs of course help, but do not offer a real solution because there are simply too few places in industry to provide employment to an increasing population. (Readers in the United States, which is enjoying an unprecedented, prolonged period of growth, should be aware that in much of the rest of the world, especially the Third World, unemployment, once endemic, is reaching epidemic proportions).

There is, however, one area which is undermanned and cries out for skilled labor: agriculture. Agriculture is not synonymous with agro -business, which implies the industrialization of what can only thrive for the benefit of humanity through the establishment of labor-intensive, chemical-free, organic or bio-dynamic farms operated and owned by caring, knowledgeable farmers. (Here the principle of economic associations is also relevant.) Logic dictates that if work is no longer available in one activity, it must he found in another where it is needed and meaningful, and this other, today, could very well be agriculture. it is not a question of "back to nature," but rather of an economic necessity which would bring with it important ecological and cultural benefits.

The main problem with the free market and Marxist systems is that they are dogmatic. Social processes - especially economic ones - are in a constant state of flux and cannot really be pinned down to definitions. The idea of the social tri-formation as suggested by Rudolf Steiner in his book, Basic Issues of the Social Question, is just that: basic principles to be adapted to current situations. The question of work - or lack of it - should be approached with this in mind.

Technology, production and information methods, and marketing have developed enormously. The overall social system remains, however, in the stone age. A radical transformation of the social system has become more urgent than ever. This can only happen if a sufficiently large number of people want it and are willing to work for its accomplishment.


© 2000 SouthernCross Review

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