Sunday, March 13, 2011

Haunted Words 1: "Labor"

Apparently, there is a loophole in Genesis 3:19 that lay silent in grievous oblivion for centuries. Where God told Adam,
"By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (NRSV),

it appears that modern business schools have made the discovery that only some people are sweaty dust. Other people are management material.

This distinction between management and labor is antique and an antique, a revenant or malingerer. We have had laborers, and the class of 'labor,' as long as there have been corners, and hence corner offices, but for us it probably dates to a difference bred of widespread illiteracy and innumeracy, as well as legally defined class and college being unavailable. Even in those days, the difference between the labor and the management was education, not nature. Today, though, the difference is nothing but the distinction. I will return to this.

Let me pretend for a minute that I have a business reader, that somewhere and some time such a coincidence occurs. That person, trained in business, learned in business, is hardly going to learn anything from me. After all, I don't know anything about business, not having read the same things nor been to the same places. However, I do know from experience certain things about my own behavior. I know why I dropped a local medical supply company for my mother. I did it because the moron who came out to install things did "elder talk" to my mother. He was patronizing, lying, and infuriating. I know why I have paid more for a guitar at one shop than another. I know it was because the bored teenager on the floor at the inexpensive place wanted to shove a heavy metal shreddddder experience in my face, and the more expensive shop actually asked me what I wanted. I know that a local pizza place does not get my business because the teenagers who man the phones are unmotivated and unhappy.

The lowest paid person is the person who is in contact with me, and the person mistreated the most, disposed of most often, least trained, least respected, least cared for by the company is the person who is the only face of the establishment for me.

I am sure that the guitar shop manager had an MBA. I'm sure the pizza shack owner manager had a great business plan. I know the corporation had a clever way of allocating profits. However, each of them treated workers as "labor costs," and the workers knew where they stood and acted accordingly. Shat upon, they shat back.

In the modern Business School, we study business. Business, you know. Not trade, nor psychology, nor accounting, but "business." Think about that, as it may be the first time anyone has asked you to do so. What is "business" divorced from all of the other things? What is "management" divorced from the things managed? What are the things, after all? Are they people or objects?

As it turns out, Business people study how to get inventory, generate profit, manage brands, diversify, and invest. They learn, in short, about a series of abstracted operations that come from case studies. In all of these, they are eager to turn the humans involved into abstract forces that can be predicted, either with game theory or statistical correlation. From these inductions, they come to names, and from the names they come to laws, and from the laws they generate book sales. The people involved are all learning about managing a "business," but none of them are learning about humans who are working, using, disposing of, or depending upon.

(This last point is a critical flaw: I might study how to make shavers, but the premise of "business" is the free market. No one thus trained has studied what to do if her product is a staple good, like electricity, or food. As a consequence, in order to justify market behaviors, people who wish to apply Business to utilities, pharmaceuticals, and agriculture must adopt libertarian lies.)

So, let's suppose that some case study eventually shows, ten years or so after B-School fiends have been monkeying with life, that workers who are shat on shit back and that customers see the lowest paid person. That makes no dent in the idea that there is "labor" and that "labor" is a "cost" (that's how it was taught in B-school!). Instead, "managers" react by creating "customer service scripts" and "decision trees" for people dealing with customers or -- dream of dreams -- getting sophisticated A.I. to man the phones. It's better than training the workers or treating them like they're part of the company.

The truth, of course, is that there is no such thing as labor, or there is nothing except labor. The company is the labor. Business school talks about the product as if it is already always existing. It teaches as if raw materials need no extraction or refining. It teaches as if the product comes in ex nihilo, like words in a text book, as a "widget," and there is a big box on the flow chart for "making it" that acts as a drain on the real business -- the part You the MBA have been trained for -- which is all that stuff about allocating units and game theory. Of course, there is no company without the product, and there is no difference between the person working to advertise and the person working to make. The "executive" (naming themselves as if they were brains!) is a laborer.

Finally, when companies or organizations decide that they need to make more "profits," they seek to reduce "costs." "Costs" include materials and "labor." Since B-school fools have propagated in themselves the lie that there is a difference between themselves and 'labor,' because they think that there is such a thing as 'labor' distinct from 'executive,' they see labor as that same square on the flow chart, and it's a square that costs. Why, just look at how much "we" pay "it" in benefits (what is it that "we" made, again? and how did they come to be "it," anyway?)!

When college is available to all, thanks to community colleges, and when literacy is at a high, and when the Americans with Disabilities Act is ensuring that there are no disabilities making people settle for demeaning positions, the only thing between the "unskilled" and "executive" class is education, and education can be obtained. It's true that we are not alike intelligent, but it's also true that not very many "executives" are brains -- either in or out of college. However, they still speak as if they are one thing and "labor" is another.

This has consequences. Because "labor" is over there, and "labor costs" should be reduced, while top executive pay is an "incentive," when cuts come along, the axe falls with gravity down the chart. No man thinks, "You know, I'm not worth much. I should lose my job." No woman says, "I think my division could get by with half its budget." No. The top says, "Cut 10%," and the next executive says, "Cut 10%," and the next group says to the lower ones, "Cut 10%." The command falls and falls until there is no one in charge -- the workers. The workers get fired, the work gets left not done, and the business goes along with more executives and no product.

Let no person, ever, accept this word. There is no "labor" in a post-industrial nation. We are ALL labor or capitalists, and you are definitely not a capitalist. The capitalists are very few in number, very low in value, and very worthy of our hate. The rest of us are laborers lying to ourselves and committing suicide.


Vicki said...

Well said. You've hit on something essential here -- something that will help us all understand at least some of what's wrong with our systems. Having been, in earlier phases, the lowly shat-upon "it" in your explanation, I have experienced the truth of your insight. This systematic dehumanization of the worker is a moral blight.

The Geogre said...

And, of course, the fact that the worker does not exist as a person, but as an abstracted "labor" means that "management" has been trained to try to constrain "it." Workers thereby find themselves managed. They get fewer and fewer options, lashed for not having 'flair,' high turn over, an atmosphere of fear, and, again, if at all possible, replacement with "Anna" the helpful phone agent from IKEA.