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The Question of Social Policy and Worker Autonomy

The Methods Used by Governments to Control the Economy and the Natural Human Need to Participate

By Punkerslut

Image: Photograph by pixelthing, CC BY-SA 2.0 License

Start Date: September 18, 2011
Finish Date: September 30, 2011

Political Solutions to the Social Ill of Poverty

"The rapid bureaucratisation of the centralised socialist movement and trade unions deprived the workers in increasing measure of their self-initiative and subjected them to the control of a leadership which did not share their living and working conditions."
          --Paul Mattick, 1967
          "Workers' Control"

     Everyone discusses and questions the matter of economy. Everyone wants to know that there will be enough work-and-wages for themselves and the people they care about. The individual has a natural interest in knowing that there is enough of everything to go around. In terms of politics, this impulse finds its expression in various laws to regulate or control economy. This can be found everywhere from the minimum wage laws to the investment funds for agriculture, from food inspection to product safety requirements.

     Politicians and political parties want you to know that they're interested in providing an economic structure that allows everyone to reach their fullest potential. They're not only talking about providing jobs, but healthy, safe, well-paying, and steady jobs. People in general are not going to get excited simply about having bread. Nobody would be satisfied to simply feed their children without providing them with any means for becoming fully-developed, independent individuals. Whether artistic or mathematical, we desire the fullest expression of everyone's impassioned skill, because in that, you can find one of the more meaningful acts of living.

     There are two types of laws passed by political leaders that tend toward this inherent need of the people. Public works are one type, where the government invests in business simply to "give away money." Sometimes called "subsidies," this is the most common method used to for attacking unemployment, even though it does produce useless employment. This is an infrastructural regulation, since it directly effects the resource managing between industries The idea behind it is often called Keynesian Economics, even though John M. Keynes, who it is named after, provided no contributions in this area. [*1] In absence of an appropriate name to call it, I will choose the policy of Public Investment.

     The other type of law that tries to provide a sound economy for the public is a regulatory law. Examples include the minimum wage and work-hours and requirements for safe working conditions and safe products. The terms that can be offered to a worker in their place of work are escalated and higher standards of personal reward from work are imposed. The intent of laws like this is to guarantee the availability of time and effort for the laborer to develop themselves as an individual -- something that requires one to escape the confines of obligation and orders, even if only temporarily. With a high enough reward, every person will be able to have what they need to fully develop themselves.

     These are the two types of laws, those of public investment and those of economic regulation. They are both attempts to increase the room for every individual to develop their artistic and intellectual side, to cooperate with others in a way that is as satisfactory as it is meaningful. Public investment attempts to provide employment, and to use this as a "natural way" to influence "market forces," so that employers offer higher wages just because of the scarcity of workers. Economic regulation attempts to guarantee certain standards of working and living, for those who would not feel the positive effects of public investment. Laws that attempt to provide an economy that satisfies human needs generally fall under one of these two categories.

Laws Compared to the Needs of the Individuals

"Parliamentary action deteriorates into a mere quarrel of politicians, and serves to fool the people, or at best to patch up dirty old capitalism. At the same time mass strikes of the workers tend to become most serious attacks against State power, that fortress of capitalism, and most efficient factors in increasing the consciousness and social power of the working class."
          --Anton Pannekoek, 1948

     However, these laws are laws. When Aristotle studied the subject of politics from Plato in ancient Greece, he came to understand "politics as a normative or prescriptive discipline rather than as a purely empirical or descriptive inquiry." [*2] The political system is the physician, society is the ailing patient, and the proposed law is the prescription. This is exactly the case when looking at the way politicians expect the society's fixes to come from Public Investment and Economic Regulation. The standards of work are suffering from the disease of investor apathy and lack of demand for the products of labor -- the laws are the pill that will guarantee economic activity and quality of life.

     Personal development, though, means independence. It means organizing your life and work according to the standards that you choose. The need of humanity itself is to develop uniquely, to act as we think best fits our particular curiosities and passions. The method of politics is to set a generalized standard, to provide orders and command over what would have otherwise been free. Our individuality demands that we have the right to act our own, but our law demands that we can only act so far as our rulers decide. The need of human interaction is provided by liberty, the technique of law is provided by control. The use of laws to satisfy economic needs, then, runs directly counter to the impulse it is trying to satisfy: meaningful involvement within the greater society.

     Every political philosopher has understood the impulse of social involvement in the individual, though they cannot agree about what must done with it. The concept of civic community to the ultra-Conservative, Friedrich Hegel, was that "the particular person is essentially connected with others. Hence each establishes and satisfies himself by means of others...." [*3] And, to quote the Marxist, Fredy Perlman, regarding the first tribe of humans, "Through their daily activities the tribesmen do not merely reproduce a group of human beings; they reproduce a tribe, namely a particular social form within which this group of human beings performs specific activities in a specific manner." [*4]

     Nor do you need to go to the extremes to understand the naturally social aspect of humanity. Jean Jacques Rousseau is often described as a "liberal philosopher" by those who wrote about him without reading his material. He wrote that humanity enters society so that "instead of an uncertain and precarious way of living they have got one that is better and more secure; instead of natural independence they have got liberty..." [*5] Or, to quote a philosopher appropriately regarded as politically-moderate, David Hume...

"The propensity to company and society is strong in all rational creatures; and the same disposition, which gives us this propensity, makes us enter deeply into each other's sentiments, and causes like passions and inclinations to run, as it were, by contagion, through the whole club or knot of companions." [*6]

     All throughout political science, the inherently social nature of mankind is found. But humanity is social because of choice, not because of obligation. Our interaction with others is an expression of our liberty. We choose to be social, to be involved, to interact. The joy that comes from the interaction is that what will be said and what will be done is not predetermined by anyone except ourselves. All political philosophers have recognized mankind's innately social nature, and our willingness to produce our own society. The form of government imposed upon people, then, has always been that which was imagined to encourage the practice of our socially-positive liberties.

Mastery of the Individual or the Government?

"The normal way of publishing a pamphlet is through a political party, and the party will see to it that any 'deviation' -- and hence any literary value -- is kept out."
          --George Orwell, 1943
          "Pamphlet Literature"

     The standards imposed by economic regulation and public investment provide no choice to the individual. That is the nature of the law: it is imposed upon the people, and not voluntarily chosen. Human beings in society live for their ability to interact -- they are fascinated by art because of the feelings put into it by its created, they are impressed by scientific accomplishments because of the amount of intellectual effort put into it by thinkers. We find meaning in something because of how it connects us to society in general. From enjoying the words of a writer to the brush strokes of a painter, we enjoy the creations of others, only because we relate their creation to the particular ideas that must be shared by creator and observer.

     Economic Regulation fails in satisfying this very real need of being involved in the society which effects you. It sets definite and absolute standards, none of which are chosen by any individual involved, but only by the averaging of their body's needs and market value. It does not provide for the people to make their own decisions -- it simply provides limits on their economic activity. It does not satisfy those natural, social impulses to be the creator and molder of your own existence; someone else, whether chosen by a majority-vote or selected by a representative, must mold it for you.

     Public Investment fails to satisfy those needs, as well. Since the investment is made with public funds, its implementation becomes an averaging of the worker's needs and value. The government is also fearful of entering into actual economic activity, often limiting its public investments to unneeded creations, like additional highways, statues, and power lines. Many employed in such a way understand the artificial nature of their employment; how could they demand better working conditions or industrial democracy, in what is essentially a system of public alms? It leaves no satisfaction of the need to be socially-independent. Or, to quote Henry David Thoreau...

"Most men would feel insulted if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back, merely that they might earn their wages. But many are no more worthily employed now." [*7]

     To give the people real control over their lives, there needs to be worker self-management, or pure worker autonomy. The average person spends the majority of their day at their job. If they had control of that, then the terms which determined the quality of their existence would be within their own hands. They would have the right to choose how to participate in productivity, as well as to decide what to make, how to make it, and how they want to distribute the profits of it. The majority of the day could be actually used to express the natural need to interact with others and to express some particular, individual influence.

     The polite waitress who has to deal with a rude customer would probably get more satisfaction from throwing them out than from the monetary exchange value from the revenue. Human beings naturally want to have some control over their environment, and neither economic regulation nor public investment are capable of providing that. If every business and firm were managed by the workers who labored there, then everyone would have direct control of the terms of their existence. More than just guaranteeing a standard of living, it guarantees the right to active participation in one of the most important spheres of your life.

     If wages have to be cut or hours increased, let it be because of something that is real. Let it be because of the economy, because of the force that the workers themselves tried to express on the economy and the force that it returned against them. Don't let it be because of an order, because of a law or a regulation or any other type of government involvement. Don't let the terms of your existence be determined by the decisions of congressmen, senators, and presidents. Demand a system where you have the right to express your voice in every part of your life, whether at the community, the school, or the workplace.

"There is a coarse and boisterous money-making fellow in the outskirts of our town, who is going to build a bank-wall under the hill along the edge of his meadow. The powers have put this into his head to keep him out of mischief, and he wishes me to spend three weeks digging there with him. The result will be that he will perhaps get some more money to hoard, and leave for his heirs to spend foolishly. If I do this, most will commend me as an industrious and hard-working man; but if I choose to devote myself to certain labors which yield more real profit, though but little money, they may be inclined to look on me as an idler. Nevertheless, as I do not need the police of meaningless labor to regulate me, and do not see anything absolutely praiseworthy in this fellow's undertaking any more than in many an enterprise of our own or foreign governments, however amusing it may be to him or them, I prefer to finish my education at a different school."
          --Henry David Thoreau, 1863
          "Life Without Principle"



*1. The French National Workshops of 1848 amply demonstrate every point of "Keynesian Economics," in both action and ideological consideration. Thomas Paine's essay, "Agrarian Justice," as well, details the monetary policy of Keynes, while at the same time being appropriately written. Keynes often used the same exact word as one quarter or one third of his written material, like a modern Dickens getting paid per word. This makes his written material virtually worthless, but nobody who talks positively about Keynes has ever read his books.
*2. "Aristotle's Political Theory," from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, First published Wed Jul 1, 1998; substantive revision Wed Jan 26, 2011; Plato.Stanford.edu. Quote: "Politics is a practical science, since it is concerned with the noble action or happiness of the citizens (although it resembles a productive science in that it seeks to create, preserve, and reform political systems). Aristotle thus understands politics as a normative or prescriptive discipline rather than as a purely empirical or descriptive inquiry."
*3. "Elements of the Philosophy of Right," by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, 1820, translated by S. W. Dyde, published by George Bell and Sons, Kingston, Canada, 1896, page 154, section 182.
*4. "The Reproduction of Daily Life," by Fredy Perlman, 1969, Source: Anything Can Happen, pages 31-49, Marxists.org.
*5. "The Social Contract, or the Principles of Right," by Jean Jacques Rousseau, 1762, Translated by G. D. H. Cole, Book 2, Chapter 4.
*6. "Essays Moral, Political, and Literary," by David Hume, edited by Liberty Fund, 1777, Part I. Essay XXI. Of National Characters.
*7. "Life Without Principle," by Henry David Thoreau, 1863.

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