Workers Were Property. They Became Tools. Now, They Are a Nuisance.
Oppositions to minimum wage and unionisation tell you all about the value shareholders place in their workers.
The wealthiest Americans have added at least one trillion dollars to their wealth since the start of the pandemic. Yet, these billionaires’ companies try everything to prevent their workers from unionising. Amazon, and Tesla, thanks to their CEOs being the world’s first and second richest men, are but the two most visible tips of a generalised iceberg of greed and financial injustice.
The recent failure from Congress to increase the minimum wage to $15 is another blow to the most vulnerable workers. Since 2009, the minimum wage has stagnated at $7.25. Its purchasing power peaked in…1968 when it reached $11.76 (in 2019 dollars). Minimum wage workers are financially stuck in the 50s, and it seems to bother no one but the workers themselves.
How can a democratic society call itself civilised and tolerate that over 1.1 million of its citizens earn $7.25 per hour or less? The answer is simple: America is neither civilised nor democratic. It is a plutocracy where the rich dictate their agenda, the middle class enforces it, and the poorest suffer in silence.
Take a look at the following chart detailing the growth in real annual earnings by earnings groups from 1980 to 2018.
No one needs to read again the myth that a CEO’s value-added is such that it warrants a salary a hundred times larger than that of the regular employee. Particularly in light of this other chart linking productivity and compensation.
From 1948 to 1979, productivity and compensation moved together with a correlation of 0.86. Since 1979, this ratio has dropped to 0.17.
The profits from increased productivity do not go to the worker anymore. They go instead to the top management (in the form of salary, bonus, and stock options) and the shareholders (through dividends and stock buybacks). It’s like corporations and their owners have stopped caring about their employees in the 70s. More precisely, they stopped pretending they cared because they didn’t need to anymore.
To understand this social, economic, and ethical shift, we must look at the historical dynamic of the employer-employee relationship and how it evolved with technological innovation through three main phases: from workers as property to workers as tools to workers as nuisances.
To understand this historical evolution, we’ll use the theoretical framework developed by Michel Foucault. He argued that capitalist societies require productive and subjugated bodies; therefore, they create the disciplines and control structures needed to produce such bodies. We will outline these structures and how they explain the situation, we find ourselves in today.
Workers as property
During most of human history, the owning class organised work relations around indentured servitude and slavery. High-value craftsmanship had social prestige, but most service and repetitive jobs were performed by people whose choice was inexistent.
Lords owned serfs; masters owned their apprentices. The relation between employer and employee wasn’t based on freedom of choice and arms-length negotiation, let alone collective bargaining. Feudal societies considered most work a currency with which one could purchase security and protection (serf) or training and skills (apprentice). As such, labour was not an alienation; one’s birth was.
The subjugation of the worker was baked into the legal and social structures of the time. Productivity was not the primary concern as goods and services were the privileges of the elite. No one was concerned with affordability and availability. Workers were traded and exchanged like any other property.
This state of things lasted until the industrial revolution.
Workers as tools
The end of the feudal era marked the end of the “natural” subjugation of the worker and the everyday person. Subjugation had to be achieved through other means: disciplines, as Foucault argued. The public schools, universities, churches, and social clubs would engender the proper, well-guided citizens that a capitalistic society needs.
The standardisation of factory-work (Taylorism) and the invention of the production chain turned the worker into a tool. Each worker became a single cog in a larger machine, and labour became alienating. Crafts became skills and, eventually, operations. The factory turned manual labour into repetitive tasks that maimed the bodies and ruined the mind.
Workers realised, however, that they now held more power. A missing cogwheel would derail the entire machine. Socialism appeared, and workers started to organise themselves in a quest for better conditions and higher wages.
The New Deal and the decades following WWII marked the peak of workers’ rights; it was the Golden Age of the middle class. Capitalists needed their workers, and they needed them productive. Growth came from industry and workforce, and, as we’ve seen above, thanks to regulations, workers were able to capture a large part of this financial growth.
And then, the personal computer was invented, and we entered the age of automation.
The worker became a nuisance.
Workers as a nuisance
The need for productive and subjugated bodies declined as a result of two trends converging. First, the globalisation of economies saw a steady increase in offshore outsourcing. Industrial jobs left the Western economies and headed for lower-income regions, leaving many prospectless. Second, the development of computers and automation processes rendered many manual labourers obsolete. In time, computers became so bright that they started taking on intellectual jobs as well.
Workers grew into a nuisance that companies had to deal with, not an asset they had to foster. Independent contractors, gig workers, it’s no surprise that companies don’t want to hire any more. They don’t require people to perform their core operations; they barely need some services covered once in a while.
Our economies don’t need productive bodies, but there are always more of us. Subjugation, therefore, becomes a central issue for the elite.
This is why it feels like we’re headed back to feudalism. This is why the US feels like France on the eve of the revolution. Why populism and extremism are blossoming the world over. A growing mass of people has become useless in the eye of the wealthy elites.
Whereas computers don’t ask for raises, don’t question corporate policies, and don’t fight for fewer hours and more vacation, humans do more. The trend towards more social justice is a threat to the neo-aristocracy that governs the world.
As Buenaventura Durruti, an anarchist hero of the Spanish Civil War famously said:
No government fights fascism to destroy it. When the bourgeoisie sees that power is slipping out of its hands, it brings up fascism to hold onto their privileges.
Right now, the wealthy elite brings up fascism to subjugate people whose bodies are not needed any more. That these bodies be productive is also irrelevant. Why fund schools, universities, or healthcare programmes when the very thing they purport to train and heal are useless.
Would you spend money repairing an old VHS recorder in 2021?