Back when I was an actual Marxist, we used to talk about the “contradictions of capitalism”. It’s actually a handy phrase (alliterative too!) and recently I feel like the Internet is trying to stuff those contradictions down my throat.

Fish in a barrel · It’s not exactly hard to reel them off. Item: The owners of every business are incented to pay their employees as little as possible, but need their customers to have spare money in their pockets. Item: Prosperity depends on growth, everyone knows that; but we’re using our ecosystem fully and population curves around the world range from flattening growth to steepening decline.

See how easy it is?

Engagement in the clouds · Two pieces crossed my radar recently. First, Gartner recently released its annual State of the American Workplace report, a weighty slab of PDF you have to trade your email address for, but there’s a decent summary with some graphs over on LinkedIn.

The news isn’t good. It turns out that that only about 30% of American employees are “engaged”; of the rest, 50% or so are “disengaged” and 16% are “actively disengaged”. And there’s loads of quantitative data to show that lack of engagement correlates with lack of growth, profits, and other good-biz metrics.

Put another way: Scott Adams may be an annoying weaselly troll, but Dilbert is accurate reportage.

Now cast your eyes at The Future Of Labor by Fred Wilson, New York VC and Thought Leader; he discusses “three big megatrends impacting the future of labor/work”, one of which is “ the move to an on demand model for work”. He envisions a future where, when a business needs something done, “they issue the work order to the labor cloud and someone picks up the work order and gets it done.” This allows the business “to get the work done without thinking about the kind of relationship they have with the worker.”

Obviously, no sane manager should expect “engagement” from the denizens of the “labor cloud”, any more than they can from the growing chunk of the population working for low pay in permanent-part-time mode. See? Contradiction!

Hunger · You want real contradiction? How about 11 Facts About Hunger in the US. The US, you know, Earth’s richest nation. Where 17.5 million households are “food insecure”.

I don’t miss Marxism as a framework, but let’s not kid ourselves that the symptoms it was trying to address are behind us.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: John Cowan (Mar 28 2017, at 04:28)

As far as I can tell, "engaged" is management-speak for "exploited". If 50% of workers just barely do enough to keep their jobs, the vast majority of all corporations do just barely enough to keep their workers. Minimalism begets minimalism.

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From: David (Mar 28 2017, at 05:21)

Thank you as always for an excellent read and thanks for reminding me of why I find Scott Adams by measures both irritating and morbidly interesting with the comment, "Scott Adams may be an annoying weaselly troll, but Dilbert is accurate reportage." It's like a car wreck from which I can't look away.

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From: Richard Smith (Mar 28 2017, at 08:12)

I really appreciate your comment. I, too, struggle to see how we can get out from under the weight of these contradictory conditions.

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From: Doug K (Mar 28 2017, at 09:52)

my younger son is a Marxist. He has Das Kapital on his phone, reads it while waiting for the school bus..

It's very difficult to argue with him given the state of capitalism.

My argument such as it is, is that capitalism is a necessary evil, as some people just won't work except for money and power. Often these can make significant contributions to society, even though most of their behaviour is sociopathic.

Of course the corollary to this is that capitalists have to be regulated and face countervailing powers. When government fails to regulate and drives unions to extinction, it's hard to see how we can recover without a revolution.

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From: Jeff Lowery (Mar 28 2017, at 17:02)

As long as we venerate sociopaths, we'll get sociopaths. This goes for corporations and individuals.

Sociopaths can be useful as well as dangerous. In order to maximize their utility while minimizing their proclivity to do evil, you have to limit their power.

Caps on individual wealth would be one way. After the first $200 million, more money is just going to lead to mischief, even among the well-intentioned.

Limits on corporate involvement in politics will also be needed, because frankly Washington D.C. is corrupt, even if it isn't a direct quid pro quo.

Finally, I think the root of it is hyper-competition. Everything is "I win, you lose". I think we've lost balance in promoting that winning, not just through hard work but by a grueling, exploitative, unrelenting pace. We can all slow down just a bit and still watch society, science, and civilization advance.

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