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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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