We must rethink the meaning of workby Rana Dasgupta / September 21, 2016 / Leave a comment
Do you think capitalism needs you? Your passion for the job, your unique insights—do you think they are so special they would survive a war against work?
If you do and you’re right, you’re lucky. But across history people have tended to internalise any long-term bonus as a natural right, until they can hardly imagine it being taken away. Many of us have come to assume that our economic system is obliged to serve up as many jobs as there are people wanting them. But it is becoming difficult to ignore the suspicion that its raison d’être has nothing to do with providing employment. And the consequences are enormous—not only for our economy, but for our fundamental assumptions about life and society.
At some basic level the classical link between the creation of wealth and the creation of jobs has been severed. In the era of high industry, all the world’s most valuable companies required enormous labour: General Motors, at its height, employed 800,000 people. Today’s companies are very different: though Facebook has a market capitalisation of $300 billion—seven times General Motors’—it employs fewer than 15,000 people. Facebook is an enormous concentration of new wealth, but it pays little in terms of wages. It is the perfect symbol of our era of work-without-employment: Facebook’s income is actually generated by the billion people who supply their journalism to the world’s biggest media company as a charitable donation.
But as with so many other transitions, this one was of little interest as long as it did not touch the western middle classes. It was the explosion of white-collar work, after all, that saved capitalism from the death predicted by Marx; and the memory of this middle-class explosion has stayed with the west ever since, supplying an unwarranted optimism about capitalism’s purpose. Even when the long-term assault on working-class jobs made abundantly clear just how little this system cared about providing “employment” the optimism of the middle classes—the chosen—did not falter.