The promised land?

Posted: 18 September 2015 in Uncategorized
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My Notre Dame colleague and friend Ben Radcliff restates his case for increased happiness. The key? The decommodification of labor.

As Radcliff sees it,

First, when people become commodities they become subject to pitiless market forces beyond their control. They face a world characterised by chronic insecurity, since the market for the sale of their labour is, like the market for any commodity, subject to uncontrollable fluctuation.  People become dependent on forces indifferent to them, or to any individual. As the Danish sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen put it in The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (1990), ‘the market becomes to the worker a prison’. To survive and try to flourish, people adopt the values and norms of the market prison – competitive individualism, egotism, a focus on short-term material gain. In practice, these values detract from a satisfying life.

Commodification has another, equally destructive aspect. When people are reduced to commodities, they lack the ability to make moral claims on society. Just as we have no moral responsibility to bushels of wheat or consignments of mobile phones, we have no moral responsibility to workers who are conceived of as commodities, labour units instead of people. Not only is a commodity without a right to a job to begin with, it certainly has no right to paid sick days or vacation time, to pensions or healthcare, or to protection against arbitrary dismissal, to say nothing of a guaranteed severance package or similar redundancy benefits.

Rather than being treated with dignity and respect – as valued members of a community whose work contributes to the general good – workers as commodities are merely another factor of production, no more worthy of considerate treatment than the machines they manipulate.

Therefore, he recommends a series of changes—a real social safety net, stronger unions, and so on—that he considers to be essential to move in the direction of decommodifying people and of increasing happiness.

If he’s right—and I think he is—why not just accept the logic and eliminate wage-labor entirely?

I don’t know if it’s the promised land. However, if people were not forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to someone else, they (and all of us) would certainly be a whole helluva lot happier.

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