We [Love] Capitalism: Were Trade Unionists Looking in the Wrong Place When They Fought for Better Pay and Shorter Hours? the Latest Thinking, from Left and Right, Is That Having a Stake in Our Work Is the Real Key to Human Happiness

By Reeves, Richard | New Statesman (1996), February 19, 2007 | Go to article overview

We [Love] Capitalism: Were Trade Unionists Looking in the Wrong Place When They Fought for Better Pay and Shorter Hours? the Latest Thinking, from Left and Right, Is That Having a Stake in Our Work Is the Real Key to Human Happiness


Reeves, Richard, New Statesman (1996)


Karl Marx famously predicted that capitalism would produce its own gravediggers. If so, they have been an awfully long time on the job. (Perhaps they knock off early.) In fact, there is no grave. Capitalism is alive and well, having triumphed on all fronts: economic, social and political. Like democracy, it has proved to be the worst way to run an economy--with the exception of all the others. Yet it seems unlikely that in a hundred years there will be any general need for the word capitalism at all. The only sixth-formers writing essays on "capitalism" or "socialism" in 2107 will be those studying history.

As a result of this total victory, the market economy has been depoliticised. If anything, it is Labour ministers who now make the case for capitalism--for productivity, competitiveness and growth--and new Conservatives who point to the "social irresponsibility" of a selection of companies. When Rover finally went under in 2005, victim of the scouring forces of global capitalism, the national response was a collective shrug. We are all, it seems, capitalists now.

But what species of capitalist do we want to be? Where markets have proved triumphant is in their ability to drive up living standards and personal choice through rising productivity. And yet, as John Maynard Keynes presciently warned in 1930, this solving of "the economic problem" still leaves mankind with his "real [and] permanent problem--how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares ... which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well".

Solving this problem means rethinking the essence of each individual's relationship to the labour market. Capitalism is triumphant but complacent--to reform it, we have to go into the belly of the beast.

There are mountains of data being produced which show us what the Beatles and Aristotle instinctively knew: that higher levels of wealth and consumption have a limited, and diminishing, impact on our sense of well-being. Politicians are trading terms such as "general well-being" and "quality of life" because there is a growing awareness of the costs as well as the benefits of consumer-driven growth--the malaise that the psychologist Oliver James calls "affluenza".

The prescriptions for the disease are to "simplify" our lives, consume less, address our "work-life balance" and meditate. There is even a gentleman giving out free hugs. At a policy level, higher income tax is sometimes proposed (presumably because those days of supertax in the 1970s were so euphoric), along with longer holidays and state-mandated limits on working hours. These are mostly well and good. But they skirt around the central issue (and here Marx was at his most acute): the relationship between the individual and his or her work. Purposeful, rewarding work is at the heart of a well-lived life. This is why Gordon Brown has called for "full and fulfilling" employment and why David Cameron--a decade later--supports a "modern vision of ethical work" as part of a drive towards "general well-being". There is a strong, consistent link between job satisfaction and overall happiness. Work is where economics becomes human, where the connection between the creation of wealth and cultivation of well-being is strongest.

Work is also the site at which the skills and effort of the individual are transformed into something the number-crunchers at the Office for National Statistics can measure and call GDP. Right now, in the UK at least, we are not doing too well on this score. The most important component of overall productivity today is labour productivity--in other words, what people actually do (or fail to do) at their workplace each day.

The problem that companies face is how to motivate people to "go the extra mile": to give the firm more creativity, energy or time than is required under the terms of their contract. In the management literature, this is labelled "discretionary effort".

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