I get paid at the end of each month, from my job at Bytemark. This is a typical employment contract, nothing special, but it bears thinking about anyway. Bytemark’s a pretty standard for-profit company; people hand over cash for hosting, some of that cash is handed over to me in exchange for labour. I never see some of the cash nominally handed over to me, because of taxes, which go to various things - some of which I like, some of which I don’t. More on that another time.
Work is how I pay the bills; bills are how I live. The job ensures that I have somewhere to live, food, water, energy, transport… everything. It’s possible some of this can be changed in the future, and I’ll look at that when I get around to it, but this is the situation right now.
Fundamentally, I’m quite happy to accept the Marxist analysis of employment (go back and read Das Kapital if you haven’t already). The job that I have is pretty nice to me, personally, but it’s an exploitative contract (see: surplus value), which works towards the reproduction of capital, and so ensuring these kinds of contracts continue on forever.
The usual free-market objections to this analysis that I encounter have been deeply unconvincing; usually, they revolve around the idea that labour is a free market (or it would be, if it weren’t for that pesky government), and people are free to exchange their labour for wages, or not, as they prefer. Nobody would willingly allow themselves to be exploited, so employment cannot be exploitative. QED.
Unfortunately, if I don’t work, I’m in a bit of a sorry state. Refusing to work means no wages. We live in a vaguely civilised society, so if you’re out of a job there are welfare payments. Of course, you’re not eligible for those if you refuse to work - and it’s generally argued amongst those not on welfare (and even many who are) that “conditionality” - as the DWP now calls - is a good thing.
The switcharoo here is that I’m actually fine with working in principle - what I’m not fine with are the employment terms on offer. But if I don’t accept those terms, I’m left in the fairly precarious position of needing to find a new way to acquire, at a minimum, housing, food, water, energy and transport. If there’s no sane way for me to do this, the idea that the labour market is a free one is ridiculous; a choice of X or death is no choice at all.
It’s worth noting that I could quite conceivably go on doing exactly the same job with no complaints, if the background issue of compulsion went away; I am in effect complaining, right now, about having no option but to do something I don’t really mind doing anyway. Other people may hate their jobs, of course, but if I weren’t being paid to write code, I’d do more of it at home for fun.
So, is there a current (or conceivable) alternative that could render the current situation unexploitative? From my point of view, the simplest hack is to make the social security net unconditional. This normally takes the form of a basic income or negative income tax. Without the threat of death if I refuse to accept the commonly-offered contract terms in my field, the contract can be freely negotiated and entered into (or refused, of course), and free-market logic starts to line up with reality. In this model, employers desperately need employees to survive; but potential employees can scrape along, more or less, without employers for as long as they feel they’re being exploited. (In my case, that might not be any time at all, of course). It’s a complete inversion of the currently-existing power relation between employer and employee, and this is for the better, in my view. However, it’s not happening anytime soon. It’s also worth noting that people are supremely good at not noticing that they’re being exploited; I’m taking a marxist analysis here almost as a given, but it’s the height of barmy radicalism to a lot of people. I’m fine with that.
Entrepreneurs in the audience are, at this point, jumping up and down and shouting “why not start your own business, or become a contractor?” - and I have given both of these options serious thought in the past. Ultimately, however, neither option does much - as a contractor, I’d still be subject to extraction of surplus value; I’d just be throwing away a whole bunch of protections in employment law. Becoming a business owner is identical to being a contractor, if the business is a sole trader; and once I employ someone else, I’m just swapping around who is the exploiter, and who is exploited. If I don’t like the contract style, there’s absolutely no way I’d want to impose it on someone else, right?
So far, I’ve assumed that surplus value (and all the other standard aspects of a capitalist business) is actually happening. Could I construct (or join) an organisation that lacks these characteristics, and so salve my conscience that way? I’ve not come across anything that would allow me to pay the bills, but non-profit, Free or otherwise worthy software development is generally available (reskilling might also be an option, allowing me to change jobs completely, but that’s not something I can do immediately).
Joining a worker’s cooperative would also do the trick, but I’m not aware of any in my current skill set. I’ve already enquired about the possibility of converting Bytemark into one; it’s a no-go. Do get in touch if you’re running one ;). Could I start my own up? Quite possibly, but not this year, and probably not next year either. Starting a business (of any sort) requires more capital than I have at the moment. That’s changing, of course, but I’m still quite ambivalent to this option; running a worker’s co-operative really does come under reskilling, I suppose!
The nuclear option
Finally, I could just pack it all in, withdraw from the current market system for housing, food, water, energy and transport, and join a long, honourable list of people who’ve taken up homesteading. All I need is enough land to support me, either individually or as part of a commons.
Back in the day, this was a viable living choice. Hopefully it’s entirely obvious that it’s not the option it used to be - all the land is claimed, owned, parcelled out, unavailable. If you want to live off the land, you need to acquire the land first. And not just any land - you’ll need permission. Really, this option has the same problems as “start a worker’s co-operative”. Prohibitive levels of reskilling, and large initial capital requirements. Another one for the future.
That’s a lot of words, and not all of them are particularly encouraging. Would I want to grub in the dirt for food every day of the week, even if it were an option? Would a worker’s co-operative be a success in any of the fields I could work in? Am I brave enough to switch jobs *rightnow? Only possibly!
Leaving that last one aside, is there anything at all that I can do to improve matters here? The fundamental issue is the imbalance of power between employee and employer; the traditional remedy for that has been unionisation. there is no union shop at work, nor do I suspect there ever will be; but I can always join a union as an individual - so I will. I don’t expect it to change any aspect of my current employee-employer relationship in the short to medium term, but if nothing else, maybe the dues will help somewhere else; and unions really need a shot in the arm. They really aren’t the mass movements they used to be, and they’re not going to improve if someone as in favour of them as myself can justify not joining one, are they?
So, membership form sent. That makes this post worthwhile all by itself! I’m only 7 years late in joining… and hey, it’s May Day!