Monday, June 14, 2010

The principle of captive obligation

Financial Times:

Over the past four quarters, non-farm productivity in America had its sixth biggest jump since records began in the 1940s. That’s good, right? It certainly is if you are an employer. More output per paid hours of work equals better returns. But for poor old employees it might simply mean less help and more sweat. Of course, economists have long known that productivity growth ultimately lifts everyone’s prosperity.
Higher productivity can be distributed to shareholders, customers through lower prices, or paid to workers. But if the economy picks up, higher profits will likely be spent on hiring new bodies, rather than paying more to overworked current staff. That will please the politicians at least, and eventually everyone wins. But US workers should not expect a pay rise anytime soon.

There is a simple principle I would like to share with you which might measure the spirit of working life today; it is what I like to call the principle of captive obligation.

The idea is eminently useful for anyone who works, and who, in working, inevitably encounters that deep, wide stream of human discontentment, nourished as it is by the most delicate assortment of neurotic tributaries.

People, by and large, are not happy. The point is inescapable to anyone who listens to people talk when they are at work. But because consumer culture, including the "culture of career" which is passed off as its harmonic counterpoint, always occludes its role as arbiter in that circuit of relations known as capital, we are forced to face our situations critically if there is ever to be any hope of understanding them.

A principle of captive obligation restates the idea that obligation favors the more powerful side in any relationship. Of course, the idea is not novel, but it needs to be restated until it is understood.

Today a coworker explained that the collective bargaining contract we work under was not being observed by management -- an all too common refrain of late, a la "The Great Recession." Meanwhile, a manager explained that her increasingly "informal" work schedule was conflicting with those parental expectations already established with her kids. Whether merely employed by capital or acting as its agents, the "have nots" bear their own personalized burdens, experienced as they are through a customized fear and aloneness.

In any relationship where power does not rest balanced but pulls inexorably to one side, so obligation goes with it, in a singular direction. Just as gravity cannot be overcome without an equalization between contending forces, power pulls to the lowest point between unequals, absent any countervailing force.

It is instructive that amongst human relationships, the principle of captive obligation which exists between employers and employees is increasingly rejected out of hand as abominable in nearly every other form of social intercourse. Only in the most "abusive" relationships can we discover the principle at work, articulated as a woman's increasing obligation to her husband, for example, with successive and decreasing obligation by the husband toward his spouse, as the relationship grows. This is the logic of the capital relation as we must come to understand it; and it is always portrayed as an opportunity, not an abuse.

As you go about your workaday existence, much comfort may you derive from the simple principle that we are obligated to them, but they are not obligated to us! and the understanding that this principle supplies: In order to stop the abuse, one must always confront the relation.


ASP said...

I LOVE your blog. Just wanted to say.

JRB said...

Thank you, ASP.