The New World in the Shell of the Old

Shepard Fairey’s depiction of mutual aid. Photo credit: eshutt / Foter / CC BY-SA

Two moral hazards of “wage slavery” are that the worker is unable to control the conditions under which they labor and automation threatens to reduce their role to the point that their compensation is insufficient for survival and dignity. Government regulations can improve their lot but may still leave them in over specialized rolls that do not allow for personal development and leaves them with pay that is unlikely to increase to a level that allows for retirement, home ownership or other dignities. Unionized shops and cooperatives also help workers obtain their needs but often resist automation in the name of avoiding layoffs. Because of their dual role as producer and consumer, automation presents workers with the Scylla of low wages and losing one’s job, and the Charybdis of higher prices for goods and services.

With the existence of unions and coops is there a need for new forms of direct action — that is action other than government intervention? In addition to a resistance to automation, worker run cooperatives have the draw back that they must be embraced by the wealthy investor class or the worker has no chance of establishing a workplace democracy and collective ownership. Perhaps there is another form of direct action that could reorganize how things are produced in a way that has benefits for both the wealthy investor and the worker that has nothing to sell but her labor.

If it is the case that specialization can lead to new efficiencies in a market, then perhaps new efficiencies will be realized by better understanding what the different parties have to bring to market in situations where wage slavery seems to occur. I can readily identify at least three parties that are each attempting to sell something different from one another.

1. The wealth investor is attempting to purchase infrastructure with their capital that can be converted into profits. They may also be interested in purchasing brand names that can be converted into profits.

2. Manual workers and machine operators (i.e. “workers”) are attempting to sell their labor, that is the physical motions that are needed to manufacture something along with some basic or advance knowledge of manufacturing techniques.

3. Designers are attempting to covert their detailed designs into profits by convincing those with the necessary infrastructure and workers to make and distribute the actualization of their designs.

If each of these groups were to create enterprises based exclusively on what they have most to offer, could we create a market that is more efficient and humane to workers? Since the wealthy investors are seldom willing to convert to workplace democracies, perhaps progress could still be made with the following alternative organization of production.

1. Workers specialize in selling their ability to transform raw materials to finished products.

2. Designers sell licenses to manufacture their detailed designs.

3. Wealthy investors sell access to the infrastructure that only they are wealthy enough to create.

4. Distributors attempt to convert their ability to make strong business relationships with retailers and produce brand loyalty in consumers into profits.

The workers establish contracts with designers to produce a design and rent infrastructure from wealthy investors. Any of the three parties (or combinations of the three) could also act as distributor.

Under this arrangement workers could form “guilds” that specialize in manual techniques and operating advanced machinery in order to convert raw materials into finished products. These guilds could be co-owned, workplace democracies that control the conditions under which the workers labor, and negotiate wages and benefits without the antagonistic relationship between worker and wealthy investor.

Designers would benefit by having more options for making their designs compared to a fixed in-house infrastructure and a single brand name they work under. Licensing arrangements and agreements to rent infrastructure could vary greatly, from exclusive agreements to open designs without restrictions on production or distribution (perhaps as part of a strategy to increase awareness of a brand or designer).

The guilds could purchase raw materials and own each of the items they produce. They would make these items available for sale to a distributor under the terms of a contract which would include obligations to the designer, the providers of infrastructure, and the distributors of the finished goods. Production runs could be funded by bringing these contracts to banks before a production run to secure the financing needed to purchase raw materials and rental of infrastructure. One possible contact arrangement could be one in which the workers are allowed to keep or give away items they manufacture where they are not allowed not sell or barter the items to anyone other than an agreed upon distributer. Under an alternative arrangement, they may agree to offer a particular distributor the option to purchase or barter all items they manufacture where the distributer is allowed to decline. Items they decline to purchase could then be sold through other channels.

Overtime machine designs and other infrastructure may grow more humane and hospitable due to the market pressures of the actual workers choosing which machines to rent and which locations to work in.

How could this benefit the wealthy investors? The wealthy investors could benefit from having fewer employees to manage, increased flexibility in what products they distribute, and a larger percent of their investment in tangible assets that can be resold — verses investment dollars that go to wages and benefits. Owners of extremely specialized equipment could make it available exclusively to particular designer or guild or could encourage several brands to manufacture specialty items. An additional advantage for infrastructure providers could come from liability for dangerous or defective products being shared among several parties, as opposed to all liability resting on the shoulders of the investors that own an enterprise that plays all of the above rolls. The existence of guilds may also put pressure on traditional shops to improve their conditions in order to avoid losing employees to the guilds.

Investors would also find that since the guilds are competing with each other, there is little resistance to introducing improved automation, since the guilds would seek to find a means to convert raw materials to finished products in a way that increases their own profits and lowers the burden on their bodies. As automation advances, investors can continue to buy and rent the state of the art to guilds or even individual consumers — once some of the machines are as simple to operate as a copy machine. Guilds would survive by sharing fewer work hours, where fewer dollars would be needed to obtain the things one wants and needs due to automation lowering the cost of producing those items. Workers could use their free time to improve their educations and become more involved in design and negotiating contracts between designers, workers and distributors.

Another specialization that could form is the role of “quality inspector”. Inspectors could work under contracts with many different guilds to insure that the items being sold to distributors are of acceptable quality, Their performance could be gauged in terms of how often a distributor or end consumer rejected a shipment based on quality flaws after being approved by a quality assurance specialist.

An additional benefit could exist for designer, distributor and worker. If the workers are able to keep or give away items that they manufacture, then the designers and distributors may be able to claim that that are participating in charitable giving without having to pay for the materials or labor invested in the items they are credited with giving away! They may even be able to license their designs on a per-item-produced basis where they are given a tax deduction for the lost licensing revenue of every item given away. Distributers would also be able to advertise that purchasing their products contributes to charitable activities.

Workers could organize websites that perform means testing and provide items on a first come first serve, or lottery basis. The range of items offered may someday be quit comprehensive and could help to elevate the quality of life of the poor, the disabled, and the elderly — all without intervention by the government. Means testing might include a requirement to provide a statement from a physician or permission to access income tax records.

Since this strategy attempts to provide for those based on need through the voluntary labor of those who are able and wiling and without the intervention of the state, this strategy resonates deeply with the goals of the anarcho-syndicalist or left-libertarian.

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