The Individualization of Labor Problems

Lysander Spooner wraps up his 1875 pamphlet Vices Are Not Crimes with,

[T]he poverty of the great body of mankind, the world over, is the great problem of the world. That such extreme and nearly universal poverty exists all over the world, and has existed through all past generations, proves that it originates in causes which the common human nature of those who suffer from it, has not hitherto been strong enough to overcome. But these sufferers are, at least, beginning to see these causes, and are becoming resolute to remove them, let it cost what it may. And those who imagine that they have nothing to do but to go on attributing the poverty of the poor to their vices, and preaching to them against their vices, will ere long wake up to find that the day for all such talk is past. And the question will then be, not what are men’s vices, but what are their rights?

Spooner was arguing against the Puritan idea of blaming the poor for their own exclusion. Individual vices couldn’t be the cause of general systemic poverty, according to him; if poverty was so widespread, it has been caused by something that transcends the individual.

The trend of individualizing social problems may sound like one of the old social pseudo-explanations typical of the 19th century, but it’s an idea that’s very much alive. As I’ve written, commenting on Brazil’s labor culture, the thought that individuals are responsible for their being unemployed for lack of qualification is very common in the government, businesses and unions.The discourse which favors training for the “job market” takes the current structure of production and employment as a given and, if workers are unable to place themselves in it, the problem can only be lack of individual initiative. This discourse, naturally, never shows up distilled, yet it is the foundation for the many defenses of “professional training” and the constant reminder that there are “job openings” just, somehow, there aren’t enough qualified people to fill them.

At the same time, we have the idea that the job market is more competitive and workers should adapt. This “education for competitiveness” is very common; colleges and technical schools are always flaunting this technique to show that their curriculum will prepare students for an environment in which jobs are scarce and the worker is replaceable – unless she takes action to counterbalance her economic ineptitude.

Obviously, real economic conditions have something to with this idea.

Overspecialization of labor is one of the collateral effects of corporate concentration. Subsidies to big business and favoring some players through market regulation (very common in the last 10 years in Brazil) extends the production chain and stimulates capital input in production. This extension of the production chain makes firms ever larger and less specialized. To fill specific job posts in the chain of production, however, workers have to become more specialized.

Thus, workers have to differentiate themselves because low specialization jobs are artificially devalued by corporate subsidies, which favor capital rather than labor inputs. And large businesses externalize training costs, outsourcing it to the government and unions.

These dynamics coupled with regulation (minimum wages, pay floors and ceilings, employees’ savings rules, urban laws, bans on street trade, home manufacture regulations, public transportation monopolies, etc.) systematically act to concentrate the market, favor a few established production methods, criminalize poverty and make self-sufficiency less attractive.

Because of that, at the labor end of the rope, “competitiveness” is always increasing in the corporate economy, while competitiveness at the (established) business end has settled at a comfortable enough level.

The professional qualification and job market competitiveness discourse are corporate economy rationalizations. They are the individualization of labor issues and the blaming of workers for their unfavorable position in the negotiation table.

Vices and individual inadequacy are not the reason people end up without jobs. And the attempt to frame the debate in those terms only diverts us from the real question. Paraphrasing Spooner, the question is not what are people’s shortcomings, but what are their rights?

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory