I am proud to write in cooperation with the authors of Better Capitalism: Jesus, Adam Smith, Ayn Rand, and MLK Jr. on Moving from Plantation to Partnership Economics.
By distinguishing between plantation and partnership economics, Better Capitalism
provides us a way of coming to understand the revolution of the ways we are assessing work. For far too long, the free-market capitalist strain in our workforce has overlooked the constitutive contribution that workers make and has instead measured the value of work in terms of the marketplace.
Since Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, markets have remained relatively free to provide employment, dictate its conditions and assess the value of work in monetary terms. What counts is the generation of capital, and an employee’s salary is determined by the power of supply and demand. The production of capital is perhaps a necessary condition of work, but a hyper-focus on capital production will miss its sufficient conditions. It should become clear that work has a type of constitutive role that is not accounted for in market logic.
What is meant by constitutive work? Constitutive work means the structural elements that working contributes to life. These structural elements include not only physical infrastructure, but much of a social fabric that makes the market a quintessential “social” institution which can connect us as a species, but also as communities, and as providing much of what keeps us alive, but moreover, what makes life worth living. In other words, work provides both our biological and social contexts which situate our lives.
The profound disconnect between a constitutive account of work and the rationale
of productivity becomes painfully clear in a moment of crisis, i.e., when our biological lives are threatened. During COVID-19, priority was given to jobs that matter most in the short run: those that literally kept us alive. We have bodies and
our bodies have needs, that we depend on those who care for others or deliver needed food. Briefly, a constitutive assessment of work brings jobs that cater directly to basic human needs to light.
Yet the constitutive account also captures the other ways workers contribute
to society by catering to our higher-order needs for sociability and meaning.
There are, for example, those who run the places in which we gather: cafés,
pubs, fitness studios, cinemas, and theatres, but also churches, art galleries
and museums, and schools. And there are those who create our vibrant cultural
life, whether they be comedians, clergy, educators, athletes, visual and
performance artists, or independent filmmakers. Instead of asking how to make
the most money, these workers have a vision of the world and of what is
valuable in it, and through their work they try to realize such values.
However, a market approach to work sees human activity primarily as input factors into a production process that ultimately serves the maximization of profits. We have become so used to this perspective that we’ve forgotten that for much of human history an exclusive desire to make money was considered a pathology, a kind of addiction that is more likely to eat up the soul of individuals than to make them happy.
The implausibility of a market-driven account of work has become tangible. COVID-19 led us to appreciate the contributions of those who make sure our physical needs are satisfied. We also realized that the small businesses and cultural organizations
that fulfill our higher needs, but whose activities were put on hold to “flatten the curve”, might go bankrupt. The questions that have come to prominence are, what kind of future lies ahead if only large, profit-oriented organizations survive? And what type of employment will be left for those who are entering the labor market?
Market logic encourages people to seek profits from what economists call “negative externalities”: to put costs on to others, whether specific individuals or society as a whole. This behavior is particularly frequent among large corporations, not only because they tend to be powerful enough to do so unquestioned, but also because they are primarily run as money-making machines for the benefit of shareholders.
Assessing the value of work exclusively in such a way overlooks a crucial point. Many individuals and organizations have a constitutive perspective on work, and they often create benefits that go far beyond the immediate tasks they fulfil. A nurse or doctor who believes it’s their duty to care for the sick will also try to support their patients psychologically. Similarly, a small business owner may provide a supply of goods, but they also contribute to livening up a street. These are all “positive externalities”: valuable contributions to the community that are not factored into prices and therefore tend to get undersupplied in a pure market environment.
Any valuation of the role of work will need to include such necessary contributions.