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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

The Struggle for Meaningful Work

How can we overcome this vicious regime? The advocates of the progressive work ethic offer some suggestions. From the Industrial Revolution to the twentieth century, debates have raged about how best to promote and reward labor. Conservatives argued that the poor could only be induced to work hard if they are subject to precarity and ruled by their employers. The middle classes, in this view, could be motivated through a culture of competitive conspicuous consumption. Progressives countered that all workers would work hard if they received the full fruits of their labor. They rejected the idea that the good life is a matter of competitive acquisition in an essentially antagonistic zero-sum status game. They advocated for economic arrangements that emancipate workers from groveling subordination to superiors, and in which work is a meaningful domain for the exercise of varied and sophisticated skills. They looked forward to a society in which everyone could enjoy a life beyond the work ethic—one that, while recognizing work-ethic virtues, also promotes a broader set of values and goods. Instead of working overtime at what David Graeber has called “bullshit jobs,” people would enjoy ample leisure time as well as meaningful work that is genuinely helpful to others.

This line of progressive thinking begins with the seventeenth-century Levellers and John Locke and continues through American and French Revolutionary figures such as Thomas Paine and Nicolas de Condorcet, classical economists such as Adam Smith and James and John Stuart Mill, Ricardian socialists such as William Thompson, and Marxists such as Friedrich Engels and Eduard Bernstein. These thinkers offered vastly different analyses and proposals, but each understood that property relations needed to change to meet the challenges of their times. Far from holding private property sacred, even the liberal political economists in this lineage proposed dramatic changes in property law to advance the welfare of ordinary people. All advocated for the abolition of feudal property rights because they rejected any connection between ownership of land and the right to govern other people. All opposed primogeniture, entails, and other inheritance devices that kept large estates intact in perpetuity for the sole benefit of a few families. Smith advocated the abolition of slavery, unpaid apprenticeships, chartered monopolies, private colonies, and most joint-stock corporations. Paine and Condorcet invented the idea of universal social insurance. Paine’s proposed social-insurance program, which would be funded by an inheritance tax, also included universal stakeholder grants. The Mills argued that ground rents should be capped using a 100 percent tax on rent increases. J.S. Mill, champion of the peasant proprietor, used Locke’s labor theory of property to justify the expropriation of Irish landlords and the redistribution of their holdings to the peasants who worked the land. He also supported labor unions and argued that workers’ cooperatives were the ideal organizational form for modern industry.

Read the rest at Dissent Magazine


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