Working on redefining the meaning of work
RICHARD DONKIN wonders if it is possible to re-engineer capitalism to include the great mass of people
One, patrolling a traffic junction, had milk crates strapped to his feet to raise his visibility and used a long pole with a net to reach across to car windows. Another had a small sign by his tin saying: "Let's be honest, it's for the Budweiser."
But by far the most successful was the one dressed as a cow. The man in the cow suit had a prime position next to the pier for the Alcatraz ferry. A sign round his neck said: "I moo for cash". Every time someone threw a quarter into his tin he would jump up and down, mooing while pulling his rubber udders. He must have been making $10 an hour, twice that of the assistants in the fast-food bars nearby.
This US-style begging had an entrepreneurial fizz that would had been admired, although not necessarily understood, by the roadside beggars of Bombay who pursue their art with a vocational zeal directed more towards evoking sympathy than providing entertainment. Whether they would recognise it themselves, the San Francisco and Bombay beggars are engaged in activities that require effort and invention .
So, is it time for a redefinition of the meaning of work? Jeff Gates, a counsel to the US Senate Committee on Finance in the 1980s and a pioneer of employee stock ownership plans in the US, believes that the work ethic needs updating to make it relevant to an era when machines, or what he calls "ownable assets" perform much of the work.
In his new book, The Ownership Solution, Toward a Shared Capitalism for the 21st Century, Gates points out that the word "work" is derived from the Greek word for "sacrifice" - a necessary evil, requiring an employee to give up his leisure in return for wages. This would suggest, he writes, that "the ideal of an employer is to have output without employees, while the ideal of the employee is to have income without work".
This, he accepts, is contradicted by those who stress the psychological imperative of work so that, as Max Weber, the German economist, put it, "one does not work to live, one lives to work". People's identities have long defined by their work, writes Gates, apparent in many surnames such as Baker, Butcher and Smith.
That we are what we do may be true, but the content of the job for many in low-paid work is hardly sufficient to make Weber's notion palatable. Studs Terkel, "the working man's philosopher", said that "work is about daily meaning as well as daily bread".
Gates' concern goes beyond the content of work to the capitalist system itself. However successful it has become, it is not very good at actually creating capitalists.
The rich are getting richer while the poor are finding themselves ever further adrift. US Census Bureau statistics for 1996 showed that the top fifth of US households were receiving 48.2% of the nation's income compared with a bottom fifth surviving on 3.6%. Supplyside economic measures from the Reagan and Thatcher eras have created not so much a trickle-down but "trickle -up" effect , says Gates.
The solution, he argues, is not to rely on a return to Keynesian economics but to "re-engineer capitalism'' with policies designed to promote wider share ownership.
Gates' arguments have been influential in the establishment of tax incentives designed to encourage large family shareholders in the US, looking for a tax efficient way to shed their stock, to transfer their holdings into employee stock ownership plans. But the spread of such schemes has been to slow to create the critical mass necessary to change the existing system of corporate finance. To create such a change, Gates accepts, would need a fundamental shift in policy.
But ownership by itself, Gates notes, is not sufficient to elicit employee commitment. Employee owners soon become disillusioned unless managers involve them in decision-making. The work ethic, says Gates, should be viewed as an "exchange ethic" requiring productive input that does not necessarily assume the need for human labour.
Could this really arise from true worker capitalism? Imagine if the financial benefits of labour-saving technology were more evenly distributed among the population. You could hang up your cow suit for good . - Financial Times. Top of page