Monday, April 11, 2011

The sole proprietor as yardstick for class struggle

The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.

Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system.

----- Preamble of the Industrial Workers of the World

History has not exactly sustained the premise that the working class and the employing class have nothing in common. The working class and the employing class are each collections of fractious individuals who, for a variety of motives, are all over the political map, and seldom agree as a whole on much of anything.

But there is antagonism built into the relationship of employer to employee. There is no better way to identify why, than to examine the very different situation of an individual sole proprietor, who owns their own business and does all the work to make the business prosper.

"My own business"

If a sole proprietor decides that growing the business requires putting in extra hours, they and their family personally suffer the costs of that decision. The same individual and family reap the benefits, in the form of increased business from increasingly loyal customers impressed with the ever-increasing quality of the product or service the business delivers.

If a sole proprietor takes time off, there is no "paid vacation." Either the business owner shuts down the business for a time, foregoing the revenue that could have been made, or, hires at her or his own expense a temporary employee to keep the business open and operating. If the owner takes no vacation, they personally pay the social and emotional price of disappointing the family, or of sending the family off on vacation while remaining at home to work.

If the business fails, the proprietor, and their family, are the ones who pay the price. The proprietor made the decisions, and lives with the consequences of their own decisions.

At the end of a long life building a business, making sacrifices in the short term to prosper in the long term, the sole proprietor can look forward to a well provided-for retirement, either selling the business for a lump sum, providing a nice nest egg, or turning it over to a successor in return for monthly payments.

The employer and employee divide up the costs and benefits in a very different way.

Wage Slavery

In the absence of labor protection laws or a union contracts, if an employer decides that an employee at will should work extra hours, the employer reaps the benefits, but the employee and the employee's family pay the costs. If an employee is ill, or their child is sick, and the employer insists they must come to work, the employer reaps the benefits of attendance, but the employee's health, or family life, suffer the pains which are the price of showing up for work.

In the absence of a pension plan, an employee receives only their weekly or bi-weekly paycheck. One of the effects of "market forces" is that this paycheck allows little for savings, being just enough to pay living expenses, paycheck to paycheck. Employers do not, unless strict laws or powerful unions require it, set aside a portion of the revenue from an enterprise to insure that EVERYONE who makes the company's prosperity possible is provided for in their old age.

If the stockholders and managers made bad decisions, not only do they lose, but a substantial work force which had no part in making disastrous choices is out of work.

It is entirely understandable human nature that a business owner would put the business first. They are not suffering the pains that their employee(s) suffer. It is equally understandable human nature that an employee would resent the high-handed behavior of the boss.

Thus, in any enterprise where the functions of owner and manager, are divorced from worker and employee, the result is class struggle. It is as natural as breathing. Costs and benefits fall differently on each class of persons. This, and this alone, all members of a given class share in common.

Failures of socialist construction

One of the failures of socialist construction to date, starting with the Soviet Union, but including India, Tanzania, and many other socialist experiments, is the fact that state administrators in practice feel the pressures of managers, but not the pressures of employees. A sole proprieter personally feels and pays all the prices, and reaps all the rewards. The manager of a socialized state enterprise does not, any more than the manager of a private capitalist enterprise.

Alternatives such as worker self-management or cooperatives are unsteady, because most of the working class, most of the time, don't really want to be bothered with devoting time and effort to administration.

The reason there is leadership in trade unions is that the number of people with ambition to lead and skill at organizing is only a minority of the total union membership. The reason there is political conflict within unions is that the number of people with ambition to lead and skill at organizing is somewhat greater than the total number of leadership positions available.

All ideologies are either utopian abstractions or blatant hypocrisy. The most rabid advocates of the "free market" party line (yes, it IS a party line) are first in line for government subsidies, loan guarantees and tax credits. Likewise, the working class hero who lives only to sacrifice for their brothers, a sterling champion of justice, is a figment of intellectual daydreaming.

Working class heroes

There are working class heroes, but like everyone, they act on motives. They may be high-minded enough to rise with the ranks, not from the ranks, but they do want to rise. Union officers who are on call 24/7, and work sixty to eighty hour weeks, sooner or later desire to be reasonably well paid for it.

Progress is seldom achieved by reasonable men and women sitting down to work out reasonable solutions. Progress more often emerges from the clash of opposing forces, each motivated to get the best deal for themselves. But a stable, lasting solution, one that isn't undone then redone every time a political balance shifts, requires some thought.

More important, it requires some real attention to the over-used slogan "People before profit." A sole proprietor absolutely needs to profit from their labor, and their investment of capital to improve the productivity of their labor. But it is all theirs. It is all done for their own person and their own family.

The purpose of economic activity is to provide for human life. The purpose of human life is not to provide a motive power for economic activity, as an abstract good in itself. If the working class as a body cannot literally take control of the means of production, then a rebalancing of the costs and benefits of production is the minimum necessary concession to the reality of class struggle.

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