Lately I have been working on a crew that installs above ground pools. It’s a great summer job for college kids, but its also caused me to reflect on the number of occupations that exist which no one would aspire to hold.
Think about kids dreaming of what they want to be when they grow up: either something glamorous, like an astronaut or a movie star, or something noble, like a doctor or a teacher. We can think of lots of other vocations that fit under those categories, and as we get older, we often expand our definitions of these categories and add new ones of aspired-to vocations.
Now think about the number of careers that we would never aspire to. We might end up working in such a career, but never because we set out to do that. We simply fell into it and never got out. Careers like working on an assembly line or as a greeter at Walmart are not things we dream about doing but things we accept or settle for because we need work and “it’s a job.”
Why do we consider these jobs to be undesirable, things we would never set out to do? What makes other careers more honorable, things we would aspire to?
This may be one of the great ironies of capitalism from a philosophical viewpoint. Capitalism begins with the idea of ownership- if we own our own means of production, we are going to work in creative ways to promote our livelihood. The idea is that if we have a vested interest in our own success we will be willing to put forth more effort to achieve that success, especially when driven by competition. Individuals driven to succeed will develop new ideas, new means of production, and the most efficient use of resources and thus create the most robust economy.
But this theory developed in a day when markets where much smaller and more localized, when the internet and mega-corporations were not even on the horizon. In a twist of irony, the progression of capitalist economics, built on the idea of ownership, has in effect destroyed its own foundation.
Lets say I own a local shoe store. Or that I work for a locally owned shoe store, either position illustrates the point. I have a vested interest in the success of that store, I have ownership by which I mean a stake in its success (even if I’m not the capitalist who has fiscal ownership of it). My vested interest drives me to work hard to make the store succeed (per capitalist philosophy) because my work seriously impacts the success of the business, which in turn has a serious impact on my own personal well-being.
Now lets consider a different scenario: I work in the shoe department at Walmart. What vested interest or ownership do I really have in the success of this business? The store is simply too big for me to make an impact anymore. If I do poorly, I loose my job and the store moves on, not even feeling a bump in its progress from my failure. Even if the particular store I work for does fail and close, the corporation is so large it will hardly notice. Likewise, if it does well my contribution is so small that I can hardly claim any sort of responsibility. Vested interest and ownership are completely meaningless in this scenario. I don’t have a stake in this business, I am just a pawn in a much larger game.
In both scenarios, we might argue that I have a concern for my own personal success, but I think in each case this means something completely different. In the first scenario, my personal success and the success of my business are intricately connected, so I will be driven to pursue things like efficiency, competitiveness, and ingenuity. In the second scenario, however, my personal success is reduced to a simple completion of the required motions to keep my job. Efficiency, competitiveness, and ingenuity beyond what are required to complete these motions are only rarely going to emerge and might even be discouraged by the larger system. My success depends on my reliability to continue functioning as a cog in the machine.
This is not meant to be a rant against Walmart, by the way. I will admit I am not particularly fond of the place, but I’m not intending to pick on them exclusively.
What I am intending to say is this: the reason the concept of ownership is so important to capitalist economics stems from capitalism’s emergence from humanistic, enlightenment philosophy. Self-determination is at the heart of the capitalist system. We are more likely to take initiative in our own lives if we feel we have self-determination, and in economic terms, capitalist theory argues, self-determination is derived from the concept of ownership. If we own (whether fiscally or via have a significant stake in) the means of our own success, we will work harder to bring that success about.
So the loss of the concept of ownership in corporations too big for the individuals who are part of them to matter undermines the philosophical foundation of the system that brought such corporations into being because such loss represents a loss of the self-determinism and humanism that lie at the corse of that system. This ultimatley erodes the role of individuals as real people with control over the shape of their own lives and reduces them to mere pawns swept along in the wake of a much larger creature.