Peter Fleming writes a bitter screed against a version of capitalism and the concept of work in his recent book, The Mythology of Work: How Capitalism Persists Despite Itself. His basic purpose is to prove that, “We work, pay taxes, take care of the bills and commuting costs for one single reason: not to ‘survive’ but so that the governing elite gains its priveleges for nothing. Our labour is designed to provide freedom to the rich. Our work exists in order to subsidize the costs of their existence.”
The book, then, is largely a critique of what Fleming sees as an oppressive class system, where the middle and lower classes are firmly squashed by managers and owners of capital. This is a book that demonizes work and profit. It is essentially a moral complaint, although Fleming denies that in his conclusion. It is not a cheerful book, or one that provides real hope of change. In fact, in the conclusion, Fleming seems to abandon hope that even his critique can change anything. He labels his work inoperative, because he is both benefiting from and participating in the very system that he intends to critique.
There are deep layers of irony in this book. Fleming is careful to note some of them in his own conclusion. As noted above, he recognizes that he, as a middle class university worker, benefits from the so-called oppression of others who are in a class below him in the economic food chain.
There are other clear ironies, though. In some ways, Fleming has an exceptionally high view of human nature. He believes that the economic system would continue and human flourishing would exist if only the managers and owners of capital would be replaced by a democratic body of workers. Thus the workers, executing the daily job, could replace the vision and ordering function that managers and corporate bureaucratic methodology provides.
At one level I am sympathetic with him. In previous jobs, I have often felt that I had a better view of the problem and a better hope of devising a solution than the administrators above me. However, sometimes my best solution was the best only for a limited population. The broader corporate perspective required a different approach or there was another solution that worked best for the company as a whole, though it was less than optimal in my small sphere. There were times I think I was right, but others that I was certainly wrong because I did not have the whole picture.
Fleming’s assumption is that everything would work out alright because the workers would make good long term decisions if they were only given the power. He fails to note that in many situations this is not the case. Although corporations sometimes make frustrating choices for short term benefit, the same is true for workers. Union strikes are nearly always couched as striving for worker’s rights or some absolutely necessary good. And sometimes this is valid. Sometimes, however, strikes and discordant negotiations are designed merely to extract the most near term gain for the workers. In other words, greed is sometimes still the motivation, and sometimes the fault is on the side of the workers.
Another basic assumption in Fleming’s calculus is the inherent goodness of humans. Yet, at the same time, he sees humans as pathetically weak. He describes debt as a form of slavery and faults banks for people’s consumer debt. There certainly are (and have been) cases of predatory lending, but the kind of consumer debt that Fleming describes as slavery is largely the result of excessive spending due to a lack of self-control. Fleming seems to argue that there is a deterministic force that is driving people to make bad choices. He ignores the fact that in many cases, these are bad choices that were made voluntarily for short term gain in recognition there would be a later price to pay.
A major problem with Fleming’s view of human nature is that he wants to have it both ways. Workers would make good choices if they had the opportunity despite the reality they have made poor choices when they have had the opportunity. This seems a bit sketchy.
Another problem with The Mythology of Work is that Fleming seems to be jousting a strawman. He has constructed a caricature of neo-liberalism (a term for a free market economic perspective) which closely represents crony capitalism in his portrayal. He assumes that the socialistic U.K. context that he is operating in is somehow an ideal situation according to a neo-liberal.
As someone who resonates with neo-liberal economics, I was not offended by Fleming’s critique because he was obviously not talking about me. It isn’t clear, however, whether he recognizes there is another option out there.
I was thankful that at the end Fleming proposes some solutions that would help resolve his critique. These solutions include: 1. A guaranteed minimum income with a max 1:3 ratio to top earners; 2. More mediating institutions; 3. Government ownership of utilities and other similar monopolies; 4. A three-day work week; 5. Eating less meat; 6. Providing non-monetary incentives.
Some of these suggestions are more helpful than others. Perhaps in another post I will engage with some of them. Some of them seem doomed to fail and unrealistic. For example, the guaranteed minimum income with a max income limit assumes that diminished returns (and unearned baselines) wouldn’t significantly undermine economic flourishing in society. In other words, there are some jobs people won't do for only a little more than the lowest skilled workers make. He anticipates this criticism, and dismisses it, but he never deals with it. Simplistic solutions like this rely on assumptions about human nature that seem invalid given human history.
Overall this is not a cheerful book. Fleming’s view of work is so negative that it seems he doesn’t recognize any redeeming benefits to work. What if our purpose is to serve one another through faithful work? What if the real problem is not work itself, or the system, but our idolization of money and our improper valuation of work? Fleming tries to resolve the problem created when workers identify themselves by their job by eliminating work instead of correcting the attitude. In the end, while some of his critiques are helpful, this volume left me looking for a more realistic solution.
Note: A gratis copy of this volume was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.