Instead of putting social mobility at the heart of politics, we should emphasise the social worth of working-class jobs and support struggles to have pay and conditions that reflect it.
As it stands, this claim is vulnerable to the obvious counter-argument that raising the pay of working class jobs would simply reduce demand for such workers. And Owen doesn’t help himself by going on to wibble about “value”; it’s a good rule of thumb that anyone who writes about value in economics is writing rubbish.
Nevertheless, I suspect Owen is onto something here.
Imagine a slightly different world to ours. In this, toilet cleaning is a highly esteemed profession*. Dirty facilities expose people to the risk of infection, about which folk are paranoid, whilst clean facilities cheer people up. Toilet cleaners are therefore highly prized for their ability to save people from illness and improve well-being.
By contrast, this world attaches less importance than ours to bosses. Good organizations, it figures, largely run themselves. Most of what a boss has to do is therefore simple administration. He just needs sufficient self-control not to do really stupid things like make expensive takeovers. And because being boss is a relatively pleasant task, there’s an abundant supply of people able to do the job.
In this world, wage inequality between bosses and toilet cleaners is much smaller than they are in our world. Owen would approve.
And the difference between the two worlds lies in one fact - ideology. Our alternative world has an ideology which values toilet cleaners but is indifferent to bosses, whilst our world has the opposite ideology.
I don’t say this to support one ideology over the other. I do so merely to show that the relative demand for labour is an ideological construct. In the 80s, it was fashionable for Marxists and Sraffians to talk of the socio-technical conditions of production, to draw attention to the fact that the labour process was not a mere technological given, but was also the product of cultural and social forces. We should revive the phrase.
Viewed from this perspective, the rightist retort to Owen has force. Given our present ideologically constructed demand curves, higher wages for working class jobs would reduce employment. Equally, though, Owen might have a point. If we can change the ideology, we can shift the demand curve for working class jobs outwards - and that for well-paid jobs inwards - and so reduce inequality.
There’s no question that ideologically-constructed demand does change over time. In 1776, Adam Smith wrote:
There are some very agreeable and beautiful talents of which the possession commands a certain sort of admiration; but of which the exercise for the sake of gain is considered, whether from reason or prejudice, as a sort of public prostitution. The pecuniary recompence, therefore, of those who exercise them in this manner, must be sufficient, not only to pay for the time, labour, and expence of acquiring the talents, but for the discredit which attends the employment of them as the means of subsistence. The exorbitant rewards of players, opera-singers, opera-dancers, &c. are founded upon those two principles; the rarity and beauty of the talents, and the discredit of employing them in this manner.
These days, though, few people equate acting and dancing with prostitution - though whether the correlation has really changed since Smith‘s time is an open question - and the rewards to such professions are way short of exorbitant.
Even within shorter times, though, ideological attitudes towards professions can change. Footballers and chefs are more highly esteemed and paid now than 50 years ago, whilst the opposite, I suspect, is true of poets or academics. Michel Roux’s recent programme, Service, was an attempt to increase the ideological worth of waiters.
The possibility of increasing equality by emphasising the social worth of some jobs - and de-emphasising that of others - is not therefore self-evidently silly. It merely raises two questions. One is the direction of causality. To what extent is our existing ideology the cause of inequality, and to what extent is it the result? I fear that - thanks in part to the just world illusion - it might be partly the latter. To the extent that it is, ideological change requires economic change first, so Owen is putting the cart before the horse.
But even if this is wrong, and ideology is a cause of inequality, we have the question: what, if any, tools do we have for changing it? On this point, the Left is longer on hand-waving and wishful thinking than it is on hard analysis.
* I’m rationalizing what happens in Market Harborough here.