« Banning cash | Main | The Clarkson problem »

March 25, 2015


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


Are people really not happy in their work? Most people I know are. And a lot of that happiness is a result of politics, in the form of employment and H&S legislation. Construction workers in the UK are undoubtedly happier than those in Qatar.

If I did it, marathon running would satisfy a desire for physical self-improvement, because I don't work in a manual job. I suspect that is the case with the majority of runners.

Steven Clarke


I graduated at the height of the Credit Crunch with health difficulties, and despite a Engineering Masters from Cambridge had a bad spell of unemployment.

I am now self-employed, writing a website for someone (with pretty much total control over content), giving private tuition and taking notes at my local University. These are very fulfilling roles, as I largely control my own time and it's mostly brain-work, which I enjoy.

However, there are times when I would happily feel more alienated in return for working at a large firm where I could be more productive and better renumerated.

There is surely a trade off here. A world where everyone sells things on Etsy or makes videos on Youtube for may be more fulfilling, but it's unlikely to be as productive and materially abundant.

Steven Clarke


Ralph Musgrave

I agree with Chris’s comment just above. If anyone wants to do something fulfilling, they’re free to set up on their own and do whatever they want: make and sell daisy chains, pictures, paintings, poems, etc etc. That may easily not earn much money, but so what? If boring unfulfilling work is what ACTUALLY PRODUCES stuff the people want, then those prepared to do that boring work are entitled to a commensurate reward.

Moreover, IT’S IN EMPLOYERS’ own interests to make their employees’ work as fulfilling as possible. So... no need for do-gooders and bureaucrats to poke their noses into this matter.

From Arse To Elbow

I think you're mixing two different things here: the satisfaction that comes from completing a task well (running a marathon); and the degree of control wrested from your work situation.

Bureaucrats (and that includes all species of management) are happy in their work not because they are getting things done, but because they can exercise control. Of course, they may be deluding themselves about the extent and permanence of it (think of the Tom Wilkinson character in The Full Monty).

The politically important bloc in the workforce is no longer made up of alienated production line drones, or even of call-centre operatives or warehouse fulfillers, but of "facilitators" and "analysts" and "team leaders", all busy filling their hours with email. Their limited autonomy keeps alienation at bay, but it also undermines productivity.

Neoliberalism, with its focus on continuous performance management (close inspection, targets, data analysis etc), and its valorisation of human capital (HR, attitudinal training etc), breeds corporate bureaucracy. This is an acceptable cost for business (i.e. big capital) as it creates a common culture with the state, but it's also exploited as a "counter-movement" (a la Polanyi) by the middle-classes.

The modern industrial issue is not alienation but parasitism (rent-seeking, if you will). As job polarisation advances, this will only get worse.

Igor Belanov

Marx was essentially talking about alienation as the distance between work and its product (which I think might have been a Gang of Four lyric).

Now there are very few people involved in actual production, but an increasing amount of people who have little idea what the purpose of their job is. As such I think this can still be categorised as alienation.

Nevertheless, I'm with FATE when he states that the main problem common to the whole economy is parasitism and the lack of control most workers have over their labour. I'm sceptical about just how much workers' control can achieve, but in the present technological era it should be very simple to reduce working hours and give people their own time back.

Bill Posters

If your going to go on about this stuff you need to link to this book.

Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century
Harry Braverman

I haven't read much (mainly thin books), but I have read this.


Gosh, Ralph M., if that's the case why don't employers make work as fulfilling as possible? Might it be because employers have the power of controlling employees' income and use the inherent threat of termination to avoid the need to expend funds and energy on making work fulfilling? Cubicle world didn't come about from a desire to make work better, but rather to make employees' work more controllable.

Michael W

You make a valid point that we could make better use of human desire for self betterment, through methods such as giving people more autonomy in their jobs. However you jump from this to draw broad conclusions about the capitalist economic and political system! The link is not at all clear; you would need to demonstrate that self betterment and self actualisation are dominant drivers for human behavior, rather than earning income. My sense is that earning income is a far more fundamental driver.

Will F

Many hobbies that people pursue result in tangible results that they do not get through work. Physical results of a days labour are rare in today's world, which is why people may be interested in "Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work"by Matthew Crawford. Spends some of his time mending classic motorbikes, the rest in office based environments.


I think part of the problem is that we don't know how to design organisations which provide autonomous work and benefit from scale economies. It is not as if soviet workers were not bored. Economies of scale drive large firms which drive hierarchy. It is hard to have a political movement towards autonomous work when we don't have a workable model of new organisation.

Luis Enrique

here is Tyler Cowan pushing back against the idea that capitalist employers make work miserable.


I reckon he make some good points, but overall I still think where there is a trade-off between wages and misery, many people might choose a little less misery at cost of lower wages. By which I mean I don't think the existing state of affairs gets the balance right, as a rule.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Why S&M?

Blog powered by Typepad