I’ve been a human being for over a half a century now and in that time, you learn some fundamental things. One of the things I have learnt, for which I can find no compelling counter arguments, is something that human beings are not. Despite the accepted economic theory, the orthodox political ideology, the prevailing propaganda and the widely held and largely unquestioned assumptions, human beings are definitely not economic units of production. You’re thinking of machines. People are not machines.
Yet, the myth is adhered to so doggedly that you can scarcely find anybody that raises an eyebrow against the stupid assertion that humans are economic units of production. The global economy and many advanced Western societies and their governments operate as if the myth were true. Much of the Fascist agenda (and some of today’s British political policy, in fact) was predicated on the notion that it is morally correct to eliminate those, in society, who are not productive. They called it “Eugenics”, and dressed it up in the dubious language of improving the species, but it really amounted to little more than not wanting to pay to keep those members of society that couldn’t make money for somebody else. It was a corporatist agenda, at root.
Today, governments claim that it is risibly inefficient to collect taxes and then redistribute them, via tax credits, so they abolish the credits, but don’t stop collecting the taxes. They penalise those on benefits and slowly, surely, deliberately starve out mental health services, disability support and unemployment benefits, as if everybody could, simply by deciding, return to being fully productive members of society on a whim. In effect, they are inexorably eliminating the members of society that are not productive and people support them in this aim, by voting for it. The difference between this and Eugenics is not very distinct.
Adherents to the “people as economic units of production” hallucination act assuredly, as if human beings have no value, other than their capacity to turn a profit for their “owners”. It’s a shabby, morbid and myopic philosophy, yet people happily vote for it and lend it their support, to the present day. Nobody questions the underlying assumption. Perhaps this is precisely what humans aren’t.
If you hold that people are economic units of production, then you have to explain why productivity has been falling, or at least certainly not growing, in the UK, for quite some time now. So far, the fact of falling productivity has baffled zealots, dogmatic demagogues, academics, politicians, financiers and economists alike. They can’t make sense of it. The underlying causes evade their grasp.
The answer, of course, is very simple. Their assumptions are wrong. They have assumed that people are economic units of production, but self-evidently, they are not. This is why their theory fails to yield to their orthodox analyses. They’re trying to prove a falsehood is a truth. The fact that they can’t explain it ought to be telling them their theory is wrong, but they flog this dead horse relentlessly, nevertheless, in the hope that their error will be found in the second or third decimal places. It’s a fool’s search.
If you, for a moment, accept that human beings are not economic units of production, then the drop in productivity is immediately and lucidly explicable. Its root cause can be illuminated by examining the workplace and conditions of work that these human beings are required to be productive in.
Here is where all the productivity went:
- There are millions of workplaces full of old, obsolete, end-of-life and highly unreliable computers, shitty printers, and decrepit software and networks, which otherwise productive employees are required to wait on, wrestle with, attend to and distract themselves with repairing or making do. Think how much productivity is burnt, in aggregate, rebooting after an update, waiting on web pages or applications to load, due to the latency of slow, old hard drives, running bloatware with inadequate memory, updating software that insists on doing so and in hoping things will get better if they just turn it off and turn it on again.
- Bad bosses. It used to be the case that employees could force somebody to do something about a boss that acted outrageously, or who was completely ineffective. Now, due to “worker flexibility”, bad bosses are given license to destroy productivity, abuse and intimidate workers, sack underlings in order to cover for their egregious mistakes and generally act as miniature tyrants, with the power over life and death over their direct reports. Who would work hard to please such a person?
- Unrealistic work tempo. Many employees are stressed and overworked, on a sustained basis, for no reason at all, other than it being the “house style”. There is a high incidence of burn out and those that succumb are simply discarded unceremoniously. Those that remain keep their heads down and work just hard enough to keep from being noticed and singled out. It doesn’t pay to be outstanding – either in a good or a bad way. Employees are never given the opportunity to pace their work, use their energy wisely and take rest, to recover and refresh. Instead, they are supposed to be machines, fully productive for every hour they are paid and then for some they are required to donate from their personal lives.
- Bad workplaces, filled with cheap and cheesy furniture. Many work in uncomfortable, poorly lit, inadequately ventilated, uninspiring premises and subjected to climatic extremes. Their working environment is not somewhere you would want to spend your time voluntarily on a visit, let alone most of your working life. If you want to make productivity vanish, make the workplace unbearably uncomfortable.
- The misery and time spent commuting substantially reduces productivity, as people are exhausted by the time they reach their workplace and then accumulate more stress, wear and tear, throughout the working week, as they battle to get home to their families. Their weekends are a total write off, as they seek to recuperate.
- Companies think it is cheaper to hire any unskilled, untrained person, rather than the right person for the job, because they’re easy to fire. They make no effort to select the best, nurture them and retain their services. Employees, no matter how skilled and unique, are treated as expendable and replaceable, which indeed they are (sadly), provided you are willing to take the hit to productivity, during the changeover. Because companies see their employees as interchangeable cogs, they rarely listen to their best and most valuable ideas and employees, knowing this, stop offering them.
- Inflexible working conditions ensure that employees spend their requisite office time fretting about the things in their lives they really have to sort out, but cannot, because they’re at the office when they need to be elsewhere. Home workers are distrusted. In fact, as a general rule, employers have very little trust in their employees, believing them to be like children that require constant supervision and direction, or else they will be incapable of producing anything. Treat them like that and that is how they will learn to behave – as passive and dependent, rather than self-motivated, engaged and wanting to solve issues by themselves. Any variation in working hours is seen as a gross violation. You can insist on inflexible working conditions, but the cost is productivity loss.
- One way loyalty. Employers demand tribute and fealty from their employees, but feel no reciprocal obligation to express their loyalty, in concrete and meaningful terms, to their employees. They can and will fire them, as it suits them to do so and the employees know it. Why would employees try extra hard under those circumstances?
- With zero hour contracts and freelance short-term engagements, employers have unburdened themselves of risks and costs that they previously had to bear and they have, thereby, created widespread precarity, where people are one pay check from financial oblivion. This has been accomplished by shoving all the risk on the employees, who lack the economic strength to withstand it. By paying the invoices of freelancers and contractors slowly and late, even more of the risk is borne by these people, who are the least able to do so. The self employed earn a fraction of the earnings of full time employees, for the same skill set and experience. This additional precarity naturally impacts their productivity, no matter how diligent they are.
- The joke and oxymoron of “self employment”. In reality, what separates the self-employed from the unemployed are the invoices that the former issue. A piece of paper is all that separates them from being thrusting, go-getting entrepreneurs, making the country great and disgusting, lazy, contemptible, work-shy spongers. If it were you, how would that impact your productivity?
- The lottery of evaporating share options, which vest (if they ever do) with no voting rights. Many employees are promised jam tomorrow, in the form of share options that will vest, when they have jumped through sufficient hoops. Many employees never see these share options vest, for one reason or another and it increases the incentives for employers to make such people redundant, just before they do. Even if, through their efforts, the firm does well and the shares vest, the employee can forget any notions they had of having a greater say in how the enterprise they have contributed significantly to growing will be run in the future. Share options are, on balance, a bit of a disincentive to being more productive, in many circumstances, especially when used as a cynical means of keeping real salaries down, on the promise of jam tomorrow.
- Presenteeism. This is the belief that employees must be seen to be at their post, for all the required hours, if ill and whenever overtime is required of them, whether or not they are actually doing anything productive or useful and indeed, whether or not they are in a physical state to even attempt to be productive.
- Investment in the rentier economy, rather than in innovation. Why risk your money investing in ways to make firms more productive, when you can buy assets that appreciate, without you doing anything, such as property, land or other items you simply rent out, for ever-inflating profits, as the bubble continues to grow. Making something that might not work, because it is new and untried, while more productive, appears to be far more risky than buying property, for example. In the long run, however, the opposite is true. This is what we are now seeing, with the collapse in productivity. Whereas we should have been investing in innovation and productivity enhancement, we preferred to speculate instead.
- Ignoring the creative sector. By deeming the creation of intellectual capital as “not real work” and refusing to value or pay for it, or even creating giant gate-keeping information engines to distribute it for free, the productivity of an entire sector of society is simply not valued or counted.
- Bosses appropriating a larger slice of the excess production, leaving falling real wages. If bosses are able to appropriate a larger slice of their firm’s output, as their own private spoils, there is nobody to stop them. So they have and they do. Bonuses for upper tier managers and the pay of CEOs have never been more disproportionate, compared to the rewards offered to the people that do the actual productive work. Bosses are eating their own value-creation enterprises from the inside out, making off with the value, like bandits, while they still can. It’s a predatory practice, but ultimately a self-destructive one. Instead of investing in improvements to productivity, they simply take the money home and spend it on themselves or hoard it.
- No investment in training or the development of people. If you leave a workforce unskilled, bewildered and unimproved, it’s hardly surprising that productivity remains stubbornly low, yet so many firms rely on other firms to train people, so that they can poach them, or else insist that it is an employee’s own responsibility to improve themselves professionally, even though the cost of doing so is frequently beyond their means. If all firms do this, and they do, then nobody pays for training, so nobody gets any smarter at what they do, so productivity improvements are all but impossible.
- Why buy productive machinery, when you can pay minimum wage employees and still make the same profit, no matter how unproductive they are, compared to machinery? This seems to be the modus operandi of so many companies, it beggars belief. They would rather pay people to do things in an inefficient and unproductive way, than improve their processes and machinery, to gain higher productivity. They can do this, because doing so does not reduce their profits.
- Unhappy employees. It’s hard to be productive when you are deeply unhappy, yet so many employers both do nothing to ensure their employees are happy, and actively contribute to their unhappiness, in a variety of ways. That might make a boss feel powerful, but the price is paid in lost productivity.
You don’t have to believe my analysis. You can read these references (below) to see similar insights into why productivity remains stubbornly low:
The denial of the intelligence, creativity, self-organisation, self-direction and self-motivation of humans is at the root of the economic crisis. We aren’t recognising artistry. The prevailing view, that everybody needs to be controlled by a privileged controller, is simply wrong.
If, on the other hand, you view humans as what they really are, which is creative beings – more like artists than machines – you come to recognise that they really are self-organising, self-directing, intrinsically motivated entities that are capable of creating their own optimal working conditions and working environments, to produce the best of anything, efficiently. The irony is that people are much more productive, this way, even though productivity isn’t the only value or the only goal. Regarding humans as creative beings opens up the possibility of harvesting many other highly valuable social benefits and public goods, not just increased productivity. Of course, that would limit the opportunities for the privileged to lay claim to, and appropriate the fruits of, other people’s productive labour and their surplus production, as their own private property.
Societies need to decide if what they really want is higher productivity, by treating humans as creative beings, or to forcibly misappropriate production, so that privilege can be maintained, by regarding them as economic units of production. So far, it has made its preference very clear. That preference is the real reason why productivity is so low. Orthodox analysts cannot see it.
They are treating humans as something they aren’t.