Tag Archives | Labortarian

The Toilet Zone

Kevin Carson writes:

One thing that large institutions seem to have in common is public restrooms with completely unusable toilet paper dispensers. The typical public restroom in a large organization of any kind has one of those Georgia Pacific monstrosities (or something similar), encased in a plastic housing that makes the toilet paper roll difficult to reach and often almost impossible to turn. The housing is locked, so that an empty roll can be changed only by a housekeeper with a key, and it’s impossible to just take the roll out for easy use. The worst part of it is, these toilet paper dispensers probably cost $20 or more each. … [Y]ou can probably go to Home Depot and get a toilet paper spool that actually works for less than a dollar. …

So why do we find so many examples of this sort of thing? Why does just about any large institutional building have toilet paper dispensers that seem deliberately designed, at enormous cost, to perform their function as badly as possible? The answer lies in the nature of large organizations.

For his explanation, check out the latest chapter of his forthcoming book. But the following cartoon may give you a hint:

Dilbert comic

(This isn’t the first time I’ve used a Dilbert strip to illustrate Kevin’s organisational theories. They’re a natural fit, because they’re tracking the same insane reality ….)

Challengers of the Unknown

The Writers’ Guild of America is on the verge of a strike; here’s why. Their complaints look pretty reasonable to me. I think most of their demands don’t count as rights (except insofar as they can gain contractual assurance of them), but not all legitimate claims are rights; so I support their strike.

WGA logoDefenders of intellectual property often say that without it, writers and artists would get screwed. As if they don’t get screwed already! Most of the monetary benefits from IP go to mammoth publishing/recording/filmmaking firms rather than to the creators. A better way to protect creator interests is through the kind of collective bargaining that the outfits like the Writers’ Guild (for all its flaws, and there are plenty) provide.

Right-libertarians often suggest than unions would have less power in a free market. Well, they’d certainly have a different kind of power; you wouldn’t see the phenomenon of legally-privileged-but-also-legally-regulatedbusiness unions” co-opted as junior partners into the corporate/governmental establishment. But a freed market, by breaking the back of the cartelised and oligopsonistic corporocracy, would enhance unions’ bargaining power relative to business.

Omega the Unknown On a somewhat related subject: in the mid-1970s a short-lived but quite good Marvel comic book called Omega the Unknown (a grim and thoughtful tale about the mysterious psychic bond between a taciturn alien visitor and a hyper-analytical child, both lost in a world of baffling humans) written by Steve Gerber (of Howard the Duck fame) and Mary Skrenes, ran for ten issues before being cancelled; it ended without any of the puzzles being solved or loose ends tied up. To Gerber’s dismay, the storyline was later resolved by other writers in the pages of former Gerber comic The Defenders; the resolution was deeply inconsistent with the spirit of the original series, and few fans accepted it as canonical (any more than any fan of DC’s moody 1970s sword-and-sorcery hero Stalker were happy with his later transformation into a cardboard supervillain fighting the Justice Society of America).

Now Marvel is releasing a new limited series (more a reimagining than a continuation) of Omega the Unknown, penned by Jonathan Lethem, and Gerber is reportedly less than pleased. (The fact that a new Howard the Duck series premieres this week as well probably doesn’t help.) Gerber writes:

I am not happy about Marvel’s revival of Omega, and the writer of the book has made an enemy for life by taking the job. According to some people, he actually professes to be a fan of my work. If that’s even minimally true, what he’s done is even more unforgivable.

As a rule of thumb, if the creator of a character or series is alive and still active in the industry, another writer or artist’s ‘revamping’ of his work at a publisher’s behest constitutes an expression of contempt, not tribute – and all the more so if the original creator doesn’t even share financially in the enterprise. I am not the only writer or artist who feels this way, incidentally.

Gerber later backed off from the “enemy for life” comment, but added:

I still believe that writers and artists who claim to respect the work of creators past should demonstrate that respect by leaving the work alone – particularly if the original creator is still alive, still active in the industry, and, as is typically the case in comics, excluded from any financial participation in the use of the work.

Over the last decade or so, it’s become the trend in the industry for creators just to let these things slide. … Remaining silent, however, would implicitly condone the comic book industry’s business practices up through the early 1980s and the means by which publishers claim to have procured ownership of characters and story material in those days.

Remaining silent would also perpetuate the fiction promulgated by publishers that ‘we all knew’ what rights we were supposedly giving up by signing our paychecks. (In those days, the publishers’ favored instrument for acquiring rights to material was a one-party ‘contract’ printed or stamped on the back of a writer or artist’s paycheck. This so-called ‘agreement’ set forth terms of employment that were rarely if ever agreed to by the writer or artist prior to the start of work.) The truth is, we didn’t all know. Most of us had no idea ….

When a writer of Jonathan’s stature agrees to participate in a project like this, he also, intentionally or not, tacitly endorses the inequities of the old system. … Jonathan, if you’re reading this – rather than ask you to back out of a business commitment, rather than deprive the fans of what will probably be an excellent story, I propose that you simply retitle the story and rename the characters. ‘Omega The Unknown’ has little or no commercial cachet, so call the book something else. Call the kid something other than James-Michael Starling.

Judging from the first issue, Lethem has acquiesced to Gerber’s request to “call the kid something other than James-Michael Starling,” but the comic is still titled Omega the Unknown, and thus far the new storyline follows the original pretty closely, and even the dialogue is often identical.

My take: not believing in intellectual property, I don’t think either Marvel or Lethem has violated any of Gerber’s rights by releasing this new series. Thus I don’t need to get into the details of the contract, since a contract to transfer a nonexistent right is not valid in any case. (Full disclosure: I’ve signed my share of such fantasy contracts.) The other side of the coin, though, is that, again not believing in intellectual property, I don’t think Marvel owns the character and storyline of Omega the Unknownany more than Gerber does, so if Gerber were to continue the story on his own in some other publisher’s comic book, then by my lights Marvel would have no right to stop him; whereas in reality Marvel no doubt would move legally to stop him. So Gerber does have a rights-based beef against Marvel, though not the beef he thinks he has. (And suspending for the moment the issue of the illegitimacy of IP, I can easily believe that the contractual relationship into which he entered fell short of ideal criteria for full disclosure.)

Leaving questions of rights aside, is it really immoral, as Gerber apparently believes, to use another writer’s characters against his or her wishes? I just don’t feel the pull of that claim; it seems as alien to me as an Arab’s outrage at being shown the bottom of someone’s shoes. In my school days I wrote something like sixty issues of a science-fiction comic-book epic called Jumbo Jet. (Said “jet” was a hundred-mile-long orbiting weapons platform whose attempted takeover by an alien sorcerer accidentally triggers a nuclear holocaust, serves for the next hundred years as a battleground for hordes of spoiled brats rendered immortal by technology and chaperoned by a computerised nanny, is then sent accidentally crashing into the ocean by a robot worker rebellion, and finally, as you’d expect, gets taken over by mutated intelligent dogs from the sunken city of Atlantis.) So how would I feel if someone else started writing stories using my characters and situations? Pretty damned thrilled, actually.

But okay, suppose a lot of writers and artists do share this preference not to have their creations used by others. Collective bargaining with publishers (under an altered balance of power) might be a way to satisfy it, without either government intervention or toothless scolding.

Many Unhappy Returns

As Brad Spangler reminds us, today is not the real Labor Day. The day for commemorating genuine liberatory struggle on behalf of labour against the business/government alliance is May 1st. But if you want a day to commemorate business unionism, the betrayal of the working class, and the co-opting of labour into the business/government alliance, then by all means, today’s your day.

Abolitionist Connections

Lovecraft famously described “the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents” as a merciful protection against the “terrifying vistas of reality” that would otherwise be opened up by “the piecing together of dissociated knowledge.”

John Brown Well, my own recent correlations haven’t laid bare any terrifying vistas yet, but they have led me to some interesting connections. A reference in David Reynolds’s biography John Brown, Abolitionist (yes, I’ve been reading several Brown bios lately) sent me to hunt down this speech by pro-slavery Senator John Townsend, in which he asserted inter alia:

Some months before the Abolition raid in Virginia, old John Brown, H. Kagi, and others, had put forth at the North a “Plan for the Abolition of Slavery,” for the purpose, as they stated, of “forming Associations throughout the country of all persons who are willing to pledge themselves publicly to favor the enterprise, and render support and assistance of any kind.”

Lysander Spooner Reynolds apparently accepts the attribution to Brown’s group. But to a Lysander Spooner fanatic like your humble correspondent, it’s obvious from the line Townsend quotes that the work he is citing is this piece by Spooner, and not anything by John Brown at all. As Spooner mentions in this letter, when John Brown learned of Spooner’s manifesto he actually requested that Spooner withdraw it from circulation – not because he disagreed with it but because it was a bit too close to what Brown was already planning to do at Harpers Ferry. (Spooner would later attempt, unsuccessfully, to organise a plot to rescue Brown from execution by kidnapping the Governor of Virginia.)

Digging a little deeper, I discovered that the mistaken attribution of Spooner’s circular to Brown turned out to win him some money. As Spooner’s biographer explains:

Gerrit Smith Ironically, Spooner came into some money through a strange libel suit prosecuted by Gerrit Smith. The New York Democratic Vigilant Association (Buchanan supporters) attempted to blame John Brown’s attack on Smith, to whom they attributed Spooner’s 1858 manifesto, “Plan for the Abolition of Slavery.” … Gerrit Smith sued them for libel because they had falsely linked him with Spooner’s broadside …. It was true that Smith had contact with John Brown [In fact he was one of Brown’s chief financial donors. – RTL], but the evidence the Association used to prove an alliance was largely false. Smith retained several attorneys in the case, but Lysander Spooner was his chief lawyer. By his own testimony, Spooner was in the best position to prove the falseness of charges against Smith. … The Vigilant Association had made their accusations in the hopes of discrediting the Republican party and particularly William Seward, the Republican candidate for governor. Once the election had ended with Seward’s victory, they were eager enough to settle out of court. Smith settled for costs and lawyers’ fees – most of which went to Spooner. The two thousand dollar fee was a minor fortune for him since he managed to live on about two hundred dollars a year.

And who is Gerrit Smith? The same guy whose book The True Office of Civil Government was the subject of Laurence Vance’s talk at the last ASC.

While I’m (sort of) on it, what should libertarians think of John Brown? Rothbard revered him; many Rothbardians today despise him. My take: the Pottawatomie massacre wasn’t justified; the victims weren’t close enough to being genuine combatants. The Vernon County raid was eminently justified; the Harpers Ferry raid would likewise have been justified if it had been planned a bit better – its flaws weren’t mainly moral ones. I think Spooner’s circular states the case for the John Brown approach pretty well – and if slavery had ended through Brown/Spooner-style slave insurrections rather than through Union occupation, the liberated blacks would have avoided a hundred years of Jim Crow, and the country as a whole would have avoided the bloody Lincoln-Davis war (how much worse could slave insurrections have been?) and the federal centralisation consequent thereon.

Herbert Spencer, Labortarian

Non-leftist libertarians tend to have a negative view of labour unions and workers’ cooperatives. Non-libertarian leftists tend to have a negative view of Herbert Spencer. As a possible corrective to both attitudes, I thought I’d reproduce some especially interesting passages from Spencer. I don’t claim that either group should necessarily be satisfied with everything Spencer says here; no doubt his assessment of the possibilities of labour organisation will seem too pessimistic to some and too optimistic to others (or perhaps some of each). But in any case it’s food for thought.

Book VIII, Chapter 20, of Herbert Spencer’s Principles of Sociology (1896) is devoted to the subject of “Trade-Unionism.” Spencer begins by taking the standard right-libertarian line that labour unions can never really raise wages for the working class as a whole – that any gains made for the union’s members must come at the expense of everybody else. But then he goes on to add a left-libertarian qualification:

What then are we to say of trade-unions? Under their original form as friendly societies – organizations for rendering mutual aid – they were of course extremely beneficial; and in so far as they subserve this purpose down to the present time, they can scarcely be too much lauded. Here, however, we are concerned not with the relations of their members to one another, but with their corporate relations to employers and to the public. Must we say that though one set of artisans may succeed for a time in getting more pay for the same work, yet this advantage is eventually at the expense of the public (including the mass of wage-earners), and that when all other groups of artisans, following the example, have raised their wages, the result is a mutual cancelling of benefits? Must we say that while ultimately failing in their proposed ends, trade-unions do nothing else than inflict grave mischiefs in trying to achieve them?

Herbert Spencer This is too sweeping a conclusion. They seem natural to the passing phase of social evolution, and may have beneficial functions under existing conditions. Everywhere aggression begets resistance and counter-aggression; and in our present transitional state, semi-militant and semi-industrial, trespasses have to be kept in check by the fear of retaliatory trespasses.

Judging from their harsh and cruel conduct in the past, it is tolerably certain that employers are now prevented from doing unfair things which they would else do. Conscious that trade-unions are ever ready to act, they are more prompt to raise wages when trade is flourishing than they would otherwise be; and when there come times of depression, they lower wages only when they cannot otherwise carry on their businesses.

Knowing the power which unions can exert, masters are led to treat the individual members of them with more respect than they would otherwise do: the status of the workman is almost necessarily raised. Moreover, having a strong motive for keeping on good terms with the union, a master is more likely than he would else be to study the general convenience of his men, and to carry on his works in ways conducive to their health. There is an ultimate gain in moral and physical treatment if there is no ultimate gain in wages.

Then in the third place must be named the discipline given by trade-union organization and action. Considered under its chief aspect, the progress of social life at large is a progress in fitness for living and working together; and all minor societies of men formed within a major society – a nation – subject their members to sets of incentives and restraints which increase their fitness. The induced habits of feeling and thought tend to make men more available than they would else be, for such higher forms of social organization as will probably hereafter arise.

If unions represent a necessary transitional stage, what is the higher form toward which they represent a transition? Interestingly, in the chapter that follows, titled “Cooperation,” Spencer suggests that workers’ cooperatives may be the answer. He begins by raising some problems for these also, but ends by defending workers’ cooperatives fairly enthusiastically:

In cooperative workshops the members receive weekly wages at trade-union rates, and are ranked as higher or lower by the foreman. Officials are paid at better rates according to their values and responsibilities, and these rates are fixed by the committee. When the profits have been ascertained, they are divided among all in proportion to those amounts they have earned in wages or salaries. Causes of dissension are obvious. One who receives the lowest wages is dissatisfied – holds that he is as goods a worker as one who gets higher wages, and resents the decision of the foreman: probably ascribing it to favouritism. Officials, too, are apt to disagree with each other, alike in respect of power and remuneration. Then among the hand-workers in general there is pretty certain to be jealousy of the brain-workers, whose values they under-estimate; and with their jealousies go reflections on the committee as unfair or as unwise. In these various ways the equilibrium of the body is frequently disturbed, and in course of time is very likely to be destroyed. …

Must we say then that self-governing combinations of workers will never answer? The reply is that one class of the difficulties above set forth must ever continue to be great, though perhaps not insuperable, but that the other and more serious class may probably be evaded.

These members of industrial copartnerships, paying themselves trade-union wages, are mostly imbued with trade-union ideas and feelings. Among these is a prejudice against piece-work, quite naturally resulting from experience. Finding what a given piece of work ordinarily costs in day-wages, the employer offers to pay the workman for it at a certain lower rate; leaving him to get, by extra diligence, more work done and a larger payment. Immediately, the quantity executed is greatly increased, and the workman receives considerably more than he did in wages – so much more that the employer becomes dissatisfied, thinks he is giving too large a sum by the piece, and cuts down the rate. Action and reaction go un until, very generally, there is an approximation to the earnings by day-wages: the tendency, meanwhile, having been so to raise the employer’s standard, that he expects to get more work out of the workman for the same sum.

But now, has not the resulting aversion to piece-work been unawares carried into another sphere, in which its effects must be quite different? Evils like those arising from antagonistic interests, cannot arise where there are no antagonistic interests. Each cooperator exists in a double capacity. He is a unit in an incorporated body standing in the place of employer; and he is a worker employed by the incorporated body. Manifestly, when, instead of an employing master, alien to the workers, there is an employing master compounded of the workers, the mischiefs ordinarily caused by piece-work can no longer be caused. Consider how the arrangement will work.

The incorporated body, acting through its deputed committee, gives to the individual members work at a settled rate for an assigned quantity – such rate being somewhat lower than that which, at the ordinary speed of production, would yield the ordinary wages. The individual members, severally put into their work such ability as they can and such energy as they please; and there comes from them an output, here of twenty, there of twenty-five, and occasionally of thirty per cent. greater than before. What are the pecuniary results? Each earns in a given time a greater sum, while the many-headed master has a larger quantity of goods to dispose of, which can be offered to buyers at somewhat lower prices than before; with the effect of obtaining a ready sale and increased returns. Presently comes one of the recurring occasions for division of profits. Through the managing body, the many-headed master gives to every worker a share which, while larger all round, is proportionate in each case to the sum earned. What now will happen in respect of the rate paid for piece-work? The composite master has no motive to cut down this rate: the interests of the incorporated members being identical with the interests of the members individually taken. But should there arise any reason for lowering the piece-work price, the result must be that what is lost to each in payment for labour, is regained by him in the shape of additional profit. Thus while each obtains exactly the remuneration due for his work, minus only the cost of administration, the productive power of the concern is greatly increased, with proportionate increase of returns to all: there is an equitable division of a larger sum.

Happy Maoist workers Consider now the moral effects. Jealousies among the workers disappear. A cannot think his remuneration too low as compared with that of B, since each is now paid just as much as his work brings. Resentment against a foreman, who ranks some above others, no longer finds any place. Overlooking to check idleness becomes superfluous: the idling almost disappears, and another causes of dissension ceases. Not only do the irritations which superintendence excites decrease, but the cost of it decreases also; and the official element in the concern bears a reduced ratio to the other elements. The governing functions of the committee, too, and the relations of the workers to it, become fewer; thus removing other sources of internal discord: the chief remaining source being the inspection of work by the manufacturing committee, and refusal to pass that which is bad.

A further development may be named. Where the things produced are easily divisible and tolerably uniform in kind, work by the piece may be taken by single individuals; but where the things are so large, and perhaps complex (as in machinery), that an unaided man becomes incapable, work by the piece may be taken by groups of members. In such cases, too, in which the proper rate is difficult to assign, the price may be settled by an inverted Dutch auction, pursuing a method allied to that of the Cornish miners. Among them –

An undertaking “is marked out, and examined by the workmen during some days, thus affording them an opportunity of judging as to its difficulty. Then it is put up to auction and bid for by different gangs of men, who undertake the work as co-operative piece-work, at so much per fathom:” the lot being subsequently again bid for as a whole.

In the case now supposed, sundry pieces of work, after similar inspection, would be bid for on one of the recurring occasions appointed. Offering each in turn at some very low price, and meeting with no response, the manager would, step by step, raise the price, until presently one of the groups would accept. The pieces of work thus put up to auction, would be so arranged in number that towards the close, bidding would be stimulated by the thought of having no piece of work to undertake: the penalty being employment by one or other of the groups at day-wags. No good bargains and no bad bargains, made by each group, would average one another; but always the good or bad bargain of any group would be a bad or good bargain for the entire body.

What would be the character of these arrangements considered as stages in industrial evolution? We have seen that, in common with political regulation and ecclesiastical regulation, the regulation of labour becomes less coercive as society assumes a higher type. Here we reach a form in which the coerciveness has diminished to the smallest degree consistent with combined action. Each member is his own master in respect of the work he does; and is subject only to such rules, established by majority of the members, as are needful for maintaining order. The transition from the compulsory cooperation of militancy to the voluntary cooperation of industrialism is completed. Under present arrangements it is incomplete. A wage-earner, while he voluntarily agrees to give so many hours work for so much pay, does not, during performance of his work, act in a purely voluntary way: he is coerced by the consciousness that discharge will follow if he idles, and is sometimes more manifestly coerced by an overlooker. But under the arrangement described, his activity becomes entirely voluntary.

Whistle while you work Otherwise presenting the facts, and using Sir Henry Maine’s terms, we see that the transition from status to contract reaches its limit. So long as the worker remains a wage-earner, the marks of status do not wholly disappear. For so many hours daily he makes over his faculties to a master, or to a cooperative group, and is for the time owned by him or it. He is temporarily in the position of a slave, and his overlooker stands in the position of a slave-driver. Further, a remnant of the régime of status is seen in the fact that he and other workers are placed in ranks, receiving different rates of pay. But under such a mode of cooperation as that above contemplated, the system of contract becomes unqualified. Each member agrees with the body of members to perform certain work for a certain sum, and is free from dictation and authoritative classing. The entire organization is based on contract, and each transaction is based on contract.

One more aspect of the arrangement must be named. It conforms to the general law of species-life, and the law implied in our conception of justice – the law that reward shall be proportionate to merit. Far more than by the primitive slave-system of coerced labour and assigned sustenance – far more than by the later system under which the serf received a certain share of produce – more even than by the wage-earning system under which payment, though partially proportioned to work, is but imperfectly proportioned, would the system above described bring merit and reward into adjustment. Excluding all arbitrariness it would enable reward and merit to adjust themselves.

But now, while contending that cooperation carried on by piece-work, would achieve the desideratum that the manual worker shall have for his product all which remains after due remuneration of the brain-worker, it must be admitted that the practicability of such a system depends on character. Throughout this volume it has been variously shown that higher types of society are made possible only by higher types of nature; and the implication is that the best industrial institutions are possible only with the best men. Judging from that temporary success which has been reached under the ordinary form of cooperative production, it is inferable that permanent success might be reached were one set of the difficulties removed; leaving only the difficulty of obtaining honest and skilful management. Not in many cases, however, at present. The requisite “sweet reasonableness,” to use Matthew Arnold’s phrase, is not yet sufficiently prevalent. But such few cooperative bodies of the kind described as survived, might be the germs of a spreading organization. Admission into them would be the goal of working-class ambition. They would tend continually to absorb the superior, leaving outside the inferior to work as wage-earners; and the first would slowly grow at the expense of the last. Obviously, too, the growth would become increasingly rapid; since the master-and-workmen type of industrial organization could not withstand competition with this cooperative type, so much more productive and costing so much less in superintendence.

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