Elephants Left in the Room - Contributive Justice
Today's essay from the 'Elephants Left in the Room' series is on the subject of contributive justice by Knut Laaser.
This short piece hopes to articulate that people and their working environments are not mere shells living under the rule of the markets, but rather something which need attention and care to flourish. The central argument here is that the left – to date – primarily focus on the concept of distributive injustice in opposition to the liberals; rather than also including contributive justice to question the division of labour.
In his Great Transformation Polanyi presents a timeless analysis of the organizing principles and push towards a market society in Great Britain. Polanyi’s seminal work challenges liberal market advocacy by stressing that workers and their environments are ‘fictitious’ commodities that cannot be subject to the law of the market. Instead, these ‘commodities’ are vulnerable and need protection from purely economic calculating; as this impetus not only weakens society it arguably destroys the market in the long run. What makes Polanyi as relevant today as he has ever been is that his work is lodged in the fight between regulated and unregulated market streams. Polanyi was aware that past economies were shaped by a constant struggle between liberals and the left by conceptualising the ‘double movement’ between liberal schools of thought i.e. those advocating for the expansion of markets, pushing towards a dis-embedded economy; and those of the working class movement, made up of unions and workers, who insisted on moral and social obligations; forming a counter movement, aiming to constrain market forces.1
But what has this to do with justice? Why is this an elephant in the room for the Left?
Since 2008 we have witnessed job cuts across all labour market sectors, whole departments are now outsourced and full-time work has been replaced by part-time work or contingent work arrangements. Indeed, increasingly liberalised capitalism treats work and labour as mere commodities, as something hired and fired according to the economic climate and profit calculations. Wages are stagnating and living conditions are harshening. And, in this fierce economic climate the Left can be seen fighting against ‘distributive injustice’ which is - in a nutshell - concerned with who gets what, when and why. Here, the focus is on multi-layered disadvantages - economic, social and psychological in nature, which emerge when people are denied access to resources and opportunities (fulltime work and secure employment, pay & wages).
However, while these issues will continue to be of great importance I challenge the Left to broaden their scope of economic justice to include the concept of ‘Contributive justice’ in their fight; to create a counter movement challenging the detached workings of markets by focusing on skills, capacities, recognition, and the satisfaction people receive and develop from work, or indeed the absence of it from peoples’ working lives. As Gomberg2 and Sayer3 argue, what people do is as important as what people get. Indeed, work can offer an essential source for human flourishing and well-being if it is diverse, demanding, rewarding and interesting for people. Ideally, work allows people to exercise and actualise their skills and capacities and gain satisfaction through the recognition they receive from others; and this is vital for quality of life.
However, many workplaces in contemporary Britain (and, of course, beyond) are characterised by skill polarisation - as too often work does not require a variety of skills from the worker, leading to monotonous and low-skilled work. Consequently, people who are engaged in low skill work are often ‘in it for the money’, and the workplace is not linked to non-monetary aspirations in their life, i.e. who they want to become, what they want to learn etc.
My impression is that the Left has, rightfully, focussed on the social and economic justice of who gets resources and opportunities to acquire skills to participate in the market and social life, and who gets how much for what. Indeed, the UK workforce has become increasingly skilled in the last century. At the same time, however, the low wage sector expanded, particularly throughout the service sector, in which the demand for skills is particularly low. What we witness is a skill underutilisation of many workers, despite improvements in the skill supply side through training. Hence, it is a fair assumption that many people are discriminated by the great divide of the UK labour market between stable high skill and high wage work, which allows people to flourish, receive esteem and recognition for their activities, and an unstable low-skill- low wage workplace that lacks all of the above. Is it not unjust to constrain peoples’ skills and developments by limiting them to low skill work? Is it not unfair that large parts of the UK labour market rest on the divide between good work and bad work? I believe it is time to question again the division of routine and complex work and its asymmetrical contribution, and include it in our ‘counter movement’.
What can the left do about it?
Of course, the problem is multi-layered and complex. Thus, there is no simple recipe to fight contributive injustice, as it is deeply embedded in structural inequalities, ranging from unequal education chances to restricted skill training and discriminative labour market and social policies, and, of course, discriminatory employer decisions. I argue that we need to raise the awareness of skill under-utilisation and bring it back on our agenda. A first step towards contributive justice, as Sayer and Gomberg advocate, assuming that there are only a certain number of quality workplaces available, could be to rethink current job designs and share complex and routine work. In the longer term, employers, the state and the unions should work together to make greater use of existing skills. Of course, this is just a first step, but it could be an important one.
Knut Laaser is a Compass Member
- K. Polanyi, (1957) The Great Transformation.
- P. Gomberg (2007) How to make opportunity equal.
- A. Sayer (2009) Contributive justice and meaningful work
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