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Incomplete Information, Inference, Truth and the Human Condition – Part 4

Incomplete Information, Inference, Truth and the Human Condition – Part 4

By Dennis Loo (2/16/14)

The worker “has no need to take in very vast areas of the social horizon; it is enough for him to perceive enough of it to understand that his actions share a goal beyond themselves.” – Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society.

In other words, give the working class their “beer, burgers and Monday Night Football.” Give them their daily dose of What’s Up With the Kardashians. Keep them distracted by their iPhones and Sony PlayStations. Lead them by the nose by telling them that everyone in America can be “middle class” and promise them that their government is after their best interest. Meanwhile, ship off their sons, daughters, and fathers to wars where they will die or be maimed in body and/or mind. Don’t tell them the truth because they “can’t handle the truth.” Pretend that the global climate crisis isn’t real or at least isn’t that serious. Keep on selling them those big CO2 producing trucks that rumble even while they’re idling. Don’t let them realize that the sweatshops of China are the gritty reality behind the shiny iPads and the essence of the new global assembly line.

Isn’t it remarkable that Durkheim, one of the founding figures of sociology, should consign the majority of humanity to the status of essentially beasts of burden who shall be denied the “vast areas of the social horizon” and merely told that their actions contribute to a goal beyond themselves?

The problem, as Durkheim explicitly saw, was that if you exposed the working class as a whole to the vistas that humanity as a whole has created (which includes what workers have created collectively and how they did it, such as the Seven Wonders of the World) that they would no longer tolerate being confined to the drudgery of working class life:

If one acquires the habit of contemplating vast horizons, overall views and fine generalizations, one can no longer without impatience allow oneself to be confined within the narrow limits of a special task. Such a remedy would therefore only make specialization [the division of labor and existence of classes] inoffensive by making it intolerable and in consequence more or less impossible.[1]

It is this very drudgery that Durkheim, on the other hand, upholds as the source of social solidarity. He argued that this mutual interdependence of all classes provides the basis for the social glue holding society together. The price of this division of labor, however, is that you must not reveal the dirty little secret to those in the lower echelons of that class structure that their role is artificially restricted or else they’d no longer tolerate their reduced status.

As I have written previously, Durkheim is thus tacitly admitting here that workers are smart enough to understand the significance of what they’re being exposed to with “vast horizons, overall views and fine generalizations” which is why you should avoid doing so or else they’d rebel against the division of labor that exploits them. If they weren’t smart enough to understand the significance of a higher education, then there would be no harm in exposing them to it.

Even those who are put off by Durkheim’s perspective, when it’s laid bare in this way, are not, however, convinced that the working class can in fact rise to the level of being equal partners in society. That is what I want to turn to now.

In any population of people, it is true, there are going to be those who are better at specific things than others. Having incompetents handling critical matters such as medicine, or people in charge of disaster prevention and relief who know nothing about emergency management, violates most people’s expectations of a good society. Not everyone can become a physician, and only qualified individuals should take key posts. But this obviously sensible policy differs from excluding the working class, oppressed minorities, and/or women from learning about the grander vistas that humanity has achieved. To understand how the political system really works, to be exposed to the best in art and science, to be introduced to humanity’s key philosophical questions, the varying answers to those questions historically, and to be steeped in history and its lessons and so on in this fashion should be the norm for virtually everyone in a society, regardless of what they end up doing as an occupation. Specialized skills and area specific knowledge are not the same as these kinds of lessons. It does not take exceptional intelligence or talents to benefit greatly from that manner of education.

So why exclude people from these arenas? The only reason can be that the existing division of labor and hierarchy of prestige demean and diminish many people in comparison to their capabilities and the regard they deserve as human beings. Were this not the case then there would be no necessity to conceal so many arenas of knowledge from people. The problem here, in other words, lies with the stratification of society and the differential material and non-material rewards attached to the different strata. The shortcomings here do not lie mainly with the people; the populace’s ability to understand exceeds the capacity of a highly stratified society to accommodate them and their fullest roles. (GDS, Pp. 311-312)

Contrary to Durkheim’s overt argument, the problem is not the paucity of talent in the population. Differential talent does not explain the division of labor. Talents in the population far exceed the occupational structure’s hierarchies of status and power and would overwhelm it if allowed their full expression. Moreover, assuming arguendo that Durkheim is right that natural talents do indeed explain social inequalities, this would not justify excluding the less talented from being exposed to the best in art and science, to their being exposed to the truth about how the economic and political systems work, and to be steeped in the deepest philosophical questions. The only objection to doing this is that they would learn from this that the existing division of labor and the class structure was unjustifiable and not accept it.

Area specific knowledge – for example, being trained in medicine – differs from having a broad general education. Durkheim and others who justify social inequalities are guilty of confounding the two and treating the one as the same as the other. A person of below average intelligence is not someone who you would want to become a physician and therefore you would not want to invest precious resources in schooling someone of below average intelligence as a doctor, but this does not mean that they should in turn be deprived of a general education and learning how the society actually operates. The only reason to deprive them in that manner is to in essence lie to them that their status is their own fault rather than that of a class-stratified society that unjustly and disproportionately rewards the few against the many and that the many are exploited for the few. Society isn’t stratified primarily because of differing levels of merit. It is stratified primarily because capitalism exists based upon exploitation of the working class.

Capitalism’s apologists paint a caricature of those who oppose it as being in favor of paying everyone exactly the same amount under socialism. Socialism would not mean and has not meant when and where it has existed that everyone is paid the same amount. Some people’s work (e.g., brain surgeons) are in fact more socially valuable than tasks that don’t require any specialized training such as digging ditches. The two forms of work should not be paid the same amount. But the vast degrees of inequities in the distribution of resources, both material (e.g., food and shelter) and non-material (e.g., intellectual training), that exist under capitalism, where the 85 richest people in the world luxuriate in their opulence while 25,000 children die of easily preventable causes every single day is not justifiable by any reasonable standard. Capitalist logic holds that social needs and the social fabric are non-existent factors. There is no public good; there is only private interest under capitalism.

Capitalist propagandists like to claim that their ideology matches human nature and that any other way of approaching society is at odds with human nature. “Everyone is greedy and selfish,” they proclaim. Well, they’re partly right. They are greedy and selfish. But this does not describe most of humanity and it doesn’t describe the underpinnings of cooperation that make society possible. Capitalist ideology does tremendous violence to the reality that society can only exist as a collectivity and that human babies only become human through social interaction and social support. Parents cannot raise viable children and future adult citizens without being unselfish and nurturing. What is the monetary reward for raising children? Where are the material incentives that neoliberals claim are what make individuals do what they do? Parents with few exceptions raise children and care for them because they love them, not because their children will make them materially rich. The credo of individualism that capitalists proclaim is at odds with what makes human society possible.

I’m going to conclude this segment by reprinting an article of mine from last year entitled “Material and Non-Material Incentives”:

A society that equates material rewards with success and that relies upon material success to motivate people is also saying—and must say—that success equals having things that others do not have. This turns society into a zero sum game of winners and losers and structurally encourages a sense of entitlement among the “winners” that they are better than the “losers” and that they merit goodies and respect that should not be granted to the less deserving hoi polloi. Is this the meaning of a good society: the leaders think of themselves as so much better than everyone else? (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, p. 314)

All societies, past, present, and future require incentives to get people to work. It’s an inescapable fact of existence that we must labor in some form or another or we will starve. Even infants have to exert themselves to suckle on their mother’s breasts. The Garden of Eden has never existed and never will.

This fundamental fact, however, is almost always incorrectly equated with the rule of material incentives: the only way to properly motivate people is to dangle money in front of them and to threaten them with privation if they don’t chase after the money.

This is the ruling dictum in the U.S. The most aggressive proponents of this view – the neoliberals – insist that there is no alternative to their cold-blooded ideology: cold hard cash and ultra-individualism are what make the world go ‘round. People are naturally lazy, they say, and the only way to get them to not be is to promise them material rewards. Moreover, they argue that innovation would disappear were we to not dangle money in front of people because people would stop being inventive if they weren’t promised riches in return. The ones who revel in riches are those who deserve it and those who struggle to survive from day-to-day have failed to show the proper attitude of striving and hard work.

Those who say that non-capitalist societies must eventually fail because they lack the requisite incentives are claiming that their worship of material incentives constitute the necessary and fundamental logic of any society. But this overlooks some very basic facts.

First, while incentives are necessary to any society to motivate people, those incentives do not necessarily have to be material. Indeed, before the advent of caste and class societies, when people lived in nomadic or tribal societies (which make up the vast majority of human existence), material incentives as a motivator was (or is, in the case of those tribal societies that still exist) non-existent. These societies do not see a collapse of human labor or human creativity. Somehow even without material incentives people still work together to provide the means for their existence, they create art, music, technical innovations, and survive interdependently. Why is that if material incentives and individualism supposedly make up the core of human existence?

Second, even in capitalist societies where material incentives govern in the official and dominant discourse, cooperation and actions based on non-material incentives still operate. In fact, even in the U.S. where the American Dream is equated with material wealth, non-material incentives still provide the primary motivation for most people in most forms of work, even among those who are ostensibly the most driven by material incentives. Parents, for example, do what they do without the promise of cash for what they do from their children. They do it because they love their children and wish them well (with, of course, some exceptions among parents who are extremely narcissistic or self-centered). Even in jobs where the nature of the organization of that work is such that few to none would do it if not for the pay, the workers have to cooperate with each other in order to get the work done.

As for those who work in professions such as stock trading where the money is key to their participation, they a) still must cooperate with others to at least some degree, and b) derive major satisfaction not from the money per se but from the relative comparisons that they engage in vis a vis their peers: they feel relatively gratified or relatively deprived when they are doing better than their reference group and derive satisfaction from a job well done. While the money might be the way that they “keep score,” their self-esteem in not fueled by the amount of the money in and of itself but by how they are doing in relation to and compared to others and by mastery of their job. Even those in the 1% are still social beings and feel satisfied by their deal-making skills, not only or even mainly because of the money.

Brain surgeons don’t primarily measure their self-worth and their life satisfaction by how much they’re paid but by the satisfaction that comes from performing intricate and difficult surgical procedures that save people’s lives. If an actor because of his or her name was paid $20 million for a particular film but the film flopped dramatically and their performance was terrible, they are not going to be laughing all the way to the bank.

Third, if you are organizing your society around trying to recruit the “best people” for “the most important” jobs based on how much you pay them for it, then what you are doing is making those who are the best paid tend to think that they are the “winners” and others are the “losers.” What kind of society will it be when those in the leading positions think that they are so much better than others and that they are explicitly rewarded for their superiority? What kind of leaders are you going to get in such an arrangement? What kind of social solidarity are you going to have when those who are in charge are animated by a zero sum game of winners and losers? Why should they care all that much about all of those “losers?” And how can you put the fate of everyone in the hands of those who are being schooled to care essentially about themselves alone, even if they have to present a public face that they are not motivated quite that selfishly? In other words, functionalist theory's - and the American Dream's - claim that disproportionately materially rewarding elites benefits the whole society and promotes social solidarity actually does the opposite - it undermines social solidarity, rends the social fabric, and encourages elites to act on their own behalf rather than that of the public interest.

One of the premises of functionalist theory is that the "most important" jobs have to be paid disproportionately well to attract the best and brightest because this is good for the welfare of the whole society. What functionalist theory overlooks, however, is the contradiction that I am pointing to here: by rewarding people disproportionately for elite positions supposedly to attract the best people, you are actually promoting attitudes inimical to the public interest. What you want if you're interested in societal welfare, is for the best and leading people to be defined by their devotion to and skill at promoting the public interest, not their interest in feathering their own nest and enriching themselves. The functionalist argument that inequality is functional is undermined by its own promotion of personal interest by dangling the incentive of getting rich and having privileges in order to get people to "serve the public interest." People who want to serve the public interest aren't drawn to such responsibilities because you are bribing them with money and personal privileges. The kind of people who are drawn to elite posts because of the money and privilege are the least likely to put the public interest first and foremost.

To sum up: if you organize your society around a zero-sum game (which is what making material incentives the governing ethic is), then you are inevitably creating a society that is divided up between the haves and the have-nots. The people who are elevated to the leading positions because they are supposedly the “most fit” and therefore will be the most beneficial for the whole society as its leaders, are actually going to largely be made up of people who do not care about the rest of the society except as fodder for their own narcissism. You will create an exploitive society that is fueled by envy, resentment and strife because it’s a zero sum game in which there are winners and losers.

I am not advocating a society that bans competition because being competitive is (generally) a positive and inescapable human trait. The question, however, is what are you competing for? Are you competing to prove that you are a great individual and others are losers? Or are you competing to excel in the sense of showing what humanity is capable of in ways that can serve as an inspiration to others? Non-material incentives such as serving others and contributing to the general welfare are not zero sum games but something that everyone can engage in and improve the quality of life for all, not just the privileged few. Following such a leading principle in the society will not stifle innovation and effort but will in fact enhance it because the leading doctrine and ethic will now actually reflect the needs and nature of social beings rather than do violence and harm to the social units that we rely upon for our very existence.

Capitalism, Socialism and Communism

In the transition from socialism to communism a mix of material and non-material incentives will continue to be necessary and appropriate. You cannot and would not want to abolish all material incentives and attempt to organize society exclusively around non-material incentives. Material incentives will continue to have relevance but the difference will be that the emphasis will no longer be on material incentives as THE organizing principle and the distribution of finite social resources will be governed by considering non-material incentives in overall the leading position with material incentives retained as appropriate for quite a long time (as in, generations). The socialist principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to their work” does not overnight become the communist principle of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” That is a protracted process that includes bridging the gaps between mental and manual labor and raising consciousness of people from that of spontaneously narrower concerns to more inclusive and broader concerns.

(The previous parts of this series can be found here, here, and here.)


[1] Emile Durkheim, “The Division of Labor in Society,” in Classical Sociological Theory: A Reader, ed. Ian McIntosh (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 200.


0 # AP158 2014-02-21 00:12
I found "the workers have to cooperate with each other in order to get the work done" very interesting because it reminded me how in order to survive in a prison system one must cooperate with a group in order to survive. In Victor Hassine's book he talks about the groups or "gangs" that one must join in order to survive the system. As in the article the prison system also has the winners and the losers. The winners being the corrections system and the losers the people of color. Incentives are also found in the prison system because those who do favors for either other inmates or guards are doing it in return for something else whether it is materialistic or not. It is a human condition to find any means in order to survive.
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Elaine Brower of World Can't Wait speaking at the NYC Stop the War on Iran rally 2/4/12