Of course, corporate crime is rife in supposedly clean, western countries. There is a scandal at the moment in Australia in which the Australian Wheat Board bribed officials in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq $230 million to buy Australian wheat
‘The way we measure individual brilliance, whether in stupid IQ tests or in exam success, requires precisely the sorts of skills money can buy,’ says Bill Dunn.
A left activist in Britain from the early 1980s, Bill Dun was a hospital worker for many years before studying social science. He did a PhD at the University of the West of England and had some temporary teaching jobs in Britain before coming to Australia and Sydney University in 2005.
He mainly researches issues around labour but from various angles; value theory, work and employment and labour as a social movement. He has also written a book on ‘Global Restructuring and the Power of Labour’ (2004) and co-edited one on ‘100 Years of Permanent Revolution’ (2006).
In an interview with the Viewpoint, he discusses some of the clichés we often hear about on our daily lives. Read on:
One often hears that if one works hard, one becomes successful. It also implies one may become rich through sheer hard work. In almost every society certain individuals are pointed out in this regard. Is it possible in your opinion to become rich through hard work?
No. The maths are simple. Imagine a newly hired young worker at General Motors’, Lake Orion plant in the world’s richest country, the USA. The recently agreed union rate is $14.50 an hour. Even if such a worker could live on thin air and work for 45 hours a week it would take them 30 years to make their first million. According to the business magazine Forbes, there are 1153 billionaires in the world. They haven’t worked 1000 times harder or longer than our factory worker.
Of course, many rich people work hard. A very few formerly poor people, the mining prospectors of the 19th century and elite sports people today, might seem to have made it rich through hard work. But essentially they strike it lucky. For most people hard work is at best a means of survival not a path to riches.
There are cases of rags-to-riches. From the Swedish owner of Ikea to the American owner of McDonalds, we know so many such stories. Why some individuals become so rich but many others do not? Are these successful individuals more intelligent, more hardworking, special in some way?
OK. Social structures under capitalism are not as rigid as in some societies. There is some social mobility. And this varies. Finland’s structures are more fluid than Britain’s, which (I guess) are in turn more fluid than Pakistan’s. But if the capitalist class never replaced itself by recruiting the bright and obedient from the lower orders it would become so ossified and inbred the whole class would end up looking and behaving like Prince Charles. Schools and universities train people and firms recruit people from working class backgrounds and some of them eventually become senior managers and bureaucrats. Small businesses can grow and become big businesses. Of course, the overwhelming majority of small businesses collapse or remain small businesses. But some do grow and become big businesses.
But I’d say two things about this.
Firstly, yes, it means there is some scope for the intelligent and hard working to move up. Less frequently those from privileged backgrounds even move down. But it has to be the right sort of intelligence and hard work has to conform with the norms of the education system and the firms that train and make use of our talents. Anything genuinely critical or challenging tends to get weeded out.
Secondly, the fact that people move between classes doesn’t at all mean that class structures lose their importance. This is obvious. But it doesn’t stop social scientists periodically discovering that social mobility means we live in a classless society. I moved from London to Sydney seven years ago. If I claimed that therefore neither London nor Sydney existed you would worry about my mental health. The cities carry on irrespective of my movement. In the same way, if much less easily, people can move between classes. But it is necessarily only a tiny minority, even of those who are hard working and intelligent or of those who are sufficiently ruthless in their business acumen, who can move class. The system relies on a majority of people working hard but in horrible, low paid jobs; whether in factories, farms, mines, offices or sewage works.
Balzac says, ‘Behind every big fortune, there is a big crime.’ But in Pakistan and many other countries of the South perhaps, we believe that the West is not corrupt. Tax evasion or kickbacks are mere exceptions. Given this clean culture of business practices, is it possible to become as rich as, for instance, Bill Gates?
It is a great quote and probably often true. Of course, corporate crime is rife in supposedly clean, western countries. There is a scandal at the moment in Australia in which the former chief executive of the Australian Wheat Board Andrew Lindberg has just been fined $100,000 and barred from corporate life for two years. The AWB bribed officials in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq $230 million to buy Australian wheat. What I’ve always liked about this story is that the dodgy deals were done with Iraq, supposedly enemy number one, and when we went to war with them again this was uncovered and became a problem. We can only guess at how many similar schemes there are with all the friendly regimes.
There are any number of examples of corporate criminality. Thousands of workers are killed every year in industrial accidents. There may be genuine accidents but many would be avoidable with decent conditions and a bit more spending on health and safety at work. It is class murder on a grand scale. Bosses are never jailed for this but firms are prosecuted and occasionally fined a few dollars.
But I think the more fundamental point is that the whole system and its laws are set up to systematically favour capitalism. Most of what happens is therefore clean in the sense of being perfectly legal. But it is still a filthy system. Britain was built on the trade in slaves and opium. These trades that were conducted perfectly openly, cleanly in the eyes of British law.
Some of today’s practices, though legal, seem scandalous. People conned into sub-prime mortgages they didn’t need and couldn’t afford. The looting of workers’ pension funds. Others seem perfectly normal, whether its people working for long hours in vile jobs for low wages because they have no other means to support themselves or corporations stopping other people using neat ideas though patent protection and copyright.
So I don’t know if Bill Gates has a dark past of criminality. I guess not. The ruthless exploitation on which his billions are based has been so normalised that it isn’t criminal, and doesn’t even seem criminal.
There are the cases when we hear that somebody introduced a new idea, new method and became rich. Is it possible that one becomes rich mere because one is innovative? Is there a link between wealth and intellectual brilliance?
This is probably where mainstream economics is at its most ridiculous and circular but also at its most apologetic for the status quo. It simply assumes that markets are efficient, so profits and pay are necessarily fair rewards. How do we know someone is highly skilled and works hard; because they are well paid. And why are they well paid? Because they are highly skilled and work hard. If your pay is low it reflects your individual failings so you don’t grumble.
But there might be a link; entrepreneurs might be rewarded for their innovations. The best of pro-capitalist economists, Joseph Schumpeter, argued something like this. He’s been called the bourgeois Marx and recognised capitalism’s booms and slumps and that competition was often a brutal business not a painless adjustment to market equilibrium. So firms make profits by cornering the market and one aspect of this could be by innovation. You can charge more on a product that nobody else makes than if you are selling something in a competitive market. And this is one of the reasons capitalism has been such an amazingly dynamic system.
Schumpeter did think it was about individual entrepreneurs. But actually it is seldom about individual brilliance. In fact, the vast majority of innovation is done by giant corporations pouring resources into research and development. It costs thousands of dollars to even apply for a patent, out of reach of most workers. It is corporations who get almost all of them. Small time inventors almost always get bought out, maybe for enough to live comfortably, but with the bulk of the profits being grabbed by the big companies.
This innovation, this cornering the market, is also only taking a bigger slice of the profits already made somewhere else. Suppose an entrepreneur make a new and better vacuum cleaner for half the cost of rival versions. She only reaps her rewards because there is a ‘going rate’ of exploitation and profit in the rest of the vacuum cleaner industry.
So a link between wealth and individual brilliance…not really. Maybe occasionally. But if anything the causation mostly runs in the other direction. The way we measure individual brilliance, whether in stupid IQ tests or in exam success, requires precisely the sorts of skills money can buy.
Working class people, both in towns and on the countryside, keep working hard generation after generation. Often peasants or factory workers also come up with novel ideas to enhance productivity and efficiency. But they never become rich. It is always individuals who turn to business earning phenomenal sums of money. So what indeed is ‘hard work’ and ‘innovation’?
These are profound questions. They touch on what it is to be human. I am no philosopher but I have a couple of thoughts based on the sort of things Marx talked about in his early writings.
For the vast majority of us today, work is drudgery. We have little if any control over what we do, or what we make. And someone else gets the profits. It is only when we are not working, when we are eating, drinking or ‘procreating’ - as Marx’s coy 19th century language described it - that we feel properly human. But these are animal activities and what really distinguishes us as a species is creative, social work. It is the sign of a sick system that it beats this out of us.
Excuse a couple of personal examples. At school we did metalwork. This was great; it seemed to us like non-work compared with learning German or chemistry. And although I never made anything better than a garden trowel and an ashtray I was really proud of them. But put someone in a factory, make them into a metalworker, day after day working to someone else’s orders, someone else’s designs and for someone else’s profits and they quite reasonably end up hating their work like everybody else.
Or again, I loved playing cricket and spent hours doing so. And this speaks to the earlier question about hard work. I worked very hard at my cricket but with never the ability to ever earning a living, let alone get rich, by doing so. Others go fishing. Or grow flowers or make patchwork quilts for their own enjoyment. We don’t think of these things as work and in this society they don’t really count as work unless they help somebody, usually somebody else, to get rich.
For much the same reason, other things we do think of as work - particularly housework - don’t count when it comes to mainstream measures of national wealth and well being.
I think it is probably also a human characteristic to innovate, to be curious about the world and to find new ways of interacting with it, to make new and better things than we could before. Capitalism is dynamic and innovative compared with slave or feudal societies but still limits our creativity. If you find a way to do your job more easily best keep it to yourself or management will increase your workload and push through the corresponding redundancies. Capitalism also makes us work in set ways, whether literally in terms of production line processes or in terms of conformist thinking. It makes sure that innovations are limited to what can turn a profit and to what can be patented and privatised.