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Tuesday, July 22, 2014
The Resentment Of The White-Collar Workers
Besides being harassed by the general hatred of capitalism common to most people, the white-collar worker labors under two special afflictions peculiar to his own category.
Sitting behind a desk and committing words and figures to paper, he is prone to overrate the significance of his work. Like the boss he writes and reads what other fellows have put on paper and talks directly or over the telephone with other people. Full of conceit, he imagines himself to belong to the enterprise’s managing elite and compares his own tasks with those of his boss. As a “worker by brain” he looks arrogantly down upon the manual worker whose hands are calloused and soiled. It makes him furious to notice that many of these manual laborers get higher pay and are more respected than he himself. What a shame, he thinks, that capitalism does not appraise his “intellectual” work according to its “true” value and fondles the simple drudgery of the “uneducated.”
In nursing such atavistic ideas about the significance of office work and manual work, the white-collar man shuts his eyes to a realistic evaluation of the situation. He does not see that his own clerical job consists in the performance of routine tasks which require but a simple training, while the “hands” whom he envies are the highly skilled mechanics and technicians who know how to handle the intricate machines and contrivances of modern industry. It is precisely this complete misconstruction of the real state of affairs that discloses the clerk’s lack of insight and power of reasoning.
On the other hand, the clerical worker, like professional people, is plagued by daily contact with men who have succeeded better than he. He sees some of his fellow employees who started from the same level with him make a career within the hierarchy of the office while he remains at the bottom. Only yesterday Paul was in the same rank with him. Today Paul has a more important and better-paid assignment. And yet, he thinks, Paul is in every regard inferior to himself. Certainly, he concludes, Paul owes his advancement to those mean tricks and artifices that can further a man’s career only under this unfair system of capitalism which all books and newspapers, all scholars and politicians denounce as the root of all mischief and misery.
The classical expression of the clerks’ conceit and their fanciful belief that their own subaltern jobs are a part of the entrepreneurial activities and congeneric with the work of their bosses is to be found in Lenin’s description of the “control of production and distribution” as provided by his most popular essay. Lenin himself and most of his fellow conspirators never learned anything about the operation of the market economy and never wanted to. All they knew about capitalism was that Marx had described it as the worst of all evils. They were professional revolutionaries. The only sources of their earnings were the party funds which were fed by voluntary and more often involuntary—extorted—contributions and subscriptions and by violent “expropriations.” But, before 1917, as exiles in Western and Central Europe, some of the comrades occasionally held subaltern routine jobs in business firms. It was their experience—the experience of clerks who had to fill out forms and blanks, to copy letters, to enter figures into books and to file papers—which provided Lenin with all the information he had acquired about entrepreneurial activities.
Lenin correctly distinguishes between the work of the entrepreneurs on the one hand, and that of “the scientifically educated staff of engineers, agronomists and so on” on the other hand. These experts and technologists are mainly executors of orders. They obey under capitalism the capitalists; they will obey under socialism “the armed workers.” The function of the capitalists and entrepreneurs is different; it is, according to Lenin, “control of production and distribution, of labor and products.” Now the tasks of the entrepreneurs and capitalists are in fact the determination of the purposes for which the factors of production are to be employed in order to serve in the best possible way the wants of the consumers, i.e., to determine what should be produced, in what quantities and in what quality. However, this is not the meaning that Lenin attaches to the term “control.” As a Marxian he was unaware of the problems the conduct of production activities has to face under any imaginable system of social organization: the inevitable scarcity of the factors of production, the uncertainty of future conditions for which production has to provide, and the necessity of picking out from the bewildering multitude of technological methods suitable for the attainment of ends already chosen those which obstruct as little as possible the attainment of other ends, i.e., those with which the cost of production is lowest. No allusion to these matters can be found in the writings of Marx and Engels. All that Lenin learned about business from the tales of his comrades who occasionally sat in business offices was that it required a lot of scribbling, recording and ciphering. Thus, he declares that “accounting and control” are the chief things necessary for the organizing and correct functioning of society. But “accounting and control,” he goes on saying, have already been “simplified by capitalism to the utmost, till they have become the extraordinarily simple operations of watching, recording and issuing receipts, within the reach of anybody who can read and write and knows the first four rules of arithmetic.”*
Here we have the philosophy of the filing clerk in its full glory.