How much is a job of work worth? According to the market a job is worth what someone is prepared to pay you. A more ethical approach values a job by its personal satisfaction and social worth as the principle criteria. There is also the level of skill required, the time taken and the general dedication.
When John Spedan Lewis inherited his father’s grocery business he saw unearned income pouring into his account while those who did the work earned a pittance.
He created a co-operative enterprise where those who worked for the business received their share of the profits created by their work. Complementing this profit-share was a system whereby workers [partners] had a share of ownership and a democratic voice in the management structure.
Others might have followed and the commercial life of our society could have changed radically. How much more humane and generous co-operative enterprises are compared to monolithic private or state corporations. Unfortunately Spedan Lewis’s model was not generally followed.
The state corporations have been broken up or weakened but not replaced with co-operative enterprises. Democracy does not extend so far. An ethic of individual competition governs not only the commercial life of society but even the general moral compass. The value of a job is what you as an individual can negotiate.
Apply that approach to society and you no longer have a society but a rabble of self-centred philistines with no general personal or social morality beyond what each individual finds both desirable and the possible. In other words, if you can get away with it then it’s all right. Imagine if such a principle were applied to government. There is no need to imagine it.
The distortion of values has consequences that are accepted without the demos of discussion required. It is futile to think that market forces can be directed towards the social good. New Labour staked its reputation on such an aspiration, only to find that social ideals were subsumed by market forces.
The assumption of capitalism is that capital is the primary measure of worth.
Property rather than ability is the foundation of society. Ability is assessed by its commercial value, by its negotiating position in the market place. The ability to make something useful, like furniture, is assessed not by the functional and aesthetic qualities of the furniture made but by its price in the shop. If that price is not high the furniture-maker’s worth is meagre. No account is taken of the skill and care taken. Whereas the manager of the shop, unable to make anything useful, is in a position to command a higher reward and greater respect by virtue of the power management has over workers, including the furniture-maker. The owner of the shop commands even greater material rewards by the fact of ownership not by the display of any ability whatsoever.
Power is at the heart of the matter. We value power more than we value ability. In that we may not be so different from many other societies throughout history.
That does not excuse our failure to advance toward a more ethical and responsible idea of commonwealth. We are not even trying. What we are doing is slouching through the litter-strewn streets misusing social media to tell everyone how many ‘K’ we are earning.
Money in our society can buy much. Individual lives can be enriched in the wider sense of that term. A better society would provide these things for all. That may be to ask too much. Well, there’s no harm in asking, is there? Market forces encourage us to bargain for something better. Capitalism encourages us to expect something better.
There was a time when organized labour was widely and regularly accused of greed and social irresponsibility when campaigning for more equitable wages. Today we see fortunes bestowed on the managers of capital without anything like the same measure of censure.
So how much is a job worth? Should BBC reporters earn as much in a week or two as others earn in a year? Some, risking their lives reporting from war zones, deserve every penny and more. With some others the scale of reward seems to be arbitrary when it is not prejudiced in favour of a certain type.
The question of payment for work at the BBC has focussed on gender and racial inequities. It is right that these matters be given attention. But they are not the central questions we need to be asking. We need to ask questions about the general worth of work within the media. We also need to ask questions about the worth of work within society.
With regard to the BBC, the problem of paying fortunes to prominent broadcasters gives the public the wrong idea. Many now will presume everyone at the BBC is rich. There are thousands in broadcasting whose pay is no more than adequate.
Others are not well rewarded at all. In his Anatomy of Britain Anthony Sampson noted: ‘Free-lance fees are kept low to discourage outsiders.’ Without outside contributors the BBC could not provide many of its services but not all these essential, often highly skilled, people are rewarded anything like adequately. They are prepared to contribute because of the prestige of the BBC. That very prestige depends in large part on those poorly-rewarded contributors.
Outside contributors to the BBC are treated like day-labourers. They have no power to bargain for adequate reward. A large corporation has considerable power even in its perpetual fear of the enemy at the gates. The BBC fails to understand that a large measure of the hostility it receives is self-inflicted by its hierarchic structure. This power structure, running against the grain of democracy, rewards workers not according to their ability but according to their status. That is not the attitude expected of an organisation that believes itself to be a great cultural force embedded in the national fabric. Where money is the measure of worth there is ultimately no culture of real value.
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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall