Worthwhile work and human organisation

Under all sorts of forms of human organisation, people engage in work because they have to earn a living. They work to live, rather than live to work, in a capitalist system as much as in any other. Individuals might be considered lucky if they find a job which is fulfilling and gives meaning to their life.

Social democrats and trade union leaders and members may champion higher wages and improved working conditions under capitalism, while socialists may fight to bring about a different economic system which, they believe, is necessary to achieve the social justice impossible under capitalism.

However, upon deeper reflection, many more of us could come to a different understanding about our contribution to society. An increasing division of labour, as described by Adam Smith, gives rise to specialisation and greater efficiency under capitalist production. This can give rise to the growth of companies, whether it is organic (from within) or through mergers and acquisitions, and sometimes their division too. This growth is often driven from within organisations by the breaking down of jobs into increasingly simply tasks, and may, as Marx put it, lead to the alienation of workers. Socialism, he thought, would help to solve this problem. But if we are stuck with capitalism for some time, and especially given its necessity for development in poor countries, we need to find ways to live with it and appreciate its ability to transform society and improve the material conditions of life.

This is not to ignore the need for social policies which attempt to outlaw exploitation and poor wages and working conditions, but by looking more closely at how our activities contribute to society (or not), we can maybe find a deeper appreciation of our role in the world. Even the most menial tasks in a developing country factory play their part in the production of goods which provide useful services to consumers across the world.

I used to work for a wildlife charity and I often heard from employees in the same office block working for very different organisations that it must be fulfilling to be making a difference, implying that they were not. But I would often reflect that they do make a difference to their clients and customers, just in a different way. Of course, I would not draw this conclusion for criminal organisations. They make a difference too, but in a more twisted and usually negative way, something which should clearly not be supported. But so many organisations and their employees, in the private and public sectors, make a positive difference; maybe it simply requires a more careful consideration on the part of their members of the final outcomes produced by their everyday activities. If these outcomes are far removed from the original working activity, they can be hard to appreciate. But it is worthwhile thinking in this way. Everyone can make a positive difference in daily life as part of many kinds of organisations and societies. These can be unintended kindnesses and ways of serving arising from a complex world, which on reflection are just as valid as the more direct outcomes of behaviour of those widely seen to be ‘doing good’ in society.

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