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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

Gittens on economics & the iron cage « Previous | |Next »
October 19, 2005

Ross Gittens is writing some interesting op.eds in the Sydney Morning Herald at the moment. The latest one is on neo-liberalism, call centres and industrial relations reform.

Gittens starts the op. ed. like this:

The thing that worries me about economic rationalists --- and the business people who put the rationalists' policies into practice --- is....that they keep getting muddled between means and ends. They're so obsessed by means that they end up converting ends into means... The result is that we keep getting richer without getting better off. Indeed, in some respects we're getting worse off.

Aah, Gittens has put his finger on something important.

What we have is a value neutral economic rationality, which is an instrumental reason. This became hegemonic conception of reason once the process of rationalization in modernity has defeated tradition. Good start huh. It's not often that you see this kind of intellectual oomph in the corporate media.

And it just gets better. Gittens spots the mechanist metaphysics that underpins neo-classical economicsconcepion of the market:

If you think of the economy --- that is, the aspect of our lives concerned with production and consumption -- as a motor car, economists are the mechanics. They're experts on how the economic car works.If there's something wrong with the car---if it's running rough --- those best equipped to get it ticking over nicely are the economists. If we'd like to improve the car's performance, economists are the people whose advice we should seek out and follow.

Gittens has an acute eye. He also spots a key problem with instrumental reason of economics.

This problem arises because all the years economists have spent with their heads under the bonnet have narrowed their vision:

Because they're so specialised on the efficiency with which cars work, they've fallen into the assumption that efficiency is pretty much all that matters. They've forgotten that, while their customers like having a car that's efficient, their primary interest is using the car to get from A to B.

the economists have bracketed any conception of the ends of policy. They are only concerned with the means. As Gittens puts it were 'you to follow such advice, you'd be abandoning ends to improve means and, in the process, making the car your master rather than your servant. In the simple case of a car, few of us would be so silly.'
Does anything on this means supplanting ends? A lot for me. For Gittens though?


Yes. He illustrates the consequences with the proposed industrial relations reform that make it easier for workers to "cash out" their meal breaks, public holidays, penalty and overtime rates, and two weeks of annual leave:

Now, there's no doubt that keeping our factories, offices and shops open for longer - ideally, 24 hours a day - will raise their productivity. That might not be profitable, of course, if the longer hours were a lot more expensive in terms of penalty rates. But get rid of the penalties and the increased productivity will assuredly lead most of us to higher incomes. So we have much income to gain by continuing down the road of getting rid of nine-to-five days, overtime payments, weekends and public holidays, and paring back annual leave to a fortnight.

And Gittens spots the iron cage of modernity:
Trouble is, doing so puts means ahead of ends. It focuses on the income, forgetting why we want it. It makes us the servants of factories and offices, rather than their masters. It robs us of our humanity, taking away our leisure and making us more like robots. The thing about robots, of course, is that they don't have families and don't need relationships to keep them satisfied with life.

The trouble of course, as Gittens points out, is that:
Humans don't just need leisure time, they need time off work at the same time as their spouse and while their children aren't at school...Why do we need to impoverish ourselves by giving up leisure time, phasing out the weekend and seeing even less of our families?

Hence we have the rattling of the iron cage. On one account of this rattling the radical struggle for freedom and individuality degenerates into an affirmation of irrational life forces against the routine and drab predictability of a bureaucratic order. Weber's option was to call for an ethics of responsibility.

Gittens, in contrast, implies a return to the ethical rationality embodied in everyday life and counterposes that ethical life to the dystopia of instrumental reason.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 7:54 PM | | Comments (0)
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