George Walford: The Wages of Ideology

Systematic ideology claims to deal with practical matters as well as theoretical, and there is nothing much more practical than wages. The limited conception of ideology commonly used, both in everyday discussion and by the academics, occupies a different sphere from wages. Ideology in this sense is “false consciousness,” it belongs to the realm of error and illusion, and thinking about it cannot help us to understand wages, which are eminently real. S.i. takes a more robust approach; the earning of wages and the payment of them are both items of volitional behaviour and therefore within its orbit.

The wages system assumes employer and employed to be free agents, coming together only because they choose to do so. In practice, of course, it isn’t quite like that; neither party is free. The workers are, for the most part, obliged to obtain wages in order to maintain themselves and their families, and the employers are obliged to pay wages if they are to maintain themselves as employers. There are also, at least in the advanced countries, limitations which have been intentionally imposed. Both sides are under an obligation to give notice if they wish to end the connection, and there are many other restrictions on their freedom to separate – redundancy payments, trade union agreements, pension entitlements, fair dismissal requirements, and so on and so on. In addition to these formal limitations there are also emotional ones. Workers tend to form social groups at the workplace, many firms take a more or less paternal attitude to their staff, and both parties sometimes feel themselves engaged in a common enterprise deserving loyalty. Wages are one feature, and not always the decisive one, in a complex relationship, and this turns out on examination to be capable of ideological analysis. The types of behaviour which go to constitute it are, in the main, those characterising three of the major ideologies.

Each new member of the advanced societies, young, inexperienced, vulnerable and malleable, enters a massively complex and solidly established social environment. Survival demands adaptation to its requirements, and for nearly everybody this means getting a job. At this stage wages, and the work required to obtain them, are seen in much the same way as the hunter-gatherer sees fruit on a tree and the effort required to obtain it; obtaining them is the only way to keep living. At this stage the particular characteristics of wages, the differences between this and other ways of obtaining what one wants, are immaterial. For the people at this stage, living in a wages society is simply one of the facts of life. A great many people maintain this attitude unchanged, accepting social disturbances, war and peace, booms and slumps, and their effects on wages, much as they accept the vagaries of the weather, as things to be appreciated or regretted but not averted. This is the “apathy” complained of by those who take a more independent stance. It constitutes a very large part of the behaviour associated with employment and it indicates identification with the protostatic ideology.

The next stage entails emergence of the recognition that the social environment possesses, or ought to posses, certain characteristics distinguishing it from the natural one. It is seen to consist of two levels, employers above and workers below, and these strata are distinct but not separate. They are bound in a web of reciprocal obligations, the workers owing loyalty and faithful service to the employers and they having a duty to treat their workers with consideration. The two groups are seen as united in a common endeavour, and the institution, the firm, which they together constitute, as in competition with others of its kind; it is largely this that produces the need for loyalty. Work is now done not simply to get wages; it is done, partly at least, out of concern for the well-being of the enterprise, wages being received as it were as an indirect consequence, by virtue of one’s membership of that particular group. This appears on a larger scale in history in all cases where a superior and an inferior group are hound by reciprocal relations of duty, good faith and loyalty, feudalism being one familiar example. In the employer-employee context it tends to take the form of paternalism, and it indicates identification with the epistatic ideology.

In the third stage the distinction between oneself and the environment is carried farther and applied also to other people. Society comes to he seen not as a static whole to which one can only adapt, nor as a flexible duality in which one can rely on considerate treatment, but as an actively competitive multiplicity. The reciprocal obligations recognised in the previous stage are now seen as subjugated to the demands of competition. A firm is entitled to dismiss its workers if competitive efficiency requires this, and they in turn are entitled to leave the firm if by doing so they can better themselves. This is the specific “wages” relationship, this is what Karl Marx was speaking of when he said capitalism had dissolved all but the crude cash nexus between man and man. It is an expression of the parastatic ideology.

There are other ideologies beyond this; the ones appearing in the movements – socialism, communism and anarchism – that seek to do away with the wages system. But they have not managed to establish themselves in social practice, they remain largely confined to theory and criticism. It is the behaviour associated with the three ideologies mentioned above that goes to constitute the complex relationship known as having a job, and when this is taken into account the social stresses that arise in this connection are more readily understood.

from Ideological Commentary 21, November 1985.