A reply to S. Dorman

In my recent essai, ‘Why are dragons afraid of Americans?’, I made one or two passing references to Utopian Socialism. S. Dorman (cinda-cite on LiveJournal) writes the following comment:

it feels ungrateful of me not to mention…for many the misery–gone! but it’s back now. so unions?–flawed but needed again. there is no utopia, but people tend to work toward it personally, for familial reasons–when they are working.

I don’t normally write about explicitly political matters here, but when I attempted to reply on LiveJournal, I found that I had run over the limit for comments; so I beg indulgence of you all, and ask those not interested not to click on the link below, and not to bother with the remainder of this post.

My reply to S. Dorman:

I’m afraid I have to disagree with you about unions being needed again. They were an appropriate form of industrial organization for the industries of a hundred years ago, when most manufacturing labour was semi-skilled and a man could expect to do roughly the same kind of job for his whole working life. There is a reason why unions have nearly disappeared from the private sector in North America, and suffered grave losses in numbers and prestige elsewhere; and it isn’t the wickedness of the triumphant capitalists. It is simply that the average job nowadays doesn’t last long enough to organize.

I have had a number of jobs of that kind, and I have seen the pattern firsthand. To begin with, the job involves exploiting some kind of new technology; the people working in the field are self-starters and go-getters, the kind who can adapt to a complex new task without any formal training (no such training having yet been devised), and they tend to command very high wages.

When the industry grows a little more, the wages for new workers fall, but so do the requirements: the know-how is established and can be formally taught, which greatly increases the pool of potential applicants. At this stage the occupation might be unionized; but the technology is still new enough that the employers could do without it, and would do without it if the demands of unionized labour suddenly made it much more expensive to use.

As the industry matures, there comes a time when the employers cannot do without the technology or the workers who know how to use it; at this point, a union could get some traction and seek to inflate wages above the market level. In former times, an industry could remain in this stage for many decades. I have worked at jobs where it lasted as little as two or three years; and nobody will bother to organize a union for a job that will only last for two or three years.

After that, the job begins to be superseded by newer technology; that means new jobs, demanding different skills, and done largely by different workers. At this point, unionization in the older field would only kill off jobs by encouraging employers to dump the old technology sooner.

I have worked as a seismic data analyst, a job that only began to exist in the 1960s (when mainframe computer power was first applied to geophysical data) and disappeared entirely in the 1990s (when desktop computers became so powerful that geologists could do all the work themselves). For a time I worked as sysop of a multi-line dialup chat BBS, a job that was a radical novelty in 1990 and didn’t exist anymore (because of cheap commercial Internet access) a decade later. I have had several other jobs that did not exist a few years before I took them, and no longer exist today. It would have been a futile task to try to unionize any of these mayfly occupations.

Much as I agree that employers often exploit their workers, and sometimes shamelessly, I have to say that the union, in most cases, is a solution whose time has passed. It is simply not a structure that can adapt to rapid change, either technological or economic. If an individual worker wants redress for a grievance, he will much more easily find it by changing jobs than by waiting for a bureaucratic union to force change upon bureaucratic management.

The only private-sector unions that are really thriving in North America at the moment are in the construction trades and the film industry; this makes sense, for those are long-lasting, relatively stable trades in which most work is done on short-term projects, and the union serves a purpose by setting the ground rules for employment, as well as taking care of pensions and benefits for what would otherwise be un-pensioned and uninsured temp workers.

Apart from that, unions are mostly persisting in the public sector, where the employers are under no necessity to turn a profit, and the unions can contribute heavily to the campaign funds of the politicians who hire them — something that would be attacked as influence-peddling if anybody else did it, and outlawed as conflict of interest if it happened in private industry.

Meanwhile, I should say that when people are working, they don’t work towards Utopia, but towards economic security for themselves and opportunity for their children — and these two goals tend to conflict, for the younger generation’s opportunities frequently arise from the same technological change that makes the older generation’s jobs obsolete. You can’t cater to both in the same Utopia; and nearly every Utopian will instinctively prefer the first goal to the second.

For all Utopians as such are potential reactionaries. They only want to put society into what they conceive of as the perfect state, and then keep it there. Further change is not sought, not desired — actively opposed — and the desire for it is anathema. They cannot bear to be reminded of the truth that Zamyatin expressed with arithmetic simplicity in We:

‘Do you realise that what you are suggesting is revolution?’

‘Of course, it’s revolution. Why not?’

‘Because there can’t be a revolution. Our revolution was the last and there can never be another. Everybody knows that.’

‘My dear, you’re a mathematician: tell me, which is the last number?’

‘But that’s absurd. Numbers are infinite. There can’t be a last one.’

‘Then why do you talk about the last revolution?’

That passage cost Zamyatin his career, for Joseph Stalin was the very model of a Utopian Socialist, and in Stalin’s Russia, it was a capital crime to imply that Lenin’s revolution was not the last. It remained a crime until 1991, when the next revolution duly occurred.

Unions were revolutionary at one time; but they were not the last revolution. They are no better suited to present-day conditions than the mediaeval guild system was suited to the conditions of the Industrial Revolution. We may need to find institutions of our own that will do some of the good work that unions used to do, but we shall have to devise them for ourselves. The new wine won’t go into the old wineskin — a figure of speech I recall from somewhere.


  1. Teachers unions, persist, here in Texas at least, because they provide a sort of legal insurance to their members. If you’re accused of a crime in your capacity as a teacher, no matter how spurious, your employer won’t lift a finger except to fire you.

    It’s too bad there’s no middle ground, while having some sort of legal insurance like this is pretty necessary, the union really does help keep bad teachers in their jobs. My husband is teaching a month long ‘makeup’ government course in March now that’s primarily needed because the government teacher at the school is just a terrible teacher. (She’s not happy she doesn’t get to teach the makeup, but she’s really not happy that Himself gets complete autonomy over the class too.)

  2. Stephen J. says

    It strikes me that the Internet may have stepped up to the plate here wholly inadvertently.

    The whole point of unions is to make it impossible for employers to profit at the expense of employees by hiring only those who would work for the lowest possible wage or in the cheapest possible conditions; this worked in the 20th century, among the other reasons you note, because organized and controlled social membership was the only way to publicize information and coordinate responses widely and quickly. Now, in the West at least, word of mouth about an exploitative employer’s practices can penetrate the candidate pool for any given position with tremendous speed, and any employer who tries such tactics will lose more from that being known than they’d gain from the attempt.

    It also occurs to me that a slightly less noble explanation is a basic shift in attitude. It’s much easier to exploit employees who are servilely grateful to be employed at all; these days, the unionistic attitude of entitlement has taken over a lot of employee attitude towards employment, and if would-be employee skill and ability doesn’t always justify that attitude, it’s still easier to get away with it thanks to the litigation industry that has grown up to defend it.

    (Don’t get me wrong, I think having a healthy and accurate sense of one’s own worth in the marketplace and a refusal to allow employers to undervalue you is a good thing; but too many people seem to be coming out of school these days with a basic conviction that a simple B.A. should guarantee you a high five-figure job immediately, and if it doesn’t, that’s somebody else’s deliberate and malicious fault — viz. the entire Occupy phenomenon.)

  3. All conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are.

    But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.

    • This passage, which I agree with in every word but one, is a splendid example of one of Chesterton’s unfortunate blind spots. Conservatives, in my wide and abundant experience, are not those who want to leave the post alone; they are the ones who are always wanting to paint it white again, so that they may have and enjoy the good old post as it was in the days of their fathers. Progressives are those who fall dizzily in love with the steadily increasing blackness, and wish to hasten it along its inevitable course of historical development by painting it blacker still. Whenever a conservative comes along with his pot of white paint, he is greeted by a chorus of outraged progressives, wailing in unison, ‘You can’t turn back the clock!’

      • Perhaps there’s been some semantic drift?

        • No, the accusation about ‘turning back the clock’ was a familiar one already in Chesterton’s time; the difference between Conservatives and Liberals in Britain then (until most of the Liberals decamped for the Labour Party) was eerily similar to the difference between small-c conservatives and small-l liberals in America now. The difficulty was personal. Chesterton was an uncritical Francophile; he wanted to believe that the French Revolution was a glorious ushering-in of freedom and democracy, against, I am afraid, the overwhelming bulk of the evidence. But it was not, in France in 1792 or even in 1789, a case of repainting the old post in its original colour. It was a case of pulling up the post by the roots and replacing it with a machine intended for an entirely different purpose.

          It is very curious that Chesterton had the highest respect for the Catholic Church and eventually converted to Catholicism, and yet also had the highest respect for the Committee of Public Safety and the Directory, which abolished the Church and persecuted Catholics who refused to abandon their faith; and he seems never to have become aware of the contradiction.

          The singular valence he put on the word ‘conservative’ derives from a similar contradiction. He was a lifelong supporter of the Liberal Party in Britain, but not an uncritical one: hence his remark, ‘More than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism; but there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.’ But he could not bring himself to realize that he believed in any part of Conservatism; he imagined that ‘Tory democracy’ was purely a humbug, a sham put on by the wicked rich men who (he was sure) owned and utterly controlled the Conservative Party. At the same time he could believe that there were no substantive differences between the parties; that they were all part of the same racket and the same oligarchy. The upshot was that he used ‘conservative’ as a term of abuse to the end of his days, and never allowed himself to see anything good in it, or in conservatives.

          • Wow. I have never heard of this before.

            Well first let me say thank you Mr. Simon, love your work! Especially your insightful essays. And your fiction is a joy to read! Please forgive me, but may I just say, why, when you have so much to give the world, would you ever even consider taking your own life? I remember that odd incident a couple of months ago, and it shocked me quite a bit, I most certainly said more than a few prayers for you then. You bring so much to the table Mr. Simon! You are a boon to others (including myself), to the fantasy field in general, and you fight the good fight!
            Thank you, for everything.

            Now back to the point at hand. Excellent point about conservatives, this was not a subjective observation on your part, this is true. I’ve spent years around conservatives, and the repainting of the white post bit fits them snugly! What’s so amazing is that, even though I have found this to be always the case, it’s GKC’s definition of conservatism that one sees all over the place. The ‘status quo’ conservative. The ‘just leave it be’ conservative. The ‘Hell No!’ conservative. Its one of those strange memes that seem never to ebb from the popular, and leftist mind.
            Now to the other bit.
            While I’m not a biographer of GKC, or one of his adherents, I am quite fond of him. I have read books on him, books by him, books inspired by him. And I can honsetly say that I have never heard of that before! Not a one of the things I read that had to do with GKC ever mentioned that he was a francophile, in love with the french revolution, or a lifelong believer in liberalism and the liberal party! And yet this makes sense of things, things that always seemed odd to me before, discrepancies in the narrative, if you will. How many portraits of him paint him as a conservative! Or one of those, ‘neither left nor right’ characters! Ha!
            Why is this so? Like I said I will not claim that I know everything about the man, nor read everything about him…but I thought I knew enough, and I never knew that. Like I said, he has almost always been portrayed as a conservative to me, at least. And he never could admit a good word about it either? Wow. Sad. Does the same go for Belloc then? Was he too a lover of the french revolution and etc, etc?

            You know, come to think of it, I did hear mention of this once. Some ultra trad Catholic website had an essay decrying Chesterton/Belloc as fake conservatives, and mentioned something about the french revolution. But I only skimmed it, and didn’t believe it or digest it because…well, some of the other things they had written on the site were a bit…out there. Masons. Everything always comes down to Masons with them. Sometimes Jews. But mostly Masons. It sadly gives them a quack kind of feeling, even though they have their hearts in the right place, and have alot to say that needs to be heard.

            “The upshot was that he used ‘conservative’ as a term of abuse to the end of his days, and never allowed himself to see anything good in it, or in conservatives.”
            Thats just so sad. And pathetic. What about them did he hate so much?

  4. “Not a one of the things I read that had to do with GKC ever mentioned that he was a francophile, in love with the french revolution, or a lifelong believer in liberalism and the liberal party! ”

    Have you read any of Mr Chesterton’s essays, or his history? It is remarkable to me that anyone could read his nonfiction and not realize the high esteem in which Chesterton held the French Revolution.

    Allow me to quote from THE CRIMES OF ENGLAND

    “It is not necessary nowadays to defend the French Revolution, it is not necessary to defend even Napoleon, its child and champion, from criticisms in the style of Southey and Alison, which even at the time had more of the atmosphere of Bath and Cheltenham than of Turcoing and Talavera. The French Revolution was attacked because it was democratic and defended because it was democratic; and Napoleon was not feared as the last of the iron despots, but as the first of the iron democrats. What France set out to prove France has proved; not that common men are all angels, or all diplomatists, or all gentlemen (for these inane aristocratic illusions were no part of the Jacobin theory), but that common men can all be citizens and can all be soldiers; that common men can fight and can rule. There is no need to confuse the question with any of those escapades of a floundering modernism which have made nonsense of this civic common-sense. Some Free Traders have seemed to leave a man no country to fight for; some Free Lovers seem to leave a man no household to rule. But these things have not established themselves either in France or anywhere else. What has been established is not Free Trade or Free Love, but Freedom; and it is nowhere so patriotic or so domestic as in the country from which it came. The poor men of France have not loved the land less because they have shared it. Even the patricians are patriots; and if some honest Royalists or aristocrats are still saying that democracy cannot organise and cannot obey, they are none the less organised by it and obeying it, nobly living or splendidly dead for it, along the line from Switzerland to the sea.”

    You can see the context here: http://www.authorama.com/crimes-of-england-3.html

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