Thursday, May 01, 2014

Vertical and Horizontal Solidarity

It՚s May Day, time for some working-class solidarity. And are not most of us workers? Employees of someone else? Unfortunately the very idea of class solidarity in America, especially in Silicon Valley, has an odor of ridiculous obsolescence. It՚s a boring and trite view of the world, compared to the technological sublime. SV culture, for all its cachet and raw intelligence, runs on the basically same toxic individualism that rules in the rest of the US and prevents any real political left from forming. It՚s just brought to a more intense level here, where everyone thinks they are or should be an entrepreneur.

The class struggle is not much in evidence here; everyone՚s just trying to get rich by making their company awesome. Companies use obvious tactics to make it seem like everyone at the company is best buddies, teammates, all working hard and happily together towards the same goal. And to some extent this works! It always amazes me that companies, despite their petty politics and obvious social pathologies, actually get shit done. Whatever their flaws, they seem to solve the general problem of goal-directed cooperation.

Doing so always seems to require a communal myth of the company, and everyone has to take part in building up this myth and everyone has to occasionally make a public display to the effect that they are bought into it. This is just as true at both excellent and crappy companies, I suspect. My current company actually does do pretty well in both mythmaking and living up to its myth. Today they chose (by coincidence I՚m sure) to give a presentation on stock options. Can՚t complain about that; stock options actually do work, they do help align labor with the interests of the organization.

So companies build what I՚m going to call vertical solidarity, that is, solidarity and loyalty within a company, between its various ranks and groupings, and to the company itself. Let՚s distinguish that from horizontal solidarity, which is solidarity to your class, profession, or community.

Both of these have their necessary uses. Companies require vertical solidarity to operate; and society requires horizontal solidarity to keep from degenerating into a hellscape. But both forms of solidarity seem to be decaying over the last few decades or so.

In the vertical dimension, the old-fashioned arrangement between company and employee, where a job was a lifetime identity, is long gone. While companies try to instill loyalty into their workforce, they rarely reciprocate. (This is not so much in evidence in technology, where employees are often the companies chief asset, but quite obvious in the most other sectors of the economy, where owners will do whatever they can to eliminate workers as an unnecessary cost),

Horizontal solidarity also seems to be on the wane, as evidenced by the diminishment of labor unions and the absence of much professional class consciousness in technology. This is a shame for several reasons. Aside from purely self-interested motives, which of course are important, professional solidarity exists so that market forces can be resisted. Lawyers and doctors seem to grasp this; computer people largely have not. There are very clear rules for professional conduct among doctors and lawyers; violate them and you are out. But there are roughly no standards of ethical conduct for computer professionals.

This might be all for the best in a field which is still defining itself. On the other hand, as software eats the world, the job of a software developer becomes increasingly important to every aspect of society. Mathematicians have noticed that the largest employer of their talents is not always acting in a a way that is a credit to their profession and a net gain for society, and have proposed setting some standards that would reign this in. Unlikely to happen, but at least they are making an effort. The organization that was making gestures towards the idea that there computer professionals as a class had some social responsibility dissolved itself a year ago.

I suspect that both horizontal and vertical solidarity are going permanently out of fashion, perhaps to be replaced by something more network-based. My real loyalty isn՚t to a company (sorry) or to a particular class or professional identity, but to various far-flung friends, and to the network of ideas and experiences that bind us together. That might not make a revolution, but in an era of general institutional turmoil and decay, it is what binds the world together.

[Past May Day posts]


Ben Hyde said...

Piketty comments about how human capital isn't a form of wealth, because yeah we got rid of slavery and anyhow there are no markets where the capitalist can sell his accumulated assets. Well that got me thinking about the way bosses (me included) will say "my team." Which kind of casts the whole team building chit-chat into as an effort to convert labor into my capital. And then I found myself thinking of those startups that exit selling said team to an acquiring firm. Leading up to the fun of casting entrepreneurs into the role of slave traders.

mtraven said...

Yes there are all sorts of ways in which wage slavery maps to real slavery. But awhile back I was chastising someone for making that metaphor, because despite the similarities the differences are a lot more salient. For pampered techies especially, but even the oppressed minimum wage Walmart serf has at least the theoretical freedom to walk away, and that՚s not nothing.

I guess I am a aging mellow sellout these days because I don՚t hate working for the man as much as I used to.

Darcey Riley said...

This was very interesting; thank you! What exactly do you mean by loyalty to the "network of ideas and experiences that bind us together"? How can one be loyal to an idea or experience? Or are the ideas and experiences the grounds for solidarity with the far-flung friends?

If I'm reading this correctly and your loyalty is to online groups or individuals who share your ideas and experiences... what kind of actions do you think this solidarity can translate into? You say that people who feel vertical solidarity will get stuff done for their companies, and people who feel horizontal solidarity will band together and uphold a set of standards. What can members of a far-flung internet network do for one another besides share experiences?

One of my creeping suspicions about the modern age is that interpersonal (and person-to-organization/person-to-social-class) bonds will grow weaker as we eradicate more and more struggles from our lives. A lot of solidarity (and truly close friendships) seem to come from facing some hardship together, or struggling together against some goal. If we don't face any real hardships, then there's no chance for real friendships to form. And in long-distance internet-based solidarity-networks, there doesn't seem to be as much chance to face hardship together. Do you think this will limit the effectiveness of these social bonds?

mtraven said...

HI Darcey, welcome and thanks for the comment.

That last bit of post was more of a nostalgic sigh over the state of my personal networks, than an attempt to articulate a real social theory. But I have done something like that in the past [ see here] until I decided I wasn՚t quite pretentious enough to pull it off.

So, it՚s not really so much loyalty to the ideas or experiences, as that it is those that make up the substance of my loyalty to my friends and relations. Especially in the case of friends who are far away and I don՚t see much of. What I have of them in my daily life is whatever set of mental representations (values, ideas, notions of right conduct) that we share, and more importantly, know that we share.

It՚s also not so much about online groups, which are just a new way of creating and maintaining remote connections. It՚s more about an inescapable distrust of institutions. A true friend (or at any rate, my true loyalty) can՚t be mediated through institutions, and that includes online ones. Yet institutions are (definitionally) how collective action is taken, and usually the substrate in which personal connections are formed. So there՚s a tension there.

It՚s a version of the same tension I think that runs through the anarchist movement (another thing I talk about here a lot, although I don՚t really belong to it). How do radically decentralized groups act in a coherent way? The Occupy people actually had some ideas in that respect, although not terribly successful ones.

I may have been wishing for something like this: that that spirit survives and will try again, acting through those of us with whom it resonates.

John Redford said...

Here's a concrete example of horizontal solidarity - the IEEE is trying to get rid of H1-B visas. These have been an obvious scam for decades, and in recent years it has gotten worse - half of the slots are snapped up by out-sourcing companies for their serf programmers. The IEEE is proposing instead that the supply of green cards be expanded, and be offered to anyone who finishes a STEM PhD in the US. They're fine with competition with foreign nationals, but not competition with indentured labor. These provisions actually made it into the immigration bill last year, but all that was predictably squashed by the wingnuts.

It's only through organizations like this that professional solidarity will mean anything. Yet that might just mean that they'll soon be attacked or subverted by the corporatists. I'm actually surprised that they spoke up on something like H1-Bs; some of their backers must benefit from the current awful status quo.

fsascott said...

You wrote: "Aside from purely self-interested motives, which of course are important, professional solidarity exists so that market forces can be resisted. Lawyers and doctors seem to grasp this; computer people largely have not."

Just curious - how do you distinguish between actions for "purely self-interested motives" and those that are taken merely "so that market forces can be resisted"? Almost inevitably, any concerted effort by a group of participants in a market to resist market forces affecting them generates some sort of economic rent for the members of the group, and is therefore "self-interested."

Even the maintenance of so-called "professional ethics" is at best directed towards disciplining individual members of a group whose conduct may reflect badly on the group, thus potentially damaging its collective economic well-being. In many cases, violations of professional ethics amount to nothing more than sanctions against behavior that the group identifies as "unfair competition," e.g., the now-overturned ban on doctors' and lawyers' advertising.

Doctors and lawyers, and members of a few other "learned professions," have been largely enabled to accomplish their organized resistance to market forces, self-interested or not, because they have always controlled the educational institutions that act as gatekeepers to their professions. Furthermore, they have succeeded remarkably in capturing and turning to their own purposes the governmental agencies that regulate their sphere of economic activity in the ostensible interest of the general public. These tactics have artificially restricted the numbers of people entering their professions, thus creating oligopolistic conditions that inure to the benefit of existing practitioners.

If computer people do not "grasp" the importance of such professional solidarity, it is probably because the possibility of following such a model in their field does not seem very feasible - which is to say nothing about its desirability. Can anyone seriously maintain that the public interest would be served by insistence on a rigid path for training software developers at stringently-accredited institutions, accompanied by restrictive state-administered licensing, following the pattern of the medical and legal professions?

mtraven said...

@fsascott: Well, it seems to me that such organizations (let՚s take the AMA for example) serve at least two kinds of functions: (a) serving the material interests of their members, and (b) serving the good of society. If they didn՚t do (b), they՚d just be conspiracies in restraint of trade, and I suppose some think they are.

I believe that by maintaining a professional identity, they are capable of setting standards of conduct that are not determined by market forces, and this is invaluable. Do you really want anybody at all being able to set up as a doctor, and doctors to be completely unconstrained in terms of advertising practices or quackery? Of course it is also in the self-interest of doctors to maintain these standards and control the imprimature of who gets to identify as one. That՚s what an institution is, basically – a place where individual and social interests are collected together.

So, no, I don՚t think professional organizations, guilds, or unions are purely self-interested attempts to restrain trade. Non-market institutions play an invaluable role in moderating the effects of the market. Oddly enough, this is an essentially conservative position, which sees some value in social institutions that are part of neither the authoritarian state or the merciless grinder of the cash economy. But it is conservatism in the service of labor rather than capital, so I don՚t imagine it holds much attraction for you.

The software profession is indeed uniquely unsuited to regularization through examination and licensing, for interesting reasons that I won՚t get into here. But they still have interests in common, and as above I believe that pursuing these interests in a professional way would be of general benefit.

It is also the case, whether or not it is practical or desirable to license software engineers, that their work is playing an increasingly important role in everyone՚s life and at the moment there is no way to hold a bad engineer accountable. This is probably going to have to change at some point. If a bridge engineer screws up and kills people, he can be sued, but if a software engineer introduces a bug that kills people, what happens? Not a lot.

In defense of my profession, there are plenty of people who study these historical cases and advocate methodologies to avoid problems in the future. But there are also plenty of uneducated incompetents also.

fsascott said...

The medical profession has long "gamed the system" to procure rent-seeking advantage for itself. We can still read the letters of Gui Patin, doyen of the medical faculty of Paris during the reign of Louis XIV, asserting the prerogatives of his profession with strident objurgations against its rivals for the same turf: the surgeon-barbers of the long robe, the barber-surgeons of the short robe, the apothecaries, and above all the Paracelsians and eclectics that did not adhere strictly to the Galenical orthodoxy he championed.. Not long ago I read a letter in the Wall Street Journal from a medical doctor objecting in similar terms to a proposal to expand the legal ability of nurse-practitioners to treat minor illnesses. Plus ça change!

On the other hand, the nineteenth-century physican John Brown, M.D., LL.D., in his book "Spare Hours, Third Series: Locke and Sydenham and Other Papers" (American edition, Boston and New York, n.d., post 1874: Houghton Mifflin Co.) wrote as follows:

"... I am more convinced than ever of the futility, and worse of the Licensing system, and think, with Adam Smith, that a mediciner should be as free to exercise his gifts as an architect or a mole-catcher. The Public has its own shrewd way of knowing who should build its house or catch its moles, and it may quite safely be left to take the same line in choosing its doctor."

It is worth noting, in support of Brown's observation, that before the barriers to entry into the medical profession were raised to their current levels, and even after they began to be introduced, but before the present ubiquity of third-party payment, that doctors often failed in their practices because they had bad bedside manners or for some other reason could not establish successful practices. Today this never happens. A medical license is a guarantee of an annual income in the
mid-six-figures, and doctors never go bankrupt except as a result of events unrelated to their practices, such as a foolish financial speculation or a bitter divorce.

It is fair to say that today's medical profession largely shares the attitude of Dr. Patin and rejects that of Dr. Brown. I suppose this is a sort of conservatism in the interest of labor, but is it admirable?

The strangest aspect of this sort of rent-seeking and turf-protecting behavior is that the best guarantee of a good income for doctors is and always has been the relatively high levels of native intelligence and capacity for deferral of gratification required to attain competence in the profession. This, rather than any sort of legal or regulatory barrier, is what ensures that only a relatively small number of people will achieve it. The same is true in the case of competence in the field of software engineering. Human inequality is innate and inevitable, assuring the reliable operation of the maxim that "fortuna cedat peritis."

fsascott said...

You wrote: "So, no, I don՚t think professional organizations, guilds, or unions are purely self-interested attempts to restrain trade. Non-market institutions play an invaluable role in moderating the effects of the market. Oddly enough, this is an essentially conservative position, which sees some value in social institutions that are part of neither the authoritarian state or the merciless grinder of the cash economy."

Notionally, at least, there is some truth in this. Albert Jay Nock said that there were two kinds of power - state power and social power. State power is always backed up by force, or at least the threat of it; we're reminded of this by the pistol on every policeman's hip. Social power is the power of voluntary associations, beginning with the family, and also including such entities as churches, clubs, commercial associations, guilds, etc., and works by moral suasion.

These "mediating institutions" (as Cardinal O'Connor called them) stand between the individual on one hand, and the force of the state on the other. Marxists generally view them as defenders of privilege and wish to sweep them away, so that nothing is interposed between the atomized individual and the
state. Libertarians who adopt this point of view fall into a trap set for them by their enemies.

Nock argues that social power is a rival to state power, and that those who wield state power will therefore attempt to destroy mediating institutions, or else reduce them to subservience. This is exactly what we have seen over the past fifty years, as civil society has become more and more manipulated by state power. Those mediating institutions that have not been co-opted have been destroyed or rendered impotent to differ with government. An example is the state effort to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to furnish medical insurance to their employees that provides coverage for contraceptives and
abortifacients - unless courts find in their favor, they will have to do something they find utterly repugnant, or they will be bankrupted.

Another, and subtler, but perhaps more typical illustration of this is (of all things) the New York Stock Exchange. I'm old enough to remember when it still operated as a nearly completely self-governed body, under rules adopted in the time of Alexander Hamilton. Among these rules were the requirement that all trades in listed securities take place at open cry on the exchange floor, commissions were fixed by the exchange, and that seats on the exchange be held by natural persons. Those who owned seats could combine into firms, but they had to be partnerships - which meant unlimited liability for each partner. Corporations, with their limited liability, could not be exchange members, which meant that, broadly speaking, all investment banks were partnerships in those days.

These rules placed all investors, large and small, on level ground, since their purchases and sales took place under the same conditions and the commissions they paid for them were proportionate. The requirement that members' firms be proprietorships or partnerships with unlimited liability was an incentive to caution on their parts.

Then came the Justice Department under the Johnson administration, with an anti-trust action against the NYSE, alleging that these rules were collusive restraints of trade. Perhaps they were to some extent, but (as you point out) there was also an element that worked to the benefit of the larger society. However, government could not tolerate the control of so important an activity as securities trading by a private association - so it destroyed it, instituting the ancestor of the present NASDAQ system. Now big trades take place off the floor, at all hours of day or night; commissions are negotiable; and corporations have come to dominate investment banking and brokerage. The small investor has, on balance, largely been served badly by all this.

fsascott said...

(continuing) The guilds of mediæval Europe, and some of their vestigial survivals, exerted and still in some cases do exert a comparable restraining influence to that of the old NYSE on the trades and professions they represent. The English Inns of Court, for example, govern the activity of barristers - the lawyers who actually litigate in the civil and criminal courts. Among their rules are the provisions that a barrister may not seek clients on his own; they must be brought to him by an instructing solicitor (solicitors being that branch of the English legal profession that does not directly litigate, and mostly concerns itself with such matters as wills, trusts, contracts, real-estate conveyances, etc.). A barrister cannot use legal process to collect his fees from clients that are slow to pay; they are debts of honor. Contingency fees are forbidden, and the loser in a suit pays the costs of the winner. Barristers may share chambers, but may not form partnerships or corporations.

All of these provisions have served to prevent the development in England of the kind of "legal lottery" that is so typical here in the U.S., and barristers enjoy a kind of public respect that the American legal profession, despite the opulence of some of its members, has not had for many years. I won't hold my breath waiting for the ABA to impose similar self-discipline on its members - in fact, it massively resists "tort reform," which would essentially do no more than
limit or eliminate the aspects of our civil legal system that have never existed in most of the rest of the English-speaking world.

fsascott said...

(continuing) Modern labor unions lack key aspects of the mediæval guilds, to their detriment. The mediæval guilds represented masters, fellows of the craft, and apprentices alike, assigning to each their appropriate roles within their frameworks, and protections for each. The setting up of division, amounting almost to enmity, between management and labor, so characteristic of the modern unions, was absent. There was provision for the training of young people entering a trade as apprentices. While some modern trades unions have operated apprenticeship programs, this is not a feature of the great majority of unions today. They do nothing to assure the employer that he is getting a more competent class of employees by accepting the presence of a union in his business. Naturally, employers see no advantage to themselves arising from unionization, and so resist it vigorously.

Indeed, so do many employees, who see unions as subtracting significant amounts in dues from their paychecks, while accomplishing little of advantage to themselves. I can easily understand why the personnel at the VW plant in Chattanooga rejected the UAW. They have only to look at the condition of Detroit for reasons. I've personally dealt with two businesses that went out of business as a result of strikes - one a supplier, one a customer. What did that avail the members of those unions? They forgot the wisdom of Samuel Gompers, who observed that the worst crime an employer could commit against its workmen was not to make a profit - for, of course, a business that is consistently unprofitable will eventually cease to employ anyone.

Also, the modern union movement frequently goes well beyond mere moral suasion in its attempts to achieve its aims. An old friend of mine, now dead, was a wholesale paper merchant. His business, and all the other paper merchants in town, were struck a couple of decades ago by their delivery drivers. He attempted to keep serving his customers by having sales and administrative personnel make deliveries. Several of his trucks had their tires slit. He had them fixed. In the due course of time, one of them had its brake fluid mysteriously drained. The man driving it was luckily able to avoid being killed or injured in the ensuing accident.

Another acquaintance worked as a salesman for a manufacturing company that was struck by one of its unions. Of course all the other unions honored the strike, so his company was left to try to operate with non-union personnel. One night someone put a high-powered rifle bullet into the power transformer that supplied their plant with electricity. Union workers for the utility would not cross the picket line to replace it; the utility had to get supervisory personnel to do this.

Such acts of violence are commonplace in strikes. Normally, violence to person or property, or the threat thereof, as a means of encouraging the victim to act as the victimizer wishes, is considered extortion, and is a criminal offense. However, Federal law contains an exception to this in situations where the violence or threat of violence takes place during the course of a labor action. Labor unions have succeeded in preventing any attempt to revise this provision. They know that at bottom they depend for success on what for any other person or entity would be called gangsterism or racketeering.