What Am I Working For? – Part II
Apr 6 2015
This is Part II of a two-part series on compensation. Click here for Part I.
by John Bloom
Labor is a resource in the same way that nature is a resource. Each human being has the capacity to tap that resource to work in the physical world and further to turn that capacity in service to the interdependent realm of economic activity. One could say that labor is pre-economic. In the sense that buying and selling are economic, it makes sense to say that you cannot buy labor, but rather the product of that labor.
Then one has to ask, what is this resource of labor? Where does it come from? I do not know any other way to answer that question than to call it gift, a gift that is part of the essential nature of a human being to be developed though life and practical activities. To be a gift, it cannot be bought. Rather, it has to be received as such and then transformed to be of service. While labor is a resource within each person, no two individuals manifest that resource in the same way. Capacities are different; circumstances are different. This is at the core of understanding individuality.
Individuality, the uniqueness of each human being, stands in stark contrast to the homogenizing standard of value that we call money. This standardization is both inherent in the function of money and necessary for the flow of economic activity. The result is that compensation is a holder of both-and. No wonder the tension and complexity. Compensation serves to support and free an individual to bring her or his gifts and capacities in service to others through production, and when received to enable that individual to participate in the rest of economic life through expending the money. There is a kind reciprocal poetic to this process if one imagines that an individual receives a gift of labor as resource, puts that gift in service to an organization (or to one’s own enterprise) with the result that compensation flows back as a result of the organization’s collective activity, and then again disperses and disappears back into the economy as each individual uses their respective compensation to meet material needs.
I hope I have painted a picture of a participatory economy, one that recognizes the value of each human being, not as a commodity but as a necessary resource and co-creator. Further, compensation has a very particular role to play in this broader context. If you accept the assumptions and implications of the advertisement mentioned at the beginning—I should earn what I am really worth—then you have made yourself a commodity. Though one might successfully sell oneself, there is a price to pay. But what is that price? What is the sacrifice? I would say that to commoditize oneself, or to commoditize another by putting a price on them is a measure of dehumanization. This is the very opposite of the direction we need to go in order to create a regenerative economy. I would rather reframe compensation as liberating human capacity in order that each may be of service and contribute to an interdependent world.
John Bloom is Vice President, Organizational Culture at RSF.