Friday, December 25, 2015

Bits and Pieces: The Meaning of "Dickensian".


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Christmas was approaching and Tim Worstall angrily demanded people to try and look up the meaning of "Dickensian".

Your wish is my command, govnah!


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Speaking of which, lately The Guardian's been publishing about the working conditions of British online retailer Sports Direct.

A few days ago it was the turn of Simon Goodley and Jonathan Ashby's "A Day at 'the Gulag': what it's Like to Work at Sports Direct's Warehouse". That's how Felicity Lawrence became the target of Worstall's comment with her "The Flipside of the Online Christmas Shopping Miracle": she used the word "Dickensian" to describe working conditions in the Sports Direct workhouse warehouse.

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Realistically, though, it's not like Aussies really need any reminders of what's in store for us.

Just a couple of months ago we had the local 7-Eleven wage scam scandal. Since then, we've learned that other large employers -- including Baiada Poultry, Pizza Hut, and Australia Post -- are involved in one way or another in similar practices.

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The ABC Online delivered early (Dec. 7) our Christmas present:

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For overseas readers: the change to industrial relations laws the ABC vaguely refers to is a cut in the hourly wage rate for Sundays: from twice the weekday rate, to 1.5 times. It affects only private sector employees, in entertainment, hospitality, and retail, already enjoying the benefits of casualisation, and underpayment (see above); public sector employees (police, health, fire services), better organised, shall be spared. The rationale being that in a 7-day economy the public expect to have restaurants and shops open weekends (apparently, the public don't expect hospitals and police to work weekends).

For those who have been wondering of late about Marx's claim that the capitalist state is but "a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie": this is the result of intense lobbying by business groups and their spokespeople posing as independent experts. (Please, give me a break, don't object the disingenuous "wait a minute, that does not benefit the whole of the bourgeoisie!")

On Monday 21th, the Productivity Commission did its own bit:

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That doesn't make them in any way similar to Scrooge (or the Grinch).

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The conversable Tim Taylor goes back to Charles Dickens himself and a -- presumably -- real-life conversation he wrote about. The two parties talking are the narrator (Dickens?), who is travelling by train to Preston, and another traveler (Mr. Snapper, the narrator calls him) who enquires about his views on a strike.

The narrator claims not to take sides between "masters" and "hands". He is a friend to both "Capital and Labour" (as political economists and Mr. Snapper use), or "employers and employed" (as the narrator himself prefers); Mr. Snapper does not see that as possible ("there was no medium in the Political Economy of the subject").

As politically incorrect as Mr. Snapper might be, I'm inclined to agree with him on that. My personal opinion, however, is irrelevant.

What's relevant -- and strange -- is how mainstream economists, even smart ones like Taylor, seem entirely unable to understand the situation. And I am not referring to whether Capital and Labour are necessarily antagonistic or not. I'm referring to something much more basic and as visible as the title Taylor chose: "Charles Dickens on Management vs. Labor".

Management is a word you won't find in Dickens' piece. He wasn't writing about management, and for a good reason, too: Management is not the same as Capital! The manager may boss you around: that's his job. But he is not an employer; the firm (i.e. the capitalists who own it) is.

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Merry Christmas, y'all!

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