Friday, July 08, 2016

Slavery and freedom

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is probably exaggerating for rhetorical effect, but in his essay, How to Own a Slave, he divides up the world into slaves and rugged individualists. To be sure, slavery today is much less malignant than before — we call them "employees" now, and there are more limits on how abjectly we can exploit them — but the metaphysical categories haven't changed: only the rugged individualists can get things done, whereas employees are mere instruments, mere tools. Worse yet, although employees are mere instruments, they are not instruments of any actual rugged individualist, who, of course, disdains the ineffectual and morally problematic assistance of the employee. Employees are simply free-floating instruments without any guidance. Taleb shows us, for example, the Vietnam war and the response to Saudi Arabia after 9/11: the disastrous consequences of groups of employees stumbling around, without guidance, doing what seems "safe", unable to take any kind of risk. Sadly,

Taleb does not draw any real conclusions. He opens his essay with a story showing the clear advantage of the employee over the individualist contractor, and he admits that a complex economy needs slaves employees, so he doesn't seem to advocate universal individualism. He's also unclear on what it means to have "skin in the game". Supposedly "skin in the game" is a good thing, but Taleb claims that unlike individualist contractors, an employee does have skin in the game: formerly his status with the company, presently his or her employability in the industry. As to alternatives, Taleb leaves us only with a teaser at the end: "Now compare these policies with ones in which decision makers have skin in the game as a substitute for their annual 'job assessment', and you would picture a different world." Unfortunately, I can picture any number of different worlds, from a techno-libertarian utopia to a law of the jungle dystopia.

Taleb is, at least here, himself a slave to capitalist ideological categories. The view of employees as merely slaves is, however, a capitalist idea. Employees are metaphysical slaves not because of some inherent Aristotelian slave nature, but because capitalism necessarily constructs the employee as a slave. Hence, I'm a revolutionary: socialism is not about some set of government policies, or even a different political regime; socialism is about a thoroughgoing transformation of all social relations, as thoroughgoing as the transformation from lord-subject relations to bourgeois-proletariat relations. A critical transformation is the elimination of the social relationship of the capitalist employee.

It's worth examining the story Taleb relates to open his essay. Taleb introduces the transportation entrepreneur who uses individualist contractors for all the tasks, including pilots. With a lucrative flight about to take off, his contractor pilot, having received a better offer, cancels his contract and pays the contracted penalty. Our entrepreneur is unable to find a replacement pilot and (presumably even with the pilot's penalty) faces financial ruin for not being able to actually make the trip. How much better, Taleb confidently asserts, if the pilot were an employee, with a reputation for reliability to maintain. An employee would never blythely abandon a task for a short-term financial gain. But Taleb poses a false dichotomy. Assuming that pilots really cannot be found at short notice, the obvious alternative to Taleb's contractor/employee dichotomy is to make the pilot a partner. Partners have "skin in the game" (presumably Taleb would thus approve) both financially and reputationally.

One transformation of socialism is thus to make most everyone a partner. Not disconnected individualists, maximizing their personal gain without a thought for others, and not employees, concerned only with pleasing or placating their masters immediate superiors.

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