Well, now that the technical experts at ORANGE have explained to me how to plug my phone in so that I can use it, and I have, all on my own, figured out how to stop my television set from playing things in black and white rather than full color, I can return to my reflections on what socialism might be like if it ever happened. Today, I will respond to the extremely interesting comment posted by Wallace Stevens. Once again I want to caution my readers. I am not presenting a theory of socialism; I am just musing on what socialism might be like if it ever happened. I am trying very hard to restrict myself to things I have experienced or know something about, so if I describe a situation as one that might suggest some clues for what socialism might be like, for heaven’s sake do not weigh in with the objection that that does not explain some other aspect or feature of socialism. I know that. I am simply trying to imagine how things might be different from the way they are now.
The part of Wallace Stevens’ comment that got me thinking was this: “Second, I am not sure that everyone would even want to participate in the “planning, designing, and overseeing of the work that they are doing.” I know that I don’t. I am close to the end of a career in the business world where I have held senior positions, but never been the ultimate boss. I have had my share of decisions that didn’t go my way. But I would much rather see a decision made and move on than get bogged down in endless debate and complex voting schemes. For me, the Occupy Wall Street form of democracy is a vision of hell. I’ll qualify this by saying that I’m not talking about decisions to do anything illegal. And I certainly don’t appreciate commands from on high with no debate of any kind. I just mean that, in my experience, once the various alternatives and their pros and cons have been aired, it is better that someone breaks the tie and we move on, provided of course that the person who has final say is also accountable for the consequences. I have often been surprised later at the number of times that what seemed like momentous decisions in the end didn’t matter much one way or the other. Such is the human mess! I’d be curious if the experience is similar in the academic world.”
The remark about Occupy Wall Street reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s famous witticism about socialism: “It will never work. Too many meetings.”
The situation in the academic world is instructive. Let me talk about the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where I taught for thirty-seven years as a senior faculty member. The faculty was paid weekly, but the salary was officially a nine month salary, spread evenly throughout the year. When you took on an administrative position, you received two months of extra salary, on the theory that you were working eleven months a year, with one month vacation. Administrators did important stuff, I guess, but most of us thought of it as terminally boring and were quite happy to leave it to those doofuses who didn’t have enough serious research going on to fill up their days and were attracted by the marginally better working conditions [your own secretary and a carpet on the office floor.] Even Deans and Provosts did not have very much power to control the actual working life of the faculty. They could not tell us what to teach, or how to teach it, nor could they tell us what avenues of research to explore [it would never have occurred to them to try.] The difference in salary for administrators as opposed to senior faculty was not big enough to be life-changing, nor were the perks all that important.
Now, compare that with what is happening these days in the Academy. First of all, administrative staffs are ballooning, with Assistant Deans and Associate Provosts multiplying like Tribbles [see the famous episode of the original Star Trek called “The Trouble With Tribbles.] Secondly, administrative salaries are in fact pulling away from the salaries of faculty. Third, contract teachers and part-timers, without job protection or fringe benefits, are now doing virtually half of the tertiary level teaching. And finally, administrations are invading the workspace of faculty, trying to dictate what is taught and how. All of this is happening in the name of rationalization, bringing a business sensibility to the Academy.
Nevertheless, in its glory days [roughly coterminous with my career, as it happens], the Academy was an excellent model of one manageable way in which control over work could be placed in the hands of those doing the work, without “too many meetings.”
Clearly, the rough comparability of compensation is crucially important. As Wallace Stevens implies, having someone else make some of the decisions might be quite acceptable to someone whose compensation was adequate and comparable to that of the decision makers.
If I may revert for a moment to my comments about Rawls and the matter of unequal rewards, if unpleasant or tedious jobs like garbage collector or hotel maid had higher than usual salaries attached to them, there might be a number of people who would willingly take those jobs for the pay, especially if the work week were reduced to thirty-five or thirty hours. Once we get past the completely unjustified assumption of economists, sociologists, and philosophers like Rawls that the attractive, complex, high-status jobs can be filled with talented people only by offering unusually high salaries, we see that there might be enough money in the pot to raise the compensation attached to the grubby, boring necessary jobs. Would the manager of a large bureaucratic operation really decide to spend his time on the loading dock rather than in the executive suite if the pay were cut all the way back to that of a factory worker? It would be kind of fun to try it and see.