[OPE-L] Abstraction-human capital

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Fri Jun 15 2007 - 20:23:42 EDT

Richard Sennett has this to say about skilled labour, in the context of the
flexibilised workplace:

"It could be said in defense - and testers of ability do say so - that
processes of verbal interpretation and mathematical reasoning are the
practical skills a bright young woman from the urban ghetto needs to make
her way in the world. That defense, and indeed the word ''potential'' in the
phrase "potential ability", has a particular relation to the practices of
flexible institutions. These institutions, as we have seen, privilege the
kind of mental life embodied by consultants, moving from scene to scene,
problem to problem, team to team. Team members themselves have to become
adept at process work, since they will in time be moving around in the
organisation. There is a real talent required for such labor. It is the
ability to think prospectively about what might be done by breaking context
and reference - at its best, a work of imagination. At its worst, though,
this talent search cuts reference to experience and the chains of
circumstance, eschews sensate impressions, divides analyzing from believing,
ignores the glue of emotional attachment, penalizes digging deep - a state
of living in pure process which the philosopher Zygmunt Bauman calls "liquid
modernity". Which is just the social condition of working at the cutting
edge. (...) The statement ""you lack potential" is much more devastating
than "you messed up". It makes a more fundamental claim about who you are.
It conveys uselessness in a more profound sense." (The culture of the new
capitalism, Yale 2006,  p. 121, 123).

The modern significance of "human capital" lies precisely in this valuation
of human potential, i.e. the things you "might" be able to do in the
flexible organisation, which implies (although Sennett does not work out the
implication), that the worker has to "sell" himself not just when he signs
the labor-contract, but "all the time" on the job, insofar as his future
prospects depend on it. He has to whore around on the job to safeguard his
use-value, and much depends on how strong and fit he is.

An early critique by Samuel Bowles & Herbert Gintis (1975): "The Problem
with Human Capital Theory--A Marxian Critique," American Economic Review,
65(2), pp. 74-82.

In Bowles & Gintis's theory of schooling, there is a correspondence between
schooling and work such that schooling mirrors the aptitudes required at
work. Flexible workplaces? Then you get "flexible schooling" as well, where
teacher no longer teach something definite, but "facilitate" or "coach"
student-centred learning. A manager is no longer somebody competent in a
field of work (after all, within a year he might be down the road, and
working somewhere else), but a "facilitator" or "coach" with a certified
reportoire, skilled at persuading people to do the work that must be done,
and aided by consultants who provide the technical expertise.

Wikipedia has the following additional comment:

But long before Mincer or Becker wrote, Marx pointed to "two disagreeably
frustrating facts" with theories that equate wages or salaries with the
interest on human capital.

*The worker must actually work, exert his or her mind and body, to earn this
"interest." Marx strongly distinguished between one's capacity to work
(Labour power and one's very human activity (practice) of working.
*A free worker cannot sell his human capital to receive money revenues; it's
far from being fungible, a liquid asset. He does not sell his skills, but
contracts to utilise those skills. Even a slave, whose human capital can be
sold, does not earn an income him- or herself; instead, the slave-owner gets
the income. Under capitalism, to earn income, a worker must agree to the
labor conditions (including obedience to the rules and directives) of an
employer who wants to hire for a specific period of time.

The latter means that the employer must be receiving an adequate rate of
profit from his or her operations, so that workers must be producing
surplus-value, i.e., doing work beyond that necessary to maintain their
labor power. Though having "human capital" gives workers some benefits, they
are still dependent on the owners of non-human wealth for their livelihood.

Marx's critique of human capital would be that it is THE FINAL REIFICATION
of human beings, intended to suggest the workers are really capitalists. The
reality is that working becomes whoring, and that workers have to ply their
whole personality to guarantee their sellability. Psychologically this
breeds revolutionaries, because it is the very antithesis of conservatism.


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