Work and Human Nature

Confirmation of the Socialist Attitude

Every Socialist has, at some time or another, met the “human nature argument.” He has almost certainly had to do verbal battle with those who insist that work is distasteful to man, that he is naturally lazy and solely motivated by fear or greed. Such beliefs, we have maintained, correspond to no fundamental human traits, but arise from a confusion of human nature with behaviour under certain social circumstances.

Now along comes a book by a psychologist whose purpose in writing is obviously very far from advocating Socialism—but who nevertheless succeeds in demolishing most of the long-cherished ideas that have been put up against it. The Social Psychology of Industry, by J. A. C. Brown (Pelican, 2/6d.) is one of the best pieces of grist to come to the Socialist mill for a long time.

Dr. Brown packs his book with facts, quotations and sources of information, yet contrives also not to ignore the more personal side of his subject. In a critical survey of the history of industrial psychology he notes the reminiscences of Frederick Winslow Taylor, pioneer of Time and Motion Study: “It’s a horrid life for any .man to live not being able to look any workman in the face without seeing hostility there, and a feeling that every man around you is your virtual enemy.” It is scarcely surprising that “Speedy” Taylor (as he was known to his colleagues) should have encountered such hostility, since he accepted without question the fact that every capitalist workshop exists first, last and all the time for the purpose of paying dividends to its owners.

Brown is critical of the old theory that human nature is unchanging and explicable solely in terms of biological instincts. He contrasts that with the new view that “does not accept instinct as an adequate explanation of human behaviour, and is more interested in how the biological drives are socially modified than in their mere existence; i.e. its explanations are in social rather than biological terms.”

He elaborates this view in an analysis of the formal organisations of (capitalist) industry:

” (1) It is deliberately impersonal.

” (2) It is based on ideal relationships.

” (3) It is based on the ‘ rabble hypothesis’ of the nature of man (i.e. it is assumed that competition leads to maximum efficiency, that when each man fights for himself the best interests of the group are served, and that men are isolated units who may be moved about from one job to another depending only on their ability to do the job).”

Brown rightly points out that such organisation produces harmful effects on people, particularly on the workers who are shifted about from one department to another like so much cattle. It is refreshing to note that he does not think that vast improvements have been made in workers’ conditions under the “welfare state,” which he likens to a model cow-house with the workers as the milch cows.

Recognition for Effort

It is often said that it is human nature to want to “get on” (meaning promotion in the sense of higher formal status). Brown shows that this is just another popular fallacy. “What people do want is a position in which it is possible to increase in prestige. Thus the average skilled craftsman does not want to become a supervisor or a factory manager—he wants to become a better craftsman and recognised as such.”

Brown quotes Gordon Rattray Taylor’s comment that “the best dentist in the community is not the less respected because someone else is the best ploughman”, and adds “functional status leads to less rivalry and more satisfaction than derived status based on power or wealth.” It is good to realise that, despite capitalist society which habitually defines status in terms of power or wealth, there are other and better ways of recognising the contributions of one’s fellows to the social wellbeing.

The critics of Socialism who ask “who is going to do the dirty work?” can also learn something from this book:

“. . . the lowliness or nastiness of a job are subjective estimates … A doctor or nurse, for example, or a sanitary inspector, have to do some things which would disgust the most unskilled casual labourer who did not see these actions in their social context. Yet the status and prestige of such people is generally high.

“. . . although few people object to work which is unavoidably dirty or dangerous, they will certainly not forgive the sort of unpleasantness which indicates neglect of their interests on the part of management.

” Above all, it is the prestige of his working group and his position in it which will influence the worker’s attitude to such jobs. If the prestige of his group is high and he is satisfied in his membership of it, the type of work he has to do becomes a minor consideration.”

Hitherto, Socialists have frequently met the criticism that, with freedom from economic compulsion, no one will want to do certain necessary but dirty or dangerous jobs. If such explanations as Brown’s become widely known and accepted, Socialists can expect less of these “dirty work” objections. In any case we have given the answer that people will not be called upon to do such work against their wishes, and that society as a whole will be prepared to do without any products obtainable only at the cost of harmful work.

It is clear that the system of society we advocate fulfils all the requirements considered desirable by Brown—namely, people who hold Socialist ideas see all actions in their social context; management will not exist as a body of individuals over and above the people who actually do the work; and the “working group,” being the whole of society, will give the worker the best possible satisfaction in his membership of it. The “problem” of dirty work in fact resolves itself and is merged into the wider problem of wage-labour-capital society.

A Common Task

Dealing with the more positive question of desirable social conditions, Brown again makes statements that back up the Socialist case: “People do not like to be ordered about like automatons; they like to participate in a common task.” Explaining this, he writes:

“Ordinarily men and women like their work, and at most periods of history always have done so. When they do not like it, the fault lies in the psychological and social conditions of the job rather than in the worker. Furthermore, work is a social activity . . . Even when their security and that of their children is assured, they continue to labour. Obviously this is so because the rewards they get from their work are social, such as respect and admiration from their fellow-men.”

Brown effectively shows that Freud and others were wrong in believing that human nature is naturally aggressive, in the sense of a tendency to sadism or deliberate cruelty. “Aggression” as the need to master painful or unpleasant circumstances is, of course, quite natural. Similarly, the concept of leadership is reduced in the book to the view that “every man should be capable of some degree of leadership—influencing others towards a satisfying participation in collective effort.” No Socialist would quarrel with such a concept and practice—because it is obviously very far removed from the prejudices we usually meet about “great men.”

To Socialists, Brown’s conclusions are both encouraging and disappointing. Recognising that present society, more than any previous one, stimulates people’s desires without being able to satisfy them, he believes that “the future approach to health is likely to be primarily in terms of the sick society rather than the sick individual.” Yet he misses the significance of all he writes in suggesting that “it is necessary for the politician to bring about a state of affairs in which it is possible for the industrial worker to feel that his own interests and, those of management coincide.”

In the last paragraph of the book he tells us that it is up to us to decide whether society develops within a framework of fascist barbarism, communist intolerance, or Social Democratic humanitarianism. He leaves us in no doubt that he is strongly in favour of the latter. It would be a pity if this meant nothing more than a continuation in some form of capitalist society, when the book as a whole is so obviously pointing in the direction of new social relationships based, not on property, but on co-operative endeavour.

S. R. P.

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