Hierarchy of salaries and incomes
By Cornelius Castoriadis
1. For several years now and especially since May 1968,
the idea of self-management, of the effective control of production
by workers, has ceased to be a utopian concept held by a few individuals
and small groups, and has become a topic of frequent and animated
public discussion as well as the programmatic position of such an
important labour union as the CFDT. Even those who up to now were
the staunchest opponents of self-management are gradually being
reduced to defensive positions (such as "it isn't possible
right now", "not absolutely", "it depends what
you mean by it", or "we must test it first").
Someday it will be necessary to examine the reasons for this change.
For the time being we can note that this is the destiny of new ideas
in all fields, particularily in the social and political sphere.
Their adversaries start by saying that such ideas are absurd, then
say that everything depends on what meaning is given to them, and
end up by saying that they have always been strong supporters. We
must never forget that such a purely verbal "acceptance"
of an idea is one of the best ways of robbing it of its vital energy.
If those who up to now were its strong enemies suddenly adopt an
idea and take on the job of putting it into practice, we can be
sure that, whatever their intentions, in the vast majority of cases
the result will serve to emasculate it. There is strong evidence
that modern society possesses an unparalleled virtuosity in the
art of co-opting and sidetracking new ideas.
But in the case of self-management other important factors have
aided its acceptance by some business leaders and politicians
something that no one could have predicted.
These factors relate to the profound crisis of the modern industrial
system, the organization of work and the techniques that correspond
to it. On the one hand it is more and more difficult to make workers
accept tasks that are strictly limited, brutalizing, and totally
uninteresting. On the other hand it has long been apparent that
the division of labour pushed to absurd lengths Taylorism,
the attempt to fix the workers' tasks in advance down to the smallest
detail in order to better control them has passed the point
where it benefits the business enterprise and now creates enormous
difficulties at the same time as it intensifies the daily struggle
in production between workers and those who would impose the system
on them a conflict which becomes more and more evident, for
example, in strikes over working conditions.
The bosses say that this conflict cannot be reduced by granting
wage increases, and faced with the collapse of the dream of complete
automation, they are led to consider the introduction of some partial
modifications in working conditions. Hence the projects and attempts
at "job enrichment", autonomy of production teams, etc.
Opinions may vary as to the real meaning and possible results of
these efforts. However, two things are certain: such a process once
started could very well achieve a momentum which might not be controllable
by the capitalists and the state. On the other hand, since the present
organization of society sets precise limits to such efforts, they
will not affect the power of the hierarchical bureaucracies which
really run every business, however small, and even less will they
challenge basic relations of power in society. Without a fundamental
change, all modifications inside the business will have only a very
In any case there is only one way to combat this dilution of the
idea of self-management by the powers that be. We must make it as
clear as possible, and draw out all the implications. Only in this
way will we be able to distinguish the idea of a collective management
by producers, the control of society by all men and women, from
its empty and misleading caricatures.
2. In all discussions of self-management one fundamental
aspect of the organization of business and society is hardly every
mentioned: hierarchy of power and of wages and incomes. However,
as soon as one thinks of self-management beyond the limits of a
production team, the hierarchy of power, and the chain of command
as it now exists are necessarily called into question, and therefore
so is the hierarchy of incomes. The idea that true self-management
of an enterprise could co-exist with the present power is a contradiction
in terms.What meaning could we give to the term "self-management"
if we still had the same pyramid of power with a minority of bosses
at different levels managing the work of a majority of workers reduced
to following orders? In what sense could workers really run production
and the enterprise if a separate group of bosses kept the power
to make decisions in its own hands? Above all, how could workers
take an active interest in the progress of the enterprise and feel
that it vitally concerned them failing which, any attempt
at self-management would be defeated if, on the one hand,
they are condemned to passivity by having to maintain a system of
leadership that makes the final decisions by itself, and on the
other hard, the economic inequality finally persuades them that
the progress of the enterprise is not their concern because it benefits
only a small part of the personnel?
Similarity, in a much widen context the progress of the enterprise
is affected in a thousand ways by the economy and society, and thus
the self-management of an enterprise cannot have any real meaning
unless organizations of workers and the rest of the population assume
those functions of coordination and planning that are now in the
hands of those who wield economic and political power.
3. Certainly the existence of a hierarchy of power and income
is presented as justified by a host of arguments. Before discussing
them we note that they have a clearly ideological character: on
the basis of unstated assumptions they attempt to justify with only
an appearance of logic a reality with which they have little connection.
They submit reality to the last few decades' official ideology,
an ideology currently decomposing and no longer coherent. It can
no longer invoke values that no one accepts, and is incapable of
inventing new ones. The result is a mass of contradictions: thus
in France we have Gaullist "participation" alongside the
absolute and uncontrolable power of the president of the Republic.
Similarity, the arguments used to justify bureaucracy contradict
each other, are based on different and incompatible assumptions,
or lead to conclusions diametrically opposite to what really happens.
4. The crux of the official ideology's notion is the justification
of a hierarchy of income based on a hierarchy of power, which in
turn is defended as based on a hierarchy of "knowledge",
"qualifications", "talents", "responsibilities"
or the "shortage" of specialized skills. One can see immediately
that these scales do not coincide or correspond with either logic
or reality. There can be a shortage of garbage collectors and an
oversupply of teachers; great scholars have no responsibility while
workers with very little "knowledge" have a daily responsibility
for the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Furthermore, any
attempt to make a "synthesis", to "balance out"
these different criteria is necessarily arbitrary. Finally, it is
even more arbitrary to use such a scale, even if it were justified
to a given differentiation in incomes. Why should one year of school
or a diploma be worth 100F and not 10 or 1000? But let us look at
the arguments one by one.
5. It is said that the hierarchy of power and incomes is
justified by a hierarchy of knowledge. But in the business enterprise
as in society at large it is not those who are most knowledgeable
who give orders and earn the most money. It is true that the majority
of the hierarchy have diplomas. But setting aside the fact that
it is ridiculous to identify knowledge with diplomas, it is not
the most knowledgeable who ascend the ladder of power and incomes
but those who are most skillful in the competition that occurs within
the bureaucracy running the enterprise. An industrial company is
practically never run by the most learned of its engineers: he is
most often confined to a research bureau. And in society we know
that scholars, important or not, have no power and earn only a small
fraction of the income of the director of a medium sized firm. Neither
in an enterprise nor in society are power or high incomes given
to those "who have the most knowledge or "technical skills",
rather, they are determined by the ability to survive in the struggles
between cliques and clans (a talent that has no economic or social
value except for him who possesses it) and by the links one has
with capital (in the western countries) or the dominant political
party (in the eastern countries).
6. What has just been said sheds light on the argument justifying
hierarchy on the basis of differential skills. As soon as we consider
the differences in hierarchy and salary that are really important
not those between an assembly line worker and a tool maker
but those between manual workers and the top management of an enterprise
we see that what is rewarded is not the ability to do a good
job but the ability to bet on the right horse. But the official
ideology claims that the hierarchy of incomes corresponds to a very
specific skill, the ability to "direct", to "organize"
or even the ability to "conceive and sell a product".
However, it is evident that these skills have no meaning except
in the present system. "The ability to direct" in its
present sense only has meaning for a system that separates and opposes
order takers and order givers, those who work and those who direct
the work of others. It is the present organization of a company
and of society that creates and requires the task of "directing"
separate from the collectivity of workers and opposed to them. The
same thing applies to the "organisation of work". This
is no less true for the "ability to conceive and sell a product",
for only to the extent that society depends on the creation of artificial
needs does such a function and the corresponding skill have meaning
Furthermore, these functions are not accomplished by individuals.
Groups of ever greater importance and impersonality are charged
with the "organization" of work and production, with publicity
and sales, and even the most important decisions concerning the
enterprise (investments, new manufacturing processes, etc.). The
most important point is that in a large modern enterprise
just as with the state no one really leads: decisions are
made after processes so complex, impersonal and anonymous that most
of the time it is impossible to say who decided what when. One could
add that there is an enormous difference between the way things
are supposed to happen and the way they actually occur, between
the formal and the real processes of decisionmaking, just as in
a work place there is a difference between the way the workers are
supposed to do their work and the way in which they actually work.While
a decision may be formally taken by an administrative committee,in
reality the decision is already made behind the scenes or is altered
by those who have to execute it.
7. Arguments in favour of hierarchy based on responsibility
have no more weight than any of the others. We must start by asking
in what cases can responsibility really be localized and assigned?
Given the increasingly collective nature of production as well as
other activities in modern society, these cases are extremely rare,
and are not found in general except at the lowest levels of the hierarchy.
Furthermore, there is no connection between the logic of the argument
and what really happen. A railway crossing guard or an air traffic
controller have the lives of hundreds of people in their hands each
day but they are paid less than a tenth of what the bosses of the
railways or Air France earn, even though the latter do not have the
direct responsibility for any lives.
8. It is hard to take seriously the hierarchy of salaries
based on a relative shortage of skills. As long as such a shortage
exists it can push the wage level of a given category higher than
it was before, but it cannot go beyond certain narrow limits. Whatever
the relative "shortage" of factory workers and the relative
"surplus" of lawyers, the latter will always be paid more
than the former.
9. Not only are all of these arguments illogical and out
of touch with what really happens, but they are incompatible with
each other. If one takes them seriously, the level of salaries corresponding
to "knowledge" (or even to diplomas) is quite different
from that corresponding to "responsibilities" and so forth.
The present system of payment try to make a "synthesis"
of the factors supposedly determining rates of pay by means of an
"evaluation" of work accomplished in such and such a job
or such a place (job evaluation). But such a synthesis is a gross
mystification: one can neither measure each factor taken separately
nor add them up, except in an arbitrary fashion (with "adjustments"
that do not correspond to any objective datum).It is by now absurd
to measure knowledge by diplomas (whatever level of quality of the
course of the education system). It is impossible to compare responsibilities
except in some cases that are banal and without any importance.
There are drivers of passenger trains and freight trains: how many
tons of coal are equal to a human life? Hare-brained measurements
established for each factor are added to oranges and apples with
the aid of coefficients which correspond to nothing but the imagination
of those who invent them.
The best illustration of the mystifying character of the system
is furnished by the results of its application. One would have thought
that after two centuries of nonscientific determination of incomes
in industry, that job evaluation would have overthrown the existing
structures of incomes. It is difficult to believe without knowing,
why it is that enterprises have income levels which miraculously
correspond to the discoveries of this "new" science. However,
the changes effected by the application of the new method have been
minute which shows us that the method has been adjusted in
order to change the system as little as possible, as well as to
give it a pseudo-scientific justification. Furthermore, job evaluation
has not diminished the intensity of conflicts over absolute and
relative income that occupy the daily life of enterprises.
More generally we can never insist too much on the duplicity and
bad faith of all these justifications that always reduce factors
relative to the nature of work into base differences of incomes
despite the fact that by far the least important differences
are those which exist among workers, and the most important are
those between the mass of workers on one side and the different
categories of bosses (political or economic) on the other side.
But the official ideology thereby attains at least one result: for
no logical reason, and contrary to their own self-interest, the
workers themselves seem to attach more importance to the small differences
that exist between them than to the enormous differences that separate
them from the top ranks of the hierarchy. We will return to this
All this concerns what we have called the ideology of the justification
for hierarchy. There is a discussion that seems more "respectable",
that of academic or marxist economic science. We cannot give a detailed
refutation here. Let us say simply that if on a coal-burning locomotive,
you get rid of the engineer; you do not "lesssen" the
product (transport) "a bit", you wipe it right out; and
the same thing is true, if you get rid of the fireman. The "product"
of this indivisible team of engineer and fireman obeys an all-or-nothing
law; there is no "marginal product" from the one that
you can separate from that produced by the other.The same thing
holds true in a single shop, as well as throughout the whole of
a modern factory, where the jobs are strictly interdependent.
For Marxist economics, incomes are determined by the "labour
theory of value", that is, they are equivalent to the cost
of production and reproduction of this commodity, which under capitalism
is labour power.
Therefore, differences in the level of wages earned by skilled
workers and unskilled workers must correspond to the differences
in the costs of forming these two categories of work. (The main
factor being the training of future workers during their "unproductive"
apprenticeship years.) It is easy to calculate that, on this basis,
the differences in income levels would scarcely exceed the proportion
of 1 to 2 (between work absolutely devoid of any skill and work
that requires 10 to 15 years training). However, this has little
to do with reality, either in the western countries or in the east
(where the hierarchy of incomes is practically as blatant as in
We must emphasize that even if the academic and Marxist theories
offer an explanation of income differences, they cannot furnish
an adequate justification. For in each case hierarchy is accepted
as a given fact, unchallenged and unchallengable, when it is really
nothing but the result of the continued existence of the overall
economic and social system. If skilled work is "worth"
more, this, according to the Marxist conception, is because a workers'
family has spent more for his education (and theoretically must
"recoup the costs" which means in practice that
the skilled worker must in turn finance the education of his children).
But why were they able to spend more, something that other families
could not do? Because they were already privileged with regard to
income. All that these explanations say is that if we start with
a hierarchical differentiation, it will continue to perpetuate itself
by these mechanisms. Let us add that in academic economics, incomes
supposedly correspond to the "marginal product of work",
ie., that which is "added" to the product in an hour or
work by an extra worker, (or, the amount subtracted from the product
by getting rid of one worker.) Without entering into the theoretical
discussion of the concept we can easily prove its untenablility
we can immediately see its absurdity in the case that interests
us, the different payment of different skills starting from the
point where there is a division of labour and interdependance of
different jobs, which is generally the case in modern industry.
If, since it is increasingly true that society as a whole and not
individuals pay the costs of education, it is reasonable for those
who have already benefited at the expense of society by gaining
an education that trains them to do more interesting, less painful
work, to demand further that they should also obtain a higer income.
This concerns profound sociological and psychological factors which
determine individuals' attitudes to the hierarchical structure.
It is no secret, and there is no reason to hide it: we find with
many people an acceptance of and even support for hierarchy that
is just as strong as that found in the privileged strata.
It is even doubtful that workers at the bottom of the bureaucratic
structure are more opposed to hierarchy than others (the situation
is complex and varies with the times).We must seriously examine
the reason for this state of things. This would require a long and
difficult study which could have to be made with the greatest participation
of the workers themselves. Here we can only give a few reflections.
We can always say that it is true that the official ideology of
hierarchy has penetrated all sectors of the working class; but we
must ask how it happened since we know that in France as well as
England the working class movement was strongly egalitarian. It
is also true that the capitalist system could not have continued
to function, and above all could not have taken its modern bureaucratic
form, if the hierarchical structure had not only been accepted but
supported and "interiorized"; it was necessary for a considerable
part of the population to agree to play the game for the game to
have been playable. Why does it play this game? Partly, no doubt,
because the modern system, the only "meaning for existence"
that society is capable of producing, the only bait it can offer
is consumption, and hence an income that constantly rises. To the
extent that people take this bait and for the present almost
everybody seems to take it to the extent also that illusions
of "upward mobility" and "promotion" and the
fact of economic growth make them see the upper echelons as levels
that they try and hope to reach, they attach less importance to
differences in income than they would in a static situation. One
is tempted to conclude from this factor that there is what we could
call a freedom to create illusions about the real importance of
income differences present in the majority of the population; recent
surveys have shown that in France people underestimate the difference
in incomes to a fantastic extent.
But without doubt there is a deeper factor more difficult to formulate
which plays the main role here. The triumph of the gradual bureaucratization
of society has also and necessarily been the triumph of an imaginary
representation of society in whose creation everyone shares
to some degree as a pyramid or system of hierarchical pyramids.To
be blunt, it seems as if it is impossible for man in modern society
to imagine a society whose individuals are really equal in rights
and obligations, where the differences between individuals correspond
to something other than the differences in their positions on a
scale of command and incomes. And that is due to that fact that
no one can think of himself as something in his own eyes (or as
the psychoanalysts say, establish his "sense of identity"),
except in terms of the place he occupies in a hierarchical structure,
even if it is one of the lowest positions. In fact, one could say
that this is the only way that modern bureaucratic society leaves
open for people to feel that each one is someone by holding
onto a last vestige of apparent self-determination, even as all
standards and sources of meaning are emptied of any meaningful content.
In a society where the objectives as well as the manner in which
work is performed have become absurd, where there are no more truly
living collective activities, where the family shrinks and breaks
up, where the mass media and the rush to consume reduce everything
to uniformity, the system cannot offer people anything to hide the
emptiness it creates in their lives except that ridiculous bauble,
the place they eoccupy in the bureaucratic hierarchy. It is therefore
far from incomprehensible that many cling to it,and that occupational
and professional rivalries are far from disappearing.
perspective we must try to see to what extent this hierarchical
representation of society is wearing out and being put into question.
Published in The
Red Menace Volume 3, Number 1, Winter, 1979.
Originally published in CFDT Anjourd'hui, No. 5 (January-February,
1974), reprinted in Cornelius Castoriadis, L'Experience du Mouvement
Ouvrier: Proletrariat et Organization (Paris: Union Generale, 1974).
Translated by Tom McLaughlin.
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