Autonomy (crossposted at CT)
Following a lead from Bill Gardner I’ve been reading >The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects our Health and Longeivityby Michael Marmot. The core of Marmot’s book, which is fascinating in itself is his empirical work showing that, as you move up any kind of hierarchy (Marmot looked at British civil servants) your health status improves. I’ve done a little bit of work myself relating to the links between health, education and life expectancy at the national level, and Marmot’s micro findings fit very neatly with mine.
What’s even more interesting though (to me and to Bill, I think) is the general idea of autonomy as a source of good health. He debunks, for example, the long-discredited, but still widely-believed notion of executive stress and shows that the more control you have over your work environment and your life in general, the less likely you are to suffer the classic stress-related illnesses, such as heart disease.
It seems to me that autonomy, or something like it, is at the root of many of the concerns commonly seen as part of notions like freedom, security and democratic participation. I’m still struggling with this, but reading Marmot has crystallised some thoughts I’ve had for a long time. I’ve put some thoughts over the page – comments appreciated.
The points are clearest in relation to employment. Early on, Marmot debunks the Marxian notion of exploitation (capitalists taking surplus value from workers) and says that what matters in Marx is alienation. He doesn’t develop this in detail, and the point is not new by any means, but he’s spot on here. It’s the fact that the boss is a boss, and not the fact that capitalists are extracting profit, that makes the employment relationship so troublesome. The more bossy the boss, the worse, as a rule is the job. This is why developments like managerialism, which celebrates the bossiness of bosses, have been met with such hostility.
So part of autonomy is not being bossed around. But like Berlin’s concept of ‘negative liberty’, this is only part of the story. Most of the time it’s better to be an employee with a boss than to sell your labour piecemeal on a market that fluctuates for reasons that are totally outside your control, understanding or prediction. This is where a concept of autonomy does better than liberty, negative or positive. To have autonomy, you must be operating in an environment that is reasonably predictable and amenable to your control.
Of course, the environment consists largely of other people. So one way of increasing your autonomy is by reducing that of other people, for example by moving up an existing hierarchy at their expense. But autonomy is not a zero-sum good. Some social structures give more people more autonomy than others.
In modern market societies, everyone but the very poor has quite a lot of autonomy in their role as consumers. There’s nothing much more autonomous than a supermarket where you can take a cart or trolley round shelves stocked with a vast variety of items, pick whatever you want and take it away, swiping a credit card on the way. On the other hand, Marx’s corresponding vision of a society where you might “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, write literary criticism after dinner just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic” seems as hopelessly utopian today as it did 100 years ago. This is partly because of some unavoidable technical realities – someone who did all these things would probably not be very good at any of them – but much more so because of the social structures required to manage work. These can be changed, though not easily.
As Robert Shiller pointed out very effectively, one of the roots of the dotcom bubble was the way the Internet gave new users an incredible feeling of mastery (which might more properly be parsed as autonomy). I don’t think this was entirely illusory and I continue to believe that the Internet has genuine potential to generate the kind of social transformation that will enhance autonomy for everyone.
I’ve got a lot more to say about this, but that’s enough for now. Go ahead and pull it to pieces. After that, I’ll try to put it back together in something like working order.
fn1. In the same order, I bought “The Working Poor : Invisible in America” (DAVID K. SHIPLER), which I may talk about later.
fn2. Marmot also talks about social participation and makes a lot of sense, but that’s a topic for another day.
fn3. This is, I think, reflected in the old joke. “Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man. Communism is exactly the reverse”.