Individualism and Inequality
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Individualism and Inequality

The Future of Work and Politics

Ralph Fevre

A belief in individual self-determination powered the development of universal human rights and inspired social movements from anti-slavery to socialism and feminism. At the same time, every attempt to embed individualism in systems of education and employment has eventually led to increased social inequality. Across the globe individualism has been transformed from a revolutionary force into an explanation for increasingly unequal societies where dissent is largely silent. This book explores the possibility of rediscovering the original, transformative potential of individualism.
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Chapter 10: From ‘stupid’ to ‘self-actualizing’ workers

Ralph Fevre


The rise of the individual employment contract meant employers had to hire people, rather than coerce them, or pay others to procure them (while giving jobs to their favourites or those who paid them the biggest bribes). Perhaps the most common way to do this was to let it be known by word of mouth, or advertisement, that workers were needed and then hire the first ones who applied. The employer made no effort to differentiate one worker from another and all that separated the workers who got the jobs from the rest was that they applied when a vacancy was available. This is best described as ‘matching’ workers who wanted jobs with employers who wanted employees (Fevre 1992). It is usually imagined to occur when labour is plentiful and employers have no need of workers with specialist skills. It might apply, for example, to any discussion of recruitment in The Wealth of Nations, where Smith assumed that, as the division of labour increased, there would be less and less need to recruit workers who were skilled. Since it was only experience on the job that made some workers more efficient than others, employers might as well treat labour supply as undifferentiated. They could choose who to take on with a toss of a coin and whoever they hired would be able to pick up almost any job that was on offer in a matter of days (Smith [1776]2005).

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