Socialism 101: Are all workers exploited? Are there no good bosses?

By Harper Cleves

In early November Elon Musk purchased Twitter. Within a week of his ascendancy, he had arbitrarily laid off over half of his staff internationally — by email.

This is far from the first time workers have been unceremoniously sacked; the tenacious former Debenhams workers were also dismissed over email in 2020, and this past March P&O ferries fired 800 employees via video message.

In today’s world, examples of bad bosses abound, but surely they’re not all bad?

Karl Marx wrote of the bourgeoisie; the super wealthy elite that owns the companies with the machinery and resources that allow for the mass production of most of the world’s wealth, and the proletariat; the masses who need to work in order to survive, and whose work actually produces the wealth.

The relationship between these two groups, Marx argued, is inherently exploitative. The bosses have to compete, and continually increase profits, which are directly accrued from the unpaid labour of the workers. So every increase in wages means less profit for the bosses. It is for this reason we hear some of the draconian stories about  Amazon workers peeing in water bottles in order to keep up with the high yield demands set by Amazon management: the more wages, benefits and ‘down time’ for the employees, the less money for those at the top.

Even so, many people will have had bosses that were a good deal nicer (and a lot less wealthy) than the Elon Musks and Jeff Bezos of the world. Family restaurants who let staff eat for free, nonprofits with casual Fridays and weekly employee check-ins, even big corporations with generous salaries and other benefits. This begs the question, can bosses be good?

On an individual basis, of course, bosses can have nice personality traits. CEOs and small business owners alike might love their mothers and be nice to animals.

But capitalism is not simply a conglomeration of individuals acting completely independently and according to their own morals. It is a system, composed of interdependent parts in which each human is shaped and guided by their social position. Under capitalism, individuals in their roles as bosses — and certainly those considered to be successful — are not compelled by their workers’ well-being, but rather by the logic of the markets.

Hence, even workers with relatively cushy, high paying tech jobs have been dumped as soon as their multi-billion dollar companies see their profits squeezed.

Many bosses are not billionaires or millionaires. Small businesses often struggle under this system. Capitalism favours the already wealthy. It is not enough to simply set up a business; the resources to compete are also needed: money to advertise, money to improve technology, money to expand a small franchise to new locations. Big businesses try to dominate markets and very often squeeze smaller competitors out, until only a well-resourced few are left.

In this environment, even the seemingly kindest small business owner will feel the pressure to cut costs to maintain some semblance of profit. Pay cuts and layoffs are almost always the first port of call. In all situations, then, the fundamental divide seems to be this: bosses vs workers.

Malcolm X once said, “Show me a capitalist and I’ll show you a bloodsucker.” Regardless of how pleasant or otherwise bosses may be as people, as bosses they can only exist by exploiting, i.e. by systematically appropriating the products of other people’s work. The 3,311 billionaires who have amassed $11.8 trillion between them did so by denying billions of workers the fruits of their labour.

But these workers have the numbers and means — by organising and striking together — to halt the profits of the capitalists, and take away their power. By doing so, workers could get the wages, conditions and security they really need. But to create lasting equality we need to go further, and reorganise society for socialist change.

As Karl Marx said, ‘workers have a world to win’. We could add: one without bloodsucking bosses.

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