The Will to Power at Qatar Airways

So, go read this description of the working conditions for airline attendants at Qatar Airways. What’s going on here? Sure, the working realities for south Asian men depicted in the article make it impossible to describe the attendant’s conditions as “horrendous,” but still, this seems not only unpleasant, but also irrational on the part of the employer.

Neoclassical economists have no way to explain the existence of employees at all. In the world of endless spot markets, labour is a commodity, purchased in infinitely divisible portions to perform discrete tasks under controlled conditions. There can be no “bosses,” because individual workers are only contributing exactly what they have contracted to do.

The institutionalists do a bit better. Back in 1937, Ron Coase was first economist to notice that the world of production, work and exchange isn’t just an anonymous field of spot-markets, but also contained, you know, firms and employees and managers. Of course, other economists had studied firm strategies and the decisions made by managers , but he was the first to ask, if the market is so great at allocating goods, why there were firms and employees and managers at all.

His answer was, more or less, that there were costs to buying things on the market. When it comes to the employment relationship, he argued, it was just too expensive, whenever you wanted someone to perform some task required for widget-making, or widget-redesign, or what have you, to go out and find someone who had the requisite skills, dependability, availability and willingness to work on affordable terms. So it made sense to have people who agreed to be around to perform whatever tasks were necessary. Herbert Simon put it slightly differently: if you weren’t sure what kind of tasks you were going to need done, it would be good to contract with someone to take orders, rather than to perform specific tasks.

Now read Williamson’s rejection of an alternate explanation for hierarchy at work:

Of course, if the desire was not to be controlled but to control, to exercise power over others, then people might be willing to give up something in order to direct others ; that is, they would be willing to pay others more than they could get under the price mechanism in order to be able to direct them. But this implies that those who direct pay in order to be able to do this and are not paid to direct, which is clearly not true in the majority of cases.

It is impossible to read the descriptions of Saga and Gina’s work again – “are you on a diet?” – and not conclude that the treatment falls into Williamson’s “minority of cases.” More importantly, it points to how easily rule, command, control and hierarchy seem to become their own reasons – economic efficiency and the “material” goals of the participants be damned.

1 comment to The Will to Power at Qatar Airways

  • Always enjoy your posts, Liam! Maybe I’m a bit off the mark here, but your quote from Williamson also made me think of the hierarchies introduced in low-paying fast-food jobs with titles such as “crew trainer” and “crew chief” (e.g. at McDonalds) whose pay are only a dozen or two cents /hour more than an average worker but supposedly come with the “perk” of being able to supervise and direct others — “I don’t have to take the garbage out anymore. I can tell someone else to do it.” And this feeling of being quasi-in-charge is enough to make one momentarily forget the fact that you’re still not making a living wage.

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