The Contradiction of Democratic Society and Authoritarian Workplaces
You wake up one day at the nationally mandated hour (7 am), to hear that the president has been fired. Reading the nation’s weekly online bulletin, you find out that the executive council were unsatisfied with his contributions to the GDP and the performance of his civil servants. He has been replaced with a new president from abroad, who promises to ‘streamline’ the country and drive up efficiency. Reading on, you see that a part of your new president’s strategy is to eliminate ‘unproductive neighbourhoods’; unfortunately for you, your street is on the list. You are given a month before your house is demolished and you have to find a new home.
If someone were to construct this idea for society, you would rationally label it a dictatorship, and yet, we seem to spend most of our waking lives at the mercy of one.
I’m talking here about the modern corporation, where authority is managed in a strict hierarchy. In them the employee’s everyday responsibilities are out of their own hands, and, if they are not lucky enough to live in a country with decent labour laws, then they are completely at the mercy of their bosses’ whims.
Growing up in democracies, we are told that they are born from values like ‘freedom’, ‘liberty’ and ‘justice’. If that is so, then why do our livelihoods depend on workplaces that embody the complete antithesis of those values?
Over the centuries company management has grown more and more intrusive, but crucially, has also grown in its persuasiveness. Most industries you can work for today will have a very similar management structure. The workforce as a whole is divided into separate groups, with each group having a line-manager that oversees it, these line-managers are then themselves divided into groups, with each of those having another manager overseeing it, repeated ad infinitum until you reach the big guy at the top.
What is achieved here is not a constructive or healthy organisation, but instead a complex hierarchical web of warlords competing for dominance over one another. To the anthropologist David Graeber, this system resembles medieval feudalism by becoming:
‘a complex tangle of economics, organisational politics, tithes, and redistribution, which is motivated by the will to competitive status and local power.’
There’s little room in this territorial battle for the development of ingenuity, creativity or independence in the workforce. This is what leads business professor Gary Hemel to claim that managers often ‘impede’ rather than ‘expedite’ decision making. Their efforts, though intended to ‘amalgamate thousands of disparate contributions into a single product’, often turn out to be ‘inefficient’ or ‘ham-fisted’. Meanwhile working people, who are much closer to the in and outs of their jobs, have very little power to alter or improve their working environment. As Hemel states:
‘As a consumer you have the freedom to spend $20,000 or more on a new car, but as an employee you probably don’t have the authority to requisition a $500 office chair.’
Consumer society is parroted as the pinnacle of a free society, but “freedom” in this sense just amounts to the hundreds of brands of the same material good you can choose between, and not real freedom over what takes up a great deal of your life: work. Except for a minority of workers, who either work in co-operatives or have gracious managers, the rest of us live under what can mostly be described as serfdom.
Where do managers sit in this feudal society? Well, they are the lords of the manor, of course. The lord (the manager) is the middle-man between the king and his court (CEO, Board of Executives, etc…), and the serf (the individual worker). These managers come with their own hierarchy, just as lords could outrank each other through wealth and reputation, and will compete with one another, just as feudal lords did — though perhaps without the killing.
The worst of these managers are what Graeber calls the ‘taskmasters’, those who manage teams not in need of management, or those who create unnecessary tasks to keep their serfs busy. There is a case to be made that these managers are surplus to requirement, or as Graeber bluntly calls them: ‘bullshit’.
These positions, whilst being wholly unnecessary, detract from the worker’s control over their own labour. This reduces not only their morale but their capacity to work — white and blue collar workers alike. The restrictions of management on a micro-level play a similar role to the restrictions of capitalism on a macro-level; people are made to be pawns to somebody else’s goals, as opposed to being masters of their own work. Gordon Rattray Taylor, in his book Are Worker’s Human? makes the following point:
‘You cannot expect men to take a responsible attitude and to display initiative in daily life when their whole working experience deprives them of the chance of initiative and responsibility.’
The point being made here is that working does more to restrict the capabilities of people than it does develop their personal responsibility and skill-set. The kind of self-sufficiency and responsibility that right-wing economists like to put on a pedestal are impossible to achieve in the current system. An employee might be as personally responsible as they wish at home, but once they are at work, their decision-making and autonomy is handed over to their superiors.
So why is the workplace not different? The answer to that question is the same for the peasants of old; the system has become so entrenched that it has begun to reproduce itself. The language of the workplace is not one of worker self-management, but of managed workers. Line managers, general managers, deputy and regional directors; these terms form such common parlance that it is difficult to counter them. Try to claim that workers can manage themselves and you are challenging decades of accepted practise.
We do not think that leaves us with no hope, however, and neither does Gary Hemel in his controversial piece: ‘ First, Let’s Fire All the Managers’. In it, Hemel brings to light the shining example that is Morning Star, a tomato packaging factory in California that happens to be the world’s largest tomato manufacturer.
Unlike other workplaces, Morning Star does not have managers. Instead, employees are expected to manage their own work and come to agreements with one another on how to go about their jobs. The founder of Morning Star, Chris Rufer, has this to say on the arrangement:
‘“Everyone’s a manager here,” he said. “We are manager rich. The job of managing includes planning, organizing, directing, staffing, and controlling, and everyone at Morning Star is expected to do all these things.”’
Unlike the central-planning that controls most people’s working lives, Morning Star relies on a more ‘spontaneous order’, a ‘collection of naturally dynamic hierarchies’ that hands more responsibility over to the individual worker, and only restricts their working where necessary and only when they themselves deem it appropriate. Instead of being told what to do by ‘politically astute’ but incompetent managers, employees are expected to complete their goals by themselves, something they see as more conducive to ‘aligning incentives and reflective realities than centrally mandated arrangements’.
Everything at Morning Star from purchasing new equipment to hiring new employees is up to the workers themselves. There are no ‘centrally defined roles’, so employees can ‘take on bigger responsibilities’ where they would like instead of being pushed into segmented roles that restrict development. Unlike the pigeon-holed corporate world, those at Morning Star are encouraged to find the sort of work that suits them. Therefore employees, rather than being reduced to machines, gain more ‘initiative’, ‘expertise’, ‘flexibility’, have ‘better judgement’ and hold overall more loyalty to their employers.
Popular wisdom tells us that we need management, but the longevity of Morning Star and its considerable success teaches us something different.
The business world sits at a strange apex on the matter of employee-managed work-spaces. There appears to be an admission that workers are more efficient when they are given the freedom to self-manage and contribute ideas without restriction, and yet, this has not led to the decline of “bullshit” management jobs in any sector.
Famous pieces of research like Google’s Project Oxygen and Aristotle bury thousands into finding the secrets to work success. Hitting the same notes as Morning Star, they talk of ‘psychological well-being’, ‘flexibility’ and ‘self-management’, but limits these terms to things that can be nurtured and supervised by managers. There is a slow-developing sentiment that employees can often work out their business on their own, but that has not yet been viewed on a wide-scale as something not needing managerial “expertise”.
Conventional wisdom that supports the status quo and labels cooperative management as infeasible is also clearly wrong. In fact, there is evidence to show that labour-managed firms ‘are probably more productive and may preserve jobs better in recessions than conventional firms’, and that conventional firms ‘would produce more with their current levels of employment and capital’ if they were to adopt cooperative ways of working. If there are an abundance of cooperatives out there, with practises that clearly benefit their employees, then why not expand that sector?
In the political sphere we are faced with two juxtaposed forces, one of democracy, and the other of authoritarianism. Today we have our freedom of speech, our voting rights, and our civil liberties because the values democracy represents have, for the most part, won the ideological battle. We do not sit around talking about how people cannot be responsible enough to vote for their own leaders, and that fascism is preferable because it turns out more production and is more efficient. So why, when it comes to our workplace, do we settle for authoritarian practises?
If you are a socialist, or an anarchist, like me, you are not going to see cooperative enterprises in a capitalist system as a solution to our whims, but it could provide a basis for changing the culture around work. Fighting against the cause is a belief that regular people cannot be trusted to manage their own affairs. Removing the managerial class who encapsulate that distrust, and putting work in the hands of the workers, will show the world otherwise.
And if you ever need inspiration, repeat the quote by Colin Ward:
‘Could the workers run industry? Of course they could. They do already.’
Originally published at https://www.thecommoner.org.uk on March 28, 2020.