Here is the brief background for the article you are about to read:
Recently I was invited by my friend Debi Campbell to Zoom into a discussion with a collection of her undergraduate students on my ebook, What Hath Trump Rot. In the third section of the ebook, I lay out some prospects for overcoming our current political polarization. One of her students, a self-described conservative with libertarian leanings, pushed back on one of those prospects: the idea of workplace democracy. His argument, boiled down, was that the founder of a business or company should have sole control over it, since she/he took the risk to start it and suffers the most in losing it.
The conversation was a free-for-all, in the best sense, and I didn’t have the time or opportunity to present a counterargument. But I do now. This essay is part of the counterargument.
Most people want to be self-directed, to be in control of their lives. They want to determine for themselves the course of those lives in conjunction with those they love. In other words, self-direction seems to underscore our individualism, but it can only develop in and arise out of a crucible of relationships, institutions, norms, and circumstances.
So self-directed persons have agency — literally, they set in motion, drive forward, and perpetuate the lives that they think are good. Yet because those lives exist within a social matrix (the relationships, institutions, etc. mentioned above), exercising agency is easier for some than for others. A person who is poor and homeless struggles everyday for what other agents may take for granted: Can I find food and water, let alone healthy food and clean water? Do I have or can I find shelter; will that shelter be safe? Do I have clothes to meet the challenges of weather and social conformity?
Added to meeting those basic needs is the task for the poor person of finding a job. This might be a minimum-wage job, but it could also include protections against illness and other vulnerabilities.
Regardless, agency in a context of poverty is directed toward security or safety — that is, toward the preservation of life. As nineteenth-century socialists said, “freedom begins after breakfast.” Secure your meal, shelter, and safety first, then turn your attention to aspects of life that can bring flourishing and fulfillment.
Imagine, on the other hand, someone in different circumstances. Imagine someone who has secured a substantial bank loan to start a business, a business with the potential to be not only successful but also sizable. This self-directed agent is looking for workers, and so let’s imagine that she hires our struggling agent, thereby lifting him out of dire poverty.
What can our worker expect? He can expect a paycheck in return for doing his job adequately. The paycheck may include deductions for health insurance and for a retirement fund, or it may simply reflect the minimum wage and required tax deductions. What it will not include is any guarantee that our worker has much, if any, control over the conditions under or in which he works.
Should the job include that kind of control? Our entrepreneur probably doesn’t think so. She secured the loan from the bank and had the idea for the business. Her investment of time, thought, ingenuity, and industry won her that loan and generated the business. Should the business fail, her financial commitment makes the risks for her higher than the risks of any employee. Therefore, because of the level of risk, she should control the direction of her business; she should control the product, the methods of its production, and the marketing strategies. Again, should something go wrong, she has the most to lose.
But does she have the most to lose? Our worker stands to lose heavily as well. He faces the prospects of being back in his prior conditions of poverty. “But,” our entrepreneur says, “he can get another job.” Depending on the nature of the economy, that may or may not be easy to do.
Nevertheless, thinking about his future employment misses the point. Yes, the industry of the entrepreneur is crucial to the success of the business. But so, too, is the industry of the workers. The assumption by our entrepreneur is that their industry is fully compensated for by the paycheck. Lost in this transactional formula, however, is the agency of the worker.
So the agency that the entrepreneur cherishes, her ability to direct and control her life, which is expressed to some extent through her business, comes at the expense of the agency of her workers. Whereas agency for her extends into work, a significant area of her life, the same cannot be said for her workers. Her agency in part depends on denying by her practices the agency of her workers.
To deny workers agency and control over the very conditions under which they work is to reduce them to mere appendages of the business. Our entrepreneur thereby commodifies her workers. In that sense, they are demoted from human agency to effective machines, cogs in the operation. Then the value of money — her profit — supplants the values of personhood and self-determination. Certainly any relationship between our entrepreneur and the workers, if she has any such relationship or wants one, is corrupted.
The way our entrepreneur runs her business reflects her values and therefore says something significant about her. Plus, there is an even deeper personal dimension to what she is doing with her business. Hidden from our entrepreneur is the realization that her actions simultaneously diminish her own humanity. Reducing human beings to cyphers can only occur when someone fails to acknowledge the humanity of others. That failure is a reflection of the person’s — our entrepreneur’s — inner state and conception of a worthwhile life. The self-determination prized by our entrepreneur is not extended to her workers. Their full personhood is less valuable than her ability to escape financial risk and to make money. Such a perspective emanates from an impoverished sense of humanity, for it does not see the full and equal humanity in the personhood of others.
Such a perspective is not simply reflective of the entrepreneur. It has social repercussions and affects society overall, for it replaces moral and civic values with market values. In brief, a market economy thereby becomes a market society where too much is evaluated in terms of money and profits.
In sum: Commodification of workers degrades their agency. Denying the agency or self-determination of others privileges profits over people and reduces significant life choices to market considerations — accept these working conditions or quit. Markets and money then become our central values. In such a social context, commodification of workers becomes pervasive, even going so far as to generate a social norm. Money and market values here trump moral values, and profit comes to dictate how we treat and regard our fellow humans.
The solution to this circumstance is found not in raises and paid vacations, though those can be significant incentives. The solution, instead, is found in democratizing the workplace. Let workers more fully exercise and express their agency by giving them control over their working conditions — for example, the safety of the spaces they work in; the practices that workers engage in; the time and place of breaks and meals; a vote on or a say in speed of production; even some decision-making on hiring, firing, and penalties for infractions. Make regulating that environment an internal matter, not one left to OSHA.
If we don’t democratize our workplaces, then we settle for a different norm: Having markets allocate not just goods but also values, even virtues. My fear, then, is that we will continue to justify this norm as how society has always been organized. Even worse, if we don’t change that norm, we might accept this norm going forward as how society should be organized and how life should be directed.