Democracy and Authoritarianism in the Workplace

A lot of people have been asking me recently about how I like my new job, so I thought I’d try to answer them all in one place, and try to place this into some larger theoretical context.  I’ll start with a contrast.  Since the French and American Revolutions, we have progressively enfranchised a larger proportion of our citizenry.  This means that at most once a year we get to vote for our leaders.  Meanwhile, since the Industrial Revolution up through the 1980s (and possibly since then), we have increasingly spent almost half our waking lives (up to 50 weeks a year) working in large, bureaucratic corporations with clear hierarchies. Power relations are the opposite of democratic politics.  Why do we accept authoritarianism at work, when we don’t in our politics?   How have the convulsions of the 20th century tried and failed to address this problem?  And given that this problem hasn’t been solved, and we can live with this odd juxtaposition of equal dignity in the public sphere while taking orders from our bosses, what is it that motivates us, the corporate minions (i.e. the majority of us), to go to work every day and achieve “success?”

These are important questions.  Modernity truly has leveled us into thinking that we are the equals of our citizens, the state has abetted this myth for the sake of its own legitimacy, and the myth has become a fact to a degree unknown before our time.  The workplace represents a gaping anomaly in this larger narrative.  Part of the answer is of course that some people, notably the Marxists (especially in advanced industrial societies), did not accept this anomaly and worked to promote what proved to be a horribly twisted and wrong-headed vision of economic democracy.  Unfortunately, their failure seems to have closed off the issue for us and discredited the salience of their agenda.   I’d like to open up this agenda in terms of how we come to terms with workplace authoritarianism.

I used to work in a small company with only twenty people in Shanghai.  No one has ever heard of it.  It has a head office in the U.S. that grants it complete business autonomy.  Now, I work in a large multinational company with offices in dozens of countries.  The Shanghai office reports to another global office which in turn reports to the global head office.   Now, I’m not saying that the one company is any way better than the other, but there is a great difference in the lived experience of actually working in these companies and trying to get things done.  In the small company, it was a matter of having a good idea, getting approval from the boss in his office a few steps away, and seeing if it would work in practice.  In the large company, it involves talking to the boss, getting him to talk to his boss, and then hoping that this boss can make it happen, not immediately in the marketplace, but first in getting consensus from others worldwide.  The contrast here is not necessarily one of overall efficiency (since what a large corporation lacks in speed it usually makes up for in economies of scale and greater resources), but one of worker autonomy.  Put simply, in a small company, even mid-level managers see the product of their labor.  In classically Marxist terms (and consistent with the horror of 19th century social critics who decried the move from small-scale family production to large-scale factory production), we are not alienated from the product of our labors in a small company (the kind, interestingly, both Marx and Hayek argued is preferable to large organizations, the former in terms of their greater humanity, and the latter in terms of the loss of information moving up to bureaucrats).

Why do we like to play games? A Martian probably wouldn’t see much of a distinction between a South Korean internet addict playing Worlds of Warcraft all day and an entry-level employee making powerpoint presentations all day.  Put differently, why is it fun to be an entrepreneur?  These activities are fun because we get immediate feedback on our progress.  Durkheim wrote that “life is movement,” a sentiment Nietzsche no doubt put more eloquently and passionately around the same time in the late 19th century.  Nietzsche wrote that we all have a “will to power.”  A sense of mastery over the environment entails not just having the power to affect that environment but also being able to perceive the effects of that power so that we can make adjustments and further exercise our power.  We like to play games because we have complete mastery over an environment that we control.

Now, in any organization, even the most hierarchical and authoritarian, no one has complete mastery over that organization (not even totalitarian dictators who always rely to some degree on the support of their subordinates).  The higher up in any organization, however, the more we feel that we do have control over what we do, that we see the products of our labors, and that we have a say in most important decisions that affect the strategic direction of the organization.  In this sense, companies both large and small approach democracy at the highest levels — the crucial difference being that in small companies almost everyone is close to the highest levels, while in large companies the vast majority of us have no input on strategic decision-making.  Large corporations disenfranchise us, yet small companies preserve some large measure of the lived experience of democracy, on the assumption that democracy can be defined as having a say in decision-making.  Formal democracy grants all adults an equal say in theory, yet elites have an outsized say in any democracy, based on their expertise, organizational ability, and motivation.  In substance, if not in form, this differs little from the lived experience of a small company.

I submit that one crucial problematic of our time (or at least of the hours from 9am to 6pm) is how we who work in large corporations strive to recapture the promise of democratic politics.  We work to ascend to a level in the corporate hierarchy where we participate in strategic decision-making, thereby bringing into balance the lived experience and prevailing norms of our corporate lives and those of democratic society.  Social critics of all stripes have said that we work to succeed because we want to be seen as successful in society.  Though this is no doubt a very large part of the story, it doesn’t really get at the internal dynamics of our corporate lives (or, put differently, look at the problem from the micro-level of analysis).  We do not like to be ignored by our bosses.  We want to be in on that conference call with the head office.  We want our ideas to make a difference in corporate decision-making.  Our grandparents were content to live in a world where “inferior races” were held in contempt, where women who aspired to realize their potential were ridiculed, and where homosexuals were seen as subhuman.  Their grandparents (unless they lived in the U.S., the U.K., or a handful of other exceptions — a topic for another post) lived in a world where the peasantry were ascribed a practically immutable status in no way sharing in the equal dignity of the upper classes (unless in the afterlife).  Since the 1960s, however, we in the advanced democracies have been carried along by a flood tide of social egalitarianism, according to which all of our choices and life-styles are seen as equally valuable, because our equal dignity as human beings must be affirmed — and reaffirmed.  From a very young age, we are taught that “I’m okay, you’re okay,” that no one is in principle any better than we are, and in politics, this has translated into unprecedented support for democratic egalitarianism.  These powerful forces require an outlet.  We work to succeed in large corporations to recapture that promise ingrained in all of us.

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