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Who’s Afraid of Workplace Democracy?

Research indicates cooperatives manage resources just as efficiently

For a year, from 1934-35, Simone Weil, the French philosopher and activist, worked at a factory as a manual laborer to deepen her understanding of the working class. In the aftermath of this experience, she wrote in her biography, “That contact with affliction had killed my youth.” Weil found that the tragedy of the worker was that she is treated as means to an end. Not only is the worker is humiliated, shamed and generally dehumanized; the worker is an object of the oppression that is to be found in the way production is organized. The very process that underpins making of goods and services, as it does the whole economy, is perpetuating a disenfranchised working class.

What is so remarkable when it comes to Weil’s notion of oppression is that she insists that oppression is inherent to managerial practice. Her work offers an ethical basis for the critical analysis of management, science, and expertise. One of her famous quotes reads, “When someone exposes himself as a slave in the market place, what wonder if he finds a master?”

Weil’s contemplation of labor struggles is easily applicable to the modern workplace. The self is treated as means to career progression, human being as a project to be managed. The struggle of the employee is an attempt to exert control over one’s professional life by, at the same time, giving that control away. The role of an employee remains merely instrumental in nature, regardless of the sophistication the modern workplace has achieved.

The workplace, where adults spend most of their waking hours, is an autocratic establishment. Most employees have no say in important decision-making processes, hierarchy is strict, and there are a number of formal and informal rules to be followed. There is a clear division between one’s “office persona” and “private persona.” The “office persona” doesn’t express feelings, it’s competitive, hardworking, and money-driven. The “office persona” does not have human attributes, it’s a representative, if you will, of a human being. The “office persona” ultimately doesn’t have any control over her job, meaning she has no control over her life. Her healthcare, mortgage, education, family planning and so forth — all of these important aspects of one’s life — depend on a job. Yet, every time she walks into the office, she remembers to suffocate all of these existential fears and put a smile on her face. They like it at the office when everyone looks happy.

If workplaces were to have a human-centered design, a genuine respect for the human beings that make up the workplace would certainly be a starting point. After all, jobs and profits should serve humans, not the other way around. Workplaces should be organized so that everyone can fulfill their fundamental human need to belong to a community. These are some of the tenets cooperatives are built upon. According to the International Cooperative Alliance, a cooperative is an “autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.” Cooperatives are owned and governed by their employees. All worker cooperatives have two common characteristics: 1) member-owners invest in and own the business together, and share the enterprise’s profits, and 2) decision-making is democratic, with each member having one vote.

In addition to democratic leadership and economic equity, cooperatives promote environmental sustainability and communal health. Cooperatives have a completely flat structure, and they are scalable: any business can be organized as a cooperative. It sounds like such a great idea, yet it’s generally considered to be an archaic, utopian socialist concept.

Among arguments against cooperatives as an organizational model, probably the most dangerous is the one that assumes that a group of human beings can thrive in an enterprise only if there is another, much smaller group of people telling them what to do. Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences, focused a lot of her work on dismantling ideas that common-pool resources (CPRs) cannot be successfully collectively managed without external regulation. Ostrom observed policy work in this area and found that most of it was based on metaphors. Yes, metaphors, like “the tragedy of the commons” which implies that whenever humans are left to organize the use of their own resources, they will eventually destroy those resources. Another is the prisoner’s dilemma, which tells us that all humans will, eventually, betray one another (and that they can, for the sake of policy, be equated with frightened prisoners). The idea is that humans are too self-interested to pursue collective goals.

Ostrom carefully exposes the harmful policies that have been pursued following these almost trivial ideas, and offers an immense body of research of thriving collectively-managed CPRs around the world, and the dangers of external administration (whether public or private) of formerly communal resources. This is revolutionary research in that that it sheds light on an important fact: there are really no resources that a group of human beings can’t collectively manage for the sake of collective wellbeing, and successfully. This applies equally to goods and services as it does to mountain meadows, forests and fisheries.

Some of the biggest companies in the U.S. are organized as cooperatives (e.g. Associated Wholesale Grocers, Dairy Farmers of America, Ocean Spray, Blue Diamond Growers, Great River Energy, Organic Valley, Bob’s Red Mill and so forth), yet this is hardly a well-known fact. It’s almost as if it’s a secret that humans can be trusted to act sensibly without external supervision.

Cooperatives are examples of economic democracy that people can actually see and experience. That can be crucial to developing healthy political views. In the wake of economic collapse, people are more likely to listen to dictatorial appeals, more likely to listen to men who are going to tell them what to do because that’s how we operate on other societal levels, notably organizationally. Many alternatives to traditional hierarchy in management have occurred in recent years. Doug Kirkpatrick, author of Beyond Empowerment: The age of the self-managed organization, points out that it’s common sense to expect from employees to manage themselves. After all, they travel, build their houses, manage their finances, volunteer, parent, create, manage their private lives in entirety, without being instructed by an authority. That’s a lot to manage, yet it’s done all the time. It turns out, leadership is not the quality of a few; leadership abounds.

Peter Koestenbaum, co-author with Peter Block of Freedom and Accountability at Work, makes a crucial point when he states, “for the most part, we have not organized our institutions around the existential viewpoint that freedom is a fact of our existence or that accountability stems from the acknowledgment of that freedom.” This statement not only criticizes managerialism, it jettisons the whole idea of management as we know it. Koestenbaum notes that we all agree that what makes us human is having free will, but we’ve done everything we can to organize our institutions as if we don’t. Hierarchical structures deny our ability to act at our own discretion.

Weil’s argument about the instrumental nature of human labor also follows this train of thought. Management, or rather managerialism, is an anti-social establishment. It’s not surprising that research on human resources continuously illustrates how miserable the workforce is, yet this fact is falsely taken as an inevitability.

Despite the ongoing critique of hierarchic management structures, and alternatives offered, it seems like we’re still afraid of letting it go. Existential philosophy explains why. Delegating responsibility to another, or deciding not to trust our own inner guidance, gives an illusion of safety. And indeed, as Kafka noted, “It is often safer to be in chains than to be free.” Making decisions means taking risks and accepting consequences. Mutatis mutandis, when an employee becomes an owner, she is in control not only of the enterprise, but also her own personal life. There’s no other way to build self-confidence, yet an enormous amount of the workforce doubts their ability to be in control of their own jobs.

We live at the time of great economic disparity and income inequality. Management is rewarded generously. Typically, in addition to multimillion dollar salaries, CEOs are paid bonuses that represent a percentage of stakeholders’ equity. According to the salary data from Securities and Exchange Commission filings, the CEO of Discovery Communications, for example, made $156.1 million in 2014, nearly 1,951 times the firm’s median salary.

Meanwhile, there is more than enough evidence that cooperatively-managed enterprises work as efficiently, if not more efficiently, than traditional enterprises. Virginie Perotin, Professor of Economics at Leeds University Business School, looked at two decades’ worth of international data on cooperatives and found that “worker cooperatives are more productive than conventional businesses, with staff working ‘better and smarter’ and production organized more efficiently.”

Cooperatives make profits but they also create hope and inspiration. While being accountable to oneself and others, in a cooperative, the individual is still not alone. One is not led to “dare to be great” and then left in an existential abyss of risk and fear of failure.

Historically, the power of cooperatives to effect social change has been grossly underestimated, even by the members of the cooperative movement themselves. In socio-political terms, there has never been a better time for the cooperative to emerge as the most rational, and only human-centered, way to organize our economy.

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Katarina Spasic

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