If management rhetoric is anything to go by, the post-industrial workplace should be a pristine model of participative democracy. Strict, Taylorist routine has been out of favour, both economically and culturally, for well over thirty years now. It has been replaced by an emphasis on ‘teamwork', ‘the psychological contract', ‘dialogue' and ‘participation'.
William Davies is a Demos Associate and a Research Fellow at the Institute for Science, Innovation & Society, Said Business School. He blogs at potlatch.org.uk
Earlier this year, the UK's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills commissioned David MacLeod, a management guru, to carry out a review of ‘employee engagement' as a necessary factor in Britain's future prosperity. Again, the case for flatter, more interactive relationships was made.
But what does any of this have to do with democracy or dispersal of power? The republican agenda, advanced by theorists such as Stuart White, Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit, stresses the need to tackle forms of domination and restraint on positive freedoms, in all facets of society. The workplace can not be exempt from this sort of political critique. And yet a common assumption about the status of firms in society suggests that they sit in a political vacuum, allowing their decisions and structures to be only evaluated in terms of economic efficiency.
The problem with the managerial ‘participation' rhetoric is that it only values human autonomy to the extent that it contributes to productivity and business performance. Hence a growing feeling of irony pervades our workplaces, as described eloquently in the sociology of Richard Sennett, and conveyed brilliantly in the BBC sit-com, The Office.
We no longer mean the words we speak to each other at work. The rhetoric of equality and power appears to exert no friction on the dominant, Anglo-Saxon capitalist model, in which management power is unchallenged, so long as value is constantly returned to external shareholders. Some recent studies have shown a gradual decline in the number of employees who feel they have considerable control over their work.