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Republicans at work

About the author
William Davies is a Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he is Director of the Political Economy Research Centre. His weblog is at www.potlatch.org.uk and his new book is The Happiness Industry: How the government & big business sold us wellbeing (published by Verso).

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 It has been replaced by an emphasis on ‘teamwork', ‘the psychological contract', ‘dialogue' and ‘participation'.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.

The republican agenda privileges a distinctly political form of autonomy, and demands to see it within firms just as much as anywhere else. What is truly radical - and potentially disruptive - about this is that there will be cases in which political autonomy and democratic empowerment is privileged over economic autonomy and productive empowerment. There may be cases where workforce representation and consultation should exist, regardless of any discernible economic benefit.

Co-operative structures, in which labour hires capital rather than vice versa, are one institutional form that republicans such as White and Nien-He Hsieh, have celebrated. The original meaning of ‘profit-sharing' is also worth returning to: the notion is that, once both capital and labour have received their ‘wage', any remaining surpluses should be split equally between the two. Companies that were organised to uphold this principle would still be capitalist and profit-making, but they would not be profit-maximising. This represents a positive departure from the neo-liberal, shareholder value-oriented model of the firm.

Yet these are difficult arguments to mobilise in a policy culture that still seeks to diagnose all social ills using neo-classical economics and its derivations. Management theorists are perhaps even harder to reason with, given that many of them falsely believe that they are already committed workplace democrats.

Perhaps, then, a more plausible political-economic agenda for the firm would be to define a concept of employee autonomy that could deliver or balance empowerment as both a political good and an economic good. New Labour's obsession with the ‘win-win' option has left many critics jaded, once it emerges that the interests of capital are never in practiced compromised. But there are sincere opportunities.

Various forms of mutualism and employee ownership deliver exactly this balance between political and economic goods. They demonstrate that a private sector organisation can be high-performing, well managed and profitable, while offering employees tangible forms of control over their working lives and environments. Ownership, as republicans frequently argue, brings with it political freedoms as well as economic rights. Virtuous circles are possible, in which the higher levels of deliberation and responsibility within companies spill over into higher levels of employee commitment and knowledge-sharing.

In an age when declarations that ‘our staff are our number one asset' are met with cynicism, a whole new ownership model is needed if workplace democracy is to be taken seriously once again.

William Davies's report Reinventing the Firm is published by Demos


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