Owner Autocracy—Economic Non-democracy

July 18, 2014 § 1 Comment

Capitalism is inherently vertical in organizational structure. It consolidates power in the hands of the few and the power radiates down in a pyramid through management structures. This dictatorship can be varying degrees of benevolent, but, ultimately, the only power inherently vested in the worker is the power not to work—the power to strike or quit. It took a long time for the power to strike to become a legal right, we are still not completely there, and, since Ronald Reagan sacked the entire air traffic control community as his first official act in office, it’s been losing ground again. Moreover, it stretches things to call the power to quit or strike a “power”, since it makes workers so vulnerable.

Owners and managers decide virtually everything that’s important about your job: who gets to work, when, how, where, with whom, and for whom. They design or determine the time, space, body movements, and actions of your labor, sometimes even your speech. They monitor and evaluate your performance and they hold the ultimate power over you, as well—they can fire you.

Whether ownership is private, corporate, or public/bureaucratic, the system is barely post-feudal in its vertical structure. Since the transformation of European political feudalism and the fall of the sovereign monarchies, we have come to define democracy as the sine qua non of social justice: people should have a say in the things that affect their lives. But we take the tyranny of capitalism for granted. Capitalism is undemocratic.

This power corrupts, of course. Given the complete absence of any inherent, structural limits or mitigating counter-forces in the system, we must rely on outside social-political forces for protection against the misuse of this power. For this, we have turned to government. Gradually, centuries after capitalism’s rise to power, we workers have been granted protections from abusive hours, unsafe working conditions, harassment and discrimination according to a very slowly growing list of vulnerabilities.

Capitalism hates this advance in human rights. Naturally, therefore, the handlers of this power do all they can to limit the regulatory power of government. Thus the corruptive influence of power that is built into capitalism’s DNA inevitably infects the political system, and our protection is routinely and systematically undermined. 

Conservatives, whose mouths are constantly shaping the words “liberty” and “freedom” and “individual rights”, define these terms over and against the government only—against the only countervailing advocate we have against capitalism’s tyranny. Capitalism gets a pass. In fact they often worship the power and freedom of the market with a kind of religious fervor. Only our weak, compromised, and late-comer protectors in the government are to be feared.

I might summarize the predicaments for Friends regarding the power structures of capitalism in the following queries:

  • Given that the quasi-feudal hierarchical structure of our economic life inevitably if not necessarily leads to quasi-feudal patterns of discrimination and oppression, what can we do to bring the testimonies of justice and equality to bear on behalf of capitalism’s victims?
  • As a community that has proven over more than three centuries that horizontal power structures do work, how can we do a better job of transforming the vertical power structures of our economic system?
  • As Friends, how can we better promote the concepts and practice of servant leadership, a phrase coined and a practice first championed in the modern era by our own Quaker Robert K. Greenleaf? (Read an article by Larry Spears, the Quaker champion of Greenleaf’s work and servant leadership in our time, published in Quaker Life, titled Servant-Leadership and Quakers.)
  • Does your yearly meeting have a coherent, Spirit-led testimony on labor and worker rights?
  • Most importantly, how can we leverage our education and our Spirit-led testimonial power to begin conceiving a true alternative to this abusive system?
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