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The First Myth of Democracy
The Myths Upholding Capitalism: Part 4
If you’re wondering why I’ve chosen to include the myth of democracy along with the beliefs we hold about individualism, freedom, and what we deserve, you’re in the right place. If you already think you know why, you’re probably in the right place too haha. I’ll actually be writing for multiple weeks on democracy, both on how the dominant conception of this vital idea is overly narrow and limited, and on what a more expansive embrace of real democracy could look like.
I want to start by looking at how limited the dominant conception and implementation of democracy is. In particular, I want to look at our jobs, at our workplaces, and examine what it means for the vast majority of workplaces to be almost entirely devoid of democratic practices and structures. What nearly all of us experience, or have experienced at work is utter autocracy. Our bosses have near-absolute power over us, and their bosses have near-total power over them, and so on. In some cases an entire company in controlled by one person, while in many others there’s a board of directors or a few major shareholders with whom power ultimately lies. There’s a longer piece to be written about how, under capitalism, these shareholders or owners are still under the yolk of profit motive, forced to pursue growth and profit by legally binding mechanisms they cannot escape, so even they are subject to the tyranny of capital. But that’s for another day.
Today, I want to look briefly at how an examination of our workplaces reveals that the predominant conception of democracy is in many ways a myth, both because the place where most people spend half their waking hours is devoid of the freedom that is fundamental to our understanding of democracy, and because the undemocratic structure of these companies creates immensely concentrated wealth that is antithetical to actual democracy in the political arena. A simple starting place is our own experiences. When I worked at a high school I had to be there certain hours. Naturally, as a teacher I was there when classes were in session, but even when I worked summer school and only taught two hours each day, I was still required to be there for at least six hours. All the students who had to take summer classes would be out of the building by 12:30, but all the teachers had to stay until at least 3:00. I had nothing to do, no work to fill that time, but I simply had no say in the decision making process. In order to maintain employment at that job, and at every job I’ve ever held, I’ve had to sacrifice my freedom to have a say in the rules that structure much of my life, that structure that hours I spend working, and which sometimes bleed out beyond those lines. A lot of people might respond to this but simply saying, “Of course, that’s how life works.” But there’s no reason it needs to be that way, and the only reason work is set up in this manner is that a core tenant of capitalism is the tyranny of the bosses. More simply put, the system is structured so that workers have minimal freedom. Even a majority of the freedoms we may enjoy in our country, in our liberal democracy, are thrown out the window the second we enter our workplaces.
Now jobs are not one hundred percent devoid of all freedoms, we do still have some rights and protections, but even those are essentially limited to those regulations and laws that workers, organized workers, fought for and won. Unions, which at their best are simply the vehicles for the needs and desires of workers, can and do provide some reclamation of the power that the working-class ought to have, for the 10% of the country that has a union—and really for the even smaller percentage that have strong, democratic, fighting unions. There’s a lot that I can and will say about unions over the next few months, and it’s unequivocally clear that having a union in the workplace is far better than not having one, but for the purposes of this piece it’s also important to note that most unions are not, at this time, seeking democratic control of the workplace. This is reasonable, and understandable in a society where true democracy at the job is nearly a foreign concept, and where it’s hard enough to win protections like preventing bosses from arbitrarily firing workers, or slashing wages whenever they want, or sending entire factories and workplaces overseas to save some money. Unions are a vital bulwark against excessive oppression from bosses, and vital to winning higher wages and better conditions. But one of the things we’ve been conditioned to believe, an idea that has been successfully propagated by capitalists, is that full workplace democracy is unrealistic, unfeasible, and counter-productive. So allow me to provide a little antidote to that school of thought.
The Mondragon Corporation is a voluntary association of ninety-five autonomous cooperatives based in the Basque region of Spain. These 95 worker-owned co-ops work together, help one another, and all told employ approximately 80,000 workers, most of whom are worker-owners. That was not always the case. It started in 1956 when Catholic priest José María Arizmendiarrieta launched the first co-op with five of his students created a company that made heaters. This first little cooperative of six didn’t come out of nowhere, Father José had been teaching young people in the town of Mondragon about cooperatives, and the skills and knowledge needed to create one, for fifteen years. It goes without saying that the growth of the ‘corporation’ has been massive, but growth isn’t really the number one priority. Because most of the workers are partners, meaning they are owners of the cooperative, they are able to put workers first.
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One immensely clear example of the importance of this democratic, worker-owned and controlled cooperative structure is what happened when Covid-19 rocked Spain. If you remember, Spain was already getting hit hard by the pandemic in February, 2020. By March, the Spanish government had ordered the Erreka Group to close two of its three factories in the Basque region. But Erreka is part of the Mondragon network, so workers weren’t just let go. Instead they were sent home with 95% pay, and were simply asked to make up some of their hours when things improved. As the New York Times wrote in a profile of the Mondragon Corporation, “these businesses have been engineered not to lavish dividends on shareholders or shower stock options on executives, but to preserve paychecks.”
But that’s not all. These cooperatives are designed so that workers get to choose their priorities, so that workers get to practice real democracy and have real control over their jobs and workplaces. And at the end of the day that’s really what capitalists hate about them. You see this every time a company tries to unionize. Corporations will spend millions trying to bust the union, even when unions encourage longer employee retention and often even help create a better long-term outlook for the company. Those long-term profits that might come from a more consistent, reliable, and better trained workforce are largely ignored in favor of short-term dividends, because corporate executives can’t stand the idea of losing any control. Whereas the bosses want the ability to tell people exactly when to come to work, exactly how much they’ll make, and how to do every step of their job, a union disrupts that total control. The workers, once successfully organized in a union, are more likely to say, “no, we deserve more money than that,” or, “no we won’t work that many hours.” And it is that hint of democracy, of worker power, that corporate bosses push back against most of all.
To sum up, democracy can’t really be a full democracy if your job is a place of tyranny. These are the places we spend much of our time, and the structures of these companies, or non-profits, or government institutions etc. are central to the structuring of society, and in particular are some of the central structures of our capitalist economy. But there is an alternative, in fact there are multiple alternatives. Workers can democratically own and control our workplaces. There are many examples of successful worker cooperatives, not to mention blossoming solidarity economy organizations, and more. We need worker power, and worker democracy if we are to build an egalitarian and truly free society. Democracy in the workplace is one of the cornerstones of the better world we seek. And through unionizing, through worker cooperatives, through building worker power from every angle we can begin to create real democratic workplaces that can then have a massive ripple effect and be a crucial component to changing and democratizing society as a whole.
But more on that next time. Thanks for reading today, and I’m looking forward to continuing this series with you! So far these pieces have really been a joy for me, and I’ve appreciated your responses to them immensely. Thank you! - Josh
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