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The Case for Economic Democracy: Chapter 4.1
The Dictatorship of the Workplace
Welcome! This is the beginning of Chapter 4 of my new book, “The Case for Economic Democracy.” If you’d like to read it, as well as everything else I write, you can upgrade to a premium subscription here.
Chapter Four - The Dictatorship of the Workplace
“You’re Fired.” - Donald Trump
A Job Story
Chances are you’ve had a job at some point in your life. Excluding those who are so well-connected they can strut off the graduation stage and into a management position at their dad’s boat dealership, the majority of Americans’ job story goes something like this:
A company had an opening. You decided to apply.
You went through the interview process, which can sometimes be as exhaustive as multi-round hiring panels, or as simple as a conversation or two with the hiring manager. Either way, you were probably extremely anxious, as not getting the job would mean having to start all over.
You’re hired! Congratulations! The swell of relief washes over you, as you now know you’ll have income for the foreseeable future. If you’re lucky, you might even look forward to the job itself.
As time passes, the novelty fades and the demands of the job take over. Perhaps you have to work late nights or weekends. Or, there’s a chance your boss is extremely demanding, driving you to an unobtainable output that takes a toll on your mental and physical health.
As your stature in the organization moves from the “new person” to “seasoned veteran,” you find ways to keep your head above water. Perhaps you discover how to juggle the burdensome workload, or you learn not to be caught alone with the manager for fear he’ll assign you another shift. Or, as is increasingly likely, you accept that your boss’s demands are a great departure from what was stated during the interview process, so you buckled down and grind it out. After all, rent is due.
Somehow, you manage to do your job and remain employed, though you pray your boss would honor the expectations they set when you accepted their offer. While some readers may have a pleasant, even amicable relationship with their employer, a variation of the above scenario is more prevalent in the American economy.
Bosses and managers will never state: “I’m going to try and get as much production out of you as I can,” but it is their goal, whether they realize it or not. The incentive of profit, either for themselves or their boss, demands it. We are so used to this system that we seldom think to question it. For a country that prides itself on freedom, it is odd we never ask why our bosses get to decide the conditions of our work, and therefore our lives.
The answer is no less uncomfortable than it is true — bosses are dictators.
The “D” Word
The term “dictator” carries many connotations. Upon first hearing it, we think of the evilest villains imaginable: Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, and Joffrey Baratheon. Even if you aren’t a big fan of your workplace manager, you are still a long way from comparing them to the leader of Nazi Germany.
But putting aside the personality of your manager, the definition fits. Merriam-Webster defines “dictator” as: “one holding complete autocratic control.” Now, think about how your workplace decides what gets done. Unless you work for an extraordinary company that functions as a democracy, work hours and responsibilities are decreed to you by those higher up the ladder. There is no debate, there is no democracy. There are only orders. If you don’t like it, “There’s the door.” But you’ll be losing next month’s rent next the minute you step out of it.
The most drastic example of this dynamic is evident in Elon Musk’s purchase and management of Twitter. After purchasing the social media company, Musk conducted mass layoffs, many of which seem to have no basis in performance or metric, and drastically changed the user verification checkmark. This led to chaos and even lost multiple companies significant share value as “verified” parody tweeted jokes under their names. Musk, who only had a day of Twitter experience, was able to create these changes because he was the company’s legal dictator. Even though there were many inside Twitter who aimed to correct him, they were fired or ignored.
And while it's possible you have some minor input of your tasks and time around the margins, such as asking for the earlier shift so you can pick your kid up from school or telling your manager you’d like to take on a different project, these are only suggestions from you, not formal inputs in the decision-making process. It isn’t that you have a say in the process, but rather the dictator is willing to hear your plea, much like ancient Kings and Queens would allow their subjects to throw themselves on the cold stone of medieval court and grovel at their feet. And, if your suggestion is granted, it is likely to bring you one step closer to the limit, as your boss will only do you so many “favors.”
Perhaps this sounds a bit harsh. Some workers, primarily those in the more modern white-collar tech professions, have nothing but good things to say about their managers. (I count myself among those lucky few.) But this familiarity does not change the nature of corporate hierarchy. So while your manager may be the most pleasant, caring person you have ever met, they are still, by definition, a dictator. It does not matter how kind they are, as a benevolent dictator is still a dictator. If you don’t believe me, try calling for a vote the next time you’re assigned a task at work. Just make sure you’re wearing headphones to stop their laughter from damaging your eardrums.
Next week’s section will examine the hierarchy of dictatorship, both politically and in the workplace. See you then! Joe
. “Dictator.” Merriam-Webster.com, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dictator