Wednesday, March 28, 2018
Economic Insanity: Chapter 6 (part 2)
A Nation of Wage Earners (Part 2)
The Individual versus the Human Resource
The fundamental question we must resolve when contemplating the individual’s place in organizational America is, once again: “Which is more important, the individual or the organization where he or she works?” Do individuals serve the organization or does the organization serve the community of individuals? In spite of our traditional American ideals, the sorry answer is that in twentieth-century America, individuals are less important than and serve the organizations to which they belong.
Human beings are viewed, even in these days of enlightened organizational thinking, as property. Human resources. Resources are things we buy and then use to make a profit. Our employees are our most valuable asset. An asset is a piece of property, something you own and use until it is either depleted or obsolete.
This sort of talk is intended as a compliment, and, as such, it sheds light on the status of workers in today’s economy. I hear from all quarters the apparently sincere belief that the only way American companies can be competitive in the current global marketplace is to train the American workforce to be more productive. “We must invest more in our workers,” I hear. “We must give them the mathematical and statistical and scientific training that will make them more useful to corporate America.”
This generous offer to educate and train workers is admirable, but it is also misdirected—because it is motivated solely by the organizational imperative of survival. It has virtually nothing to do with the needs and desires and talents and values of individuals.
Our society is so bottom-line oriented that we feel we cannot afford to cater to the whims and preferences of individuals. Organizations must thrive, therefore we must learn to view individuals as resources and assets, things to be used, and not to be improved for their own sake. It doesn’t matter what innate talents or proclivities they might have, they must sacrifice their dreams on the altar of corporate profitability and become what corporate America wants them to become. And because of the faulty assumptions that drive our economic institutions, we have created an increasingly high-tech, fast-paced world in which only one kind of intelligence—quantitative—is rewarded, almost to the exclusion of all others. Consequently, everyone must excel in that area, or the organizers of economic enterprise regard (and discard) them as useless.
Many, perhaps even most, Americans are being crammed into jobs that do not fit them very well. Not everyone is in the 90th percentile of mathematical aptitude. Most of us, truth be known, are not very good at numbers. We would rather be doing something more meaningful (which usually means something in which we have some innate talent, where we feel we can offer something to society). But in our increasingly high-tech world, we focus more and more narrowly on that one particular type of intelligence. Those of us who are intelligent and talented in unmarketable areas may find ourselves unemployable, or at least grossly underpaid.
Human beings, in other words, must subordinate their own talents and desires, not to the good of society, but to the welfare of organizations that have an intense need for nothing other than survival. Organizational exigencies determine what areas I can pursue as a career, as my life’s work. This is the common lot of a “human resource” in organizational America. But simply giving everybody rigorous math, science, and technical skills is as unindividualistic as making everyone a good communist. People should be free to choose how they will make a contribution to society. So, instead of running hell-bent after every new technological wonder, just so the economy can be more productive and competitive, a society that ranks human beings above organizations, I argue, would look at the diverse nature of individuals and make room for all, so that they can contribute in ways they are best suited for.
To try to make everyone adept at high-tech, mathematical work is to pursue the fallacious theory that human beings are perfectly malleable and have no innate talents and tendencies and can consequently be shaped to fit the organization’s (or nation’s) needs. Perhaps we need to mold organizations instead to fit individual needs. Is this possible? What might happen if we expended our money and energy in helping individuals discover and develop the areas where they are truly gifted and assisted them in finding useful outlets for the expression of those talents?
Work versus Labor
David K. Hart points out a subtle distinction between work and labor. Labor, he says, is what all animals do, what human beings must do, to eat and survive. Labor is drudgery. There is nothing ennobling about it. Work, on the other hand, is the opportunity for individuals to place their unique stamp upon whatever it is they are producing—whether it be an oak table, a book, a car, a haircut, or a music lesson. Work not only shapes the produce of an individual’s time and energy, it shapes the individual.
We define ourselves partially by the work we do. And if we must labor instead of work, we are less than human. This, I submit, is the greatest abuse perpetrated on individuals by modern organizations: that they deny them the opportunity to work. They require individuals instead to fit themselves into some preconceived pattern; to think and behave in certain approved ways; to be a function; to give up the things they are passionate about and adopt stale organizational goals and mission statements and pretend to be excited about them; to produce to someone else’s specifications products they care not one iota about; to trade their time, their lives, and large portions of their souls for sterile security and the hollow promise of marginal prosperity.
And we wonder why people feel powerless, why there is a growing sense of despair, or worse, indifference, regarding our future. Most of our population has been turned into a huge, collective “human resource,” and yet we wonder why they are not happy and optimistic and motivated. How long can we expect people to be satisfied with fading security and dwindling prosperity while offering more and more of themselves on the altar of organizational dependence? How long can we expect people to shelve their innate talents and deny their rightful desires to be fully human?
Democracy, Power, and Ownership
Corporate America has finally come to realize on a subconscious level that it has deprived its employees of certain basic or integral ingredients. Intense global competition has revealed that something is missing from the modern capitalist recipe for success. Consequently, three popular buzzwords are making the rounds in corporate America: empowerment, democracy, and a sense of ownership. But these terms are deceptive. Most of what passes itself off as democracy in organizational America is actually only a token sharing of responsibility. It’s a half-baked, watered-down version of self-rule. Likewise, empowerment in corporate America, of necessity, involves the bestowal of a tractable, emasculated form of power. And the “sense of ownership” that management talks about is simple make-believe.
Democracy implies equality, the shared power to combine with your equals in making decisions, in governing the group to which you belong. But democracy of this sort exists only where ownership is divided equally among those who spend the days of their lives serving together in the organization. Such equality is also the source of appropriate, accountable power. If there is always someone, or a group of someones, whose actual, legal ownership gives them more power than the employees, then they can make arbitrary decisions without being accountable to the body of individuals who work for the organization. In such companies there is no real democracy, no true empowerment, and the political structure of the organization is by definition authoritarian in nature.
In the current “cutting-edge” management literature, I read repeatedly that management is supposed to give employees a “sense of ownership” or, stranger yet, that employees are supposed to take upon themselves this “sense of ownership.” The reason, of course, is that organizations cannot survive in today’s ultracompetitive marketplace without dedicated, intelligent, motivated workers. This “sense of ownership” is supposed to give employees the commitment they need to be truly valuable to the organization. But what on earth is a “sense of ownership”? It is, in truth, a pretense, an illusion. It is management asking workers to pretend they own something they don’t actually own. It is the illusion of ownership, a bald-faced attempt to conceal the true nature of business relationships, to make workers think that the authoritarian structure of capitalist business does not really exist.
But ownership is ownership. A “sense of ownership” is a lie we tell one another and ourselves to make us feel better about the inherent injustice and inconsistency of our organizational relationships. If management wants workers to have genuine commitment, then it must give them actual ownership, the only real source of commitment. And the consultants who roam the hills and valleys of organizational America telling workers that they must take upon themselves “ownership” of the business are selling a bill of goods. You can’t simply “take” ownership, not unless the current owners give you a piece of it.
And the reason all this talk of “empowerment” and “sense of ownership” is empty rhetoric is that those who sit in power and who possess today’s corporate kingdoms are not simply going to give up their power and ownership out of the generosity of their hearts. Peter Block tells a story that pretty much sums up the sham of corporate “empowerment” programs.
A friend of mine who works for a big telecommunications company was asked to devise ways for people at the bottom of the organization to take more ownership for the success of the business. One of his recommendations was to eliminate reserved parking for the top executives . . . a symbolic gesture to communicate we are all part of the same team working toward the same goal. He suggested this to Bob, the general manager, and Bob’s response was, “If you ask for my parking space now, you will want my salary later. I don’t want to give you my salary, I know you don’t want to give your people your salary. The answer is no.”1
Bob was at least honest. Most executives and owners are not. They are using the same manipulative marketing tactics we see in the consumer arena to sell their employees on the idea that they can have ownership without really owning anything and without sharing equally in the profits created by their increased dedication. They are merely constructing another elaborate illusion to milk their employees of whatever it takes to keep the business in business. And please note that they are not asking employees to develop and apply their intelligence, ingenuity, and good judgment because it is important for individuals to cultivate and use such qualities in their lives. They solicit increased dedication for the express reason that the organization simply cannot succeed without intelligent, versatile, creative, motivated workers. It is the organization’s welfare, not the employees’, that matters.
Now that I’ve stated my position on token democracy, empty empowerment, and imaginary ownership, let me turn this same argument on its head for a moment and suggest that some good might actually come from the empowerment movement, misdirected though it is. It is quite possible that the proponents of this movement have unleashed a force more powerful than they understand. It is possible that they have started an avalanche that will not stop halfway up the slope where all the empowerment gurus and progressive managers believe it will.
If you understand their argument, what these theorists are saying, without actually saying it, is that the movement underway today to empower employees and democratize the workplace will eventually lead to actual employee power, real democracy, and genuine ownership. This is the logical conclusion to their arguments, even if they haven’t yet arrived at that conclusion. They are talking about a revolution, if you listen carefully to their rhetoric. The forces that have been unleashed in organizational America, they claim, are inexorable and will change the face of business from one end of this country to the other. If this is true—and we have no reason to doubt that it is—then these relentless forces will not stop at token empowerment and democracy in name only. The avalanche won’t stop midslope. It may, however, run into some determined and resourceful opposition.
The increase in token democracy, the push for employee empowerment, and the creation of a “sense of ownership” are certainly steps in the right direction, and it may be glibly argued that they are merely waystations along the inevitable path to true democracy, real ownership, and full employee power-holding, but try fitting that theoretical shoe on the foot of any capitalist or million-dollar-salaried CEO. They may agree to cosmetic empowerment and the illusion of democracy that is currently in vogue, they may even give up their parking spaces, but see what happens when you ask for their salaries, their offices, their bloated staffs, their golden parachutes, their mansions, their separatism, and their prestige. And don’t deceive yourself into thinking those things won’t be asked for. They lie on the lower slopes, below where the consultants and progressive leaders think the avalanche will stop. But it will not stop until it reaches level ground.
Who will win? No one can say. Someday the capitalists and popular consultants may wake up to discover that they have been playing with fire, that this token democracy and the illusions of empowerment and the “sense of ownership” they’ve supported have put ideas into people’s heads, correct ideas. And they may get burned. People in general are a lot smarter than they are given credit for. Someday it will dawn on them that if token democracy is good, then real democracy must be better. If watered-down empowerment is their right, as they have been told, then why not real power? And if their organizations can’t succeed unless they develop a “sense of ownership,” then certainly real employee ownership should be even better for their organizations. They will eventually realize that someone has been stealing their lives, and they will demand what is rightly theirs.
Who Really Creates Capital?
In the next chapter, we’ll look in greater detail at what I’ve already suggested briefly—that we must consider redistributing capital rather than income. The capitalists, who now claim ownership, will undoubtedly cry foul. “That would be stealing,” they will certainly say. I would respond, however, by asking, “Are the police stealing when they take back your car from the person who stole it from you?” It is only stealing when you take something that doesn’t belong to you. To take back what is rightly yours can hardly be called stealing.
The real question regarding ownership is the one asked by John Steinbeck in this chapter’s epigraph. What constitutes ownership, especially of capital? Shouldn’t ownership be related somehow to the question of who creates it, who works and slaves and toils to bring it into existence? Is it the person who plants the seeds or the person who works the land and pulls the weeds and nurtures, fertilizes, and irrigates the soil who should reap the harvest? The answer, I submit, is that both deserve a share.
The capitalist invests a sum of money, but that money will not create a product and generate a profit without the time and energy of other human beings. Don’t they have just as great a role in the creation of new capital as the one who invested the money to start the venture? And if they aren’t given a fair share of the capital, hasn’t someone been stealing from them? Says Michael Ventura:
As a worker, I am not an “operating cost.” I am how the job gets done. I am the job. I am the company. . . . I’m willing to take my lumps in a world in which little is certain, but I deserve a say. Not just some cosmetic “input,” but significant power in good times or bad. A place at the table where the decisions are made. Nothing less is fair. So nothing less is moral. . . . It takes more than investment and management to make a company live. It takes the labor, skill, and talent of the people who do the company’s work. Isn’t that an investment? Doesn’t it deserve a fair return, a voice, a share of the power? . . . If the people who do the work don’t own some part of the product, and don’t have any power over what happens to their enterprise—they are being robbed. You are being robbed. And don’t think for a minute that those who are robbing you don’t know they are robbing you. They know how much they get from you and how little they give back. They are thieves. They are stealing your life.2
Indeed, they pay themselves as much as possible and pay you as little as possible. By contrast, an equitable redistribution of capital would eliminate this double-standard pay system. It would also abolish authoritarian economic organizations, foster true democracy, and bring our out-of-control economy back into harmony with our political aspirations and social ideals. As I hope I’ve made clear in the preceding chapters, this is not merely something we should consider because it is the moral thing to do—and it is the moral thing to do—we should move rapidly in this direction because it is also perhaps our best hope for averting economic ruin.
1. Peter Block, Stewardship: Choosing Service over Self-Interest (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1993), 38–39.
2. Michael Ventura, “Someone Is Stealing Your Life.” Utne Reader, July/August 1991, 78, 80. Reprinted from the L.A. Weekly.