Empowering for participation through work


I wish to thank Z Magazine and the organizers of LAC for giving me the opportunity to take part in this incredible event. I hope what I am going to say will spur some interesting debate about working life in a post-capitalist society.

In the light of the discussions which have taken place over the past few days, I will assume that most of you are here because you simply despise what capitalism has got to offer us – and are confident that better alternatives exist for a more humane world. So I will not spend any time in saying what is it that we don’t like about the current system economic and political system, unless, of course, this will help me during my talk to better highlight the advantages of the alternative that I am going to put forward.

Without further ado, let me frame my talk by asking two basic questions: "what do we want?" and "how are we going to get it?". So my talk today will basically be about vision – i.e. what do we want work to be like in a post-capitalistic society – and about strategy and tactics to turn that vision into practice.

When I say "what do we want?" I hope we all agree that what we have in mind is a world free from unnecessary suffering and violence, a new society based on equitable cooperation, where people’s innate and derived diversities are respected and treasured, where everyone participates in decisions which affect their own lives, where everyone is in control of their own economic life, without exploitation of some groups over others. However, it is not enough to say what our values are, to communicate them, to share them with others – we also need to make sure we put in place the right mechanisms that will foster these values in a durable way. First, it is quite likely that those who don’t agree will do whatever in their power to obstruct – not less to outright repress – any attempts at creating a society based on those values. And this is already happening. Second, even in the most optimistic scenario of having everyone committed to those values, we would still need to overcome decades of capitalism-induced preconceptions and behaviors. Unless we change the basic decision-making mechanisms, the basic economic mechanisms, the policy mechanisms, any partial reform taking us further in our struggle is likely to be short-lived.

So having a vision – an economic vision, in this particular case, but the same holds true in other realms of human life (kinship, culture, policy, etc) – is not just having clear in our minds what our values are, but also figuring out what we need to make sure these values guide and inform our actions. In a word, we need INSTITUTIONS fostering these values. What I really have in mind are "social institutions" – that is, in the words of Robin Hahnel, "conglomerations of interrelated roles… which establish the pattern of expectations within which human activity must occur." Let me clarify this. Any human activity requires some sort of direct or indirect interrelation among human beings – what social institutions do is simply defining what peoples’ roles are in these interrelations and how people are expected to behave when fulfilling these roles. So families, workplaces, schools, parishes, social centers, assemblies, parliaments, etc are all social institutions. The fact that we may dislike some or all of our current institutions does not necessarily mean that institutions are "bad" per se – it is up to us to create institutions which will serve our values and promote in a durable fashion the type of human and social relations we would like to see realized.

So, what I will be talking you through today, in the first part of my presentation, is not simply what sort of values I hope to see realized in a post-capitalist society, but also what sort of institutions we need to in order to advance these values. Of course, given that this is a panel about "work" I will be focusing on some very specific institutions, namely workplaces – and in particular, I will try and put forward a vision as to the sort of labor division, or organization of labor, is most compatible with our dearest values. With these values in mind, let’s start thinking how we can organize our working life accordingly.

Now, even in a new society, of course we would still need some productive activity taking place, to provide the goods and services needed to fulfill our needs and advance our well-being. So there will still be plants, offices, factories, shops, hospitals, schools, etc, and there will still be jobs to be done and tasks to be completed within each of these workplaces. However, if we really want to achieve solidarity, self-management, equity, and diversity, we need to organize work within workplaces (and even between workplaces) so as to advance these values.

Division of labor is generally associated with economic efficiency, that is the ability to get things done without any unnecessary waste of scarce resources. However, the way work is organized affects us directly on at least two other levels: at the level of the individual and at the level of society more generally.

Let’s start from the individual – obviously, given the considerable amount of time in our life devoted to work, this affects not just our quality of life, in terms of job satisfaction, fulfillment, happiness, material reward, and so on, but also the skills and social traits we develop. One doesn’t need to think hard to realize we are profoundly influenced by the job that we do. People involved in creative, empowering work, in decision-making, are most likely to become self-confident, proactive, assertive, to have be better able to evaluate alternatives and make complex decisions. On the other hand, people involved in rote, menial, obedient work will most likely feel disempowered, passive, will lack confidence in their abilities, will not be able to exercise their intellectual and creative skills to the point that they will be altogether numbed. So to sum this up in a catch phrase, we are what we work, to some extent.

Division of labor does not only affect the individual, but also the way in which individuals interact and the structure of society. Division of labor determines not just who does what, but also the way economic decisions are taken, and people’s effective ability to participate in economic decision-making. This is also a very obvious point, but one that is often overlooked. If labor is divided in such a way that a small group of people take all decisions and decide how to conduct economic activity, whereas the great majority are forced to execute orders and do all the routine and menial work, clearly the former will have every incentive to put in place mechanisms to preserve their privileges: they will attribute themselves larger and larger shares of the economic pie, they will keep for themselves all the empowering and fulfilling jobs and they will do whatever in their power to make sure those at the bottom are prevented from claiming their rightful share of material rewards and participation. This inevitably creates fractures between those two groups, and class divisions emerge. So division of labor, alongside ownership of productive capital and other factors, in one of the main determinants of class divisions and relationships.

With these two points in mind, I claim that if we are to promote solidarity, self-management, participation, equity and diversity, we need to do away with division of labor as we know it, namely with hierarchical, corporate division of labor, and we need to replace it with what advocates of participatory economics call "balanced job complexes".

Under a corporate division of labor, tasks are divided into jobs (each made of a set of relatively homogeneous tasks) that can be graded hierarchically in terms of empowerment and quality of life. So we have sweepers, cleaner, teachers, clerks, doctors, painters, webmasters, accountants, managers, CEOs, and so on. Clearly some jobs will have more desirable features than others, and will allow people to develop greater and more varied skills than others. Some jobs are rote, obedient, monotonous and alienating. Others are empowering, fulfilling, creative and varied. Why should some people endure distressing work conditions, perform dangerous and ill-paid jobs, while others should sit all day in an air-conditioned room, enjoy the perks of business-class fights and company cars, and make decisions which affect not only themselves but also others? Corporate division of labor clearly fails the equity test. If we are concerned about creating an equitable society, we should either eliminate corporate division of labor, or compensate those who are performing the most dangerous and onerous job by paying them more than those who enjoy a better quality of working life.

But equity is only one of the values we would like to see realized in a post-capitalist society. How about participation and self-management? Suppose we decided to solve the equity problem by retaining a corporate division of labor and we materially compensated those who endure deadening work conditions and make greater sacrifices. Suppose also that we gave everyone the opportunity to equally participate in economic decision-making with the aim of achieving self-management. Would this work? Let’s think about it. Imagine we set up one-person, one-vote workers’ councils in a car plant, giving every worker the opportunity to participate. Imagine we were also to retain corporate division of labor – with clerks, assembly-line workers, cleaners, engineers, production managers, accountants, etc. Would everyone be able to effectively participate on equal grounds? If I spend my entire working life assembling gearboxes, without any opportunity to exercise or develop my other skills, without any opportunity to access relevant overall information about the business, I will definitely not be able to participate to the decision-making process on the same grounds as someone who spends her working life doing strategic planning, investment evaluations, sales and marketing, accounting, and so on. I might not be able to argue my point of view, I would not be able to back my claims with relevant data, and I might even feel intimidated about intervening at all. The upshot of this is quite clear – final decisions would eventually reflect the opinions and motivations of those who are more empowered by the functions they are performing in the workplace – and as those workers become accustomed to "ruling" the decision-making process, they may even decide to do away with participation all together – why bother with democratic, participatory council meetings, if final decisions reflect our point of view anyway? Why not just hold more restricted meetings, like the good old board meetings? So before long, the whole system would unravel and we would be back to square one. And we know what this means: exploitation, class divisions (coordinators and decision-makers vs. workers) and conflicts, frustration, alienation, and so on and so forth.

Therefore corporate division of labor fails both the equity test and the self-management/ participation test. If we are serious about equality of opportunities, quality of life and participation, if we believe that everyone should be in control of their economic life, if want to attain a true classless society, then we cannot support corporate division of labor in a post-capitalist society. What we need, instead, is a division of labor such that the jobs in the economy have comparable empowerment and desirability impact on people’s lives. If we are all to participate, then we should all have the skills and motivations to participate. And given that "we are what we work" (to some extent), then it is of paramount importance that, whatever job I decide to take on, that job equips me with the skills and confidence to be an active part in decision-making.

This is exactly what balanced job complexes do. With balanced job complexes, tasks are divided in such a way that everyone gets a fair share of the onerous and unpleasant work, and everyone also gets a fair share of the empowering and fulfilling work, in such a way that we all enjoy the same average empowerment and quality of life. So there will no longer be secretaries and CEOs, cleaners and accountants, nurses and doctors, engineers and assembly-line workers, but we would all have a mix of tasks, some fulfilling and some rote, some conceptual and some manual, each according to our own preferences and abilities, but in such a way as to be all equally empowered to participate in decision-making.

Note that we are not implying that everyone should perform every task in a workplace. This is not feasible, nor desirable, as it would be distracting and eventually prevent us from getting the work done. Nor are we implying that we should do away with specialization. Specialized skills and knowledge, such as advanced computer programming, organic chemistry, econometrics, etc, will still be necessary and people will be encouraged to pursue their interests and specialize into whatever they are good at. But knowing about computer programming, or being able to design skyrockets, will not imply that I will spend my entire working life doing just that, nor that I will be able to monopolize the decision-making process. Instead of me being a computer scientist and you being a secretary, I might look after my own correspondence and phone calls some of the time, while you might spend some of your time doing marketing or web design, or dealing with sales and client relations, or whatever other task you may find interesting, useful and compatible with your talents. Of course, the empowerment effect of our job complex will be the same for both of us, so that when we sit in the workers’ council we are both able to express our views, assess alternatives and effectively contribute to the decision-making process.

So to re-iterate, we need to create balanced job complexes within the workplace. Who does that? Given that this is a decision that affects the entire workplace, it will be taken by a workplace-wide workers’ council, making sure that all views are properly represented. How will they do it? There is no fixed rule for this – it depends on the specific field of activity. So, it is likely that a school will create balanced job complexes differently from a hospital or a gym. One way of doing it would be to list all the tasks that need to be performed in a workplace and grade them according to their desirability and their empowerment effect. We then combine these tasks into jobs complexes, in such a way that all jobs have the same empowerment and quality of life impact, which should be equal to the average for that workplace. Some job complexes may be made of tasks which are all average, in terms of desirability and empowerment; others may be made of tasks which are widely different in this respect, so long as their combination is equal to the average for the workplace.

As it happens, not all workplaces are equal in terms of average quality of life and empowerment. Working in a coal mine is probably less desirable and empowering than working in a university department or a fashion house. Those industries with the most empowering job complexes would allow their workers to develop superior self-management and decision-making skills. So class divisions and conflicts, which we tried to throw out the front door (establishing balanced job complexes within the workplace), would come back in through the rear window. Since we set off saying that our purpose is to attain true participation and self-management, and to overcome class divisions, then we should balance job complexes not just within workplaces, but also across workplaces, so that every job complex in the economy will be equally empowering and desirable; or, in other words, so that we attain average empowerment and quality of life for all workers, regardless of the particular activities they are engaged in.

How do we do that? Simply by requiring that those who hold a job complex that is more
empowering and desirable thanthe average in the economy, spend some time of their workweek in a workplace with less-than-average job complexes. So if I worked in fashion house (where as part of my job complex I would perform both rote and creative tasks), and being a fashion designer is more desirable and empowering than average, I could spend some of my workweek attending old people in a nursing home, taking phone calls at my local library, or in clean-up squads in my neighborhood, and so on.

Before I move on to strategy, I wish to clarify a few points. First, appealing as balanced job complexes are, they are only one of several economic institutions which we can put in place in a post-capitalist world. Notice that I have not said anything about remuneration, allocation of resources, planning, consumption, etc – i.e. all the other activities which characterize economic life, for two reasons. One, they are outside the focus of this panel. Two, the time at our disposal is brief and talking about too many things together is likely to be confusing. But please bear in mind that balanced job complexes are part of a wider set of economic institutions that make up an economic vision that advances equity, solidarity, diversity and self-management.

Second, a word of caution. There is nothing mathematical about human activities. Balancing job complexes is a continuous process, requiring successive refinements, as people change jobs and innovations are introduced that change work conditions in particular workplaces or industries. This is not very different from what happens already in traditional workplaces, where responsibilities and tasks are constantly reconsidered and reassigned. The fundamental difference, of course, is that balanced job complexes grant comparable empowerment and quality of life to all, whereas the current division of labor does not – balanced job complexes are also established democratically and in a participatory way, whereas corporate division of labor is a top-down and autocratic process.

Third, we should not expect to balance job complexes over an hour or even a day – but we can definitely aim at balancing job complexes over a longer time frame, arranging shifts and tasks in such a way as to strike a deal between the need for specialization on the one hand, and the need to guarantee everyone comparable empowerment and quality of life experiences. Of course the relevant time frame depends on the particular workplace and the preferences of its workers.

Fourth and final point, a word about efficiency. Many people, when first confronted with balanced job complexes, react by saying that this solution is inefficient, because it wastes exceptional ability and skills – if someone has a talent for advanced engineering, having her to take phone calls or do filing is a waste of her talents and detrimental for the well-being of society. There are three issues involved here. First, as I said earlier, we are not claiming that people should not specialize in whatever they are good at. All we are saying is that everyone should have a chance to develop their skills and abilities, and the only way to do this is to ensure that everyone gets a chance to perform empowering and creative work. For every bit of "efficiency" that we lose from having a top manager arranging her own travel schedules, we gain efficiency from freeing a lot of potential and skills among all those people in the economy whose abilities were previously frustrated by tedious and deadening work. Moreover, as workers become effectively in charge of their own economic life, they are more likely to be motivated in their jobs and therefore more productive than in the current system. Second, even if we were to lose some efficiency or social product in the process, we would gain in terms of improved quality of life for everyone, enhanced control over one’s working life, a more equitable distribution of opportunities and reduced class conflicts. If we include these goals in our objective function, then we clearly see that balanced job complexes become the efficient option, whereas corporate division of labor is inefficient, to the extent that it prevents us from achieving those goals. Finally, since everyone now does both deadening and empowering work, there will be an incentive to minimize the amount of time required for rote and tedious tasks, favoring innovations that increase automation of those tasks, for example, so as to free up time for everyone involved. That is, balanced job complexes are also efficient in a dynamic perspective, leading to steady improvements in everyone’s working life conditions and greater productivity over time.

Having outlined our vision for "work after capitalism", we now turn to the second question: "what can we do to get there?" Clearly, if we are not lucky enough to be working in a workplace with balanced job complexes, then we should aim at organizing our struggle so as to ask for and obtain improvements in our work life that lead to greater empowerment, better working conditions, and a fair distribution of privileges and responsibilities. As workers, there are several tactics at our disposal: increasing awareness among our colleagues about the advantages of balanced job complexes; organizing to exert pressure through lobbying and strikes; organizing in-firm councils of workers to shadow the top-down decision-making process and coming up with alternative plans for our workplace; asking for greater training and more varied job descriptions; asking for access to "confidential" information such as accounting and financial data and strategic plans for the company, and promoting discussion and evaluation of such data. If we are in a position to set up our own economic activity, then we should try and organize tasks in balanced job complexes, encouraging widespread participation in decision-making.

Some of you may wonder how it is ever possible to achieve more varied job descriptions in a traditional capitalist company, let alone balanced job complexes. Yet there are many workplaces where workers are engaged in a mix of tasks which, stopping short of being balanced job complexes, do provide a means of developing a wide range of skills. I myself had the opportunity to work for a few years in a small consulting company where attempts were made to make the business more participatory, stopping short however of achieving balanced job complexes and democratic workers councils. As this was a start-up company, at the beginning we had to do without secretaries, divisions, clerks, receptionist, etc – beyond doing consulting work, each of us had a fair share of "rote" work to do, such as taking phone calls, filing correspondence, invoicing, and so on. At the same time, we were all encouraged to participate in marketing, recruitment, design of the bonus scheme, brand management – and the most important decisions regarding the company were taken collectively, such as when we opted for a governance structure which would give workers the actual ownership of the company. I benefited a lot from that experience – not only did I discover there were things I enjoyed doing more than consulting, I also got to have an overview of how a company works, what it takes to set one up, what difficulties you may encounter along the way, etc. Nor was hierarchy as fixed as it is in traditional workplaces – it was not uncommon to have some people leading some projects and following someone else’s leadership on others. Unfortunately, we never took the experiment as far as we could have, creating a workplace that was truly participatory, where we all enjoyed balanced job complexes, where we were all equally empowered by our work conditions. At the time, it felt what we were doing considerably well compared to other larger consultancies, where partners had the final say over everything, and juniors were forced to stay late – or until after their boss had left for the night, anyway.

The reason I am telling you this story is twofold. First, even within the current system, there is still scope to ask for, and win, significant improvements in job descriptions, quality of work-life, enhanced empowerment, and so on. The consultancy I used to work for was not competed out of the market just because it tried to involve workers in some form of decision-making (while failing to do so completely). In fact, I think we used to be a lot more motivated about our jobs, since we directly contributed to defining how things should get done, which jobs we should take, how time was to be allocated to the different tasks, etc. And the business benefited overall from our commitment. But this story also tells us that we should be aware of a potential danger in winning partial reforms that improve workers’ quality of life and empowerment. There is a risk we may end up settling for what we get – that once we gain improved working conditions, we might become less militant in struggling for our final goal, namely the replacement of corporate division of labor with balanced job complexes, and authoritative decision-making with self-management and participation. This is where vision becomes important. Although winning partial reforms is useful and indeed necessary to further our struggle, we should not forget that so long as the basic capitalist mechanisms are in place, any victory on our side is likely to be short-lived, and can easily be reversed.

Besides doing "external" action to make workplaces more participatory and to get balanced job complexes, we must also engage in some "internal" actions, in order to organize our movements, our social change groups, our unions, our neighborhood councils, our human rights groups, our alternative media, along the principles of balanced job complexes and participatory decision-making. First, our requests for balanced job complexes, for truly participatory workplaces, are unlikely to score us any points if we are not consistent with these principles ourselves. We are not going to be credible unless we show that what we want is not just desirable, but feasible and indeed superior to any other solution we might be accustomed to.

Moreover, if our movements are to attract ever larger groups, if they are to appeal to different constituencies, we need to make sure that they are truly participatory, so that everyone’s views and concerns can be expressed and properly accounted for. If I am a metal worker who spends her entire working day following orders and doing deadening tasks, why would I want to spend my free time in an organization that forces me to do more rote and obedient work? Why would I want to go from one boss to another? I might as well stay home and watch TV or go shopping or clubbing, or in any event spend whatever free time I have deciding what I think it’s best for me, rather then listening to other people telling me what to do, or bore myself dead in endless meeting I don’t feel I have the confidence to participate in.

So if we are serious about participation, we should make our movement participatory and empowering for all. Our movements should offer to participants a glimpse of what our desired, future society will look like, a society where there are opportunities for all to participate in decision making and enjoy rewarding, empowering and fulfilling working conditions. Once we understand how balanced job complexes work, and we agree they are the only way to ensure effective participation, we may start by reconsidering the way tasks and responsibilities are allocated within our groups. Is it always the same people who do all the talking, all the campaigning, who take part in international meetings, who get media visibility, who set the strategy for the group? Do we have internal hierarchies, do we have people’s whose sole role is to be in charge of photocopying, to do the clean-up, to handle subscriptions, to arrange travel schedules, and so on? If that is the case, we should begin by redressing these imbalances, training people as need be, without of course forcing anyone to do anything against their interests or their inclinations. So while not everyone may feel like addressing a large crowd to promote the group’s agenda, some people may show an inclination for writing press releases or for figuring out what are the best tactics required to involve people in their neighborhoods, or for organizing fundraising events.

Let me conclude by saying that I am aware that none of this is going to be easy. We will need to overcome resistances and all kind of obstacles, we will need to accept the fact that even if we are used to doing all the fun and empowering work we should also accept our fair share of rote and menial tasks, we will need to discuss and agree on ways to ensure that we all participate on equal grounds, and we will need to convince the skeptics along the way. So it is going to be difficult, yet as many of the above examples I have given you show, definitely not impossible. In the words of Seneca, a Roman philosopher, "it’s not because things are difficult that we dare not venture. It’s because we dare not venture that they are difficult. Thank you.

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