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Your Job Is a Miserable, Grinding Dictatorship. Time for Socialism!

The United States is a democracy unless you're at work, in which case it very much isn't.

by Nathan J. Robinson
Dec 17 2019, 5:04pm

A toy production line in 1966. Photo by Caroline Gillies/BIPs/Getty

A few months ago, VICE asked me if I would be interested in doing an interview with a young conservative. I am the editor of a socialist magazine and the author of a book called Why You Should Be A Socialist, so it was thought that we might have fun arguing about whether capitalism or socialism was the superior philosophy. The young conservative duly read my book and prepared for the interview. Unfortunately, right before it was scheduled to happen, they received a surprise: Their employer, a right-wing publication, would not let them proceed. Do not talk to socialists, the employer said. The interview was not to be.

It is interesting that the project was terminated this way, with an employer stifling an employee's right to speak, because it confirms what I intended to tell the young conservative in our interview, namely: bosses are fascists. Of course they didn't let them talk to me. That's what bosses do. It's precisely why you should be a socialist.

One of the core tenets of socialism is that "economic democracy" is just as important as political democracy. We recognize that when it comes to the government, people should have a say in deciding who their representatives are. They shouldn't be ruled over by unaccountable tyrants. Yet in the workplace, where many of us spend most of our waking lives, that is exactly what happens. The political philosopher Elizabeth Anderson has argued, in Private Government, that we need to start applying political concepts like "democracy" and "autocracy" to the private sphere as well as the public sphere. When we conceive of corporations as a kind of "private government," we see that these governments operate as dictatorships: You don't get to vote for your boss, or the CEO or board of directors, but you do have to do what they say. Now, of course, it's true that you can quit your job if you don't like it. But you might also be able to leave a dictatorial country and choose another one—that doesn't change the fact that it's a dictatorship.

Employers have considerable power over employees' lives. In the United States, the vast majority of workers labor under the terms of "at will" employment, meaning that you can be fired for pretty much any reason, or no reason at all. You don't need to have done something wrong to lose your job. If your manager doesn't like the look of your face, you can be out the door. (Workers mistreated because of their race, gender, disability, or certain other characteristics are supposed to be protected, but in practice these protections are extremely weak.) Anderson notes some egregious examples:

Scotts, the lawn care company, fired an employee for smoking off duty. After Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) notified Lakeland Bank that an employee had complained he wasn't holding town hall meetings, the bank intimidated her into resigning. San Diego Christian College fired a teacher for having premarital sex—and hired her fiancé to fill her post. Bosses are dictators, and workers are their subjects.

Employers have astonishing amounts of coercive power, since employees need their jobs in order to survive (and in the U.S., often in order to keep their health insurance). As Chris Bertram, Corey Robin, and Alex Gourevitch observed back in 2012, the free market notion of freedom allows employers to significantly abridge the freedom of workers: They can police their speech, tell them when to go to the bathroom, demand their social media passwords, and search their belongings. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the many new Orwellian surveillance tactics that technology is allowing bosses to deploy, from recording and analyzing all their speech to monitoring their body's fitness and even the times at which they go to sleep and wake up.

My young conservative friend got a taste of this power when their employer nixed our conversation. But it's ubiquitous, and for many people, it is much worse. Amazon turns its workers into little more than fungible mechanical parts in a giant machine, who must obey orders unquestioningly. If they drop below their pre-assigned quotas, a robot will automatically fire them. It is a dystopian nightmare.

But you don't hear most prominent Democratic and Republican politicians talking much about workplace democracy. This is because self-proclaimed "capitalists" pay little attention to these sorts of issues. They might believe in raising the minimum wage or regulating the safety conditions in Amazon's fulfillment centers, but they generally don't question the fundamental hierarchies embedded in our economic institutions. Socialists have always been the ones who dare to ask questions about power: who has it and who doesn't.

For socialists, the fundamental problem with our economic institutions is that there is a large class of relatively powerless people who work the hardest for the least money, and a small class of owners who reap benefits disproportionate to their actual labor. Socialism is more than just an opposition to low wages and bad conditions. It's a fundamental objection to having a society structured along these lines.

Take Deadspin. The popular sports site's parent company was sold a couple of times and eventually taken over by a private equity firm, which immediately began meddling in the content. The writers and editors were told what kind of content they had to publish. They had to listen if they wanted to keep their jobs, because under a capitalistic ownership structure, those who write and edit the website do not own what they produce. Eventually, the demands became so absurd that the staff resigned en masse. If they were in more desperate need of their jobs, however, they would simply have had to suck it up and comply. Such is the power of employers. [Editor’s note: VICE has hired—and published the work of—former Deadspin employees.]

If you care about the imbalance of power between workers and owners, you should be a socialist. Bernie Sanders's ambitious workplace democracy plan is an effort to equalize bargaining power by significantly strengthening unions, and he has proposed giving employees ownership stakes in their companies in order to "shift the wealth of the economy back into the hands of the workers who create it."

The alternative to this is a kind of techno-feudalism, where our lives are controlled by Silicon Valley barons. To socialists, this future is horrifying. And I would tell every young conservative that they ought to think carefully about the kind of workplace they will inhabit under laissez-faire capitalism. Unless you're the boss, your job is to take orders, and very few of us will get to be the boss. If you want to have meaningful control over your life at work, come and join the socialists. We don't bite, and together we can create a better world.

Nathan J. Robinson is the editor of the magazine Current Affairs and the author of the new book Why You Should Be a Socialist.

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Politics
socialism
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money-inequality