There’s a particular logic of authorised power at play within most societies the world over. It has resulted in definitions of work, wage, and economy that are forcibly distanced from the scope of legitimate political discourse. What we produce, who is hired or fired, how profits are divided, how many hours are worked, what are the conditions of work, these are the realm of business. Business lives in the free market and away from politics proper. Any other scenario is seen as an ‘interference’ and a limitation of private freedom, crystalised in the form of privately owned property kept at arm’s length from the scope of political discourse. The free market is an environment that’s supposed to have many of its own abstracted ‘natural’ forces; forces which we must comply with and manage as best we can. We are bounded within the the given logic of this framework.
I’ll expose one aspect of the given political economic system’s received logic over the course of this article. Recent news from the US serves as example of key assumptions in action. The principles portrayed in these examples are relevant to political and economic conditions in a breadth of countries, since capitalism is widespread.
Two recent US supreme court decisions limiting the rights of trade unions and collective action are significant. These illustrations are representative of a supposition that shapes the life experience of most people around the planet. First, I’ll very briefly outline the cases.
Individual freedom and restrictions on workers’ collective action
US public workers’ unions are no longer permitted to automatically charge fees from non-members in the workplace. Previously, fees could be demanded from public sector employees even if they had rejected union membership, partly to fund collective bargaining efforts that would have impacted members and non-members alike. The supreme court ruled 5 to 4 in favour of abolishing such compulsory charges. Non-members can now decide to opt-in to such payments or decline to do so. This decision was made on 27 June 2018.
Another US supreme court 5 to 4 decision limits the rights of workers to pursue legal action against their employers. Owners can now make employment contracts conditional on workers’ agreement to submit to private arbitration outside of the court of law. Furthermore, they can bar workers from seeking collective legal action or collective arbitration, forcing them into private and individualised claims of wrongdoing even in the case that the wrongdoing is a general working condition of a given workplace. This means that workers are limited in their capacity to pool their efforts in a common case against an employer and can be forced into atomised and isolated arbitration procedures. For example, if all workers in a particular restaurant had their wage payments consistently delayed, or workers in an office suffered from asbestos poisoning, they could be barred from cooperating in a class action law suit, and be compelled to forgo the court system in favour of individual arbitration if such a condition was written in their employment contract. This supreme court decision was made on 21 May 2018.
These rulings partly depend on the argument that individual workers have the freedom to combine in a union if they wish but that workers as private persons must have some protection against the decisions of a majority of workers in mutual association. Furthermore, it’s expected that employees can refuse arbitration demands by quitting a job or refusing employment in the first place.
The collective action of organised employed people is seen as a potential oppression of individual rights. So, the court rulings favour individual worker decisions over associated organisation that binds workers under the umbrella of shared and common rules or actions founded by their own efforts.
The majority decision of people in a workplace or trade is deemed an undue oppression upon the freedom of individuals.
The power of ownership and wealth
However, there’s an associative force that’s kept invisible or simply taken as natural and therefore necessary. This is the associative force imposed by the power of ownership.
Those who own wealth and the means of economic production have the benefit of bringing to bear the power of organisional structures. We sometimes call this a business enterprise. The enterprise has the authority to organise the conditions of work as well as the workers themselves in particular ways, imposing conditions and obligations upon them. The only substantial freedom guaranteed a worker is the formal right to refuse employment altogether.
Within this economic system, workers possess one property of significance: their bodies. Via their bodies, they can sell their physical and mental labour to those who own concentrated wealth implemented in a workplace. Labour is used to produce things and services of value, pooled and directed by the organising principle of property ownership.
The capital that’s generated by workers is then circulated throughout the economy, in the form of profits, wages, investments, and so on. Whatever capital is produced is the property of the owning class, and the workers are generally paid for leasing out their labour.
The fact that value is privately concentrated in the hands of owners serves as a useful fiction, disguising the imposed decision of the minority owners upon the majority of workers. In this way, owners can effectively impose that a share of workers’ labour goes to fund the political campaign of whomsoever owners wish, or to pay for a television advert in support of any cause the owners like, or to pay for the cost of having all employees attend group workshops designed to instill certain behaviours, etc.
However, the association of workers organising the workplace to similar ends is seen as an oppression of individual freedom. The fact that such an organisation of workers is not hidden behind the veil of abstracted free market mechanisms or the fictional divide of the economy from social and political domains should rather be a benefit. Its explicit nature, its visibility, is an important factor in the ability to exercise collective decision making: here lies some possibility democracy in the workplace. Its very visibility, though, is taken as evidence of the crime of organised decision making.
The underlying logic in the structures and norms of work and employment support and take for granted rule via the economy by those who own the greatest concentrations of wealth. In contrast, it presents as a threat rule by the decision of associated majorities of people.
The US National Labor Relations Act of 1935 makes a liminal acknowledgement of an “inequality of bargaining power between employees who do not possess full freedom of association or actual liberty of contract and employers who are organized in the corporate or other forms of ownership association[…]”
This is inherent to the system, and maintained by the false separation of economic life from the social and political. The economy is in fact one of the modes by which social relations and human consciousness are forged and perpetuated. Labour is also the activity in which most people spend the greatest part of their waking life, while they depend on it for survival and quality of life. It shouldn’t be left to the tyranny of wealth to decide on the conditions of work, or in what manner labour’s produce is mobilised for the achievement of particular social and political goals.