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Worker Self-Management

In response to:

Power to the Workers? from the November 19, 1970 issue

To the Editors:

Words have less meaning every day. First John Kenneth Galbraith comes out for “socialism” (in his latest book, Who Needs the Democrats?)—by which he means, it seems, better housing and transportation. Now we are confronted with Robert Dahl, the father of pluralism—or what has been called “the theory of democratic elitism”—advocating workers’ self-management. Apparently the liberals have run out of ideas, and are wondering if the old radical slogans have something to them after all.

The problem is that words without content are what the great credibility gap is all about. And Dahl’s article is without much content: or, more specifically, it attempts to co-opt words which have quite different meanings. When Dahl says workers’ self-management, he does not mean the forms of socialist democracy historically associated with the term. Quite the contrary: self-management to Dahl means only that the employees of a firm take over the stockholders’ nominal function of electing the directors, who in turn contract with management to run the company.

Now, citizens elect their city councils and legislatures, and workers elect their union leadership—and neither one normally generates much interest, as Dahl’s figures on voter apathy suggest. And corporate elections would not be much less impersonal. The average number of employees in Fortune’s 500 largest industrial corporations last year was roughly 30,000; the largest (GM) was nearly 800,000.

Does apathy exist because people are inherently apathetic or because they don’t believe their votes can much affect the course of events? Dahl cites approvingly the British study by Goldthorpe et al. indicating that blue-collar workers are “consumption-oriented, acquisitive, privatistic and family-centered.” For this reason he puts his hopes for industrial democracy in white-collar and technical workers, much as political theorists like Banfield rely on the middle and upper classes to make political democracy work. Yet he does not mention that the same Vauxhall workers interviewed by Goldthorpe, shortly after his conclusions were made public, walked off the job in a massive wildcat strike. Indeed, the recent flurry of wildcats in the US, together with the wave of citizens’ protests over education, welfare, taxes, transportation and the like suggest that people aren’t nearly as apathetic as one might think. They only are when it comes to elections, which says more about the elections than about the people.

In the workplace itself, there is a good deal of evidence (as Dahl notes) that workers’ participation significantly increases “the worker’s satisfaction with and interest in his work.” What he does not make clear is that this evidence comes from intense, small-group settings in which workers have a real chance to make their views known and acted upon. In the Scanlon Plan of workers’ participation, for example, or in the range of studies cited by Paul Blumberg in Industrial Democracy, the critical variables turn out to be the ability of workers to discuss new ideas in face-to-face groups, and the extent to which good ideas are implemented by the firm in question. When both of these are high, participation does result in greatly increased job satisfaction (for a summary of these findings, see Charles Hampden-Turner’s Radical Man, Chapter 8).

But Dahl nowhere proposes specific structures and processes which might allow such democratic participation. He says that blue-collar workers are uninterested in their jobs; but could it be because their jobs are in fact uninteresting? Workers’ self-management was once a program for making those jobs interesting and rewarding. Now it is a reform to be implemented in spite of those who might benefit.

More generally, Dahl’s main fault is his unwillingness to recognize that workers’ self-management cannot be isolated from the context in which it arises. Historically, the demand for workers’ control was a socialist demand; it was seen as a way of rationalizing the productive process, allowing the development of workers’ creative capacities, and creating the means for realizing the socialist ideal of equality in power and wealth. Without such a vision, the game is hardly worth the candle. To be sure, a few improvements might be expected. But would they go much beyond the steps already being taken by “enlightened” managers—as reported, for example, in the September Fortune article “It Pays to Wake Up the Blue-Collar Worker”? In a broader vision, workers’ self-management is the demand of working people (both blue and white-collar) to control their lives, not just to be better integrated into a system which makes useless goods for somebody else’s profit.

When it comes to this vision, Dahl is caught on the horns of a dilemma. He recognizes—correctly, in my view—that self-management alone cannot realize all these goals, for the workers will not necessarily be any less self-centered than corporate managers. But because he cannot think of an adequate solution within the framework of the corporate system as it is, he settles for a hollow self-management and hopes for the best in the form of unspecified governmental and economic “controls.” The result looks strangely like a form of workers’ capitalism, with no more evidence than currently exists that governmental or other public bodies would be able to control the corporations.

I think it is significant that Dahl has come out for self-management in any form, and I do not mean to attack him as much as the tone of this letter implies. But surely it is incumbent on those of us who seek such changes to draw them out to their logical conclusion, and to deal honestly and concretely with the forms, structures and processes they entail. We must start, it seems to me, by assuming that no changes which leave the centralized bureaucratic corporations intact will mean much; and that workers’ self-management must operate within a context of decentralized social ownership of industry. The work—and it is immense—can go on from there. But unless we begin at the beginning, we will forever be walking the treadmill of liberal reform.

John Case

Fellow

The Cambridge Institute

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Robert A Dahl replies:

I share W. H. Ferry’s hope that it may be possible to reopen a discussion in this country on the government of economic enterprises. I welcome his additional references as well as his own past (and I hope future) contributions to the debate.

Speculating about the cause of John Case’s indignation in order to interpret what he writes, I conclude that he must be a victim of the nineteenth-century view according to which the alternatives in the economic sphere have to be either socialism or capitalism. In that old-fashioned perspective, socialists were of course totally for socialism and liberals—using Case’s terminology—were all out for capitalism.

This simplistic view of economic alternatives was inadequate even in the nineteenth century and by now it is merely quaint. Among other things, it seems to force one into the belief that all economic problems and their solutions are to be found neatly contained in either of two file folders, one labeled “socialism,” the other “capitalism.” Like a dull file clerk, the adherent of this view will insist that every proposal belongs in one folder or the other; nothing is more subversive to these tidy minds than the thought that by 1971 almost nothing will any longer fit into either folder.

Case’s inability to conceive of a way of looking at the world that cannot be forced to fit his old-fashioned dichotomy compels him to posit a “liberal” position (whatever that could possibly mean in the realm of economic affairs in the last third of the twentieth century), force me into it, imagine a collection of assumptions and arguments I did not make, and then attack these with great energy.

The result of this Procrustean exercise on Case’s part is that I am simply unable to determine from his letter how much we actually differ on concrete matters. For example, I definitely do not accept the need for a “solution within the framework of the corporate system as it is,” nor favor maintaining giant enterprises intact, nor oppose “self-management…within a context of decentralized social ownership of industry.” Nor did my article imply these positions.

In the book from which the article was excerpted (and which, it appears, Case did not trouble himself to read), I argued that because a strong socialist tradition is absent in this country, “our debates about economic institutions nearly always leave some major alternatives—chiefly ‘socialist’ alternatives—unexplored. Not that socialism provides the answers. Socialists often do not even seem to put the right questions. But a socialist tradition helps to fill in some of the missing shades of the spectrum.”

I also argued that the transfer of the old ideology of private enterprise to the giant firm has produced a kind of optical illusion—a misperception, incidentally, that has much in common with Case’s and reflects much the same simplistic nineteenth-century style of thought. “Nothing,” I wrote, “could be less appropriate than to consider the giant firm a private enterprise. Whatever may be the optimal way of governing the great corporation, surely it is a delusion to consider it a private enterprise.” Finally, I argued that both socialists and antisocialists had been misled by the mythology of ownership, the result being, in both cases, support for bureaucratic domination of the large firm, in the one case by pseudo-“public” officials, in the other by pseudo-“private” officials.

What is needed to arrive at a social economy, where authority to make decisions would rest upon reasonable social criteria, is a careful reallocation of specific elements in the bundle of rights, privileges, powers and obligations that now comprise the government of the large firm. A reallocation that adequately protects all the persons affected by the decisions of an enterprise—whether workers, consumers, or a public affected by decisions on investment, plant location, waste disposal, and many other matters—simply cannot be deduced from the nineteenth-century ideologies. No better illustration can be found than the fact that socialists have always disagreed among themselves about the implications of socialism for the government of economic enterprises. Most have, in the end, come down on the side of centralized bureaucratic rule, while socialists who favored decentralized forms of “industrial democracy” have never agreed on the relative balance or the appropriate forms of internal and external controls.

Because the Grand Alternatives of the nineteenth century furnish so little guidance for governing a complex economy in the late twentieth century, it would be a pity if the discussion of the government of the corporation, which many of us would like to renew, were forced by eager Procrusteans like Case into a rigid framework that was already obsolete when it was advanced a century ago.

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