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Change the Workplace Order & the Social Order Will Follow

Written by Wanda Pasz Saturday, 28 January 2006

Does the workplace order hold the keys to changing our social order? Considering how much time we spend each day obeying and submitting to authority, the workplace may well be a center of programming and brainwashing that enables a bunch of autocrats to dominate our supposedly democratic society.

We live in a democratic society that has come to be dominated by a corporatist economic order. Not to be confused with the capitalist theories of a bygone era, corporatism isn't about opportunities for all to prosper (the capitalist myth). It's about the exploitation of the many by the few - with the witting and unwitting assistance of various institutions that are supposed to serve the people but don't.

While this is our current reality, we can change that reality if we really want to. I think that acknowledging this is a first and necessary step to changing anything.

But changing the way that things are seems so daunting. How to get people interested and involved in facilitating social change seems a question without any answer. Many activists will tell you that people seem so pre-occuppied with themselves. Things go from bad to worse for themselves and their communities but still they cling to some desperate hope of success in the corporatist paradigm. Either that or they're too busy or too skeptical or just plain apathetic.

How have we become so programmed, so brainwashed?

I have been thinking lately about the role that the workplace order plays in propping up the corporatist social order. It seems to me that the workplace order may be the key that enables the corporatists to keep us disempowered. My sense is that the corporatists workplace order is a key to maintaining the corporatist social order.

Change the workplace order and the social order will follow?

Think about the time you spend at work, the rules you obey, the power relations you submit to, the way that makes you feel in relation to your environment. The enemy's outposts are in our heads and our submission to the enemy is reinforced every day for several hours - and often several hours more when we get home.

The more that I think about it, the more I believe that what keeps us totally powerless is our acceptance of the workplace order.

Imagine a different kind of workplace order. One where there are no bosses, no heirarchies of authority, no rules that require us to subordinate ourselves to others or to take on "roles" that are demeaning and mind numbing. Envision a workplace order that is democratic instead of autocratic.

Why couldn't it be? At one time the idea of citizens' democracies was ridiculed as impossible, unnatural and a recipe for chaos and anarchy.

Now, that's not to say that a different kind of order - like workplace democracy - would be easy or something that we could all just fall into and everything would run smoothly.

Making collaborative relationships work can be very challenging. You have to learn a completely different way of relating to people in a work-oriented setting. It's so totally different from everything we've been taught is OK or desirable that it really takes a lot of effort at times. We've all been conditioned to believe that our individual interests are the only ones worth spending any time on. If it doesn't line your pockets or boost your sense of self-importance, forget it. So we've sort of programmed ourselves to be assholes when it comes to relating to others (unless they're agreeing with us).

Doing the collective thing really well means redirecting our focus and using skills that we haven't developed or used a lot.

Workplace democracy is a concept that I think might just strike a chord with enough people to build the momentum that's needed for a r_evolution in workplace relations.

Just what workplace democracy involves is the source of a lot of confusion. Some people understand it to be the same as "participative management" or "employee involvement" but that's really not it at all.

Workplace democracy is not about management consulting with workers or sharing information with them or allowing them to express their views about how a business should be run - it's a way, way different concept, a different paradigm that actually involves a different economic order.

Imagine a workplace where there is no "management" as we know it. The people who work there, own the enterprise and decide how it is to be run.

That involves everything: What work is to be done, how it is do be done, how success is measured (not necessarily in terms of dollars but based on other, or maybe even multiple "bottom lines" that may include obligations to the community, environment, etc.), how workers (or maybe "contributors") are compensated - you name it, everything.

The methods and processes involved in maintaining the enterprise (I'm using that term because it is likely that this will not be a "business" in the conventional sense of the word) may be completely different from the ones that we've been accustomed to. There are no master-servant relationships, jobs are not divided up into mind numbing tasks, there are no classifications and rigid work rules as we know them.

The bottom line is, the people who "own" the enterprise (and ownership may be based on a number of different things) make the decisions.

How do they make these decisions? Through democratic processes.

A lot of people will dismiss this notion as impossible but think about it: We run entire nations on these principles. Why couldn't a small, mid-size or even large organization operate this way? It could and I think that one day many will.

This I believe is what will usher in a new economic order. No more free market economics and "greed is good". No more profit maximizing as the sole objective.

Enterprises run on democratic principles will need to recognize their social responsibility. Why? Because the people who run them will want that.

It makes sense to me that the workplace is where the r_evolution would begin. Democratize the workplace and you change the economic order.

How will this happen? I imagine it happening incrementally. Through the growth of cooperative and not-for-profit enterprises and (at the same time) through the promotion of democratic principles in our current workplaces. This may start out with stuff like the "employee involvement" or "participative management" that we've all heard of but it may also include more aggressive, innovative activities that begin to erode our ingrained belief that "the way it is" is the "way it must always be."

The best way that I can sum it up is that you have to set aside all the "I/me" (I'm right, I'm important, I'm pissed off, I'm not getting enough respect/attention/recognition/money/ass kissing/etc., I don't have time, I'm worried about how it's going to look, I want, I need, I gotta have this before I do that, yadda, yadda) and focus totally on "we/our" goal. If the goal is important enough, you can get past the I/me shit. If it's not, then you won't or at least you'll have a hard time.

One of the reasons that many experiments with collectivism have failed is that the collectives drifted into heirarchy and managerialism when they ran into problems of the I/me kind. It's hard to resolve those and it's easier just to say, "Oh screw it. Let's just tell 'em how it's gonna be."

It's tempting and easy to fall into. Yet if we want to be free we have to stop mimicking the behaviours of the slave masters and begin behaving like free people.

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