Employers as Dictators, Part One

I find it fascinating how the social-democratic or reformist left fall all over themselves, insisting that they are fighting for fairness and justice–and yet neglect the persistent injustice of having to work for an employer. (The same could be said of many who consider themselves radicals these days).

Elizabeth Anderson, in her book Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk About It) questions the assumption of the social-democratic or reformist left by pointing out how the power of employers resembles the power of communist dictators (pages 37-39):

Communist Dictatorships in Our Midst


Imagine a government that assigns almost everyone a superior
whom they must obey. Although superiors give most inferiors a
routine to follow, there is no rule of law. Orders may be arbitrary
and can change at any time, without prior notice or opportunity
to appeal. Superiors are unaccountable to those they order
around. They are neither elected nor removable by their inferiors.
Inferiors have no right to complain in court about how they
are being treated, except in a few narrowly defined cases. They
also have no right to be consulted about the orders they are given.
There are multiple ranks in the society ruled by this government.
The content of the orders people receive varies, depending
on their rank. Higher- ranked individuals may be granted
considerable freedom in deciding how to carry out their orders,
and may issue some orders to some inferiors. The most highly
ranked individual takes no orders but issues many. The lowest-ranked
may have their bodily movements and speech minutely
regulated for most of the day.

This government does not recognize a personal or private
sphere of autonomy free from sanction. It may prescribe a dress
code and forbid certain hairstyles. Everyone lives under surveillance,
to ensure that they are complying with orders. Superiors
may snoop into inferiors’ e- mail and record their phone conversations.
Suspicionless searches of their bodies and personal
effects may be routine. They can be ordered to submit to medical
testing. The government may dictate the language spoken
and forbid communication in any other language. It may forbid
certain topics of discussion. People can be sanctioned for their
consensual sexual activity or for their choice of spouse or life
partner. They can be sanctioned for their political activity and
required to engage in political activity they do not agree with.
The economic system of the society run by this government
is communist. The government owns all the nonlabor means
of production in the society it governs. It organizes production
by means of central planning. The form of the government is
a dictatorship. In some cases, the dictator is appointed by an
oligarchy. In other cases, the dictator is self- appointed.
Although the control that this government exercises over
its members is pervasive, its sanctioning powers are limited. It
cannot execute or imprison anyone for violating orders. It can
demote people to lower ranks. The most common sanction is
exile. Individuals are also free to emigrate, although if they do,
there is usually no going back. Exile or emigration can have
severe collateral consequences. The vast majority have no realistic
option but to try to immigrate to another communist
dictatorship, although there are many to choose from. A few
manage to escape into anarchic hinterlands, or set up their own
dictatorships.

This government mostly secures compliance with carrots.
Because it controls all the income in the society, it pays more to people who follow orders particularly well and promotes them
to higher rank. Because it controls communication, it also has
a propaganda apparatus that often persuades many to support
the regime. This need not amount to brainwashing. In many
cases, people willingly support the regime and comply with
its orders because they identify with and profit from it. Others
support the regime because, although they are subordinate to
some superior, they get to exercise dominion over inferiors. It
should not be surprising that support for the regime for these
reasons tends to increase, the more highly ranked a person is.
Would people subject to such a government be free? I expect
that most people in the United States would think not.
Yet most work under just such a government: it is the modern
workplace, as it exists for most establishments in the United
States. The dictator is the chief executive officer (CEO), superiors
are managers, subordinates are workers. The oligarchy that
appoints the CEO exists for publicly owned corporations: it is
the board of directors. The punishment of exile is being fired.
The economic system of the modern workplace is communist,
because the government— that is, the establishment— owns all
the assets,1 and the top of the establishment hierarchy designs
the production plan, which subordinates execute. There are no
internal markets in the modern workplace. Indeed, the boundary
of the firm is defined as the point at which markets end and
authoritarian centralized planning and direction begin.2
Most workers in the United States are governed by communist
dictatorships in their work lives.

This parallel of the power of communist (or fascist) dictators and the power of employers to dictate to workers is simply neglected by social-democratic reformers. They ignore the issue altogether, minimize it or, when some try to bring up the issue, engage in insults. Their own conception of what is fair is so limited that they have little to say about the daily experiences of billions of workers worldwide.

They remind me of something which Karl Marx wrote long ago. From Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume 1: The Process of Production of Capital (page 91):

Perseus wore a magic cap so that the
monsters he hunted down might not see him. We draw the magic
cap down over our own eyes and ears so as to deny that there are
any monsters.


The social-democratic left seek to hide the reality of our own lives from us–lives characterized by dictatorship in various ways (with some freedoms, to be sure, such as limited freedom of speech–depending on where you are located on this planet and your status within that locality).

Let us listen to the social-democratic left for a moment as they characterize modern social relations and “draw the magic cap down over our eyes so as to deny that there are any monsters. As I wrote in another post:


As already mentioned, the left does not generally criticize management rights as such. Quite to the contrary. It uses rhetoric and euphemisms, such as “decent work,” “fair wages,” (Tracy McMaster), “a fair contract” (Wayne Dealy). It fails to criticize the pairing of the Fight for $15 with the concept of “fairness,” implying that fairness can be achieved within the employer-employee relation. It fails to criticize the rhetoric of “Fair Labour Laws Save Lives.” It fails to criticize the rhetoric of “economic justice” (John Cartwright).

At the Toronto Pearson airport (the largest in Canada, with between 40,000 and 50,000 employees), at the May Day rally, there was a banner being carried by some with the message: ‘Airport Workers Fighting for Decent Work.’ The banner also had the following: ‘$15/Fairness YYZ’ (YYZ is the airport code for Toronto Pearson International airport). If working for an employer is essentially working for a dictator, then the demand for decent work and fairness under such conditions is illogical. It is certainly necessary to fight for better working conditions and increases in wages and salaries, but better working conditions and an increased salary do not change the fundamentally dictatorial nature of employer power. To think otherwise–and the slogans express such thought–is to engage in delusions–which is hardly what the labour movement requires.

Organizations need to arise that express openly the reality of our lives so that we can begin to address the problems associated with that reality.

The Meaning of Being Hired, Fired and Laid Off

The following is a debate on Facebook I had with a pro-employer right-winger. The context was the closing down of the Oshawa GM auto factory (among others) in Ontario, Canada, the loss of around 3,000 direct jobs there and the possible loss of around 15,000 additional workers due to the spin-off losses of the suppliers of the factory.

I initially indicated that the 15,000 workers would be fired, not laid off. A right-winger named Jim Edgeworth argued that they were laid off rather than fired and referred to Brampton (Ontario, Canada) workers at Chrysler allegedly eight years ago as proof that the 15,000 workers would be laid off, not fired.

The issue is interesting in terms of what hiring, firing and laying off mean—something lost in most discussions about “jobs.”

I do not report the verbatim arguments of Jim Edgeworth; he deleted his arguments from Facebook.

Let us assume for the moment that that is true. Then all the more reason to eliminate a class of employers that must fire “over 15,000” since they cannot exploit them adequately (to say “laid off” assumes that that is temporary).

Of course, this person is not really concerned about the 15,000 fired. Rather, he is concerned about defending the interests of employers at any cost.

I then respond to Edgeworth’s reference to the Brampton workers at Chrysler:

Who defines what constitutes “laid off.” Are the Brampton workers still waiting around, expecting to be rehired? Or have they moved on to other employers? The person needs to provide facts to substantiate the view that workers have somehow being “laid off”–despite not working for the same worker for “eight years ago.”

I ignored Edgeworth’s attempt to insult me, and wrote:

This right-winger, evidently, is more concerned with his own egotistical nature than with addressing the problems and sufferings of real human beings–a characteristic of employers, who use human beings as means for their own end of obtaining more and more money.

Rather than indulging in the same kind of trite behavior, let us look at this so-called fact of being laid off or being fired. To be laid off or fired, it is first necessary to be hired. What does it mean to be hired by Chrysler at Brampton?

To be hired requires that the workers themselves lack economic independence–the means by which they can realize their act of working belong to others–to a minority called employers. At a brewery, for example, the soaker, filler and labeler are owned by the brewery employer and not by the workers who use the soaker, filler or labeler (and not by those workers who produced the soaker, filler and labeler).

If workers were economically independent, they would be able to sell the commodities that they produced than their own capacity or ability to work.

Workers in a society characterized by production mainly for exchange need money in order to obtain the means necessary for them to live (means of consumption). They then sell their capacity to work as a commodity (a thing to be exchanged and used by another) for money, and then they buy other commodities necessary to live.

To obtain the money necessary to live, they must sell their capacity to labour to the owners of the means of production (call such means MP). We can then show the process of hiring, from the point of view of the employer, as M-C (=L), where M represents the money of the employer, – or a dash represents an exchange, C represents a commodity and L represents the specific commodity sold by the worker, labour power or the capacity to work or use the means of production (MP).

Of course, L (labour power or the capacity to work by using the means of production) is bought only in order to oblige the workers to use the means of production (MP) owned by employers, and the means of production (MP) is generally must be purchased before labour power (L) since the employer only has temporary power to use of labour power (L) and cannot own L outright (unlike the means of production, MP).

The initial exchange of the employer is then divided into two parts: M-C(L) and M-C (MP), or M-C(=L+MP).

We now have sufficient information to understand what being fired and what being laid off mean. One of the major functions of money in a capitalist society is to unite workers (L) and means of production (MP)–because capitalist property relations ensure that workers and the conditions of their living are separated into two opposed classes.

When workers are laid off, they are temporarily separated from the means of production (MP), with the real possibility of being united with them again with the same employer (of course, the nature of the means of production may change due to technological change). Being laid off is a temporary severance of the relationship between the workers and the means of production, on the one hand, and the particular employer on the other.

It should be noted that it is the employer who makes a decision to lay off and not the workers.

Workers who are fired have the relationship between them and the means of production, on the one hand, and a particular employer on the other, permanently broken or severed.

In a capitalist society, workers do not have to legally work for a particular employer; they are not full-time slaves. As a class, of course, they do have to work for the class of employers as long a capitalism persists–otherwise, capitalism could not continue to exist.

Now, this right-winger claims that workers who have not worked for eight years for Chrysler in Brampton are laid off because they have the right of recall (according to a collective agreement, undoubtedly, since workers do not have the right to recall otherwise).

Practically, these workers have had to look for other employment (or received income from government assistance–or starved). How else would they continue to live? The right of recall hardly takes precedence over the need to live. The right of recall after eight years of time, practically, results in being fired (severed permanently from using the means of production and having a real relation to the employer by being exploited by the employer).

But since the right-winger does not specify where he obtains his information concerning the right of recall, let us take a look at the collective agreement between Oakley subassembly Windsor ULC Brampton plant and Unifor Local 1825 (October 4, 2013-October 3, 2016). On page 16, clause 12.03, it says the following:

“Seniority will be lost and an employee will be terminated if an employee: …
“(c) is laid off and not recalled for a period of eighteen (18) months or for a period of time equal to the employee’s accumulated seniority at date of layoff, whichever is greater, with a maximum of thirty six (36) months”

The right-winger, of course, does not really care whether the workers eight years ago were fired or laid off–nor with understanding the difference between them nor with understanding the kind of society in which we live. He is a superficial mouthpiece of employers and, like employers, he has used the workers at Brampton to serve his own egotistical ends.

By the way, the left share similar beliefs to this right-winger–despite their opposition toward each other. Both he and the left believe in the necessity of employers. He considers anything employers as a class do as good whereas the left believe in the humanization of the employer-employee relation. Why else would the left talk about “decent work,” “fair wages,” (expressed by, for example, Tracy McMaster, president of Greater Toronto Area Council, to which are affiliated 35 local unions of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU)), “economic justice,” (expressed by John Cartwright, president, Toronto & York Region Labour Council), “fairness” (as in the expression “Fight for $15 and Fairness,” a grassroots and union movement in Ontario), and Fair Labour Laws (as posted on the JFAAP website but copied from a union (Jane and Finch Action Against Poverty, a grassroots organization in one of poorer and racialized areas of Toronto)? All in the context of a society characterized by the use of human beings as means for the private sector employers to obtain more and more money (and public sector employers to use workers as means for purposes not defined by them but by senior management).

Such is the nature of the right and the social-reformist left.

Should we workers not understand better what it means to be hired, fired and laid off in order to grasp better the nature of our lives? Does the social-reformist left provide us with the tools necessary to understand our own experiences? Do they themselves bother in providing us with an understanding of our own experiences in this world? If not, why not? And if not, does that not demonstrate both a lack of democracy among the social-reformist left?

Does not the social-reformist left not have contempt for the regular worker when they remain silent about the meaning of the social structures which workers experience on a regular basis as a class?