Choose your dictator: A thought experiment on workplace democracy

Imagine that in our world each country is run as a dictatorship. In the country you live, just like all others, you have no say in what happens and you must do what the dictator asks of you. In some countries, the dictator treats you well, others not so well.

Unlike how dictatorships are commonly known, you may leave the country you live in and apply for citizenship in another country where you believe you will be treated better. Regarding the dictator, refusal to do what the dictator commands, or if simply the dictator pefers you not live there, results in being exiled from the country. You are not guaranteed to have your citizenship accepted in other countries. In those circumstances, you may reside in abandoned countries that have no dictator, but the land is deprived of so many natural resources the quality of life there is one of abject poverty. Survival in those countries typically depends on charity from citizens in the other countries. However, this usually covers the bare minimum for survival and sometimes not even that.

You happen to live in a country where the dictator treats you and your fellow citizens well. He even listens to your complaints and typically will respond to them fairly. Furthermore, he will only exile you if you commited a crime or repeatly acted in a way that was against his wishes. He also never exiles people on voicing criticism against him. However, he always has the final say. The degree of input you have is completely dependant on what he allows you to have.

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There are two questions to be asked from this thought experiment:

1: Would you consider the situation you are in a democratic one?

2: Would you consider yourself free in this situation?

The answer to question 1 seems to be, almost by definition, no. There is no way where you have a vote on what goes on in any of the countries. And the fact that you can leave and choose another country also seems irrelevant to whether the world is democratic. All that demostrates is that you have the ability to choose which dictatorship you wish you live under.

This point is also relevant on the question of freedom. A thought experiment by Phillip Pettit called ‘Nora’ addresses a similar issue. In his thought experiment, Nora is in a relationship where her husband holds all power over her, but nonetheless allows her to do as she wishes. The conclusion Pettit wishes for us to draw from this thought experiment is although Nora is never interfered with, she is nonetheless still not free. The reason she is not free, according to Pettit, is because her ability to do as she wishes is entirely dependant on the whims of her husband.

One could say this is disanalogous with my thought experiment because unlike Nora, we can leave this relationship for another one. Or none at all. However, in Nora’s time men held all of the political, economic and social power. Hence, she would either need to enter another relationship where the same issue remains or subject herself to serious disadvantage, a disadvantage not so disimilar to choosing to live in one of the abandoned countries in my thought experiment.

Now let’s consider the relationship of an employee in the workplace. In most workplaces in many countries, you must do what is required of you from the owner of the workplace. Some owners will be fair and reasonable in what they require of you, but others will not. You are free to leave that workplace and apply to work at another one, but getting work somewhere else would likely be the same relationship and it is not guaranteed to be employed somewhere else. If you cannot or do not wish to work for someone, you can remain unemployed. However, this would require you to live on welfare or food stamps, which places your standard of living at the bare minimum. Hence, the choice to be unemployed puts one in a serious disadvantage.

This is why the relationship between an employee and an owner is not a democracy and the worker cannot be considered really free in the workplace. To say they are free either because they are allowed to leave. Or to say they are free because the particular owner allows them some degree of choice in their work would be like saying that the citizen is free because they can go to another country. And to say they are free in cases where the employer allows them freedom at work would be like saying Nora is free in her relationship.

To be clear, this thought experiment is designed only to argue that there is no democracy in the workplace. This not to be hyperbolic, but to be accurate on the nature of the relationship between the owner and the worker. This thought experiment also does not address whether democracy ought to be in the workplace, merely that it does not exist there. A Marxist economist who argues this in more detail is Professor Richard D. Wolff, who argues for making worker cooperatives a more common form of business practice. Worker cooperatives, according to Wolff, are when businesses are collectively owned by all of the workers and each has a vote on how the business is run. If you are interested in this method of resolving the issue of the lack of democracy in the workplace, then I recommend his book ‘Democracy at work’ which is in the link below.

Published by

Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I also have an honours degree in Philosophy. I am currently studying for my PhD in Philosophy.

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