Themes of Work, Power, and Freedom

work at clocksThis article is an attempt to look at both capitalism and cooperative socialism in relation to the themes of freedom, power, and community. This article is not the normal type of literature which comes out of the modern socialist movement. It does represent how I think on these issues however. Further more I think that perhaps Christianity is also to a certain degree concerned about issues of freedom, power, and community. If I am correct in this then the discussion of these themes might be one way to think about the relationship between socialism and Christianity.
Note. I have spent most of my adult life working  in the human services branch of county government. Certainly many of the generalization that I make are based on my own experience in government and on my observations of the experience of those  around me. I have always been a line staff person and never in management. My current income is what I would call middle middle class. Therefore I suspect the situation of a majority of workers in relationship to power, freedom, and community is similar to mine.  However I am also aware that many higher status, professional workers often see themselves as in some sense privileged and may think that my analyses is skewed. What can I say? My thoughts are based on what I experience and on the best of my understanding.
Themes of freedom, power, and community
Most Americans believe that we live in a “free” society. The United States is the land of the “free.” “Freedom” is one of the most important words in this nation’s political lexicon and most Americans take pride in the fact that America is a “free” society. I want to start out by examining this idea of American freedom. First I want to state that I believe that the American idea of freedom is not in fact a delusional concept. It is real. Traditional American concepts of freedom, ideas that have to do with ideas of limited, representative government,  traditional ideas of freedom of religion, democracy, the freedom to peaceably assemble, and freedom from arbitrary state power are all valid concepts. They all have a certain degree of reality within the context of American society. They are not fictitious concepts. Americans have a right to feel pride in these freedoms.
While these freedoms are real, it is also a reality that there are aspects of American life which are lived in the antithesis of “freedom.” This realm of life centers primarily within the economic sphere of work and workplace. It is characterized more by freedom’s opposites, unfreedom, servitude, and submission. To initiate  discussion of this realm I will  start  by suggesting some definitions of “freedom.” This is  not easily done because freedom is generally not defined precisely by most people. However in spite of this, we can make some generalizations. Most people define freedom in primarily negative terms. Freedom is experienced as the lack of arbitrary oppressive restraints and limitations to one’s actions. Thus in America freedom is defined by the relative absence of governmental restraints on life, liberty, the use of property,etc. Often in the  conservative political lexicon, freedom is simply identified as an absence of governmental power or interference in one’s life.
However lets attempt to define freedom positively. One definition is that freedom is the ability of people and individuals to do what they want to do independent of institutional controls. Again in the American context the primary limitations of this freedom are normally seen as coming from government, the power of arbitrary religion, or  cultural limitations such as racism or sexism. What is intrinsically interesting about this is that the structure of the economic system or the  structures of individual companies and corporations are very seldom viewed as in any way limitations on the freedom of the individual worker or of people. In fact even within the political Left, economic oppression is normally seen as being only about the unequal distribution of economic resources. Left liberal analysis or even socialist analysis seldom questions the unjust and dictatorial structure both of the workplace and of economic institutions.
Yet this is what must be done. The real limitations of freedom in the modern world of advanced capitalism in fact comes not from the governmental realm but instead from the very nature of capitalist society itself. To initiate an analysis of the unfreedom that is built into the workplaces and economic institutions of capitalism one must first deal with the issue of “power.” Freedom can not be defined adequately in separation from the concept of power. The freedom to act in a certain way, the freedom to do as one desires only exists if one has the power or authority to do those things. If the  power or authority that another has over you prevents you  from doing what you want to do in the way in which you want to do it  then you are not free at least not in that immediate social context.
The capitalist work place of course is a system of structured power relationships in which the majority of workers in fact have little power over either the immediate workplace and certainly none over the over all direction of the firms and businesses which “employ” them. They do not make decisions either collectively or individually regarding the workplace or regarding the overall economic direction of the firms which employ them.
Thus in their lifes as workers they are not free. To characterize the situation further. Except for those born to wealth all people within capitalist societies must sell their labor to either the state, non profit organizations, or  more commonly capitalist firms in order to live. For the vast majority of people no real alternative to working for a weekly paycheck  exists. During the work day, often eight to ten hours, one is not free in any meaningful sense. One’s status is one of subordination to the economic firm to whom one is employed. One lives at the beck and call of one’s supervisor, boss, the production schedule, etc. The rules of the work environment is controlled by a corporate hierarchy which generally views its employees as an expendable resource, as a factor of production.
All of this of course explains many aspects of American life and particularly how Americans define freedom. Freedom in the American context is always about how one spends one’s “leisure” time. It is about the power of the consumer; it is about the beautiful automobile that symbolizes one’s freedom. It is about the golden years of secure retirement which is freedom; it is about one’s freedom as a consumer ala Milton Friedman. It is about one’s clothing styles, one’s sexual life style; i.e. it is about every thing except work.
Furthermore, freedom is almost always  defined as an individual good and not  communally. It has little to do with community. Now lets look at the issue of community within the context of American capitalist society. It is often stated, I believe correctly, that community has declined as an aspect of life within this society. What does this mean? What is this “community” which has declined.? There seems to be two primary ways of defining community. One form of community is what can be called organic or traditional community. By this I mean the traditional  hunting and gathering, horticultural, or agrarian village communities in which the vast majorities of human beings have lived through most of human history. These small scale traditional communities in which ties of kinship, common religious values, cultural ties, common political and economic activities united people in a deep net of relationships,.this form of community  scarcely exists within the United States any longer. The closest this nation has to this sort of community are the old ethnic working class communities of past generations.
However the increasing suburbanization and corporate individualization of people is increasingly erasing this sort of community from American life. What then functions as community for Americans? Church and organized religion? Religion is one of the strongest sources of “intentional” community in America. However since most church members share little of their lifes together either by ways of kinship, or in common economic or political activities; the actual communal bonds created by modern American religion are in general rather weak. The other great source of communal bonds are the friendships and relationships that Americans experience which come from out of the workplace. This is true in spite of all that has been said previously about the oppressive nature of the capitalist workplace. It is true because in spite of its oppressive aspects
the workplace is still the place in which most people spend the greatest amount to their waking lifes. Therefore one would expect the workplace to be the source of many of the most important human communal relationships. In fact the work place in many ways is the modern equivalent of the tradition village in which the common work and shared life of the villagers was the norm.
Unfortunately the positive potential of the workplace as the basis of modern community has been severely compromised by its unfree nature and its hierarchical dictatorial structure. This is why for instance are there so few television shows such as “The Office” in which the life of work is shown as a dominating aspect of social life. The reason as is portrayed in “The Office” is that  generally the work place is not experienced by  workers as a place of freedom or as a place in which to express one’s creativity through work. Thus “The Office” wonderfully shows both the beautiful potential and the down side of normal work life. It shows the community that the work life creates and also the arbitrary problematic forces that work again it. Interestingly the character Michael Scott  the boss of the office is both the hero who always strives to create community within the workplace setting which simultaneously his arbitrary and often bizare actions undercut it.
To summarize, Cooperativism wishes to destroy the dictatorship of capitalist control of the workplace. It seeks to end capitalist power and replace it with worker control over the economic institutions of society. The purpose of work within a Cooperativist society will be not just to receive a bi weekly paycheck. It will also be about the expression of one ability to make decisions, to express one’s power and creativity through one’s work. The surplus value of the cooperative firms of a Socialist society will accrue to the worker owners by adding to  the firms capital base. Finally because the workplace will be experienced as being a place of freedom and self determination it will also be experienced as one of community.

Glenn King