Communitarian ideals in capitalist workplaces




I have been wondering whether the differences between the libertarian and the communitarian have become merely academic or are still substantive — and if the latter still offers a standpoint from which to interrogate capitalism critically. One of the reasons for my hesitation is that the communitarian seems complicit with the libertarian in perpetuating the inequalities of the system.

The differences between these two political views are usually set out this way. The libertarian is someone who believes that individuals should be free to determine what is good for them and that the state should remain neutral on the question of what the good life is for people. A liberal state is one that restricts itself to seeing that individuals are treated fairly and with equal respect. Individuals are agents. They are capable of making choices about what will best serve their interests.

For the libertarian, individual liberty makes life worthwhile. In her eyes, much of the good that has arisen in modern society can be explained by reference to the unfettered pursuit of individual self-interest. It has given rise to competition, innovation and social progress. As John Stuart Mill says in his work on political economy, it is what removed the rigidity of custom from the market and the unjust power of monopolies.

The communitarian usually faults the libertarian for not taking seriously enough the fact that the self is shaped in dialogue with “significant others” (as per George Herbert Mead) in society, such as one’s parents, friends, teachers and so on. For this implies that people find meaning contributing to society not, in the first instance at least, as self-interested individuals, but as members of particular communities.

The communitarian insists, in addition, that many of the ills of modern society can be cured by making society more rational. For thinkers such as Charles Taylor and Axel Honneth, economic exploitation, class domination or cultural chauvinism can be remedied by introducing forms of mutual recognition. This involves institutions where people can recognise one another as having dignity and respect. Gender and race discrimination, according to these authors, results from the lack or failure of such institutions.

The question is whether this kind of integration and inclusivity is sufficient, or even appropriate. Corporate capitalism has come to rely more and more on the tropes of the communitarian, but not for the purpose of establishing more equality and fairness in the workplace. It speaks about the common interest or the common good to stimulate productivity, to increase performance output and to generate profit.

This would not of itself be worrisome were it not for the fact that it has done irreversible damage to our belief in the goodness of integration and inclusivity. It has cast a veneer of cynicism and scepticism over it. After all, it is not possible to discount the abuse of a certain idea or pretend that it is of no significance. Its perverted use is not accidental to what it signifies. Its perversion is there from the start. This is, of course, not true only of the ideas of inclusivity and integration.

One of the more striking aspects about the corporate and professional sectors today concerns the organisation of the labour force. Individuals work in teams, and team leaders are encouraged by senior management to emphasise the significance of putting the interest of the team before their own. No one, of course, is fooled by this. Everyone knows that in promoting the interest of the team, employees are not promoting their interest as members of a social group or movement. They are pushing the corporate agenda.

This idea of group interest takes on a different meaning, however, once it is connected with the transformation of the workplace into a community to which one belongs and from which one is expected to draw one’s social identity.

Corporate capitalism has come to understand what the communitarian has been telling the libertarian for decades. This is that one finds deep satisfaction and meaning as a human being from belonging, from building a shared identity with others, and from working with others towards a common goal.

Everything in the contemporary workplace is designed to create just this impression, starting with the interior design of the office as an open plan space. It lets the sound of chatter and laughter circulate throughout the room, which produces a feel of openness and camaraderie, in stark contrast with the solemn mood and silence of the employee partitioned behind the wall of her cubicle in the 1990s (and earlier).

The same impression is created by the use of online and mobile social networking groups, which have become an essential part of the workspace. It puts employees in constant communication with one another beyond standard working hours. Constant team-building activities and socialisation also work toward disintegrating the differences between the personal and the public, work and leisure. In this way, one is made to feel not merely that one works for a company, but that one has come to be part of a community with common values and interests.

There is perhaps no better way to guarantee that people submit to the rules than by making sure that they feel included and integrated in the community that adheres to them. A workplace with a hierarchical structure visible to its employees — or one that has a marked distinction between an “us” and a “them”, with the “them” being better paid, doing less work, and so on — will be experienced as alienating. Such a company is likely not to thrive for long.

This is not to say that “management from above” has been erased in the contemporary workplace. Far from it. It is made to hide behind the so-called self-management of teams. This gives employees the vague impression that they have more freedom and responsibility than in the old-fashioned corporation where the chief executive (or senior staff) alone has executive power.

The truth is that this new arrangement puts the employee in a situation where her performance is being constantly audited by her team leader (or manager). The team leader reports on the work of the team. But management subjects the individual team member’s performance to a constant evaluation.

We can understand in this connection the language that management has recently introduced to handle “recalcitrant” employees, that is, employees whose performance is deemed not up to standard. It is no longer a punitive language, as in the age of the cubicle. It is a corrective one. It speaks of “development and training” and of “reskilling” personnel.

The significance of the open plan office is, from this perspective, more ambiguous than we initially thought. It signifies on the surface that there is an equality between workers in the workplace, or a friendliness and absence of hierarchy. After all, it makes possible the free circulation of people in the office. But it also makes possible constant surveillance and control; a constant evaluation of people’s performance and output.

This reveals a significant difference between the effects of exclusion and those of inclusion. It is sinister and violent to exclude people from their home, to preclude them from exercising their rights or to keep them suppressed on the margins of society. But such violence produces an expected response. It provokes resistance on the part of the oppressed or the marginalised.

The effects of inclusion are quite different. Inclusion is not violent, or at least it isn’t on the surface. It gives people a home, a hope, a chance of belonging or a sense of community; it gives individuals a social identity.

But this causes people to desire to conform and act in accordance with their identity. The effect of this is no less sinister and disastrous. It takes away something that is as vital to a human being as having a home. It takes away what makes us want to resist conformity, what makes us desire to not be a part or to stand apart. It suppresses the urgency to resist.

Rafael Winkler is a professor in the philosophy department at the University of Johannesburg and a research fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study

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Rafael Winkler
Rafael Winkler

Rafael Winkler is an associate professor in the philosophy department at the University of Johannesburg.

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