A recent news item reporting that a man was fired for liking My Little Pony is an unwelcome reminder of the kinds of arbitrary power that exist in the modern workplace. It is not hard to find other, confirmed examples of people losing their jobs for absurd, or at least unjustifiable, reasons – like sexual orientation, choice of desktop image, for being too sexually attractive, or not being attractive enough. In fact, we might recall from a piece The Current Moment editor, Alex Gourevitch, wrote with Chris Bertram and Corey Robin, that there is a long list of ways employers can coerce and dominate their workers.
We might get the impression from these lists that there are some irresponsible people out there who misuse their power. But these are not just aberrations, departures from the generally prudential and fair government of the workplace. Nor is the special wrong here just that some employers use their prerogatives to impose their irrelevant, personal morality on others. That is, indeed, a bad thing, but not the most important bad thing.
The worst thing about the workplace is not the power-tripping employer per se, but rather the rational element to these otherwise irrational exercises of power. That rational element has to do with how employers make money. They do so by taking advantage of the inferior bargaining position of workers. In exchange for whatever concessions they can win in the labor contract, workers give up control over their activity for the duration of that contract. All employers, at least those trying to make a profit, are acting rationally when they seek as much discretionary power as they can, because it is that power over the activity of the worker that is the key to their profit-making. The harder the worker works, the more effort the employer can extract from the worker in exchange for a given wage, the more profits the employer makes. In these conditions, it is in some sense rational for employers to demand conformity to their will even in areas that have little to do with the core economic purpose of their business. It is rational for them even if, like David Brent, the character that Ricky Gervais made famous in The Office, they do not want to exercise arbitrary authority, even if they just want to be the loved and benevolent boss.
Much as it might be comforting to distinguish between benevolent, rational employers and malevolent, despotic ones, it is worth remembering that this isn’t just a matter of the mindless accumulation and exercise of power. Without the inequality of power between employees and employers, an economic system based on making profits off the work of wage-laborers would not reproduce itself. The arbitrary element to workplace relations is not just some extraneous feature of the system, it is part of the logic of that system itself.