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Workplace Democracy, Market Competition and Republican Self-Respect

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Abstract

Is it a requirement of justice to democratize private companies? This question has received renewed attention in the wake of the financial crisis, as part of a larger debate about the role of companies in society. In this article, we discuss three principled arguments for workplace democracy and show that these arguments fail to establish that all workplaces ought to be democratized. We do, however, argue that republican-minded workers must have a fair opportunity to work in a democratic company. Under current conditions, this means that a liberal order must actively promote workplace democracy.

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Notes

  1. This conception of private companies is well-established, but not without its critiques. For an overview of the debate on the “theory of the firm” see Garrouste/Saussier (2005).

  2. In order to avoid terminological confusion, it is important to distinguish ‘relations of authority’ from ‘authoritarian’ relations. The former marks a normative relation in which one entity has a right to issue commands to other entities that is (considered to be) legitimate (cf. Raz 1986). The latter term is used to describe illegitimate forms of subjection.

  3. For an overview of the recent debate see Hsieh (2008), Heath et al. (2010) Malleson (2014) and Landemore/Ferreras (2016).

  4. However, we will not further discuss how the fact that shares of companies are traded in financial markets influences the fact that those companies are controlled by capital and not by workers (cf. Dow 2003).

  5. For the main contributions to this older debate see Pateman (1970), Young (1979), Schwartz (1982), Walzer (1983), Dahl (1985) and Ellermann (1992).

  6. On this point see also Moriarty (2005, 2007), Hsieh (2008), Néron (2010) and Singer (2015).

  7. To be sure, this kind of strategic argument takes us only so far. In the nineteenth century, the case for workplace democracy was much stronger. Important public intellectuals like John Stuart Mill or Herbert Spencer argued for it and found quite some resonance. See for an assessment of Mill’s position Riley (1998) and for an assessment of Spencer’s position Werhane (2000).

  8. Hsieh (2005, 2008) argues that workplace republicanism is enough to deal with this problem. His concept of workplace republicanism is close to how we conceive of workplace constitutionalism. He also contemplates this notion. However, his argument is different from ours for two reasons. First, he thinks that exit options are never enough to be free from arbitrary interference, because they are costly. Here we agree with Singer (2015), who argues that it is a normative question to what extent exit-costs are acceptable or not. Second, Hsieh thinks that workplace republicanism is sufficient to free workers from arbitrary interference, while we think that sufficient exit options and sufficient mechanisms of constitutionalism have to come together.

  9. In an earlier version of the paper we made the very strong claim that it is impossible to do so. However future research will have to show whether this is true or not, as one reviewer has pointed out correctly. There already are additional arguments, which could be utilized for such an endeavor, as for instance provided by Martin O’Neill (2008). O’Neill argues on Rawlsian grounds that there might be a right to participation in economic decision-making. However, he is unsure himself whether it leads to workplace democracy or some weaker form of participation. For this reason he adds the more conditional argument that economic democracy might be important for preserving a stable and just basic structure if it enhances democratic character. Again, it is open to further discussion whether weaker forms of participation together with a more equal distribution of the means of production would be sufficient for this task.

  10. This is so, because undemocratic workplaces do not directly violate basic employee rights, as the previous discussion has shown. See Werhane (1985: 77-80) on the idea of employee rights.

  11. Although we focus on “Roman” republicanism in our argument, it can also be extended to “Athenian” republicanism and its emphasis on the importance of being an active member of a demos. However, from a liberal point of view, this cannot be a moral requirement, but has to be seen as a specific perspective on the good life (Pettit 2012: 12; Thomas 2017a: 7–9)

  12. Does this also mean that democratic companies need to have strong forms of direct democracy, as for instance Carol Pateman (1970: 82-84) has argued? This is not necessarily so, because there are different conceptions of republican democracy, some of them resting not on direct democracy, but on certain forms of public deliberation, as Jürgen Habermas (1998) has shown.

  13. On the difficulty of defining reasonableness see Nussbaum (2011).

  14. For an overview of the debates on economic democracy see Schweickart (2011, 2014) and O’Neill/Williamson (2014).

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Acknowledgements

We wish to thank the editors of Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, as well as the two anonymous reviewers, for their helpful and constructive feedback.

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Correspondence to Daniel Jacob.

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Daniel Jacob declares that he has no conflict of interest. Christian Neuhäuser, too, declares that he has no conflict of interest.

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Jacob, D., Neuhäuser, C. Workplace Democracy, Market Competition and Republican Self-Respect. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 21, 927–944 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-018-9935-1

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