Democracy and the End of Metaphysics

Long I have desired to connect my interest in democracy and participatory politics, (i.e. unionism, syndicalism, anarchism etc…) with my interest in the work of Martin Heidegger. Heidegger’s philosophy is not explicitly democratic, and Martin’s actual political exploits leave much to be desired. Heidegger’s late position wasn’t so much conservative as anti-political, taking the stance that no current political thought was adequate the the situation of man gripped by the essence of technology.

This has always disappointed me about Heidegger – why is democracy so inadequate? Certainly in practice it has been inadequate – the climate crisis is evidence enough for that. If you want more evidence – wages have stagnated since the 70s, personal debt levels have skyrocketed, and reasonable economists are shut out of positions of power. But, there is something the idea of democracy which I think is worth saving – the idea that authority is in-itself part of the problem. Authority might just be, under capitalism, that which turns – in Heidegger’s words – humans are “en-framed” as “standing reserve“.

Enframing means the gathering together of that setting-upon which sets upon man, i.e., challenges him forth, to reveal the real, in the mode of ordering, as standing-reserve. Enframing means that way of revealing which holds sway in the essence of modern technology and which is itself nothing technological.

And then I read, in Richard Semler‘s book “Maverick“, this passage:

The era of using people as production tools is coming to an end. Participation is infinitely  more complex to practice than conventional corporate unilateralism. Just as democracy is much more cumbersome than dictatorship. But there will be few companies that can afford to ignore either of them.

Semler is talking about his firm, Semco, in the trials and tribulations of democratizing the company (and from the top down!). Semco treats its employees like adults, lets workers set their own production targets and organize their own workplaces. Semco does away with dress codes and mandatory working hours – but seeks solutions beyond changing the “culture” of the company (as would be subject to Heath and Potter’s critique in the Rebel Sell), and changes the institutional structure itself. Workers can fire their boses, unions are not disrespected or broken up, and the basic management principle is if you get out of someone’s way they can do a better job.

The success of Semco proves something essential: industrial democracy (which is in effect a form of syndicalism implemented in a different way) is possible within current market economies. Authoritarian managerial practices do not actually confer a competitive advantage. But then – why doesn’t capitalism in general move towards democratically organized firms, after all, isn’t that what J.S. Mill predicted in chapter 8 of the Principles of Political Economy (1848)? What this shows is actually consistent with what I think is the proper critique of the Rebel Sell (a review of that book is upcoming): that you can’t actually divide critiques of culture from critiques of institutions; culture reproduces institutions. Semler ran into many cultural barriers while trying to reform Semco, but being a maverick entrepreneur, he didn’t let the resistance get him down.  He stuck with some basic principles – treat people like adults, let them set their own goals, and if you can’t trust people why are they working for you (for this reason most policies can be discarded) – and followed them through to their logical conclusion.

Unionists, Anarchists and Syndicalists could all learn a lot from Richard Semler. In my view it’s essential that we recover the utopian dream of the left – but such a dream can today only be based on real world success stories. We need more industrial democracies which can outcompete authoritarian corporations on their own terms in order to imagine what a post-corporate world will look like.

Such a post-capitalist world is also post-metaphysical, inasmuch as it demands that we treat people as genuine sources of creativity, rather than as things to be put-to-work. The fact that people are more productive when not set in a structure which extracts work from them like a machine, does not mean that setting people to work out of their own interests, as free labour, is inherently en-framing. Rather, the quest for free-labour is the question to “frame” people in a manner appropriate to them, rather than setting them to work on the basis of external forces. The Heideggerien critique of late modernism is, in effect, not so different from the categorical imperative. From Heidegger’s lecture course “Basic Problems in Phenomenology“:

Kant says: “Now I maintain that man and every rational being in general exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means to be used arbitrarily by this or that will; instead in all his actions, whether they are addressed to himself or to other rational beings, he must always be considered at the same times as an end.” Man exists as an end in himself; he is never a means…..The moral person exists as its own end, it is itself an end.  (138)

Treating someone as an end means treating them as someone who has their own being as a moral being as the end of their actions. In other words, the end of the actions of a moral being are not the effects of the actions, but the rightness of the action itself, as manifested in the acting person – and being ethical towards others means treating people in a way that does not compromise this humanity. To say this in practical speak: it means you can’t put someone in a situation in which all their possible actions are immoral, because that is disregarding their essence as a moral being, in effect robbing them of their humanity. This is exactly what capitalism, in its normal authoritarian, oppressive forms, does. For instance, if you are a manager at RBC and you decided to divest from the tar-sands, which is clearly the right thing to do, you’ll be fired. The situation of this manager does not respect his or her humanity – but their does the situation of their supervisor who must do the firing! No, the institution in general produces forces and pressures on individuals which demand that they act either contrary to moral duty, or they are ejected. This is what it means for a corporation to be “Evil” in the popular, protest-sign kind of way.

We should take this condemnation of authoritarian corporate capitalism very seriously – and find in thinkers like Heidegger, but more importantly in Anarchists and democrats like Kropotkin, Chomsky, Semler and Michael Albert, the ideas around which a morally adequate society could be formed.


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