Most American adults spend a good chunk of their time under the dictatorial control of an autocrat. No, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. The autocrat I’m referring to is the one they call “boss”. As much as we claim that we love democracy and freedom, most of us live without it for at least 8 hours a day — in exchange we get a paycheck.
When we cross the workplace threshold, we enter into a decidedly undemocratic space where we’re basically subjects—told what to do and when to do it. Living within this paradigm is normal. Some even see it as the correct way to order a society, but it wasn’t always this way. Not that long ago, relying on a paycheck was considered disgraceful.
Abraham Lincoln advised that one should not rent oneself out for a wage; he compared this working arrangement to slavery. A century ago, most people in this country worked for themselves or their families in their homes as artisans or craftsmen or in small shops or family-owned farms. But not long after the American Civil War, things began to change.
In a piece entitled, “A Sad Evolution Into Wage Slavery” Dan Lacey wrote,
“the transition to an industrial wage-working society was one that was, for many American families in the latter half of the 19th Century, a time of devastating economic and emotional defeat. A decision to abandon economic independence and the chance to acquire capital by taking a paycheck job brought great shame. It was an inherent admission of personal failure. The paycheck-based work arrangements Americans today fight to keep were abhorrent to most of our forebears.”
It appears that what our forefathers once shunned we now consider aspirational. So how has this shift in perception impacted our society? Has it affected our collective sense of agency?
In his analysis of the post Revolutionary War population of the United States, historian David Ramsay noted a power shift immediately after the war. People who were once British subjects became American citizens—a subject, he noted, is under the power of another; but a citizen is a unit of a mass of free people, who, collectively, possess sovereignty. That spirit of sovereignty was sustained well into this country’s first hundred years but the national sentiment began to change with the ushering in of the industrial age.
So today, earning a wage and relying on a paycheck is not an embarrassment—in fact, it’s often coveted. And this business of being a subject as opposed to a citizen seems to have taken root. Civic engagement in the United States is among the lowest in the civilized world. What else can explain this nation’s acceptance of the increasingly autocratic antics that get tweeted about daily from this White House.
We generally applaud the technological advances introduced during the Industrial Revolution. Rarely do we explore the unintentional negative social, environmental, and political consequences that flowed from it but one of the often ignored issues is that we became accustomed to not being our own boss. We seem to have lost a degree of agency.
Today, we take it as a given that employees will have little to no input into the decision-making processes that impact their workplace and ultimately their lives. We’re fine adhering to the dictates of a boss—one that could be “earning” 875 times more than the average worker. We’ve sat by while the manufacturing sector of this nation has been pretty much decimated. We’ve allowed the collective bargaining power of both public and private labor to be chipped away so that defined pensions are almost a thing of the past. The subjects of these corporations have had their lives turned upside down while we’ve created a social order that makes it possible for one man who does nothing useful to amass a fortune while teachers across this nation rely on food banks to make ends meet and others who work full-time are still homeless.
We’ve become so accustomed to living in a society where deep pocketed corporate masters control so much of our lives, including our politicians that we behave as if we are their subjects.
So what can we do? How can we learn more about taking the reins of our lives? How do we return to that spirit of sovereignty that existed for the first half of this nation’s existence?
On April 23, LA Progressive, Democracy@Work, and Occidental College will provide an opportunity for you to sit down with thought-provoking economist Richard Wolff—author of, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism, as he discusses the divisive crisis of capitalism under President Donald Trump and then outlines better solutions.
Aside from Democracy at Work, Richard D. Wolff is the author of several other books, including Occupy the Economy: Challenging Capitalism, and Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do About It.
For information and tickets for Richard Wolff’s talk, go here: Richard Wolff: Trump, Capitalism’s Crisis, and a New Way Forward
Publisher, LA Progressive