A Revolutionary Letter to Employers

by Michael Ventura

To begin with, dear Employers, you are not the bad guys. At least, most of you aren't -- though some of you give an awfully good imitation of it. I recognize that many of you get out of your beds feeling almost as tired as when you got into them, wondering whether you can cope with the day's problems, resentful of your numbing routine, and angry in advance at anything that threatens to add any more pressure to your stressed-out life. You can only tell whether you're winning or losing by counting your money, and even when it's a lot you often feel lost, wondering how life has slipped through your fingers and left only money in its place. You admit this rarely, even to yourself. You lose yourself in your enterprise, addicted to a fundamentally unsatisfying grind as to a drug -- and saying, every day, that you have no choice but to live as you live.

Then, like us, you die. Probably in a nursing home that your children hate to visit. You die as we do, in pain, terrified that you never really lived, and saying with your final breath, to anyone who still gives enough of a shit about you to listen, that you had no choice.

Which is always a lie. The fact that most people go to their God with the same lie on their lips, doesn't make it any less of a fib.

When I remember all this, dear Employer, it is hard to think of you as the bad guy. But then I remember that you do have a choice, and then... well, except for torturers, terrorists, and genocidists, I still don't believe much in bad guys or gals, but I do believe that many of you live by extracting an unfair advantage from what is, after all, the effort of all your employees. And I have to admit that this makes me very, very angry.

Before I go on, let me say that, like you, we wage earners have made choices, too. We screwed ourselves by the triviality of what we wanted and what we settled for. "You are what you settle for," one woman tells another in Thelma & Louise. That is the epitaph of many a love, many a life. Speaking strictly for myself, I'd rather be damned by God than by "You are what you settle for." But back to you....

This is the truth all of us are running from: There wouldn't be such fundamental conflict between employers and workers if the system was fair. If the American economic system was fair, you would not demand such passivity from your employees. If the system was fair, we could speak to you freely -- we wouldn't hesitate to express ourselves honestly to you about the job or anything else. If the system was fair, you wouldn't avoid being honest with us about how your profits compare with our wages. In fact, if the system was fair, you would have no secrets from us. If the system was fair, you wouldn't exclude us from the decision process. (If the decisions are for all our benefit, and not mainly for yours, why exclude us?) If the system was fair, we would not have to share most of the risk of your business failing, yet little beyond wages if it succeeds. If the system was fair, you would not need the authority you demand. Such authority is only necessary to keep an unbalanced system stable. Authority, in an unfair system, tries to do the job of balance. Which is why authority is always tenuous, and must constantly be exerted anew. For only fairness can do the job of balancing.

Authority, in a fair system, is based on knowledge, ability, and justice. It is only in an unjust system that authority needs the rigidity we find in most workplaces. It is only in an unjust system that a worker must be afraid to speak freely.

Let me emphasize that you may measure the injustice you profit from by how, in the workplace today, most workers are afraid to say what they think and feel, and with good reason. People who cannot speak freely are not free -- no matter what their Constitution says. You know that's true, dear Employer, so you know you're being unfair. And that, I'm afraid, is a choice.

I've been in many a meeting -- and in newspapers, no less, our organs of free speech! -- where the staff carefully gives the boss the illusion that they're speaking freely, because the boss demands that illusion; yet what they say in the meeting is usually nothing like what they say in private, because they're just as afraid as if they were busboys or domestics. So much for free speech. And if it's so problematic at a newspaper, what's it like in an industry, or on a conglomerate's farm?

How can we tend to this so that all concerned are treated fairly -- including you, dear Employer, because, believe it or not, I am as committed to your freedom as I am to mine. For if we're not committed to each other's freedom, then freedom is impossible. And for you to be free, you must be committed to my freedom as well. That is the only natural law of liberty.

Karl Marx (1818-1883) tried to address these issues. He was wrong about many things, but his greatest mistake ("greatest" because so many made the equal mistake of believing him) was to calculate that the value of a product consists of the labor that goes into it. On paper, that looks logical. But, as Tolstoy wrote, if we reduce life to logic, then life becomes impossible. (This, by the way, is what's wrong with all "bottom line" thinking.) It's logical to assume, as Marx did, that any product is created by labor; hence the amount of labor that goes into a product is what makes it valuable; hence the laborer is the measure of value; so that, finally, the laborer is the value, and should therefore own the means of production. It's logical but, especially in this age of technology, it's not real.

I'm going to say this often: Three elements are essential in any enterprise -- labor, invention, and investment. It's easy to claim, as Marxists do, that invention and investment consist of stored-up labor. Any invention builds on all previous human effort, and investment consists of the profits of previous labor. There are two problems with this analysis: It makes anything that is not "labor" an enemy; and it defines "change" as an effort to redress the past. But one has to start from where one is. We can make the present and the future more as we think it should be, but we can't make the past what it should have been. Nothing can change or compensate for the past. We must work from the present moment. We have nothing else to work with.

In the world as it is -- I'll say it again -- three forces determine commerce: labor, invention, and investment. Labor seems easiest to quantify (we quantify it by the hourly wage), but it's not. It makes no difference whether the labor needed is skilled or unskilled. Subtract labor from commerce, and invention and investment are useless.

Invention can't be quantified either. An invention can be the simplest thing, and take only a moment to think of -- it can be no more than the name and style of a restaurant; or it can be as sophisticated as a computer chip. But without invention, investment and labor have nothing to do.

As for investment -- the most creative invention, and the most dedicated labor, can't get far without investment. Everybody knows this, or money wouldn't have power.

It can't be overstated: none of these elements can function without the others. The formula for justice, then, is, in its broadest outline, simple: labor, invention, and investment deserve equal profit, equal freedom, equal decision-making power. To claim that investment is the only important element is as abstract, as unrealistic, as the "logic" of Karl Marx -- and yet this is the logic of your so-called "free market" system, a system in which investment gets the lion's share, invention gets a cut, and labor gets as little as possible. Like the logic of Karl Marx, the "free" market (in which no one can behave freely but people with money) creates social chaos. We must replace the so-called free market, not with the restrictions of socialism, but with truly free commerce -- true freedom alive in the workplace.

Without freedom in the workplace, there isn't much freedom anywhere else. Without freedom in the workplace, then from nine to five life is unjust -- and that's too many hours a day to tolerate injustice.

Investment, invention, and labor, have become antagonists when, in the way things actually work, they are allies. They have become antagonists because one element, investment, is allowed to buy dominance. If this dominance really worked -- if it was really dominant, rather than artificially dominant -- there wouldn't be such chaos in the streets, nor the need for such rigid authority in the workplace. We can say it's wrong morally, but who really knows about morality? What's obvious is that it's wrong practically. For if it were truly practical, wouldn't things be less chaotic? Would true practicality create this much anxiety and fear? And wouldn't the workplace be as free as the market? n

To be continued...

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