The Austin Chronicle

A Revolutionary Letter to Employers (continued)

November 24, 1995, Columns

by Michael Ventura

Well, dear Employer -

I'm not through with you yet. Don't believe The Wall Street Journal. Don't believe TV. Above all, don't believe your own eyes. They tell you that wage-earners are on the run; that unions are a thing of the past; and that the "free market" is free to make all the rules. They tell you that the transnational corporations have created a world economy in which wage-earners have to take what they're given and shut up; that the victory of corporate capitalism (the Corporate Web, as I call it) is final; and that no alternative can stand against it. But this is what they don't tell you:

There is a law of nature that applies to all systems. It can be observed in the history of countries, the history of biological species, and even the history of galaxies: At the moment of ultimate power, ultimate extension, one of two things happens - either the system or power begins to disperse, or it begins to contract. The cause may be disease in a species, or the force of gravity in a galaxy, but the law holds true no matter what system we observe. Either the massive extension of, say, an empire, puts such a strain on the center that it begins to crack from the inside out (as the Roman empire did, and as the United States appears to be doing), or the edges of a far-flung empire begin to coalesce into powers themselves, and soon become strong enough to break off and challenge the center. Or both - as happened to the British and Soviet empires, and as is happening to the West's economic dominance of the world. This also will happen to each mega-corporation, the Corporate Web that they form, and, more specifically, to you - especially in relation to us, the wage-earners.

Technology will not stop this process. If anything, it will speed it up. The same communications and computers that now make transnationals possible, also increase the powers of individuals and small groups. Commerce that depends on fluidity cannot long stymie that fluidity, however much it may want to rule its more unruly members. A system that depends on constant invention cannot put a cork on invention in order to retain control. If it tries, it begins to destroy itself from within; and if it doesn't try, its own inventions take on a life of their own and become too powerful to control. Either way, life - the living moment - is always ultimately stronger than those who try to control it for their own ends. There are no final victories. The unexpected always happens.

But people with a little power always try to extend that power, don't they? And, because of the innate fragility of power, people who seem to have it always try to control people who seem not to have it. It is precisely this ultimately futile attempt to control which causes such suffering on scales both small and huge. Yet even with all this frantic effort to avoid the unexpected, still the unexpected always happens, and the world of one decade changes into the always surprising world of the next. And it is always a world that all the experts, computer models, and futurists somehow failed to predict (for prediction is usually an unconscious attempt at control, to retain the status quo, but control is impossible and no status quo ever stays put). Each new decade proves again that nothing is fixed, no victory is final, and every possibility is alive.

But how does this apply to you and I, dear Employer? And to our relationship in the work-place?

Today the Corporate Web determines the value of labor. Even small businesses have profited from the job insecurity created by the transnationals. Stockholders, too, reap huge rewards when workers are forced to accept lower wages and fewer benefits. Employers get paychecks and equity, stockholders get dividends, while legions of wage-earners make barely enough to live on. Thus the stock market goes up and up, while real wages decline. That means we're working for something you're getting - that's how the game is fixed. And that is theft. (What else could you possibly call it?) Don't tell me that all employers do it - that just means there's a lot of theft. If you continue to make money this way, then you, I'm afraid, are a thief. So you mustn't be surprised if someday you're treated like a thief.

As for you stockholders, you're just letting somebody else do your thieving for you and taking a percentage. If the mobs are ever at your gates, don't act innocently.

You're thieves, yet you're not criminals. Rather, most of you have passively accepted participation in a massive crime - a criminal activity not only sanctioned but actually taught by every authority you've ever trusted. You don't want to see that, and you don't want to change, not because you're evil but because you're afraid. (Do you think you'd be so afraid if you really believed that this system was fair?) See, I don't care how nice you are, or what good works you do - if your equity is based on stealing somebody else's labor, then your affluence costs too much. I'm also not saying you're bad; you've used what was presented to you as best you could. I am saying that you haven't thought it through; and that this failure to think, to truly look at your economic practices - at how your money is actually produced - has consequences, terrible consequences, and the terror of those consequences may one day overwhelm you. This is why it is so important to think now.

Invention, investment, and labor - these are the three essentials in any business, any act of commerce. Justice, and the stability that justice generates, only requires that these three elements benefit equally.

Before we go on, it's important to dispense with the term "unskilled labor." That's just a device to divide the workforce against itself. Labor should be valued according to its necessity, not according to its skill. If cotton-pickers or busboys or cashiers are essential to your business, then they're essential, and that's that. Their essentialness, not their skills, must determine their value.

With all this in mind, let's consider a small business. In a small business, like a restaurant, the employer often is both the primary laborer, the inventor (inventing the concept, menu, etc.), and sometimes a partial investor. So, with justice, that employer still would retain a large measure of the profit and decision-making power, because the employer would participate in both the investor's, the inventor's, and the laborer's share. But, also with justice, other employees (after an agreed-upon time for learning their function and seeing whether y'all can work together) would be paid according to the necessity of their labor, would get that share of the profits and stock, and have an equitable power in deciding policy. Investors, too, would have the same benefits, according to the same division of power and value.

On this model, a larger business would be run like a federal republic. A workforce of 10,000, say, would elect representatives that would comprise one-third of the board of directors; the workforce would share one-third of the profits (over and above wages, which are an operating expense) - along with one-third for investors and stockholders, and one-third for inventors. All essential elements would be represented. Some people would be richer than others because some are more creative, some are luckier, some work harder. (Harder work should be rewarded with higher salaries.) But everyone would have a stake and a say, and, most importantly, nobody would be stealing anybody else's labor. For labor is time. And time is life. And that is too much to steal from anyone.

This would truly be free enterprise. No central control. Each enterprise competing in a truly free market. Private property respected. Private liberty essential for the flexibility of the system (an economic system that isn't flexible can't compete). Nobody owning anybody else. Nobody with ultimate power over anybody else. Everybody taking their chances in a fluid system that depends, ultimately, on every individual effort - a fact which would generate fair self-policing practices. (For instance, such a workforce could not afford shirkers, for a shirker would be stealing not from just "the boss" but from his or her fellow workers.) The ideal of the present system - that the people with the best ideas, and who work the hardest, reap the most rewards - would be retained. What would be added is: a just return for the investment of one's time. For time, I repeat, is only another word for life.

There's a way to live without stealing from each other - and without the frantic strategies of control that lead ultimately to disaster. There's a way to live in which the present is flexible enough to open organically to the future without such costly dislocations. There's a way to create a system that puts a check on its own power, so that it does not dare that law of nature which destroys the over-powerful to the cost of all. There's a way to live - risky as all existence must be, but fair - in which time and life are not wasted. There really is. n

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