By Ruth Lorimer
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Do we need bosses?

This article is over 10 years, 10 months old
Ruth Lorimer argues that we could run society without the need for bosses
Issue 356

Many workers believe that bosses are necessary, but if you ask if their own boss is necessary, they say they could run things better themselves.

The boss is often the person who knows least about the running of a workplace. Factory workers, teachers, nurses and so on know far more about the day to day problems in their workplace, as they experience them first hand. It’s true that in any big workplace there are highly skilled jobs that need to be done and someone has to coordinate the different areas of work. But the boss doesn’t do this – technical specialists are hired to do such jobs.

The only function of the bosses is to own and control our workplaces, and to maximise their profits they must employ a whole hierarchy of managers and supervisors who cajole or bully people into working longer and harder. It is the managers who are one rung up the ladder from us that we usually blame for the daily humiliation and stress of our work. They are usually well bribed to keep us in line. But the real winner is the boss at the top, who doesn’t do any work but simply invests his money and creams off the profits.

Many people would agree that these fat cat executives play no useful role in society. But they would still argue that we need managers to motivate people to work.

This is based on the experience of work under capitalism. As we have no control over our work we become alienated from it. Most of us carry out menial, boring, repetitive tasks for long hours and low pay. Very few people have a job that they find fulfilling, so we live for the weekends (if you still have them, that is). At work our energy is sapped, our creativity is stifled and our aspirations shrink. Given this, it’s no surprise that managers are needed to crack the whip.

But even in these conditions people find time and energy to devote to activities outside work. Think of the enthusiasm people have for cooking, gardening or music. What the most diverse hobbies and interests have in common is that people have control over them, so they put the effort in.

The experiences of workers throughout history who have taken over from the bosses show us that if we ran society democratically we could transform work into something that is no longer alienating but fulfilling, and in doing so transform ourselves.

In the Russian Revolution of 1917 workers elected soviets (councils) to organise the revolution against the tsar, and factory committees took over from the bosses in workplaces. They kicked out the bosses – sometimes into nearby canals – and began to oversee the day to day running of the factories. They reduced the working day to eight hours, and in some factories they organised child care and food distribution. The soviets began to decide what to produce based on what society needed.

Because the workers had a democratic say in how they worked, what they produced and how it was distributed, work became meaningful. By putting workers in charge, pointless tasks could be eliminated and problems solved collectively. As people were accountable to their colleagues there was an incentive to work hard and do a good job, rather than get away with the minimum. Above all, the purpose of work was to benefit all, not just to generate profits for the bosses.

This process was reversed in the 1920s, but in the last century workers’ control has appeared many more times. So, for example, after the overthrow of the dictatorships in Portugal in 1974 and Iran in 1979 workers took over their factories. In Iran there were committees for sales, pricing, wages, health and safety, financial affairs and the specific demands of women workers.

More recently in Egypt during the protests in Tahrir Square, ordinary people organised themselves to provide food, water, street cleaning and security, as “normal” life ground to a halt. In doing so, people got a glimpse of their own ability to run society and found the confidence to kick out Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship and demand real democracy.

It is clear that the current bosses are incapable of running the world without causing financial and environmental disaster, war and poverty. Every time ordinary people challenge the bosses – for a pay rise or against the decline of working conditions – we raise our own self-confidence to challenge the whole system and run society for ourselves.

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