The unfinished American project: Democratizing work

March 3, 2019

At the dawn of the American republic, most people worked on farms. Census data for 1790 didn’t include occupation. But it is estimated that 90 percent of those living in the United States were farmers. America was known in Europe for having a large middle class made up primarily of “yeoman” farmers, that is, small farmers owning their own land.

A form of political democracy had come to the newly independent country. It didn’t include women, slaves, Native Americans or the propertyless. But the right to vote has by fits and starts expanded as property requirements were dropped, slaves were freed and given the vote (only to have it wrested away later), women were enfranchised, and finally voting rights legislation brought down barriers to ballot access for African-Americans. (New challenges to those rights have arisen with the striking down of portions of the Voting Rights Act by the U.S. Supreme Court.)

Still, universal suffrage seems closer than ever (even if voter turnout in presidential years has been in the 50 to 60 percent range since 1918).

However, with the dawn of industrialization, democracy in work went into reverse. What’s important here is that most people know little or nothing of this history or cannot conceive of it in terms of loss of liberty. They simply accept the arrangements in their jobs as somehow ordained in a nominally democratic society, as how work must necessarily be organized.

But let’s return to that history in order to understand where we are today and why that understanding is important in a world facing political upheaval and resource and climate constraints.

The owner of a small farm—even if the work was strenuous—directed his or her own work. He or she was the master of a small enterprise.

The industrial revolution in America brought millions from the farm into the factories. The model for running such vast enterprises—which required increasing division of labor—was the military. The property laws and the structure of capitalism favored the concentration of industrial capital into the hands of a few. The owners either directly or through industrial lieutenants controlled the work of the employees and had absolute power over their wages, working conditions, and job security—a giant step backward for democracy in work.

By the beginning of the 20th century, of the 29 million Americans working, only about a third worked in agriculture and only half of those owned their own farms according to the 1900 census. The latest census by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows a little over 3 million people engaged in agriculture. That’s less than 1 percent of the total population. And, not all of those are owners.

About 15 million people were estimated to be self-employed in both incorporated and unincorporated businesses as of 2017. That’s about 10 percent of the workforce.

But how can a society as complex as ours organize itself around work in which people have more say? There are obvious solutions such as creating cooperatives. These were a rising form of economic democracy in the late 19th century and remnants exist today in the form of farmers’ cooperatives, food cooperatives (groceries), and credit unions.

There are other ways to empower people economically besides ownership of an enterprise. One is to empower them as buyers through a buying cooperative. Perhaps the most notable form of a buying cooperative today is government-negotiated prices for medical care and drugs in countries that have socialized medicine. Drug prices are vastly lower outside the United States, and medical care costs considerably less overall.

One might expect the quality of care to be lower as well. But the opposite is true. The United States spends twice as much and gets worse results. In fact, the World Health Organization ranks the United States as 37th in overall efficiency behind number one, France, and number 30, Canada (both of which have socialized systems).

Perhaps one of the most profound democratizing tools for work doesn’t seem like it is work-related at all: a universal basic income. Such proposals are popping up everywhere on both the right and left of the political spectrum as a solution to problems such as poverty and loss of employment because of automation.

What is less talked about is the power it gives to average people (assuming the income is sufficient to obtain basic nutrition, housing, transportation, and clothing). No longer would people be forced to take grueling jobs (sometimes more than one) with dangerous working conditions and poor pay.

There is a lot of disparagement of a universal basic income as a policy that will devalue work and lead to widespread indolence. I would counter that it is employers who devalue work by making it so inhumane and poorly rewarding. But that problem might gradually go away as employers compete for employees based on much better working conditions. People seeking to supplement their basic incomes will choose first those places that offer more pleasant working conditions. Employers may not even have to raise pay since the basic needs of all people will be met. But employers will almost surely have to improve working conditions.

The other effect of a universal basic income will be to empower people with ideas but little money: inventors, business and social entrepreneurs, artists, writers, musicians, small farmers and others. The advent of a universal basic income could result in a great efflorescence of social, political, cultural, and technical innovation that will be absolutely necessary to address the twin challenges of climate change and resource constraints in the coming decades. It could also create the kind of solidarity needed to enact policies that require shared sacrifice to address these problems.

A universal basic income will mean many more people who are self-employed in what has come to be known as the “gig economy” —but no longer an economy that necessarily overworks and impoverishes people. Rather, it will be an economy in which people create value and enrichment for their fellow citizens in several ways at once that are not possible for a job-based, corporate-led society.

The reason this democratization of work frightens so many at the top of our society is that it at once empowers those in the middle and the bottom, both economically AND politically. The critics will say that such a transformation is “unrealistic” and “too costly” and that it will lead to mass laziness.

I think the reason such a transformation of work is gaining so much popularity is not that people do not want to work. Rather, they want to work at something that makes the world a better place for themselves, their families and their communities—work that would no longer be considered just a paycheck derived from exhaustion and unpleasant working conditions.

American psychologist James Hillman wrote in his book Inter Views:

We moralize work and make it a problem, forgetting that the hands love to work and that in the hands is the mind.

If we democratize work, we may come to understand what Hillman is saying as we benefit from the forces that democratization unleashes.

Photo: Two girls wearing banners with slogan “ABOLISH CH[ILD] SLAVERY!!” in English and Yiddish. one carrying American flag; spectators stand nearby. Probably taken during May 1, 1909 labor parade in New York City. Bain News Service. Library of Congress. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.

Tags: democracy, labor movement