Dignity, property, solidarity. Dreams of better capitalism

05.11.2018 | By Krzysztof Mazur

If we lack the courage to rebel against an arrogant, simpleton-superior, it’s more than probable we won’t oppose the electoral law offences nor the Constitutional Court abuse in a mass social movement. A village-bound peasant will never become a citizen in the full meaning of this word. A wholesome systemic solution would demand more workers became co-owners of their companies.

It’s easy to believe a certain illusion when one’s deeply engaged in public activities. It is a belief of overestimating the politics and underestimating the economics. In reality, the majority of people’s lives take place at work and so every deep political change must include everyday labour as well.

This correlation works the other way around as well. One of the dogmas of modern capitalism is assuming politics to be a private affair without an impact on an employee’s work. It appears to be a complete opposite though. The entirety of one’s work is shaped not only by the invisible hand of the market but also by the very much visible hand of the state. Even radical libertarians can see how law, judiciary system and public authorities influence business. Therefore, ideas changing working conditions must also include the political aspects.

Standing up to the chairman

That was precisely the advantage of the “Solidarity” movement. Nowadays it is common to perceive its history as related to politics only, as a patriotic anti-communist protest. However, ever since the beginning “Solidarity” owned its mass structure to expertly joining the political thought with demands of economic and ethical nature. It was only those three aspects together that granted the enormous social impact of the movement since even lack of independent elections wasn’t as severe as poor working conditions.

During the Gdańsk Shipyard strike, famous journalist Ryszard Kapuściński has clearly made the same observation. In his work ” Notes from the Seashore” [“Notatki z Wybrzeża” *] he described the behaviour of five women employed by a local handicrafts cooperative. They all joined the strike despite “not wanting raises, not demanding preschools. They decided to oppose the chairman who was a tyrant. Every attempt to teach him manners and respect for them, women and mothers, have failed, resulting only in persecution and oppression […]. And they cannot take it any more. They do have dignity after all”.

Their stance was taken very seriously by the younger shipyard workers as they were also fighting in the name of respect for their work. “They also fought against the excessive bureaucracy, against the disdain of <<do, do not speak>>”. This is why, as Kapuściński wrote over 35 years ago, someone portraying those events as concentrated only on the wage-labour conditions has no understanding of them. The labourers’ main motive was to “aim for creating new relations, a new order among people”, the rule of “mutual respect including each and every one without exceptions, a rule stating a subordinate is also equal”. The anti-communism message of “Solidarity” wasn’t primarily directed against the regime, but to the faulty socio-economic situation. A symbol of the ill-managed reign wasn’t Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party’s First Secretary, but rather the local cooperative chairman appointed by him. It was the chairman’s arrogance that forced the people into political activity.

Corporate medieval peasant

It is easier to interpret modern disillusionment with freedom when comparing dreams of those five women with the current shape of Polish capitalism. Nowadays the workplace relationships don’t differ so much from those described by Kapuściński. Business consultant and psychologist Jacek Santorski spread the comparison of modern Polish corporate culture to a feudal serfdom manor (widely known as a “folwark” in Poland). This so-called “folwark culture” is characterised by the dominance of endurance over development, centralised management over task delegation, a one-man decision making over employee participation, the board’s whims over clear regulations on promoting and performance review, objectifying over empowering the employees, risk-avoidance over seizing innovative opportunities. Santorski also points out how employees participate in this outdated model as well. Finding themselves in folwark-managed companies, they form nepotistic internal structures and arrangements aimed to oppose the oppressive system; Santorski called this process an “immoral familiarism”.  This leads to company’s departments fighting each other, even allowing robbing the employer as a form of ill-judged amends for suffered injustice.

According to Santorski, this model is present in the majority of Polish enterprises, including “the progressive companies, even in international corporations stationing in Poland. Besides this infection spreads to our clinics, universities, offices, sports clubs or schools. Everywhere around a folwark is forming – and fast. Information flow is replaced with the flow of distrustful denunciations and specialists are replaced with modern nobility. It all resembles a contagious illness, a social Ebola virus”.

Interestingly, the folwark model is working well for global outsourcing centres. “Hundreds of young students and graduates, often multilingual, seated in a huge open-spaced area with headsets, making and answering phone calls, selling, explaining, collecting debts. Their time is meticulously controlled with a limited meal and toilet breaks. The controllers stroll between their desks like old-time party experts. They watch the length of toilet breaks, they guard the peasants’ desks against any personal belongings, keeping them devoid of photos, toys, books or newspapers”.

The collision of those two worlds truly terrifies. Apparently, regardless of huge, fundamental changes, Poland has experienced in the past three decades some essential work-ethics guidelines remained the same. Dreams of the five women from a local cooperative didn’t come true. Though they paid the price of economic crisis after the regime change, denying themselves to ensure their children’s education, cutting down expenses from their poor pensions to foot their grandchildren’s English tutors bills, not much has changed in the end. We didn’t create a “new order among people, where the subordinate is also equal”. Reading Elisabeth Dunn’s “Privatizing Poland” one can assume the 90’s capitalism only worsened labour relations, dividing them into the worse (manual work white collars) and better (management blue collars) kind.

Perhaps the most gruesome part is that this time it couldn’t be blamed on “Others”, cryptical communists and Party members, as Poles have simply done this to themselves. Since if the “Social Ebola virus” metaphor is correct, it means we are all infected carriers of this disease. Communism only strengthened negative cultural patterns already present many centuries ago. Naturally, global capitals together with inadequate housing system have created enormous structural pressure to establish the folwark labour model in modern Poland. People need to work somewhere to afford their housing and mortgage. It shouldn’t, however, ease our conscience too easily. Ten million “Solidarity” members lived in much worse conditions and yet found it in themselves to fight the system in the name of labour dignity. All the while current Polish society seems not to mind this folwark mentality as much. And if it is so – dreams of subjectivity or “integrity revolution” are all for nought. If we lack the courage to rebel against an arrogant “simpleton-superior”, it’s more than probable we won’t oppose the electoral law offences nor the Constitutional Court abuse in a mass social movement. A village-bound peasant will never become a citizen in the full meaning of this word.

Yet Santorski left us a shred of hope in the end. His next interview on the topic bears the significant name of “Poles hunger for dignity”. He noted the folwark culture in our companies is heavily criticised at the grassroots, which resulted from two reasons. The first one is tied to the current knowledge-based economy, forcing innovations upon entrepreneurs. Shortened product lifecycle, on the other hand, only allows flexible companies to survive long-term. And such a situation is impossible in folwark reality. Innovation requires information sharing and an internal structure that allows good ideas to surface, even if they are submitted by line workers. Therefore, if native companies wish to matter on global capitalism stage, they need to change themselves, rejecting their old operating model. The second reason regards the new generation coming to dominate the market; generation negating and questioning social hierarchy, which is the baseline of every folwark. Brought up in the era of technological revolution, which abolishes most cultural models and behaviour patterns, and equipped with international experience, they are less likely to obey folwark superiors. In the next few years, we may be witnesses to dynamic changes in many Polish establishments. Those able to grasp the scale of this change and smoothly connect political, economic and social demands will be the ones to put Poland on the new track of civilisation development.

Bring back the point of work

Such phrased challenge forces us to re-think the “Solidarity” experience. From one point of view, its members faced still valid trials in their workplace. Even if they fought them with archaic methods, using outdated, overly idealistic language, they expressed extraordinaire values. From the other hand though, they failed to create equal, respectful relations in the workplace. It is worth to analyse what has caused their fiasco.

Józef Tischner’s book, “The Ethics of <<Solidarity>>”, encourages reflecting on said subject. This philosophy essay speaks widely of labour as a “special form of human dialogue, meant to sustain and develop human life”. This specific definition seems unexpected, although upon more in-depth consideration appears surprisingly correct. What you realise first is the relative aspect of modern labour. While it used to rely on self-sufficient individuals and communities, nowadays it connects people globally. The contemporary world has become an enormous information village where people endlessly interact regardless of national and cultural borders. Similarly, today’s economy is based on the unlimited global exchange of goods and services.

The second dimension of Tischner’s definition is acknowledging how in post-modern capitalism information, communication and symbols (brands and their trademarks) have obtained the highest value. This economic model engages a human as a whole since an employee’s efficiency depends on his personal engagement in a project. On the sales’ side, the main criteria of success are the result-oriented shaping of customers’ emotions, attitude and even identity. Correspondingly, modern capitalism engages the entirety of individual’s persona, targeting even most intimate, personal areas as goals in the marketing game. It appears to be even more urgent now to set a moral fundament for such actions. Just like there is no dialogue without distinguishing true from false, there cannot be long-term economic development without setting boundaries between good and evil.

The third layer of Tischner’s understanding is the exploit issue. Close to a lie existing in a conversation is workplace exploitation of certain social groups. The idea here is not creating a utopia free of difficulty and hardship of course, as that would be impossible to achieve in a realistic setting. There are but many provable examples where work-related difficulty is deliberately caused by another person. Human solidarity has its source in reacting to this undeserved hardship. Our labour should grow human compassion rather than cause social segmentation, exploitation and unequal treatment.

Finally, the fourth dimension fo Tischner’s philosophy is asking for the ultimate purpose of our labour. Since it is supposed to serve “sustaining and developing human life”, a financial gain cannot be its only principle. Therefore, the author calls it “intelligent dialogue” to develop an economy in which everyone fulfils their specific social role, answering to individual needs of other people. “Labour’s purpose is either when it sustains and helps to develop one’s life (work of farmers, doctors, builders etc.) or when it gives life a deeper meaning (work of artists, philosophers, priests)”. It may sound cliché, but work must serve other people.

Tischner on Slush 2016 conference

While we could consider Tischner’s words to be overly abstract moralisers, he is not alone in voicing his concerns with modern capitalism. A good example would be Nick Hanauer’s speech a few months prior from Slush 2016, one of the important tech conferences. Hanauer, who owns his wealth to – among others – Amazon investments, is the head of an influential venture capital fund; he firmly stated that innovator’s role isn’t making money but solving real social issues. Focusing on financial gain is a mistake as the point of innovation is changing millions of people’s lives for the better. Furthermore, in his opinion it is impossible to separate economic actions from their ethical context, as it always implicates questions of who and what do we serve. From this ground Hanauer, together with Prof. Paul Romer from New York University, criticised modern macroeconomy as being too blinded by generating income to research moral dilemmas. He illustrated his point with a simple example. Each of us observes a clear difference between causing cancer and treating it. However, modern macroeconomy makes no distinction between tobacco and a pharmaceutical company, as long as they generate comparable revenue. This is why we need moral criteria when thinking of economy, to be able to pinpoint the apparent difference between the social impacts of both these establishments. It is also crucial to correct mechanisms responsible for creating and enlarging the social gap.

Hanauer most probably isn’t aware that what seems so fresh and insightful today when analysing innovators has also been spotted over thirty years ago by a Catholic priest looking into real socialism economy. “The Ethics of <<Solidarity>>” could deepen not only his perception but also be a source of many colourful metaphors. Tischner’s and Hanauer’s arguments, after all, conclude with the very same motion. Excessive economisation of our development thought will lead us nowhere. The economy is a social science and as such must refer to axiology. What is more, we require new macroeconomic paradigm that wouldn’t only focus on financial gains, but also on the imperative purpose of our work, which is “service for sustaining and developing human life”. Only such a perspective can revoke adequate criteria of judging the pointlessness of daily labour.

What is the point of labour?

Just like Tischner asks us about development criteria, John Pope II presents us with more individual perspective in his encyclical “Laborem exercens”. The main thought of this work is to enlighten people on

This work is dedicated to the ethical side of labour, with its main thought defining work as answering God’s call as per the Book of Genesis: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it”**. In His calling, the Earth becomes an enormous field, upon which men are to express their creative abilities, mirroring and continuing Creator’s work. Pope underlined this matter even more in his “Letter to Artists”: “Not all receive a calling to be an artist in the true meaning of the word. However, as per the Book of Genesis, every man’s job is to be the creator of his own life: a man is meant to make his life a masterpiece”.

If we were to take Pope’s words seriously, the entire national folwark-based economy model would collapse like a house of cards, as it is limited to perceiving work in its financial salary dimension only. Pope clearly speaks of the broader perspective, one where satisfying basic needs is just one aspect of human existence – our society’s development is much more important. It may be unpleasant to perceive our work in such measures as it brings to attention how many of our tasks are ultimately pointless, yet highly profitable in the post-modern economy. We could discover our more profound, more creative side when engaged in non-profit activities: looking after our children, volunteering for social services or performing on a trumpet at a local firefighting station orchestra. These actions often bring more joy and fulfilment than invoicing in an outsourcing centre, debt collection or managing a sales team to achieve satisfactory quarterly results while also maintaining a clean desk policy. John Paul II doesn’t seem to mind that, confronting us with five critical questions regarding the ethical core of our work.

  1. Do we have self-agency at our jobs?

If we were destined to be creators of our own lives, a self-agency-denying work culture would be, by definition, against it.

  1. Are we personally responsible for our work-related failures?

Self-agency adheres directly to the risk of failure. We can only fully experience it when success or failure depends on our investment.

  1. Am I expressing myself at work?

Our actions can become masterpieces only with a personal touch when the stories of who we are and what matters to us are channelled through our work.

  1. Are we becoming better people through our work?

Over the last few years, it’s become more and more popular to put personal growth alongside financial income when prioritising job-hunting. Pope enforces this trend, which sides with the holistic approach to self-development. The pressure shouldn’t be placed solely on learning new coding languages but also advancing in self-confidence, trust towards people or diligence. A job that destroys those values is degrading, even if it helps to become fluent in Excel.

  1. Am I changing the world for the better through my job?

In here Pope repeats concerns already voiced by Tischner and Hanauer.

As we can see, the Pope’s work-related reflection could serve as a labour dignity thesis’ methodology by itself. By expanding on the above one could map out a questionnaire on corporal culture, perhaps discovering more data on company relationships than strict financial reports. The religious aspect could be overbearing here, with the concern of John Paul II’s work remaining open to Christians only. However, comparing his anthropological thought with the newest management theories, it is clearly visible how unexpectedly up-to-date it is.

Different labour is possible

In a recent popular book “To work differently” author Frederic Laloux describes various organisation models with different colours. The first, red type are establishments experiencing severe external danger. To protect itself, it devoids its members of any subjectivity – very much like the mob.

The second level of development is amber entities, guaranteeing the formal protection of employees from their superiors’ omnipotence. They retain strong hierarchy, with strict formal backbone, where promotion depends on the <<upper-class>>’ will. Such standards are most often displayed in religious institutions and the public sector.

The third type, identified by orange colour, is still characterised by its formal structure, but with promotion relying on measurable work efficiency markers. These organisations resemble clockwork with their meritocracy and competitiveness dominate over all human relationships. Their biggest threat is fast burnout of overworked employees who can only survive in such environment short-term. A typical example would be turn-of-the-century mega corporations.

Another model is the green-coloured establishments. Soulless clockwork mechanism metaphor steps down to a social movement figure of speech. Green organisations aren’t only generating profit now, they are also accomplishing their mission. And that should resolve real social dilemmas, apparently pointing to Hanauer’s earlier idea. Mission rules over profit, values over strategy and corporate culture over imposed policies. This is why it is so crucial to engage both employees and critical partners into integrated decision making. The overall structure is no longer a ladder but rather a honeycomb. Laloux lists a couple of modern global companies as good examples here.

According to the book the future belongs to turquoise organisations that put an even higher priority on the subjectivity of their employees. In a perfect world, every sectioned thinking would be rebelled against, and companies would be guided by democratic task teams instead of hierarchical company boards. This model relies on maturity and shared values of employees that wish to have influence over the company’s various activities. Implementing democratic structures on all executive levels brings full autonomy to developing elected goals. The keyword here is anti-brittleness, and turquoise organisations resemble mutated coral colonies, lacking a clear structure, but with a strong sense of direction.

Foundation of turquoise organisations is loving thy neighbour

Turquoise organisations came to rule Polish business elites’ imagination. Not so long ago during a conference, I overheard an economy professor planning to realise this model in his private college. The sudden popularity of this concept is yet another expression of our neo-colonial mentality. It only became attractive when it was popularised by Western management theorists. Not many followers notice how it relies on four well-known pillars: self-governing, pursuing humanity in labour, identifying the evolutionary goal of an organisation (instead of controlling the future) and finally on evolving awareness from catering to basic needs to more holistic approach. Laloux created a framework for a very demanding ideal, that is also coincidental with… Christianity.

It is because his discourse relies on very specific anthropology. He connects organisation evolution with the development of human consciousness. This is why the complexity of human self-governance is strictly tied to achieving greater self-conscience. The mystical turquoise colour symbolises here the peak of human spiritual development. As Laloux himself stated, “ascending to turquoise often correlates with opening oneself to transcendent spiritual areas of existence and a deep feeling of being connected to everyone on some level, becoming parts of a greater whole”. And so a Belgian McKinsey company partner discovers ideas of solidarity described in John Paul II’s language. Turquoise organisations are another face of a dream of establishing new relations between people, relying on mutual respect, where employees and employers are equal.

Even Santorski realised this correspondence, arguing to include Catholic values in the development of Polish capitalism. He brings the example of a packaging manufacturer from Bialystok, who <<has a Scandinavian, minimalistic design, making use of underground springs and cultivating ecological values. They also encourage Scandinavian relationship model: respect combined with high expectations. Employees from neighbouring companies wish to relocate to them even though they don’t pay above regular salaries. And there is a cross hanging in CEO’s office. I asked them: “What are your core values?”. “The Ten Commandments – he replied. – And the most important one is to love thy neighbour as thyself, also in business”. Scandinavian democracy on a common Polish foundation>> – he said in the already quoted interview. However, we only recognised such model as valuable after it was coated in trending turquoise theory.

Bearing the pressure between capital and labour

Personally, I didn’t believe in turquoise organisations. To be more precise, I find this model to be hard to realise without changing the ownership structure. It’s easy to word it in modern corporal lingo, in beautiful language measured to manipulate employees accurately. It’s nearly impossible to promote full employee responsibility without making them co-owners. This is why the only way to accomplish the turquoise organisations is through a change of the ownership structure.

It comes as no surprise that “Solidarity” founders faced the same dilemma. Before them, it was Karl Marx. Communism focused on the tensions between private means of production (capital) and the social nature of workforce (labour). This dysfunction was supposed to naturally lead to exploitation of workers by owners, as capital holds the higher ground in this equation. Therefore, communism proposed making means of production common, to eliminate the inequality of capital and labour. This way of thinking didn’t account, however, for privatisation of capital, although instead of private owners came the Party. Beautiful headlines of production communisation actually made the Party the new owner of the entire economy. Instead of social control, we achieved enfranchisement of nomenclature.

This was the wall those women from a local cooperative were trying to abolish. “Solidarity” couldn’t propose a worthy successor with a positive program, though. Their proposed key feature for the Self-Governing Republic of Poland was an election of state companies managing directors by their employees. The idea was that depending on their employee’s vote would improve working standards and influence ‘simpleton-bosses’. They didn’t account for ownership model change, however, meaning that the state would remain as owner of these enterprises’  – resulting in growing tension during everyday work tasks. Workers’self-governing unit didn’t really amount to any valuable changes in company strategy since the entire economy was still being shaped by the central Party government. The inadequacy of those demands was one of the reasons “Solidarity” lost the fight.

During political transformation, deputies opted for capital denationalisation. Foreign capital pouring over the borders solved one of the problems: the government was no longer responsible for national employment rate. Mass strikes were less likely, and rules didn’t fear protesters burning tires and demanding raises in front of Parliament. At the same time, foreign capital didn’t fix deteriorated employer-employee relationship, as Santorski points out. At the base of his thought, Marx was right: capital always overpowers the workforce, even more visibly so with the high unemployment rate. Having Polish folwark culture layering on top, individual employees found themselves helpless against a superior trampling upon their dignity.

Ownership revolution

And so, we have found ourselves right in the middle of the employee problem. Not only company owners are privileged concerning employees, but they can also easily obtain further investment loans. Bank’s conditions, apart from the business plan, consider their collateral owned company capital. Only people who already have capital invest in innovations, enlarging the social gap – a foundation of the capitalist economy – at the same time. As an American economist Louis Kelso said, the poor endowed only with their talents and diligence are denied the basis of capitalist profit multiplication which is an investment loan. Redistribution models in today’s Europe fail to meet their purpose more often than not. It is worth mentioning, as Bloomberg observed, that in Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain more social benefits are received by the wealthiest 20% rather than the poorest 20%. Redistribution of goods doesn’t solve any of our problems but instead introduces new sources of social tension.

A systemic solution would for more workers to become co-owners of their companies. This way they’ll be able to gain profits from their labour and their capital. It would significantly affect the organisation structure as well. An employee possessing real impact on board decisions won’t allow being treated like a folwark peasant. Finally, such a model would shape actual workers’ responsibility for their enterprise. They would no longer drift as hired hands under folwark rule – they’d become co-owners personally invested in company growth. After all, achieving a balance between financial gain and dignified work would be most viable and rewarding to them.

Employee shareholders are Louis Kelso’s core idea in his ‘owners capitalism’ theory. It’s based on ESOP (Employment Stock Ownership Plan) method that Krzysztof Nedzynski proposed to translate as PPR (Program Pracownik Właścicielem) to popularise it in Poland. This program guarantees government reliefs for entrepreneurs and attractive investment loans if they donate or sell company shares to their employees. Currently, about 10 million people are cooperating with ESOP, rounding up to 10% of the American workforce.

Well-managed employee shareholders plan is versatile and cost-effective in the long term. Company’s pros are increasing employee loyalty and motivation; elder owners lacking successors could also benefit from this model. Employee’s advantages are having an impact on board decisions and receiving a dividend. The economy could start losing money over CIT taxes, but profits long-term from the VAT tax (employees’ expenses); the social gap would shrink, redistribution is no longer required, and the lower class’ indebtedness lowers.

Making employees shareholders is and isn’t a revolution at the same time. It is because its mass implementation would profoundly change Polish companies modelling. It wouldn’t be through sharp state interference, but a soft regulation impulse. At the same time, it isn’t a revolution, because it expresses a central liberal thought of ‘no capitalism without capitalists’. The salt of the free market economy shouldn’t be scarce oligarchy but a broad middle class. It is better for the economy as a whole to have a hundred millionaires rather than one billionaire.

Keyword – responsibility

The future of democracy and capitalism depends hugely on the issue of responsibility. Modern management theories forecast great success for companies able to personally engage their employees in their development long-term. Popularisation of this model would also mean leaving behind predominating folwark culture. Perhaps if the ownership revolution would also take place, we would stop defining ourselves as folwark peasants, becoming citizens handling fruits of their own labour instead. Respect revolution in our workplaces would lead a subjectivity revolt in public conduct, too. Of course, a pessimistic scenario is possible as well. It could happen that the mythical millennials generation, even if it rejects oppressive folwark culture, doesn’t want the responsibility for the company and public matters. We would then be left to drift aimlessly into economic marginalisation and preserving democracy based on customer relations. Instead of economy bustling with lively entrepreneurs and free-willed citizens, we would have a generation of self-centred, pretentious individuals. And so the most severe modern crisis we must face today is the crisis of responsibility.

Translation from Polish: Katarzyna Wrzeciono


This publication has been cofinanced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within “Cooperation in Public Diplomacy 2018” programme.
This publication reflects the views of the author and not the official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.