A Follow-Up On “Two Days, One Night”
Based on the comments I received, I think I may have been misunderstood a bit in my piece on the film, “Two Days, One Night.” Allow me to clarify a few things:
Some readers apparently thought I was endorsing the view that businesses should always pursue the bottom line, with no other considerations. I do not believe that. I don’t think that a “purely capitalist framework” inevitably “improves things for everyone.” Rather, I was saying that within such a framework – i.e., within a certain set of given assumptions and assuming institutional arrangements that reflect those assumptions – it’s clear what the business is supposed to do, and why. Reject those assumptions – or assert that existing arrangements don’t actually reflect those assumptions – and you may also reject the conclusion. As I do. As I thought was clear.
Some readers argued that the film had nothing to do with workplace democracy. The workers are not owners. Management decided the terms of the vote – there was no choice to have no layoffs, still get a bonus, and have less profit, nor were other choices like reducing some employees’ hours, reducing management compensation, or any other alternative put on the table. Only two choices were given: lay off Sandra and get a bonus, or keep Sandra and lose the bonus.
This is, indeed, far from a perfect description of workplace democracy. But consider the way our actual electoral democracy works. Who selects the choices we, the electorate, have to choose from? One of the features of democracy – and a basis of criticism thereof since the time of Pericles – is that it empowers those who are good at swaying opinion, and one way you sway opinion is by structuring choices. Unless we are imagining a world in which management simply ceases to exist (which would be a world more radically decentralized than most of us would ever seriously contemplate), the potential exists for management to play these kinds of games.
I admit, I assumed that the formal reason why a vote was happening at all had something to do with workplace democracy. Perhaps management is obliged to get worker approval for layoffs? In the absence of such a rule, I can’t imagine why management went through the trouble and turmoil – why not simply lay her off and be done with it? Therefore, I read the film as showing how such rules – which might have been intended to give workers more of a say in their workplaces – can play out in practice under conditions of scarcity and competition. I think I was correct in doing so.
Finally, some readers argued that this just proves solidarity is impossible so long as we have the profit motive. But the profit motive is just that – a motive. If you’ve got a plan for abolishing avarice, along with lust and pride and anger and the rest of them, clue me in. Scarcity and competition are objective conditions in the world. If solidarity is impossible under those conditions, then solidarity is impossible. I’m not that much of a pessimist.