The ‘Hire-And-Fire’ Fantasy Of The Libertarian

A central plank of libertarian (and neoliberal and conservative) opposition to organized labor, to collective bargaining, to workers acting collectively is something I term the ‘hire-and-fire fantasy’: that employers should be able to initiate and terminate their employees’ employment at will. (This power would presumably be written into the contracts they sign with their workers.) Let bosses hire and fire as they please; they know best how to run the company. At this stage, a few anecdotes about the onerous bureaucratic delays involved in getting rid of a spectacularly incompetent worker are introduced: terrible tales of how disgruntled employers were made to run from pillar to post, all in effort to take the most obvious of decisions, the taking out of the trash. Unionized workers it seems, are complacent and lazy; they know they cannot be fired; they do not work as hard as those who know the boss can, you guessed it, hire and fire them at will. The union, the workers’ collective, then stands exposed as sand in the wheel; it appears as a burden, a terrible economic and performative inefficiency getting in the way of the smooth deployment of ‘human resources.’

The problem with this argument–and it is a familiar one–is that it compares the worst of the unionized workplace with the best of the non-unionized workplace. In the former, the incompetent worker is protected by a venal union, even as an exasperated boss, who only wants to get the job done as expeditiously as possible, tears out his hair; in the latter, the same virtuous boss is able to summon the incompetent worker to his office, summarily dismiss him or her, and then get back to work. All virtue resides in the employer; the union and the worker are only imbued with sloth and insufficient motivation. This argument does not, of course, bother to examine the situation created by an incompetent boss who decides to peremptorily dismiss a blameless worker, perhaps one with a long and distinguished service record, on arbitrary and trivial grounds (perhaps a secretary did not smile broadly enough, perhaps a junior pointed out an embarrassing blunder in the boss’ presentation, pricking a thin patina of pride; the list goes on.) There is no court of appeal; there is no redressal possible; here is a paycheck for two weeks; clean your desk, and then the security guard will escort you to the elevators. Here is arbitrary and opaque power indeed; the boss can act, but the worker may not. (On the many occasions that I’ve discussed this argument with my students, there are those who will enthusiastically back the ‘hire-and-fire’ claim till I point out to them just how arbitrarily that power may be exercised by employers; then, expressions of dismay set in; I suspect the situation they had in mind was the one I described first above.)

The union’s contracts for its members seek to put in place a procedure for investigation of complaints, for workers to be granted the privilege of answering charges laid against them; they seek to shield the worker from the most arbitrary exercises of the boss’ undoubted power. The stakes are high; the worker’s livelihood is at stake. The power of the employer (sometimes a corporation) is always greater than that of the worker; collective bargaining and action and worker-protective contracts aim to address this imbalance. Those who criticize the worker’s collective body, accuse it of wielding too much power, both recognize and fail to recognize power: they notice that the workers united, cannot be defeated, but they fail to acknowledge the power the boss may wield over his employee. This blindness is not accidental; it is ideological, for its true motive is not the protection of the economic efficiency of the workplace–arbitrarily firing competent workers can very often be economically counterproductive–but the power of the boss, the maintenance of a very particular hierarchy, one that allows for certain pleasures only to be found in subjugation and the exercise of one’s will over another.

Samuel Delany on Power

I have finally taken down, from my shelves, my long-ago-borrowed copy of Samuel Delany‘s Tales of Nevèrÿon (Bantam Books, New York, 1979) and started reading it. Almost immediately, in the first story of Gorgik, the mine slave taken “as a plaything to Nevèrÿon’s imperial court” (‘The Tale of Gorgik‘), I came up on the following Foucauldian ruminations on the nature of power – as evident in the imperial court:

The social hierarchy and patterns of deference to be learned here were as complex as those had to be mastered–even by a foreman–on moving into a new slave barracks in the mine….Indeed, among slaves Gorgik knew what generated such complexity: Servitude itself. The only question he could not answer here was: What were all these elegant lords and ladies slaves to?….The answer was simple: Power, pure, raw, and obsessive. But in his ignorance, young Gorgik was again closer to the lords and ladies around him than an equally young potters’ boy would have been. For it is precisely at its center that one loses the clear vision of what surrounds, what controls and contours every utterance, decides and develops every action, as the bird has no clear concept of air, though it supports her every turn, or the fish no true vision of water, though it blur all she sees. A goodly, if not frightening, number of these same lords and ladies dwelling at the court has as little idea of what shaped their every willed decision, conventional observance, and sheer, unthinking habit, as did Gorgik. [pp. 24-25]

Gorgik….was, for all his unfocused thought, learning–still learning. He was learning that power–the great power that shattered lives and twisted the course of nations–was like a fog over a meadow at evening. From any distance, it seemed to have a shape, a substance, a color, an edge, yet as you approached it, it seemed to receded before you. Finally, when common sense said you were at its center, it still seemed just as far away, only by this time it was on all sides, obscuring any vision of the world beyond it. [pp. 37]

Here, especially in the analogies drawn with the fish, the bird and the fog, Delany captures some key aspects of Foucault’s theorizing about imposed power: its opacity, its ubiquity, its invisibility to those controlled by it. And it is precisely at its ‘center’ that this all-controlling power is the least visible.  And Delany is wise too, in his description of what is affected most by power: “willed decision, conventional observance, and sheer, unthinking habit” – the building blocks of our selves. The first is a key component in our ascriptions of agency to ourselves, the second and third play key explanatory roles in our self-understanding, especially as most of us are too lazy to do the historical investigation required to discover the foundational underpinnings of our actions.

Note: These observations are also very good, literary descriptions of Bourdieu‘s fields of power: “[A] system of social positions…structured internally in terms of power relationships…a social arena of struggle”.