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Governing Capitalism?
Economic Bicameralism in the Firm

Septembre 2012, Presses Universitaires de France - PUF, Paris
Hors collection, 336 pp.
ISBN-10 2130606741 ISBN-13: 978-2130606741

 

Everyone knows that a job means more than a paycheck, particularly in a service-based economy, where workplaces are the locus of constant interpersonal interactions. And yet the predominant theories of the firm, whether economically liberal or Marxist, all fail to acknowledge this crucial fact. They do not account for the degree to which individuals’ conception of justice informs their experience of work. In other words, these classic theories do not account for the ways in which work may be considered a political activity that mobilizes people accordingly. Governing Capitalism? offers a more accurate understanding of the firm as something more than a simple economic organization. The book argues that firms are institutions that combine two rationalities: on the one hand, instrumental rationality, which is displayed largely by capital investors motivated by a desire for efficiency, and on the other, the political rationality of labor investors, which is rooted in the standard of democratic justice. Once we have acknowledged this definition as accurate, the fact that labor investors’ rationality is not represented in firm government becomes problematic, on the grounds of both justice and efficiency. And yet contemporary firm government is organized around and justified with regard to instrumental rationality alone, which continues to be seen as the unique logic of the firm. The continued application of this outdated mindset has now brought us to a crisis point.

A look at the history of Western society reveals that this is not the first time such an imbalance has existed ; indeed, today’s capitalist firms resemble the West’s pre-democratic societies, governed by families, clans, or dynasties according to their own rationalities and interests. As far back as ancient Rome, democratization has begun with a “bicameral moment” in which a given society recognized the existence of two constituent bodies and acknowledged the need for these bodies to govern together: the bicameral moment is the moment in which a society acknowledges it must take two specific – and incommensurable – rationalities into account, or face the end of its prosperity. The best known of the modern era’s bicameral moments is the development in Britain of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, which this book will use as a reference point to explore the application of bicameralism in an economic setting. 

Today, the prosperity of our advanced democratic societies depends on the advance of the knowledge economy, on smart workers mobilized to serve customers, solve problems, and innovate. Capital owners rely on these workers to help drive this new economy. Rather than risk loss of motivation in the workplace, gridlock, or even collapse, would it not be preferable for capital investors to share power with their counterparts? The time has come for our democratic society to acknowledge that the investment of labor in a firm has at least the same importance and legitimacy as the investment of capital.

The efficiency of bicameralism has been tested throughout history in what have traditionally been defined as political institutions. Applied to capitalism’s central institution, the corporate firm, it would involve the institution of two representative bodies to govern firms in the interest of labor and capital investors alike, through an executive government named by and representative of both bodies. Under such a system, the contemporary firm’s board of directors would become a Capital Investors’ House of Representatives, while labor investors would elect a Labor Investors’ House of Representatives. A firm’s executive management (the current management committee or board) would then be elected by a majority in both Houses, whose approval would be required for all major decisions affecting the firm. Historically, this has been seen as the necessary condition for the reasonable, legitimate and intelligent government of nations – why not of firms, then, especially since their scale and influence now rival that of nations?

Would Economic Bicameralism be the first step in an unacceptable power grab by workers? Or, on the contrary, in a knowledge-based economy, at a time when global firms escape accountability while relying more and more on the intelligence, dedication, and motivation of their employees, would it be a bridging institution, the first step toward building firms that fit the democratic ideal of our society? This book opens the door to these questions. You decide.

 

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