“I own you,” Philip Green is alleged to have said to one of his employees, who then replied, “Slavery was over a long time ago.” Which it was, of course. Slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1834 and the feudal bondage of serfdom much earlier in 1574.
Even so, the idea of workers belonging to their employer was a long time dying. As James Fisher said a couple of weeks ago in his article Work as Obedience, the social and political belief in subordination is a neglected strand in studies of the history of work. The idea that the demise of serfdom gave way to a society based on contract labour is an over-simplification, to say the least.
One of the most profound social changes during this period was the overall increase in the number of people engaging in wage labour. According to the standard liberal narrative, this brought about a fundamental transition in the form of work from status to contract: from labour performed according to social status to labour performed according to a negotiated contract.
Many historical narratives exaggerate the extent to which this move from status to contract represented genuine progress for the labourers themselves. Political commentators were clear in the seventeenth century that wage labourers were not free. The historian Christopher Tomlins, among others, has challenged the legal history associated with the status-to-contract narrative, arguing that the defining relationship in the development of English and American labour law was between master and servant, not employer and employee. The master-servant relation was part of a series that governed the patriarchal household, replicated between husband and wife, and parent and child. This master-servant relation was explicitly one of power and domination. Servants were under the authority of their masters and acted according to their will like mere extensions of the master’s body.
Until the last quarter of the 19th century, harsh laws effectively tied workers to their employers, or masters as they were more often known. Until 1867 a worker who ‘deserted’ his employer, what we would describe as walking off the job or just leaving without due notice, was guilty of a criminal offence and could be flogged or imprisoned. Penalties for masters who breached contracts had to be enforced through the civil courts where the restrictions and burdens of proof were so great that few were ever challenged. In Britain’s 18th and 19th century economy, which we tend to think of as the cradle of free-market capitalism, workers could still be tied to master and to place.
Of course, this worked well for some employers although perhaps it was not to the benefit of the economy as a whole, given that it impeded the movement of labour and therefore the deployment and development of skills and knowledge. More importantly, though, it was regarded as the natural order of things. It kept people in their place and upheld the social order. To many, the idea that bands of free labourers could wander around the country, stopping where they pleased and negotiating pay rates with whichever master they chose, was deeply disturbing.
It is only 140 years since these coercive labour laws were abolished and the idea of one person being owned or being under obligation to another was a feature of working relationships for hundreds of years before that. It would be surprising, therefore, if some of the attitudes that underpinned the idea of master and servant did not persist. As James Fisher concludes:
Today, work retains this sense of obedience (if only implicitly), of toiling under abstract social obligations that are specified in practice by the wealthy and powerful. It manifests itself in the belief that we have a duty to work hard regardless of both the specific ends and the conditions of work itself.
In business-school theory, organisations are run for profit and therefore seek to maximise efficiency and profitability. In practice, though, they are power structures in which hundreds of people have their own different agendas. The horrible truth is that, among them, are people who get off on dominating others. Most don’t do it to maximise the company profit. Many don’t even do it to increase their own remuneration. Management abuse is often simply about ‘owning’ other people. Clever bosses can dress up publicly humiliating employees and making them do demeaning things as ‘morale building’ or ‘performance management’ but it rarely does anything other than destroy morale and diminish performance. Many people still seem to believe that positional power in a large organisation confers upon them some kind of rights over other human beings.
The legacy of master and servant law and its forebear, feudal serfdom, runs deep. Even in 2016, I suspect that the phrase “I own you” is uttered more often than we would like to think. And, for every bombastic bully that utters it, there are several more that think it.