‘I own you’ – work as subordination

“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.

Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 16.41.28

Chart by Suresh Naidu and Noam Yuchtman

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.

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16 Responses to ‘I own you’ – work as subordination

  1. sdbast says:

    Reblogged this on sdbast.

  2. I was for Brexit because bosses were not training young Brits and they have so many people they can abuse and take advantage of the work-force – even with zero hour jobs.

    Which are not jobs of course – they are zero hours which don’t pay essential bills – just the possibility to be exploited at minimum pay of a few hours work.

    We are back to the bad old days when the fat boss stood at the factory gate saying, “I’ll have you, you and you” – and he would not ask you back if you did not doff your cap or smile when he cuffed you for not working fast enough.

    • Dipper says:

      Similarly. But this does raise a question. even if we prevent workers in, say, Rumania, competing directly for jobs with UK workers in the UK, they will still compete indirectly through the value of their goods and services. How do we prevent putting a Brexit fence round UK workers to keep low-cost competition for jobs out from becoming a fence preventing us from competing in world markets due to poor innovation and low productivity?

      • Unfortunately, the UK cannot stop globalisation.

        We have lost untold hundreds of thousands of jobs to other countries like Poland already.

        All importing countries have the increased cost of transport to get it to the UK – plus every country has the same problem – unless they put up trade barriers to prevent them.

        Which we and EU should have done with China selling cheap steel – dumping it on us – we have seen the bad consequences of that.

        • George Carty says:

          On the steel issue, did the UK become China’s fifth columnist in Europe because it wanted to enlist the Chinese government as a “heavy” against any attempt by German or Austrian anti-nuclear fanatics to kill Hinkley Point C in the European courts?

          • I think – not having gone into it in depth – that it was purely China trying to increase exports – and UK/ EU wanting cheap goods – no matter if we lost jobs.

            The EU is merely a method to aid capitalism which is a corrupt system evolved out of greed and power.

        • gunnerbear says:

          “Why not..” <P<Please explain to me why friends of mine should be forced to get the s**t end of the stick…..

          • Capitalism is clearly wrong – the exploitation of workers for the greed and avarice of the rich has to stop.

            This is why we need to get real socialism with Corbyn – so friends of yours should not be forced to get the s**t end of the stick.

  3. GrumpyLecturer says:

    Nice article Rick I especially like the reference to the modern business school approach to the employment relationship. This is a new phenomenon with its beginnings in the 1980s when dear Margaret gave back to employers their ‘prerogative to manage’ that is to manage employees without the interference of third parties i.e. Trade Unions. Not having managed workers before without negotiated collective agreements UK managers were at a loss. Enter stage right employee control strategies from Japan and US which we now know as HRM.

  4. gunnerbear says:

    I see the author linked to a BBC report and in it was this gem “Mr Bacon has been looking for work since gaining his degree in documentary, film and TV from the University of South Wales in July. He said he was finding the process “extremely hard” because so many people were job hunting.” No…he’s find it hard to get a job because his degree is in a made up a subject….a nothing degree in a nothing subject from University ranked 112 out of 123…

    • guthrie says:

      That’s strange, I, and some people I know, took many months to find any sort of employment, and we had science degrees from old universities. Not to mention my more recent spell of unemployment when even someone with 20 years working in shops behind the till couldn’t find work.
      Or in other words you’re just a bitter idiot.

      • gunnerbear says:

        Yes….it might have taken you time….but with good science degrees from good Universities…I’m guessing you had more choices than someone with a degree seen as less than academic from a University hardly regarded to be prestigious…..

        ….but then of course the Labour HMG conned lots of teens into thinking that going to Uni’ was the way to get an elite job…
        .
        …which, is true provided you’re doing a very tough subject from a very good Uni. I rather suspect you know that as well, but can’t say so or your whole argument falls apart….

        http://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Earnings-by-Degrees-REPORT.pdf (page 5)

        As to be being bitter and old…not really…just stating the obvious (again something I rather think you know but again can’t say or it wrecks your argument). In terms of the difficulty of some people in getting a ‘low skilled job’ – well, you can thank the Labour Party and Conservative Party for that….Labour threw open the doors of the UK to a huge pool of cheap, unskilled labour and the Conservatives kept the door to that pool open….

        ….and of course Corbyn wants the UK to stay in the EU…so putting even more pressure on those UK citizens at the bottom of the pile.

        • George Carty says:

          Didn’t a lot working-class people vote Leave in protest at employers who have a policy of using immigrant-only workforces (often getting their labour through agencies which are themselves run by immigrants, as in this Glasgow example)?

          Weren’t there any ways in which this particular grievance could have been address without limiting freedom of movement itself?

  5. Fantastic piece. This resonates deeply with me. Thank you.

    • gunnerbear says:

      Ma’am, when you say the piece “resonates deeply”, which bit Ma’am, resonates…….the fact the author has taken a f**k all degree…….or do you think middle class Uni types should have their futures nailed on……….

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