Elton Mayo

Democracy and Freedom, 1917


The way in which each of us sees the world is determined in the main by the occupational group which claims us as a member. Educated or uneducated, logical or unreasoning, we are all creatures of an occupation; it is the work we do for the community that determines the angle from which we see society and the world. Taking this fact into account, psychology — the science of human nature and human consciousness – is able to make at least one general assertion as to the form a given society must take if it is to persist as a society. It must be possible for the individual to feel, as he works, that his work is socially necessary; he must be able to see beyond his group to the society. Failure in this respect will make disintegration inevitable. Social unity must be a conscious unity, known and recognised by every group and individual; the alternative is disruption.

Society is described as the scene of a struggle between a group of masters and a group of men – an analysis which totally disregards the fundamental facts of human nature and social organisation. Labour need only be taken account of as “cost of production.” In addition to economic bondage to servitude, the advent of the joint- stock company and the shareholder served still further to increase the irresponsibility of proprietorship and management. And the conception of industry as merely a profit-making mechanism became the dominant feature of the employer’s class-tradition.

The social fabric is rent asunder right across the majority of the larger occupational groups, and every industrial function tends to lose sight of its social end and justification. No increase in wages or improvement in working conditions can atone for the loss of real autonomy and of all sense of social function. Do you feel, under the conditions imposed by the present social order, that his daily task aids the fulfilment of a social function – it asks if it is possible for him to see beyond his group to the society.


On Plan A democracy

Under the conditions of modern democracy the real sovereignty vests primarily in Parliament and the administration; beyond this, in politicians and political associations. The claim that government is “by the people in accordance with the general will” is a mere façon de parler. Only at election time is the community directly consulted, and, at such times, the party system that the politician shall dominate public opinion. Man, considered merely as an individual, alters little from age to age; it is in respect of knowledge and power to use, of social custom and tradition, and of capacity for depth of vision — it is in respect of these qualities that man changes; and it is these changes which make history. Individualism failed to see that man, socially speaking, holds his past and future in his present. And individualism consequently, though it gave us economics and a politics, failed to give us a science of society and government.

The masses show by their actions that they look to State intervention for the cure of social ills. So the political science which sought to place social authority beyond the State, ended by relegating all authority to the State. Since the special business of the State is to record and enforce moral relationships, it cannot take the lead in the matter of changing them.

Democracy, as we know it, provides no sufficient safeguard against governmental interference with development and freedom. The inadequacy of mere party-politics to the wider social problems of the present is already painfully apparent.

It must be admitted that the nineteenth century schooled itself, in the name of “supply and demand” and of competition, to look unmoved upon wholesale exploitation of the working classes and the most intolerable abuse of child labour. Even when humanitarian impulses were no longer to be denied, laisse faire was unable to relinquish its false individualistic dogma that industry cannot continue to prosper except as a relentless struggle for survival.

The remedies that have been applied have consequently all been of the nature of political regulation – rules to confine the struggle within prescribed bounds. This is, of course, a logical enough remedy if it be assumed that the State is the only real social unity and, therefore, the only source of social unanimity and co-operation. But the falsity of this assumption is bringing a nemesis to our civilisation. The workers have drawn the obvious conclusion that political or quasi-political organisation is the only means of securing the adjustment of their grievances; they believe their future to depend upon their capacity to control the State. Their success in this endeavour has led to a marked increase in the intensity and bitterness of class-warfare.

The unease it patently displays comes strongly into contrast with the superficial optimism of professional politics. Rarely do we hear it asked whether the ill is not itself due, at least in part, to causes that may be termed political. Under such a system the individual may be oppressed rather than free to follow his impulses to self-development. A sound democratic autonomy cannot be based otherwise than upon a wide area of sane and logical public discussion.

The device of State control secures an apparent unity, but does nothing to promote real unanimity or mutual understanding. The methods of “practical politics” seem to have for object the creation of an aggravated partisan hostility which, if it persists, will make united action impossible. The average worker of the present sees industries not as social functions but as the scene of a “class -war” between the employing and the working classes. He believes, and not without historic justification, that capitalistic society is altogether careless of his bodily and his mental welfare.

The methods of “democracy,” far from providing a means of solving the industrial problem, have proved entirely inadequate to the task. Political organisation has been mistaken for political education; the party system has accentuated and added to our industrial difficulties. Democracy has done nothing to help society to unanimity, nothing to aid the individual to a sense of social function. Under its tutelage, social development has achieved a condition of perilous instability, a condition which democracy as such can apparently do little or nothing to cure. Interest in political affairs is not a sign of social health.

Democracy, as we at present know it, is based upon a misunderstanding of the facts of human nature and social organisation. Not until the mists have cleared from our social and political philosophy can we be certain that democracy moves in the direction of human freedom and personal autonomy.


Establishment meddling

The office of rules and regulations is to express a static relation; prohibitions can do nothing to bring about a condition of whole-hearted and spontaneous co-operation. Collaboration in the complex purposes of civilisation is the mark of social health; any ideal which aims at less than this is dangerous.

Arbitration courts have the effect of recognising and legalising social disintegration. The presiding judge is set the hopeless task of producing by regulation that which can only be spontaneous growth. The multiplication of restrictions does not aid an industrial function to develop new powers; it serves only to hinder it. An arbitration court is a subtle form of State control; its decisions are inevitably moral rather than technically skilled, from a strictly industrial point of view. The State possesses, and rightly, a power of social veto, power to forbid; but this power does not imply any capacity for initiative or leadership. An industrial court is limited by its nature to the restraint of unruly growth, the prohibition of undesirable development.

Any attempt to extend the sphere of its operations beyond this point cramps industrial activity and exacerbates class hostility. If the daily routine of industry is controlled, not by agreements between manager and workers, which change almost automatically with changing conditions, but by increasingly complex regulations imposed from without, then the task of devising  satisfactory methods of collaboration becomes daily more difficult of achievement. Courts deprive them of their social responsibility for the way in which they treat their employees. The court takes from the employer the right to make humane decisions.

The social régime which the “practical man” or the “capable manager ” would introduce, if he had his way, would be at least as dependent upon regulation as socialism and far more dully mechanical. All the “systems,” of which so much is said and written at present, would appear to be systems which set one man free to “think out” a restricted range of problems, at the cost of depriving some hundreds of his fellows of the right to think at all.

Too many workers already regard their work merely as a form of payment for such pleasure as they are able to find in their “spare” time. There are, however, consequences more obviously serious of this endeavor the part of the captains of industry to concentrate intelligence in the few and to allot tasks of dull routine to the many. Strikes, for example, as often as not, are due rather to a desire for some measure of personal autonomy than to the need of increased wages.


Commerce and Industry

A commercial system which deprives the average member of society at one stroke both of a sense of social function in his work and of all right to intelligent self-direction cannot be expected to prosper. The ills which the commercial man bewails – strikes, sabotage and the like– are very largely the result of his own refusal to take account of the human factor in the industrial problem. The nineteenth century, disregarding Adam Smith’s warning that Economic processes that are only incidents in a larger moral order, conceived labour as a “cost of production.” From that day to this our commercial development has headed direct for social disaster.

The industrial anarchy of the last century, masquerading under the style of “competition,” implied a belief in fear as the only effective spur to work and cooperation. So long as commerce specialises in business methods which take no account of human nature and social motives, so long may we expect strikes and sabotage to be the ordinary accompaniment of industry. Sabotage is essentially a protest of the human spirit against dull mechanism. And the emphasis which democracy places upon political methods tends to transform mere sporadic acts of sabotage into an organized conspiracy against society. But for this sinister feature of modern industrial life, our commercial leaders cannot be held blameless.

So long as the competitive struggle persists, industries will not actually be social functions. And until industries actually are social functions, a sense of social function is not likely to appear in the consciousness either of the employer or the worker. Large scale businesses in competition with each other are dangerous to society as a monopoly is not. Intelligence manifests itself more readily in response to the stimulus of social purpose than of fear. It is this fact, indeed, which distinguishes humanity as such from the animal creation. Capacity for social vision and the inspiration of high purpose – these are the motives which have made our civilisation, and not the essentially anti-social urge of fear.

The special business of trades, as of professions, is to conserve skill for the society. Each trade specialises in a particular direction, and each trade, therefore, is the concrete embodiment of a particular area of the communal knowledge. But there is no easy argument from the medieval guild to modern industry. The increase in size in the modern business is more than a mere increase in size; it is an increase in complexity also. A modern industry does not conserve for the society merely a single kind of skill, nor is it composed merely of the members of a single profession.

Any one industry of the present requires the active collaboration of many professions, each of which possesses its own special technical logic and tradition. The distinction between management, accountancy, publicity and trade work in a machine-factory, is fundamental. Organisation accountancy and publicity-work require a special training to fit the individual to deal with a special class of problem to extent at least as great as that required by trade-work. Nor can any one of these specialized pursuits dictate to another the methods it shall pursue. Skilled discussion lies between manager and manager, accountant and accountant, fitter and fitter; and the more highly developed the business the more specialised are the types of skill which it requires. A widespread social movement in the direction of guild monopolies could only intensify this tendency. The number of skilled professions is multiplied with every development in the direction of closer integration.

Industries resemble “professions” in that they are skilled communal functions. In all matters of social skill the widest knowledge and the highest skill should be sovereign rather than the opinion of “collective mediocrity.” The exercise of such authority should, of course, be subject to moral, but only moral, limitations imposed by the community.

When industry is organised upon a scale still larger than at present, it will at once become evident that the essence of social endeavor is co-operation between intelligences, and not one super-human intelligence presiding over a human mechanism.


Towards a Plan B democracy

The only effective want is that which is strong enough to drive a man to acquire the requisite knowledge and capacity. Desires which expend themselves in vapourings and idle regrets are futile. Society determining problems requiring the highest skill, places the decisions in the hands of those who were unable to understand the problem. The outstanding failure of democracy is its failure to appreciate the social importance of knowledge and skill.

Man can be saved by man alone. Human nature as developed by society is good or base, mentally clear- sighted or dully obscure; no amount of mere legislation will make the base man noble or will give the twilight thinker clear vision. If the working class is to cease being a merely working class, part at least of the remedy lies in its own hands.

No social system can be considered satisfactory which deprives the great majority of mankind of every vestige of autonomy. No society is civilised which exploits the many in the interest of the few. When work signifies intelligent collaboration in the achievement of a social purpose, “industrial unrest” will cease to be.

The function of the democratic “governor” is to record the achievements of society in the form of law, to criticise existing social relationships and to forbid any contravention of established morality. The more serious ills which democracy suffers are due to attempts on the part of political leaders to control and direct social and industrial undertakings. This attempt is as pernicious, as militarism or the worse forms of capitalism. Progress requires not merely the thinking of a ‘few’ but also the collaboration in thought of many minds. Even in the case of those whose thinking is ineffective, the individual standpoint is often of the highest social value. If progress is not humane, it is nothing.

The social will in any civilised community is extraordinarily concrete and very complex. It finds expression in moral institutions such as common law, equity, marriage and the law of contracts, which regulate human relationships by means of law and public opinion. It finds expression in the various professions and trades, each of which conserves some special type of skill in the interest of the community. Man is civilised only when he functions in a social scheme or system which endures through successive generations and is continuously developed towards the better expression of human capacities of thought and will. The art of government cannot be held to have approached perfection until it has related itself to this age-long effort to realise ideal conditions of living for the individual and the Society.

Far from expressing a genuine social unanimity, authority can only be understood as a vain attempt to counteract or conceal an actual and extensive disintegration. Mistaken development cannot be cured by the assumption of authority or trumpery legal enactments. “Government,” properly is one aspect only of a wider social co-operation; where there is no real co-operation, there can be no real government. The “industrialists” capture of the Labour political executives has caused the unions to turn their attention to political matters.

The European Union foretold

There is grave danger that the conclusion of the war (WWI) will by no means deter politicians from endeavouring to apply their extended, and military, powers to the problems of peace. Whatever the character of government, monarchical or democratic, upon the advent of war, it is bound to arrogate to itself powers which it could not easily claim in times of peace. War is, of course, the result of a failure on the part of peace to solve its problems logically. War is not an alternative social structure, but a confession of insufficiency and inadequacy in the social structure.

All authority derives from the State. This assumption, due in part to jurist conceptions of legal compulsion and in part to the fact that the principle, si pacem vis, para belluim, (if you want peace, prepare for peace/war) is closely woven through the historic social texture — this assumption possesses no relevance to the ideal of an abiding world peace.

Increased authority in the State, a League of Nations or States—this is the very condition of things we are struggling to destroy. Within the State society moves restlessly in its political fetters; beyond the State other social cultures develop a desire to proselytize. This desire may in itself be admirable, but when the world is marked off by political boundary fences, the missionary spirit is compelled to ally itself with militarism. A real world peace can only become fact when the various societies of the world are really co-operating as one in the tasks of civilisation. War and strife will not cease until social cooperation has become an accomplished fact, both within the various political communities and beyond their borders.

Growth or development is a character of social life and not of the State. In so far as a State or government, exceeding its function of moral control, endeavours to direct and order social activities, it is a hindrance to social development. Even in a nominal democracy, undue concentration of social power in the political leadership means tyranny and retrogression. Truly democratic theory must maintain, first, the supremacy of the social will; and, second, must oppose itself, and strongly, to all forms of governmental oppression.

Clearer understanding of the meaning of government will enable the rulers of the State to distinguish between the task of moral criticism, which is their chief duty, and that of social and industrial direction, for which they are radically unfitted.


Plan A Politics

The political party is naturally inclined, instead of bringing about an agreement of intellects, to resort to mechanical modes of rallying its forces and to keep its adherents together in an external and conventional conformity, by appealing, not so much to reason, which analyses and distinguishes, as to feeling; by preferring to stir up emotions (fear) which confuse the judgment and make a prisoner of the will.

In the last half-century of political development, the problem of dealing with large numbers of newly–enfranchised electors, has tended increasingly to be solved by fear. Images that terrify crowds, says Le Bon, will issue in immediate action, where logic will be without effect.

Independent and thoughtful people saw what was there for them among the small, vulgar leaders brought to the surface of politics, in the meetings and committees where everything was cut and dried by a little coterie which monopolised power by pulling the strings behind the scenes. Having these men, the Party has contrived to attract only the enthusiasts, the bigots of the party, and the busybodies. The great mass remained outside, sunk in its apathy and its indifference.

Obviously it is not merely control by “collective mediocrity” that induces this condemnation, but some sinister feature of modern methods of manipulating the people’s will. Political organisation has been substituted for political education, the “election broker” for the statesman. The end at which the Party aims is not the good of society but victory at the polls.

A capacity for controlling political opinion by appeals to prejudice and suspicion rather than to reasoned impartiality has become the solitary equipment of the politician. In the vast majority of cases the candidate for election is politically as uneducated as the masses whose good will he courts. He seeks, not to acquire political knowledge, but to develop a facility for arousing in his audiences, by every art of suggestion, feelings that will ensure their support for his candidature.

If it is possible to impute mean motives, then such imputations are freely used in order to disguise the artificiality and intellectual poverty of the whole election campaign. Any artifice is welcomed which will help to create an atmosphere of heightened emotion. It is as though we presented a slave with freedom once in every four years — and drugged him during his free period with opium or alcohol. His capacity for “thinking out” a situation in a logical manner is constantly diminished by the intrusion of emotional disturbances.

All this dysfunction might be avoided by a little patience and sympathy upon the one side, tolerance upon the other. But a community which has been stimulated by its politicians into a condition of irritability and emotional instability cannot be expected to exhibit virtues such as these. Nemesis is already overtaking our leaders in that with all the will in the world to unite the community in the face of threatened disaster, they cannot do so.

Our political system does nothing to promote unity and co-operation, but provokes suspicion and dislike between the various classes. This doctrine is based on the assumption that non–rational factors must predominate in human thinking and especially in collective thinking. While its fundamental duty is the giving expression to public opinion, it has rather deformed public opinion by forcing it into the groove of the stereotyped parties, electioneering machines.

Irrationalist theories of political and social organisation entirely neglect the progressive rationalisation which marks the growth of civilized society. Present-day humanity, in spite of party politics, is far more widely capable of reasoned processes of thought than preceding generations. Our bitterest controversies of the present are due to rival social logics, under which significant problems are quite differently stated. And our method – allegedly democratic – of resolving such differences, is to harden them into emotional antagonisms, instead of developing the rival conceptions, both defective, into mutual understanding.

Now that the party -system has come to imply an opposition between economic interests, good government by either side is unlikely, if not impossible. And the advent of such a condition of affairs means that an attempt is being made to provide a political solution for social problems which are not amenable to such treatment. The fact that economic problems require economic solutions is disregarded; the political and economic activities of society are hopelessly confused.

Exponents of democracy have too often been blind to this important truth. The politician’s endeavour to govern where he can neither control nor understand has imparted into politics problems which cannot be solved by political methods has thereby embittered partisan class-feeling and has blinded democracy to the fact that a nominal political freedom may serve to conceal a developing condition of economic servitude.

On freedom

Freedom implies social growth – the acquisition by man of new knowledge and new powers. Implied in this is a recognition of the fact that the State cannot rightly do more than reflect social growth. Such freedom may be truly “democratic” in the broadest sense, and yet not due to any political initiative. The rights which we enjoy, for example, under Common Law and Equity have been worked out, formulated and tested, socially and not politically; governments, whether monarchical or popular, have done no more than systematise the exposition of such rights in order to record them in a Statute.

The first duty of the State is to conserve for the community its freedom of growth. For the individual, society offers a sphere of activity in which ancestral tradition and present fellowship combine to aid and stimulate his powers of self-development. The function of the State in relation to this social process is that of moral control.

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