No man is good enough to govern another man without his consent – Abraham Lincoln 1809-1865


No man is good enough to govern another man without his consent.
Abraham Lincoln 1809-1865

Believers in democracy such as Boris Johnson would presumably challenge this statement by Lincoln? Boris has recently claimed that some people due to their intelligence are indeed better than others and should have the right to wealth and privilege and the right to direct the world on the basis of their talents.

His elitism is clearly at odds with the egalitarian principles inherent in the Lincoln quote. Lincoln was talking specifically about government but I would argue that the principle could, in fact should be applied equally in the workplace.

Today it is almost universally accepted that businesses, organisations and corporations have to be hierarchical in structure and that senior managers have the right, nay the duty, to ‘tell’ everyone else what to do; i.e. that within the confines of the hierarchy the managers have the right to govern regardless of the consent or otherwise of those lower in the hierarchy; i.e. the primary duty of employees is to do what they are told by those above them in the hierarchy whether they like it or not.

But 40 years ago there were different ideas abroad, ideas such as workers cooperatives, workplace democracy and common ownership. The main principle underpinning these radical conceptions of workplace organisation was that the organisational structures would force managers to govern by consent rather than by dictat. There would still need to be managers because managers fulfil specific bureaucratic functions within organisations that still need to be carried out but there is nothing inherently superior in these functions, which are in fact mainly administrative.

Indeed, from the mid 60’s to 1979 many people regarded managers in exactly that way – as the boring suits who fulfilled mainly bureaucratic duties. The real status, certainly in the creative industries, lay with those who did the real work.

And why not? Why shouldn’t a manager of a business, organisation or corporation have to govern by consent? Why should a free citizen in a free country have to set aside their own judgement and conscience when they go to work? In a parliamentary democracy the opportunities to engage directly with politics are actually very rare but most of us go to work everyday. For most of us the sense of being ‘governed’ happens at work not in the realm of parliamentary politics and I assert absolutely that in any workplace no man is good enough to govern another without his consent.

I would go further and say that this is actually the way it is, that when we carry out an order we don’t agree with we are actually making a choice to do so. The choice may not be an attractive one – do as you are told or be sacked – but ultimately that is the choice we make. To claim we are ‘just obeying orders’ is as lame in a TV company, hospital or a university as it is in a concentration camp. We are in fact free whether we like it or not, most people just choose to hide that fact from themselves in order for them to carry out orders they know to be wrong.

Let’s leave the last word to one of Lincoln’s contemporaries who emphasised that we all have a duty to follow our own consciences rather than the law… or indeed the policies and regulations of our workplace.

Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.
Henry David Thoreau (1817-62)

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