Democracy and Organizations

Still a controversial issue, the idea that the ‘‘civilian’’ world might be becoming more democratic is juxtaposed with an opposite trend with respect to the organizational world. As Rousseau and Rivero, among others, put it:

‘‘Although we are increasingly likely to be governed by democratic political systems, our workplaces are seldom democratic’’ (2003: 116).

The increasingly dominant corporate power (Bernstein 2000), the persistence and refurbishment of hierarchy and bureaucratic systems (Courpasson & Reed 2004), the endless reproduction of corporate elite (Ocasio 1994; Courpasson 2004; Davis et al. 2003) are all trends highlighting the fact that the post bureaucratic dream of decentralized power and of people’s participation in the political decisions within organizations might be gone.

The supposedly post September 11 shift in the global power balance does not explain by itself the apparently legitimate use of strong central powers in the political structures of most western countries. In other words, the emergence of a ‘‘culture’’ of threat and terror is not exclusively the product of late modern patterns of civilization or of tragic and unprecedented events. Likewise, in the business world, the concentration of power is an old phenomenon (see, for instance, in Ocasio 1994) which is not exclusively related to the threatening and hectic movements of markets and the dynamics of capitalism. The wavering balance between democratic and oligarchic tendencies is one of the most ancient political features of societies.

Addressing the complex issue of democracy in the context of organizations requires us to go beyond these partial accounts in order to make the connection between organizational models and the functioning of contemporary democratic societies. There are important questions relating to the elective affinities between the meaning of democracy and its diverse facets, and government as a complex and intermingled set of values and mechanisms.

The Meaning and Meanings of Democracy

There are scores of available and relatively acceptable definitions of the concept of democracy. So numerous are they that the concept itself is in danger of becoming one of the most popular ‘‘buzzwords’’ of organization studies. As a means of clarifying this conceptual ‘‘hodgepodge,’’ we suggest adopting a twofold approach to understanding democracy: a political version and a competitive version.

Usually, democracy is defined as both a form of rule (the sovereignty of the people) and a symbolic framework within which this rule is exercised (such as individual liberty) (Mouffe 2000). This pertains to the well known duality within studies on democracy: the liberal tradition, according to which what counts is the rule of law and the respect of individual freedom encompassed in democratic regimes, and the democratic tradition, which privileges the notion of equality and the identity between governors and the governed. These traditions, when con fronted, unveil the unassailable tension between liberty and equality. Dahl reminds us that for Tocqueville, the major phenomenon threatening democracy is that equality will crush liberty, that political equality is likely to destroy liberty, ‘‘because equality facilitates majority despotism, it threatens liberty’’ (1985: 9).

Therefore, the political definition of democracy leads to envisaging democratic politics not as the search for an unreachable consensus, but as an ‘‘agonistic confrontation’’ (Mouffe 2000: 9), necessitating the creation of a pluralistic body of actors. According to Mouffe, the main question of democratic politics ‘‘becomes then not how to eliminate power, but how to constitute forms of power which are compatible with democratic values’’ (2000: 22). In short, the political perspective on democracy argues that democracy is not the absence of domination and the mere diffusion of social powers in the (organizational) body, but the genuine attempt to establish institutions which can limit and eventually contest domination. Dahl (1971) proposes to analyze the concrete forms of democracy through the notion of ‘‘polyarchy.’’ Polyarchy is an approximation of democracy, where a permanent activity of institutional design and ‘‘engineering’’ (Poggi 1972) helps contestation to take roots within the social body.

The political perspective of democracy also implies that equality is not automatically taken for granted. It cannot exist without inequality, without exclusion. As Mouffe puts it, democratic equality ‘‘requires the political moment of discrimination between ‘us’ and ‘them’’’ (2000: 44). Obviously, this view of democracy rejects the idea of ‘‘deliberative democracy’’ which can be found extensively in the organizational literature, especially under the auspices of the ‘‘managerial revolution’’ or of ‘‘post bureaucratic’’ management. The underlying argument of this latter perspective is that politics is identified with the exchange of arguments ‘‘among reasonable persons guided by the principle of impartiality’’ (Mouffe 2000: 86), which obliterates the possibility of legitimate struggles and debates between ‘‘adversaries.’’

For the competitive approach to democracy, a key characteristic of democratic regimes is the existence of a permissible opposition. This regards public contestation and political contestation (Dahl 1971: 4) as natural features of the system. Democracy is therefore a competitive regime. Ultimately, Dahl and the whole Tocquevillean tradition of which he is a part conceptualize democracy as being constituted by at least two dimensions: public contestation and the right to participate, i.e. the ‘‘inclusiveness’’ of the political regime. In that perspective, Dahl (1971: 8) defines polyarchy as a ‘‘highly inclusive’’ and an ‘‘extensively open to public contestation’’ regime, the closest to the concrete expressions of democracy.

The contribution of the competitive explanation is to clearly separate the generation of democratic regimes at the national level with the circumstances of the organizational level. As Dahl (1971: 13) puts it, ‘‘while polyarchies may be competitive at the national level, a great many of the subnational organizations, particularly private associations, are hegemonic or oligarchic.’’

Wilde (1978) completes this definition by adding a more ‘‘procedural’’ nuance to the competitive aspect of bureaucracies. Democracies are, according to him, largely defined by ‘‘those rules that allow (though they do not necessarily bring about) genuine competition for authoritative political roles. No effective political office should be excluded from such competition, nor should opposition be sup pressed by force’’ (p. 29). The corollary of this view is that organizations could be considered as democracies insofar as they develop ‘‘infra democratic’’ systems (p. 33), i.e., structural ingredients (comprising the distribution of power, specific political institutions, and social structure) which render democracy practically possible. But they are also ‘‘experiential’’ systems, characterized by the commitment of people to these very rules of competition and consent. We are clearly close to the seminal view of Montesquieu, when in The Spirit of the Laws he defines a political regime through the expectations and perceptions of individuals toward the governors, and through the degree to which power is concentrated.

Behind the scenes of the competitive frame work lurks the notion of equality. This derives from Tocqueville’s analyses on the tendency of equality to contribute to the degenerative process of democracy: ‘‘In democracies, not only are servants equal among themselves; one can say that they are in a way the equals of their masters’’ (2000: 549). This is the result of the credible potential for anybody (including the servant) to become a master himself. Democracy as competition is therefore connected to a vision of the temporary character of social hierarchies. But simultaneously, it requires from governors to invest constantly in the social fabric of their legitimation. As Tocqueville puts it, ‘‘servants are not sure that they should not be the masters and they are disposed to consider whoever commands them as the unjust usurper of their right’’ (p. 553).

Tocqueville’s concerns go to the heart of the debate between bureaucratic and post bureaucratic models. The design of the latter model aims explicitly to shatter the bureaucratic image of the unassailable bureaucratic hierarchy (Heckscher 1994). But once again, Tocqueville’s reminder is timely: this type of hierarchical relationship, generating rivalries and endless struggles, necessitates the design of a constraining administration stipulating to each ‘‘what he is, what he can do, or what he should do’’ (Tocqueville 2000: 553). A rejuvenated bureaucracy, freshly legitimized by the requirement to ‘‘close the debates,’’ arises from the very functioning and core values of democracy.

At the same time, both the political and competitive definitions of democracy offer another alternative. By saying that, we put forward the idea that organizations could be theorized as fundamentally antagonistic places, where a plurality of values and interests is never solved through a rational consensus (a notion dear to liberal democratic theories of management; see, e.g., Osborne & Gaebler 1992), nor through a pure domination or hegemony. It might be thought of as a complex and hybrid oligarchy, permanently producing acts of power and constituting itself as a political community through these very acts of power. A complex oligarchy is a political order of organizations based on certain forms of precarious and contestable dominations, always vulnerable and striving relentlessly to solidify themselves. It is precisely because of this precariousness that organizations can be seen partly as (very imperfect) democracies, ‘‘competitive oligarchies’’ to take Dahl’s expression.

The Democratic Problem: Oligarchic Drift and the Production of Intermediate Bodies

At least since Tocqueville, we know democracy faces two major problems. First, the development of despotic/oligarchic trends spawned by the ‘‘circular’’ nature of democracy. Second, the consecutive necessity for democratic regimes to develop an institutional design likely to keep government from transmogrifying into despotism.

No principle, no procedural requirements, nor ‘‘absolute rights can prevent tyranny from emerging’’ (Dahl 1985: 18). In other words, any governing body, majority or minority, may use democratic processes to destroy democracy itself. Democratic regimes are prone to self destruction (Linz & Stepan 1978). As Poggi (1972: 49) puts it, despotism is a degeneration of the inertial tendencies of democracy and not an intentional and implicit goal of a governing elite. To Tocqueville, oligarchy reproduces itself through the processes of democratization, what Poggi calls the circularity of democracy. As individual concerns are increasingly ‘‘privatized,’’ the leaders must take powerful decisions in order to move away from despotic tendencies. In other words, oligarchs sustain their power by developing democratic principles and peculiar intermediate groups of political actors. But it is the central power which deter mines and delineates the type of groups, their prerogative and who, within these groups, is likely to reach the ‘‘inner circles’’ (Useem 1984).

According to Tocqueville, the very dynamics of equality might turn democracy into a new species of tyranny, a ‘‘breeding ground for mass despotism’’ (in Dahl 1985: 31). The Tocquevillean perspective outlines three major dangers to which democracies are prone: the atomization of societies into isolated individuals; the emergence of authoritarian regimes; and the support by people of these centralized forms of administration. Democratic collapse arises from the sometimes amazingly over whelming public support toward authoritarian regimes. Moreover, the ascent of dictatorial forms of government stems often more from the persistence of inequalities than from an excess of equality, fragmenting the citizenry into hostile camps and enhancing confidence for a dictatorship (Dahl 1985).

Mild despotism emerges therefore from two parallel mechanisms. First, the illusions generated by the consensual vision of deliberative governments. In other words, consensus might be the very expression of hegemony and ‘‘the crystallization of [asymmetric] power relations’’ (Mouffe 2000: 49). The reconciliatory move observable in the post bureaucratic school of thought (Heckscher 1994), by insisting on the necessary initialization of debates, on the importance of speech acts (Benhabib 1996: 9), on symmetry, equality, and consensus, obliterates the fact that democratic politics in organizations is mostly about the negotiation of paradoxes and the articulation of precarious solutions to these paradoxes (Mouffe 1999). Consensus is necessary but it must be accompanied by dissent, otherwise hegemonic regimes are likely to appear. This possible drift is also due to the fact that the very competitive essence of democracy implies a high degree of insecurity for those in governing positions. As Lipset et al. (1956: 10) put it, ‘‘the more truly democratic the governing system, the greater the insecurity.’’ In other words, what Poggi (1972) terms ‘‘status insecurity’’ supposes that organizations need to be combined with oligarchic modes of selection. Oligarchic principles provide arguments to justify discrepancies between individuals, the ‘‘us and them’’ principle in Mouffe’s terms. For Tocqueville, any mass of equals and atomized individuals needs an oligarchy to avoid being permanently threatened by anarchy. Under a tutelary oligarchy, people feel the obligation to cooperate, at least because they share similar concerns, fears, and weaknesses. Dresher (1968: 6–7) adds his voice by arguing that democracies should be defined as limited egalitarian ideologies. This presupposes certain inequalities and authority– obedience relationships as ‘‘necessary inequalities within general equality.’’ Dresher, using the Tocquevillean framework, insists upon the influence of the emergence of a ‘‘politically disinterested individualism’’ arising from a democratic appeal to ‘‘material interests’’; as a consequence, the danger of drifting toward despotic regimes comes not mostly from the ‘‘tyranny of the majority’’ but from the ‘‘apathy of the masses’’ (p. 42).

In sum, any concrete democratic structure must define whether the central government should be arbitrary or moderate, i.e., does it ‘‘oppose or allow the existence of nongovernmental centers of power’’ (Poggi 1972: 41).

This leads us to our second point: the production of intermediate political bodies. As Rousseau and Rivero (2003: 119) suggest, it might seem easier to promote democratic practices in organizations than in broader social bodies; consensus regarding tasks and purposes, socialization capacities, educational systems, and the focus on work provide cultural ‘‘cornerstones’’ in most organizations, whatever their size. Through recent corporate post-bureaucratic upheavals, new forces sustaining democratic values and practices have appeared. These include the decentralization of organizing and information, the transformation of certain bases of power distribution, the broadening of the array of stakeholders, and the concomitant awareness of broader interdependencies and mutual impact of acts of power in ‘‘network organizations.’’ But democracy has also to struggle with the persistence of hierarchy. The egalitarian aspects of democracy are hampered by the overwhelming competition among individuals, and with the contradictory effects of mobility on the organizational cohesiveness necessary to collective decision making and deliberative systems (Dahl 1985; Rousseau & Rivero 2003).

From these contradictory forces arises the absolute necessity for organizations to invent certain forms of ‘‘institutional engineering’’ (Poggi 1972) likely to tip the balance in the democratic direction. The idea is to counter the effects of the emergence of a ‘‘consumerist view of politics’’ (p. 45), which is the major threat to democracy as it facilitates the political monopoly of a specific oligarchy. Institutional engineering implies the creation of intermediate groups that prevent the displacement of social ties by more transitory relationships. For Tocqueville, intermediate groupings aim to create local powers that act as a counterbalance to the political concentration at the top of organizations and societies. They also aim to intensify individual commitments and enhance the construction of strong, efficient, and reliable internal elites. This institutional differentiation in the political system rests upon a ‘‘constitutional design’’ creating a distinction between a relatively small set of stable laws and an extensive set of peripheral laws subject to contestation, modification, or abolition. What rules are to become steady is a crucial issue for democracies to perpetuate. It implies that going further into the distinction between governmental and administrative issues, the former will affect the interests of the organization as a whole, the latter will affect primarily locally individuals.

The interest for organizations in installing local intermediate powers is especially important in times of economic deprivation which affect large numbers of people. In the context of societies, we know that under difficult conditions, individuals can be subject to the seductive appeals of politically cynical leaders, without the will to take a hand in govern mental affairs (Poggi 1972). For bitterness, feelings of insecurity or injustice, they could renounce any ambition and commitment, or withdraw exclusively into the private sphere, which could shatter social ties and make the social body collapse. Intermediate bodies are also a means for leaders to shed light on the benefits and interests of the collective body in times when individuals could prefer to neglect shared values and common political and cultural frames to step into the chilling dynamics of despotism. In the context of organizations, the political indifference or apathy, and the resulting focus on self fulfillment that one can observe (which is largely a result of the threatening and competitive ‘‘spirit’’ of contemporary liberal organizations; see Courpasson 2005), could lead to this type of dynamic: brushing off the ethical side of leaders’ legitimacies, people could prefer to depend politically on strong and efficient centers of power, distributing the fruits of economic success, whatever the means used. The possibility of a political professionalization of leadership, foreshadowed a long time ago by Michels, might therefore doom the political aspirations of the forthcoming generation of workers and executives. Tocqueville’s prophesy would then prove to be right. The urgent necessity of establishing strong intermediate (professional) powers could prevent organizations from becoming slowly and unobtrusively apolitical entities where the democratic idea would be restricted to the upbeat discourses of utopian thinkers and scholars.

Corporate Elite Production and the Dynamics of Democracy

We have adopted a political framework to make sense of the dynamics of organizational regimes: the structures of power, the organization of coercion, the formation of coalitions and the production of political elites provide, in this perspective, the most relevant guides to the explanation of these dynamics (Tilly 1973: 447).

More particularly, understanding the emergence and production of a political regime supposes to focus on ‘‘the incumbents and their actions, their formulation of the agenda for the regime, their way of defining problems and their capacity to solve them, the ability of the pro regime forces to maintain sufficient cohesion to govern’’ (Linz & Stepan 1978: 40). We suggest now that this has important implications for understanding the stability of political structures of organizations. Such factors are likely to inform both the definitions of democracy and the accounts regarding the evolution of democratic regimes toward oligarchy.

As Lipset et al. (1956) remind us, the insecurity of leadership status is one of the cornerstones of democracies. However, a broad range of literature suggests firmly that contemporary corporate elites are perpetuating themselves relatively smoothly. This poses an interesting counterfactual for the supposed ‘‘circulation of power’’ or ‘‘circulation of control’’ put forward by some authors (Ocasio 1994; Ocasio & Kim 1999).

Two major phenomena might help account for the apparently seamless reproduction of corporate elites. First, the social fabric of a ‘‘class wide’’ principle (Useem 1984), according to which a certain number of mechanisms, especially interlocking directorates (Mizruchi 1996), facilitate the production of both cohesiveness among elite members and educational ingredients helping the selection and the socialization of coopted individuals, according to the well known ‘‘small world’’ phenomenon (Davis et al. 2003). In that view, a corporate elite can be represented as a powerful network of powerful individuals sustaining strategies of ‘‘power entrenchment’’ through the very management of the interlocks and friendship ties (Ingram & Roberts 2000). Second, the permanence of an ‘‘upper class’’ principle (Useem 1984), according to which the major ingredient of elite stability is its embeddedness in a specific social milieu of established wealthy families, ‘‘sharing a distinct culture, occupying a common social status, and unified through intermarriage and common experience in exclusive settings’’ (p. 13). At the corporate level, the power of social closeness and similarity has been pin pointed as a strong determinant of CEO succession and appointment (Westphal & Zajac 1995). Other studies have suggested that intra organizational mechanisms were also likely to produce endogenously an elite body through selective education and socializing mechanisms, as well as through the production of specific internal professions (Courpasson 2004).

If we follow Allen (1974), we could easily argue that the conjunction of these external and internal mechanisms is downright anti democratic, as it generates an ‘‘increasingly pervasive and integrated structure of elite cooptation among major corporations’’ (p. 404), restraining per se the quality of the competition and the principle of elite insecurity which has been put forward as the pillar of democratic regimes.

We have argued that the relationship between democracy and organizations is extremely ambivalent. A certain number of contemporary forces are clearly promoting democracy in the workplace. Others are clearly hampering any possibility of implementing true participation, contestation, and inclusiveness within organizations. When related to democracy, organizations appear more and more as regimes, i.e., ‘‘political forms ordering symbolically and structurally a set of social relations’’ (Mouffe 2000), organizing human coexistence and managing inequality between people and their relations of subordination. In organizations, ‘‘the stability of any democracy depends not on imposing a single unitary loyalty and viewpoint but on maintaining conflicting loyalties and viewpoints in a state of tension’’ (Crossman 1956). According to this general political definition of organizations, three major lines of inquiry may be suggested to better understand the relationship between democracy and the organizational world.

First, the study of the paradoxical roles played by contemporary oligarchies in the shaping of future organizations should be developed. Under a theory of political plural ism, it becomes urgent to understand that, in contemporary organizations, democracy and oligarchy are not necessarily opposite models. Oligarchy can become the very ferment of the production of a fragmentation of the complex social body. This can enable people not only to be related to the larger organization, but also to be affiliated with or loyal to subgroups within the organization (Lipset et al. 1956: 15), and therefore, to keep a close hand on their own fates and decisions. Contemporary processes such as the (re)emergence of professions and collegial forms in organizations (Lazega 2000) suggest undoubtedly that organizations could be politically shaped in a ‘‘polycratic’’ fashion, to take Weber’s expression.

Second the study of democracy in/for organizations cannot neglect the determination of political regimes by the specific profiles of business leaders. For instance, does the development of global corporations serve to develop a ‘‘global corporate elite’’? In contrast, do the stiff competition and the uncertainties deriving from the growing multiplicity of stakeholders necessitate the generation of a more ‘‘parochial elite’’ deeply committed to the interests of individual companies but not fulfilling the political dimensions of the ‘‘managerial class’’? At any rate, studying leadership as a profession, as some seminal studies have shown (Selznick 1957), more than as a practice could help scholars to better understand the very reasons why, maybe, key stakeholders do not consider developing democracy is in their interest.

Third, it is obviously crucial for organizational scholars to keep on studying the dynamics of authority within organizations, especially to understand why, while most people consider organizations have too much power over their members, very few think the latter should exercise more power in the workplace (Rousseau & Rivero 2003: 130). In other words, is democracy ‘‘thin’’ or ‘‘weak’’ because of a shared vision of legitimate authority within organizations? If yes, business leaders would have achieved a political tour de force. If not, we should give more attention to why the apparent zone of indifference (Barnard 1938) might be larger than ever in the contemporary workplace.

Other issues are of great importance, such as the link between the rise of the knowledge economy and the increasingly differential treatment of knowledge workers. The greater individual employability of these workers requires a rethinking of assumptions of the latent power asymmetry between firms and employees, and to what extent this dynamic has the capacity to enhance democratic practices or whether it forecloses any possibility of the development of a durable commitment of workers in the political affairs of the organizations for whom they work and in which they live.


We have argued that the current political dynamics of organizations and of surrounding societies bear the seeds of mild despotic regimes, as Tocqueville predicted two centuries ago. At the same time, we have suggested that the incumbent economic leaders cannot brush aside the effects of recent corporate scandals in the engineering of the power structures of organizations. Moreover, recent investigations suggest that some deeply rooted patterns of corporate elite production could have been shattered for at least two decades (Cappelli & Hamori 2004).

Without envisaging that democratic organizations could miraculously emerge out of the shadows of corporate scandals, we think the quest for accountability and responsibility could be one of the political touchstones of organizations of the twenty first century. The constitution of a notion of political performance (Eckstein 1969) applied to organizations could help to find a new equilibrium for the excessive dominance of economic variables in the con temporary notion of survival. A politically efficient government is not necessarily the most democratic, but that which is capable of sharing out what is produced by a collective endeavor.

Organization studies on democracy are influenced by the post war optimism about the durability of democracies, once established. They are mostly grappling with the eternal question of why organizations are not democratic. We think organizational scholars should leave this question to jump to two complementary questions: (1) How far is democracy necessary to the functioning of organizations? (2) What are the contemporary concrete hybrids which are shaping the political structures of tomorrow’s organizations? It is by understanding the complexity and fragility of these political hybrids that organizational scholars will be able to help future business elites to avoid some mistakes of the past.


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