Civilizing the Economy A New Economics of Provision

The Wisconsin Debate: Subjects or Citizens

Posted Feb 21, 2011 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, 2 Comments

Kingdoms have subjects and democracies have citizens.  In a democracy, government belongs to the people.  In kingdoms, the government belongs to the royal family.  Kingdoms, of course, come in different forms. If we cannot tell the difference, we are in trouble.

In Wisconsin, the Republicans complain that the Democrats are not playing fair when they leave the State so the elected majority cannot carry out their agenda.  After all, in a representative democracy, the elected majority has won the right to govern.  This sounds right, but it is only part of the story.

True, the majority has the right to govern citizens, but not subjects.  Workers, even public sector workers, have the rights of citizens, which include the right of collective bargaining.  To eliminate this civic right is to erase significant gains we have made in changing the foundation of our democracy from property rights to civic rights.

When our democracy was founded, only property owners counted as citizens.  Our democracy was founded on property relations, not civic relations.  This has changed over the years, so property ownership is no longer a criterion for citizenship.  Still, in the workplace, both private and public, one’s work continues to be treated as a piece of property that one exchanges for wages.  We sell our work.

The right to collective bargaining is based not only on the ownership of one’s work, but also on the civic right to engage in collective action: to form a community and as a community, to participate in the governing of one’s work life.  Given that the workplace continues to be dominated by property law, where workers are subject to the rule of their boss or employer, unions represent an island of democracy in their employer’s kingdoms. For the elected majority to flood this island of democracy with the language of fiscal responsibility is more than we can allow.

Would it not be a great transformation to have a conversation about real democracy in the workplace, instead of a conversation about the elimination of democracy?

2 Responses to “The Wisconsin Debate: Subjects or Citizens”

  1. Mark says:

    February 21, 2011 at 11:12 pm

    Excellent post! Unions certainly aren't perfect, but it's amazing how they get demonized these days, especially given their long-term decline in membership. In 2010, the union membership rate for public sector workers was only 36.2 percent, and for private sector workers a paltry 6.9 percent (
  2. Kirsten Brown says:

    February 23, 2011 at 7:10 am

    This makes so much sense! Especially considering that most union workers are working for the health and welfare of the community as a whole....( police, fire firefighters, teachers etc.)..having been a child protective service worker for 6 years I can speak from personal experience that having union representation directly impacted the ability to continue to serve our community's most vulnerable populations. And honestly since many of the citizens living in this country refuse to recognize the needs of so many, I think they should just back off and let those of us who can do our job!!!!!

Leave a Reply


Marvin T. Brown, Ph.D teaches business and organizational ethics at the University of San Francisco and Saybrook University in San Francisco.

This book is the culmination of 30 years of teaching and writing on business and society from a communicative perspective. Visit for more information.

Adam Smith Atlantic trade banks biosphere citizen Citizens United city civic civic conversations civic economy civic membership civilizing the economy common citizen Commons corporate citizen corporation as property corporations democracy disagreement economics of dissociation economics of provision Egypt future health care reform invisible hand John Locke Kant libertarianism membership money moral equality ownership property property relations protection reciprocity Scotland slavery Smith and slavery Smithian economics sustainability taxes the civic tobacco trade Wall Street

Cambridge University Press
Local Bookstores
Barnes & Noble