Overton’s Window in the Workplace, by Winter Trabex

Joseph P. Overton

In his work, The Meaning of Confederalism, Murray Bookchin wrote:

The assumption that what currently exists must necessarily exist is the acid that corrodes all visionary thinking (as witness the recent tendency of radicals to espouse “market socialism” rather than deal with the failings of the market economy as well as state socialism). Doubtless we will have to import coffee for those people who need a morning fix at the breakfast table or exotic metals for people who want their wares to be more lasting than the junk produced by a consciously engineered throwaway economy.

But aside from the utter irrationality of crowding tens of millions of people into congested, indeed suffocating urban belts, must the present-day extravagant international division of labor necessarily exist in order to satisfy human needs? Or has it been created to provide extravagant profits for multinational corporations?

Are we to ignore the ecological consequences of plundering the Third World of its resources, insanely interlocking modern economic life with petroleum-rich areas whose ultimate products include air pollutants and petroleum-derived carcinogens? To ignore the fact that our “global economy” is the result of burgeoning industrial bureaucracies and a competitive grow-or-die market economy is incredibly myopic.

While his intention in writing this paragraph was to introduce an argument in favor of decentralization and sustainability, he also hit upon another concept- the idea that economic thought regarding the workplace is limited within a certain range.

His sentiments reflect another theory, mostly used in reference to politics: that of Overton’s Window.

With respect to politics, Overton’s Window suggests that thought outside of a predetermined range of ideas is considered radical, impossible to implement. At the center of that range, also called the median, is where standard public policy usually exists. Go to far to one side or the other, and laws based on such ideas will not be adopted.

This range shifts and changes over time. It is not static; it is generally defined by the aggregate behavior of politicians in general.

For example: every politician might agree that maintaining a country in its current form is both agreeable and desirable. The extreme in one direction, that of abolishing the nation altogether, will not be accepted because it’s too far from the median. The extreme in the other direction, that of establishing a supreme dictator to rule everyone, will most often be rejected by a consensus vote. In order for either extreme to be seen as a reasonable option, the range of accepted ideas must change.

After deposing their monarchy and establishing a republic, Rome found itself in desperate need of a single, strong leader to take charge of the country. The problems of the day seemed impossible to solve. They appointed Lucius Cornelius Sulla as their dictator- a man who soon invented the prescription system in which a person who fell into disfavor with the government would be executed, his property seized.

Such would have been unthinkable several decades before when the Gracchi brothers turned to demagoguery in order to advance the interests of the plebians, Rome’s commoners. What was perceived to be acceptable had to change in order for something previously thought unacceptable to occur.

This, ultimately, is Bookchin’s point.

What has been allowed to occur within Western economies has only occurred because people found it acceptable enough not to actively rebel against. In different countries, the level of acceptability is different. In France, as of this writing, repeated riots and protests have occurred against the upper-class-only policies of their president, Emmanuel Marcon.

In America, despite having an openly fascist leader, there are those who find his policies not acceptable but desirable. Other countries have different levels of tolerance or intolerance towards their leaders. In this way, it can be seen the range and size of Overton’s Window depends on the people involved.

In the modern workplace, particularly the American workplace, Overton’s Window tends to be rather small. There aren’t many ideas allowed within it. These seem to be: work hard, quit your job, accept an employment contract. A person isn’t thought to be allowed to determine what job they are going to do, when they will do it, or how much effort they will put into it. All these factors are determined by third-party authorities.

Thus, such ideas as abolishing work altogether fall well outside the median of this particular Window. A drastic change of attitudes must take place in order for it to become socially acceptable. No one would riot in France if they actually liked their president, after all.

This sentiment is also expressed in one of H.L. Mencken’s multitude of quotes:

Liberty is not a thing for the great masses of men. It is the exclusive possession of a small and disreputable minority, like knowledge, courage and honor. It takes a special sort of man to understand and enjoy liberty — and he is usually an outlaw in democratic societies

In this quote, Mencken is commenting upon how the range of ideas tends to find its mean in something other than liberty so that personal human liberty is seen as an extreme option. Regardless of where the median falls in his analysis, his statement is suggestive of the fact that freedom for the individual is not standard public policy.

This quote can also be applied to the workplace as well. With many companies today themselves acting as private governments, a range of acceptable and extreme ideas can be found simply by evaluating such ideas in the aggregate as promulgated by those who claim authority over others. Business owners, plainly and simply, want the greatest profit they can acquire while engaging the least expense they can. A company owner would obviously prefer paying one dollar per hour to each laborer rather than twelve. He can charge the same prices as his competitors, who pay their people more, and reap a greater reward for himself.

The median idea in this instance is a zero-sum game. That is to say, a contest with winners and losers. The winner is the boss who owns enough capital to make an investment in himself so that he can generate a return in the form of passive income. The loser is the prisoner or sweatshop laborer who was not fortunate enough to have capital so that they can do the same.

The proposed solution to such inequality almost always is given as, “start your own business.” This sentiment is only expressed because an idea such as “let’s pay everyone equally and not have any bosses at all,” is too far away from the median of this particular window to be considered acceptable.

The possibility of opportunity existing, whether at home or abroad, generally keeps people from trying to reshape the system in which they live. After all, it’s easier to move than to have a drastically change one’s society locally. It should be no mystery then why people from third world countries move to America or England or Australia, or anywhere else, in hopes of having a better life.

Revolution- either politically or economically- just seems like a bridge too far.

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