Office politics

By now, you’ve likely already heard that the Basecamp founders attempted to sink their company with, among other things, an edict that sought to prohibit all “political discussions” from the workplace.1 The Basecamp post is notable for the way it aspires to an Onion-worthy caricature of bad management, but the general message here—that the workplace ought to be a politically neutral space—is very common. It is also a cover up.

I’ve noted before how phrases and concepts often “do work” beyond just what their presumed meaning might relay. The term “office politics” is one of those phrases. It turns an important part of the inner workings of an organization—how people negotiate power and authority—into a futile and dispiriting game that no one in their right mind wants any part of. It serves to disenfranchise people from participating in decision-making that affects their lives. It reduces politics to power-grabbing without any analysis of the consequences of who wields that power, and in doing so coats any discussion of political values in a film of disgrace.

It’s within that framing that proscriptions of discussing politics at work arrive, making it especially difficult to interrogate them. It’s trivially easy for those with more power to simply declare that political discussions are, by their very nature, unpleasant and pointless. But that declaration obscures the judgment of what counts as a political discussion.

The Basecamp founders evidently passed their edict in response to a tense thread about a long-held internal practice: the keeping of a list of “funny-sounding” customer names. By everyone’s account, multiple people pointed out that this list was racist, and that racism is part of a system of violence that perpetuates terrible harms. To declare that discussions like this one cannot happen in a workplace isn’t to make that workplace apolitical: it’s to pass judgment on which politics are welcome, and which are not. A politics that criticizes and seeks to dismantle white supremacy? Leave it at the door. But a politics that valorizes hierarchical structures, top-down authority, and pedantic rule-making? Come in, sit a while, have some tea.

Here’s the thing: we need politics in the workplace. Politics—that is, the act of negotiating our relationships and obligations to each other—is critical to the work of building and sustaining democracy. And the workplace isn’t separate from democracy—it is democracy. It is as much a part of the democratic system as a neighborhood association or a town council, as a library or youth center or food bank. By the very nature of the outsized role that work plays in our lives, it’s where most of us have the potential to make the biggest impact on how we—and our families and communities—live. Workers across industries have organized to secure a legal minimum wage, won laws against unpaid overtime, established workplace safety guidelines, improved patient care standards at hospitals, kept school classrooms to a manageable size, ended private collaboration with the military and border control, worked to pass laws condemning gender and racial discrimination, and the list goes on. They’ve done this not only within their own workplaces, but for all of us.

A lot of the prevailing story about what unions do comes down to winning better wages for workers. This is, I suspect, why a lot of tech workers remain skeptical about unions: they are already among the best paid people in the country, so what could a union do for them? But unions aren’t only mechanisms for bargaining within individual workplaces—they are also engines of democracy.

Last November, on the day the election was called for Biden and Harris, I stood in Independence Mall in Philadelphia at what was to have been a “count the vote rally” but which turned into a celebration. And I heard from union leader after union leader talk about the thousands of doors they knocked on to get out the vote, and why that work was just as central to their workplace organizing as was bargaining for better wages. It’s not wrong to say that last year’s election wouldn’t have gone the way it did without the work of unions.

When we talk about politics belonging outside the workplace, we reduce democracy to an extracurricular instead of a core part of our lives. Democracy cannot be sustained by annual visits to the ballot box—it isn’t something we have, it’s something we practice. Like all things that require practice, if you don’t practice it often, you lose it.

  1. If you aren’t already familiar with the contours, Casey Newton has the story on how it started and where it landed. For an inside perspective, Jane Yang, a (now former) employee at Basecamp, wrote up a distressing and cogent post that is very much worth your time.