Democracy at Work: Power, Voice and Employment in the 21st Century
Martin O'Neill


Work is a central domain of human activity. Our working lives help to mould our character, and play an often-decisive role in whether our not we are able to succeed in the development and pursuit of our life-plans. Work can be a site of human liberation, and can provide opportunities for cooperative self-development. Alternatively, it can be a domain of oppression and domination, and can stultify rather than facilitate human flourishing.

Clearly the organisation and regulation of work, and of labour market institutions, is a fundamental matter of political concern, and generates foundational questions of social justice. Political philosophers have a responsibility to investigate the question of what sort of workplaces can legitimately be justified within democratic societies, and to develop a normative analysis and an agenda for reform that is sensitive both to the underlying conceptual and normative issues of social justice that are in play, and to the really-existing institutional structures and historical trajectories that shape the current structures of working life.

This project will seek to discharge that responsibility. It will seek to investigate the way in which work structures and distributes power and voice for employees, and asks what alternative arrangements might be desirable or accessible. In doing so, particular attention will be paid to how the commitments to equal concern and respect for democratic citizens can be extended into the workplace, and how democratic societies can use the power of the state to change the regulation of employment so that working life will more often take a form that is justifiable to free and equal citizens. At the same time, the research is also addressed to activists, unions and other institutional actors, with the aim of aiding in the task of developing a 21st century agenda for the reform of working life.

The Research Idea

We live in deeply unequal societies, in which the inegalitarian distribution of voice and of power is just as troubling as the inegalitarian distribution of income and wealth. Nowhere is that truth more striking than in the workplace, where workers frequently face a precarious existence, where legal protections are weak, and where scope for voice and agency in shaping the course of working life is the reserve only of a privileged few. In contemporary capitalist economies the nature of the employment relationship, and the way in which it distributes power and control between employers and employees, cannot be seen as providing socially desirable or democratically justifiable outcomes.

Writing in 1952 in his book ‘American Capitalism’, J. K. Galbraith emphasized the significance of institutions, such as trade unions, that could build up ‘countervailing power’ in standing up to the excessive power of capital over labour. Yet we face a situation now where the structures and institutions that did the work of advancing workers’ interests during the ‘Trentes Glorieuses’ of the post-war period are now weak and quiescent. There is a pressing need for thinking about new configurations of countervailing power, and new ways in which the experience of employment can be made consistent with our aspiration to live in democratic societies in which people are treated as equals. My project will advance an agenda for developing new forms of countervailing power, through developing and advancing proposals for ways in which employees can be given greater voice in more democratic workplaces.


This research project develops from my 2014-15 ISRF ECF project on ‘Social Justice, Predistribution and the Democratization of Capital’, taking that economically egalitarian research agenda into new directions. In my previous project, developing the work of Meade, Rawls, Atkinson and Piketty, I divided egalitarian strategies into the ‘redistributive’ and ‘predistributive’ and, within the space of predistributive strategies, distinguish between ‘capital predistribution’ and ‘labour predistribution’. My previous project looked at ‘capital predistribution’, and asked how the state could act to disperse capital holdings more broadly.

In this complementary project, I want to develop this egalitarian policy agenda by looking more specifically at the labour market, and at how different forms of regulation and different institutional actors can create conditions where the balance of power at work can be shifted from the side of capital holders to the side of working people. This represents a parallel egalitarian strategy to the one outlined in my earlier work, and a vital one if one is to conceptualise the route towards a more democratic and egalitarian economy in advance of the broader shifts in capital ownership that I advocate. Economic egalitarians need to develop a number of different parallel strategies simultaneously, and this project therefore answers the obvious limitation of my other work that egalitarian political philosophy, as well as providing an account for different patterns of property-ownership in the economy, needs to be able to ground concrete proposals for reforming economic life that could be implemented in advance of those changes in ownership patterns.

The Focus

This research will provide a fresh, philosophically well-grounded answer to this under-explored question: what are people owed, as a matter of fundamental social justice, in terms of the organization and regulation of their working lives?

More specifically, among the real-life problems to be addressed are:

  • Is excessive managerial authority fundamentally inimical to social justice? If so, how should it be regulated?
  • What should be the role of worker-managed enterprises in a just society? Does the state have a responsibility to promote the flourishing of such enterprises? If so, how should it do it?
  • What should be the role of trade unions within a just society? Should states treat unions as one private association among others or should they take a more promotive stance? How can the state best help unions to flourish as agents of justice?
  • What should we make of the features of really-existing divisions of labour within contemporary economies, and how should they respond to radical leftists who call for its transformation in the name of social justice (e.g., Gomberg (2007))?

Advocates of property-owning democracy may be tempted to argue that ownership of economic enterprises matters fundamentally. Is this view well founded? What matters at work – is it ownership or control, or both? What can be learned from the experience of successful cooperative enterprises that could be translated into the case of other firms? How can a regulatory framework for employment protect workers regardless of the ownership structure of the economic enterprises in which they work?

Theoretical Novelty

As I point out in the description of my 2016 ISRF Residential Research Group on ‘Exit, Voice and Solidarity: Economic Stakeholders in Democratic Capitalism’, contemporary theories of social justice tend in general to abstract away from the specificities of real economic institutions, leading to work in political philosophy that can be convincing with regard to the principles elaborated, but frustratingly underdeveloped when one turns to question of the practical legal and institutional implications of such principles. Refocusing our attention on economic institutions allows us to bridge the chasm between relatively abstract theories of justice and the research carried out by economic sociologists, policy analysts, industrial relations theorists, and political scientists.

Systematic engagement with issues of economic democracy, labour unions and voice in the workplace has been only a rather recent development in political philosophy, with this deficit due in large part to our discipline’s excessive insulation from developments in labour law, business studies and industrial relations.

My project will seek to develop conceptual innovations within political philosophy by integrating insights from these neighbouring disciplines. In doing so, it will build on excellent recent work by theorists such as Cohen, Shiffrin, Anderson, Satz, Hussain, Norman, White, Gourevitch, Arnold, Gilabert, and Hsieh, as well as some of my own earlier work in this area (see attachment for O’Neill (2008)).

I retain the belief that innovative work often happens at the edge of related disciplines, and in cases where scholars are prepared to engage with the insights and methods of those neighbouring disciplines.


This project is thoroughly interdisciplinary, and will involve the integration the following disciplinary inputs:

(a) history of political thought: excavation of the valuable insights of the pluralist movement in the work of writers such as Laski, Cole, Dahl and Schumpeter;

(b) political theory: integration of ideas from the Rawlsian egalitarian tradition of my own earlier work in this area, as well as that of theorists such as Hussain, Cohen, Hsieh, White, and others, with insights from work by Hirst, Stears and others on associative democracy;

(c) industrial relations: engagement with the ‘high-water mark’ of industrial relations theory from the post-war period, especially writers such as Hugh Clegg and Allan Flanders in the ‘Oxford school’ of industrial relations (these now largely neglected writers thought systematically about how to create a more egalitarian economy, and there is much to be gained from re-engaging with them);

(d) public policy: examining proposals for corporate reform, especially with regard to the place of workers on boards and in other forms of consultation, looking also at the history of UK public policy in, e.g. the Bullock and Donovan Commission reports.

(e) labour law: engaging with the work of contemporary labour law theorists such as Bogg, Novitz, Mantouvalou and Ewing.

The project will also involve an element of empirical fieldwork, as I will undertake a small number of research trips, to learn more about the ways in which successful contemporary examples of economic democracy might inform further theoretical developments (described below).


This research would be undertaken starting Sept 2017, giving me time to complete remaining outputs from my current projects before engaging on new research.

Central to my project will be a number of fieldwork visits, undertaken during the first months of the fellowship, which will allow me to understand current innovations in employee empowerment, and to consider how my theoretical work could best be informed by current practice:

(a) the Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, Ohio, spending time also with the Democracy Collaborative in DC, the leading US foundation looking at new models of work;

(b) the Mondragon Corporation and University in the Basque country;

(c) the Preston co-operative initiative at Preston City Council, the UK’s leading example of how the powers of local government can be used to create conditions that are more amenable to non-precarious, engaged and empowered employment.

The primary output of this project will be a research monograph on ‘Democracy at Work: Power, Voice and Employment in the 21st Century’, to be placed with a leading university press. As staging posts along the way, I will also write 3-4 standalone journal articles, placing them in leading journals of political philosophy.

A major conference will be held towards the end of the grant (Summer 2018), bringing together an interdisciplinary group from the various subject areas mentioned above, together with trade unionists and think-tanks. This will form the basis of an edited volume on ‘Democracy at Work’, which will also be placed at a leading university press.


I hope that this project will further one of the ISRF’s broader ambitions in advancing interdisciplinary work on the economy that breaks out through the existing constraints of discrete academic disciplines.

In addition to the academic outputs mentioned above, I would also look to place various shorter pieces in various other publication venues (e.g. the Boston Review, the New Statesman, etc.) thereby also creating scope for this work to have a broader impact on discussion in wider political debates.

One longer-term outcome, within academia, will hopefully be to open up channels of communication between political philosophy, political science, public policy, labour law, business studies, and industrial relations. My hope is that it would be greatly to the benefit of each discipline to engage more thoroughly with the ideas and insights of its neighbouring disciplines. The research project itself, as well as the interpersonal connections forged through the 2018 conference, would allow future collaborative and interdisciplinary work to happen more easily and more successfully.

A broader outcome would be outside academia. My hope is that this research project would broaden and replenish the agenda and conceptual vocabulary of trade unionists, activists, politicians and think tanks, thereby bringing new proposals onto the political agenda of these organisations. Parties of the left and centre-left have been noticeably deficient in renewing their agendas in the domain of industrial policy, and my hope is that this project could contribute valuably towards a resurgence of vitality in this area.


This is a major research project in normative political philosophy, addressing the justice and justification of a number of specific real-world economic institutions. Its aim is to make fuller sense of emerging ideas of “predistribution”, questioning whether predistributive strategies can generate a positive direction for future progress towards more just and democratic societies. In particular, the primary area of examination will be designing and realizing a more democratic financial system, with a particular focus on the justifiability and plausibility of ideas relating to the democratization of capital investment.

The credit crunch of 2007, and the worldwide financial and fiscal crises that have come in its wake, have raised deep and difficult questions about the proper organization and regulation of our economic system. My project will examine the underlying philosophical aspects of these questions, seeing financial regulation as one significant dimension of the pursuit of social justice within democratic societies. This involves examining the desiderata of a system of financial regulation in terms of underlying political values of liberty, autonomy, equality, democracy and social justice.

In recent years, analytic political philosophy has become excessively cut-off from economics and political economy, to the detriment of each discipline. My project will pursue a significant reintegration of these disciplines, breaking new ground on the interdisciplinary discussion of fundamental questions regarding the organization of economic life in democratic societies. It will push forward an ambitious new agenda in “applied political philosophy”, which has the potential greatly to influence the development of the subject, and also to influence broader debates about the politics of social democracy and of the European social model.

This project will bring significant benefits to neighbouring disciplines, to policymakers, and to the general democratic debate, in Europe and elsewhere, on central questions regarding the future organization of our economies and our societies.

The Research Idea

The central idea of this research project is that the standard mechanisms for achieving more just societies have been tried and found wanting. If governments are to continue to pursue goals of social justice within democratic societies, then new ways have to be found in order to realise those goals.

In particular, the shortcomings of the traditional welfare state, in either its liberal or its more generous, universal forms have become much clearer in recent years, both in practice, as we see the spread of austerity in the face of the recent worldwide financial and fiscal crises, and also within political theory itself, for example as some of the most significant but under-appreciated insights of John Rawls’s political philosophy have come to be better understood. (See, for example, O’Neill (2012), enclosed with this application.)

The central idea of this research project is that strategies of “predistribution” can form an effective new way for states to overcome the deficiencies of traditional mechanisms, in order to create more just and democratic societies. As Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker puts it, the aim of predistribution is “to focus on market reforms that encourage a more equal distribution of economic power and rewards even before government collects taxes or pays out benefits”.

Specifically, my project is to undertake a normative examination of the potential, in terms of justice and democracy, of different methods of democratising capital, looking at the place of democratic principles both in workplaces and in the regulation of investment.

The Focus

This project has a multidisciplinary reach, ranging over political philosophy, economics and political economy. The limitations of current research reference points is that they lack this kind of general interdisciplinarity. Thus, while there will be much to be gained from engagement with the existing literature on related issues, this project will itself be the first systematic integration of insights from both philosophical and institutional approaches.

In political philosophy, there is a great deal of work on the desiderata of a system of economic institutions, in terms of producing democratic and just outcomes. But there is often a great deal of abstraction and idealization in ‘ideal theory’, with insufficient attention paid to the real-world constraints within which systems of regulation have to operate.

In political economy, there is much work on the relationship between states and the financial institutions that operate within their jurisdictions, but much of this work is purely descriptive in character. Moreover, work in political economy tends not to engage with philosophical accounts of the nature and aims of democracy and social justice, and therefore lacks the kind of normative dimension which this project will embody.

Among proponents of new institutional forms, whether that is Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs), financial co-ops, or more democratic pension vehicles, there is very good work on the potential benefits of such institutional forms, but less engagement with either systemic regulatory questions, or foundational issues in political philosophy relating to the justification of institutional frameworks.


The real-world problems motivating this investigation can be summarised under the following headings:

(a) there seems to be a “democratic deficit” in contemporary societies, as governments are forced to pitch their policies in a way that mollifies the financial markets, which come to be seen as external constraints on the democratic discretion of governments;

(b) the traditional levers and mechanisms for creating more just, fair and equal societies seem to have become less effective. Redistributive policies do not do enough to change the balance of economic power within societies. At the same time, the state’s ability to tax and to raise revenue has become weakened, as the greater mobility of capital and the dominance of weak forms of financial regulation have worked together to undermine the strength of democratic institutions in comparison to the financial institutions which operate under their jurisdictions.

(c) we do not yet have a tenable model for how social democratic politics could be realised under a new kind of institutional structure. Ideas of “predistribution” have begun to be discussed, and present a promising line of travel, but they require much more careful and systematic investigation, especially with regard to concrete institutional proposals.

Against this background, there are some important tasks for political philosophers: clarifying the nature of the current system’s shortcomings, and analysing the particular normative strengths and weaknesses of a range of new institutional mechanisms (from democratized pension funds, to forms of ‘codetermination’ in the financial sector, to social mechanisms for capital investment).

Theoretical Novelty

My approach will stand on the shoulders of existing work in political philosophy, economics and political economy. My aim will be to integrate the insights of these different disciplines, providing a general account of what possible future track that might be taken by institutions for financial regulation, and relating that account to foundational work on social justice within political philosophy.

My belief is that innovative work often happens at the edge of related disciplines, and in cases where scholars are prepared to engage with the insights and methods of those neighbouring disciplines. My own approach will, I hope, exemplify this aim.

I will engage extensively with work on alternative financial architectures that has been produced within political philosophy (for example in the work of John Roemer or Joshua Cohen), as well as with the much more extensive work associated with empirical political scientists who have addressed some of the same issues (for example, Erik Olin Wright and Robin Blackburn). I will excavate some of the most interesting (and unfairly neglected) proposals in the history of social democratic thought (e.g. in the work of Rudolf Meidner and James Meade), and revivify them within the context of contemporary political theory.

In other work (see O’Neill with Williamson (2012), attached with this application), I have argued that the nascent work on strategies of “predistribution” as the way forward for social democracy has not, as yet, grappled either with (a) the full institutional implications of such a strategy, or (b) its comprehensive normative justification.


This is in the main a theoretical project, which involves cutting edge work in political philosophy and political theory, looking at (a) questions of social justice as they relate to financial regulation, (b) questions pertaining to the limits of state capacity to promote social justice, and (c) the promise and limits of strategies of “predistribution”.

My existing work has already shown me to be a leading exponent of more ‘applied’ and institutional work in political philosophy. My work on Rawls’s idea of a “property-owning democracy” has helped to open a new set of debates within contemporary political philosophy, and has contributed towards political philosophy’s turn away from excessively ‘abstract’ ideal theory, and towards a more concrete engagement with real world political and economic institutions.

This project will allow me to continue working at this methodological cutting-edge, producing work that is grounded in the methods of analytic political philosophy whilst also showing a real sensitivity to real world institutional questions.

My background and training in political philosophy, together with my track record of producing work at the intersection of political philosophy, political economy and public policy (e.g. on tax, insurance regulation, property rights, labour rights, etc.) means that I am almost uniquely well-qualified to take on a project with these sorts of methodological demands and ambitions.

An important part of my method of work on this project will be to expose my developing ideas to bracing criticism from a range of academics and policy specialists, at a number of relevant conferences.


The primary output from this project will be a research monograph on Social Justice, Predistribution and the Democratization of Capital.

I hope that this volume will be published in Oxford University Press’s Political Philosophy series, and I have had preliminary discussions with the series’ editor about the possibility of including my monograph in this prestigious series.

Along the way, particular chapters will be developed as stand-alone papers, and will be submitted for publication in first-tier research journals that publish contemporary work at the intersections of political philosophy, political economy and public policy. Among the journals in which I will aim to publish some of this work will be Philosophy & Public Affairs; Economics & Philosophy; and Politics, Philosophy and Economics.

I have good links with a number of UK and US think-tanks, and will also look to disseminate my work through engaging with those links, and through both publishing shorter pieces in think tank journals, and through engaging in public events organized by such institutions. I have previously written for The Fabian Society, the Institute for Public Policy Research, and Policy Network in the UK, and also have good links with the Democracy Collaborative in the US.

I have a good track-record of publishing accessible short pieces on my work for a general audience (e.g. in the Boston Review, the New Statesman and the Guardian), and would relish the opportunity to bring my arguments on predistribution, social democracy and “democratizing capital” to a broader political audience outside of academia.


Funding this project will advance the aims of the Independent Social Research Foundation in a number of ways:

I am an independent-minded researcher with a strong track record of innovative publications. I already have a strong international reputation, even at this early career stage. This project will generate new knowledge at the cutting edge of work on institutional political philosophy, advancing our understanding of predistribution, the demands of domestic justice in a globalized world, and the possibilities remaining for the future of social democracy.

Moreover, this project is deeply and irreducibly interdisciplinary. It spans connections between philosophy, political economy and public policy, in a way that much of my earlier work has also done, but in a way that is relatively rare in current academic work. The interdisciplinary nature of this project means that it is the sort of thing that it is very difficult to get funded within the UK funding system. My work, because it is forward-looking, theoretically-informed and interdisciplinary, could easily be considered “too philosophical” for funders such as the ESRC, but too institutionally-focussed for funders such as the AHRC. It is the sort of research that can be tremendously fertile in the long run, but which can fall between a number of stools as regards the restrictions associated with more mainstream research funders.

I hope that you will share my assessment that this is fertile, ambitious, innovative, cross-disciplinary and exciting research, of a kind that fits extremely well with the forward-looking goals of the ISRF.