When we talk about “democracy,” inevitably, it seems, the discussion is about political democracy. Rarely is there discussion about economic democracy. Democracy stops at the entrance to the workplace.
At the workplace, you have no say in what is produced, how it is produced or much of anything beyond what you will be eating for lunch. You surely did not get a vote when the corporation decided to drop a large sum of money on a candidate for public office whose positions you detest even though that donation came out of the profits created by the work you and your co-workers performed. As large businesses become ever larger and accumulate ever more money — and fewer survive as competition causes some of the previous winners in competition to go under or merge — their power grows ever stronger.
That power enables decisive influence over the political process. So we have formal democracy — political office-holders submit to elections and abide by the results. But choosing between two bad candidates, and selecting the one not quite as bad as the other — both completely beholden to corporate interests and unable to compete without truckloads of their money — could qualify as a living democratic system only under the most sterile and narrowly formulaic definition.
Inseparable from a vigorous and real political democracy is economic democracy. Economic democracy is impossible without production being oriented toward human, community and social need rather than private accumulation of capital. And economic democracy, in turn, requires an economy that is based on, and rewards, cooperation rather than competition. An economy in which enterprises are cooperative ventures rather than top-down authoritarian institutions.
Economic democracy means that everybody who contributes to production earns a share of the proceeds — in wages and whatever other form is appropriate — and everybody is entitled to have a say in what is produced, how it is produced and how it is distributed, and that these collective decisions are made in the context of the broader community and in quantities sufficient to meet needs, and that pricing and other decisions are not made outside the community or without input from suppliers, distributors and buyers.
Nobody is entitled to take disproportionately large shares off the top because they are in a power position. Every person who reaches retirement age is entitled to a pension that can be lived on in dignity. Disabled people who are unable to work are treated with dignity and supported with state assistance; disabled people who are able to work can do so. Quality health care, food, shelter and education are human rights. Artistic expression and all other human endeavors are encouraged, and — because nobody will have to work excessive hours except those who freely volunteer for the extra pay — everybody will have sufficient time and rest to pursue their interests and hobbies.
Eliminating extreme wealth and the poverty it causes
In such a world, there would not be extreme wealth and the power that wealth concentrates — political opinion-making would not be dominated by numerically tiny but dominant capitalists perpetrating their rule. Without extreme wealth, there would be no widespread poverty — large groups of people would not have their living standard driven as low as possible to support the accumulation of a few.
A critical component of the capitalist ideology that is so pervasive is that only a tiny handful of entrepreneurial geniuses can master business, and so must make all decisions and therefore reap massively disproportionate rewards. That is heavily stressed because it contradicts our everyday experience at the workplace.
In the modern capitalist enterprise, most of us complain about management, who so often have no experience in the lower levels and don’t really understand the nuts and bolts of how the business works. Top managers collect salaries tens or hundreds or thousands of times larger than yours while making decisions that make no sense and without consulting the employees who actually do the work and who could provide insight if only they were asked. Most of us have been in at least one job like this; for many of us it might even be the norm.
Why wouldn’t we want to take some responsibility for making decisions? Line workers could develop into managers, or perhaps different people would rotate in management positions for set periods, enabling many people to gain administrative experience. Management could be promoted from within, elected from the ranks of the full workforce by the workforce. The cooperative enterprise’s workforce would retain the right to remove managers who deviate from carrying out decisions made by the collective. (Just as managers today are answerable to owners and boards of directors.) Different enterprises would surely develop different cultures.
With no more rigid hierarchy, no more capitalists to rake in massive amounts of money, a business enterprise can be run on a democratic basis, without internal exploitation of any of its staff. Yet this is not the whole story: In what sort of economic system would such enterprises operate?
In a cooperative model, all strategic enterprise decisions would be made by a vote of all the workers. Meetings to discuss, and vote on, the enterprise’s business would be a part of the regular workweek. All ownership would stay within the workforce — each would own one share and relinquish it upon leaving or retiring. Shares could not be transferred or sold, except to the collective.
Without stratospheric executive pay or financiers getting fat by skimming off a large share of the pie, less profits would be necessary, leading to reduced work hours, higher pay and more left over for investment and taxes paid to the community to support schools and social services.
Cooperatives can’t compete to cooperation
The internal workings of capitalism inevitably result in the cut-throat competition and inequalities that are so familiar. If collective enterprises, no matter how democratically they are run internally, compete with each other in unfettered markets, market forces would require the collectives to become more “efficient” — they would have to ruthlessly reduce costs (including their own wages) and aggressively expand the market for their products.*
Failure to do so would mean not surviving in competition with the enterprises who do adapt themselves to market conditions. The accumulation of capital becomes paramount under unfettered market forces due to the need to expand — failing to expand risks being driven out of business. Because all materials and finished products would remain commodities subject to price volatility in this scenario, the cooperative workers’ own labor would also become a commodity — in essence, they would “become their own capitalists.”
Cooperation and self-management within an enterprise — without owners, executives or speculators grabbing the profits for themselves — would mean that material gains would be distributed fairly among the workforce, certainly a far better result and itself a harbinger of a much more rational societal distribution of income. Although the hypothetical example of cooperatives competing fiercely against one another would be an odd hybrid because it would be based simultaneously on cooperation and competition, the distortions of capitalism would nonetheless be reproduced, albeit less severely.
Uncontrolled competition would lead to large disparities of income and power. An aggressive collectively run enterprise theoretically could gain control of the market for a particular product in high demand, resulting in the enterprise wresting for itself a commanding position. Perhaps several aggressive enterprises would do this, and we would once again find ourselves in a society with a power imbalance — not nearly the towering imbalance of present-day capitalism, but nonetheless the goal of creating a fully democratic society with no permanent sources of power would have been thwarted. In this hypothetical society, there would still be a market that operated on a capitalist basis and therefore capital would tip the balance of power to those who accumulated it.
Safeguards against re-assertions of inequality
In any country in which a model of worker cooperation or self-management (in which enterprises are run collectively and with an eye on benefitting the community) is the predominant model, there would need to be regulations to augment good will. Constitutional guarantees would be necessary as well. Some industries are simply much larger than others. In a complex, industrialized society, some enterprises are going to be much larger than others. Minimizing the problems that would derive from size imbalances would be a constant concern.
Furthermore, if enterprises are run on a cooperative basis, then it is only logical that relations among enterprises should also be run on a cooperative basis. An alternative to capitalist markets would have to be devised — such an alternative would have to be based on local input with all interested parties involved. Such an alternative would have to be able to determine demand, ensure sufficient supply, allow for fair pricing throughout the supply chain and be flexible enough to enable changes in the conditions of any factor, or multiple factors, to be accounted for in a reasonably timely and appropriate fashion.
Central planning in a hierarchal command structure with little or no local input proved to not be a long-term viable alternative system. Nor is tight regulation a solution on its own. Regulators, similar to central planners, can never possess sufficient knowledge to adequately perform their job and local enterprises can use their special knowledge to give themselves an advantage rather than share that knowledge with regulators.
Responsibility, then, would have to be tied to overall society. Negotiations among suppliers and buyers to determine prices, to determine distribution and a host of other issues would be necessary. Such negotiations are already common in certain industries; for example in the chemical industry, where companies negotiate commodity prices on a monthly or quarterly basis. Those are competitive negotiations in which the dominant position oscillates between buyer and supplier, resulting in dramatic price changes.
In a cooperative economy, negotiations would be done in a far more cooperative manner, with a wider group participating in the discussions. In this model, prices of raw materials, component parts, semifinished goods, finished goods, consumer products and producer products such as machinery would be negotiated up and down the supply chain, leading to an rationalization of prices — markups to create artificially high profits or pricing below cost to undercut competitors would be unsustainable in a system where prices are negotiated, pricing information is widely available and all enterprise financial information is public.
These would have to be fair negotiations — prices throughout the supply chain would have to be set with an eye on rational economics. Industry facilitators to assist negotiations and/or a government arbitration board to make decisions when parties are unable to agree to terms might be necessary. Community input would also be desirable, in the industries in which a given community is directly involved and for retail prices of consumer goods. It may be desirable to include these community interests in pricing negotiations directly.
As more people take on more responsibility, more will gain the experience of fair negotiations, enabling more to peer over the shoulders of those involved in these decisions. In turn, more experience means more people within the community who can shoulder responsibility.
Regulations to safeguard social standards
Although regulation, as noted above, is not in itself a solution, that is not a suggestion that regulation should be done away with. One method of using regulation to ensure socially positive economic activity might be a system of certification. Enterprises would be responsible for investment, production and financial decisions, but might be required to demonstrate full compliance with a range of standards on issues such as equal opportunity, workers’ rights, health and safety, environmental protection and consumer protection. Enterprises could be required to be certified on all relevant issues before conducting business, and perhaps be re-certified at specified intervals.**
In a cooperative economy, it is possible — and perhaps likely — that certain critical industries and services would remain in state hands (but fully subject to public accountability). Public transportation systems and water supply might be two examples of these types. Employees in large enterprises of these types would have the same dual role of managing the enterprise collectively at the same time they remain workers. It is not impossible that biases or favoritism could slowly arise in such enterprises; a union would provide another source of protection that could defend a worker as an individual when necessary.
Workers in enterprises that are collectively owned, since they would be owners and not simply managers, might find less ambiguity between their two roles, as long as strategic decisions are made collectively. Still, it may be that there remains a place for trade unions even in these types of enterprises, or it could be that unionization is simply a social value and all members of the enterprise join or form a union for reasons of social solidarity or to provide another check against any centralizing tendencies emerging within the enterprise or within government.
A system of democratic control and social accountability would require open information. Records and accounts of all enterprises and major production units of enterprises would have to be made available to all other parties to negotiations in order for the fairest deals to be reached and to prevent attempts to unfairly benefit at the expense of suppliers or customers. Social-justice organizations — such as those upholding civil rights, consumer rights or the environment — should also have a role, perhaps in enterprise negotiations when appropriate, but more likely in helping to set social goals, in monitoring compliance with standards and possibly being the bodies that issue certifications.***
Some amount of planning and coordination would be necessary as part of the process of determining raw materials needs and ensuring that those needs are met. Any planning committee would have to be democratically controlled and have wide social representation to oversee production and to assist in the determination of investment needs. Planning would be bottom-up and democratic, based on the best estimates of aggregate demand, and not top-down and authoritarian. Planning would provide a guide, not a hard numerical total.
Investment would need to go to where it is needed, a determination made with as many inputs as possible, but because of its importance finance and banking is one area that would have to be in state (or local community) hands (subject to full public accountability) and not in collectives. Financial speculation must be definitively ended. Enterprises seeking loans to finance expansions or other projects will have to prove their case, but should have access to investment funds if a body of decision-makers, which like all other bodies would be as inclusive as possible, agrees that the project is socially useful or necessary.
Democratic decision-making for public investments
Government infrastructure projects should be subject to the same parameters as enterprises, with the added proviso that the people in the affected area have the right to make their voices heard in meaningful ways on local political bodies and on any other appropriate public committees. No private developer wielding power through vast accumulations of money will be able to destroy forests or neighborhoods to build a project designed for the developer to reap profits while the community is degraded. Development would be controlled through democratic processes at local levels, and regional or national infrastructure projects should require input from local bodies representing all affected areas.
An unprecedented level of democracy would be possible in a cooperative economy because the power of capital would be broken. Social constraints ensuring responsibility to the larger community would be required to prevent the accumulation of capital that translates into power, although such tendencies would be countered by a system that rewards cooperation rather than greed.
The society that has been sketched out in these very broad strokes is a society in which working people — the overwhelming majority of society — have taken control over their lives. The (ex-)capitalists are just as free to go to work as everybody else. Surely some, those with expertise and an ability to work well with others, would be among those cooperative members elected into administrative positions; regardless, they would have to become regular cooperative workers, contributing to the production of a quality product or service and having their say equal to all others who do the work.
Society as a whole benefits when everybody is entitled to contribute, and the more who do so the more likely it is that the right solution to a problem will be found. Someone who would not have been able to make a social or artistic contribution will be able to do so, enriching society. That does not mean that all ideas are equal, or good, or that all ideas are entitled to equal time. It does mean that ideas intended to better society or to advance the greater social good can receive a hearing, rather than the privileged so permeating society with an ideology that benefits themselves that other ideas are dismissed at the start.
These are not steps that capitalists would willingly take. Bringing about such a world would mean an enormous amount of organization and struggle, regardless of the methodology used to bringing a end to capitalist rule. It would be necessary to write new constitutions codifying the new society’s changes, locking advances and rights into formal law while preventing centralization of power; nonetheless, without the assumption of responsibility and participation, democracy will inevitably erode.
Freedom and democracy are not gifts handed down from above, and never have been — they are goals that are won through struggle and determination, through a synthesis of theory and practice.
* This and the following paragraph draws upon David McNally, Against the Market [Verso, 1993]; Bertell Ollman, “Market Mystification in Capitalist and Market Socialist Societies,” Socialism and Democracy, Fall 1997
** This paragraph draws upon Diane Elson, “Socializing Markets, Not Market Socialism,” The Socialist Register, 2000
*** This and the following paragraph draws upon “Socializing Markets, Not Market Socialism”; Pat Devine, “Self-Governing Socialism,” anthologized in William K. Tabb (ed.), The Future of Socialism: Perspectives from the Left [Monthly Review Press, 1990]
- This article is based on excerpts from It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, published by Zero Books. Copies are available from online sellers at well below the list price.
- Next week, an examination of the workings of real-life cooperative enterprises.