Claw Back Our Democracy

A very important thought from Richard Wolff’s book, Democracy At Work, is this: capitalism at its core is anti-democratic. The capitalist enterprise isolates the worker from participation in the success of his employer. He neither has a say in how the company operates, nor does he share in the profit from his own work.

This is largely what the Occupy movement is about. Millions of people realize that their lives have been controlled by a small group of extraordinarily rich people who have no interest in democracy or the wellbeing of the population, and they are tired of this endless exploitation. Capitalism has almost nothing to do with the goal of democracy, the wellbeing of the people.

Those who have checked out this blog from time to time know that I have devoted considerable attention to the idea of worker-owned companies. Such companies, in which every worker owns a share of the company, and no one who does not work there can own any of it, overcome the major flaw of capitalism. In worker-owned companies, since the workers are also the owners, all profit goes to them and only them.

Capitalism at its core is anti-democratic.

Now, I’m going to badmouth capitalism in this essay, but that should not be taken to mean that all capitalist enterprises are evil, or that all owners are nasty people. What it means is that capitalism has serious flaws that have come to the fore in recent decades, and it is the workers who have paid the price.

I believed that there were inherent limitations in the size of worker-owned enterprises, but I realize now that that was largely because most of them at present are small. There are only three worker-owned companies I know of that have large numbers of workers, maxing out with 156,000 worker-owners at Publix Supermarkets. Walmart, by contrast, has over two million mostly poorly compensated and frequently abused employees, while at the same time the six heirs of founder Sam Walton have more wealth than the bottom 30% of Americans, more than 94-million people. That is, almost as many people as live in Mexico.

Worker-ownership is the best system
to succeed capitalism.

But I have come to understand that if there is a limit to the size of worker-owned enterprises, we have not found it yet, and there is plenty of room to grow. I now believe that worker-ownership is the best system to supplant capitalism. Gar Alperovitz says there are ten million Americans in worker-owned companies.

Capitalist owners will not willingly surrender their precious riches, and right now they feel they are invulnerable. Their fortunes have been ascendant for four decades, and controls on them have evaporated. Virtually all new wealth has gone to the mega-rich, and they have purchased nearly complete control of the political process, which they arrange at will to suit themselves. These are people who don’t need any more wealth and will not use it, whereas there are increasing millions of Americans who work full time but are unable to earn enough for basics. The mega-rich are not going to voluntarily bring equality back, having spent four decades destroying it. We will have to claw it back, but worker ownership also gives us a method for simply leaving capitalism out in the cold.

More and more people are learning about worker-ownership, and its star is rising. It is conceivable that in time a tipping point will be reached, when worker-owners attain enough numbers and power that they will be able to demand that politicians do what they should have been doing all along, work for the betterment of the people. Or possibly, capitalist companies will simply come to be seen as outmoded systems of production that are inherently unfair to those who do the actual work.

If we and our contributions are not recognized
and appreciated, our interest deflates
like an air mattress with a pinhole.

The predictable effect on workers (producers, Wolff calls them) is lack of commitment. That’s human nature. No matter what group we are in—a musical ensemble, a class, a corporation, a softball team, a volunteer group, a family—if we and our contributions are not recognized and appreciated, our interest deflates like an air mattress with a pinhole. If it’s a job, we will jump at the chance to work where we will be appreciated. If it’s government, we may quit voting altogether. If we work for an impersonal enterprise and are feeling ripped off, we may find ways to rip off the company.

Seventy years of total lack of reward is the reason people in Soviet socialist countries simply quit caring. It’s also why so many Americans don’t bother showing up at the polls. And why so many high school students attending mediocre schools in bad neighborhoods don’t care about school. They feel their participation is irrelevant. Nothing they could do makes any difference in their lives, because they believe the best they can expect is a mediocre job with low pay.

The strength of worker-ownership derives from
playing in a completely different ballpark.

What none of them have is what Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Antifragile calls “skin in the game”. He was referring to banksters, who behave with complete abandon when they know someone else will have to pay for their recklessness, but the same applies to anyone in any human endeavor. You will pay less attention when the outcome makes no difference to you personally, and you will do your damndest when you know everything depends on it.

It is not that worker-owned companies become big and more powerful in order to do battle with capitalists. Their strength derives from being able to win a newer game that capitalism doesn’t even know how to play. Their organization and motivations are completely different from those of capitalist companies, allowing them to completely supersede capitalism’s anti-democracy.

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Let’s also keep in mind that there are flavours of capitalism. The US sponsored version is not the only option. This said, there are other options, anarcho-syndicalism once of my preferred options. .

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