Friday, October 30, 2009

Guest Post: When Economics Meets Democracy

This guest post from Matt Sellwood, Green Parliamentary candidate for Hackney North and Stoke Newington and fellow blogger (here and here) is part of my short series in economics and deals with democracy in the economy.

“In the factory there exists a dead mechanism, independent of the workers, which incorporates them like living cogs” - Marx
Now, I'm not an orthodox Marxist – but on this one, Karl had a point. Ever since I can remember, I've found it bizarre that so many people fight so hard for democracy in the political sphere, and yet seem content or even approving of the fact that most people are governed by a tyranny in the economic sphere. Few people seem seriously to question the idea that, at work, a rigid, army-like hierarchy is the way to organise ourselves. Many progressive organisations still take this view – let alone the rest of society.

It hasn't always been this way. Even in America, supposedly a country in which free enterprise and private ownership is imbued within ones DNA, there is a rich tradition of rebellion against the complete lack of democratic control which characterises our relationship with work. No less a figure than Abraham Lincoln regarded 'wage slavery' as an evil almost parallel to chattel slavery, although that aspect of his politics is not taught prominently in the classroom. Similarly, John Dewey, one of America's leading philosophers, called for the elimination of;
“business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by command of the press...[industry must be changed] from a feudalistic to a democratic social order...[and unless these goals are attained] politics will remain the shadow cast on society by big business. The attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance.”
A similar tradition exists in the UK, although our current workers organisations are sadly wedded to a model which accepts management's right to rule, and labour's right to win concessions from them. Very rarely are the preconceptions on which this model is based challenged – and yet surely they must be, if ordinary people are to gain the confidence, skills and economic awareness which are so vital to playing a full part in political life.

Lenin might have glorified the educative potential of the factory in teaching the proletariat 'discipline and organisation' - but my understanding of history tends far closer towards the perspective of Rosa Luxemburg – hierarchical work organisation leads simply to 'the regulated docility of an oppressed class'. I also tend to agree with Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, that the existence of a 'coordinator class', trained and empowered to manage the work of others, actively undercuts the possibility for social change even in countries which are ostensibly socialist.

Luckily, all of this is one of those areas in which the Green Party, in principle, is streets ahead of a lot of the traditional UK left. This, from the Manifesto For A Sustainable Society, serves as just one example:
WR600 A Green economy must be a more mutual economy, in which industries and enterprises which are run by and for those who depend on them and are affected by them play a significant role in the economy. We believe that the international co-operative principles provide the benchmark for such businesses. This means that the Green Party must enable both the creation of new mutuals and the greater involvement of stakeholders other than investors in existing businesses.
The trick, of course, is in the implementation. The Green New Deal, for example, the flagship £44 billion economic policy of the Green Party of England and Wales, has little to say about the cooperative economy, and essentially accepts the premises of Keynesian economics. It does not, at its root, challenge the way in which work is organised in our economy, or the experience of people at work. It accepts, largely, the concept of hierarchical work for wages as 'a good thing', despite the wellspring of far more radical ideas in existing Green Party policy.

What can we do about it? I'd suggest a far more coherent and concerted push for support and development of cooperatives across the UK. Every council should have a Cooperative Development Agency, complete with start-up funding, low-interest loan stock and advice. Business that are 'too big to fail' should, where possible, be split up, mutualised and made into cooperatives – and businesses that clearly have a social use, such as Vestas, should be reopened along cooperative lines to manufacture items that fulfil a social good. And, right now, individuals should start taking a lead, by investing money into schemes like Rootstock, which provides capital for radical cooperatives which challenge the economic status quo.

Of course, it is also incumbent on us to recognise that cooperatives can, very easily, end up managing their own exploitation by capitalism. Cooperatives in mixed economy societies do tend to produce better results for their workers, but not always for society as a whole – driven as they are by overall market forces. As Joseph Kay put it in a recent contribution to the anarchist newspaper, Freedom:
“Self-managed exploitation is not just a neat turn of phrase, it is a recognition of how capital rules social life. It does this both vertically through the person of the boss, and horizontally, through market forces. Many anarchists focus mainly on the vertical rule of workplace hierarchy, and so see workers’ control as a stepping stone towards libertarian communism. However, it’s not a stepping stone, but a cul-de-sac.”
Personally, I wouldn't go that far. While it is certainly true that market forces have a way of suborning even the best of intentions and institutions, cooperative working is a good in itself. Even if it only teaches the workers involved about a new mode of relating to their workmates, it is a good thing. And, often, it does much more than that – instilling a new sense of pride, community ownership, and solidarity throughout the society in which it is based. At its most capitalist (cf the Cooperative Group in the UK), the cooperative movement is still streets ahead of normal, hierarchically organised firms.

For me, the words of Revd Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, President of the UN General Assembly, encapsulate the world I am fighting for:
The anti-values of greed, individualism, and exclusion should be replaced by solidarity, common good and inclusion. The objective of our economic and social activity should not be the limitless, endless, mindless accumulation of wealth in a profit centered economy but rather a people centered economy that guarantees human needs, human rights, and human security, as well as conserves life on earth. These should be universal values that underpin our ethical and moral responsibility for the stewardship of the Earth for all living things, ourselves, our children and grandchildren and all future generations."
If we want to succeed - lets not exclude the places in which we work and produce from that vision.


Strategist said...

Interesting post. Thanks.

"What can we do about it? I'd suggest a far more coherent and concerted push for support and development of cooperatives across the UK."

Another active front might be pushing to have remutualisation of the bits being split off the banks where the government is the majority shareholder eg remutualise N. Rock, Halifax, TSB etc. It's amazing that we allow the plc model to dominate the banking sector when the mutuals should always be able to beat them for value to the borrower over the long term.

James said...

Excellent post Matt and thanks for publishing it Jim.
I'm vaguely planning a focus on cooperatives in an issue of Red Pepper next year, so it would be good to get people's input on that...