During his recent inauguration Joe Biden proudly proclaimed that “Democracy has prevailed.” We really like democracy. Well most of us do. The Republican party mostly functions on the premise that too much democracy is bad. But then again even the founders were concerned with an “excess of democracy,” so there is precedent.
No, we don’t do democracy that well, but we really love the idea of it. When politicians and lawmakers push undemocratic policies and reforms, they do it under the guise of protecting democracy. When our government helps to overthrow democratically elected governments and replaces them with leaders friendly to international capitalist interests, they call it “spreading democracy around the world.” Democracy is popular, even if we really don’t implement it in practice.
There are plenty of theory-addled cranks who will delight in telling you that we don’t in fact have a democracy but a representative republic and that a true democracy wouldn’t really work in the real world. But they are at the margins of the extremely online discourse. Nobody really cares. Democracy rules.
So let’s talk about democracy. Americans generally value our democracy. We view it as inherently good because it guarantees (in theory) that people have a say in how they are governed. Politicians make a pitch. They say what they want to do and if we like it then we vote for them. And when someone in power is doing things we don’t like, we can replace them. And because our government is managed like this, we say that we live in a democracy (in theory). But the government is not the only institution that governs us.
Most working people in this country are employees. We work for someone else. And as such we do not get a say in how many hours we work, what we produce, how it is produced, how much we sell it for, and how much we get paid. We don’t get to pick who runs our workplace or coordinates our work. You could be laid off at any time or the owner of your workplace could choose to sell their company without your consent or regard for your employment. On average we spend about a third of our lives at work. And we have to spend that time at work because we have to pay bills, we have to eat, we need healthcare. That last part is critical. We have a economic system in which in order to receive medical care, you must devote your time and labor toward someone else’s profit. We love democracy and yet most of our workplaces resemble North Korea in terms of organizational hierarchy and decision making.
This fact of working life is treated as natural. As if it is the only way to run a business. But what if it wasn’t?
Worker-owned businesses are not a new concept. And there aren’t too many things liberals love more than a co-op grocery, bank, or farm. There is some belief that the worker-owned model works fine on a small scale and not so much when you get to the big leagues. However, the evidence out of countries where a worker-owned corporate structure has been embraced tells a different story. A 2016 study concluded that labor-managed businesses in the US, Latin America, and Europe performed better and were more effective than traditional businesses. The Mondragon Company in the Basque region of Spain is one of the largest corporations in that country and has a strong presence in several different economic sectors. The elevator pitch is this: We love Democracy so much--why not have it in the workplace?
Work in this country is typically an act of drudgery. Workers are viewed as replaceable cogs in a machine of production. Worker morale is notoriously low. Since happy employees are typically more productive, employers have made attempts to remedy this condition. And friends, they have tried a bunch of shit. Compulsory team building, serving beer at the office, ping pong tables, and of course pizza parties. And yet....for most people working life is little more than a stressful drag, a depressing exercise of capitulation to a boss that we are forced to undertake because we would like to continue to eat and enjoy nice things every once in a while. Production is important to an economy. We need people to work and produce the things required and desired by people living in a society. What is not required is for that production to take place under a neo-feudalist model.
In worker cooperatives, labor gets a say in how the means of production are used and managed. They get to set their own pay and management structure. In the event of market downturns they can shift and move labor capital in a way that prevents people from losing their jobs because of circumstances beyond their control. Worker-owned businesses typically express a greater concern for environmental protection and sustainability, because workers often live in the places where they work. Most importantly, it gives labor a sense of ownership in the value they produce. People work harder when they feel like they have a real stake in the fortune of the company for whom they work. Pizza parties do not accomplish this, real ownership does.
People imbue the word capitalism with all sorts of heroic qualities like competition, free and fair trade, and economic mobility. Capitalism doesn’t mean any of that. What it actually means is that people who own resources (capitalists) pay other people (labor) to give those resources value in the market. Labor is free (in theory) to sell their labor to the highest bidder, and the pay they receive is determined by the impartial hand of the market (in theory). Implicit in this model is a belief that labor does not have the requisite capability to effectively and efficiently determine how resources should be utilized and sold in the market. These decisions should be left to the owners of those resources and their chosen delegates.
This idea of corporate structure was created by capitalists for capitalists because it allows capitalists to extract the highest amount of value from production for themselves. It is not concerned with things like economic stability, or environmental impact. It isn’t really concerned with the quality of things produced. Because the people who run these businesses are often far removed from the manual manipulation and implementation of production. But the workers are right there in the thick of it.
So what can be done? Well as with most things pertaining to mild socialist reform, Europe provides some decent examples. In our current context, the federal government utilizing a neoliberal ideological framework, sees the role of government as providing and protecting favorable conditions for capital. But what if instead we shift our focus to providing and protecting favorable conditions for labor. We tend to put a premium on entrepreneurship in our economic policy. We can continue that tradition but put the bulk of legislative efforts behind fostering co-op growth. We can create a bank that offers low-to-no-cost loans for workers who want to band together and purchase the businesses they work for. We can compel business owners who want to sell or close down their business to offer their employees a chance to purchase the company and convert it to a co-op. We could adopt something similar to Italy’s Marcora law that allows unemployed people to collectively pool their unemployment benefits to capitalize a cooperative start-up.
Politicians like to talk about uniting along shared values and working together to solve problems. As polarized as we are as a nation, values like democracy and freedom still enjoy broad consensus support across the political spectrum. And yet we still countenance an economic system organized in a way that is antithetical to those values. This is an easy sell. Co-ops are an extremely effective way to foster entrepreneurship, social bonds, reduce unemployment and raise wages. They create an incentive structure for companies to add value to communities instead of extracting it. While some co-ops have had disputes with unionized labor, the model is much better equipped to rectify them. The government’s role doesn’t need to involve a federal takeover of the marketplace. There is no need for state planning of the economy. The government can and should prioritize what kind of co-op businesses are promoted, cultivating, for instance, renewable energy equipment manufacturing. But in aggregate, a federal project around creating and maintaining a strong worker-managed business sector would revolve around spreading democracy and freedom to the workplace.
From a philosophical perspective, people acquire a sense of self through the labor they undertake and the transformation of the material world around them through their production. The problem is that the standard capitalist model of employee/employer relationships separates the worker from this personal relationship with production. Our sense of self is stunted. We are denied the chance to see ourselves in our work. As a result we tend to see our individual selves as isolated and atomized. A single part of a larger machine that we have no influence over.
We have a lot of problems in this country. And co-ops are not going to solve all of them. But we spend a plurality of our time on this earth working to sustain ourselves. The act of production must have a personal and moral relationship to the labor that enables it. Or else we end up suffering a slow yet persistent ontological death. Better described as late-stage capitalism.
There is both a material and spiritual argument for us to promote a co-operative economy. It preserves and strengthens the market while allowing more people to see their work as an integrated part of themselves. And best of all, the mechanism for achieving these benefits is more democracy. The one thing we all can agree on.