Workers, Owners, and Worker-Owners

Since the end of WWII–and for most of the 100 years prior–politics has largely been presented as a battle between Statism and Capitalism. The former essentially boils down to trusting the government to intervene against exploitative private interests and build a just society, while the latter relies on the freedom of private action to rein in tyrannical government. But what neither of these approaches are is democratic. They both offer us a choice: which elites do you want ruling over you? Neither of them offers a democratic society where individuals, families, and communities really can direct themselves.

Salon has touched on this issue with their “99% Plan” and especially with Alex Gourevitch’s article on the need for progressives to articulate a real plan to challenge the growing inequality in the US. While he raises crucial issues, he also falls into the very trap introduced above: the challenge to free-market-fundamentalism will be an empowered state which will stand up for workers against their exploiters. There’s plenty to such an approach that I could get behind, but fundamentally I’m not interested in kicking out one group of elites for another. I’m interested in building a society where people can really determine their own future and run their own communities.

It shouldn’t be particularly surprising that alternative political solutions are not often discussed. It’s like asking why there are so many diet books outlining complicated and arcane diet and exercise programs: they need something to sell. It’s hard to make money telling people that if they want to lose weight they have to eat fewer calories than they expend. That’s simple, and it’s true, but it’s not marketable. But if your diet plan covers hundreds of pages and is woven together with a complex but catchy theme (caveman, south beach, rockstar, whatever) then you’ve created a product; you’ve commodified diet advice. Likewise, if a politician stands up and announces that they want to help working people build autonomous and truly democratic communities, that politician is announcing themselves out of a job. You can’t remain an important, priveleged elite by granting people the means to govern themselves. You’ve got to hold the reins of power yourself.

Now I’m sure that any Ron Paul supporters in the room will leap to their feet, campaign signs in hand. But let’s be honest, libertarianism isn’t an alternative to big-business conservatism, it’s a distilled, concentrated form of it. While I’m more than happy that Paul’s candidacy is forcing both Republicans and Democrats to confront the immorality and stupidity of our foreign policy, the war on drugs, and the corrupt relationship between the government and business, Ron Paul’s ideal world is a world of wealthy elites acting as feudal lords, not liberation of working people. What’s needed is a society where the people who work in a business own that business, together. It’s not communism, it’s not socialism–I’m not talking about the government owning the factory. I’m talking about the workers owning the factory. There can still be managers, there can still be advertising–in fact, at least on paper, it’d be relatively easy to convert a standard shareholder-owned corporation to a worker-owned one. It would mean that the owners and the workers were the same people. It would mean that if the company posted profits, the people who actually did the work would see those profits. And it would mean that when it came to balancing profits vs. benefits and worker safety, the workers themselves could make whatever decision they wanted.

Such a solution neither trusts the suits to run our economy for us which has, nor does it trust the bureaucrats. It calls for us to direct our own businesses and communities together, in an actual democratic manner. Fundamental to this position is the embracing of democracy. We live in a country where we can vote every few years for someone whom we all admit we don’t trust and is all-but guaranteed to be thoroughly corrupt. But at our jobs, which we go to almost every day of our lives, we are totally beholden to managers and owners. There’s no free speech, freedom of assembly, or recognition of human rights within a privately-owned company. All bets are off. In what way can such an arrangement be called democratic?

Such limitations of freedom are defended as the prerogatives necessary to maintain the right to private property. In other words, the right to an unlimited amount of private property, and unlimited decision-making power over that property, trumps all other rights in our society–often including the right to life. Seriously, it’s not an isolated problem, not at all.

Here it’s probably good to make a distinction between private and personal property. Private property is essentially the idea that someone can own just about anything, and as much of it as they can acquire. For thousands of years, this meant not only that one person could own millions of acres of land, or even a whole country, but also other people, and today means that individuals and corporations can even own the clouds. It’s not hard to see how this is ridiculous, immoral, and the ideological foundation for the vast economic inequality we see all around us.

But one doesn’t have to reject all property whatsoever in order to critique private property. You can reject the idea that a person could own huge amounts of land that they’ll never see or work on, but still think that people ought to be able to own what they actually need and use in their lives. The choice doesn’t have to be between a feudal aristocracy on the one hand and a hardcore Marxist commune on the other. Such an understanding of property can be referred to as personal property. Recognizing personal property means that a person can own the clothes they actually wear, the home they live in, the car they drive daily, and whatever else they actually use to live. They can own a business together with the people they work with. A community could jointly own the land it uses for parks or for farming. But under such an understanding, no one would be able to own things they never use–in other words, people wouldn’t be allowed to extract rents. Such an arrangement would not only be more just, but would also result in a much more productive economy, because everyone would be forced to actually work for a living, instead of the wealthiest people leeching off of the people who actually do the labor that keeps our economy going.

Such an understanding of property fundamentally challenges long-held ideals, but it fully embraces what’s supposedly at the heart of American politics: democracy. But it’s obvious that in such a society, we wouldn’t need political saviors of business miracle-workers–we wouldn’t need a class of parasitic elites. So don’t expect either group of parasitic elite toadies to endorse any such a plan. Still, it might be worth approaching the likes of Buffet and Soros and see if they’d be willing to put up some capital to create funds that could in turn be used to buy up companies and turn the stock over to the workers. You never know. Anyone have either of those two in their rolodexes?

This post also appeared on my Open Salon blog.

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