“We are a movement that builds, not destroys.”
— César Chávez, U.S. union organizer
Some people see history as a battle of ideas — each attracting adherents in a struggle for rational progress. Others see it as a battle of forces — each recruiting supporters in a struggle for power. Taken together, these two traditions have been busy lately — producing a powerful new critique of capitalism. It can’t be dismissed as the usual lefty rhetoric either… the contributors include a growing number of Nobel-winning economists, World Bank staff and consultants, senior figures at the IMF, Wall Street traders, corporate executives and other defectors from free market ideology. (1)
If you’re not keen on reading any of the key works in this 21st century critique (2), then try watching The Corporation, Capitalism – A Love Story, Inside Job and/or The Shock Doctrine. Here are some extracts from another recent movie:
Between them, these writers and film-makers have revealed the dreadful costs of free market economics. They have shown its flawed rationale; its necessary links to crisis and despotism; and its recurrent failures in practice. They have put hard numbers on the transfer of wealth into the hands of those who had the most already. They have shown what this has cost the poor, and how it has left us all with a looming crisis in “externalities” that threatens our survival on this planet.
Too bad to be true? Remember – this is not just a view being pushed by “the usual suspects”. This is coming from those who have been there when decisions were made. It comes from primary sources, first-hand testimony, key documents, independent reviews, official statistics, analysis by Nobel-winners, and even (especially since Enron) legal affidavits and court records.
No matter how well-reasoned the argument, criticism will get us nowhere unless it also inspires people to act. As He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named once said: “Philosophers have merely interpreted the world… the point, however, is to change it.” (3)
Such change, when it comes, can be expected to feature an escalation in protests and strikes. We are certainly seeing this. It will also be accompanied by a thirst for new ideas. So what has been tabled in the past ten years, beyond calls for a return to social dialogue, state socialism, and/or the regulatory regimes of the twentieth century?
The point of this article is to look at some recent arguments for a new way forward. As you’ll see, each of them has something rather interesting in common. If you take nothing else away from this article, just make a mental note of this: each of these proposals is predicated upon the democratization of work. That’s right – workplace democracy – the same idea that Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky have been promoting (eg http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kgoyyoHs4pk and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ugGqJcro2w). Perhaps the left is not as divided as the right would have us believe.
Cramming years of another person’s work into a couple of paragraphs is scarcely fair. What I am hoping to do below is to give you enough information to decide on whether you want more. I have focused on a single book from each writer, and have avoided any serious comparison or critique. That’s your job.
So what needs to happen in your workplace — whether it be a factory, an office, a home, a family farm, a temp agency or a dole queue — in order for you to have more influence? If the visions below do not inspire you to act then they remain just that… visions. Phantasies.
“Freedom is participation in power” (Cicero).
In After Capitalism (2002, 2011), Professor David Schweickart argues for a system he calls Economic Democracy. This preserves a role for “the market” in economics, while extending democracy into the workplace, as well as linked spheres of investment and finance. Although workers control their own jobs and workplaces, productive resources would become the collective property of society. Schweickart presents a solid case with stacks of evidence to show that this model would be both more fair and more efficient. A second edition of After Capitalism was published in 2011.
On the role of unions: “If we are going to move to an economy beyond capitalism, it will take a large and powerful movement, and labor will have to be a major component of such a movement. But it will have to be a “new unionism” that–like the union movement of the early days–sees itself as struggling for the interests of all workers, not just those in the craft or trade to which an individual happens to belong.These interests should include extending democracy to the workplace and gaining democratic control over investment priorities.” (4)
• Further reading online»
In Parecon: Life After Capitalism (2003), Michael Albert outlines his vision for Participatory Economics (aka Parecon). Such a system would place workplace and consumer councils at the heart of decision-making. Work and labor are allocated in such a way that people each have a mix of tasks and responsibilities, balanced to deliver an equal workplace experience, quality of life and empowerment. Pay is based on effort and hardship, rather than output and property. A co-operative approach called “participatory planning” is used for allocation, rather than markets and central planning.
On the role of unions: “Unions of workers, as we now know them, become the nested network of workers councils in a participatory economy — the decision making bodies of the production side of the economy… not a pressure group to compel owners or bosses, but a vehicle of decision making themselves… at the firm, industry, sector, or national level, because there are only workers – not any class above them to bargain against. Consumer councils – the same people operating geographically and regarding consumption preferences, address economic issues as well registering their preferences and cooperatively negotiating economic choices with the workers councils”. (5)
• Further reading online: The full text of Parecon is accessible here (kudos!) and a wealth of related material available here.
In Work after Globalization (2009), Guy Standing argues the case for Occupational Citizenship — a new model taking us far beyond the “labourism” of the 20th century (where employment rather than work was the basis of social rights). As he points out: “People have jobs, but they are occupations”. Standing’s vision is radically inclusive, bringing in all workers, including ‘the precariat’, care workers, the unemployed, and self-employed contractors etc. The model aims to deliver “…a healthy balance of work, labour, leisure and play (that will) …put the market in its proper place…”. This involves a combination of international associations, national associations and informal networks.
On the role of unions: “Only through collective representation and collective action can the forces of oppression and exploitation be combated. However, for too long unions have failed to understand the nature of “precariat”. We must move beyond old-style workplace or industrial democracy, since a feature of the precariat is that it has to combine forms of labour and work in and outside formal workplaces.” (6) Standing proposes a more “associational” form of organisation (for reasons he argues convincingly), and the adoption of a “collaborative bargaining” approach. This latter could also operate between workers (eg setting standards, providing mutual support, monitoring the application of resources, etc), and between one occupation and another (eg doctors and nurses).
• Further reading online»
Professor Seymour Melman’s contribution is After Capitalism: From Managerialism to Workplace Democracy (2001). In this, he looks at various successful democratic ventures around the world, and compares these with corporate and state-controlled ventures (including the military-industrial complex). His case for workplace democracy is compelling. He identifies three aspects in the transition: eliminating professional corporate managers; strengthening unions; and employing alternatives to corporate hierarchies for capital accumulation. In the process, he believes we can incrementally democratize economics itself. This is by no means a roadmap or a prescription (“there are many possible paths and timelines for disalienation…”), so we’ll have to work the rest out for ourselves. Sadly, Seymour Melman died in 2004.
On the role of unions: Melman believes that the labor movement is the principal agent in getting us (and keeping us) beyond capitalism. While workplace democracy would change some of the basic rules of production, and alter the rationale for unions, it would be up to working people themselves to define the new role.
• Further reading online»
This article is being updated (as at 2/6/13) to include the work of Professor Richard D. Wolff. His most recent book, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism (2013), argues the case for ‘Workers’ Self-Directed Enterprises’ (WSDEs). Some might say that he is updating Marxism; others that he is purging it of a century of competing distortions. More to the point, Wolff is proposing a sustainable foundation for genuine democracy. He bases this on a system in which the people who produce the world’s wealth are the same as those who control the way it is distributed. There is nothing utopian in his approach – the analysis deals with historical process, resources, people and power in a way that never rests on ideology.
On the role of unions: Along with cooperatives, WSDEs would provide unions with a powerful new strategic ally. Having an alternative model developing within the forces of production could change the bargaining game immensely. Furthermore, it would also provide a new item for the union agenda: helping WSDEs (and coops) to compete and win.
• Further reading online»
With the possible exception of Melman, you’ll find each one of these authors takes you through and beyond the democratization of work. What do you think… is it a means or an end? A strategy or a goal? The authors also diverge in other ways, especially with regards to the roles of the market, unions and the state. Roughly speaking, Standing fits into the social democrat tradition; Schweickart and Wolff into the Marxist/Marxian tradition; and Albert into the anarchist tradition. That said, these are all revolutionary models, in that they are based around a decisive shift and transfer of power.
Now, over to you…
If you’ve already read one or more of the books above, we’d be glad to hear your thoughts, by way of the Comments section below.
More to the point… who have we missed? What other authors, books and films should have been included on this page, and why? Help us build the list by way of the Comments section below, and we’ll do some thinking on how to promote these alternative views further.
Criteria for inclusion in the list:
• Their signature work must have appeared after 2000;
• Their argument must go beyond critique, presenting a fully-fledged alternative to capitalism;
• Their approach must evidence-based, rather than belief-driven or ideological.
by Peter Hall-Jones
(1) Some “insiders” who have added to the critique:
• Professor Joseph Stiglitz (Nobel laureate, former Chief Economist at the World Bank);
• Professor Ha-Joon Chang (consultant to the World Bank and various UN agencies);
• Professor Raj Patel (worked for the World Bank, World Trade Organization and the United Nations);
• Professor Ralph Estes (Emeritus professor of business and accounting at American University in Washington);
• Professor David Korten (former Professor of Harvard University Graduate School of Business);
• Professor Jeremy Rifkin (advisor to the European Commission and the European Parliament);
• Professor Jeffrey Sachs (advisor to the World Bank, the OECD, the WHO, the IMP,the UNDP, and the UN);
• Robert A. G. Monks (former director of the US Synthetic Fuels Corporation, CEO of C.H.Sprague & Son);
• Professor Tim Jackson (Economics Commissioner on the UK Sustainable Development Commission);
• Dr Michael Hudson (Wall Street analyst and consultant, President of The Institute for the Study of Long-term Economic Trends);
• Professor Herman Daly (former World Bank Senior Economist);
• Professor Simon Johnson (former Chief Economist of the IMF);
• Dr Gillian Tett (U.S. Managing Editor, Financial Times).
(Note: It should not be inferred that just because people produced work deeply critical of capitalism, they are necessarily opposed to it, as a system!)
(2) A selection of key books published recently by academic/activist/analysts includes:
• Naomi Klein, “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism”, Penguin, 2007;
• Dr Susan George, “Whose Crisis? Whose Future? – Towards a Greener, Fairer, Richer World”, Wiley, 2010;
• Dr Susan George et al, “Anti-Capitalism: A Guide To The Movement (Revolutionary Portraits)”, Bookmarks, 2001;
• George Monbiot, “The Age of Consent”, Flamingo, 2003;
• Dr Raj Patel, “Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World Food System”, Black Inc Books, 2007;
• Professor David Harvey, “The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism”, Profile Books, 2010;
• Professor David Korten, “The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community”, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2007 (2nd edition);
• Thomas Frank, “One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy”, Anchor, 2001;
• Luc Boltanski & Eve Chiapello, “The New Spirit of Capitalism”, Verso, 2007;
• Professor Vandana Shiva, “Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply”, South End Press, 2000;
• Professor Alastair McIntosh, “Soil and Soul: People Versus Corporate Power”, Aurum Press, 2001;
(And, since we didn’t define “activist”:)
• Professor Joseph Stiglitz, “Globalization and Its Discontents”, W.W. Norton & Company, 2002;
• Professor Ralph Estes, “Taking Back the Corporation”, Nation Books, 2005.
(Note: As above, it should not be assumed that just because people produce work that is deeply critical of capitalism, they are necessarily opposed to it, per se!)
(3) Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach”, 1845.
(4) From private correspondence with the author, 2011.
(5) From private correspondence with the author, 2011.
(6) From private correspondence with the author, 2011.