DAWPerhaps the left is not as divided as the right would have us believe.

Back in 2011 we looked at four alternatives to capitalism that had been proposed since 2000 (see http://goo.gl/GB7Qs). All of the models had one thing in common: they all called for the democratization of work. In 2008 this became one of New Unionism’s four key principles (more). Of course, the Bolivarians have been saying this for years (recently here). And Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky have since joined the chorus (here and here). Now there’s a major new voice provides a thumping bass: Richard Wolff’s “Workplace Democracy: A Cure for Capitalism” (Haymarket 2013).

In many ways, Wolff’s book is the one to start with. You might then go on to read about socialist markets, participatory economics or occupational citizenship (a la Schweickart, Albert and Standing respectively), but at least you’d have done the big-picture thinking first.

Let me try to provide an overview in one paragraph, for those who can’t afford $15 +p&p (order here).  Apologies to Prof Wolff for what follows — one must murder in order to dissect. Eighteenth century revolutions in France and the USA delivered people from monarchy and ushered in a new age of democracy. Or so the dominant narrative would have us believe. In reality, democracy was never extended into the field of economics. Rather, the revolutions delivered control of production and distribution into the hands of the emerging capitalist class. Something similar happened with the Russian revolution, although it was the State and the Party that ended up with control of economics. Wolff argues that the people who produce the goods (or services) should be the same folks who decide on what to do with the value they create. He explains his rationale quite logically (there is no trace of table-thumping in this book), and puts up a pretty convincing case for the view that this would change dynamics right at the base of society. Workplace democracy may not be a solution to the cycle of crises in itelf, but at long last it allows for solutions to emerge. Hell, we might even survive as a species.

At first glance Wolff — who is a member of the New Unionism Network — seems to be calling for a transition from private companies to co-operatives. It’s actually simpler than that, and rather more revolutionary. Co-ops are owned and run by their members. These members can be pretty much anybody, including customers and/or local residents. This can leave employees with the same relationship to their work as in any other company. Wolff is promoting a specific kind of co-operative. He calls it the “workers’ self-directed enterprise” (WSDE). The members of a WSDE are the employees. At this point, “we, the people” can take control of economics.

“By positioning workers within each productive enterprise as them selves the appropriators and distributors of that enterprise’s surpluses, the economic system is itself democractized.”

The 20th century saw almost a hundred million people killed in an ambient conflict between socialism and capitalism (with communism and fascism at the bleeding edges). Spare a thought for Marx and Engels, surveying this carnage and moaning: “Where did we go wrong?”. Essentially, this is despair is where millions on “The Left” ended up, after (take your pick) Lenin’s 21 Conditions, the rise of Stalin, the invasion of Hungary or Czechoslovakia, or the collapse of the Soviet empire in the 1990s. Where did we go wrong? Class-conscious unionists, freedom fighters, professional cadres, well-intentioned idealists, anti-povery activists, peaceniks… history chipped away at the heart of socialism until the remaining few were reduced to defending a system(s) that had clearly not delivered on its promises. When Mikhail Gorbachev was released by his kidnappers in 1991, he called for a shift to the Swedish Model. But by then even this was too late.

For me, the genius of this book lies in its explanation of this tragic fizzle. However, as well as answering the question “Where did we go wrong?”, it provides a rallying point for the bonus question: “Where to next?”. I suspect there are many, like me, who feel that trying to answer that second question without dealing with the first is just asking for more trouble.

As “the leading socialist economist” in the USA (according to Cornel West), Wolff is concerned with realities of work and production, as well as more abstract questions about motivation and legitimacy. Given this, it’s inevtiable he will have  something to say about union strategy. In fact what he says makes this book an important contribution to working class literature, as well as that of the left.

“Strikes, boycotts, and other actions against capitalist employers could be strengthened if there were institutions and mechanisms to provide the workers… with a credible new strategic option. …Suppose that long before grievances with particular capitalists grew into such actions, labor unions began working with existing co-op institutions and the social movement for WSDEs to prepare them to better compete with capitalist enterprises…” (see pages 173-5)

In essence, Wolff is saying that unions should be contending for the steering wheel, not just the handbrake. It’s a classic reprise of ‘first wave’ new unionism — labor must build the structure of a new society within the shell of the old. With the benefit of hindsight we might say this was a rather woolly slogan a century ago. Not so now. Wolff constantly refers to things that are happening or have happened in the real world, and his recommendations for union strategy are very much in line with current thinking. As he points out, for instance:

“The October 2009 announcement of an agreement between the United Steekworkers’ Union and the Mondragón federation of producer cooperatives in Spain represents an initial, important interest in some of these possibilities” (pp 174-5).

The significance of this experiment is huge, and ripples are being felt throughout the entire global union movement. After all, Mondragón employs 83,000 workers in 256 companies, and has 75 subsidiaries in 17 countries. (See http://goo.gl/VQlH4. More details here: http://goo.gl/0nAzW). The USW and Wolff are very much on the same page here. “After the business cycles of corruption and manipulation destroyed so many enterprises since ’07, ’08, ’09,” (says USW President Leo Gerard), “we started to have a discussion amongst some of our officers… We came to an understanding on what we call the ‘union co-op’ model…”  In 2012 they published more details on this model, which might act as a template for unions interested in forming or boosting cooperative projects. See: http://goo.gl/b0wK2.

But I digress.

A book like “Workplace Democracy: A Cure for Capitalism” makes it very easy to do this. Get yourself a copy and work out where you stand on what might well become the defining debate of the 21st century.

And keep a copy in your back pocket at all times, to help ward off those evil spirits who keep whispering “there is no alternative”.