Workers Control – Local Alternatives to Globalised Capitalism

How do we get from a capitalist system that rewards a rich elite for the exploitation of working people’s labour to one where the economy is democratically-owned and controlled? How do we get from a capitalist system that is inherently destructive of the environment to one that balances material need for the essentials of life with the carrying capacity of the world’s resources?

Since the financial crisis of 2007/08 and the resultant deep recession, those imperatives of radical change have stimulated a world-wide, anti-capitalist movement. At its heart is the belief that things cannot go on the way they are, that the capitalist prescription of economic sacrifice for the working classes and material accumulation for the rich elite, is both grotesquely immoral and environmentally catastrophic.

To some extent, that movement is represented through mainstream politics. Left-wing parties have mandated their leaders to challenge neo-liberal austerity, along with grass-roots campaigns to support international climate agreements and local initiatives on reducing carbon emissions. As significant, perhaps, are the millions of conversations taking place, in friendship and discussion groups and through social media on what the future of left-wing politics can be. Fundamental questions are being asked about how a post-capitalist economy might look, the value of work, the dignity of people to live their lives free from the violence of poverty, and how to become stewards of the environment rather than participants in its destruction.

One major focus of the recent debates has been the liberation of time, based on increased automation and the redistribution of work. Central to this vision is the concept of a citizen’s income, a basic entitlement provided by the state to reflect the collective value of production with lower, direct labour inputs. A shorter working week, effectively a fair distribution of necessary labour in the era of robotics, opens up the possibility for a new work/life balance and enhanced opportunities for creative activities at an individual and community level.[i]

A second focus addresses the global, environmental crisis and how capitalist accumulation requires continued exploitation of fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources. This despite the terrible dangers, on present trends, of irreversible climate change. The Green New Deal is intended to draw parallels with Roosevelt’s original public investment programme in the 1930s to stimulate the United States’ economy during the depression. Similarly, the Marshall Plan to support European recovery after the Second World War is cited as the prime example of an international exercise in economic stimulation. Essentially, the world now faces an even greater crisis than depression and post-war reconstruction. Resources have to be mobilised on a global scale for investment in the complete transformation to a post-carbon economy, where fossil fuel production is eliminated and employment transferred to skilled work in renewable energy.[ii]

This brief review hardly does justice to the multi-dimensional policy debates and programmes that are engaging people on the radical left and providing a sense of hope that change is possible. But there is also a recognition of how power relationships distort the prospects for potentially, transformative policies. Capitalism has absorbed popular opposition during previous crises, mainly through the social-democratic consensus on wage increases and welfare provisions, even as capitalist control of global resources tightened and economic inequalities widened.

After a decade-long decline in real wages and the decimation of public services, a new capitalist narrative is being constructed. The limited recovery, based on quantitative easing and private debt accumulation, is being hailed as the return to a normal trajectory of growth fuelled by an exciting era of market-led innovation and advanced technology. What this vision of artificial intelligence, of driver-less cars and smart appliances masks is the underlying dynamic of capitalism to extend corporate power over democratic institutions and to close down space for radical alternatives. It is all too easy to envisage some palliative reformism around the work/life balance and environmental improvements through the increased use of renewables, but none of which addresses the fundamentals of capitalist exploitation.

Essentially, we are reaching a crucial stage in human history, where either capitalism continues to dominate the direction of human and technological resources, with all of its destructive trends, or working people build the framework for a post-capitalist economy that is under democratic control. Over the last decade there have been indicators, signposts on the road, to how such a fundamental transformation might take place, mainly emerging from practical initiatives at the level of the local economy.

Two significant examples are re-municipalisation and community/cooperative ownership. Traditionally, local authorities held an important role in the development of public transport and energy infrastructures, directly owning and operating bus and tram fleets, as well as utilities like water, gas and electricity corporations. The rolling back of the state under neo-liberalism led to privatisation of those services but, recently, many local authorities, in response to growing anger at high costs and declining standards, have brought them back in-house. Various benefits flow from local ownership and control, including improved wages and conditions for workers, procurement policies that support local suppliers, and an economic multiplier that benefits the local area.[iii]

Also significant have been regional and local economic initiatives to encourage the ownership and development of economic assets such as community wind farms. These have included incentives like guaranteed access to the energy grid as in Denmark  and Germany, encouraging longer-term investment. Similarly, community land trusts have brought brown-field sites into local ownership for food growing or housing built to high ecological standards, leading to both reduced dependency on external food chains and inefficient national energy grids. What is encouraging is the relationship between the local state as an effective economic agent and local communities exercising control over public assets. Potentially radical experiments are taking place in  workers control  and ecological living that provide practical alternatives and a real sense of liberation from the usual power relationships.[iv]

But all this must be set in the context of an accelerating form of globalised capitalism. While these small-scale initiatives have the characteristics of a nascent alternative, on present trends they will simply be absorbed into the new capitalist model of high-technology growth that masks the usual inequalities in wealth and power and the energy-intensive extraction of finite resources leading to environmental collapse through climate change.

There has to be a clear and unambiguous, post-capitalist political agenda on building a mass movement for workers control of production and locally-autonomous economies. The initial focus will be on the basic infrastructure of energy, food production, housing and transport. In this stage, the local state can act as a buffer-zone against the encroachment of global capital, and as a guarantor of long-term investment, facilitating the construction of social capital for broader forms of democratic control of the economy. For example, we are only beginning to understand the potential applications of 3D printing and open-access technologies for a range of socially-useful products that can be manufactured locally with renewable resources.[v]

The prospect exists of completely autonomous alternatives to globalised production systems. Instead of the present social structure of a high-technology elite, a middle-class increasingly vulnerable to technological redundancy and a growing precariat living from week-to-week on low wages, there would be  multi-skilled workers comfortable with both technical and practical skills, the sharing of necessary work, and the development of a manufacturing base that can satisfy social need. Also, by  using local, renewable resources, the economy can, in the longer-term, achieve an ecological balance.

Such revolutionary ideals are not new and can be traced back over centuries to a radical left tradition that includes the Levellers and the Diggers during the English Civil War in the 1640s, fighting for an equitable share of land, to the popular revolutions of the 19thand 20thCenturies, notably the socialist and anarchist movements of the Paris Commune in 1870 and  the Spanish Republic in the mid-1930s.

For short periods of time and, under the extreme pressures of war that proved their undoing,  millions of working people took control of industry and agriculture, organising production on the basis of need rather than profit. A similar potential existed on a much larger scale through the network of soviets, the workers councils in the early stages of the Russian revolution from 1917 until the early 1920s, before they were crushed by the Bolshevik leadership that imposed centralised planning.[vi]

There has never been a better time to revive the spirit of workers control both as an alternative to state centralism and to Keynesian demand management. Effectively, the Soviet and Chinese forms of communism became little more than state capitalism, bureaucratic machines for the maintenance of elite power and the brutal suppression of democratic alternatives. Keynesianism, by using government expenditure to counter the worst deflationary trends of reduced demand and collapsing private investment during the 1930s, helped create a temporary period of full employment after World War Two. But this was always intended to support capitalism, rather than radically reform it and was effectively swept away by the forces of globalisation and neo-liberalism. Its contemporary manifestation that looks to modest increases in public investment as a stimulant to the economy, does nothing to address the fundamental inequalities and power relationships of global capitalism.[vii]

The alternative, radical theoretical framework includes green syndicalism that has its foundations in the anarchist and syndicalist writers of the early 20thCentury, such as Kropotkin, as well as the later contribution in the 1920s of guild socialism. These provided comprehensive analysis of the productive capacity of the modern economy and how workers could directly own and control industry, organised on the equitable production of goods and services. Green syndicalism offers a contemporary emphasis on how these are consistent with new priorities for an ecological balance between production and a renewable resource base.[viii]

Theories of a ‘no-growth’ economy also focus on the relationship between satisfying social needs while rejecting a trajectory of increased material production on a planet with finite resources. Also significant has been the work on participatory economics and democratic processes in a post-capitalist economy so that workers control at the local level can be combined with broader, social and environmental priorities, through representative, regional and national bodies.[ix]

Many other theoretical contributions could be cited, but the point should be clear – that there is no one definitive model or blueprint for a post-capitalist economy, nor should there be. Instead we have a vibrant and dynamic cross-fertilisation of historical and contemporary theories combined with the lived-in experience of practical initiatives as working people respond to the capitalist crisis.

What abides, giving hope and inspiration, is the demand for radical change that has energised generations of working people and one that resonates now through a vibrant, international movement that can build a future of economic justice and ecological balance.

[i]. Andre Gorz, Farewell to the Working Class – An Essay on Post-Industrialism (Pluto Press, 1982)

[ii]. New Economics Foundation, A Green New Deal(NEF, 2008)

[iii]. European Federation of Public Service Unions, Re-municipalising municipal services in Europe(EPSU, 2012)

[iv].  New Economics Foundation, Building a New Economy Where People Really Take Control : An Agenda for Change(NEF, 2016)

[v]. Mike Cooley, Architect or Bee? The Human Technology Relationship(South End Press, 1982)

[vi]. Dario Azzellini, An Alternative Labour History – Workers Control and Workplace Democracy(Zed Books, 2015)

[vii]. Geoff Mann, In the Long Run We are all Dead : Keynesianism, Political Economy and Revolution(Verso, 2017)

[viii]. Peter Kropotkin, The Conquest of Bread (Penguin, 2015); Jeff Shantz, Green Syndicalism, An Alternative Red-Green Vision(Anarchist Library, 2017)

[ix]. Herman Daly, Beyond Growth : The Economics of Sustainable Development (Beacon Press, 1997); Michael Albert, Realizing Hope, Life Beyond Capitalism(Zed Books, 2014)