Democracy exists if and when a community organizes its autonomy around the full participation, on an equal footing, of all members of the community. Its other, autocracy, exists when a community organizes (or allows) its governance by an individual or a subgroup of that community, a leader. Universal suffrage is clearly a step towards at least formal democracy because voters elect rulers. The reality of this formal democracy depends on the inclusiveness of the popular vote and the concrete reality of the equal influence of the voters on the outcome of the election.
Residential communities in many parts of the modern world operate in formal democracies. However, they generally allow people with high income and wealth levels to use these means to influence others in their vote, while people with low income and wealth levels can and generally exercise less. affecting. The capitalist economic system generates precisely this unequal distribution of income and wealth which creates and maintains a large gap between formal and real democracy in today’s world. This gap in turn strengthens capitalism.
Workplace communities are sets of interacting individuals comprising businesses: factories, offices and stores. In societies where capitalism prevails, companies are very rarely organized democratically. Instead, they are autocratic. In most work communities in the world today, an individual or a small sub-group within the work community, a leading group, governs the work community. An owner, an owner family, an association of owners or a board of directors elected by the main shareholders constitutes the leader of capitalist enterprises. Their autocratic governance is reinforced and is reinforced by the unequal distributions of income and wealth that they generate.
The democratic impulses provoked and repressed in turn by monarchical autocracies have sometimes turned into social movements. These movements were sometimes capable of altering the relationship between the ruler and the ruled, but generally succeeded only to a limited extent and temporarily. Eventually, some of these social movements gathered enough force to dislodge these leaders and end autocracies in residential communities. Kingdoms, Tsarisms and Oligarchies were later overthrown as a result of this. In their place, revolutionaries often established representative (parliamentary) democracies.
The democratic impulses, similarly provoked and suppressed within autocracies in the workplace, have not yet developed into sufficiently strong and focused social movements to overthrow autocracy in the workplace. Social movements have grown sufficiently to form labor-based unions and political parties, and to gain greater racial and gender diversity among participants in the workplace. Unions have used collective bargaining to change the terms of relations between employers and employees. Labor political parties used suffrage to produce laws that also changed the terms of the employer-employee relationship.
Yet unions and Labor / Socialist parties have rarely targeted – let alone succeeded – transforming autocracies in the workplace into democracies in the workplace. Even at times in history when unions and left-wing parties united to build impressive social power – like the 1930s New Deal in the United States or social democracy in twentieth-century Europe – they could not or did not move to end the social crisis. prevalence and domination of the autocratic enterprises of capitalism. No revolution has taken place in the direction of a transition beyond the capitalist organization of enterprises and its autocratic division of participants into a majority of employees and a minority of employers in power.
Autocracies within workplaces have continued in private and public enterprises. In private companies, leaders have often been individuals, partners, or corporate boards: all people with no position in a state apparatus. Alternatively, leaders have also often been state officials placed in state-owned enterprises (owned and operated by the state) parallel to the positions of the boards of directors of private companies. In such cases, the “socialist” label applied to these SOEs could refer to certain aspects that differentiate them from private capitalist corporations. But these “socialist” enterprises were no different in their autocratic internal organization.
Over the millennia, democratic impulses have sometimes succeeded in establishing democratically governed workplaces in certain places and at certain times. In these, all members of the labor community had an equal vote in determining what, how and where the company produced and what was done with the product of the company. We will call these democratically governed workplaces worker cooperatives (as they sometimes called themselves).
During the many centuries when slavery, feudalism and capitalism were the main types of economic systems, worker cooperatives were marginal forms of labor organization. The conditions, objective and subjective, were absent for worker cooperatives to become socially widespread forms of work organization. However, their dispersed presences kept alive the idea that democratized workplaces were a possible alternative to socially prevalent autocratic corporations. Critics of autocratic workplaces have often supplemented their opposition with a plea for worker cooperatives.
Critics of Marxism against capitalism in the century following Marx’s death may have led it to advocate for worker cooperatives. Instead, the anti-capitalism of Marxism has focused on identifying the agents who could effect a transition from capitalism to socialism. There were two key agents considered: first, the working class, and second, the state. The consensus that emerged was simple. The working class as the majority of society would take over the state. It could happen through voting, or it could require a revolution. Either way, once state power is conquered by an organized working class, it would use that power to make the transition from a capitalist economic system to a socialist economic system.
This consensus led both socialism and Marxism to focus excessively on the state and all it could do to deny, overwhelm and displace capitalism and its nefarious social effects. Government regulation of businesses, government ownership and operation of businesses, and government control of the market: these became the various definitions of what socialists would do once they had the power of the state. As history shows, this is what most socialists and Marxists actually did when they acquired state power.
What happened was another historical example of a movement for grassroots social change, confusing a step towards its social goal with the achievement of that goal itself. Socialisms, including and since the Soviet Revolution of 1917, have increasingly defined and declared their regulated and state-controlled workplaces as “socialism”. This socialism, however, included a lasting autocratic organization of the workplace. The development of socialism thus became the continuous refinement and shaping of the great influence of government on the economy towards approved social goals. Socialism could even advocate giving its working classes more civil liberties and freedoms.
What Marxism and Socialism had lost sight of was the internal organization of workplaces. These ceased to be seen as sites of deep class struggles once “socialism” was proclaimed. The need to transform the organization of internal production relations in enterprises from autocratic to democratic has faded from the attention of most socialists.
Thus, the Soviet Union, China, Sweden and other socialist variants experimented with different types and degrees of state intervention in the economy. For example, Sweden mainly regulated private companies with autocratic internal structures. In contrast, the Soviets took over, owned and operated state enterprises with autocratic internal structures. China is now experimenting with a combination of Swedish and Soviet socialism to produce its “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. Chinese socialism operates with autocratic organizations in both its private and public enterprises.
If we define capitalism in terms of the internal employer-employee structure of its firms – what Marx called their “social relations of production” – most socialisms to date have not yet made transitions beyond capitalism. To do this, they would have to change the current internal organization of their companies into democratic worker cooperatives. Indeed, it has now become the task of 21st century socialism.
Richard D. Wolff
Independent Media Institute
This article was produced by The economy for all, a project of the Independent Media Institute.