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Published on February 10, 2013
In worker self-directed enterprises (WSDEs), workers democratically run the affairs of the enterprise. They make the decisions whose consequences shape their lives. Their job descriptions require them to perform some specific tasks within the enterprise’s division of labor, but their job descriptions also obligate their participation in directing the enterprise.
To perform their specific tasks, workers in WSDEs must learn how to do the required work, must be trained and educated, first in schools before employment and afterwards on the job as well. The same applies to the other part of their job description that concerns participation in directing their WSDE. School curricula must provide everyone with the broad-based, liberal arts education that builds flexibility and the capacity for creative enterprise adjustments to an ever-changing world. In short, establishing an economy based on widespread WSDEs will exert profound and effective pressures for educational changes. Democratizing the workplace will help democratize education.
WSDE’s will also democratize the political systems with which they interact. Inside WSDEs, workers normally experience real on-the-job power. They democratically decide what is produced, how and where; what is done with the enterprise’s net revenues, and whether to hire and fire any managers they may or may not decide to engage. Once accustomed to democracy at the workplace, workers in WSDEs will much more likely demand equivalent real political power in the communities where they reside.
Beyond developing an appetite for real democracy, WSDEs also develop workers’ capacities to fully participate in such democracies both at workplaces and in residential communities. These capacities range from the conduct of meetings, methods of collective decision-making, proper advance information and preparation for reaching decisions, and so on. What “business administration” schools taught to upper managers of enterprises under capitalism will be refashioned into a component of all education, teaching all citizens the skills of identifying, analyzing, and collectively solving enterprise problems.
The history of capitalism and its relation to democracy is fraught with unrealized promise and the consequent frustration and social conflict. Capitalism was born in Europe in revolution against the preceding economic system, feudalism, that prevailed in Europe for the thousand years before the 17th century. In feudalism, serfs were tied to the land, produced surpluses appropriated by feudal lords, and were oppressed by those lords and their agents in countless ways. When feudalism became unbearable and broke down, it provoked the English, French, and subsequent revolutions. Capitalism emerged as the new system. Instead of the serfs and lords who defined feudalism, deals struck between employers and employees defined capitalism.
The transition from feudalism to capitalism was championed by its supporters as a transition as well from dictatorial domination by feudal lords to personal freedom and political democracy. Capitalism’s advocates believed that by establishing capitalism in place of feudalism, they would bring democracy as well. Beside feudal lords, kings, czars, and emperors too would vanish and be replaced by parliaments, elections, and universal suffrage. Capitalism’s champions have ever since more or less equated capitalism and democracy.
However, as capitalism spread globally over the last two centuries, a growing number of people have questioned, criticized and challenged capitalism on precisely the point of its relationship to democracy. In simplest terms, the critics have argued that capitalism turned out not to bring, let alone guarantee democracy. Quite the contrary, the critics stress that the inequality of wealth and income endemic to capitalist societies operates to block, thwart, and undermine democracy. Likewise, they point to the organization of capitalist enterprises as an example of the opposite of democracy.
In capitalist corporations, a minority at the top (major shareholders and the board of directors they select) makes all the key enterprise decisions. The majority of employees must accept and live with the effects of decisions from which their participation is excluded. In capitalist enterprises not organized as corporations, a parallel structure and exclusion operates. Capitalism does not permit, let alone foster, democracy in the workplace.
The exclusion of democracy from the capitalist workplace has worked to undermine political democracy in societies characterized by the capitalist organization of production. That is why, even where formal political democracy exists (elections, parties, civil liberties, limited censorship, etc.), capitalists use their accumulated wealth, high incomes, and control over enterprises to dominate politics. To that end they buy politicians, parties, think-tanks, lobbyists, and public relations firms and campaigns. The latter celebrate the formalities of democracy to obscure and disguise the absence of real political democracy.
One powerful benefit of WSDEs lies in their multiple ways of moving to overcome capitalism’s failure to deliver on the promise of democracy made at its birth and repeated every since. Too few critics of modern society’s failure to establish or secure real democracy have recognized a key root of that failure in the capitalist organization of enterprises. The social movement toward and for WSDEs – as necessary to the realization of democracy - is based precisely on that recognition.
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