Today, we begin a series of posts that articulate a vision forward, a path to a more democratic economy, revisiting a recurrent theme of Retake’s blog–the need to explore and ultimately develop entirely new economic and political systems, essentially democratizing our economy, the workplace, and our democracy. Reminder of Retake’s organizing meeting tonight. Details.
Democratizing Our Economy and Our Political System
For some time, Retake has challenged capitalism as an economic system predicated upon continuing growth in a world in which continuing growth will translate into extinction. But Roxanne has long cautioned me that our choice of words matter, that terms like capitalism and socialism resonate in entirely different ways for those on the left than they do for those in the center. And so, when I read The Guardian’s The New Left Economics: How a Network of Thinkers is Transforming Capitalism, I was struck by Andy Beckett’s use of the phrase “democratizing the economy.” I am thinking that this term could be very palatable to moderates and even conservatives while still representing the change required. Just as “democracy” has never been practiced in our economic system, it is also a stranger to our political system, and so, it may be that the concept of democratizing democracy could resonate as well. In any case, I’d welcome comments on this.
Beckett’s article weaves in a bit of the history of English and American economic thinking going back over a century, but the focus is on trends in recent economic theory as it is unfolding in England and the US. He points to an emerging economic theory that he feels has been absent from the left.
For almost half a century, something vital has been missing from leftwing politics in western countries. Since the 70s, the left has changed how many people think about prejudice, personal identity and freedom. It has exposed capitalism’s cruelties. It has sometimes won elections, and sometimes governed effectively afterwards. But it has not been able to change fundamentally how wealth and work function in society – or even provide a compelling vision of how that might be done. The left, in short, has not had an economic policy.”
In This Is Not Normal, a recent post, Retake entertained how privatization, deregulation, trickle down and a panoply of regressive policies and media compliance has produced a debilitated democracy with the media and politicians marginalizing criticism of either the political or economic systems as being naïve, extreme and even dangerous. From Beckett: “Privatisation, deregulation, lower taxes for business and the rich, more power for employers and shareholders, less power for workers – these interlocking policies have intensified capitalism, and made it ever more ubiquitous. There have been immense efforts to make capitalism appear inevitable; to depict any alternative as impossible. Rightwingers and centrists have caricatured anyone arguing that capitalism should be reined in – let alone reshaped or replaced – as wanting to take the world “back to the 70s”. Altering our economic system has been presented as a fantasy – no more practical than time travel.”
Beckett goes on to describe that while voters in Britain and the US have not formed a vision for an alternative system, they have begun to understand that the current system is not meeting their needs. “The voters have revolted against neoliberalism. The international economic institutions – the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund – are recognising its downsides. Meanwhile, the 2008 financial crisis and the previously unthinkable government interventions that halted it have discredited two central neoliberal orthodoxies: that capitalism cannot fail, and that governments cannot step in to change how the economy works.” To date, the most pronounced manifestation of dissatisfaction has been Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the ascension to power of numerous populist tyrants across the globe, but Beckett also notes that there is a corresponding emergence of transformational thinking from the left.
A set of economic principles and concepts is emerging from the left that calls for a significant redistribution of economic power: “The new leftwing economics wants to see the redistribution of economic power, so that it is held by everyone – just as political power is held by everyone in a healthy democracy. This redistribution of power could involve employees taking ownership of part of every company; or local politicians reshaping their city’s economy to favour local, ethical businesses over large corporations; or national politicians making co-operatives a capitalist norm.” When Roxanne and I went on our 10,000 mile US Road Trip, we found manifestations of this kind of local experimentation with co-operative development in Buffalo, Rochester, Madison, and Jackson. We wrote about what we found in these cities back in August, Worker Cooperatives, An Alternative to Amazon’s Oppressive Worker Policies, a post that included links to resources for legislators at the state and local levels interested in investing in cooperatives.
Beckett points out that “democratic economy” is not some idealistic fantasy: but that as noted above, there are models being developed throughout England and the US. These models stand in stark contrast with prevailing economic oppression experienced by workers worldwide and Beckett fears for the viability of democracy itself in the face of this oppression and a political system unresponsive to addressing that oppression. “If we want to live in democratic societies, then we need to … allow communities to shape their local economies,” write Joe Guinan and Martin O’Neill, both prolific advocates of the new economics, in a recent article for the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) – a thinktank previously associated with New Labour. “It is no longer good enough to see the economy as some kind of separate technocratic domain in which the central values of a democratic society somehow do not apply.”
Beckett describes how left economists are noting the development of disparate models of cooperative business development, but feel that this is largely in an inchoate form disconnected from and without influence upon the larger economic system, sort of like bright shiny Christmas ornaments on a withering tree. “Instead of such limited, patchily successful interventions, the new economists want to see much more systemic and permanent change. They want – at the least – to change how capitalism works. But, crucially, they want this change to be only partially initiated and overseen by the state, not controlled by it. They envisage a transformation that happens almost organically, driven by employees and consumers – a sort of non-violent revolution in slow motion.” And he cites a number of economic theorists who for the first time feel that such a broad transformation might be realistic.
“Troubled American cities are in a more advanced state of decay than their British equivalents,” says Guinan, who has worked for the Democracy Collaborative for a decade. “But American local government also has greater powers. So you have the ability to create radical new models from the ground up.”
When we were on our Road Trip we met with folks in Madison, Rochester, Buffalo and Jackson to learn more about the cooperative movement and how cities could support their development. When in Cleveland we also conversed with the leadership from the Democracy Collaborative, a think tank founded by Gar Alperovitz in 2008. The Democracy Collaborative followed an Alperovitz strategy called “community wealth-building”. It aims to end struggling local economies’ reliance on unequal relationships with distant, wealth-extracting corporations – such as chain retailers – and to base these economies around local, more socially conscious businesses instead. Working first in Cleveland, but now offering training, conferences and consultation with cities around the nation, the impact of the Democracy Collaborative is palpable and growing.
In Cleveland, the Democracy Collaborative helped set up a solar power company, an industrial laundry, and a city-centre hydroponic farm growing lettuces and basil. All three enterprises were owned by their employees, and some of their profits went to a holding company tasked with establishing more cooperatives in the city. All three enterprises have succeeded, so far. The goal of the project was summed up in blunt, almost populist terms by one of the Democracy Collaborative’s co-founders, Ted Howard, in 2017: “Stop the leakage of money out of our community.” Yet “community wealth building” also has a more subtle purpose: it is a concrete demonstration that economic decisions can be based on more than neoliberalism’s narrow criteria.”
Beckett feels that the various economic experiments and economic theories that are emerging are destined to coalesce into a kind of “transition” in how business is done on much larger scales. His concern is that the movement could be coopted by the corporatocracy, and that the powers will reassert control. He cites the 1930s and the Great Depression as a time when Democrats aligned with labor to advance significant reforms to the economy and worker-employer relations and to create an array of egalitarian systems supporting working families: social security being the crown jewel of these advances. But he also notes, that after making necessary concessions, the right succeeded in eroding those reforms and returned us to more “pure capitalism.”
Beckett also wonders if the left has figured out a way to convey a vision of a more just, sustainable economy that voters can embrace. He points to how the corporate sector, reinforced daily in the media, focus exclusively on the stock market and its knee jerk spasms in reaction to projections related to future growth as being the way to measure the health of our economy. In that context, selling concepts like “De-growth” or the Green New Deal become a challenge. Again, as noted above, the media will do its best to characterize criticisms of the current economic model as being extreme, naïve, or pure fantasy, but it seems clear that whether you look toward the growing Sunrise Movement, the debate about the Green New Deal, the emergence of AOC, Ilhan Omar, Pamela Jayapal, Ro Khanna and others in the US House or even the increasingly progressive rhetoric of politicians such as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and to a lesser degree most of the Democratic candidates, it is hard to deny that “something’s happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.”
My takeaway from the above, is that the path to greater justice in NM and the US is through the development of local models of economic justice, worker owned cooperatives that shine a bright spotlight on what justice looks like while at the same time working to support and elect those candidates who see oppression for what it is, who name it, and who are willing to entertain the idea of a ‘next economic system,’ a democratized economy that works for all of us.
If there are any researchers or thinkers out there who’d like to do a bit of research to develop some practical ways in which NM cities could embrace and support the development of worker owned cooperatives, please write to me. There is a wealth of research out there (including the Retake article cited above) and lots of models where cities have done this. It may not transform the nation, but it can offer more examples of alternatives to the servitude model in place in most work places.
I only touched upon all that Beckett covered in his Guardian article, so if you’d like to read more about the emergence of new thinking on the economy and the workplace, click here to read the full Guardian article.
Paul & Roxanne