‘Lord give me chastity but not yet’ is the famous prayer of a young Saint Augustine of Hippo as told in his book ‘Confessions.’ A recognition of his sinful life and the implications this has, in Augustine’s case for his faith, yet an unwillingness to change for the better. The plea of a young Augustine increasingly seems to also be the plea of the modern ruling classes and economic commentariat who acknowledge the need for radical economic change while remaining opposed to radical economic changes.
This is because capitalism is facing a multitude of existential threats. We have the rise of biogenetic modification, the unavoidable environmental catastrophe, the refugee crisis and the deterioration of the close bond between capitalism and democracy. ‘Who gets access to genetic modification?’ ‘How can minor market changes solve the environmental crisis? ‘Why is communist China the most efficient capitalist country?’ These are all questions that, when answered by capitalists usually have an unpleasant answer: The rich get access to biogenetics. Minor market changes can’t solve climate change, the planet will deteriorate regardless. China is the most efficient form of capitalism because it has an authoritarian, right wing government. These are crises that I hope to cover in more detail later but for now, let us accept the need for radical change and ask ourselves, ‘What is to be done?’
The socialist will say there needs to be a redistribution of wealth and a revolution to put the working classes in control of the economy, while the capitalist will say there needs to be less government interference in the market and these problems will sort themselves out. Unfortunately, most people don’t have a good understanding of what socialism is and of those who do, many are still opposed. On the other hand, government interference in the market has, in general, proved to be successful in achieving certain goals, whether that be a Keynesian fiscal policy or extensive nationalisation.
I claim that the only realistic solution to the aforementioned crises is socialism, we need the working majority to make rational decisions based on benefit to social welfare rather than profit. We have the capitalists admitting need for change and the socialists ignored. With this in mind, I think there is a solution that will either please or anger both sides: Market Socialism, or more specifically worker co-operatives.
Worker co-operatives function like a normal business, only that the decisions the company makes are that of the workers and the earnings the company makes are appropriated by the workers themselves. There is no rigid blueprint for worker co-operatives, therefore there are varying levels of worker management, whether it be full worker ownership or a manager elected by the workers with a degree of profit distribution. Worker co-operatives eliminate labour alienation, distribute created wealth and put the working majority in charge of economic decisions. They do not seize anyone’s wealth nor do they nationalise anything and they function in a market. This pleases both socialists and capitalists respectively.
What’s great about worker co-operatives is that they work – really well. It’s no surprise that a London School of Business study found, when comparing a normal business and a worker co-op in the same industry, the co-op was more productive and three times as likely to succeed as a start-up , assumingly because workers are in charge, they know what they are doing and are not alienated from the wealth they produce. If we were to switch to a more co-operative economy, it’s only inevitable then that underlying productivity would rise as would wages, as wealth is distributed fairly, as would living standards, working standards etc. So I claim that worker co-operatives pose the solution to the extreme inequality present in our societies today, in a way in which there won’t be a capitalist reaction.
In terms of wider economic organisation needed to deal with major economic crises like a global recession or climate change, worker co-ops can again present a better solution than that which we currently have. When on a microeconomic level we have worker democracy, there can easily be worker democracy on a macroeconomic level. Today we have economic institutions that house business owners, shareholders and financiers whose main concern is maintaining profitability; when we rely on these institutions, which invariably have huge influence on the government, to present us with a solution to climate change, the solution is ideological and uneffective. This is because the primary concern is profit not social welfare. So we get a solution like recycling, where you sort out your cans and bottles etc. to save the environment meanwhile some mining company is still deforesting on a catastrophic scale and oil companies are leaking poison into the sea.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for recycling, but I agree with Slavoj Zizek when he claims that it is ideological and designed to make us feel better about the consumerism we have that is continuing to destroy the environment. What if we had new economic institutions, with the same huge level of influence over government, only it isn’t financiers and shareholders, but elected representatives of individual co-operatives or regions of co-operatives that by nature have social welfare in mind? I concede that due to market mentality, it is possible that the majority of workers will still choose, albeit distributed, profit over environment, but I have faith this would not be the case. We would most likely see radical changes in the way we produce things that are more environmentally friendly, have more of an emphasis on collective solidarity and community environmentalism. I say this simply because it is the rational thing to do, without judgement being clouded by profit.
The same would apply to biogenetics and virtually every other crisis capitalism causes: A rational approach taken with social welfare in mind. When it comes to achieving this ‘co-operative economy’ there are numerous ways. The most effective way is to have favourable tax conditions for co-operatives and award large companies that take a more co-operative approach. Having these conditions, combined with the fact co-ops are naturally more efficient than their capitalist counterparts, could lead to a more co-op economy. At the end of the day there is no blueprint but whatever decisions are made, there needs to be a lot more emphasis on propagating worker co-operatives and building new institutions that unite co-operatives to make democratic economic decisions. If you still don’t believe me, have a further look at them yourself and make up your own mind.
I’d like to conclude this short proposal by addressing the two main criticisms I always seem to get when I make the case for co-operatives. With the capitalists its always ‘That’s utopian/idealistic’ to them I say: No! You are the utopian and idealist if you think things can carry on like this for another five or even twenty years! There needs to be change in the direction of an economy that puts social welfare first. As for the socialists I always hear that these changes are not enough and more must be done (which I agree with in principle but most do not). To this I respond with a quote from the saint I mentioned at the beginning: ‘You aspire to great things? Begin with little ones.’