Is there a better way than capitalism?

20120314-graph-the-1-percents-jobless-recovery-01Marxists say that the trouble with the capitalist economy is that workers don’t get the full value of what they produce.  Whether or not that’s true as a general principle, it is a good description of the current direction of the U.S. economy.

capitalismhitsthefan_The Marxist solution is that the workers themselves should own the means of production.  A Marxist economist, Richard D. Wolff, said that where socialists and Communists have gone wrong is in promoting government ownership rather than worker ownership.

I recently read Wolff’s three latest books.  His view of the current economic crisis is the same as mine.   In the 1970s, overall American wages stopped growing.  Working people tried to maintain their material standard of living by putting in longer hours and having more family members in the work force.   When that reached a limit, they kept up their spending levels by borrowing.

Now the spending power of ordinary Americans has reached a limit.  Most Americans are either broke, nearby broke or paying down their debts.  That’s why the government has failed to stimulate the economy through spending or lower interest rates.

occupytheeconomy0The solution, according to Wolff, is the creation of WSDEs – worker self-directed enterprises – in which the workers themselves are the ultimate deciders of what is done with the profits (in Marxist lingo, the “surplus”).

A WSDE would be more than worker participation in management, where corporate ownership remains the same.  And it would be more than a worker-owned business, where board of directors and the rest of the corporate management structure remains in place.   And it would be more than just a co-operative, which can be organized to serve the interests of any group, not just employees.

This would not necessarily solve all problems, Wolff wrote, but it would make other problems easier to solve.  A WSDE wouldn’t lay off workers or reduce wages merely to increase the income of managers and stockholders.  Employees wouldn’t feel alienated from their work.  A worker-owned business would be less likely to be willing to pollute the community in which they live than would a board of directors responsible to stockholders who live far away.

Democracy at WorkI am in favor of more worker-owned businesses, but I think Wolff greatly underestimates the opposition to his proposed program.   Does he think the interests that engineered the sale of the Postal Service’s assets to private businesses (such as Nancy Pelosi’s husband) or advocate replacing public schools with for-profit businesses (aka charters)—does he think these interests are going to sit still and allow Wolff’s WSDEs to push them aside?

Back in the New Deal era, the federal government fostered electric power co-operatives, which provided electricity at lower rates than the for-profit corporations.  But they did not displace the for-profit corporations, nor become a model for how to operate electric utilities.

Instead the electric power industry successfully pushed for deregulation of the industry, in which competition between electric power providers was supposed to keep rates low.  Deregulation also abolished a requirement that an electric utility have enough reserve generating capacity to prevent future blackouts and brownouts.  Nobody is responsible for keeping the lights on now.

 The fact that something is economically feasible and socially desirable does not mean that it will be politically successful.   There is no substitute for political power.

That said, I believe that Wolff is on to something.  Experience with government ownership of business is that they either fail or they are no different from investor-owned businesses.  Worker ownership may be a cure for capitalism, but at present it is at the stage of laboratory research and maybe the first clinical trials.

LINKS

Democracy at Work: A social movement for economic democracy.  Background information and examples of worker self-directed enterprises are available on Richard D. Wolff’s web site.

Socialism and Workers’ Self-Directed Enterprises by Richard D. Woff in Monthly Review.  Notice the hostile comments by Wolff’s fellow socialists.

Related post

 Is economic democracy possible?

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2 Responses to “Is there a better way than capitalism?”

  1. whungerford Says:

    I don’t agree that Capitalism necessitates low wages. As the author has noted in a recent comment, strong unions may help achieve fair wages.

    Like

  2. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    The question is whether workers who own the means of production can compete with other organizational schemes. How are they going to produce products as cheaply as the corporate model? When one walks into a store, unless you have money to burn, any large price differential will be resolved in favor of the cheapest product that will meet functional requirements.

    Like

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