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Synthesis/Regeneration 21   (Winter 2000)

A Democratic Economy and a Democratic Worklife

Don Fitz, Green Party of St. Louis/Gateway Green Alliance

Though most cultures consider dreams to be unique manifestations of reality, the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, wrote:

A dream is a fragment of life, broken off at both ends, not connected either with the part that goes before, or with that which follows after…It is a kind of parenthesis inserted in life. (Robert van de Castle, The Psychology of Dreaming, 1971).
The beginning of the 21st century sees many progressives having a strikingly similar attitude toward their worklives. It is as if organizing should stop when one goes to work and resume at 5:00. The late 20th century saw demands for people to change relationships of domination based on gender, gender preference, ethnicity, religion, nationality and disability. But when issues of work are addressed, they are typically confined to areas such as wages, hours and benefits—even the most progressive unions rarely challenge relationships of domination in their members' worklives.

Has the entire progressive movement accepted the loss of all rights of democratic empowerment at work? There has not always been a taboo on discussing worklife. Very early unions, such as the Knights of Labor and Industrial Workers of the World, assumed that "solidarity" included struggling for collective control of work.

Marx saw alienation as stripping labor of its creative potential and transforming it into a dull, dead process for the accumulation of wealth.

When I was 18 and protesting the Vietnam War, I ran across a book that has long influenced my thinking about work: Erich Fromm's Marx's Concept of Man (1961). Fromm has a long introduction to the first English translation of the "Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts," which Marx wrote in 1844. He explains that Marx's economic analysis began with the assumption that labor is essential to people's consciousness of who they are:

Labor is the factor that mediates between man and nature; labor is man's effort to regulate his metabolism with nature. Labor is the expression of human life and through labor man's relationship to nature is changed, hence through labor man changes himself. (p. 16).
Marx's critique of capitalism was based on his early understanding that exploitation robs people of essential aspects of humanness. This theft comes via the boss owning the worker's time. Marx saw alienation as stripping labor of its creative potential and transforming it into a dull, dead process for the accumulation of wealth.

Capitalism alienates people from the product of production, since what they create has no connection with them but disappears into the market. Capitalism alienates people from the process of production as labor becomes a time they loathe rather than defining part of their lives. Capitalism alienates people from other people as work loses its community-building dimension. Capitalism alienates people from themselves, since work is hardly a time of creativity, imagination and dreams. And capitalism alienates people from nature, which they must despoil on the altar of profit.

Capitalism alienates people from themselves, since work is hardly a time of creativity, imagination and dreams.

For Marx, the goal of socialism would be to redefine labor:

It is to create a form of production and an organization of society in which man can overcome alienation from his product, from his work, from his fellow man, from himself, and from nature; in which he can return to himself and grasp the world with his own powers, thus becoming one with the world. (Fromm, pp. 58-59)

Alienation and Environment

Undoubtedly, many environmentalists would perceive this discussion as so much philosophical drivel which has nothing to do with halting the destruction of life on this planet. To them, protecting the environment means passing a set of laws which halts the production of bad things and forces corporations to produce good things.

Such "non-social environmentalism" seriously errs in thinking that laws begin in legislative chambers. Laws can halt planetary destruction if and only if they rest upon fundamental social changes:

Laws can halt planetary destruction if and only if they rest upon fundamental social changes...

The fundamental problem with economic systems of the 20th century (whether market capitalist or command statist) is that they have been controlled from above by a domineering elite. A Green economy of the 21st century needs to be a democratic economy wherein an empowered populace makes decisions. Ecological destruction manifests itself both as the domination of people by people and the domination of nature by people. An ecological economy will be one which simultaneously overcomes both aspects of domination.

A Green society would seek to democratize economic relationships on a macro level and a micro level. Macro-empowerment means that society would make economic decisions democratically on local, state and national levels concerning what to produce. Micro-empowerment means that people would decide how to produce during their worklives, through democracy in the workgroup, enterprise and industrial levels.

Economic Democracy in Society

Macro-empowerment assumes that questions like "How many cars should we produce?" are too important to be left to the whims of the market. Whether auto production increases by 20% or decreases by 10% should not be based on which direction a corporate board of directors thinks would maximize profit. Though it might seem that power taken from corporate board rooms should be turned over to an elite of ecologically-minded do-gooders, experiences of the Soviet Union suggest that self-perpetuating cliques don't do a great job of ruling. The democratic route is for society itself to vote on the direction for automobile production.

There are many core areas of production and many decisions to be made. Could directions in all areas of the economy be subjected to a national referendum? A lot of them could be. This is especially true for decisions concerning the creation or expansion of a new area of production. For example, when nuclear power or genetically engineered food is first being developed, it is eminently practical to have a national (or planetary) referendum on whether citizens want it.

One of the first economic issues for a national referendum could be, "What should be the maximum gap between the poorest and the richest citizen?"

However, once an area of production grows, it cannot be altered without affecting related areas of production. A 10% reduction in auto production impacts many areas, including steel, glass, petroleum, electronics, highways, trains and buses. Existing production could be altered democratically if each political party detailed its overall program for economic transformation and citizens voted on which program to implement.

Of course, the fundamental change is instituting the practice of society itself deciding what to create. If there were enough social upheaval to put this practice into effect, it is very likely that people would vote for an economic program which seriously altered the ratio of various commodities produced.

One of the first economic issues for a national referendum could be, "What should be the maximum gap between the poorest and the richest citizen?" Assuming that a humanitarian society would institute a guaranteed income, how much above that income should a person make before there is 100% taxation? Should the richest be allowed to take home 1000 times the guaranteed income? 100 times? 10 times? The ratio could change over time, according to people's preference for more or less egalitarianism. The point is that such questions can be decided by people themselves through direct referendum with no need for a congress to intervene.

The work week is fundamental to creating economic justice. Should it be 40 hours? 30 hours? 20 hours? There is no reason that it should not be subjected to a national referendum which would also include voting on overtime. Should everyone be guaranteed the right to reject non-emergency overtime? Should employers be required to pay triple time for overtime? Quadruple time? Quintuple time? There is no reason that society as a whole cannot take decision-making on such issues away from professional politicians.

The goal of a Green government would be to have elected officials do little more than figure out the fairest way for people to vote...

Making good economic decisions should be a secondary part of a Green economic program. The primary part should be establishing democratic ways of making those decisions. The goal of a Green government would be to have elected officials do little more than figure out the fairest way for people to vote and fine tune the implementation of their choices. Green politics manifest social transformation to the extent that leadership negates itself in the process of becoming.

The major decisions concerning environmental protection involve (a) changes in goods produced, (b) elimination of uncontrollable growth, and (c) reduction of waste in production. Greens should seek to persuade people to vote for programs that guarantee work for all while phasing out areas of production like nuclear power, private automobiles, factory "farms," pesticides, chlorine, lead and mercury. It will be more difficult to convince people that we can have healthier and more meaningful lives while reducing the total quantity of goods produced. In fact, this most basic task of environmentalism will be impossible if the vast majority of people are satisfied to wallow in the gluttony of consumerism. A Green economy will manifest a moral transformation of mass culture or it will not come into existence.

There is no single reason for the rise of the gluttonous society; but disempowerment in everyday life is certainly a big contributor. When class society deprives people of the ability to make meaningful decisions concerning their community and work lives, they are easily controlled with bread, circuses and TV sets. Empowerment of worklife will not automatically make people ecologically conscious and life-affirming; but, it is a prerequisite for that transformation to occur on a social scale.

Economic Democracy in Worklife

Erik Erikson said, "Mature man needs to be needed." (Childhood and Society, 1950, pp. 266-267) Needed by family and friends. But, as importantly, needed as a productive person who receives fulfillment knowing that others enjoy her/his creations. Much of the frustration of living in late capitalism is due to many people's inability to feel that they are creating anything that others really need. That anyone could be satisfied selling dope or producing nuclear power is an affirmation of the ability of class oppression to pervert and putrefy the most basic of human instincts.

Much of the frustration of living in late capitalism is due to many people's inability to feel that they are creating anything that others really need.

To the extent that people gain control of their worklives, work becomes a time of sharing ideas and creating community and it becomes more likely that they will want to make products that are a source of accomplishment. Drudgery will always be drudgery; but, collective control of worklife would make it far more likely that products people create would be an extension of themselves and they would point with pride to their part in production.

Environmentalists who want to end domination should encourage this process to move forward as far as it can go. If Greens become a majority in government, they should invite everyone to hold discussions on how to reorganize their worklives. These discussions could be called the "Self-Management Forum," since they could be an ongoing effort to explore how work could be changed. Greens should advocate legislation requiring every enterprise with 10 or more employees to devote four hours of paid worktime each week to the Self-Management Forum. It could cover many themes:

1. Work groups should discuss how production at their factory, shop or office is safe and unsafe, both to themselves and their community. They could design plans to cope with problems. These could be minor changes at one work place or a proposal to eliminate an entire industry. (Several years ago, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union stated its willingness to see the destructive jobs of their members disappear if they received retraining and jobs of equal pay in other industries.)

2. Work groups should discuss domineering relationships at work and design plans for collective empowerment. This could include:

3. Workers could select delegates to participate in conferences of those who do similar work. The conferences would be a time to compare local successes and failures and plan for reorganization (or reduction) of that branch of industry.

The Self-Management Forum could become the basis for expanding a form of social wages. Karl Mark has been ridiculed as babbling utopian nonsense when he said that a communist society would be based on the principle "From each according to his ability; to each according to his need." A society founded on greed finds it unimaginable that people could take what they need without immediately exhausting stocks. Responsible consumerism is not merely the way Captain Picard ran the Starship Enterprise—it is a major goal of an ecological society.

Unregulated consumption has long existed for several social products with no problem whatsoever. In most cities, sidewalks are "free" and relatively few people walk up and down them all day saying "I'm gonna consume this sidewalk cause it's free." Public libraries rarely suffer from overpopulation. Some cities even continue to have free public education without an excess of students begging to repeat the 12th grade through eternity.

These are examples of "social wages." People receive a portion of what they earn through individual wages and a portion through payment to society as a whole. Part of the political struggle between left and right is an economic struggle over social wages. The left wants social wages to include food, clothing, housing, medical care, and retirement and unemployment benefits. The right is currently shrinking social wages as fast as it can.

Besides individual wages and traditional social wages, a "group wage" would be paid to everyone who works at an enterprise. Instead of increases in money, people might gain access to services usually distributed through social wages or rotational use of vacation sites or cars (quite useful if they are being phased out). This is similar to union housing cooperatives.

The goal would be to reduce the proportion of wages paid on an individual basis so that an expanding portion of consumption occurs through group and social wages. The more people consume as part of a group, especially consuming by rotational access, the more people would identify with the group and it would be more likely that the gluttonous society would fade.

The goal would be to reduce the proportion of wages paid on an individual basis so that an expanding portion of consumption occurs through group and social wages.

The group wage can be the basis for transforming enterprises into (a) collectives (where workers are responsible for the enterprise but live separate lives in various communities); or, (b) communes (where workers choose to live and work together as a group). We can anticipate that, for some time, collectives and communes will coexist with state enterprises, private for-profit enterprises and private not-for-private enterprises along with a variety of other economic formations. The goal is to strengthen economic formations not based on individual wage labor so that they can flourish and create the foundation for the abolition of wages. Abe Lincoln was right when he said that no nation could endure half slave and half free—but he stopped short of realizing that selling one's right to criticize the boss is wage slavery and wage slavery is a kinsman of slavery.

Greens on a Role

How could this vision of Green society come into being? It begins with two dichotomies. Neither macro-economic nor micro-economic changes are likely to come first. As some demand the right to vote on economic decisions of society, others demand the right to determine the fate of their own workplaces. The intensification of each intensifies the other, until a light bulb blinks its message in the mind of society: "By golly, we have the power to self-manage everything!" Self-management, which grew from particular goals for limited struggles, would be transformed into a general concept of social justice, much as the standard of democracy was born a few centuries ago.

Neither alterations in the legal system nor a change in ecological consciousness has meaning without the other. If environmental politicians voted to ban the production of bad things, but corporate power structures were left untouched and workers had no moral qualms concerning what they were producing, then those laws would have as much value as Bill Clinton's promise to be truthful. Similarly, if 90% of society became thoroughly disgusted with corporate behavior but no one was implementing laws to consolidate changing attitudes and alter power relationships, multinationals would just bide their time till PR firms advised them on the best course for a consciousness reversal.

The role of Greens in government would not be to make labor non-alienating. Nor would the role of Greens be to abolish economic exploitation. It would not even be to end environmental destruction.

Well, Greens would actually play a role in all of these to the extent that Greens are themselves part of society. But it would be society which would make basic transformations. Before a new, ecological society can be created, there must be millions, tens of millions and hundreds of millions of people who are struggling to bring that society into existence. The unique role of Greens would be to pass legislation which would legitimize and encourage the new forms of liberation being created and would hamstring and criminalize old relationships of exploitation.

Greens in power should lock in changes which society makes, so that rather than fading as passing notions they would endure as social relationships. Ecological transformation would become the foundation for the disalienation of labor and both processes would deepen and intensify each other.

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