Toward Freedom and Dignity

My conception of a decent human life is one in which there is as little coercion as possible. To coerce human beings is to inhibit their free and natural development, to twist their lives to fit someone else’s plan. In a fair and decent world people would have as much freedom as possible to decide how they live their own lives, drawing on their own resources or the advice of others as they see fit. And since so much of our time and energy is put into our working lives this freedom must especially apply to choosing the kind of work we do and how we do it.

Work should be a matter of voluntary and productive cooperation with others, in order to satisfy our practical needs and social inclinations, not a form of coerced and exploited labour. We should have opportunities to develop our talents and interests in creative and original ways, to think for ourselves and bring our own unique perspective to our collective endeavours. Of course we can’t expect others to agree with all our personal preferences, but we can discuss the alternatives available to us, make compromises, and hopefully reach agreed courses of action for mutual benefit.

Now contrast this with the experience of work that the majority of us have. We are given tasks we did not choose by people whose authority we cannot question, and must carry out those tasks in ways that satisfy not ourselves but our so-called ‘superiors’. Perhaps we can suggest alternatives, and decide the minor details of our daily tasks, but this is a very limited freedom that can always be overruled. In return for our labours we get the lowest wage our employer can get away with in the current labour market, the rest of our efforts being used to generate profit for shareholders and large salaries and bonuses for managers.

Ultimately we can, of course, resign if we don’t like this situation, and move to another job where the conditions are likely to be just the same, or sink into demoralised poverty. This doesn’t strike me as a way of life that brings out the best in human beings or respects their moral right to freedom and dignity. In fact it strikes me as a system designed to crush initiative and generate apathy and alienation.

We’re all trying to make the best of our lives, doing what we can to provide for ourselves and to improve our situation by means of our physical and intellectual efforts. It’s arbitrary and deeply unfair that some individuals should accumulate such wealth and power – by control of the labour of their fellow human beings – that they can dictate to the rest of us how we should live our lives. The result of this injustice is that we are forced to work in ways that best serve not the great majority of humanity but rather the interests of the rich and powerful.

It seems to me that the best way to address the fundamental injustice of this world is to reorganise our economic life on democratic principles, just as we once reorganised our political life on democratic principles. Absolute monarchs are mostly gone from the political sphere, but sadly they still exist in the economic sphere in the form of the chief executive with his court of directors and shareholders. This has to change.

So what am I proposing? Among other things I would like to see collective ownership of each business by all who work for it; regular meetings of all workers to discuss and vote on important questions of business policy; committees of workers, elected by the whole workforce, to investigate and advise on specialist matters; and allegations of misconduct to be assessed by a tribunal of one’s fellow workers, rather than at the whim of managers.

Let me be clear what this means: No more wages. No more managers. The two most unfair and dehumanising aspects of the workplace would be removed. Instead of wages set by management we would all have an equal stake in the business and an equal voice in determining how much of the profit is kept for ourselves and how much re-invested in the business. Instead of managers appointed from above we would have democratic management by all the workers together.

No longer would the results of our work be controlled by a small elite. No longer would we be set in futile competition with our fellow workers for pay rises, promotions and petty authority over a handful of our colleagues. All our energy could be directed to developing our skills and making the enterprise a success from which we all benefit. There are many possible variations on the type of organisation I am describing, but whether they are worker co-operatives, collectives, communes or self-directed enterprises, they all share the basic principles of voluntary membership, shared ownership and democratic control.

There is no need for a violent revolution to bring about the changes I am advocating. With the co-operative business model we could conceivably change the world one workplace at a time. For that to happen we would need popular support, the support of labour unions (who know a lot about worker self-organisation), and a progressive political movement that can win power and legislate in favour of cooperatives.

The transition could begin by requiring businesses to pay workers partly in shares, held collectively in a trust fund, until the workforce has a controlling interest in the business. At first this would take place within the current capitalist economic system, but as the popular movement grew that would naturally change. The principles of competition, greed, and selfishness on which capitalism is based would be superseded by cooperation, fairness and mutual respect, in other words by democratic socialism, as I understand it.

If we genuinely value democracy then it should be introduced into the economic sphere, into the workplace, where we have our most important, ongoing contact with society. Most people today would think it absurd that the rich should have more votes than the poor in general elections, as was once the case, and yet we think it acceptable that the rich have vastly more votes in business decisions which often have far more direct effect on our lives than the events in distant parliaments and congresses.

What does it profit individuals to have a small say in the choice of governing party at the national level when those individuals have little or no say over the form of their own daily activities? The work we do each day is the single most important and demanding activity of our lives. The true measure of democratic freedom is not an occasional trip to the ballot box but how much control we have over our daily life. By that measure our so-called ‘liberal democracy’ is merely a pale imitation.

We will be told, of course, that the workers controlling the workplace would lead to chaos, that they have neither the personal skills nor the strategic overview required to run things effectively. This objection to economic democracy is the same form of objection that was made to political democracy prior to universal suffrage, that the ‘ordinary’ members of society couldn’t be trusted to understand the complexities of policy or to choose their government wisely. It was a lie then and it’s a lie now, serving the same vested interests of the rich and powerful.

Our present form of authoritarian social organisation has led us into wars, economic crashes and environmental devastation as often as it has led us to peace, prosperity and sustainability. In contrast to this a truly democratic society would make use of the talents of all its people rather than relying on the wayward judgement of a small elite. Give people today the necessary education, information and power to run their own lives, let them participate fully in managing their own economic activity, and they will be able to develop the strategic skills required by citizens in a genuinely democratic society.