The idea of “workers’ control” or “industrial democracy” is now being discussed in American political circles. Even some of the more far-sighted employers now support the idea of “workers’ participation” or “worker directors”. Bernie Sanders, the progressive presidential hopeful, is set to introduces plan that encourage employee-owner businesses and would require corporations to reserve a seat at the boardroom table for employees to extend work-place democracy ensure that the work-place have a say in decisions that affect their day-to-day lives. Of course this is not a particularly new proposal. The highly conservative British Civil Service incorporated employee consultation as far back as 1919 when it introduce what is called the Whitley system of management.
It is not the job of socialists to protect the profit advantage of any individual company but to support improvements in the conditions of the workers as a whole and to bring an end to the private profit system altogether.
Workers control is only meaningful in terms of a socialist economy democratically determined and administered by not just work-places but local communities and larger society otherwise workers’ control means workers are deprived of all effective social control. This entails that ownership of industry cannot remain in the hands of the capitalists. Only common ownership would guarantee workers’ management and workers’ control in the individual plants. If by “workers’ control” it is meant control of the ownership and distribution of the wealth the workers produce, it obviously cannot be under capitalism. Capitalism is a system based on private ownership; so long as capitalists own, they control.
However, Bernie Sanders is engaged in the re-invention of the wheel, resurrecting ideas from the history of the labour movement and presenting those past ideas as something new. If Sanders wishes to be seen as a genuine socialist he should not be supporting capitalism regardless on how a nice a face has been put on it but rather he should be calling for the abolition of capitalism. Worker-owned enterprises and cooperatives are perfectly compatible with capitalism and operate like any other business or institution which extracts surplus value and produces for exchange. As nice as Sanders make it sound at the end of the day they remain capitalist enterprises, and as socialists it is vital that we recognize this fact, because if we don’t go after the heart of capitalist production then all we end up with is a capitalism-without-capitalists. Operating in a competitive market economy, workers have to exploit themselves as if they were exploited by capitalists. While this may be more palatable, it does change the fact of their subordination to economic processes beyond their control. Profit production and capital accumulation control behaviour and perpetuate the misery and insecurity bound up with it. While there cannot be socialism without workers’ control, neither can there be real workers’ control without socialism.
To assert that gradual increase of workers’ control in capitalism is an actual possibility merely plays into the hands of the ruling class to disguise their class-rule by false social reforms.
This article originally appeared on the Socialism or Your Money Back blog.