Qwen Jones comments are perceptive and welcome contribution to public debate, he states that the right sets the agenda. He has helped to resurrect the issue of class. It is a breath of fresh air to recover the British working class tradition not just for sentimental reasons but to give a voice to a working class perspective which has in the past made important contributions to the formation of British society. This perspective has been all but been silenced and needs reviving, both in the formation of ideas more conducive to social ends but as important to informing practice though direct agency (doing it ourselves) . This might in the long run strengthen the culture and organisations that influence the political economics of the state ( displaced agency), to something more equitable. Owen Jones is associated with the CLASS think tank recently set up and supported by some of the unions. These though much reduced , originated as self actualized autonomous working class organisations and sill retain some muscle. For this reason corporate and financial capitalists use every opportunity to undermine and neutralize them. The unions, mutuals, cooperative are survivors from an age when the working class had to rely on direct agency. For most of the nineteenth century at least part of the working class were excluded from voting; women totally. So they made their own solutions based on the democratic principle. The democratic principle, based on one member one vote, even when applied nominally , as is the case with many of the surviving corporate cooperatives and mutuals, tends these organisations and enterprises to be more equitable. This characteristic becomes important at a time when take all effects have become prominent, as in the current economy dominated by corporate and financial capitalism .
The neo-liberal political economics has prevailed in the last thirty years is now clearly exposed both as unstable and inequitable. Free market liberalism in reality does not exist however the apologists for corporate and finance markets have co-opted the free market utopian myth to justify a biased quasi-market dominated by plutocratic oligopolies. Great wealth and earnings differentials have opened up; giving massive power to a few while leading to impoverishment and dis-empowerment for many. Profits are the main criterion of enterprise, to satisfy the demands of an economic system that overwhelmingly privileges private ownership that inevitably leads social and economic exclusion and the diminution of the interests of those who have little or no wealth; including the voiceless interests of the natural environment. As a system it has built-in perverted incentives. In the last century the state became the main instrument for promoting the public interest and trying to mitigate the negative effects of commoditized economic relationships through markets.
The state, when at all benign, is the most effective agency of last resort. The requirements to conduct two world wars led to central government control and the state becoming a more active and pervasive agent. To this tendency can be added the influence of “democratic” centralism after the Russian revolution , which in the UK was expresses by the more genteel ideas and practice expounded by the influential Sidney and Beatrice Webb. This established central planning through state after the second world war. Top down paternalistic social bureaucracy became the way delivering social goods and enterprises, as displaced agencies for doing things on behalf of people, these only remotely accountable at arm’s length, through the narrow funnel of an arcane limited centralized parliamentary democracy conceded by established institutional power. This democratic element has since weakened, for democracy in the last thirty years has been compromised by financial and corporate power. They have the ability to call a capital strike ; they control most assets, much of it in highly liquid forms in speculative financial and bond markets. The corporations and capital markets combined in effect are a form of background governance, with poor transparence and under weak accountability. The state sector which served as public commons has largely been fire sold and put into play in the private sector. Governments in thrall to the financial markets and the corporations, feeds into government policy and then to international trade agreements. Corporate and financial capitalism as an economic system has a near monopoly of direct agency, doing things directly to their own bidding, as they control investment wealth. They can marshal the means of production to their ends and advantage, so shaping society.
Can this dominant form be encroached upon by counter positional developments based on a new wave of self forming democratic enterprises? Are aspects of such an emergence already quietly under way? This is the suggestion by Gar Alperovitz in the USA. New developments are often not recognised as such in early stages and only become self-conscious when the new forms clearly manifest themselves. If so, can this process be strengthened? Can the trade unions extend their activities and be more pro-active and counter-positional so not just defensive? Can they act in partnership with sympathetic mutual and cooperative enterprises to promote new developments which might lead to the recovery of some strength and prestige? It would be a return to methods used in the nineteenth century, not sufficient in themselves , but adequate to begin pioneering new solutions for the economy which might also help with the reconstruction os a public sector based on economic democracy.
Taking responsibility even on a modest scale for new cooperative solutions conducive to social and ecological ends can lead to the ironing out development problems which then can later be scaling up. Such developments may be attractive to a public seeking new benign solutions in stressful times when institutional power is willing and unable to come up with adequate solutions for a significant portion of our people. If even modestly succesful, the knock on effects could eventually influence government policy. A historic example is what preceded the NHS which was inspired by the Tredegar Medical Aid Society, a mutual up set in 1890 up by mining unions of south Wales, and later used as model, scaled up on a national level, for the NHS, as directed by the ex miner Aneurin Bevan in 1947.
The Occupy movement has one great virtue, to ask questions, and now seems to be mutating into the people’s assemblies. A dialogue between these and the unions may yet lead to some constructive results. Might direct agency, making facts on the ground, emerge from such a dialogue ? By acting through democratic pioneering enterprises, direct agency is put into play, with rules set by communities and workers and not an alien power, in so doing another agenda begins to emerge. Occupy by doing; and in so doing create new commons! Can this be part of a solution to the problem implied by Owen Jones remark?