Active Economic Democracy can begin to lay foundations for a politics of emancipation

“elections cannot change anything” :  Wolfgang Schauble, Geman finance minister

The  UK elections in May 2015 has resulted in a government with a small parliamentary majority committed to neo liberal austerity policies. Underwriting their success is a flawed electoral system which allows a parliamentary majority based on a minority votes. They have sufficient support because enough people feel that their interests are vested in the economy as it is. This constituency is based on a portion of the population who are house owners, have been co-opted into taking out private pensions and are likely to have some investments. This state of affairs is likely to remain as long as a feel good factor based on house prices rising and bull stock market continue, pumped up by QE. Should this speculative economy go into reverse  moods could change as more people are financially pinched. The current economy at the same time is failing a large minority but opposition to these policies and practice is confused and fragmented; there is no effective opposition and as important, what is counter positional is feeble.

Opposition alone is unlikely to be effective unless it is built on a counter positional economic emergence as principle and practice. Ideas are as good as these can be effected in a congenial and fruitful way. This can only be done though trial and error. If institutional political power is in neo liberal hands then a lesser path is collective self empowerment.  There is a potential to do this by development of new strand of democratic enterprises, cooperatives and mutuals independent of institutional power, based on a secular non conformity. 1.This can have the potential to create an autonomous space for economic democracy. There are sufficient legal instruments to allow this process to begin. Within this emergent space, finance and investment can be democratized to support enterprises based on democracy at work, in  the workshop, heath services which complement the NHS, office, mutual housing, building and maintenance,mutual finance, farming, food production and for the shopping customer. This could create a democratic multi stakeholder relationship which gives a symmetry of benefits. We can begin doing this and build a growing body of self-educated people culturalized to make this possible. Upon this a new social economic politics can develop to meet the onrush of problems, in a way that seeks to be inclusive and environmentally responsible. This needs a strategy to generate a degree of do it ourselves devolution in the world we live in, do this in effective ways which make people want to do so. But we are some way off.

Today financial capitalism touches most aspects of our lives controlling political outcomes. For the last thirty five years there has been a drive to integrate a majority into dependence on finance dominated corporate  markets. A consequence  is that we are bound to an economy driven by narrow  profit seeking considerations that privileges asset owners to the degree of their holdings. This formalized relationship sets up a tendency to exploit human and  environmental resources.  Capitalism forms its own field of governance beyond formal government, by economic means, it recreates itself and seeks to turn everything into profit centres. Corporations, banks and financial markets, protected by international set treaties, are active day and night directing the way society is formed, whatever formal government is in place.   They have captured mainstream politics. The form of the economy is a scaffold for creating conditions that favour outcomes such the recent elections. The result, an austerity  policy with the ideologically aim of weakening the state and society as an agent of mitigating the effects of market failure and delivering goods that are common.

The prevailing reaction is opposition, campaigning against governmental policy. This includes raising public awareness and general protest against the implementation of policy. The protest is directed at those who have every intension to realize their agenda and not another.  A party in government especially that which has a policy in line with the vested interests, and all the mainstream parties of institutional power fall to some degree in this category, will have the means to force their policy with the support from those that control finance and though that the means of production.  Institutional power as the finance markets and corporations are well-integrated within the apparatus of state, other interest groups have a weaker influence if any.  Opposition can represent a majority but one that often is incoherent and divided. Sometimes an opposition begins to focus on an issue and will force institutional power to retreat. Institutional power only makes concessions under pressure and then the minimum to head off dangerous instability.

Opposition alone has its limitations , so a viable counter positional  program based on direct agency, doing it ourselves is a precondition for a new direction for democratizing wealth and the economy.  This will not by itself solve all problems but is a potential way to begin develop more inclusive and equitable solutions that can later be scaled up by means of a sympathetic politics. An emergent autonomous democratic economy can lay foundations by developing the products, services, administration, good practice and general culture of support to do so.   The practice then can then later be applied to an emergent democratic economy, be it public, municipal and in the market.

The culture of autonomous self-help provision was alive in the 19c. It was a period when an array of mutual, cooperative, friendly societies and trade unions arose, these varied from purely practical self-help to more radical platforms of working class empowerment. A non conformist attitude such as those of the primitive Methodists inspired  this movement,  among others.  Needs drove people to mutually support each other.  They were direct descendants of people who had been driven off their small farmsteads and commons into the growing industrial towns. They were cultured into the custom of self-reliance and reciprocal obligation for the mutual benefit, around commons, spaces were the commoner had rights and obligations as custom. Mutual and cooperative enterprises grew out from a culture that instinctively  understood  mutual solidarity as a practice, which allowed people of modest means to pool together funds that created substantial enterprises for the common benefit. These included cooperatives, friendly societies, penny banks, building societies and trade unions. They recreated enterprises with commons built within.  They self organized because the “social principe”  prevailed instead of top down  by state management.   This process formed a culture that created a natural constituency for the emergent Labour Party at the beginning of the 20 century. Democratic socialism started as mainly associative, based on mutual do it ourself enterprise. Several factors undermined this quality and allowed top down authoritarian socialist forms to prevail. The militarization of society during two world wars favoured a hybrid of Marxism and Asiatic despotism and in the UK the so very British patronising Webbian paternalism, a polite Stalinism.

In recent years this has mutated into triangulation, paternalism , charity and managereralism as palliatives to social problems, which are then often put into a top down form  and sold as community action! We can do otherwise but need to make an existential choice to do so, not just talk, papers, conferences but doing, with or without support of governmental institutions. A sufficient number of us need to dedicate our work with some  financial investment to make this happen, some may do both but others can support these developments more passively through investment, being supporters  and being customers.  A politics that does not have an active pragmatic  base is flawed by not having its practice worked out as custom, done willingly. Otherwise the delivery will be liable to become a top down imposition rather than  as common practice, as do it ourself empowerment. A congenial politics will be mainly about empowering people to do benign construction and stewardship, otherwise politics will tend to power for its own sake. Boosting Democratic  enterprises under the present conditions through popular engagement and support can be the pre condition for an emancipating politics that works for the longer term. Work needs to be done on how this quality can become more viable.

A fuller democracy many not solve all problems but democracy generally is the best condition to favour more inclusive and equitable solutions and needs to be extended to cover the economy.  Sufficient wealth needs to be held back as  democratic common trusts, to serve all people. In addition, all those touched by economic administration must have the right to help determine the direction of the enterprises that they work in or are served by, both in the market and public sectors. An active movement for economic democracy that promotes the ideas and also puts these into practical form gives a foundation that can influence  institutional  politics. This can be an economic movement rather than explicitly political, a do it ourselves autonomy, horizontal  devolution and community self empowerment.

Dissent by doing!

  1. This article by George Monbiot in the Guardian “A model for political change? Try born-again Christianity” is directed at the new politics that seems to be emerging , instead of, about a new democratic economic emergence as suggested above, but it gives  an approximation of what secular non conformity means,  though without the outright religious connotations.

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