Cooperation and Excellence in Capitalism and Communism

An important and valuable aspect of work which has been lost in many activities is cooperation. The modern industrial production process is characterized by unconscious cooperation. The division of labor – within a factory or within the wider economy – is cooperation, but the workers in a factory or the baker and the butcher buying each other’s products, are unaware of it. The conscious cooperation of individuals producing something together is more valuable, educating and rewarding for the individuals than individual production or unconscious cooperation which, unfortunately, is the predominant type in capitalist production.

Cooperation also typically transcends the generations. It is important to build on the achievements of the past. So even when you can work alone in a meaningful way, for example as a craftsperson (which perhaps has become rather unlikely these days), you are not really alone because the past masters of the art are looking over your shoulder and guiding you. And maybe you have a pupil.

And here’s where another important aspect of work has to be rediscovered in our era of deskilled and atomized production: the standards of excellence. Absorbing the history and tradition of a practice makes us better persons and enables us to produce, be creative, express ourselves and develop our personalities. Without abilities taught to us by tradition this is impossible.

Excellence, as conscious cooperation, is often lacking in contemporary capitalist production. The atomization of workers resulting from the division of labor promotes ever more detailed and limited knowledge, rather than insight in and mastery over processes. Workers are also deskilled because of automation. Skill and knowledge are incorporated into machines and computers, and a worker is still, in many cases, a mere machine-appendix with no need to know how the machine works.

Communism has rightly accused capitalism of neglecting the need for conscious cooperation and excellence, but it has failed, even theoretically, to offer an alternative. The alternative for unconscious cooperation is real corporate democracy, something that is only hinted at in communist theory and not likely to follow from the simple abolition of private property. Likewise, the communist solution to the problem of excellence – the end of division of labor – isn’t satisfactory. Excellence or skill require education institutions and encouraging and supporting communities, which are often lacking or underperforming in industrial societies. The days of the atomized workers in anonymous industrial cities and extremely compartmented factories may be gone (in the West at least), but capitalism still isn’t known for its ability to foster supporting communities. And neither is communism. Only with supporting educational institutions and communities can individuals become someone, learn something and transform themselves through the activity of work.

It is obvious that corporate democracy is not enough to achieve this focus on excellence. And neither is the abolition of the division of labor. On the contrary. Excellence and skill require some modicum of division of labor. It is an illusion to believe in a future society where anyone can engage in or change into any activity he or she wishes, like Marx unfortunately did. This kind of variety and polyvalence is incompatible with excellence and skill. People are finite beings with limited time and abilities. One has to choose one’s “trade”, try to become skillful and hopefully lead a life of learning and growth, of productive and creative self-development and of self-expression within this “trade”. Some changes of heart are of course possible and desirable, but not limitless. But the word “trade” implies division of labor. Communism’s hope that automation would reduces the necessity for skills and trades is unrealistic and undesirable as well, given the benefits of excellence (i.e. education, community, belonging, support etc.). But this division between “trades” is rather different from the highly atomized world of divided labor in current industrial processes.

Excellence is not only incompatible with the complete abolition of division of labor. It also requires giving up the demand for total worker equality. The capitalist ideology of managerial expertise is groundless and oppressive. It reduces the workers to executors of the managers’ plans. It is obvious that the knowledge necessary to plan is not acquired through theoretical thinking but rather through working practice. So the division between workers and managers is artificial and will not hold.

But, on the other hand, complete worker equality will not hold either. Achieving standards of excellence leads, by definition, to differences between people, and it requires dependence (often temporary) on teachers, “masters” and tradition. One can see such a relationship as a form of domination to be combated, and it certainly is in many capitalist companies where it is often even undone of its original educational aspects. But it doesn’t have to be. It can be viewed as transformative for the “pupil”. Excellence leads to a good product and to a better producer as well, to someone who can become somebody and who expresses and develops his or her personality through production. This personal transformation through learning and production goes way beyond the transformation of skills. It touches the entire personality.

Communism and Corporate Democracy

In an effort to convince you that my new $19.95 book is actually worth a lot more than that, I’m blogging some excerpts. Today, the importance of corporate democracy.

What can we learn from communism? I realize that, for many people, learning from communism is like listening to the devil. But that’s intellectual laziness, dismissing something without fully understanding it. So bear with me.

For example, our capitalist systems have shed many of the extreme injustices that characterized them in the time of Marx. But it’s still the case today that ownership of the means of production yields a kind of economic power over the workers who depend on the owners and who are forced to sell their labor power because they don’t have means of production of their own.

This dependence results in economic uncertainty and possibly poverty, because of the competition between workers trying to offer the best deal to employers. The fact that no modern economy has full employment makes this competition inevitable, even though today it’s more an international than a national competition. The “reserve army” now seems to be stationed abroad. International outsourcing (or the threat of it) pushes wages down.

We should also acknowledge that economic dependence in a system of private ownership of the means of production can be psychologically detrimental in the sense that it makes creative productive activity, self-expression and self-development (which require the free use of means of production) very difficult if not impossible. Moreover, it means that people are forced to work in systems based on discipline, supervision and control. Corporations have become islands of authoritarianism in a democratic world. If democracy and self-government are important in politics, why not in business?

Given the importance of work and production in the life of an individual and their potentially beneficial role in personal self-development, and given the importance of democracy and self-government, it is justified to give people a say in the way in which the means of production are used. The owners of the means of production should not be entitled to decide unilaterally on the conditions, organization, purposes, processes and meaning of production. Production is an important part of human life and people should have a say in it.

Concretely, this means a kind of corporate democracy and corporate participation. Participation, not by the shareholders (corporate democracy is today mostly viewed as a right of shareholders), but by the people directly involved in production, i.e. the “workers”.

Communism traditionally proposes the end of the employment relationship (or the right to rent people) and the common ownership of the means of production as the ways to achieve this participation and to abolish so-called alienation (which means working for a wage, or working in an obscure system of division of labor, rather than working for a product). The workers in the factory, rather than the capitalists or the shareholders, would own the factory and all the assets in common. Or, more correctly, society as a whole, which in communism means the class of workers, would own the totality of all means of production, because otherwise the workers would be tied to one specific means of production and wouldn’t be able to switch freely to another one.

This would obviously spell the end of private property, not necessarily private property as such, but in any case private property of the means of production.

This is unacceptable because private property is an important value. It’s unequal distribution should be criticized, as well as the exclusive right of decision of the owners of the means of production, but there are good reasons to keep the right to private property more or less intact.

Common ownership of the means of production, as proposed by traditional communists, is not the only means to create corporate participation and worker control over production. Communism should simply mean the community of workers in a factory or corporation deciding more or less democratically on their work. Modern-day capitalism has in some cases reconciled private ownership with large measures of worker participation. Many decisions in companies are now taken by the owners and the workers together. (This participation is not incompatible with the free market either. A free market is a system between economic agents, not within them). But we should try to go further and extend and deepen this participation in order to make production and work more meaningful.

Private property of the means of production should not be understood as an absolute right to govern the workplace dictatorially. And the abolition of private property is not a prerequisite for corporate democracy. This is evident if we take a look at historical cases of communist rule, where private property was abolished (to some extent) but corporate governance continued much along the same lines as in capitalism. The bosses changed – autocratic party members and government bureaucracy instead of capitalists – but the workers didn’t have more influence.

This proves that corporate democracy requires something more than or different from common ownership. Private ownership, strictly speaking, gives the employer only the right to label someone a trespasser.  So abolishing ownership will not, of itself, change how production takes place. Changes have to occur, not on the level of the ownership of the means of production, but on the level of the organization of production.

You can buy the book here. More about Marx here.

What is Democracy? (25): Corporate Democracy

Given the importance of work and production in the life of individuals, it is justified to give them some say in the way in which the means of production are used. The owners of the means of production should not be entitled to decide unilaterally on the conditions, organization, purposes, processes and meaning of production. Production is an important part of human life and people should have a say in it.

Concretely, this means a kind of corporate democracy and participation. Communism traditionally proposes common ownership of the means of production. The workers in the factory, rather than the capitalists or the shareholders, would own the factory in common. Or, rather, society as a whole, which in communism means the class of workers, would own the totality of all means of production. This would obviously spell the end of private property, not necessarily private property as such, but in any case private property of the means of production.

This is unacceptable because private property is an important value. It’s unequal distribution should be criticized, as well as the exclusive right of decision of the owners of the means of production, but there are good reasons to keep the right to private property more or less intact (or, more specifically, the right to legal protection of private property and the right to use it freely).

Common ownership of the means of production, as proposed by traditional communists, is not the only means to create corporate participation and worker control over production. Modern-day capitalism has in some cases reconciled private ownership with large measures of worker participation. Many decisions in companies are now taken by the owners and the workers together. This participation is not incompatible with the free market either. A free market is a system between economic agents, not within them.