WHAT MICHAEL Albert called participatory economics in last week's Socialist Worker might more straightforwardly be termed democracy at work. But whatever we call it, workers' control of production and distribution has to be central to our vision of life after capitalism.
Under the present system all the democratic rights we have won – such as the right to vote, freedom of speech, and so on – are ultimately undermined by the fact that the world of economics remains completely undemocratic. MPs can say what they like, ministers can come and go, and new governments can be elected. But real power stays in the same hands – the unelected hands of the banks and big corporations.
Workplace democracy would be simple to organise but revolutionary in its effects. Instead of managers being appointed by private owners and boards of directors, they would be elected by and responsible to the meetings of the workforce. Instead of receiving obscene salaries, bonuses and share options they would get the same pay as the workers they represent.
It would slash the horrible inequality that disfigures present society and, as Michael Albert argued, strike a blow at the heart of class divisions – the division between those who control the wealth and those who produce it, those who give the orders and those who do the work.
This would be a key mechanism for ensuring we produce goods that people need rather than just what makes the most profit. Decent homes for the masses and tractors for the Third World, not luxury hotels and flash cars for the rich. It would get rid of the bureaucratic, top-down management of our public services. Schools and hospitals (run by elected teachers, students, doctors, nurses, support staff, etc) would be able to focus on the real needs of pupils and patients, not government-imposed targets and competition.
Above all, it would change our experience of work, the basic experience of our lives. Instead of being bored, alienated and humiliated people we would start to be involved and empowered.
Michael Albert was right to reject the idea that this is 'utopian'. We are conditioned to believe that workplace democracy wouldn't work because ordinary people are not 'clever' enough to run things.
In reality the workforce, especially as a collective, has far more knowledge than the bosses and top management about how to do the actual work. What bosses are really 'expert' at is not how to make things or provide services, but how to control and exploit people.
Insofar as specialist technical and scientific knowledge is needed, the specialists would simply work for the elected worker managers instead of working, as they do at the moment, for the unelected bosses. However, workplace democracy would face one major problem and it is a problem Albert did not deal with – the state.
By the state I mean the network of institutions – the army, police, prisons, courts and government ministries, and so on – that stands above society and exercises a virtual monopoly of legal force over it. Apart from the fig leaf of parliament the apparatus of the state is even more authoritarian, hierarchical and undemocratic than the rest of society. Moreover, it is run by generals, judges, top civil servants and so on. These people are part of the same class that run business, and share the same economic and political values.
The tiny minority of those who came from working class backgrounds get their positions only on the condition that they adopt the priorities and perspectives of the ruling class.
Such a state cannot coexist with widespread workplace democracy for any length of time. Indeed, it will use its considerable power to try to prevent democracy at work even coming into being. To expect otherwise is really to be utopian – to 'ask a tree to fly', to use Albert's phrase.
If workers' democracy is to survive, the existing capitalist state has to be broken. Breaking the existing state does not mean a coup by a self appointed minority. It means mass struggles from below by working people in their millions – crucially through general strikes and workplace occupations.
It means winning over the rank and file of the armed forces and, where possible, of the police to the side of the people, thus paralysing attempts to repress the movement.
In this situation workers' councils can start to develop organically out of the struggle as they have done often before – in Russia in 1905 and 1917, in Germany and Italy after the First World War, Hungary in 1956, Chile in 1972 and Iran in 1979.
This is not because they fit some theoretical blueprint, but because they meet the practical needs of the masses to coordinate their struggles – to decide what is produced and what is not produced, which services run and which don't, how to combine the solidarity of the strike with meeting the basic needs of the people and the movement.
Once they take on these functions, workers' councils start to become an alternative centre of power which first challenges then deposes the old state. What makes workers' councils much more democratic than parliament or local councils are the principles of election from collectives and recallability. Electing representatives from collectives like factories, offices, call centres, hospitals, etc, means that the choice can be made on the basis of democratic discussion and that representatives can be recalled if they break their promises.
Under the present system it is impossible for the electors of a constituency to get together, except at the time appointed from above, to call an MP to account. With workers' councils all that would be needed to check or remove a delegate would be organising a mass meeting at work.
Some people worry that this system would exclude those who are not in workplaces (pensioners, the unemployed, etc), but actually these people could easily form associations and be given representation.
In the early stages of the new society there would certainly have to be some form of armed defence against reactionaries, fascists and the like, plus some protection against antisocial behaviour.
At present the army and the police are segregated from the rest of society, and are more or less unaccountable to the mass of people. Alongside workers' councils could go a workers' militia in which people would serve on a rota basis. Here too the democratic principle of election of officers would apply.
For some people, because of the tragic experience of Stalinism in Russia, Eastern Europe and China, my mention of workers' power conjures up images of a monolithic one-party state.
In reality many different parties and groups can operate within the workers' councils in proportion to their support at the grassroots. Every issue facing the new society will be debated passionately, and leadership will be able to pass monthly from one party or group to another if opinion changes at the base.
At present we live in a world dominated by the combination of McDonald's and McDonnell-Douglas, General Motors and General Franks. We say another world is possible.
For this to be achieved we need a democratic alternative on both fronts. This alternative is workers' control of production and workers' political power through workers' councils.
John Molyneux's pamphlet The Future Socialist Society is available for £2 from Bookmarks – phone 020 7637 1848. Other titles available by John include What Do We Mean By Revolution? (£1.50), Rembrandt (£3.99) and Is Human Nature a Barrier to Socialism? (£1).