Beyond Progressive Politics
by Ben L.
This text was written as part of the LSC Pamphlet Program. It reflects only the opinions of the author(s) and not the consensus of the Libertarian Socialist Caucus.
Resentment towards the ripping away of regulations and welfare, the 2008 financial crisis, and the destruction of the climate by incompetent governments and uncaring companies has led to renewed interest in creating a more economically and socially egalitarian society. This energy has been channeled towards the rise of progressive politicians and policies. Electoral change fueled by these movements has the potential to improve the lives of millions. However, electoral politics has major shortcomings. It alone can never fully transform society.
In addition to progressive policies, we need more drastic changes to how society works. We can only make these changes through radically democratic institutions such as worker cooperatives, participatory budgeting, and democratic community ownership.
Why Progressive Politics Are Not Enough
Creating change in the electoral realm is not mutually exclusive with building alternative institutions. We can and should work towards both. However, welfare and regulations can only achieve so much, and they can be taken away in a flash. In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act was passed, providing protections for union organizing. Twelve years later, the Taft–Hartley Act severely limited strikes, boycotts, and collective bargaining agreements. For decades, wages and productivity rose hand in hand. But, In the 1970s, the rise of “trickle-down” economics and an increasing focus on financial services instead production of consumer goods resulted in a gap between wages and productivity, which has continued to widen through both Republican and Democratic administrations. Following the Great Depression, a series of Glass-Steagall Acts separated investment and commercial banking, and limited bank mergers, to avoid another economic crash. In 1999, the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act repealed those protections, paving the way for the 2008 financial crisis.
Self-managed institutions are not so fragile. Workers and communities can uphold policies that benefit them better than a centralized representative state ever could. Historically, monarchies have introduced reforms in response to pressures or occasionally sincere belief by elites (e.g., the abolition of serfdom under Emperor Alexander II in the Russian Empire, the end of the ban on women driving in Saudia Arabia, and the reforms after the revolutions of 1848). But despite these reforms, we no longer tolerate monarchies because we know that they are regressive institutions that can never provide people the rights and relief from exploitation that democratic governments can, so too with the state and capital. Even a social democratic state and regulated corporations can never serve our interests better than we can ourselves.
The Alternative to Progressive Politics
Building a truly democratic economy and society means creating institutions managed by workers and communities directly. In this society, you and I could vote directly on plans and elect managers or representatives to carry out the plans and coordinate with other democratic institutions. We would not have to rely on politicians who can betray their constituents or capitalists accountable to no one but themselves and their shareholders. Building a self-managed society is not about imposing one specific plan for all management; a variety of models work for different functions.
Worker cooperatives and unions are paths to democracy in the workplace. Unions use their collective power to bargain and advocate for better conditions. In some cases, they can even take over existing businesses. Unfortunately, unions can be less-than-democratic institutions which do not respond to the interests of their rank-and-file. Solidarity unions fix this problem, giving power to the workers directly. Decisions are decided directly by the rank-and-file, not far away representatives. The Industrial Workers of the World is the most famous example of this in the United States.
Worker cooperatives are businesses owned and controlled by their workers on one person, one vote principles. Although less radical forms of worker management exist in the form of employee stock ownership plans, the worker cooperative is the most distilled form. In some cooperatives, elected managers make day to day decisions, and major decisions are voted on by workers. In other cooperatives, all decisions are decided on in open meetings attended by everyone in the cooperative or unit. Cooperatives link up in federations to provide financial services, seed new cooperatives, and exchange technical knowledge.
The result of workers’ control is better economic and mental wellbeing for workers and their communities. Unlike capitalist corporations, workers care about benefiting them and their communities, not lining the pockets of wealthy shareholders. During recessions, cooperatives lay off fewer workers and are less likely to shut down. Worker-owners have profit sharing on top of their high wages (especially those in jobs with wages that are traditionally low). Finally, giving workers a sense of ownership produces higher levels of efficiency and high job satisfaction. Even managers in traditional firms attempt to cultivate a “sense of ownership.” Without true democratic control, this can never be achieved. This is why cooperatives have lower absenteeism and higher productivity.
The community assembly is a directly democratic form of control. Although its exact form varies from place to place, there are some common features. Community members meet to create, deliberate, and then vote on ideas. They also elect recallable members to an executive committee that runs affairs in between meetings of the assembly, only exercising powers given to them by the community assembly. The assemblies can link up by sending recallable delegates to regional councils that coordinate between assemblies and deal with common issues. These assemblies can provide aid and services, push political change, and eventually replace the state (as can be seen in Rojava).
Assemblies can be formed from existing institutions or spring up separately. Through civic institutions, advisory assemblies or participatory budgeting projects can be created or strengthened. Neighborhood associations and block clubs can be transformed into more democratic and radical institutions. Finally, local people can form their own assembly from scratch by talking to their neighbors through canvassing, hosting events, etc.
Building Alternative Institutions Within the State and Outside Of It
Building alternative institutions happens both from within and outside the state. Elected national and local officials friendly to self-managed institutions are an important asset. They can stop others in government from working against institutions challenging their power, provide economic advantages, and in some cases, even cede some power and resources to self-managed institutions. In Cleveland, the Democracy Collaborative, the city government, the Cleveland Foundation, universities, and hospitals have given preference towards worker cooperatives in the procurement of goods and provided them financial resources. Participatory budgeting, a directly democratic form of allocating a budget, has often been borne from legislatures and city councils (e.g., Porto Alegre, Chicago, New York City).
Nonetheless, we cannot rely on the state alone. Relying on elites is the very flaw in representative democracy which these participatory institutions fix. We must also work together to build institutions ourselves. Therefore, democratic organizations need to work together to support each other: seeding cooperatives through participatory budgeting, cooperatives providing preferential prices to community assemblies, unions providing spaces for community assemblies to meet, etc.
Finally, community engagement is necessary to build democratic institutions. Although outside help is an important tool, efforts to build radical democracy need to be grounded in the residents and workers themselves, this means you and I have to get involved in the founding and operation of these institutions in our communities.
Making Change Ourselves
Magic and wishful thinking doesn’t change the world. Action does. No savior will come from the elites to save us. Neither will we be able to make a new system individually. We must work together. Talk to your neighbors about building a community garden to get food to those who need it. Organize a union at your workplace. You don’t have to spend every hour of your day on organizing and be willing to put your life on the line. A few dedicated people do not build popular power; it is built by the efforts of millions of people just like you and me.