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Work-controlled companies?



Can several companies be owned and managed collectively by the employees themselves? Patrick Wikowsky, who is behind the documentary Can We Do It Ourselves?, suggests this. The film was recently shown with a subsequent discussion panel, assembled by Oslo Document Arkino. The panel welcomed the idea of ​​worker-managed companies as more efficient and democratic. But is it possible summer heat makes us a little idealistic and naive?

In this Swedish documentary Noam Chomsky says that work-controlled companies where the employees own the shares, create a more just and free society. The film shows positive effective examples of such profitable companies in a free market. However, the film shows a Swedish historical clip with Olof Palme and his party as restrained for the idea. The film also shows counter-arguments today from Janerik Larsson, former leader of the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, who is deeply doubtful of such "communist ideas". He believes that if this had been effective, we would have seen far more such companies.

But the main message is optimistic. In the panel debate afterwards, David Erdal says that when he inherited the family's paper mill Tullis Russell Papermakers in 1994, he turned the business into "a democratically controlled enterprise". Employees initially thought something was under the takeover of the shares, so it took three years to build confidence in this new form of organization, which – according to Erdal – almost led to a religious "liberating energy" in the company. He reminds us that sharing is natural for us, as we were once hunters and gatherers, where "the food was shared by the group without deceiving nepotism" (where friends split among themselves). Some could be bad hunters, others good, but "what qualified everyone to share the food was that they had a mouth". On the internet, unfortunately, it can be read that the company later suffered losses and was shut down in 2015, where near 500 lost its job – ten years after Erdal retired.

I Can We Do It Ourselves? one wonders why one only has political democracy – and not economic democracy.

Another example mentioned by the panel was Carl Zeiss, the company behind the quality lenses for Zeiss-branded cameras. After the latter's death, Ernst Abbe – entrepreneur, professor of physics and Zeiss' partner – established this as a foundation in 1899. On the internet you can read about the details: When Abbe thought that all employees were behind the profit, he established a legal document for social rights and participation , health and pension insurance, 8-hour day – and that the highest salary could be a maximum of 12 times the lowest. He himself had grown up with his father's 16-hour workdays. But instead of wanting a company owned by the workers with shares and dividends, the purpose was to reinvest the profits in the company and to support society with common goods – for example, the University of Jena. Zeiss currently has annual sales of almost NOK 60 billion.

Paris Commune

Are we seeing here a certain kind of anarchism, where the collectives must decide rather than the capitalists? Where one shuns central direction, cynical capital power and hierarchical structures? Let me bring in an interesting parallel, namely Paris Municipality:  In March 1871, the French government fled to Versailles, and Paris was constituted an independent commune. The crisis that caused this was a powerless government and the indifference of the privileged classes to the need experienced by others. The people of Paris had nothing more to lose, and dared to revolt. They established a resolution that abolished government and administration, gave the people the right to self-determination, replaced the criminal law with an international law, and removed state taxes and debt collection. Paris was spontaneously declared free and independent, envisioning a future union of free municipalities in France. A municipal council of 80 people tried to improve conditions: "Every municipality in France should be autonomous, decide its budget, set its taxes, elect its councils and representatives, organize its justice, police, education and distribution…"

This lasted for 72 days, before the reaction of the power elite struck back: Government troops massacred at least 25 people in the so-called blood week in May, and only almost ten years later could some of Paris' fleeing socialists return.

Anarchism? Russian thinkers such as Mikhail Bakunin and Pyotr Kropotkin, celebrated the Paris Commune "as the first attempt at stateless and socialist societies." And Marx writes in a letter while insisting that the bureaucratic-military machinery of power should not be passed from one hand to another, but rather crushed, like a real people revolution on the continent. " (See Anarchismus, Schmetterling Verlag, 2008.) Marx wanted to abolish the state, this growing repressive power – never the municipalities.

Economically possible?

Unlike the municipality of Paris, local worker-controlled collectives and cooperatives offer similar possible self-management. IN Can We Do It Ourselves? one wonders why one only has political democracy – and not economic democracy. It is thus time to turn around, the workers themselves must be able to participate and thus "rent" capital, rather than the capitalist hiring labor.

The question is whether worker-controlled and owned businesses will work. It sounds great, but it rests on certain assumptions. The biggest challenge is that of the world competitive society today is thoroughly established as an ideology. The world's many consumers demand to buy as cheaply as possible for the best quality – and we therefore have an economic race towards the abyss where profits become smaller and smaller and ultimately result in deficits for companies. Something naive we could hear from the panel that you could be happy as a small business, you just entered into a partnership with all the other small ones. Yes, from a pragmatic-anarchist point of view, this sounds like music – but the real world is full of big ones outcompeting the small ones.

Let me bring in an interesting parallel, namely the municipality of Paris.

Well, in Argentina, many workers were actually willing to take over factories and businesses when the owners left their homes because of bad times just over 15 years ago. Many organized collectives, and continued their jobs after the capitalists disappeared.

But another assumption is that workers are willing to take a risk: Building a business or organization requires equity. How many are willing to invest money ahead of time, to have bread on the table and a roof over their heads, or take out a loan for something they are passionate about? (Like a newspaper, for example.) Then you have to be able to endure losing the loans or savings money you have put in or guaranteed. This can mean losing house and pension – of course unless you belong to the class that has wealth.

And who is investing long term? In our rich western society, every three years, many people move from company to company, to jobs that are more exciting or pay better. So how many will stand in solidarity with the company, take responsibility when the business goes bad and take out lower wages to save costs? And how many will risk that wages are just taken from the company's possible profits – when times are worse?

Capitalists often use force against workers without capital. Like bureaucratic state power and nepotistic networks that take care of their own. Every anarchist or socialist sees it. Therefore, the film's director in Oslo may have been somewhat surprised that Palme's Social Democrats did not agree to promote economic democracies. But ask yourself: Could this be due to Pareto principle, the law of the vital few? The principle that the result, or 80 percent of the outcome, stems from 20 percent of the effort – that the value increase in a company stems from the minority? So how many are performing according to ability, and how many are demanding from needs? Are you more concerned with rights than obligations?

The Oslo panel panel nodded to everyone in the final round that economic democracy is probably a complicated issue.

Truls Lie
Truls Liehttp: /
Editor-in-chief in MODERN TIMES. See previous articles by Lie i Le Monde diplomatique (2003–2013) and Morgenbladet (1993-2003) See also part video work by Lie here.

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