Economic democracy – The next big idea?
Democratising economic decision-making is key to a fairer, more stable economy
London – 21 November 2011
Peter Tatchell writes:
The Occupy movements have put economic reform on the political agenda more successfully than any initiative in living memory. Bravo! Even if you disagree with the protesters, they’ve generated a much need public debate about the future structure and direction of our economy. It’s important that we don’t just accept the system as it is. Questioning and dreaming are valid too. Scepticism is healthy and legitimate. Given the broken economy, new alternative ideas are necessary - and may be our saving.
Sadly, three years after a banking crisis that pushed Britain - and much of the world - into the worst recession for decades, the major parties still have no policies to prevent a repeat economic meltdown. They have failed to put in place adequate checks and balances to overcome the structural flaws in the private-ownership, free market system.
The Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaderships support the highly centralised, largely unaccountable neo-liberal economic system - a system that allowed irresponsible financial decisions by banks and big businesses. This failure to remedy the causes of the crisis leaves Britain vulnerable to more chaos in the future.
A major cause of the near-catastrophe of the last three years is the way economic power and decision-making is organised: highly centralised, exclusive, autocratic, secretive and unaccountable. These factors predispose the economy to risk-taking and recession, as well as being inherently anti-democratic and unfair.
One element of a sounder and more just economy is greater economic democracy, participation, transparency, decentralisation, and accountability. Here are a few suggestions to achieve this structural transformation:
• Make corporate negligence and recklessness an explicit criminal offence, to reign in big business cowboys and ensure more responsible economic management. Bankers and company bosses should not be able to wreck whole economies and squander people’s jobs, pensions and savings with impunity. They ought to be held personally liable for damaging corporate decisions, in the same way that doctors and solicitors can be held liable for professional negligence. The threat of legal penalties is likely to result in more prudent corporate governance. If such a law had existed a few years ago, the directors of RBS would not have taken the irresponsible gambles that led their bank to collapse.
• Require medium and large-sized companies with boards of directors to be accountable to their employees and to the wider public by including on their management boards at least one-third non-corporate directors ie. employee-elected directors and directors to represent the interests of consumers. Similar proposals already exist in Germany, and were included in the 1973 Bullock Report and Labour’s 1976 Programme. Under this system, employee and consumer directors would promote non-corporate interests and act as watchdogs and whistleblowers against corporate irresponsibility. If these independent directors had been on the board of Northern Rock, I doubt the management would have got away with so many reckless decisions. Having directors who are not solely driven by the profit-motive, also increases the likelihood of company policies that are more socially inclusive and environmentally responsible.
• Give trade unions (or pension contributor mutual societies) control of their member’s pension funds. With expert financial managers acting under union oversight, this would decentralise and democratise investment decision-making and to give it a stronger social and ethical dimension. The £900 billion invested in pension funds is a massive counter-weight to the economic clout of big business; accounting for one-third of the UK stock market. It could be invested in ways that help make the economy more people-centred and public welfare-oriented. Trade union-controlled pension funds are, for example, less likely to invest in the arms trade and clothing sweatshops. They are more open to investment to meet social needs, including renewable energy, new medical technologies, affordable housing and quality public transport.
• Retain the current full or part public ownership of the banks that were rescued by the government, to ensure they operate in the public interest and they use their future profits for the public good. Why should the banks like Northern Rock be returned to the private sector, especially at knock-down prices, when corporate sharks made such a mess running them? Publicly-controlled – or remutualised – banks could be the means to fund new social housing, employee-owned enterprises and low-interest loans to poor families.
• Give employees the legal right to buy-out their companies and turn them into workers’ cooperatives (with funding from publicly-owned banks?). This would weaken the power of big corporations, localise and socialise economic decision-making and give employees incentives for greater productivity. Evidence shows that people employed in worker cooperatives tend to have higher output, better job satisfaction and greater social solidarity.
• Limit corporate bonuses to a percentage of profits and defer their payment for 10 years. This would deter short-term, high-risk investments. It would make bonuses conditional on a business’s long term success. Only people who made successful, sustainable investment decisions would be rewarded.
• Legislate for the progressive transfer of share ownership into trade union-administered employee share funds. This is a variation on the ‘wage-earner funds’ proposed by Rudolf Meidner of the Swedish trade union federation, the LO, in the 1970s. It would obligate all private share capital companies to assign to a union-controlled fund a proportion of their annual profits in the form of a new share issue. Gradually, over many decades, it would give employees, through their unions, a controlling interest in their firms - transforming them into self-governing workers’ co-operatives. The great strength of this scheme is not only its democratic and social justice elements. It also incentivises and rewards employees for economic success. The more productive and profitable a company, the more shares it has to issue to the employees’ funds and the sooner employees gain a controlling stake.
As well as redistributing wealth and power in favour of employees and the wider public, these reforms would stabilise the economy and reduce the chances of a re-run of the economic crisis. They would achieve these twin goals by a combination of decentralising economic power, democratising economic decision-making, improving corporate social responsibility and strengthening the accountability of businesses to their staff and consumers.
Most of these policies could be implemented unilaterally by a UK government. However, given the globalised economy, they would work most effectively if they were adopted by the EU. Although still predominantly a big business cartel, there is nothing to stop the EU pioneering this new economic model, if the peoples of Europe elect parties that demand it. The EU’s massive share of international finance, production and trade would enable it to withstand pressure to conform to the dominant neo-liberal economics of the US-China axis. In other words, Britain and the EU could lead the way in the structural transformation of autocratic, dog-eat-dog capitalism into a more democratic, cooperative and accountable green socialised economy. Why not?