Can giving people everyday power help stem the rise of reactionary politics?

Economic powerlessness is fuelling discontent and the rise of reactionary politics of which Trump’s election is the latest manifestation. The causes being cited are big— globalisation, neoliberalism, immigration — but I wonder if the solution is to think small, to give people more power over the things in the economy that affect their lives noticeably and directly on a daily basis.

Just a few days ago, the apparently remarkable happened: Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. Or at least it would have been remarkable if something similar hadn’t preceded it in the United Kingdom a few months earlier: the vote to leave the European Union.

Now, everywhere you turn, people are explaining why it happened, explaining that the rise of right wing populism comes down to the large numbers of people who feel disconnected from the economy, out of control of key parts of their lives and lacking in opportunities to prosper.

The left behinds

Take the UK to start with, where the narrative is more established.

Theresa May, on becoming Prime Minister, gave a speech on the inequalities and injustices that are present in Britain — ones based on race, class, ethnicity, geography, and so on. The big issue, she said, is to ‘give people control over things that matter to them’ (their housing, their work, their kids’ education) and create a ‘Britain that works for all’.

Shortly after that, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published an in-depth report on the people who voted for Brexit, characterising them as those who had been ‘left behind’ — primarily people who lack the skills and opportunities to progress and prosper. And more recently the left-wing think tank the New Economic Foundation re-branded itself as a campaign to ‘build a new economy where people really take control.’

Over in the US the same points are being made. Bronwen Maddox puts it down, like many, to the anger of largely white Americans who feel left behind by an economy that offers them only stagnating wages and no opportunities. Alongside the significant number of people who didn’t vote at all, they were a big cause of Trump’s victory.

It’s no surprise that Michael Moore’s ‘Five reasons why Trump will win’ is now being widely cited for it’s accuracy. As he put it:

From Green Bay to Pittsburgh, this, my friends, is the middle of England — broken, depressed, struggling, the smokestacks strewn across the countryside with the carcass of what we use to call the Middle Class. Angry, embittered working (and nonworking) people who were lied to by the trickle-down of Reagan and abandoned by Democrats who still try to talk a good line but are really just looking forward to rub one out with a lobbyist from Goldman Sachs who’ll write them nice big check before leaving the room. What happened in the UK with Brexit is going to happen here.These are just examples of many instances of a new discourse that has emerged around the need for an economy that gives people control and takes everyone with them.

The first notable thing about this, I think, is that it has come so late!

Inequality has been on the rise for decades. Researchers, from academics to the World Bank, have been debating the ‘losers of globalisation’ thesis for decades, which holds that the rise of European far right parties, the increasing social conservatism manifested in the like of the Tea Party and Trump in the US, and for that matter the attraction to fundamentalist religious politics the world over, are all symptoms of economic inequalities that lead to some people lacking control, voice perceiving unfairness and finding an answer in a reactionary politics that aims to hand back power to ‘their’ people.

There are complexities and nuances to the debate on this idea, as Cass Mudde who has been studying this area for decades, wrote in the Huffington Post recently about Brexit, and pointed out in relation to the Trump vote too.

Nevertheless, Brexit was in some way an ‘event’ as Alain Badiou sometimes uses it: an occurrence that reveals some of the underlying truths that had been hitherto obscured (see his ‘Politics as a Truth Procedure’, in Metapolitics, 2005).

Global power

If part of the cause of the rise of more reactionary sentiments we see is the powerlessness that people feel in the global economy, then perhaps part of the solution is to find ways for people to have more power over it.

This sounds like a big ask. The ‘economy’ is the sum-total of billions of interactions and transactions. And in a market economy, as we have seen time and time again, attempts by governments or economists or traders to understand the dynamics of the economy, much less direct it, often fail.
Deeper levels of government intervention might offer an alternative way to reign the economy, in but it won’t necessarily provide people other than politicians with any power in the economy. In other words, if people feel powerless in the economy, attempts at the macro level to give them power are probably not a compelling solution.

Everyday power

However, while the economy is big, the powerlessness experienced by people is every day. It’s the feeling that no matter how hard you work and save, you’ll never get on the housing market. Or that the decisions made by your boss are stupid and make it harder for you to do your job. Or that you haven’t got the time to get better qualifications or do something you would enjoy because you’re so busy working and looking after the kids. Or that you end up travelling to do your shopping or buying everything online because your local high street is a parade of bookies and takeaways.

So perhaps rather than concentrating on the macro we should find ways to give people more control over the everyday. If people can control and have a voice over their workplace, the local housing market or what happens on their high street, for example, then the feeling of powerlessness may be limited. And if people had ownership of the assets and enterprises that generated profit — their workplace or local commercial developments for example — then that would be a step toward reducing the inequalities of wealth and opportunity that drive the disaffection.

This is not to say that giving people more power over the everyday is the entire solution — inequality plays a big role in driving discontent and narrowing that will require other actions too; likewise, questions about the movement of capital and labour need to be asked and answered in order to affect some of the global economic trends.

But alongside these, perhaps an important way to stem the rise of anti-globalisation reactionary politics is to introduce more ways for people to have meaningful control over portions of it, and it is everyday control that can deliver that best. This means giving workers, customers, local people a say; it means more co-ops and community owned assets; it means new ways to give people a vote on local economic issues.

Just as James C Scott has written about the everyday resistance by people who are marginalised and dominated by others, often unseen by their oppressors, so we can talk about an everyday power that people can assume in order to bring elements of the economy under control (eg, his Domination and the Arts of Resistance, 1990).

There’s no lack of experiments in co-operative and common ownership. People have been doing this stuff for decades — centuries in fact — but always at the margins. The issue is not what precise mechanisms can give people ownership and control over the parts of the economy that affect them. There are plenty to choose from.

The issue is will, both political will an wider recognition of how it can make a difference.

If we want to see these approaches spread more widely then they need support — with rhetoric from public voices, with a strategy to help them spread, and with practical action — to lift them from the margins, from isolated examples, to a central way to give people everyday power in the economy.

Economic democracy quote #1

A Preface to Democratic Theory

Here’s a great paragraph on why economic democracy – giving people control and ownership of businesses – is a key way of creating greater equality.

Most interestingly, this is from Robert Dahl, a prominent democratic theorist whose big idea was the need for polyarchy rather than democracy, by which he means elites competing with one another for votes based on different interest groups and positions – a situation not that dissimilar from what we have now. Hardly the radical then.

As Dahl puts it:

” . . . differences in ownership and control of enterprises, while certainly not the origin of all forms in inequality, are deeply implicated in inequalities of many kinds: in esteem, respect, and status, in control over one’s daily life, in income and wealth and all the opportunities associated with them, in life chances for children and adults alike. It seems to me scarcely open to doubt that a society with significantly greater equality in owning and controlling economic enterprises would produce profoundly greater equality than exists in America today.”

Robert Dahl, A Preface to Economic Democracy, 1985, pp5-6

Airports, orders and why co-operation requires democracy

I’m flying to the ICA’s General Assembly today, after a few delays. I’ll be running sessions, reporting, co-ordinating some social media and having a stand. It’s a rare event, so I’m planning to blog each day.

So here’s my thoughts from day one – the not-yet-complete journey:

All over Heathrow airport are signs saying ‘thank you for your co-operation’ and, after a mechanical fault on our plane which ended in everyone disembarking, we were asked to be calm and ‘co-operate’.

It’s interesting to compare the use of the word here with its use in co-operative businesses: it illustrates just why co-operation requires democracy.

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word ‘co-operation’ is ‘the action or process of working together to the same end’.

The airport’s assumption is that everyone wants the same end – for the wait to be orderly, for disembarking to be safe.

But the airport doesn’t know what people want: it hasn’t asked them; it’s just assuming that they want things to be safe and orderly.

So what the airport is really saying is that it would like everyone to comply, to do what it wants because it thinks it’s the best thing for everyone.

The airport may be right – it might be best to wait and leave in an orderly way. But not everyone has agreed, nobody has been asked, there has been no discussion or decision. It’s not really co-operation in the sense of people working together towards the same ends.

When we talk about a ‘co-operative’ business what we mean is a business that is run by the people – the members – who are working together towards the same end.

The implication behind this is that the members have talked to one another, deliberated and arrived at an agreed end. Without this, they wouldn’t be working together towards the same end, they’d be complying by following the dictate of a few or pursuing a variety of different ends. Without it, they wouldn’t be co-operating.

So, talking, deliberating and arriving at an agreed position – what effectively amounts to democracy – is necessary before you can start talking about some thing being co-operative.

Without this democratic deliberation and agreement, co-operation, working towards a common end, would not be possible.

The question for a co-operative business, then, is how far is it practicing democracy? Is it guided by its members who have talked to one another, deliberated and agreed a common end? Do all members input, or just a few? Is that an agreed process?And how many members need to debate and agree for that to count as a common end?

This isn’t a small issue. If co-operatives are to avoid being like the airport that asks people to co-operate but means comply, then democracy is essential.

Stories of work, control and dignity

Whilst the Co-operative Bank saga has rolled on over the past week, I’ve also come across some stories of what co-operation and mutualism are all about: preserving jobs, giving people some control over their lives and restoring their dignity.

There’s a fantastic article by John Restakis on the takeover of a factory in Greece by its workers who, mirroring what happened in Argentina a decade ago, are opening the doors of their closed factory and beginning manufacturing again.

In Argentina itself, a recent look at what happened to the occupied factories a decade on reveals that around 180 factories employing 10,000 people have survived, as well as inspiring a co-operative renaissance in the country.

There’s a new book by Dan Hancox on the village of Marinelada in Spain, another European country being crippled by the financial crisis, where they have created a collectively-run community, accompanied by jobs, hope and solidarity.

And there’s a whole host of stories in Anarchists in the Boardroom, a new crowdsourced book by a Liam Barrington-Bush, that looks at the organisations adopting non-hierarchical ways of running themselves in order to be more human.

Thanks to Rebecca Harvey, Kate Whittle and Julian Dobson for the links.