Building the Third Way

There are not many blogs on the Internet which specialize on the issues of economic democracy or workers self management on the internet. However Larry Hellar’s blog
Building the Third Way: Economic Democracy for the New Millennium is one that consistently  and effectively does. The blog covers issues in the news  from the perspective of both socialism and economic democracy which in his world view is  the essential building block of socialism. He also periodically shares biographical information about some of the often, not well known  and better known greats of the historical workers’ cooperative movements. Finally he often attempts to deal with the problems of capitalism as a system.
Enough of an introduction. People can examine Building the Third Way for themselves. Its link is
However I do want to introduce a few of the recent posts from the blog. The first is a recent article on the historic October 2009 agreement between the United Steel Workers and the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation to agree to mutually support the development of worker owned firms that would give workers jobs that would not be at the continued mercy of the fluctuation of capital and short term profit making of most of America’s present corporations in financial institutions. 
Contrary to the claims of many, most unions (at least in the last 50 years) aren’t anti-capitalist. They’re more than happy to always be what one might call the “loyal opposition.” As long as they’re outsiders they can rant and rave against management while always sounding pro-worker but never, ever, sounding like they opposed capitalism. Most unions are been quick to disavow any idea that the workers themselves should own and manage the shops and factories. The majority of unions are content with negotiating for better pay and more benefits. Sure, there are a few, like the International Workers of the World (IWW), that go beyond but they’re the exception and not the rule.

Finally, there now seems to be a change for one union.

In October of 2009 the United Steelworkers Union announced they were collaborating with the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation (MCC) of Spain to explore increasing the number of worker-owned cooperatives here in the US.
According to the USW International President Leo W. Gerard, “We see today’s agreement as a historic first step towards making union co-ops a viable business model that can create good jobs, empower workers, and support communities in the United States and Canada.” He went on to say, “Too often we have seen Wall Street hollow out companies by draining their cash and assets and hollowing out communities by shedding jobs and shuttering plants. We need a new business model that invests in workers and invests in communities.”
(Source: SolidarityEconomy.Org)

The MCC President of Mondragron Internacional, Josu Ugarte, stated: “What we are announcing today represents a historic first–combining the world’s largest industrial worker cooperative with one of the world’s most progressive and forward-thinking manufacturing unions to work together so that our combined know-how and complimentary visions can transform manufacturing practices in North America. We feel inspired to take this step based on our common set of values with the Steelworkers who have proved time and again that the future belongs to those who connect vision and values to people and put all three first.”

There’s simply no way to predict what will come out of this collaboration. As I mentioned in my blog entry of March 30th there is also the Cleveland Model in which several cooperatives haven been formed. One can hope that maybe, just maybe, that collaboration between MCC and the USW along with the Cleveland Model are examples that the dream of an economic democracy is starting to become more than just a dream.


Themes of Work, Power, and Freedom

work at clocksThis article is an attempt to look at both capitalism and cooperative socialism in relation to the themes of freedom, power, and community. This article is not the normal type of literature which comes out of the modern socialist movement. It does represent how I think on these issues however. Further more I think that perhaps Christianity is also to a certain degree concerned about issues of freedom, power, and community. If I am correct in this then the discussion of these themes might be one way to think about the relationship between socialism and Christianity.
Note. I have spent most of my adult life working  in the human services branch of county government. Certainly many of the generalization that I make are based on my own experience in government and on my observations of the experience of those  around me. I have always been a line staff person and never in management. My current income is what I would call middle middle class. Therefore I suspect the situation of a majority of workers in relationship to power, freedom, and community is similar to mine.  However I am also aware that many higher status, professional workers often see themselves as in some sense privileged and may think that my analyses is skewed. What can I say? My thoughts are based on what I experience and on the best of my understanding.
Themes of freedom, power, and community
Most Americans believe that we live in a “free” society. The United States is the land of the “free.” “Freedom” is one of the most important words in this nation’s political lexicon and most Americans take pride in the fact that America is a “free” society. I want to start out by examining this idea of American freedom. First I want to state that I believe that the American idea of freedom is not in fact a delusional concept. It is real. Traditional American concepts of freedom, ideas that have to do with ideas of limited, representative government,  traditional ideas of freedom of religion, democracy, the freedom to peaceably assemble, and freedom from arbitrary state power are all valid concepts. They all have a certain degree of reality within the context of American society. They are not fictitious concepts. Americans have a right to feel pride in these freedoms.
While these freedoms are real, it is also a reality that there are aspects of American life which are lived in the antithesis of “freedom.” This realm of life centers primarily within the economic sphere of work and workplace. It is characterized more by freedom’s opposites, unfreedom, servitude, and submission. To initiate  discussion of this realm I will  start  by suggesting some definitions of “freedom.” This is  not easily done because freedom is generally not defined precisely by most people. However in spite of this, we can make some generalizations. Most people define freedom in primarily negative terms. Freedom is experienced as the lack of arbitrary oppressive restraints and limitations to one’s actions. Thus in America freedom is defined by the relative absence of governmental restraints on life, liberty, the use of property,etc. Often in the  conservative political lexicon, freedom is simply identified as an absence of governmental power or interference in one’s life.
However lets attempt to define freedom positively. One definition is that freedom is the ability of people and individuals to do what they want to do independent of institutional controls. Again in the American context the primary limitations of this freedom are normally seen as coming from government, the power of arbitrary religion, or  cultural limitations such as racism or sexism. What is intrinsically interesting about this is that the structure of the economic system or the  structures of individual companies and corporations are very seldom viewed as in any way limitations on the freedom of the individual worker or of people. In fact even within the political Left, economic oppression is normally seen as being only about the unequal distribution of economic resources. Left liberal analysis or even socialist analysis seldom questions the unjust and dictatorial structure both of the workplace and of economic institutions.
Yet this is what must be done. The real limitations of freedom in the modern world of advanced capitalism in fact comes not from the governmental realm but instead from the very nature of capitalist society itself. To initiate an analysis of the unfreedom that is built into the workplaces and economic institutions of capitalism one must first deal with the issue of “power.” Freedom can not be defined adequately in separation from the concept of power. The freedom to act in a certain way, the freedom to do as one desires only exists if one has the power or authority to do those things. If the  power or authority that another has over you prevents you  from doing what you want to do in the way in which you want to do it  then you are not free at least not in that immediate social context.
The capitalist work place of course is a system of structured power relationships in which the majority of workers in fact have little power over either the immediate workplace and certainly none over the over all direction of the firms and businesses which “employ” them. They do not make decisions either collectively or individually regarding the workplace or regarding the overall economic direction of the firms which employ them.
Thus in their lifes as workers they are not free. To characterize the situation further. Except for those born to wealth all people within capitalist societies must sell their labor to either the state, non profit organizations, or  more commonly capitalist firms in order to live. For the vast majority of people no real alternative to working for a weekly paycheck  exists. During the work day, often eight to ten hours, one is not free in any meaningful sense. One’s status is one of subordination to the economic firm to whom one is employed. One lives at the beck and call of one’s supervisor, boss, the production schedule, etc. The rules of the work environment is controlled by a corporate hierarchy which generally views its employees as an expendable resource, as a factor of production.
All of this of course explains many aspects of American life and particularly how Americans define freedom. Freedom in the American context is always about how one spends one’s “leisure” time. It is about the power of the consumer; it is about the beautiful automobile that symbolizes one’s freedom. It is about the golden years of secure retirement which is freedom; it is about one’s freedom as a consumer ala Milton Friedman. It is about one’s clothing styles, one’s sexual life style; i.e. it is about every thing except work.
Furthermore, freedom is almost always  defined as an individual good and not  communally. It has little to do with community. Now lets look at the issue of community within the context of American capitalist society. It is often stated, I believe correctly, that community has declined as an aspect of life within this society. What does this mean? What is this “community” which has declined.? There seems to be two primary ways of defining community. One form of community is what can be called organic or traditional community. By this I mean the traditional  hunting and gathering, horticultural, or agrarian village communities in which the vast majorities of human beings have lived through most of human history. These small scale traditional communities in which ties of kinship, common religious values, cultural ties, common political and economic activities united people in a deep net of relationships,.this form of community  scarcely exists within the United States any longer. The closest this nation has to this sort of community are the old ethnic working class communities of past generations.
However the increasing suburbanization and corporate individualization of people is increasingly erasing this sort of community from American life. What then functions as community for Americans? Church and organized religion? Religion is one of the strongest sources of “intentional” community in America. However since most church members share little of their lifes together either by ways of kinship, or in common economic or political activities; the actual communal bonds created by modern American religion are in general rather weak. The other great source of communal bonds are the friendships and relationships that Americans experience which come from out of the workplace. This is true in spite of all that has been said previously about the oppressive nature of the capitalist workplace. It is true because in spite of its oppressive aspects
the workplace is still the place in which most people spend the greatest amount to their waking lifes. Therefore one would expect the workplace to be the source of many of the most important human communal relationships. In fact the work place in many ways is the modern equivalent of the tradition village in which the common work and shared life of the villagers was the norm.
Unfortunately the positive potential of the workplace as the basis of modern community has been severely compromised by its unfree nature and its hierarchical dictatorial structure. This is why for instance are there so few television shows such as “The Office” in which the life of work is shown as a dominating aspect of social life. The reason as is portrayed in “The Office” is that  generally the work place is not experienced by  workers as a place of freedom or as a place in which to express one’s creativity through work. Thus “The Office” wonderfully shows both the beautiful potential and the down side of normal work life. It shows the community that the work life creates and also the arbitrary problematic forces that work again it. Interestingly the character Michael Scott  the boss of the office is both the hero who always strives to create community within the workplace setting which simultaneously his arbitrary and often bizare actions undercut it.
To summarize, Cooperativism wishes to destroy the dictatorship of capitalist control of the workplace. It seeks to end capitalist power and replace it with worker control over the economic institutions of society. The purpose of work within a Cooperativist society will be not just to receive a bi weekly paycheck. It will also be about the expression of one ability to make decisions, to express one’s power and creativity through one’s work. The surplus value of the cooperative firms of a Socialist society will accrue to the worker owners by adding to  the firms capital base. Finally because the workplace will be experienced as being a place of freedom and self determination it will also be experienced as one of community.

Glenn King

An Alternative Socialism

lady-justiceWhile the headline in a national news weekly recently started with an article entitled “We Are All Socialists Now,” the reality is obviously quite different. From all appearances Capitalism has won the ideological war against socialism which began when socialism took the world stage during the first half of the 19th century. Capitalism of some sort seems to most people particularly within the United States to be the natural destiny of humanity. However while capitalism won the war against the brutal perversion of socialism called communism and while the great social democratic parties of Europe seem to have given up on any socialist vision greater than that of a mixed social democratic economy, the instinct for social justice, human equality, community, and freedom that socialism historically has tried to realize has not died. The sparks of socialism still survive within  small groups and  within individuals in the United States and many other parts of the world. As the current world recession, energy, ecological and global warming crisis show; world capitalism’s future is not assured. Socialism could ultimately win the last war.
However a precondition for that victory must be a rethinking of the socialist vision. Most Americans and in fact most of the world’s people still imagine that socialism is primarily about the power of the state being utilized to dominate or control the economic direction of societies. This certainly has been the dominant conception of the Marxian and Fabian forms of socialism. Both European Social Democracy and Soviet Communism envisioned future socialist societies as being  based on statist models of  governmental ownership and control of all of the economic activities of society. Little if any role existed in either model for private enterprises or for companies which were directly owned and managed by workers themselves. The primary difference between these two was that Communism supported the totalitarian communist state and Social Democracy supported the western liberal democratic state. These are important differences.
However  historically other powerful minority forms of socialism  have existed which envisioned  alternative non statist models of a socialist future.   The socialist movement of  19th century France was dominated by “associational socialism” which foresaw a future socialist society in which workers themselves through their labor associations would ultimately take control of society. The economy of this future socialist society would be dominated by  worker owned and managed cooperatives / companies. Latter in the late 1800s and early 20th century this associative or cooperative socialism transformed into revolutionary anarcho syndicalism.  Anarcho syndicalism still  held the same basic socialist vision of a free society directly controlled by workers themselves however.   Spain and Italy were also dominated by anarchist ideals which also rejected the vision  of socialism  in which the state / government would hold absolute power over the economic institutions of society. In stead the socialism of these nations advocated a socialism of free producers or associations as did the French.
In the United States the socialist movement dominated by the Socialist Party of America reached its high point of influence in the early decades of the 20th century. Early American socialism seemed to take an intermediate position  between the purely statist concept of socialism and the more syndicalist forms of socialism. Out side of the American socialist movement during the 19th century  at least two movements one dominated primarily by American farmers and the other dominated primarily by American workers  developed ideas similar to that of Southern European socialism. These were the Knights of Labor one of the first and largest national labor unions that developed during the 19th century  and the other being People’s Party the agrarian party of reform which represented the interest of the impoverished  farmers of the American South and West. Both of these movements before they collapsed in the 1890s held a strong belief in economic cooperatives as the solution to the  “wage slavery”  of workers and the  poverty of indebted small farmers. Both typified the desire of workers and farmers for an economic system that  would incorporate the values of economic democracy and worker self management.
In France the anarcho syndicalist movement reached its height during the first decade of the 20th century and then disintegrated. The anarchists of Italy  fell together with the socialists before Mussolini’s fascists in the  1920s. The powerful anarcho syndicalist Spanish labor unions and anarchist dominated villages fell before General Franco’s fascist troops during the Spanish Civil War. From  that point in history it appeared that the alternative socialist tradition had been cast into the dust bin of history.
  However the vision of a worker self managed society or of economic democracy while it  ceased to be embeded in powerful  political movements continued in another form. Large numbers of workers and reformers beginning  in the 1800’s while avoiding politics and revolutionary rhetoric  worked hard to develop various  forms of  worker owned and managed businesses / cooperatives which have been  economically successful though out the world. These businesses if they were small often  are operated on principles of direct democracy by their worker owners. If large they are commonly governed  by workers councils elected by worker owners.  In general the worker councils of large cooperatives often having hundreds of workers  will hire a team of professional managers which instead of being to accountable to stockholders are ultimately responsible to  the worker owners of the company.
Today thousands worker owned cooperatives through out the world successfully compete for markets and customers. These cooperatives which are of many kinds agricultural, consumer, producer, service, etc have not become the dominant economic sector in the modern world. However many have become very successful in competing in the hostile environment of capitalism, Some  examples are the strong worker cooperative movement in the Emilia Romagna area of Northeast Italy. Of the 7500 cooperatives in this area over two thirds are worker owned. Over 10% of the work force in the region is employed by cooperatives. In Switzerland two of the largest supermarket chains Migros and Coop are in cooperative form. In Japan over 14 million citizens are members of the consumer cooperative movement.
However  the most successful example of worker owned cooperative success is the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation  head quartered in the town of Mondragon Spain. In 1956  five workers who had been trained at a technical school founded  by the Roman Catholic priest Don Jose Maria Aristmendi developed the first worker owed cooperative ULGOR to produce kerosene stoves. The company initially employed 24  worker owners. Now the world wide Mondragon Cooperative Corporation employs over 85,000 workers in various industries  in nations such as Brazil and China through out the world. The Mondragon Cooperative Corporation includes a united system of  self managing banks, insurance companies , a university and many other economic enterprises. Currently the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation is the 7th largest corporation in Spain. The example of the Mondragon and other successful examples of worker ownership and self management give the lie to the commonly held belief that workers simply do not have the ability to manage their own workplaces and companies. They give evidence that a different form of civilization is possible.
As this brief historical summery shows the statist form of socialism which is in fact what most Americans think of when they think of socialism has never been the only form of socialism. Another alternative form of the socialist vision has also existed.  I would argue that it is this alternative vision of socialism with which the future of the socialist movement lies. This is not to suggest that the anarchists, the syndicalists etc had all the right ideas. The political strategies developed by  these movements were extremely  flawed thus causing their  ultimate dismiss. Social Democracy in the form of the German Social Democratic Party, the France Socialist Party and the British Labor party were strategically much wiser in their overall championship of reforms which would help workers immediately. However I believe that the basic motivational vision of socialism lies in its vision of a free and just society in which workers themselves own the means of production. This is the liberatory vision of the alternative socialism in which the future lies.
Glenn King

God and Socialism?

What has God to do with  socialism? Within  contemporary political and theological discussion God and socialism do not mix. In fact socialism does not mix well in any of the usual forms of contemporary thought or language. Socialism in the popular imagination is assumed to be a  political economic system which was  discredited fully with the fall of the  “communist” societies of Eastern Europe. And of course everyone  including many self described socialists who should know better, “know” that socialism is only about either protecting the welfare state, or  extending the power of government into the economic life of societies. Liberals and progressives believe that this extension of government is needed in order to meet human needs.
Conservatives believe that it is ultimately about the suppression of human autonomy and freedom. Since conservatism has been winning the propaganda warfare of the last forty years  socialism has been relegated to outside the norms of “realistic” and “civilized” conversation. Thus one of the surest ways a potential political leader can be marginalized  is to be  tinged with the label of “socialist.”
 Even those individuals  who secretly in their heart of hearts believe that a little socialism might be a good thing will never admit it publicly due to fear of the consequences. Further more because everyone believes that socialism has no future in the real world it is considered an act of folly for any one, who wishes to be taken seriously, to suggest it as a real alternative for society. One may discuss socialism only in the smallest of private circles. However any attempt by individuals to discuss socialism outside of these circles is to risk being seen as naive, out of touch, or perhaps  being even morally diseased in some way. So why talk about God and socialism?
God and socialism should be discussed because the moral character of God and God’s kingdom and justice can not be understood in the modern world without talking about socialism. The very nature of the justice teachings of the Bible as manifested in the Torah, the Prophets, and Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom of God can not be separated from the political ideals and values of socialism. I know how outrageous this sounds to most people. So by way of explanation I will begin by stating what socialism is not.
Socialism is not the equivalent to the failed communist systems of the old Soviet Union and of the other “communist”  regimes of Eastern Europe. The fact is that communism’s support of dictatorial, one party states, atheism, and the repression of political and religious freedoms is based on a perversion of the teachings of Karl Marx. The fact is that communist totalitarianism was no more socialist than  the Crusades and the Inquisitions of the Middle Ages were authentically Christian. Socialist values in fact are  the opposite of the values that have become associated with  communism. In deed socialist parties such as the old Socialist Party of America and the Social Democratic Party of Germany have been some of the harshest critics and implacable enemies of communism. These parties  which historically have seen socialism as being about the progressive fulfillment of human freedom have always recognized that communism has been the enemy of the freedom which they  espouse.
So if socialism is not about communism and the worship of the state then what is it? While it is not possible in this article to discuss all of the concrete structures of a socialist society, a few points  need to be made. Most modern democratic socialists believe that such socialist values as solidarity with the oppressed, economic  equality,  the protection of meaningful human community, democracy, freedom, and human justice will best be developed in societies in which businesses and the other economic institutions of society are democratically managed directly by workers and people in general. Socialism is about economic democracy and economic institutions that are governed democratically by worker owners. It is about the empowerment of people both individually and communally. It is not about government ownership and control over society’s economic life. In other words it is more in line with the biblical vision of economic justice and the liberation of the poor and oppressed.
But of course many  people will shake their heads at what I have just said. According to the various forms of Protestant fundamentalism and many other forms of fundamentalist religion, the kingdom of God is all about the afterlife, heaven, hell and an other worldly salvation. Thus what relevance can socialism have to these concepts? The question of course is over the  issue of biblical interpretation. Are the biblical concepts of justice (judgement), sin, salvation, etc all descriptive of exclusively  supernatural realities or do they have a strong relationship with real human life as it is lived in this world and in human history. The evidence of both life and the Bible supports the latter view. That being true human activity plays a central role in the movement toward  salvation and the kingdom of God. If this is true then the ideas of socialism are of great value in interpreting the meaning and direction of that kingdom.
What then is this value? Without the ideas of socialism the vision of kingdom of God or of “restoring the world (tikkun olam)” a central concept within Judaism   becomes cramped within the confines of capitalist restriction. Socialist values such as  democracy, liberty, and fraternity (community) were also values of the great French and American Revolutions and can thus not be viewed as being unique to socialism.  However  it has been the socialists who have used these values to radically critique the  structure of the capitalist economic system. It  has been socialism’s contention that in the economic life of capitalism  these values are in fact suppressed particularly in the economic life of work. Therefore  socialists desire to create a political movement that will make human justice, equality, and democracy the real  and not just the fictional basis of the economic life of societies and nations. 
What socialism can do for religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam is to revivify symbols and ideas such as the kingdom of God,  and judgement in ways that make of them real motivating ideals of life as opposed to being purely otherworldly banalities. The real God is a God of all of reality and not just of some otherworld reality only.
Glenn King

What Socialism is not

The widespread belief spread by both the conservative right but also by many persons who do define themselves as socialist is that socialism is primality about a take over of the private enterprise economy by the government. This is false and I will be posting a series of article by both myself and other writers which hopefully will dispel this belief. The first writing is a very good article called “What Socialism is Not” printed within Torch and Rose the newsletter of the Social Democrats, USA.