Economic democracy – why some ideas take centuries to progress

It is a simple enough idea. Just as the governance of cities and nations has shifted from systems of inherited control to systems of democratic accountability, so we could move over time to systems of economic democracy.

I have written a blog for the democracy charity Involve as part of its series on the future of democracy, under the simple title of ‘one worker, one vote’.

Quotation - An emerging culture across society of participation and openness...

If so, if part of future democracy, it will have taken a long time – perhaps the longest running social change campaign I have ever been involved in.

We have seen co-operative models over time with stakeholder ownership and the encouragement of a healthy growth of employee ownership alongside this in more recent years. These are aligned with an idea which was, a century ago, widely canvassed. The phrase ‘Workers’ Control of Industry’ was coined in the years leading up to the First World War. But this too drew on a longer history, which in the UK included attempts to run union shops and Exchange Bazaars in the century before.

In 1912, the pamphlet The Miners’ Next Step set out options for future action by miners in South Wales and concluded with a vision of future society in which “every industry thoroughly organised, in the first place, to fight, to gain control of, and then to administer, that industry.”

The trade union activist and leader Tom Mann, who himself started working in mines at the age of ten, was a key advocate. He defined what he called syndicalism in the following terms: “a condition of society where industry will be controlled by those engaged therein, on the basis of free societies; these co-operate for the production of all requirements of life in the most efficient manner, and the distribution of the same, with truest equity.”

For him, economic democracy would not just complement political democracy, but even in time overtake it, removing the need for state action to act as a counterweight and a corrective to the markets that generate inequality.

For James Connolly, the Irish republican and trade union leader, the purpose was to build an “an industrial republic.”

You can see why this vision might take time to realise – it is a call for a new economy, based on a far more equitable and distributed pattern of ownership. And yet, looking forward, this is exactly what is still needed – a new economy in which we can all participate, to meet our key needs and to create value within the constraints of our biosphere.

Arguably, many of the experiments we see in participatory practice, sustainable business and social enterprise today are pathfinders for something like this tomorrow.

If so, the case for economic democracy has never been more compelling… or more hopeful.

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