Could more companies be collectively owned and run by their employees in the future? That’s the idea put forward by Patrick Witkowsky, the director behind the documentary Can We Do It Ourselves?

The film was recently screened at Oslo Documentary Cinema [Oslo Dokumentarkino] and was followed by a panel debate. The panel supported the idea of worker-run companies as more effective and democratic than competing models. But could it be that the summer heat is making us somewhat idealistic and naive?

Worker-run companies

In this Swedish documentary, Noam Chomsky explains how companies run and owned by workers create more just, freer societies. The film showcases examples of such companies operating successfully in the free market. Using archival footage, it also documents the reserved attitude of Olof Palme and his Social Democrats to the concept. Another critical perspective is provided by Janerik Larsson, former head of Svenskt Näringsliv, who remains strongly opposed to such «communist ideas.» If it had worked, argues Larsson, we would have seen a lot more of it already.

But the main message is one of optimism. During the panel debate, David Erdal recounts how he, upon inheriting the family’s paper factory Tullis Russell Papermakers in 1994, turned it into a democratic, worker-run company. The employees first suspected ulterior motives behind the transfer of the company’s stock, and it took three years to establish confidence in the new organisational model. The result – according to Erdal – was something akin to a religious «liberation of energy» in the company.

«Why do we only enjoy political democracy and not its economic equivalent?»

Erdal goes on to remind us that sharing comes naturally to humans. We were hunters and gatherers once; «food was shared among the group without any resort to nepotism,» and friends divided the game between themselves. Some were bad hunters, some were good, but «what entitled everyone to a share was that they had a mouth.» Online reports unfortunately confirm that the company suffered losses and was shut down in 2015. Some 500 people lost their jobs. Ten years later Erdal pulled out.

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