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?

Truls Lie
Truls Lie
Published date: June 28, 2018

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.

Another example cited is that of Carl Zeiss, the founder of the eponymous manufacturer of high-quality camera lenses. After Zeiss’ death, Ernst Abbe – entrepreneur, physics professor and Zeiss’ business partner – turned the company into a foundation in 1809. The details can be found online: Convinced that the employees were responsible for the company’s profits, Abbe established a legal document setting out social rights and worker participation, health care and pension insurance, 8-hour work days, and a cap on wages specifying that the maximum income could not exceed the lowest by more than 12 times. Abbe himself had grown up with his father’s 16-hour-long working days. But as a company that was above all owned by the workers, the foundation’s purpose evolved into reinvesting its profits in the company and supporting the local community with public goods – like the University of Jena. Today Zeiss has an annual revenue of nearly 60 billion kroner.

«The question remains whether companies owned and run by workers are actually economically feasible.»

The Paris Commune

Could this be viewed as a form of anarchism, where decision-making powers reside with worker collectives rather than capitalists, and top-down management – the cynical power of capital and hierarchical structures – is done away with? Allow me to point out an interesting parallel: the Paris Commune. In March 1871, the French government fled to Versailles, and Paris was declared an independent commune. An impotent government and the indifference of the privileged classes to the plight of the poor triggered the crisis. The people of Paris had nothing left to lose and dared to rise up. They passed a resolution that abolished government and state administration, gave rights of self-determination to the people, replaced the penal code with a people’s code and removed government taxes and debt collection. Paris was spontaneously declared independent and free, the first step towards what was to become a federation of free communes all over France. A city council of 80 citizens tried to improve conditions. «Every commune in Paris shall be autonomous, determine its budget and taxes, elect its councils and representatives, organise its systems of justice, policing, education and distribution …»

It took 72 days for the power elite to strike back. Government troops massacred at least 25,000 people in the so-called «Bloody Week» that May, and it was ten years before some of Paris’s exiled socialists could return.

«How many will feel solidarity towards their company, take responsibility for it when things go badly and pay themselves lower wages to cut costs?»

Anarchist thinkers like Mikhail Bakunin and Piotr Kropotkin praised the Paris Commune as the «first attempt at a stateless, socialist social order.» In a letter written at the time of the uprising, Marx asserted that the revolutionaries’ goal was to not transfer the bureaucratic-military machine «from one hand to another but to smash it, and this is essential for every real people’s revolution on the Continent.» (Anarchismus, Schmetterling Verlag, 2008). Marx wanted to abolish the state and its growing, repressive power – not the communes.

Economically feasible?

Not unlike the Paris Commune, local worker-led collectives and cooperatives offer opportunities for self-rule. Can We Do It Ourselves? asks the question: Why do we only enjoy political democracy and not its economic equivalent? The time seems ripe for change; the workers should participate themselves «renting» the capital instead of the capitalists renting labour. The question remains whether companies owned and run by workers are actually economically feasible. It sounds great, but the idea rests on certain assumptions.

The main challenge is how deeply ingrained the ideology of the «competitive society» is established in the global economy. The world’s many consumers expect to buy cheap goods of high quality – and we’re witnessing an economic race towards the precipice in which profits become smaller and smaller, eventually resulting in businesses incurring losses. After the screening of Can We Do It Ourselves? the panel members somewhat naively asserted that small businesses could flourish if only they would join forces with all the other small ones. This is sweet music to the ears of an anarchist, but the real world is full of big companies outcompeting the small.

In Argentina, many workers were admittedly willing to take over factories and companies when the owners absconded in response to the crisis some 15 years ago. Many of them organised collectives and ran their workplaces after the capitalists’ disappearance.

But another assumption is that workers would be willing to take on substantial risks. Building a company or organisation requires capital. How many are willing to invest their money in the hope of future gains, and to borrow money for something they care passionately about? (Like a newspaper, for example.) Doing so entails the risk of losing your loans or savings. It could mean the loss of homes and pensions – unless, that is, one belongs to the propertied classes.

Long-term investments?

In our wealthy Western societies many workers move from company to company every third year in search of jobs that are more rewarding or pay better. For how long will people feel solidarity towards their company, take responsibility for it when things go badly and pay themselves lower wages to cut costs? And how many will accept that wages can only be drawn from the company’s profits when bad times are looming on the horizon?

Wealthy capitalists often oppress those without capital. The same applies to governments and their nepotistic alliance with capital. Any anarchist and socialist can see this. The director of Can We Do It Ourselves? may have pondered why Palme’s Social Democrats didn’t wish to promote economic democracies. But ask yourself: Can this be due to the Pareto principle, the law of the vital few? The principle states that 80 per cent of the effects come from 20 per cent of the effort, or that the growth experienced by a company is created by a minority of the employees. So how many will work according to their ability and receive according to their needs? And who will emphasise their duties over their rights?

The debate panel in Oslo all noddingly agreed that economic democracy is a complicated issue.

Modern Times Review