Report on the conference Economic Democracy as a response to the economic crisis (June 22/2008 in Paris)
On June 22nd, 2009 in Paris, trade unionists, local politicians and scientists discussed the question, whether concepts of economic democracy could be established as strategic alternative against the crisis policy of the ruling class. The meeting was organised by espaces Marx in co-operation with the region of Ile de France, the Les Mondes de Travail magazine and the transform! magazine. Participants came from France mostly, of course, but also from Greece, Spain and Germany.
It was particularly interesting to find that the concepts of economic democracy on which the discussions were based were very broad ones. This also explains for the circle of organisers and participants. Co-operation between trade unions, employees and the residents as well as regional administrative bodies was a thread running throughout the entire discussion, which was structured in four blocks. The first block examined the lack of democracy in companies and the role of employees within the companies’ policies. The second part dealt with the question of what the power of the public should do to support economic democracy. The third round of the discussion focussed on the role of social / solidarity economy within this context. In the concluding fourth block the guests from France, Greece, Spain and Germany discussed the EU-dimension of the question.
As already stated before, a broad understanding of economic policy was underlying the debate. The topics ranged from working conditions, the participation of employees in the company’s decision making, the formation of alliances between employees and residents, the consequences of current regional politics on companies and regions etc. and also included questions of sustainable alternatives. Among the participants there was a number of trade union activists from the AXA-company who in their persons represented the link between trade unionist and local / regional politics.
The following points were established as crucial for the evaluation of potentials inherent in demands for far-reaching economic democratisation.
Firstly, in the wake of the economic crisis, the conflict potential has piled up in companies – with the contributions dealing with finance companies in particular. Work intensity, stress, a style of leadership contradictory in itself, disrespect of the experiences of the employed etc. lead to a legitimation crisis in times of crisis. This holds true also for management, where the idea of inexhaustible opportunities of infinitely earning money on globalised markets is breaking into pieces. Management does not understand the contradictions inherent in globalisation and the complexity of the economic crisis, because to them the market is the “natural” thing. This manifests itself in constant structural changes and consequent instability. This inability to grasp reality is exported or transferred by many managers on to the state, because being the natural thing the market (they are identifying with) cannot make any mistakes.
Many employees experience this contradiction in their everyday working lives, since they are in immediate contact with the users of the companies’ services. In the companies, one participant stated, an ideological struggle was taking place. Work was being intensified, while the companies were presenting a social face to the outside world by means of CSR-polemics. Besides the individualisation of the relations in the workplace, this intensification of labour was the decisive problem.
Since management was unable or unwilling to introduce fundamental changes, employee participation in companies must be accompanied by a heightened presence of consumers in the process of decision-making. Therefore also the following aspect was important: Individuals had to think of themselves as living within society, and with that in their minds had to regard their distress at their workplaces and understand the complexities of life and of their political existence.
This was the more justified the more finance companies dealt with public money to a great extent - to be exact, were making business with it.
Secondly, it was emphasised that the separation between work and life did not really exist. Men were living in their respective local communities, went to work there or to a place outside their municipalities – which meant that they were always affected by companies’ decisions as well as by decisions taken by local parliaments. From that point-of-view the rigid separation between trade unionist and local politics was wrong. Democracy was a question of power and the joining of company and local politics struggles was justified given the profound consequences for the regions of decisions taken by companies. This could manifest itself in joint councils of residents, employees and consumers (who all might live at other places as well). It was about creating virtual and physical spaces in which men could have an exchange and where new concepts could be developed. To achieve real democracy, it was necessary to be allowed to develop new concepts and to experiment with new forms. It really was about a joint process of searching.
Social funds and plans for social development might be counted among the forms that were there. With their help companies should be restricted in their actions and committed to the interests of employees, residents and consumers. The National Projects carried out in France had shown that state intervention alone was not sufficient. In all regions, which were involved in those projects, local authorities lacked the possibility to actually have a say on the course of development – they only had to provide the means. So the possibility of joint decisions on the companies’ as well as the state’s capital spending policies was of crucial importance. By bringing together research institutions, companies and regions on a democratic level, capital spending policy could be given a new direction, beyond the understanding of innovations as a moment of locational competition. Therefore a new understanding of regional and city development policies was necessary. In that way also a link of democracy and socio-ecological restructuring was possible. What was required was not merely consultations but real participation in decision-making processes. It was suggested in that context to discuss anew also the question of the importance of planning, including economic planning. Thinking about resources, goals etc. – that was what democracy was all about. Planning and democracy belonged together.
Thirdly, it was emphasised that economic democracy in the broad sense in which the word was used here, had to be more than a merely formal opening up of decision-making processes. Democratisation of economy had to start with a democratisation of the state, was one of the positions presented. This democratisation had many dimensions. In order to make responsible decisions, bodies both inside companies and local authorities needed information also from other companies and regions. Many questions as for instance the question of the consequences of certain decisions on the environment could not be decided from the limited point-of-view of one company or region. Rather, it was about creating networks in which these questions were discussed. In that context also the destructive role of competition was mentioned which was undermining both democratic and solidarity approaches on both the levels of companies and of local authorities and regions.
Fourth, the public sector was in itself a huge economic potential with democracy not always characterising the decisions regarding that potential. In that context, participants referred to public procuring management, for example. With initiatives towards the democratisation of budget decisions (residents’ budgets) and initiatives towards maximum budget and other policy transparency (budget analysis and social reports), effective instruments had been created in the past 10 years of grass roots intervention which could be made productive by integrating them into public discussion on the ways of how the crisis could be overcome. In doing so, the left could resort to a resource which was often undervalued: In the course of the technological revolution which had taken place in recent ten decades a new quality of the workforce had developed who had to find a balance between individuality and collectivity. Making use of that competence was still underrated, even within the trade unions.
Fifth, the discussion dealt with the relationship between the state, nationalisation and socialisation. Action taken by the state was indispensable for overcoming the crisis, which meant that the discussion about the direction of state intervention was crucial. The question to be answered was: How could it be facilitated that money did not only flow into the companies but that a transfer was also enforced of the positive effects back into society? There were, for instance, adequate potentials for the establishment of public instead of state property, i.e., socialisation instead of nationalisation. Yet, so far, convincing concepts for the establishment of such models were still missing. The development of structures of solidarity and social economy, the establishment of cooperatives and of councils on different questions had to be taken up again in the discussions. Therefore it was necessary to think about how existing cooperative structures could be democratised and how the public element of public property could be reinforced. One suggestion on that was to merge public and cooperative banks and thus to create an economic basis for the change of political power relations. Yet, it was important, another contributor stressed, in that process to avoid the old communist mistakes. It was obvious that the claim of avant-garde had been important then. In contrast to that, the deliberative element which played a central role in the current discussions in Latin America, represented a new quality. A criterion for the realisation of direct democracy was the independence of decision making processes from the state, administration, parties and parliaments.
The Paris meeting took up a number of aspects each of which would be worth to be dealt with in detail. It was particularly remarkable that utmost importance was attributed to the aspect of self-organisation and competence of the employees and residents. Thus the approach towards the question of economic democracy was an active one, because it regarded economy as part of the reproduction of society. In the sense in which it was discussed there it created a number of starting-points for broader alliances and militant solidarity. It also created space for social change and change of the self. Yet change is the content of each crisis. With orientations of democratic economy in the way sketched here in mind, decisive approaches are created to other ways of overcoming the crisis. Thus the phrase of “crisis as a chance” is getting a productive and progressive meaning.