Common ownership of the means of production never works. At the size of an enterprise (co-operatives), it excludes those who are not members and therefore appears to be private. At the size of a country, it generates a huge bureaucracy which excludes those - citizens, workers - which are the legal owners. Could non-property be seen as the alternative to capitalism? How could an enterprise work which belongs to nobody? The practice of commoning is the answer: an economic democracy in which workers, users and citizens govern together enterprises, social and investment commons when they are concerned.
Au-delà de la propriété, pour une économie des communs has recently been published by La Découverte in France. Its author, Benoît Borrits, has spent a long time researching the experiences of co-operatives, and specifically the takeover by employees of traditional companies through strikes, occupations or buyouts. Through these actions, employees are reviving an old objective of the working class: to be in control of the means of production. However, although co-operatives appear to be a practical legal form of doing so, they also show that this exercise has some limits, for example when they come up against the market or the need to raise money for initial and further investments.
This situation was addressed by XIXth century socialists who underlined these limits of the co-operative by advocating a common ownership of the means of production at the level of the nation instead of the enterprise. This was implemented by the Russian revolution for more than 70 years. It was a disaster, showing that far from liberating individuals, the nation state became the new owner, forbidding workers as well as citizens from initiating any economic process or democratic debate about the goals of the production.
This pitfall was foreseen by socialists such as Karl Marx or Jean Jaurès, who advocated state ownership while giving power in production units to workers. This is something like what Yugoslav communists tried once they broke away from Stalin. Even though initial economic results were impressive during the fifties, it appeared that there was a major contradiction: how could you be the owner while giving irrevocable and full power to somebody else? In other words, how could workers of a single unit decide and therefore engage with an outside owner which was the state? This is why self-management in Yugoslavia was never fully achieved, evolving from co-management to market socialism and an attempt to define social property without owners. In the end, private ownership of the means of production was restored, as in other Eastern and Central European states.
To summarize, common ownership of the means of production has failed to define who should be the rightful owner: if the enterprise is too small (such as in a co-operative), then market relations are in a strong position and therefore the ownership excludes people who are not members of this community: property is excluding per se. If it is too big, then a bureaucracy tends to exclude the legal owners who are workers or citizens.
The idea that common ownership of the means of production can be considered as the alternative to private ownership has completely failed. This is having a huge negative impact on class struggles today: it precludes any challenge to capitalism, making shareholders irreplaceable, and therefore making social changes a kind of myth. Could non-property be seen as the real alternative? This was considered by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who thought that it is access rather than property that matters.
In the past few years, the struggles around the question of Commons have challenged the neo-liberal agenda: in all cases, the right of use has been up against owners’ management and/or disposal rights. These struggles include people fighting against privatization from the state owner, rural struggles against property rights over natural resources, the movement for free knowledge, and workers fighting against owners who wish to close down a production unit and sell assets. With these actions, commoners are defining by direct democracy what rules they want to set up in order to manage a resource.
This book designs an economic and political system in which productive property has totally disappeared, with a double system of socializing the productive revenue – thereby securing a living for workers – and socializing investments in order to finance all the assets of the production unit. Thus shareholder equity no longer exists and production units become commons in which workers – and users when needed – directly manage them, making any owner, private shareholder or state, irrelevant. A new perspective for human emancipation…
Foreword by Pierre Dardot
Au-delà de la propriété. Pour une économie des communs
La Découverte publisher, Paris 2018.