Economic Implosion Social Capital Social Change

Occupy your mind #4

I think it was seeing a twenty-metre-high Robert Waterman McChesney projected to the audience at the Rebellious Media Conference that persuaded me I was being subjected to intense propaganda. These Americans, I thought, they’re all the same. They all use the same communications techniques, whatever brand of ideology they are pushing. The iconified “talking head” of Professor McChesney, well, yes, he was talking a lot of sense, but the medium is the message, and that medium was a twenty-metre-high idolisation of Bob.
After the opening plenary session of the conference, Noam Chomsky held humble court by the bookstalls, gladhanding people, and generally making nice to lots of unkempt teenagers and twenty-somethings in black tee shirts with nasty slogans on them. And nose rings. I was several circles of adulation beyond the physical contact zone, and beside me was a young mum desperate to put her cute infected infant in Noam’s great grandpa arms and get a photo apperture-nity of a lifetime. “Baby coming through”, I said, using my best crowd control voice-of-authority technique, “baby coming through”.

Noam Chomsky is very, very smart. And yet he still suffers from what I call “cognitive dissociation”. He deconstructed the demands of the Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Boston, Occupy everywhere movement – he said their feasible demands were too palatable, and their radical demands too inaccessible. But Noam, too, his ideas of a new labour-owned world are a step beyond unworkable. Being a pragmatist, I have recognised that people don’t automatically work well together without some kind of structure that they can slot into. Families, churches, governments – all need definitions of roles and functions, despite the ideal of total democratic freedom.

Professor Chomsky continues to argue for cooperatives instead of corporatives – much as he and his clan have argued since I first read up on labour movements when I was myself a teenager in appallingly unstylish and confrontational attire. And yes, it would be nice. People could be more equal in more democratically managed work environments. But my experience is that it is superlatively hard to make these things work – that’s why there’s so few of them. It’s been great watching labour law develop over the last few decades – the ebb and flow of human rights being enacted across the European workplace, the flexibility and responsibility being brought into human economic relations has seemed justified, right, an evolution towards democracy in labour.

Of course, this doesn’t solve the basic problem with profit-making company machines – value gets sucked out of the work of the people and turned over to the benefit of the owners of the businesses – with all the damages that ensue. These social and environmental damages have been counteracted to a certain extent, through extensive dialogue between regulatory bodies and corporations.

And now two distinct problems are emerging on the labour front : a shift in the employability of the population, and attacks on company legislation – both of which will throw back the democratisation of work several decades, perhaps further.

With a decrease in public sector employment, if the private sector cannot bridge the gap (and there are many reasons why it cannot), the country is left with an increasingly job-free population. If people are not in the employment game, they cannot have their labour rights, their standard of living, protected, especially given cuts in social welfare budgets. And if companies can claim they will go out of business if they cannot be free of “red tape”, then the Government is put in a quandary – either support private enterprise by loosening labour and environmental regulation, or expect to see business “off-shoring” to countries with laxer laws.

There needs to be a third way – and there are models for not-for-profit and social enterprise that could fit the bill – increasing democratic engagement between people in the way they work together, without giving up on the social and environmental accountability we need to maintain. These entities don’t look like hippy communes, or radical co-operatives, and there are many reasons why. But if they work, they could be the next step along the evolutionary path to full worker ownership of the means of economic production. Just like owning our own solar panels, we’ll own our own workplaces, and the power to manage wealth and wealth creation will come closer to ordinary people.

The question that remains in my mind is – will a future British Labour Government support the evolving democratisation of work, or fall back into the old “New Labour” model of unadulterated infatuation with corporate capitalism – a system that is clearly failing us, and the planet ?

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