What’s the Alternative?

If there is one thing that’s certain about life, it’s that things change. What once seemed all-powerful and permanent can all of a sudden seem very shaky, transitory, questionable. This has been proven true once again as Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing, Adelphia and other once-mighty corporations have been exposed for the dishonest shell games that they were.

In the face of this exposure of widespread corporate fraud and crime, progressives are being given a major opportunity, one we haven’t had for many years. People are upset and want justice to be done as far as the Ken Lays and Jeffrey Skillings of the corporate world. But they also are interested in, even hungry for, alternative approaches to how we can make changes so that these kinds of crimes don’t keep happening.

Progressive approaches pretty much fall between two poles. One pole is to beef up government regulatory agencies, strengthening oversight of our economic institutions without fundamentally altering the basic modus operandi of corporations. The other pole would be for the socialization/nationalization of at least some industries, direct government running of them in a way similar to public education, public hospitals, public railroads, etc.

The major problem with both of these approaches is that they do not address the fundamental issue: lack of democracy.

Why did the effort to build an alternative to capitalism fail in the Soviet Union, and why is China going down a similar road? There are a number of reasons, but one of the main ones was an approach to political and economic change that was top-down, bureaucratic and repressive. Although there are lessons to be learned from those countries’ experiences, they are clearly not models for the kind of change we need here in the United States of America.

As Albert Einstein wrote in 1949, “A planned economy as such may be accompanied by the complete enslavement of the individual. . . How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?”

Corporations have to be right up there at the top of the list when it comes to undemocratic institutions. Virtually everybody, with a tiny handful of exceptions, who works for one is subject to demotion and firing if the top executives decide to take such action, for whatever reason. And when it comes to huge mega-corporations, their vast financial resources and access to information gives them tremendous political, social and economic power.

As long as institutions like this exist absent any serious counterweights, any effective checks and balances, we can expect more Enrons and WorldComs in the future. It is an historic fact that, sooner or later, strengthened regulation is undercut by those who are supposed to be under regulation, using a whole variety of ways to do so once the spotlight of the moment is turned off and the mass media shifts its focus to something else.

We need more than strengthened regulation. We need, at a minimum, a strengthening of democracy at the workplace. This means unions–democratic, rank-and-file controlled unions, not mirror-image, top-down bureaucracies reflecting the corporate culture. This is an approach that should be supported not just by the workers within a particular business but by all working people and all people who do not want to see a repeat of the 2001-02 corporate fraud/crime wave at some point in the future.

We also need to be supportive of alternative approaches to the top-down, corporate business model. There should be affirmative government support to cooperative, employee-owned businesses which build in democratic methods of decision-making. Rather than bankruptcy legislation which strengthens the power of the monied elite, we need laws and financial and technical support which allow for the takeover of failing businesses by organized groups of workers. This will not only save jobs and pensions; it will provide us with some concrete models from which we can learn.

We need to open up a public discussion about how we move in an affirmative way to democratize our economic institutions, not waiting for bankruptcies and major failures before taking action.

We need an Economic Democracy Movement which puts these and other issues on the front burner of our political life. Green Party and other independent campaigns this fall, maybe even some progressive Democrats, should be talking about the need for such a movement, such an approach. We need democracy in all its forms, in the political system, in our economic institutions, and in other aspects of our lives. There is no other way.