Nicola Smith says that predistributionist policies should include greater workplace democracy. I agree. What worries me though is the framing of this issue. I fear there's a danger that the call for workplace democracy will be seen as a demand made by a sectional interest. It shouldn't be.
Instead, it should be a response to the fact that capitalist control of firms has failed. I mean this in three senses:
- The collapse of banks shows that shareholders do not monitor managers well. They lack the incentive to do so, because their share ownership of any firm is typically only a small fraction of their wealth. And they lack the knowledge to do so too, because outsiders normally know less about what's happening in a firm than do insiders such as key workers.
- Capitalists have largely ceased to be providers of capital.For most of the last ten years, non-financial firms, in aggregate, have retained more in profits than they have spent on capital equipment. And except for the recapitalization of banks, net share issuance has been small or negative in recent years.
- Capitalist control of firms might not have solved a problem thought to bedevil coops, that workers have short-term time horizons. Capital can be as short-termist (pdf) as labour - or maybe more so (pdf).
These failings suggest that the case for greater worker control should be framed not as a sectional demand, nor as a case for greater equality, but as one of efficiency. Quite simply capitalist ownership of firms is (often? sometimes?) inefficient; I hesitate to call it capitalist control, because firms' nominal owners exercise pitifully little control.
I suspect the persistence of capitalist firms is in some cases an example of path dependence. It exists now largely because it existed in the past. Granted, there was a time when capitalist ownership and control made sense: when they did provide capital; when workers were easily monitored; and when capital-owners knew more about the business than workers. But the days of 19th century mill-owners are gone. So why should the ownership structure that made sense then persist?
To put this another way, if we had worker control and ownership today, under what circumstances would the demand for a shift to capitalist control and ownership make sense?
I stress here that I'm not arguing for the overthrow of capitalism; the question of the merits of worker vs capitalist control will vary from place to place, as this long pdf describes. All I'm saying is that the call for worker democracy should be framed within a context of a widespread failure of capitalism.