Thursday, October 23, 2008

Collective action: conceptually finished

Here's Tom Freeman, going around the houses to arrive at a consideration of the Citizens Basic Income. Worth a look.

And here's Meghnad Desai with the truth about Keynes and profligacy (he wasn't as keen on it as you would be led to believe). This - for me - raises an important question (with a few pre-qualifiers).

  • Labour's historic mission has been to meet everyone's needs by collective provision - where those needs are not met otherwise

  • We have - in the last decade - tried to meet those needs by increasing public spending - and in some areas we've succeeded (and we've failed in others)

  • If there is any justice or sense in the world, we won't need to discuss the structure of collective provision against a white noise of hubristic capitalist privatisation-fetishists anymore
This last point should, of course, provide an opportunity for extended period of gloating and cheap point-scoring. But it also removes the cushion that the left has quietly enjoyed for a very long time now.

We've been able to say - for years - that the privatised semi-state model of collective action is doomed to failure. It's all wrong, it's uncaring and inefficient, it will never work, etc. But we've never felt any pressing need to offer a coherent alternative.

The left knows what it's against, and it shares a very coherent critique that history is clearly beginning to vindicate. But I've not seen any evidence that there is a shared understanding of what we are in favour of now. This isn't just a call for a flurry of pamphlets from various factions, or a collection of stilted meetings at Conway Hall.

The capitalist managerialist caste have a structured way of looking at the world. They send their people on MBA courses in which the virtues of box-ticking and hierarchical management is learned. And while people who work in the public sector may not realise this, their management is - in my experience - a great deal more hierarchical than the structures found in corporations.

They may have been told that the public sector is aping the private sector in this, but I would suggest that this is a very effective piece of propaganda. And when 'Lenin' goes all blasé about 'workers councils', we don't have any answers to the important questions that MBA students address themselves to:

  • How important is ownership? Should it rest with the workers, or with society as a whole? And should workers seek ownership of their workplace, or should they prefer to control it? And is there a tension here?
  • What are the responsibilities of the individual in a collectively managed workplace? After all, when two people agree to feed a horse, the horse usually starves, doesn't it?
  • If workers do seek ownership of their workplace, how is it divided up? At what point? Do you divy it up at the start, or wait a few years? Do you pay dividends if it's successful? And how far does the demand for a dividend compete with a pay structure that isn't flat?
  • If workers seek control, how do they exercise it? Do they pick a management team and leave them for fixed periods at which they are recalled? Or do they all sit on the paperclip procurement committee? At what point between these two poles should we settle?
  • How do you incentivise people to innovate?
  • How do you retain good skills and how do you jettison obsolete or demotivated ones?
  • How do you reward hard work and generally energise a workforce?
  • How do you share good-practice, and how far does a need to compete cut across this imperative?
  • How do you combat the possibility of a dominant producer interest? How does the consumer interest assert itself? And if ownership is held in common, how do we deal with the tragedy of the commons?
  • What about social responsibility? Do individual collectively owned or managed entities have a responsibility to meet ethical / social responsibility / equality aims? And if so, how are these determined, agreed and met?***
These seem to me to be the big questions. You've heard of them all before if you've read Animal Farm, and I'm conscious that lots of my follow lefties will detect some sort of apostasy in the fact that I've even raised some of them. After all, there are bloody obvious answers aren't there?

Well OK. Maybe I've just not seen them written down anywhere.

I used to work with a really annoying (but very clever) software developer. He used to be able to identify all of the big logical problems that needed to be solved in order to build a particular application, and he was very impressive in the way he did this. He used to tell the sales people that it was their job to find customers. They (in this case, me) had to find the customers, sell the idea - sight unseen - and get them to pay for it upfront thereby funding the development (see vaporware).

He used to tell the development team that he'd done his bit and solved all of their big problems for them and the rest was just project management that was a bit beneath him. He'd tell the designers that he wasn't interested in 'usability' or design. Again, they were implementation details.

The product was, he said, conceptually finished. The drones could do the rest.

I wasted three years of my life working with this bloke. We never got a viable product out of the door, he drew a massive salary and the company eventually went bust. Being a lefty is a bit like working with a boss like that. Airy-fairy thinkers get all of the kudos. None of them ever gets their hands dirty. I've never seen any answers to any of those questions backed up be credible field-work in the way that MBA students can answer to questions that they have put to them.

If we are to manage collective provision - and not do it in the inefficient and uncaring way that the managerialist of New Labour have done, we need to start asking these questions and offering alternative models. At the moment, Chris is the only one I've seen asking some of these questions (and raising some more of his own).

(Update: the last bullet point *** was added later -it was a line that somehow got edited out of the draft that was published. Sorry about that now....)


cian said...

The "Tragedy of the Commons" only really exists in capitalist societies (there are a few exceptions where the existing social order has broken down for some reason such as war, famine, etc). Anthropologists get very irritated with economists for arguing otherwise. Prior to capitalism, the commons were maintained through existing social structures that enforced rights in combination with responsibilities.

I think there's a more important point to be made here. Many of the potential problems you identify here are cultural ones. Perhaps its better to ask what kinds of culture would you need for a successful worker run company?

Incidentally, have you heard of Ricardo Semler? He turned the company he owned in a worker run one. He has a book on it, though how much one can trust his account..?

Paulie said...

"Perhaps its better to ask what kinds of culture would you need for a successful worker run company?"

Absolutely not. These aren't questions that rest on short-term goodwill. Incentives change the way people behave - I've tried the faith-based co-op - it was the worst of all worlds.

I suppose that there are particular local cultures where co-ops may be easier to run, but that isn't the point, is it?