By Jerry Ashton
Jan 30, 2013
Dr. Richard Wolff is no shy flower when it comes to provoking thought; more "Thorny Rose" than "Sweet William."
The New York Times Magazine has named him "America's most prominent Marxist Economist" and he continues to embellish this vitae by pointing out egregious examples of U.S.-style capitalism going horribly wrong and then making the case for returning labor to its former and power.
The professor's latest campaign is to educate us all as to the value of "Worker's Self-Directed Enterprises" (WSDE) and why this business model is not just simply an alternative to traditional top-down authoritarian capitalist enterprises, but its replacement.
Convincing Americans who have been instructed early on that socialism is a nasty word and -- worse -- even un-American, this could be a tall order even for someone who is a Professor of Economics Emeritus, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, a recipient of a BA magna cum laude in history from Harvard and an MA in economics at Stanford.
But, I listen intently and skeptically to his take on this trainwreck of an economy and came away with a sober realization that U.S.-style capitalism does not intend to deliver us the house with the picket fence or an upward mobility path. Based on our experience of these last few years, the 1 percent is more likely to set up the game so that you and I of the 99 percent will lose the house and the job.
So, if it doesn't pay to work for "The Man," what hope do we have? As described by Professor Wolff, the subject and promise of WSDE is beyond compelling. With any luck, it may one day soon be taught in business school.
The working premise of the WSDE is that it can, and should, be owned by the workers and can, and should, be run democratically. Everyone -- the workers on the line, sales agents, those who clean the bathrooms or work on the loading dock -- collectively run the operation. They determine what to do, what to build, how to follow, how to lead, each other's responsibility, and what to do with profits generated.
If it is that good, what's the "stopper?" It's too democratic. For a country that prides itself on exporting this grand ideal, it can scarcely be found in the workplace. True to the model of "Makers and Takers" into which we have been born and raised, we are told what to do, when to show up, how we are to be paid, and what is done with the profits. (Don't count on trickle-down.)
"Fundamentally, anti-democratic," Wolff points out.
Perhaps undemocratic and essentially one-sided, but it's hard to imagine either GE or Citibank being run by its employees. Is it even possible for a WSDE to compete with cash-rich and savvy MBAs?
Decidedly so, Wolff responds, providing two financially successful examples of the workplace being a social activity governed by the norms of community, one in Spain and one in California.
Wolff offers as his first example, the Mondragon Cooperative in the North of Spain.
This co-op took its name from the Mondragan University founded by a local Catholic priest by the name of "Father Arizmendi" as a mechanism to enable the poor in that community to learn how to cooperatively run their own business.
Beginning with six workers producing agrarian goods, some 55 years later it now employs 120,000 people employed in some 100 worker-owned enterprises and affiliated organizations. It is the 10th largest cooperative in Spain and a bulwark against that country's steep (elsewhere) unemployment rate of 22 percent.
"This is a 'a family of cooperatives' in which the first commitment is to preserve jobs -- not satisfy stockholders." Wolff points out.
That same philosophy infuses the Arizmendi Bakery comprising five "sister cooperatives" in the San Francisco Bay Area. Proudly assuming the name of the famous Basque Priest, this group gets rave reviews for its pastries and thin-crust pizza and handily outperforms its more traditional bakery competitors in both revenue and employee satisfaction.
As their website proudly states, "We are a cooperative -- a worker-owned and operated business. We make decisions democratically, sharing all of the tasks, responsibilities, benefits and risks."
Why haven't we heard more about these enterprises, this model? Hmm, methinks that mainstream media has once again allowed something very, very important to go unreported.
That will not continue to be the case, if Professor Wolff has his say. And, if you learn to shed preconceptions and conditioning.
A good start will be to learn more about Dr. Wolff and worker co-ops by visiting his website www.rdwolff.com and about the new workplace at www.democracyatwork.info.