From the book: The Eye of the Needle by Richard Turner

A Christian society is one in which we prefer people to things, a society based on freely expressed love. Our problem is to work out what kind of institutions, social, political and economic, would be needed for such a society. In answering this question it is obviously going to be necessary to theorize, for such institutions do not as yet exist. But it will also be useful to look at those societies that have tried non-capitalist ways of life, even if all we learn from them is what not to do. We can thereby discover some of the problems specific to post-capitalist societies and give the theorizing at least so practical reference points. In building an ideal possible society, let us start from individuals and their needs for freedom and love, as postulated by the Christian model. In terms of this ideal human model, I need to be free from hidden conditioning processes. I need to be free to be open to other people. I need to be free from external social coercion. I need meaningful and creative work, work that is an expression of my own autonomous being and not something I do unwillingly and without understanding what my particular job is for. The social system required for the satisfaction of human needs must be one that (1) enables individuals to have maximum control over their social and material environment, and (2) encourages them to interact creatively with other people. These two ideas are combined in the idea of participatory democracy.

The essential problem is this: How can we design a set of institutions that will give all individuals power over their own lives without permitting them to exercise power over other people? How can we design political institutions that will give people the maximum freedom to choose what to do with their own lives?

In what circumstances do people come to exercise power over other people? In any contemporary society the most vital area of people's lives-the place, in which they spend the largest part of their waking hours, uses up their energy and around which they organize the rest of their life-is the work place. What are the power relationships at the work place? Our society is one of private ownership of the means of production. To own something is to have power over it. Because the owners of the factory have power over the factory and over its product, they can control the people who are dependent on these things-the workers. As a worker, I have no power over what I produce, where I produce, how I produce, or why I produce. The only power I have (assuming I am not an African in South Africa) is the power to remove myself from the control of one owner and to place myself in the control of another owner. The owner has power over me, power which may be delegated to a board of directors, a manager, executives, and foremen, thus creating a whole hierarchy of power, with me at the bottom, powerless on my own. An economic system is a system of power relationships. And power within the economy gives, as we shall see, power in other spheres of society as well. The first essential for democracy is that the workers should have power at their place of work, that is, that the enterprise should be controlled by those who working in it.

The trade union is a first step in the direction of power for the workers. Through organizational solidarity they are able to begin to assert some control over wages and over working conditions. But by the very nature of the case the trade union places merely a negative check on management, which retains day-to-day control. Furthermore, control over the product-that is, essentially over the profits-remains in the hands of the owner. As worker I can, with the aid of the trade union, make my work situation more comfortable, but I cannot make it more meaningful. This is manifest in the whole issue of restrictive practices. My job remains a means to satisfy personal ends external to it. My interest lies purely in more pay and shorter hours. I have no intrinsic interest in the job, because it is not something in which I can exercise my human autonomy.

Only full workers' control can permit this. How do workers run an enterprise? Do they have the skills necessary to do so? How are decisions to be made? An enterprise in a capitalist system contains two inter­twined hierarchies: a hierarchy of control, and a hierarchy of technical knowledge. The boss has to have a means of ensuring (1) that the workers are actually working (this involves a hierarchy of control) and (2) that what they are doing is what is required for the efficient running of the factory (this involves a hierarchy of technical knowledge). The hierarchy of control is only necessary because of the basic conflict of interest between workers and employers. But the hierarchy of technical knowledge, and hence, to a certain extent, also of decision-making, will be necessary in any sort of enterprise. How can workers' control handle this problem? Not all decisions can be taken by the mass of workers together. And if all the workers are to be allowed to make their own decisions chaos will result. To solve these problems, the following institutions will be necessary:

There would be regular meetings of all workers where together they can discuss and fix certain basic priorities: wages and wage scales, hours and times of work, and what to do with profits. It would be necessary to decide whether profits should be reinvested, distributed, or spent for purposes of collective consumption, l either by improving conditions within the enterprise beyond the level dictated by sheer profitability, or by other local improvements not directly connected with the enterprise,

There would be an elected workers' council, whose members would continue as full-time workers during their terms of office. The council would have final responsibility for the regulations governing labor relations in the factory, for hiring and firing, for the annual balance-sheet, and for the distribution of surplus, It would prepare the annual plans and appoint and supervise the director and the other executives. The director would look after the day-to-day running of the enterprise. He or she would be accountable to the workers and might ultimately be dismissed by them.

At the other end of the scale from the director, the enterprise could be broken up into smaller units, each having a degree of autonomy over the organization of the work it is required to do in the context of the enterprise as a whole.

To prevent a new bureaucratic hierarchy from aris­ing, the elected posts should not be renewable indefinitely. This would mean that there would always be both new and experienced members on the Workers' Council and management committees, and informal power to cliques could not easily develop.

Such a system (1) ensures the maintenance of the necessary hierarchy of knowledge through the appointed director and staff, that is, it ensures that people actually know how to do the jobs they are appointed to do; (2) ensures that the workers retain ultimate control through the workers' council and general meetings; and (3) ensures that as many people as possible participate actively through the rotation of office based on popular vote.

In capitalist society there is little relation between effort and reward, or between social contribution and reward. Reward is usually based either on property ownership or on educational level, which is in turn to a very great extent a function of social and economic privilege. But the problem is that in any society with a complex division of labor it is very difficult to estimate exactly how much each individual contributes to the final product. If I work twice as long as you at the same job, then I contribute twice as much. But what if I have special skills acquired through education, if I am an engineer and you are a factory hand? On the one hand my work probably contributes more than yours to the social product. But on the other hand, my work is perhaps intrinsically more satisfying than yours, the skills I have acquired were themselves the product of a whole common cultural history, and my education was paid for by the community. Taking all these factors into account, it is impossible to lay down hard and fast rules, or simply to let market forces, which take no account of social cost, set wages. The workers themselves must decide, through discussions in the concrete situation, who deserves what and why. The major objection always rose to such a system, obviously by employers and other members of the middle-classes, but also sometimes by workers themselves are: "But the workers don't have the competence to choose intelligently. They will choose the nicest guy, not the most qualified person. They will always vote for higher wages and for distributing rather than investing the profit, thus running down and finally ruining the business." This argument seems prima facie silly. After all, the idea that it is in the workers' interest, and in theirs alone under such a system, for an enterprise to stay in existence and to run efficiently, isn't really very difficult to grasp. And at elections they are not choosing between two impersonal candidates talking about abstractions on television, where perhaps all they have to go on is which one smiles more convincingly. They are choosing between individuals with whom they work day in and day out, and whose worth and reliability are made clear to them in many different situations. The issues being dealt with are ones with which they are thoroughly familiar and which affect them immediate and obviously and personally.

From where, then, comes the argument that workers are incompetent and couldn't possibly understand operate such a system? It comes from "common sense thinking" and the "human nature" argument. In capitalist society the workers are not interested in the enterprise itself; why should they be, since it does not belong to them? They have neither opportunity nor stimulus to see it as a whole and to understand how what each individual does is related to the rest. The situation is one in which they are told to do, give little opportunity for the exercise of their initiative or intelligence, and so do not develop initiative or intelligence. One writer compares the situation of the situation of the worker with the situation of the child: The main thrust of the autocratic organization is to drive the mature adult back into childhood. The mature individual strives to take an active part in his world, but the chain of command renders him passive. He seeks to be independent and to control his own behavior, but as an employee he is rendered dependent and essentially lacking in control over his own behavior. The mature individual strives for the long time perspective, but as he does not possess or have access to necessary information at work which would permit this, his time, perspective is consequently shortened. He seeks to achievers relationships based on equality, but as a subordinate, he becomes just that, once again as in childhood (Paul Blumberg, Industrial Democracy [New York: Schocken, 1969], p. 131).

The enterprise is not only a work place; it is also a socialization process. Once the workers have been through this process, it is scarcely surprising that they do not appear to have the competence to run an enterprise. What the capitalist system has made the workers into is then produced as evidence for the impossibility of any other social system.

But in fact it is one of the strongest arguments for the absolute necessity of an alternative social system. For, as we have seen, it is only if the workers participate in the control of the central part of their lives-their work-that they can develop the personal qualities of autonomy, initiative, and self-confidence necessary for our human model. Workers' control is not only a means whereby I can control a specific area of my life. It is an educational process in which I can learn better to control all areas of my life and can develop both psychological and interpersonal skills in a situation of cooperation with my fellows in a common task. There is ample sociological evidence that participation in decision-making, whether in the family, in the school, in voluntary organizations, or at work, increases the ability to participate and increases that sense of competence on the part of the individual that is vital for balanced and autonomous development. Participation through workers' control thereby lays the basis for love as a constant rather than as a fleeting relationship between people and is thus the basis for Christian community in the work situation.

There are experiments in workers' control in a number of countries. In each country, of course, workers' control within enterprises has to be seen within the overall social context. Various factors can complicate the operation of workers' control: the level of economic development, the political system, the type of enterprise in which workers' control occurs, and the mode of introduction of workers' control. In the following brief survey I can do no more than indicate which of these factors is relevant. I shall make no attempt at complete evaluation. These are examples from whose problems we can learn, rather than models we should imitate.

In most advanced capitalist countries there are small numbers of firms run by workers either as the result of a decision by the original owner or because they were started by a group of workers with egalitarian intentions. Units such as these, where members are self-selected and hence highly motivated and of a relatively high standard of education, are probably the most im­mediately successful. The kibbutzim of Israel, communally owned and run farms, are in a similar position, often with the added advantage of a strong religious and nationalistic cement.

In some countries particular social sections are worker-controlled. In the Soviet Union one form of collective farm, the kolkhoz, is supposed to be run by the workers through general meetings and an elected management board. Although there is more real worker autonomy in the kolkhoz than in the sovkhoz, or state farm, with its state-appointed director, nevertheless the presence of a bureaucratic and highly centralized Communist Party means that even the kolkhoz is not really an example of workers' control.

In Tanzania, the Ujamaa village schemes are the most impressive African examples of workers' control. Julius Nyerere outlines the organizational principles as follows:

A really socialist village would elect its own officials and they would remain equal members with the others, subject always to the wishes of the people. Only in relation to work discipline would there be a hierarchy, and then such officials would merely be acting for the village as a whole.

Let us take an example. It would be a meeting of the villagers which would elect the officers and the committee, and a meeting of the village would decide whether or not to accept or to amend any detailed proposals for work organization which the committee had drawn up in the light of general directions given by earlier meetings. Let us assume that a forty-member village meeting agrees to a cotton farm of 40 acres and a food farm of 40 acres. It would be the committee's job to propose where in the land available these different crops should be planted, and to propose the times and the organization of joint work on the land. At the same time the committee would have to make proposals for the other work which had been decided upon-perhaps the digging of a trench for a future piped water supply, or the making of a new road, or the improvement of village drainage. These detailed proposals they would bring to the next village meeting, and once they had been accepted it would be a job of the officers to ensure that all members carried out the decisions, and to report to a general meeting any problems as they occurred. As the village became more established and the need for a village carpenter, or a village nursery, or a village shop became more pressing, the committee would work out proposals as to how these could be organized, and run by a member for the common benefit. The village officials would also be responsible for liaising with other villages and with the general machinery of government (Freedom and Socialism [Dar es Salaam: Oxford University Press, 1968], pp. 353-54). In the Ujamaavillages the organizational problems seem to be very simple ones. But there is one very difficult problem that the Ujamaa villages are designed to cope with and seem to be coping with at least more successfully than other institutions. This is the problem of introducing new agricultural techniques, whether they are organizational or technological, to a naturally conservative peasantry. The government can neither simply give these techniques nor command that they should be adopted. It is only if these techniques relate to a felt need of the peas­ants, and can be shown to them to be relevant to that need, that they will be adopted. And only if they feel that they have themselves really participated in the decision will the peasants maintain the machinery or keep up the organisation. The participatory structure of the Ujamaa village is ideally suited to this. The system is in its early stages yet. Moreover, by its very nature it cannot make for rapid economic development. But it does seem to be laying the foundations for all-around social and political development by drawing the peasants into a change process without disrupting their lives or their value-systems and self-concepts and by giving them the skills of organization and initiative that are vital to personal autonomy. Thereby it is also laying the foundation for long-term solid economic development,

In Eastern Europe the idea of workers' control is deeply embedded in the Marxist ideology, although obscured by Communist Party practice. However, it tends to emerge in moments of crisis, as in Poland in 1956, and again at the end of 1970, with the fall of Gomulka as a result of workers' protests. In Czechoslovakia workers control was one of the most important developments it the later reforms of 1968, and in some industries it even continued to spread for a while after the Soviet invasion. Workers' management of a kind also operates it China. My information on the actual working of the system is inadequate, but the principles of the organizational structure are clear. Prior to the Cultural Revolution, there were two forms of management. In the major industries a committee elected by all Communist Party members in the factory, rather than by all the workers played the leading managing role. This committee was supposed to represent the Party, rather than the workers. But it was supposed to work in consultation either with workers' representatives, or with mass meetings of workers. It had control over day-to-day running, but no financial autonomy. This is certainly not an example of workers' control. However, in the countryside there was a different organizational structure, which seems to have been maintained since the Cultural Revolution. Each "commune" averages about eight thousand people and includes a variety of agricultural activities as well as some light industry. It is run by a committee nominated by a meeting of representatives of all the inhabitants of the commune. This committee both runs the business affairs of the commune and is the organ of local government. The commune has a considerable degree of financial autonomy, in respect of distributing or reinvesting income. It is subdivided into brigades and teams, with the team, which might vary from ten to sixty families, as the basic work and accounting unit. The team enters into production contracts with the higher organizational levels, and the team among its members, usually on the basis of work-points, distributes the profits. Alongside this organizational differentiation, there are also different types of property ownership: personal property in the house and garden; team property in certain farming materials; brigade property in agricultural land, draught animals, and farm buildings; commune property in workshops, heavy machinery, transport, and marketing co-operatives; and finally state property in enterprises created with state aid.

This is a fairly flexible system, with a number of different levels of social integration and of participation. To what extent the existence of the strong Communist Party offsets these decentralizing tendencies is not clear. However, one of the main objectives of the Cul­tural Revolution was to decentralize control by destroying the bureaucracies of the Communist Party and of the state, and to replace them with much greater workers' participation, both in industry and in the communes. Most observers seem to agree that this has in fact occurred, though they disagree on the extent. Most observers also seem to agree that the system is working fairly successfully in economic terms. But, as I have already pointed out, there have been no detailed studies of its workings.

In Peru, the present military government has insti­tuted workers' control in some of the large plantations, confiscated in recent land reforms. There have been serious political problems, connected, on the one hand, with the fact that there is conflict between the military government and the trade unions in these areas, and, or the other hand, with the fact that it is only the hitherto most productive sector that is worker-controlled, an there is an almost total absence of a party or an ideology that could integrate this sector of sector with rest in a common development project.

Yugoslavia is the only country in which workers' control (1) is applied in all sectors of society, (2) has been in existence for a considerable period of time, now about twenty years, and (3) has been fairly closely studied by sociologists, and therefore can give us some reliable conclusions as to how it works in practice.

Let us look at the possible complicating factors. First, the existence of a strong party, the Communist League, may limit the reality of participation. The League certainly does not play the same centralizing role as does the Communist Party of the Soviet Union There are nevertheless limitations on political freedom that must affect the democratic working of the system. Second, although the system has been in existence for twenty years, the actual detailed workings have changed frequently. This could be expected to make the system more difficult to understand, and hence to discourage participation, Studies indicate (a) that of necessity there is a very high degree of participation in elected office, since there are, on one estimate, about one million elective offices and regulations to ensure that there is a rapid turnover in office, and (b) that the level and competence of participation has increased over the years, as would be expected, given the educative effect of participation. Initially, the workers tended to concentrate on "welfare" issues, leaving the more important technical decisions to the management. As the system has develops they have come to spend more time on higher management issues and less time on peripheral issues.

The major dangers in the system are those that beset any organization.

First, one or a few individuals may informally take control of and monopolize the elected positions, since once they are elected they have control over the flow of information, over procedure in meetings, and so on. If the other workers do not really know what is going on they cannot defend themselves adequately. This danger is of course minimized when offices are rotated, but this cannot rule it out entirely. Second, the greater danger is that the managers, who have direct access to all the information and who draw up plans, will be able to impose their wishes and domi­nate the elected members. There is considerable evi­dence of this happening in Yugoslavia.

How can these problems be handled? We must distinguish between two different issues: (1) does a division into decision-makers and non-decision-makers tend to arise?

(2) Is the system such that a group of decision-makers can, consciously or unconsciously, use their special positions to acquire material privileges and so become a new "ruling class"? The second case would obviously be much more serious than the first. However, given the high level of interest in salaries and work conditions displayed by the workers, they probably would not let it happen. At least it seems safe to say that there is nothing in the work situation that would encourage the rise of a new privileged class.

A number of measures are possible to counteract ten­dencies toward oligarchy. First, the organizational and electoral system must be as simple as possible. In Yugoslavia the workers usually present candidates by the trade unions, rather than directly. If the workers wish to present their own candidates they have to go through a complicated and discouraging procedure.

Second, within the enterprise decision-making should be as decentralized as possible. If workers in a very large factory are told to make decisions about the factory as a whole, with no experience of decision-making at intermediate levels, they are unlikely to be abler relate the problems of the whole factory to their own experience, and so are not likely to understand them. The more intermediate levels of decision-making then are, the easier it is for individuals to get a meaningful view of the whole,

Third, there must be adequate information flow and adequate grievance mechanisms. Here the trade union could play a role, first by making sure that all available information is placed before the worker in as digestible a form as possible, and, second, by representing the interest of the individual as against the interest of the group as a whole, which is watched over by the workers' council, Fourth, the process whereby no elective post can be filled for more than two or four years needs to be reinforced. It seems reasonable that the managerial staff should spend a period each year working on the factory floor. This would serve the social role of preventing the growth of class differences and antagonisms and the practical economic role of making sure that the managers do not get out of touch with the level at which their decisions have to be implemented, that they know from experience the practical problems of the factory floor and the level of skill and involvement of the ordinary workers. None of these measures is finally going to eliminate all trace of hierarchy and all trace of skill differences. But this is not at issue. We are trying to decrease hierarchy and dependence and increase autonomy, as much is possible, rather than trying to reach an impossible perfection. We are trying to ensure that those hierarchies that exist do not place barriers between people and do not require patterns of authority and deference,

The usual argument brought against these proposals is that they would be inefficient, that valuable trained manpower would be wasted, that rotation of office pre­vents the best people from staying at the top, and that meetings and elections waste work time. There are two counters to this: First, the argument assumes a particular criterion of efficiency, the one used in capitalist society. It is assumed that the only purpose of an enterprise is to produce goods in such a way as to produce the maximum possible profit for the owner. So something is "efficient" if it helps in this process and "inefficient" if it does not. However, in our Christian model the enterprise is not designed only to produce goods as cheaply as possible. The enterprise is also a part of the life of each worker, and one of its products is an educated and autonomous individual. The criteria for "efficiency" in such a system are obviously going to be in some respects different. Second, even if we concentrate only on "economic" efficiency, the argument has a major weakness. It rests implicitly on the hoary distinction made by capitalist economists between "initiative" and "labor" as factors of production. This almost racist idea assumes that the world is divided up into those who have "initiative" and those who have "labor." But to the extent that this is a true description of reality, it is, as we have seen, a product of capitalist work relationships. Workers' control is likely to release the creative initiative of workers and thereby to increase rather than decrease production.