Friday, 29 November 2013

Public Common Ownership or Cooperative Collective Ownership?

Consider the basic definition of socialism and/or communism - common ownership of the means of production. What does it mean? What are the practical steps towards achieving this? What are the best forms of common ownership and are there alternatives worth considering? This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately and thought I'd do a blog post on the topic so here we go.

It's obvious to me that we could do with an alternative to the normal methods of private ownership. Private ownership is entirely run for profit, and in almost all cases the majority of the profit goes into the hands of the directors and shareholders rather than the ordinary workers who actually make the private companies their money. Of course the idea is supposed to be that people will not pay for services unless they are useful and good value for money, and any business that does not fulfil those 2 requirements will go out of business. Once upon a time this may have been the case, but no more. As time has gone on private companies have done as much as they can to spend as little as possible and done as much as possible to earn as much money as possible. In the name of competition, as time has gone on there have been less and less companies and more and more monopolies, where there are many industries controlled almost entirely a small handful of massive companies. This has lead to worse rights and pay for workers because when a multi-national company kills off small businesses and then builds a warehouse in your home town employing a thousand people, what alternative do people have for work other than work for other similar companies? It has also resulted in companies doing what's bad for the environment because that is usually the cheapest option. At the extreme end of private ownership just look at the American healthcare system. Instead of their healthcare system being run to help improve people's health and to heal the sick and injured, it is run entirely for profit. This has lead to thousands of people dying from not being able to afford the healthcare they need. Big private companies don't care about you, they don't care about the environment, they don't care about people in the third world who they are keeping in poverty, they only care about profit.

Common ownership is where everyone owns and has some form of democratic control over something. In practice this means public ownership, although under different systems it could be run differently. Collective ownership is similar but instead of you owning something by default, you opt in to owning it. One of the main forms of collective ownership, and the main one I support is cooperatives. In society today most business is exactly that, business and solely for profit, and for the profits of the big bosses, managers, directors and shareholders. Business structured either under public ownership or cooperative ownership are run for the interests of either the public or the members of the cooperative and therefore seek the interests of the many and not the few. But why do we need both?

Firstly take a look at public ownership. At the moment everything in public ownership is run by either the national government or by local councils or regional/national parliaments or assemblies. These are all themselves run by politicians from political parties elected by the general public. The current democratic system is deeply unfair where politicians are not directly accountable to the people who elected them and the party system is undemocratic with it being run by the parties who have lots of money and can win under first past the post. In an ideal situation this wouldn't be the case and we can change this. I believe in my lifetime we will at least see a change from first past the post to some form of proportional representation and I also believe there will be better legislation to make politicians a little more accountable to the people who elected them. In the mean time we can scare politicians into giving us a little of what we want by threatening to vote for other candidates at the next election, or better yet electing better politicians who will give the people what they voted for. In my ideal situation at least local councils would be run under pure democracy as opposed to the current elected representative democracy so that all citizens living in the council boundaries get the chance to be involved in decision making. It's this decision making which is key to the whole thing. With everyone being able to have some say in the decision making we can get down to services and society as a whole being run for the interests of the people. Take the NHS for example, the aim isn't to make a profit, the aim of the NHS is to treat unwell, sick and injured people. The aim of the fire brigade isn't to make a profit, it is to put out fires and potentially save people's lives and limit any damage caused by any fires. These are actually services which are of use to people and are run to be of use to people.

Now cooperatives. There are many different types of cooperatives; housing coops, workers coops, consumer coops, credit unions/cooperative banks, etc. Like publicly owned services, coops are run democratically and for the interests of their members. Some cooperatives are for profit, but instead of the profit mostly going into the hands of a small number of people it gets shared equally between members unless the members agree otherwise. There are certainly some grey areas for me when it comes to cooperatives, largely being that I am not sure if in my ideal society having workers cooperatives provide services that the service users do not have any democratic control whatsoever. On the other hand, should service users have the same control over the services as the workers? Let's use shops as an example to demonstrate this. Should we support shops being run as a workers coop or as consumer coop like the Co-operative Group is. The Co-operative Group is run by it's members (under a elected representative system) which can include it's workers, but the majority of it's members are it's customers. I am a member of the Co-operative Group and I shop at the Co-op probably about once a fortnight yet I have as much right to stand for election to the bodies which influence decision making as people working full time at the Co-op or people who shop there every single day. We can talk about cooperatives fitting into a market based economy or a society without money or a market as we understand it but that's another discussion for another time, let's assume for now that coops can fit into both scenarios .

How do they both fit in together? It's clear to me that there are some industries that people shouldn't have choice but are currently privatised and therefore people are given choice. Take gas and electricity for example. It doesn't matter who supplies your gas and electricity, at the day of the day you get the same product and use it the same way. Getting gas from a different company doesn't change how you use the gas, just how much you pay for the gas. Yet, the amount of money and resources wasted on advertising and competing between other companies for your custom is ridiculous and that is a cost that could be saved for the consumer. The same can be said for public transport, nationalise it and you save a lot of running costs and still supply the same service and people don't need to choose between 2 different services to get a bus or train from the same A to the same B. I believe that services where it doesn't matter who supplies the service should be publicly owned. You shouldn't have the choice of several different fire brigade companies, or different libraries on the same high street. However, there are some things I think you should have choice in. Take bread for example. People have different tastes in bread and different companies supply different types and flavours of bread. Same goes for all food, drink, clothes, entertainment, restaurants, pubs, clubs, hairdressers, etc. Those services should be run as cooperatives, with membership open to either just the workers or perhaps the workers and the service users. Having those services run by either the local council or the national government would take away people's freedom to choose from their own preferences. This way you get a society run for the people and by the people (or the 99% if you prefer) rather than just for the profit of the few.

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