Ownership, or more accurately dispossession, is the first and central cause of class division and conflict. Our economies have not only produced advanced systems for the distribution of material and social goods – food, housing, energy, transport, care etc. – but also reproduced and reinforced systems of dominance and control. Throughout history all manner of elites, from Emperors, to churches, monarchs, states and castes, have wrested control of vital social industries, land and resources and in doing so perpetuated relationships of subordination and dependence to themselves. Accordingly, the socialist movement has and continues to maintain that the transference of all vital industries – the “means of production” – out of private hands and into common ownership is its ultimate and historic goal. The means and methods have differed of course. But whether through workers’ councils, union federations, communes or nationalised industries, common ownership has always been at the horizon of socialist struggle.
Yet from the standpoint of the day-to-day issues that concern trade union organisers questions of ownership seem like “pie in the sky” thinking. A little too abstract and theoretical when compared to more immediate issues, such as wages, pensions and working hours, that tend to get workers mobilised and animate campaigns. But is it possible to organise around the issue of ownership in a more concrete and practical way? In a way that possibly speaks to the same important and pressing “bread and butter” issues but also paves the way to more radical and transformative activity?
Worker-run cooperatives and trade union buyouts offer some practical examples. The Meidner Plan represents another attempt to integrate the socialisation of industry into the traditional bargaining position of trade unions. These also provoke possible criticisms as well. Do worker-run cooperatives, for example, really offer a different economic model or just a better means for organising our own exploitation? Are such proposals realistic and practical? Especially when considering the huge complexities of the modern economy and its deep reliance on global systems of communication, financing and trade. Can ownership be used as an intermediary demand or does it demand greater and more fundamental political and social transformations first? These are the questions that we will be discussing and attempting to answer in this month’s episode of Talking Shop.
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