Mark Bergfeld

Home » Economics » Book Review – Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism

Book Review – Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism

March 2013

First published in Socialist Review 

Richard Wolff – Democracy  at Work; A Cure for Capitalism (Haymarket books)

As the barbarism of the Troika continues to hit Greece, the Vio.Me factory in Thessaloniki has begun production under workers’ control. Against all the odds 40 workers have restarted the machines. Production costs are high and access to credit doesn’t come easily. Yet workers are researching hot to produce ecological cleaning products which they plan to distribute through solidarity networks in a country of struggle.

In the wake of the Argentinian debt crisis of 2001 Naomi Klein documented similar attempts to reopen abandoned factories as worker cooperatives. Wolff’s latest book seeks to outline how these awkwardly-labelled WSDEs (workers’ self-directed enterprises) could act as “transitional demands” for trade unionists and Occupy activists alike. By doing so, he attempts to answer the question that millions of people are raising across the globe: what is the alternative to capitalism?

The working class is central to his solution. Only democratic control of the workplace can be an alternative to the state capitalism of the former USSR and today’s neoliberal world. Yet, sadly, he resorts to the mantras of “efficiency” and “competition”. Simply arguing for a new “board of directors” doesn’t grapple with the fact that worker-run factories such as Vio. Me are the product of intense class struggle. And, of course, the point of workers’ control is not only that it is more democratic, but also that it transforms the workers themselves – to make them in Marx’s words “fit to rule”.

In recent years we have seen glimpses of this power in Tahrir Square and in the struggles of the Indignados. Inasmuch as the overthrow of Mubarak opened up the possibility of establishing independent trade unions, the creation of democratically-run workplaces will open up the possibility for the reorganisation of society and, crucially, a full assault on the capitalist state.

There are problems with Wolff’s analysis of the capitalist state. He doesn’t take into account the balance of forces. The Argentinian state made workers jump through millions of legal loop holes before they could declare themselves workers’ cooperatives. Even after they were established they were cut out of the capitalist cycle of production and circulation. In the light of failed workplace occupations of steel factories, television stations and newspapers in Greece, it is unlikely that Wolff’s proposed network of worker-run enterprises could exist inside of a capitalist Greece. Nevertheless socialists should raise the demand for nationalisation of failing industries under workers’ control.

This book is a valuable contribution to the discussion of workers’ democracy. Despite its theoretical shortcomings and lack of historic examples it inspires activists to think beyond the anarchy of the market, the dictatorship of the shop floor and electoral democracy. For a more holistic account Wolff’s book should be read alongside Dario Azzelini’s Ours to Master and to Own and Dave Sherry’s Occupy.


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