‘Change the System’ is core demand of climate strikers

By Damien Thomson.

Around 3,000 students gathered outside government buildings in Dublin and towns across the country on Friday (May 24) to demand rapid and radical action on climate change. This is the second international strike co-ordinated by Fridays for Future – a global movement of climate protest. 

Speaking to some of the teen strikers, it’s clear that young people are ahead of the politicians on climate change. I say that not because they possess some extra knowledge (which may also be the case!), but because they acknowledge climate change as a political problem, not a technical one. 

The student demands call for radical state involvement in the economy to deliver a predictable, accountable and fair transition to a ecologically safe society by 2030. Core to their movement is the idea of standing up for their futures and how securing a safe future for young people is the government’s responsibility.

The immediacy of the effects of climate change, in that the picture is so grim for the lifespan of today’s young people, is clearly the greatest motivation with mobilising young people to take direct action. 

Fourteen-year-old Grainne O’Sullivan from Bray (pictured above) told me: “Politicians aren’t doing anything about this. It’s our future that they are taking away from us and that’s not fair. We are going to have to live with this and they are stealing our future.” While telling me about the demands of the Fridays for Future Movement, Grainne lamented that “one hundred corporations in the world are responsible for 71 per cent of our emissions, and it shouldn’t be that way, we should be using renewable energy”.

Beth Doherty (15) from Balbriggan told me how climate breakdown comes down to “the way our society is structured. It makes it impossible to live sustainably, and we are calling for the government to put legislation in place that changes those structures.”

We are not reaching our climate targets, Beth says, because “our government does not see this as a priority.” Noting trends to individualise climate action, Beth added: “If you are passionate about changing your individual lifestyle choices, then you should definitely consider getting involved in political action and getting involved in demanding systemic change too.” 

Eighteen-year-old Dan Drum (pictured above) spoke of how “we have already achieved a small goal of getting the government to declare a climate emergency”, but we want “our economy and ecology to work in sync”. We need to have “climate change-responsible production” and “a climate change-responsible economy”. Dan says that “once economy and ecology come in sync, huge change can be made”.

Meadhbh Bolger from Friends of the Earth Europe, who was also at the strike, notes how young people are mobilised because “leaders are not doing near enough”. 

“We can’t have an economy or any sort of working society without a healthy planet, without using resources in a sustainable way… everything is interlinked and connected, we need to change all sectors of our society and economy. It’s not just about climate change, its about changing the system of how we produce, consume, and operate as a society collectively.” 

The demands of the young people are reasonable, not radical, if we maintain the basic aim of securing a safe future. The Irish government, and government leaders across the globe, have been abdicating on climate change, pushing it into the market for the so-called invisible hand to solve. Young people, however, do not buy this approach. They want predictability. They want assurance. They want their state to do everything within its powers to stop global warming now. 

Is that too much to ask? 

Student climate strikers’ demands

Below are the demands of the Friday’s for Future movement, and the next global climate strike is planned for September 20 this year. 

  1. The Government ensures all fossil fuels are left in the ground and should not allow any new fossil fuel infrastructure to be built and that Ireland uses 100% renewable electricity by 2030.
  2. The Government declares a climate emergency, communicates the severity of the ecological crisis to the general public and reforms the primary and post-primary educations systems to address the need for ecological literacy. The government must prioritise the protection of life on Earth, taking active steps to achieve climate justice.
  3. The Government makes transitioning to a CO2-neutral Ireland socially fair. We demand of the government that it takes its responsibility seriously and avoids having regular citizens carry all the burden towards transitioning to a sustainable society.
  4. The Government implements all the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change. As this is a climate emergency, we demand that the recommendations be implemented immediately.
  5. The Government creates and enforces stronger regulations on corporations that are causing the climate crisis and ensure a transformation to reduce emissions from agriculture in Ireland.
  6. The Government implements a Green New Deal and ensures that after leaving school, all young people in Ireland can have livelihoods that don’t damage the Earth.

All photos by Damien Thomson. Damien Thomson is a contributing editor of Irish Broad Left. Follow him on Twitter @dmacthomais.

Moreno regime in Ecuador escalates persecution of its opponents

By Denis Rogyatuk.

The arrest, sentencing and the plans for the extradition of Julian Assange from the United Kingdom to the United States continue to prompt waves of condemnation from all around the world, along with disgust at the Ecuadorian government of Lenin Moreno (pictured) and his increasing subordination to the US.

This was the first time in living memory that a government allowed a foreign law enforcement agency to enter its sovereign territory, the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and take into their custody a publisher whose status as a refugee has been recognised by the United Nations, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Amnesty International and other international organisations.

As confirmed by a number of investigative articles and publications, this act of political cynicism was motivated by the acquisition of $4.2 billion in IMF loans, as well as the revelations published by Wikileaks of secret offshore bank accounts in Panama operated by Moreno’s family members, known widely as the INA Papers scandal.

Repression intensifies against political foes

Yet this is only a part of a larger campaign of repression against free speech and persecution of political opponents that the Moreno government has been actively conducting in the past couple of years.

Ola Bini, the Swedish software developer, internet activist and a longtime advocate for internet privacy, was arrested and held in detention for almost 30 hours without a hearing on April 11 in Quito, Ecuador, for his alleged collaboration with Julian Assange and the attempts at illegal computer hacking. Once the hearing commenced, no official charges against Bini were presented, with the legal authorities instead asking for 90-day pre-trial detention.

Along with the absurd allegations that he collaborated together with yet-to-be-named “Russian hackers” inside the country, the only pieces of evidence presented against Bini has been his personal friendship with Assange, his visits to the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and his support for Wikileaks’ exposure of war crimes and government corruption around the world.

The provincial court of Pichincha’s decision of May 2 to deny him an appeal and return him to El Inca Detention Centre was allegedly based on Bini’s possession of a number o books on privacy rights and hacktivism, as well the apparent fear that he would flee the country.

Bini himself, his parents, his legal team and a number of prominent political figures around the world consider him to be a political prisoner of the Moreno government – his persecution being politically motivated in order to further criminalise Julian Assange and silence any evidence of Moreno’s corrupt personal dealings.

In a letter published on May 6, Bini talks about his experience of living in the system of Ecuadorian penitentiary detention, describing it as a “maddening mixture of long stretches of isolation and boredom interspersed with random threats and acts of violence”. Yet despite his ordeal, he does not feel any grudge towards Ecuador or its people, insisting instead that he “has his life here and, if he was allowed to, he would continue to live it” there.


Moreno’s disregard for human rights and the freedom of speech and press have been further highlighted by the continuous campaign of censorship of radio stations, news portals and websites publishing information critical of the Moreno government, as well evidence of the INA Papers and the links between Moreno himself and the illegal funding received from the Chinese construction company, Sinodyro, and other sources.

Up to this point, Ecuadorenmediato, Ruta Kritica online journal, Radio Pichincha Universal, and Hechos Ecuador website have been either censored, experienced a large number of online attacks, had their broadcasting signal cut or have been forced off-air by the Ministry of Communications or the Moreno government’s supporters.

Furthermore, a number of journalists and communication experts appointed during former President Rafael Correa’s government – including Fernando Alvarado, Marco Antonio Bravo, Carlos Bravo, Patricio Pacheco, Carlos Ochoa and Richard Macias – have also suffered persecution and harassment by Moreno’s government.

Targeting leaders of the Citizens’ Revolution

Moreno’s regime is showing no signs of slowing down its continuous persecution of the historic leaders of the Citizens’ Revolution, with the pre-trial arrest warrant being issued by the Ecuador attorney general against Ricardo Patiño, the former minister of defence, economy and foreign relations, on charges of “inciting of violence” based on a speech he gave at an internal meeting of his political party in October 2018 in which he called for “combative resistance” involving “resistance” and the “seizing of public institutions” as the means of opposing the Moreno regime and its increasingly neoliberal policies and repression against dissenting political voices.

Patiño was among the most prominent of leaders in Correa’s government, playing a crucial role in the establishment of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), granting and organising the asylum for Julian Assange, as well as playing a leading role in the Citizens’ Revolution Movement (MRC) of groups and organisations opposing Moreno and his neoliberal turn. Patiño left the country on April 17 and is residing temporarily in Mexico, a country he has a long personal and political relationship with.

Finally, the political and psychological warfare waged against Rafael Correa and former Vice President Jorge Glas appears to be entering new stages of absurdity, as Moreno’s government feels more and more pressure from the fallout of the INA Papers scandal. In an attempt to further invalidate the legitimacy of Correa’s and Glas’s 2013-2017 term in office, Moreno’s government and the attorney general’s office have now begun producing claims and alleged testimonies that the construction company Odebrecht was involved in the illegal financing of the 2013 electoral campaign of Allianza Pais for the presidential and general elections that year.

Two more of Correa’s advisors from his time in office, “Pamela M” and “Laura T” were detained on May 5 after the discovery of emails and communications allegedly showing a transfer of up to $11.6 million from the Brazilian construction giants into the account of Allianza Pais political party during the period of 2013-2014, in a case that has now become known as “Arroz Verde”.

The most apparent evidence to refute these claims has been the complete lack of any previous testimony on the part of Conceição Santos, a key witness in the case against Jorge Glas, regarding any financial transfers to Allianza Pais during this time.

Even the time period of the alleged transfers does not appear to correspond to the electoral campaign period itself, as Correa and Glas were elected in February 2013 with an overwhelming majority of 57.17 per cent of the vote.

In the meantime, the attorney general is yet to take any concrete actions against the actual, existing and well-known corruption cases, such as the INA Papers. This further illustrates the cruel irony of “justice” under neoliberalism – the jailing of activists, journalists and progressive leaders, as the cover for an implementation of the policies of austerity, and a distraction for the corrupt personal dealings of the ruling political elite.

Denis Rogatyuk is a Russian-Australian freelance writer, journalist and researcher. His articles, interviews and analysis have been published in a variety of media sources around the world including JacobinLe Vent Se LéveSputnikGreen Left WeeklyLinks International Journal of Socialist Renewal, Alborada and others. Follow him on Twitter @DenisRogatyuk. This article first appeared on The Grayzone and has been reprinted here with the permission of the author.

Barnyard socialism revisited: Farmers are victims of market manipulation

By Niall Monaghan.

For what toil the sons of Róisín, is it pennies?

In this period of increased focus on the climate breakdown, our primary producers are often perceived as holding back progress. They are commonly viewed as another polluter that must be challenged to change their ways.

But farmers are generally not multinational corporations solely focused on selling us things that we either don’t need or are bad for us. Farmers are workers at the bottom of a supply chain, which produce the most essential things for our survival. They are price-takers not price-makers because they have very little bargaining power.

Like any other body of the Irish workforce, they deserve respect and a fair standard of living based on their labour. Even in places like Tubbercurry, County Sligo, or Glenties, County Donegal, they have not been insulated from the scourges that affect the rest of the modern economy and political thought – neoliberalism and globalisation.

A common misconception has arisen in recent years that farmers are making money hand over fist as they not only profit from their products but also are directly supplemented by EU funding. However, the reality is that these payments are not a supplement but rather a drip-feed fund to keep an industry on its knees from collapse; it is the outworking of a failed system.

Subsidies keeping farming industry from collapse

The reason farmers are supported is not EU generosity but more so that we depend on this system and cheap labour to keep food prices down. In fact, the surplus left between the prices farmers were paid for their products and their costs shrunk by 16.1 per cent in 2018, resulting in a 15 per cent drop in farm incomes.

Here is the chilling reality for the average farmer in the west of Ireland – let’s call him ‘Joe’. Joe is a beef farmer, receiving the industry average EU payment for his region, €9,881. Not unusually, this makes up about 103 per cent of his income.

Put simply, after everyone is paid Joe is making a loss consistently and depends on his EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payment to cover his losses and to be able to survive. This equates to less than half of the living wage in 2019. Those on the right will assume Joe is a bad businessperson and we should not be subsiding his loses. However, since Joe earns the average salary for his sector the problem is not Joe but rather the market, right?

Supermarkets and food giants suppress prices

Let us take a closer look. Joe sells his carcasses to the beef processor who in turns sells them to the supermarket. The retail price of his product can be broken down to 51 per cent for the supermarket, 29 per cent for the processing factory and the remaining 20 per cent for Joe, who does the vast majority of the work.

The two actors above Joe in the food chain are constantly doing their upmost to ensure they pay as little as possible for his product. Supermarkets, for example, do this by below-cost selling. This involves selling Joe’s products below the purchase price. The aim of this practice is to undercut the competition. That competition is usually small, independent retailers that then pressure Joe to lower the price of his products or they will just purchase them from the nearly supermarket.

After this is achieved the objective, or fair price, of the product has been lowered and becomes the new norm, affecting the price Joe is offered in future. This practice is also designed to push competitors completely out of the market so he will have fewer options of who to sell to, thereby weakening his bargaining position further.

While the supermarket is focusing on the sale price, the food processing factory is focusing on the price they buy the product for. The food processing industry in Ireland is highly concentrated: the three biggest factory groups in Ireland had started out by owning single factories and they now control 60 per cent of the kill in Ireland and Britain, as well as further factories in Eastern Europe.

This allows them to act as a cartel and often offer farmers a price below the cost of production. The farmer has a perishable product, which leaves them little scope to negotiate. Traditionally the only weapon available to the farmer is his or her ability to negotiate in times of short supply.

Have the food processing factories been cunning enough to find a solution against this rebalancing of the scales? You can bet your bottom dollar they have. In recent years, they have established their own feedlots, which are grassless industrial factory farms where animals are grain-fed to fatten more quickly and be ready for slaughter.

Feedlots now constitute 18 per cent of the weekly kill in Ireland. These are used strategically by factories to release cows into the market when supply dwindles, thereby out-manoeuvring the farmer. The reason factories do not use these all year round is because the Irish public prefer pasture-reared animals for animal welfare reasons, and rightly so.

Government ignores cartels and market manipulation

Now that we understand how the food chain acts to squeeze the farmers, we would assume government intervention would have put in place measures to combat such exploitation. But this is wishful thinking at best.

The approach of the Irish government and the EU has been to ignore the market manipulators and plaster over the issue by subsidising the beef farmers’ losses. We all need to think long and hard about what this means: instead of putting in place measures to protect farmers from such exploitations, we have taken the approach of watching the farmers make a loss and then sending them money to cover those losses and just about survive.

EU money comes from European taxpayers; therefore the EU is facilitating a system where public EU funds are used to allow supermarkets and processors make a greater profit from paying unsustainably low amounts to farmers. This is effectively taxpayer-funded aid to multinational supermarkets.

Free trade deals will devastate Irish farmers

The European Commission is also negotiating and agreeing free trade deals to facilitate the export of things like German car parts in exchange for the import of cheap beef. The proposed EU-Mercosur free trade agreement is a perfect example of this: the EU will allow 100,000 tonnes of beef, mostly from Brazil, which will cause the price of EU beef on supermarket shelves to plummet.

Those on the neoliberal right are supporting such free trade deals and coming out against a ban on below-cost selling, when they are fully aware that such positions make deep EU intervention in the market essential, in the form of cash subsidies to protect farmers from bankruptcy.

Some have even gone as far as supporting a financial cut to the CAP. This radical position has been taken knowing that without protection, regulation or subsides, European farmers will be something you have to learn about in a museum.

The logic of this position is clear – there is an entire developing world sector just waiting to be exploited, so why waste money keeping in place a system, EU agriculture, with a higher cost base? They are quite happy to have all food imported from places where production is not burdened by animal welfare or environmental laws. For them, not only would food get cheaper but we could remove agricultural emissions and preach to the rest of the world how Europe has moved closer to our climate targets.

How can Irish farmers fight the tide?

As Clann na Talmhan emerged in 1939, farmers themselves must be at the fore of resisting this system and fighting for change. Two organisations have emerged in recent years that are fighting for those farmers on the edge of bankruptcy, the Irish Natura And Hill Farmers Association (INFHA) and, more recently, the Beef Plan Movement.

The Beef Plan Movement have now have amassed 15,000 members and hope to get to 40,000. This would be a big enough portion of the weekly kill, 50 per cent, to have a major impact on production and make a shortage unmanageable for the factories. This would allow them to create a supply crisis if the factories refuse to play ball.

Further to this, they are examining setting up cooperative processing factories to bypass the industry completely and negotiate directly with supermarkets, which would give them a significantly bigger chunk of that per euro percentage.

Whether they are conscious of this or not, these organised farmers have seen the flaws of the system they operate in and came to the same conclusion that we have come to on the left: the market needs regulation to curtail exploitation of the workers and those businesses at the bottom. Not only have they identified the problem but have realised what they can achieve if they band together. Talk of sending empty cattle trailers to the factories, as a message, sounds to me like the kind of direct action Connolly or Larkin could have got behind.

What should the government do?

In terms of legislation, we must as a matter of urgency ban below-cost selling and even look at the feasibility of banning a company offering a farmer below an agreed cost of production, outside of times of great oversupply. Fine Gael, which is committed to non-interference, has flatly rejected these ideas, which begs the question as to why such a high percentage of farmers vote for them?

Farmers cannot continue to vote against their interests if they are to survive. Voting for Fine Gael because they are seen as the traditional party of rural Ireland is like taking up smoking because Benson and Hedges sponsor the local GAA team.

Finally, if we fail and agriculture is fully shifted to the developing world to be exploited, it is not only Joe that will be out of business but the town that depends on him. This was confirmed by a recent study, which stated every €1 of direct support for cattle and sheep farmers underpins over €4 of aggregate output in the rural economy.

The health, housing and homelessness crises should give you an indication of how likely it is that the neoliberal Fine Gael would be wading in to replace that output in the rural economy.

Niall Monaghan is a Sinn Féin policy advisor in the European Parliament, working on the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee.

Talking period poverty with Homeless Period Ireland

Interview with Claire Hunt by Evelyn Flynn.

Evelyn Flynn, a medical student from Dublin, sat down with Homeless Period Ireland’s Claire Hunt to talk period poverty. 

EF: What is Homeless Period about? How did it come about?

CH: In December 2016, the Homeless Period Dublin initiative was born with a view to helping women and girls who found themselves unable access to basic sanitation and female hygiene products every month. In 2017 I took over the general management of the Homeless Period Dublin initiative.

A social media campaign was launched to highlight this issue. Through this campaign it became apparent that this was a national issue. Emanating from this campaign, a decision was made to rebrand the initiative to Homeless Period Ireland (HPI). This rebranding aimed to help create awareness nationally and, more importantly, increase the number of drop-off points (places were the general public donate female sanitary and hygiene products) as well as increase nationally reach the frontline services that have direct access to the women in need.

The aim of Homeless Period Ireland is to donate period products (pads, tampons, liners, wipes) to those who otherwise would go without.  The donations are brought by volunteer drivers to homeless outreach centres, direct provision centres and women’s refuges. The Homeless Period Ireland is an initiative, not a charity, and is 100 per cent reliant on volunteers for distribution and collection of sanitary products.

EF: Period poverty is clearly global, but why is it such a problem in Ireland in particular? 

CH: It’s no secret that Ireland has a severe homelessness problem. This has never been properly addressed by successive governments. It was only a matter of time before the issue of homelessness became a national scandal, which I believe it now has, and people are now starting to talk about it. 

Period poverty is just one aspect of overall poverty, but it is a subject that no-one wanted to talk about until recently. There are also women and children who are spending years in direct provision centres with no access to products. These are just some of the most vulnerable in society and are easily forgotten. What Homeless Period Ireland aims to do is make a small difference in people’s lives who find themselves in difficult situations. It is one less thing to worry about.

EF: What should the government be doing on period poverty? What are your demands? 

CH: It’s rather simple. Free access to sanitary products in all publically owned facilities including schools, universities, prisons, direct provision centres and refuges. We have seen great strides made in Scotland, England and Wales in this regard and our politicians are starting to sit up and take notice.

In fact, a motion was recently passed in the Dáil by a cross -party female caucus on this very subject. We hope that the Minister for Finance makes the appropriate provisions to roll out a scheme where free products are provided in the next budget.

EF: Homeless Period Ireland seeks to mitigate the undignifying results of period poverty, but what are its causes? 

CH: Period poverty stems from poverty itself. However, this is a female-only issue and traditionally the men in our society would not discuss a topic like this. Over time a taboo has surrounded the subject of periods as they are viewed as “icky” or with disgust. However, periods are a women’s health topic and should be treated as such. Until we can change people’s mindsets, the issue of period poverty will never be properly addressed. After all, without periods, there is no human race.

EF: There are many different menstrual products out there, how does your initiative ensure good quality products for everyone? Is there a problem with some cheap brands? 

CH: Homeless Period Ireland is happy to accept products for distribution regardless of the brand and the women who benefit from the public’s generous donations would say likewise. However, we have seen in some instances that certain brands are not fit for purpose and end up being a false economy.

We would advocate that when the Minister of Finance hopefully makes provisions in his budget for the supply of products that good quality products are sourced. Women also have different needs each month with some needing better products to keep themselves properly protected. As the old saying goes, “buy cheap, buy twice”.

EF: Periods are still extremely stigmatised. What’s your vision of world free of period-shaming? What does that look like? 

CH: We need to normalise periods and that starts with education – we need to educate both girls and boys about periods. We also need to see products more available in schools, universities, sports stadiums, etc. Availability and visibility of period products will help to break the stigma. 

EF: Homeless Period Ireland really hits home on the particular challenges of combating period poverty for homeless women in particular. Can you explain a bit more the particular challenges faced by homeless women in relation to period poverty?

CH: Imagine you stepped in a puddle. Your sock is wet, and your shoe is wet. You are far from home, so you have to walk around all day with your wet sock and your wet shoe with the cold seeping into your skin and bones. Your friends may mock you because you were so silly to step in the puddle in the first place so you say nothing. Imagine that happens for up to seven days in a row … and that it will happen again next month. That, sadly, is the reality for a lot of women experiencing period poverty.  

Claire Hunt runs Homeless Period Ireland and Evelyn Flynn is a medical student with an interest in women’s health. Follow Evelyn on Twitter @EvelynCFlynn.

You can follow Homeless Period Ireland on Twitter @HomelessPeriodD and on Instagram @homelessperiodireland.

Economic democracy, trade unions and labour-managed enterprises

By Michael Taft.

“It is the supreme paradox of democracy that every man is a servant of the matters of which he possess the most intimate knowledge, and for which he shows the most expert proficiency; namely, the professional craft to which he devotes his working hours; and he is a master over that on which he knows no more than anybody else, namely, the general interests of the community as a whole.”

Beatrice and Sydney Webb pointed out that where people had intimate knowledge and expert proficiency – the workplace – they were denied the right of participation they were allowed in political society. Democracy is not a 24/7 process. It stops at the beginning of each working day.

There are many arguments for economic democracy: rights-based arguments that claim people should have the same entitlements as they do in political democracy; performance-based arguments showing how greater democracy improves economic and social outcomes; and psycho-social arguments emphasising how it enhances the individual.

All of these arguments are valid but unfortunately they are made ineffectual as they are painted as naïve or impractical, anti-business or anti-entrepreneurial.

But the real complaint is the privileging of labour. This is economic democracy at its most audacious – the idea that people, the producers, have the capacity to run workplaces and economies in a better, more efficient and sustainable way than capital.

The privileging of labour: both the trade union movement (producers coming together to exert more power than they can do individually) and the cooperative movement (where labour hires capital rather than the other way around) are agents of this. But, unfortunately, with so much in common, they do not always act in concert.

Ladder of participation and productivity

The jury is not out. It came in a long time ago. We have what can be called the ladder of participation and productivity. It is the same ladder. Let’s take one example: employee participation, a rather bland term which, however, conceals a more insidious, essential message. Academic studies and government papers, institutes and special commissions: all report that the greater the participation of producers in the decision-making processes of the enterprise, the better the performance.

Participation operates in a continuum, or on different rungs of the ladder, ranging from the minimal right to information, to the right to suggest, to prior consultation, to bargaining, to veto, to co-decision, and finally to unilateral workers’ decisions, or labour-managed enterprises. Each step up these rungs has been shown to improve the performance of the enterprise.

So if the evidence is so overwhelming, why isn’t democracy at enterprise level more widespread? Simply because it undermines so many vested interests – the status of senior executives and management, and the financial interests of shareholders. And more.

Ever since societies started producing surpluses, there has been a hierarchy that dictates what is produced, how it is produced, who produces it, on what terms, and – most importantly – who derives the greatest benefit. This is the source of social and political power.

The trade union and cooperative movement enter the frame at the enterprise level. However, they enter at different rungs on the ladder. Trade unions enter at the most basic level, organising workers, their voice and their potential collective strength.

The cooperative movement enters at the top of the ladder – as contractual owners of the firm. These different stations inevitably create different perspectives and strategies.

Rethinking enterprise and ownership

One perspective might be that workers in a cooperative are both the producers and owners whereas workers in a traditional, capital-privileged enterprise produce but do not own. However, the distance between the two is not so great in practice.

Workers in both types of enterprises want the business they work in to succeed. Obviously, workers in the cooperative want the business to succeed. But so do workers in the traditional firm. Living standards, job security, social benefits and social networks are all vindicated by and through the enterprise. Nobody wants the business they work in to fail.

Indeed, the biggest group within any enterprise that wants the business to succeed is the workers. They outnumber management and shareholders. Shareholders are mostly passive, rentiers by definition, extremely short-term, with no interest in the company beyond dividends and share appreciation. Workers look to the enterprise to provide for their future; for shareholders, the future is short-term and contingent.

Given its centrality to economic democracy and people’s lives, we need to redefine and reconceptualise the enterprise. We need to reframe the very idea of ownership. In this task we will have a lot of help. Academics, lawyers and researchers – even court rulings – have concluded that no one owns a corporation. Instead, it is described as a legal person, a nexus of contracts, a franchise government which is neither public nor private, and an economic commons.

In other words, the enterprise is a social space where a number of interests – workers, management, shareholders, creditors, suppliers and the community – have contractual rights and obligations but no one group owns the business. If shareholders or management have power, it does not derive from the essential activity of the enterprise, but from law. Its power is politically defined.

This may appear as highly theoretical and detached from day-to-day struggles. But it helps us to go to the heart of the problem. We are all too aware of how the odds are stacked against us when are adversaries frame the debate and define the terms.

Labour is a cost and we need to keep our costs down, we need to be flexible, we need to adapt quickly, we need to be competitive, we no longer can afford permanent full-time jobs, etc. etc. Employers, management, entrepreneurs are the wealth creators and who would oppose wealth creation. We lose the debate before we enter it.

Economic democracy as a cultural struggle

Democracy’s enemies license what is acceptable and what is unthinkable in society and the economy; in other words, they determine what is ‘common sense’.

And how do they enforce that license? They rely on us. We adopt what is acceptable and what is unthinkable as if we came up with these ideas on our own. Such is the power of this ‘common sense’ that we end up policing ourselves. Ironically, the debate that we lose before entering is actually framed by us.

Therefore, economic democracy first presents itself as a cultural struggle – a struggle over ideas, over what is desirable and practical. We must refashion common sense, reframe the debate and redefine the key terms. The current construction of the enterprise masquerades as a natural order.

In an alternative construction, the enterprise is a social space. Capital may have rights based on contract but this does not equate to ownership. And employees, in this construction, cease to be a mere vendor of their labour, a downsized party in the hierarchy of the enterprise.

Our pragmatic and ideological arguments for economic democracy may receive a wider audience if, at the same time, we reframe the debate into a new common sense.

State support for cooperatives

At first glance, the cooperative movement appears to have solved this problem since they are both producer and shareholders. However, the cooperative can be extremely circumscribed and vulnerable within markets dominated by capital.

They may be forced to compete with traditional companies that pursue ‘race-to-the-bottom’ labour strategies, engage in below-market selling, externalise their costs (especially in the environmental sphere) and other predatory practices while at the same time face discrimination by the financial system.

This is even more so given the weakness of the cooperative movement in Ireland. We do not have the long-established and deep-rooted ecosystems that sustain cooperatives in the Bologna or Basque regions, in the American plywood industry or in the French construction sector.

The cooperative movement would have a better chance in markets where economic democracy is making advances – where collective bargaining is widespread, where transparency is not the exception but the rule, where precarious practices are suppressed, where there is supportive public banking. The wider democratic agenda is the cooperative movement’s best chance of taking root.

Economic democracy is not just about reframing the enterprise as a social space. It constitutes a long march through the market economy itself. This can be done by changing the relationship between the state and enterprises, or creating new enterprise models.

For instance, Mariana Mazzucato has shown that the state is not only an entrepreneur but actively creates markets through its role as risk-taker and first mover in investment and R&D. However, the state does not act like a market investor who takes a direct stake. This means that the costs and risks of investment in companies are socialised but the profits are privatised.

This should be addressed by taking of equity in companies and markets the state supports. The equity can be leveraged to extend democracy – ensuring collective bargaining, introducing participation programmes and even requiring workers’ representatives on the board – within those companies which benefit from direct and indirect grants. This is similar to a ‘social value’ clause in public procurement contracts, requiring enhanced democracy in firms that seek to win public contracts.

Role of public enterprises

A second form of market intervention is the promotion of public enterprise, especially at the local level. Throughout Europe and North America local public enterprises play an expanded role; it is far more limited here in Ireland.

Public enterprises can be used for a number of purposes. For instance, a rural town in Kentucky found itself a victim of a cartel of petrol stations. It countered by establishing a public petrol station that sold petrol at cost. This broke up the cartel and forced other petrol stations to cut their prices.

Local public enterprises can be used to provide goods and services where private capital is absent or engages in monopolistic practices. It can set benchmarks for prices – as in the Kentucky example – for wages and working conditions, and for democratic practices in the workplace.

Local public enterprises can become laboratories where labour-managed practices can be tested, workers trained in self-management, creating spillover effects that can drive the formations of worker cooperatives and other civil-society led businesses.

Social infiltration of the market space

And it is in the promotion of civil society-led enterprises where labour-managed activities can find traction. We must get out of the mindset that the public is only served by state intervention. The creation of community enterprises, labour-managed enterprises, and innovative hybrid models of small capital, public capital and labour-managed – all these represent opportunities for the social to enter the private and market space.

Economic democracy – whether reframing the enterprise or creating new enterprise relationships – can also help the trade union movement square a perennial circle. The Fabian Society, following up on an earlier survey by the TUC, found that employees want a number of things from the workplace: fair pay, certainty of hours, opportunities for advancement and promotion, chances to learn new skills, better work-life balance, reductions in the gender pay-gap and a say in how their work is organised. All of these point to the enterprise as a social space as referred to earlier.

The Fabian survey also indicated that employees want the trade union to protect them from problems that arise – that is, protect them from employers’ actions – while at the same time they want unions to work with employers. This may seem contradictory but it is not; it merely reflects the actual conditions of capital-privileged enterprises.

The enterprise may be the source of workers’ living standards but it is also a place of insecurity, stress and discrimination. Capital allows the former on its own terms and engages in the latter when it suits it, unless there is a counter-veiling collective force.

This dichotomy – working with and being protected from – can be reconfigured in the social space to labour’s advantage. But this requires us to champion that space for interests other than our own. For instance, it has been shown conclusively that collective bargaining leads to productivity gains. When management refuses workers’ collective rights, they are actually undermining enterprise performance and harming other interests or stakeholders in the firm.

Therefore, rewriting common sense requires unpicking alliances that currently oppose labour, finding the fault-lines that can pry apart those alliances, and to develop new – if ad hoc – links that can advance economic democracy.

Challenging the infantilisation of workers

So where do we start? It is very simple and extremely subversive: to challenge the infantalisation of people whether in the workplace and in civil society. We’ve seen this throughout history (‘you are not capable of reading and properly interpreting religious text’. We experience this today (‘you are not capable of understanding complex economic issues or sophisticated business strategies’).

A number of cultural tools are employed to maintain hierarchies in society and in our heads: the idealisation of the lone ‘entrepreneur’ and the assertion that hierarchy is the natural order of the enterprise. These need to be challenged.

This is exactly what both the trade union and cooperative movement do: challenge the sociology of infantilism. All of us promote the idea that people are the producers, capable of writing their own contracts, possessing – as the Webbs put it – intimate knowledge and expert proficiency of their craft, their workplace.

To promote people’s confidence that they can participate fully in the workplace is the very first condition of economic democracy. This is the common station where we both enter, the common ground, the alliance, the partnership. It’s a good starting point. So let’s start. It can only take us to better places.

Michael Taft is a SIPTU researcher and author of the political economy blog Notes on the Front. Follow him on Twitter @notesonthefront and on Facebook here.

This article is based on a speech Michael presented at the ‘Economic Democracy and Workers Cooperatives: the Case for Ireland’ seminar held on April 9 in Liberty Hall, Dublin.