After the Hobbit debacle, no-one can fail to understand the power that those who control capital exercise in a capitalist economy. The system is set up for them, hence the name, and their power is never stronger than during recessions. Unionised film workers tried to take on the owners of capital in their industry and got beaten down by Jackson, the government, and (disturbingly) a large sector of society that blindly worships the so-called ‘wealth creators’. International capital threatened our government with capital flight and quick as you like the cheque book was out for another $33 million and the government put Parliament into over-time (at God knows how much cost) to pass legislation specifically for Warners.
As individuals, our personal freedom is constrained by the unequal balance of power in the work place. We need a livelihood to support ourselves and our families but the bosses don’t need to employ us personally. With 250,000 jobless, workers are in a race to the bottom against each other – whoever will accept the worst pay and conditions gets the job. Who, but a very few in specialised industries, can personally bargain with a prospective employer? The vast majority of us take what we can get for fear of being left with nothing at all.
The unions do make us stronger. We have professional representation if anything goes wrong, and collective bargaining power in wage rounds that means union members were three times more likely than non-union workers to win an inflation-beating pay rise last year.
But it’s not enough. Anti-union laws and a government that has sided with the bosses every time and always opposed pay increases for its own employees is making things worse.
We’ve just seen the saddening spectacle of our Parliament going into overtime to push through a law at the bequest of a foreign multi-national. So desperate are we to curry favour with foreign capital that we subsumed our sovereignty to its wishes – not for the first time, and not for the last while National reins.
But what’s a country to do? The situation is very much akin to the individual prospective employee applying for a job. The international capitalists, like the bosses, offers terms that suck but if we refuse then some other country or some other worker will sink low enough to accept them and we’ll be left with nothing (except, in Warners’ case, it had invested too much and didn’t have the time to go anywhere else). Countries could band together to stop international capital playing them off against each other but, in reality, most international law is designed to make it easier for capital to flow in and out of countries, exacerbating the threat of capital flight.
If democracy and freedom are about us having the ability as individuals and as communities to choose our own paths, then the concentration of capital into private hands denies us democracy and freedom. The owners of capital call the tune and either we dance as they want for the price they offer or we get nothing.
So how to we democratise capital? It’s not something I have all the answers to and I’d like to hear your ideas. But here’s some:
– more public ownership of important capital assets and monopolistic companies. That means undoing the failed neoliberal experiments in privatisation and the sub-contracting that many large private and publicly-owned companies engage in that separates them, as the ultimate employer, from many of the people who do the work. An improved Cullen Fund is part of the mix, but so should be more ownership at local level, along with more accountable local governance.
– re-instituting an awards system or instituting industry-wide bargaining so that heavily unionised workplaces aren’t undercut by un-unionised competitors and making it possible for workers in small workplaces to unionise, which is often impractical for the over-stretched professional resources of unions.
– support for cooperatives. Our largest company is a cooperative and the farmer-owners have rightly resisted attempts to change that. Whenever possible, the capital of a company should be owned by the people who supply its labour, that way owners don’t have a financial incentive to screw the workers
– workers say on boards. It should be compulsory for companies over a certain size to have elected worker representatives on the board, and not just a token one.
– internationally, countries need to move to rein in the financiers. Despite leading us to into the worst recession in generations, these scroundels are still uncontrolled.