Socialism: Who Decides What?

[This is the seventh in a multipart series addressing the surge in interest in and support for Socialism. Subsequent entries will explore what the surge means, what it seeks or will seek, where it might extend, and how it might unfold.]


We have ethically advocated the idea that everyone should have a say in decisions in proportion as they are affected by them. Decisions affecting only me, I should make unilaterally. Decisions equally affecting all remembers of a group and not others, the group should make unilaterally, each member having equal say. In a group making decisions, if I am more affected, however, I should have more say. 

To fulfill this ethically fine aim in a new economy, or any other realm of life, even if not to the third decimal place of accuracy, but, instead, to everyone’s broad satisfaction and in an efficient manner, is obviously a demanding standard. It is ethically sound as it treats everyone fairly and consistently with both solidarity and diversity. In practice, the hardest part will be the broadest part. When I decide to consume some item from the overall social product something goes to me that could have gone elsewhere. Elsewhere needs to have some say. My action also impacts the environment, and so everyone everywhere, slightly for each, but a lot in total, needs to have some say. Likewise, if I decide to wear my black socks tomorrow and not my blue ones, for all intents that choice affects just me so I should decide dictatorially, with no one else getting any say. But if I decide to buy lots of socks, that does have outward effects, so others should impact that decision, not just me. Similarly, if I decide to consume some of my audio equipment ferociously loudly, that too may well affect others who should have some say. 

Or consider a workplace. Within it, how a work team allocates its time, arranges its activities, etc., assuming the team operates in accord with broader agreed decisions taken by the whole workplace – or the whole society – about, say, the timing of holidays, the length of the work day, or workplace product and output, is largely or even completely the team’s choice. Within the team, if someone is dramatically affected by some aspect, she would get more say about that. Some decisions may be taken by one person one vote, others may require two thirds to pass, or consensus. Some will have more time set aside for deliberation, especially of dissenting views – some less. These are methods that we judiciously choose to best approach self management.

Short of details, this is actually how caring friends or workmates relate to one another when we are free to do so, and so is not as unfamiliar as an abstract description might make it seem. Many workplace decisions reverberate outward. What technology do we employ affects what we produce and therefore what others get to consume. What forms of energy we use and what we do with our waste, has effects on neighbors and perhaps far more widely. Such decisions will have to be made, if we are to honor self management, in ways that give appropriate influence to affected workers in the specific factory, but also give appropriate influence to affected folks outside it. 

For now, pending our discussing what economists call allocation to see how broader constituencies exert a say on either the consumption or production side of the issue, let’s just consider inside a workplace. What is the implication of advocating self management for decisions inside workplaces, assuming, for the moment, that influence from without is well addressed by structures still to be discussed?

First, of course, all the workers are going to be affected and so they all together need a venue and methods by which to have their share of say. Call this the workers council, basically the whole workforce able to meet, deliberate, and take votes, when need be. Many decisions affect all workers essentially equally. The length and timing of the workday, when the lights are on or off, duration and time of breaks, use of air conditioning, the total output and therefore total work level. Also norms, if need be, about clothing, noise levels, or what holidays to observe. But is it so obvious all these affect everyone the same? What if those with families and those without have markedly different dependency on the timing of arrival and departure from work? What if some people have conditions that make air conditioning far more important for them? What if different workers of different nationalities or religions are differently impacted by holiday choices? One could go on.

The answer for all such variations among workforces is up to each workplace to determine. After all, they collectively self manage themselves. Sessions of workers‘ councils in each workplace first arrive at various procedures deemed sufficient – or, when possible, ideal – for giving affected parties appropriate say in decisions. Perhaps this list of options is revisited yearly or bi-yearly and it certainly may be different in different workplaces due to their different features and different preferences of their workers. Once such agreed procedures exist in a workplace, one or more is chosen, as appropriate, for each new case, and deliberations proceed, as do decisions. It is in everyone’s interest that matters are handled sensibly, without undo time wasting, and attending to the needs of all involved. 

Some would say, phooey on that. Let’s let one person just decide, it’s much less messy. Well, the logic of democracy, and beyond democracy of self management, is that imposed order is not, in fact, less messy. It just buries the mess, hiding the fact of people being alienated, and even getting inferior outcomes, beneath imposed order. One workplace may lean more that way, though, and more often adopt procedures that are more cut and dried. Another workplace may lean differently, incorporating more time for deliberation, for hearing minority views and exploring them, and so on.  Indeed, you might very sensibly choose where you want to work, in part in accord with your taste for workplace methods. Over time, with experience, various approaches will prove better at arriving smoothly and rapidly at desirable and collectively respected choices, and those will come to be used more often. It’s all a matter, within a firm, of the firm’s workers council. That is the repository of decision making power, not an owner, not a boss.

Here are two other broad issues to address, however. One is a complaint that turns out to be pretty simple to resolve. The other is an derivative need that is more complex and consequential for a new economy and society.

First, some would complain that if, we require such extensive decision making participation we will diminish the quality of decisions made. Shouldn’t Joe get more or less say, depending on how good a decision maker Joe is? More generally, doesn’t the participatory approach undercut the benefits of expertise? The answer to this complaint is that the opinions of experts, and expertise more generally, are of course highly valuable. But the fact that Joe is an expert in, let’s say, engineering, or chemistry, or whatever else is consequential to some decision, should not convey to Joe more influence – more votes – even in a decision that quite strongly involves engineering or chemistry. Joe’s expertise should certainly be consulted. But then Joe has a say like others, not elevated. The point is, Joe is not an expert in how much a decision affects me or you, much less in how you or I feel about it. And so we have a say in the decision, though we should pay close attention to Joe’s insights. 

Consider the other half of this issue, intimately connected. Susan has proved over time to have an incredible facility for always advocating decisions that experience shows to be wisest. She is a very good decision maker. Make it, she is simply best in the workplace. Make it, even, she is best by a large margin. Okay, why not simplify worklife by having Susan make all decisions? Ignoring that the assumptions are highly unreal once we have participating, prepared, workers each potentially bringing to deliberations and votes  different experiences, (more on that soon), this logic also ignores the value of each person feeling a decision was reached respecting his or her input and say. If experts not just offering their wisdom for others to evaluate and even learn from, but deciding outcomes, is better, then that rules out not only self management, but also even more limited democracy. The reason it doesn’t rule out either is both that there is no such general and universal expertise, and, even more important, people’s exclusion creates problems far worse than a somewhat worse choice being made, even if it did happen now and then. Participation matters.

The more complex issue that self management raises is how to ensure that all workers are prepared and able to contribute positively to decision making. For there is no denying that if we have lots of workers who have neither the confidence, nor the skills, nor the knowledge to have informed views making decisions – then their involvement will give us seriously flawed results. In a good economy, what prevents that? That is, in most workplaces now, the number of people in the whole workforce in position have informed opinions is maybe one out every five. Why is that, and how do we raise it to five out of five, as that is a precondition for effective, optimal, self managed decision making?

We take up the issue of universal preparedness for decision making in the next essay in this series, and the issue of class relations and class rule, as well.

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