August 2nd, 2014 by Darin Robbins

Draft of a potential TEDx talk.

In order to succeed, economic democracy has to be more than worker owned businesses. It must be comprehensive and include the four factors of labor, money, resources, and technology because those factors are vital for a functioning economy. And all of these factors must be considered in order to put forward an alternative. Economic democracy is the combination of these parts in a positive synergy. When these factors work together, solutions to immediate problems are met. A working model of a new type of economy is created. There is the tools necessary for the expression of the individual and collective desires of a society. Most importantly, economic democracy is the ability to practice real autonomy and self-determination to its fullest extent. The result is both inclusion and independence, which is the heart of democratic action.

Cooperatives are the oldest form of economic democracy in the modern era. Historically, one can see that cooperatives allow equality of participation at the point of production. They deal with the organization of labor through worker ownership. Workers not only receive an equal share of the profits of the business, but they also participate in the democratic management of the business. Cooperatives are the natural extension of the idea of self-employment, taking into account businesses that require more than one person to operate it. Cooperatives can be supported through startup loans, a hiring hall that places the unemployed into cooperative jobs, and the employee buyout of preexisting businesses with the assistance of eminent domain.

Basic income also has a long history, but has a variety of ways that it can be funded. A basic income, where a set amount of money is distributed equally to each member of the population, allows for a freedom of consumption. This organization of money is accomplished through capital distribution and on its own does not deal with how businesses that supply goods and services to consumers are organized. A basic income cultivates independent choice which is the cornerstone of a modern conception of freedom, in this case extended into the economic realm from the political realm. Individuals are able to make economic decisions without having to rely on wages, welfare, or debt. The basic income process can be funded through a rent on the commons, an expansion of employee stock ownership plans, a reform of how money is put into circulation by the Federal Reserve, or the creation of a local currency.

The commons may not seem to have anything to do with economic democracy, even though it is the oldest form of property management in world history. But work done by Elinor Ostrom has demonstrated that the commons requires rules created through a direct democratic process in order to survive. The organization of the commons through democracy insures that there is an equality of access and consumption. The early commons dealt with nature and land and the more recent forms of the commons have been about ideas and designs. In all cases, the commons is the organization of resources so that there is the formation of open use of these resources. Even though not many people now are familiar with the commons due to the persistence of various attempts at enclosure and privatization in the last few centuries, the commons can be compared to the lending system of a library as a way to show how the commons would actually work in the lives of a community. In a contemporary sense, the commons can therefore take the form of a community land trust, open source software and hardware, and a tool library.

Even though personal fabrication is the newest form of economic democracy, the recent advances in decentralized manufacturing equipment have made it an important component. Personal fabrication allows freedom at the point of production based primarily on the ability to distribute these tools to the most local level possible that includes community workshops or individual homes. It is the organization of technology through this absolute decentralization of tools. By putting this technology into local hands, people are able to have the freedom to repair, modify, and create without having to rely on distant centralized factories and corporations. The ease of use in personal fabrication can be demonstrated by the developing examples of 3D printing, CNC machines, and computer controlled laser cutters.

The full reality of economic democracy is exemplified in the relationships between these four parts and their revealed common characteristics. Cooperatives and a basic income both involve subjective participation or the rearrangement of how people relate to each other and how they make decisions. Cooperatives allow workers to manage their business while a basic income allows consumers to have a wider range of choices. In contrast, the commons and personal fabrication deal with objective ownership and how people relate to resources or tools. The commons provides inclusive access to vital resources while personal fabrication gives people direct access to manufacturing equipment. Cooperatives and the commons both deal with labor and the ability to use resources for economic needs in an egalitarian way. In contrast, a basic income and personal fabrication both deal with leisure and the ability to go beyond labor through a new organization of money and technology which in turn fosters freedom. If one were to use a concrete example of how these methods all relate to each other, the creation of a local fab lab would incorporate cooperative management, the commons of both tools and designs, as well as the advanced decentralized technology available to the public. A local currency, structured as a basic income that members of the community would use to rent the equipment of a fab lab, would complete the picture of how economic democracy is more than the sum of its four parts. Economic democracy is in fact a working model of a new tomorrow.