Greek end run around capitalism looks pretty capitalist to me

(Or: “It’s still capitalism, dummy!”)

A fascinating piece appeared recently in the New York Times, about efforts in Greece to (re)vitalize the so-called ‘social’ economy. The main feature of the movement, as described in the Times piece, is an attempt to eliminate or at least minimize the role of middlemen by reconnecting producers and consumers. “The movement seeks to cut out wholesalers, shop managers, state bureaucrats or anyone else between producers and consumers who once took a share of profits and added to the costs of goods.” Oddly, the piece characterizes this movement as an “attack” on “modern profit-driven capitalism.” Odd, because as far as I can tell the Greek movement still involves private ownership of the means of production, freedom of contract, and the determination of economic activity by the forces of supply and demand. It is innovation within a capitalist system, something that strikes me as not just capitalist, but an example of capitalism at its vibrant and innovative best.

The notion of casting this Greek movement as “anti-capitalist” is reminiscent of a big theme in the 2006 documentary, The Take, which was directed by Avi Lewis & written by Naomi Klein. The Take is about a group of workers at an Argentinian auto-parts factory who, rather than accept unemployment when the factory’s owner shuts it down, instead decide to occupy the factory, re-start the machines, and run it themselves. Lewis and Klein — no frends of global capitalism — portray the workers as revolutionaries, sticking it to the man by doing an end-run around the evils of modern business. But of course, when the machines are restarted by the workers’ cooperative, the inputs are still being bought on the open market, and the products that result are still being sold to the highest bidder, and so on. All that’s really different after the workers’ little coup is the management structure. But even that is not all that innovative. Plenty of solid members of the modern business community are already worker cooperatives.

The problem in both cases lies in seeing capitalism as embodied in a particular, narrow set of practices, or in the behaviour of a handful of monolithic multinational corporations. So thinking of a particular shift within the system as “anti-capitalist” makes about as much sense as thinking that the discrediting of a particular scientist or the fall of a particular scientific theory amounts to the downfall of Science, as a whole.

Both the Greek anti-middleman movement and the Argentinian factory workers provide interesting examples of the ingenuity and passion with which people respond to hardship and injustice. But they are are off-target as examples of critiques of capitalism. To think that these are somehow examples of alternatives to capitalism just demonstrates a misunderstanding of what capitalism is. It’s like arguing against ‘corporate personhood’ or claiming that Barack Obama is a ‘socialist:’ all you’re doing is demonstrating to the world that you don’t know what the words you’re using really mean.

Chris MacDonald is Director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management.

8 comments so far

  1. Curt Day on

    What you missed about the take is this, the first tenet of Socialism is worker control over production through a democratic process. That a co-op exists in a capitalist system does not make the co-op capitalist. Rather, it makes the co-op a ‘Hebrew’ in traveling in a foreign land with hopes of eventually entering the promised land.

    BTW, an interest but small book on anti-capitalism I could recommend is, “Anti-Capitalism” by Ezquiel Adamovsky. If you do order this book, you might need to specify the english version if you cannot read Spanish.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Curt:

      Co-operatives are not uncommon in capitalist systems, nor in any way foreign to them. Co-operatives may be a standard feature of socialism, but they are by no means unique to socialism. They simply represent private ownership by a group of workers, rather than private ownership by a group of investors of capital.

      The best work on this (though a bit dense) is Henry Hansmann’s “The Ownership of Enterprise.”

      Chris.

      • Curt Day on

        Chris,
        I understand that. Also note that not all co-ops are instances of socialism where there is worker control of production. And that was the point of my note. The first tenet of socialism is worker control of production.

      • KRE on

        Chris is right about that. A co-op can be owned and operated by capitalists in a capitalist system, and a corporation can be shared between community minded people. In practical terms, there is little difference between 10 people structuring their business as a co-op and those same 10 people structuring their business as a corporation where they each hold 10%. The difference is only in the paperwork. Working in the paperwork side of industry, in capitalist Canada, I see many examples of worker owned corporations, where “workers own the means of production”. I guess just sometimes old categories die hard.

      • Marvin Edwards on

        And two doctors, forming a partnership, is also “workers owning the means of production”. The difference is central planning. In a communist or socialist state, the workers are the party, and the party is the government, and the government is central, and the economy as a whole is centrally planned. The fact that workers of a specific business own that business does not imply socialism.

  2. Marvin Edwards on

    The other key element of formal socialism is central planning, where government determines what will be produced by whom and in what quantities.

    A lot of people confuse “social programs” with “socialism”. Extremists on the right tend to call government social insurance programs “socialism” despite the fact that F. A. Hayek endorsed them in chapter 9 of “The Road to Serfdom”.

    • Curt Day on

      Marvin,
      First, let’s realize that not all central planning is socialism. There is bourgeois central planning and there is state. But the state planning from socialism is where the state is a democracy and it represents the workers. Now this is where I depart from socialism because to have a full democracy, you have to represent all groups, not just the workers. But we have to remember the context in which socialism and also Marx were developing.

      Now, let’s look at the first instance of a neoliberal capitalist economy. That occurred in Chile in ’73 and in Argentina a couple years later. And to install that kind capitalist economy, military coups were required and they were followed by brutal dictatorships.

      However, I appreciate your distinction between social programs and socialism. However, aren’t you trying to make the distinction because of how the term “socialism” is used as a pejorative.

      • Marvin Edwards on

        Curt,

        It’s not me. According to Merriam-Webster Unabridged, socialism is “any of various theories or social and political movements advocating or aiming at collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and control of the distribution of goods”.

        You are right that not all central planning is “socialism”. For example, the things that the people have decided to do through the state, such as a national defense, or a system of public roads, or law enforcement, are centrally planned. But most daily consumer goods and services are provided through private businesses, private farms, private manufacturing, etc.


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