The Struggle of today´s working person,
The need for transformation of the workplace and the economic system and the impossibility of alternative thinking
The way we produce our goods and services determines the way we live. Workplace demands the most productive part of our day, of our energy and often even of our personality. You can like your work or hate it; this is how it usually goes. A minimum of 8 hours a day, we are subjected to the rules of our employer which means that we have no say in what we produce, how we produce it, where we produce. We even don´t get a say in what amount of time we need to produce. The further down you are in the hierarchy, the less you earn the less you have a say in these processes. Even if you are one of the few in high salary class you will not be able to influence the decisions that the board makes. These decisions are made solely to improve the profit margin and market value of the company. Only state regulations can contain the extend of the decisions made by the board so if there is no regulation or if there is a way around the existing regulation, the decision makers in the company can do anything they see fit to achieve their goal which is as mentioned earlier to improve the profit margin and market value of the company.
The Company Daimler AG is one of the biggest automobile producers worldwide. Although the origin of the company is Germany and driving a Mercedes is “National Duty” for many Germans, the company produces in China, Mexico, Brazil, South Africa and in the USA. The number of factories they have in Germany dwindles from year to year so does the number of workers they hire. Getting a permanent employment in Germany is getting more difficult with each year that passes. While the workers are told that goods and services from all over the world will make their life easier and cheaper, the information that the removal of the means of production from a country will inevitably end in unemployment is systematically withheld. The workers who made the company what it is today, who worked hard and made sacrifices to get it through times of crisis, never had a say in neither where the company produces its cars nor what it does with the enormous profits made each year. They are working at the production line with a ticking clock over their heads and have 85 to 100 seconds for each production step. So why is Daimler AG together with so many of the biggest companies of the world moving their factories and thus the means of production to other countries like the ones mentioned above? Globalization has enabled billions of people to become part of a global trading system but the prediction that the people in the so called 3rd world will be lifted out of poverty through globalization has yet to come true. Trade has increased, not reduced, the gap between rich and poor globally. Moving the factories by closing the existing workplaces can only mean one thing: Improving the profit margin of the company by exploiting the workers, the society and environment by taking advantage of lesser regulated conditions for production in other countries.
Daimler AG is only one example for the many companies that use this method. The working conditions in Germany are well regulated: The taxes an employer has to pay to the pension fund, for health insurance and other social security measures for each worker is one of the highest in the world (https://www.howtogermany.com/pages/employee-rights.html). The same can be said for environmental regulations or the regulations for product quality. And of course the country has a single-payer healthcare system because the government is responsible for the wellbeing of its citizens. However these regulations are often not implemented in other countries and that´s where big money wants to go. Although the quality of life has been constantly declining in Germany since the deregulation wave in the early 2000s, there has been no big uprising of the working class in Germany. This is partly because of the nature of German people who would buy a ticket before they throw themselves under the train but mostly it is because of the belief that “These are difficult times” and the deep trust in the social market economy system Germany had for half a century. Housing prices and the cost for living are rising while the salaries and working conditions are stagnating but Karl Marx´s hometown is still content with what they have left. The situation in many European countries is not that different. Years of propaganda has rooted the idea that “The West is the best” and that there is no acceptable alternative to the existing economic system so deep that even the devastating crisis nearly every ten years could not bring the working class to question their conditions. It took years for many Germans to understand that, with the changes in the early 2000s, the earlier rules of their social economy system don´t apply anymore and even then the system found ways to channel the social anger into hatred against immigrants and refugees. Channeling the anger of the people into ways that are destructive for the coherency within the society is one of the best ways to fabricate consent. When people think they are alone, they are much easier convinced that they can´t change the conditions they live in and often even that the conditions they live in are better than any alternative.
Yet it is clear for many people that the capitalist way of producing and consuming doesn´t works. During the economic crisis 2008 and in the years following people realized that even the ground rules of capitalism do not apply if there are big companies or whole industries at stake. Using the motto “Too big to fail”, Germany pumped large parts of its tax income into saving the automobile industry and into the finance sector of the country in 2008 and 2009, the same has been done in 2020 during the corona crisis for the German airline Lufthansa. This was not even done to save the jobs in these companies but solely to save the company itself with no notable requirements. The refugee movement to Germany in 2015 was a clear indication that the exploitation of other countries´ people, destruction of their environment and meddling in inner affairs by waging wars or supporting such undertakings would sooner or later result in difficulties within own borders as well. There is no question that many multinational corporations are involved in all the activities mentioned.
Furthermore the workers of many western countries realized that they don´t have a say in a large parts of their life. Additional to the valid concerns about the representative democratic system, more and more people understand that they need a say in the production process as well because its inevitable impact on the environment, society and ultimately their lives. Everybody knows that something has to change and that the society has to be transformed. They just don´t know what exactly to do and how to do it.
The very short history of German social market economy
After 1945 Germany was in a very bad place. Hated by the world, cities bombed to ruins and with a throttled economy the Germans were deeply depressed. The common insight of the time was “Never again” and with the help of the USA who needed a base against the Soviets, they built up the country anew. The political atmosphere was so antifascist that they tended to implement social ideas that can even be called socialist. Private Corporations flourished although the tax rates were much higher than today. Being far from a socialist country, West Germany had access to the goods and services of the modern world and germans could enjoy the benefits of individual freedom. Having implemented a social market economy in this system, they were able to provide a secure income for the biggest part of the population so the people did not look with fear into the future. The security this system offered began lessening after the merging with the German Democratic Republic (DDR) and ironically was nearly vanished during the reign of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) together with the Green Party (Bündnis 90/Die Grüne). With the changes these two political parties made, social welfare became “favor for the lazy”, the finance sector was largely deregulated and the worker was dehumanized to become something firms could rent and even lend. Today the German society has the same problems any other society in a capitalist country has. Unemployment rates are so high that the system is forced to hide the numbers by taking unemployed people out of the equation who are in short term training programs or even people who are sick for a few days. Housing prices, especially in big cities, have become prohibitively expensive for many people so they have to move out of their homes to find cheaper rents in the suburban parts. Social welfare has become a farce so that experts speak about rising homelessness and child poverty while the richest 10% nearly doubled their wealth in the last years. But the outrage of the people could not be channeled into changing the living conditions. Instead racism has risen to new highs; with the help of new political movements that are well funded, hatred against refugees and immigrants in general in the form of islamophobia is being pushed and the mainstream media knowingly or unknowingly often supports these movements. The German society and its economy is a good example of how fast a social market economy can become a neoliberal project if the concept of democracy does not reach deeper and stays in the ballot box.
Trade Unions are not enough for today´s workforce
The idea of bringing the working class together to protect their interests is hundreds of years old. Workers have been divided into different interest groups for centuries because the only power they really have over the employer is in their numbers. This number dwindles by each passing year because of automatization and digitalization of processes that had to be carried out by hand before but even in today´s highly automated production processes working people are indispensable. No employer wants his/her employees to have power over the important decisions in their business. Where to produce, how to produce, quantity of production, where to invest/reinvest the profit are just a few of the important decisions the working people of a company have no say in. A common argument for the decision-making power of the employer has always been that the employer brings the capital into and carries the risk for the business thus the name of the capitalist system. Trade Unions were very important actors in the clash of interests of the working class and the capitalist class. Many socialists hope trade unions to regain their power over the society they clearly had in the beginning of the 20th century. Marx and Engels were the first socialists to come out in favor of “workers combinations,” or trade unions.
Marx believed there was revolutionary potential for trade unions as a class movement. Unions congregated workers into groups that struggled against the capitalist class for wage increases and shorter working days. Marx viewed this as a positive. But stopping at wage increases and shorter working days was insufficient, for Marx, insofar as doing so would not change the social relations of society. The potential for unions to bog down and become reactionary was a weakness that Marx recognized (e.g., sectarian trade interests over class interests, the formation of a labor aristocracy, and unions becoming exclusively reformist vs revolutionary). Nonetheless, he supported them throughout his life.
Today only a small percentage of the working people in Germany are organized in a trade union. While the confederation of trade unions in Germany (DGB) had 9,7 million members in 1994, the number shrunk to 5,9 million members in 2020. The loss of power the trade unions suffered in the last decades shows clearly that the struggle for wage increases, better working conditions and shorter working days is not enough for today´s workers. Additional to the loss of power German trade unions are divided within. To protect the interest of different occupational groups, more than eight different trade unions exist in Germany. This leaves out a number of people who are not cared for by any of these unions and divides the interests of the working class as such. None of these trade unions fight for the right of a general strike and nearly every one of them has its place inside the system of the so called social market economy.
The Socialism we know from the Soviets?
The Capitalism we know from the west?
Or something totally new?
That the capitalist economic system we are living in today is not working for well over 80% of humanity is a known fact. It doesn´t help improve the conditions of living neither in the economically strong countries nor in the countries that are economically struggling. Even with a possible increase of income the quality of life declines or stays mostly the same. A clear sign that the representative democracy we know is being questioned by many people could be that the voter turnout in Germany was 76% in the elections 2017 and even 50,3% in the USA in the elections 2018. These people withhold their vote because they think that political parties are not able to make a change in the existing economic system.
A classical socialist economy would solve the problems in housing, transportation, medical care, education. In short it would solve the problems we have with the services of general interest but would still leave open the question of life quality. The quality of life is not only determined by what we can afford and what we cannot, furthermore it is the collected answer of many questions:
How much time we have outside work? Do we feel important for our society? Do we count as an individual? Do we have to fear for our future and/or the future of our children? What is the quality of our environment? Will we be cared for in a private crisis situation?..
While the USA is one of the countries with the least social concerns, Norway´s way of “welfare of all the people” makes the country an example for many other socialists like Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbin. It is significant that the more socialistic ideas are set-in to the capitalistic economic system the more satisfied people are with their lives. Satisfaction with life however is not the goal of today´s working class. Workers of the northern hemisphere are striving toward high quality of life and with the help of the world wide web and global media the citizens of countries with weaker economies see what the rich part of the world already has to offer thus want the same. There is no possible world in which capitalism can offer prosperity and high life quality to all these different countries and cultures. In all of the mentioned economic systems the structure in the working place is similar: A few people at the top of the company ; in a private owned company it would be the owner of the business, the board of directors or the major shareholders and in a state owned company it would be state officials, commissioners, commissars make all the key decisions and the mass, which would be the workers, have no say in these decisions. This is the part that has to be changed according to socialists like Prof. Richard Wolff from the USA. Cooperative enterprises, factories, stores would distribute power in the workplace to the working class as well as the responsibility for it thus a much higher democratic understanding for the whole of society would be achieved. The transformation of the workplace into a genuinely democratic arrangement in which all the workers would together decide where to produce, what to produce, which means of production to use… will ultimately bring a fresh view to social & political movements as well.
This exactly is the point where democratic socialism, an up from below kind of socialism, differs from all classical socialistic ideas. To widen the democratic spectrum of each and every one in our society by including the workplace is a value in itself. Worker cooperatives could change the working class into a democratic organized group that can make the decisions which have huge impacts on their own lives. Members of these cooperatives will calculate the ecological damage not only according to state regulations but will think of their children and neighbors as well thus this way of production will have a positive effect on the environment furthermore it is not likely that the workers will decide to move production overseas. There are good examples for worker cooperatives worldwide and they are thriving. The examples in Germany are mostly in the IT-Business and are not as many as a socialist would wish for but the process of transformation has begun. The question of how to get control over the company in the name of the workers is a very important one. In most of the German examples the workers took out a credit to pay the previous owner off. This transformation is essential not only for the German or US society; it is the sensible step for all societies worldwide and could realize Karl Marx´s wish. “Workers of the world, unite!”
By Alper Taparli