A Subversive Question

Do people exist to serve the economy or does the economy exist to serve people?

This question came to me as the left side of my brain was reading Thomas Piketty’s important new book Capital in the 21st Century while the right side of my brain watched the news.

There was an item about the B.C. government chopping money from university arts’ programs to fund apprenticeships because it would produce more taxpayers, which would be good for the economy, followed by a commercial touting the Northern Gateway pipeline, which also would be good the economy. As my right brain soaked in the TV images my left brain was digesting statistics that demonstrated conclusively most wealth is owned by a few people and this inequality is growing.

Do people exist to serve the economy or does the economy exist to serve people?

When the two sides of my brain began acting together I realized this is not merely a rhetorical question. Rather, even raising the issue is subversive, or at least impertinent to those who maintain the status quo.

At its most basic level the economy is the sum total of the things people do to provide themselves food, shelter and other things that enhance life, such as recreation, health care, entertainment and art. So, the answer to our question should be clear-cut: The point of an economy is to serve people.

But the reality for most of us is exactly the opposite.

We are told the economy demands this or that as if it were some sort of primitive deity to be appeased.

Raising the minimum wage is bad for the economy. Expanding the tar sands and building pipelines to ship bitumen around the world is good. Public daycare or increased pensions are not affordable. Mass layoffs and wage rollbacks are necessary. But consume anyways (the more disposable the better), because that’s what makes the economy go round and round.

Politicians, corporate executives and the media all send us the message that our lives only attain meaning insofar as we contribute to the economy as consumers or taxpayers.

Rather than serving us, “the economy” has become an excuse to treat many people badly, to create unhealthy products, to damage our environment, to justify exploitation, to steal from other people and even to wage war.

Why?

The primary reason is that too much of the economy is run by and for a small minority of people. As Picketty’s statistics show, actual existing capitalism (as opposed to the phoney idealized system taught in school) concentrates ownership of wealth in the hands of a few people. This wealth produces both income and power, so much of which has gone to the richest 1% that any effective democracy is threatened.

Many of us feel powerless in the face of this inequality. Our unions have been undermined and delegitimized. The system tells us our only valid participation in the economy is as consumers, but getting to choose between Coke and Pepsi hardly inspires a sense of engagement.

We certainly get no vote in directing the economy, unless we are shareholders, and in that realm decisions are made by one-dollar-one vote, so billionaires hold sway. Moreover, for at least the past 30 years, the prevailing wisdom has been that governments are incompetent and therefore must keep their hands off the economy. We are told any sort of democratic control is bad because it creates distortions in the natural working of the system, as if there was some divine order that was being interfered with.

But it is not god’s will that is being challenged when democratic control is asserted. Rather it is the will of the 1% who currently own a vast proportion of the economy and direct it (and us) in their self-interest. There are no mysterious natural forces deciding what gets built, what gets shut down, who loses their jobs, how much to invest in green energy versus the tar sands; there are only very wealthy people and the managers who work for them.

Given that, it is really no surprise that the economy seldom serves the interests of the majority — it serves other masters. The economy follows the orders of the people who own it. And it gives the biggest rewards to the ones among them who are the greediest, the most willing to grab huge profits for themselves while making the rest of us pay for the pollution, ill health and other forms of destruction their industry causes. Then they spend some of those vast profits to buy politicians, think tanks and media pundits who work to convince us that this form of minority rule is good for us — the natural order — and trying to create a better system is hopeless.

But what if, despite all that, we demanded an economy that served all of us? What would we do?

Piketty argues for a tax on wealth and that might be a good starting point, but if we really want to fix this we must go further. When the problem is too much power in the hands of a few the obvious solution is to distribute that power more widely.

We should take away control of the economy from the greedy minority and share it amongst all of us. A good name for such a system is economic democracy.

The exact form such a system might take would probably depend on a country’s history, culture and level of development.  But essential elements would be: one-person-one-vote instead of one-dollar-one-vote decision making in all aspects of the economy; workplace democracy instead of master-servant relations and community control instead of corporate control.

If we want an economy that serves all people, we must create a system of democratic governance to ensure that happens.

Gary Engler is an elected union officer and co-author of the just released New Commune-ist Manifesto — Workers of the World It Really is Time to Unite, an updating of the original designed to provoke discussion about the future of unions and the Left. Read other articles by Gary.