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Interdisciplinary Committee on Organizational Studies - ICOS pres.

Democratic socialism: lessons from Corporate Strategy

Paul Adler

In my recent book, The 99 Percent Economy: How Democratic Socialism Can Overcome the Crises of Capitalism (Oxford UP) I explain why I think we need socialism and how it would work. I focus on six crises--economic irrationality, workplace disempowerment, government unresponsiveness, environmental degradation, social disintegration, and international conflict--and argue that the root cause of each lies in the capitalist nature of our economic system. I show why, so long as the core of the economy remains capitalist, neither voluntary corporate efforts nor government regulation can overcome these crises, even if sometimes they can be somewhat mitigated. To overcome them, we need to reorient production and investment to the needs of people and planet, rather than leaving such decisions in the hands of the top managers of enterprises driven by the need for profits. We must assert democratic control over the management of society’s productive resources, both within individual enterprises and across the entire national economy

No country has successfully implemented such a system in a way that would meet our expectations of democracy, innovativeness, efficiency, and motivation, but I argue that we can find something close to a working model in a surprising place--in the strategic management process used by some of our largest corporations. Many of these corporations operate internally like planned economies--coordinating their subunits’ production and investment through strategic management rather than relying on market-like competition among subunits--and in doing so, they face many of the same challenges as socialist planning would. This experience yields valuable lessons for socialism, because in some of these corporations, the strategic management process is remarkably participative, as well as delivering impressive levels of innovation, efficiency, and motivation.

Their success in this remains limited: under capitalist conditions, participation is restricted, the scope of strategy is largely limited to the individual firm, and the profit imperative constrains choices. But if we socialize the ownership of our economy’s productive resources, democratic councils at the local and national levels could use that strategic management process to decide on our collective economic, environmental, social, and international goals and on how to reach them.

Socialism is not a leap into the entirely unknown. Capitalist industry is building some of its material and managerial foundations.

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