X Close

How to end anti-capitalism Turning companies into democracies will stop people hating their jobs

Is this it? Credit: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg/Getty

Is this it? Credit: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg/Getty


March 31, 2021   5 mins

Like many of us, the Devon-based farmer Guy Singh-Watson has mixed feelings about capitalism. As a farmer, he will inveigh against Thatcherism, the City and the toxic inequality and wealth and greed that he sees in London. But as an entrepreneur — he’s the founder of Riverford, a vegetable delivery company — he can’t but concede that the system is extraordinary at driving innovation.

This tension came to a head when, having built a company worth more than £20m, he had to decide on its future. Selling it to venture capitalists who would maximise short-term profits would feel “like selling one of my children into prostitution,” he said. So he handed the company over to its 650 workers. Singh-Watson retains a 26% stake; the rest of the shares are held in a trust, and the profits go to the staff — or co-owners.

These sorts of models have become increasingly common in recent years: according to the most recent figures, there are now 470 similar businesses, up 28% on the previous year. Research suggests employee ownership can boost productivity and profits as well as staff morale — and earnings.

“Covid, I’m slightly embarrassed to say, has enabled us to make profits that we’ve never experienced before,” says Singh-Watson. “Some of them will be shared with the co-owners, but they’re very keen that we invest large sums of money in improving our environmental credentials.” It’s the workers who get to decide how to spend it.

If anti-capitalism has become fashionable, it’s partly because the modern workplace often makes people feel disempowered. Joe Atkins, who works in the marketing department of Riverford draws a political analogy. “In a dictatorship, your voice is suppressed. And clearly that happens in so many businesses and sectors, and it’s why so many of us hate our jobs: we don’t feel like we’re contributing, we don’t feel like we’re listened to.” Riverford, he says, works like a functioning democracy.

At the moment, Atkins says, there’s a lively company-wide discussion about the pros and cons of working from home, and how to manage the post-pandemic return to office life. “I would imagine most businesses would have a little tick-box for consultation and might include a couple of stakeholders, and you’d get a tiny opportunity to give your feedback.” Being co-owners, Atkins says, influences how co-workers interact. And sharing directly in the profits is an extra motivation.

The rise of employee ownership suggests a widespread desire for a different sort of economy: one less concerned with short-term profit, more with empowering people and communities. So does the continuing strength of co-operatives — and the growth of community businesses, where locals people take control of an institution which matters to them. Bramley Baths in Leeds is a textbook example: a council-run Edwardian bathhouse and fitness centre which, though much loved, was consistently losing money. In 2013 it was threatened with closure — until a group called the Friends of Bramley Baths offered to run it instead. The council agreed, and today the bathhouse turns a profit, while employing 41 staff on the living wage.

Bramley Baths was helped by a grant from the charitable trust Power to Change. “What’s interesting,” says PTC’s chief executive Vidhya Alakeson, “is that community businesses manage to make business models work that the private sector and the public sector don’t”. They really understand what their community wants and needs and will therefore participate in or pay for. Community businesses benefit from strong customer loyalty, and often from volunteers working alongside paid employees. It’s a model that works in everything “from gin distilleries to ferry boats, to farms to shops to leisure centres”, says Alakeson. Shuttered pubs have become a familiar sight around Britain, but where communities have stepped in to save their local, they have often become successful enterprises.

As well as being uplifting in themselves, these stories hint that a different kind of politics might be possible. Even though it ended in failure, there was a truth at the heart of David Cameron’s Big Society: if given the right tools, people can transform their areas, without needing to be ordered around by the state. It’s easy to assume that community businesses are the preserve of affluent areas full of well-connected retirees and comfortably-off stay-at-home parents. But Alakeson points out that the model can work anywhere: “67% or so of our funding goes to the 30% most disadvantaged parts of the country.”

Community businesses — the sector has more than doubled since 2014, and there are now more than 11,000 — and the rise of models like Riverford’s employee ownership are all different ways of shifting power, says Alakeson, “away from an economy where very few people hold power… towards an economy where power is much more broadly held, and many more people have a stake.”

Perhaps a democratic economy sounds like a nice but rather dreamy idea; a new book, Sara Horowitz’s Mutualism, argues that nothing could be more politically urgent. The mutualist impulse, says Horowitz, is simple: “If neither government nor market forces are solving a problem that you and the people in your community share, why not solve it yourself?” The American social safety net was born, in the 20th century, not just of state intervention, but also of unions, mutual aid societies, religious communities and co-operatives. Today, as the state either can’t or won’t maintain that safety net, these organisations are more necessary than ever. Horowitz herself founded the Freelancers Union, which has successfully campaigned for laws protecting freelancers. Crucially, it also has a sustainable business model, since it provides services such as health insurance in return for its members’ dues.

In Britain, there are hints that the Government is sympathetic to a more democratic economy. Last year Boris Johnson commissioned a report from Danny Kruger MP, “Levelling Up Our Communities”, which brought together dozens of ideas for empowering individuals and local bodies. Rishi Sunak’s budget launched a “Community Ownership Fund” for rescuing local assets along the lines of Bramley Baths. Is that a sign of a changing political culture?

Suggested reading
How to end anti-capitalism

By Peter Franklin

Vidhya Alakeson is sceptical. “The potential of the social economy isn’t that well understood in government currently,” she says. The sector has a lot of momentum, but where the government is happy to offer incentives, tax breaks and subsidies to favoured industries, community businesses tend to be overlooked.

Britain’s political conversation seems hopelessly stuck in an argument about the size of the state: you’re either on the Left and want the government to intervene more and spend more; or you’re on the Right, and want it to do less. The possibility that politics is also about empowering people and local institutions is largely ignored.

Will Tanner, director of the think tank Onward — which can claim credit for the Community Ownership Fund policy — is slightly more upbeat. “Most of the relevant cabinet ministers — Rishi Sunak, Robert Jenrick, Oliver Dowden — they’re instinctively interested” in policies that support collective local action, he says. Onward is hoping that the government will take up other ideas — such as more support for community land trusts, and a “right to regenerate” which would make it easier for communities to take over empty retail spaces.

But, he adds, the language of common local endeavour struggles to resonate with politicians: “It doesn’t fit into an existing set of policies or an existing philosophical agenda.” So policies supporting community power tend to be “an afterthought. It’s often more about tweaking existing systems rather than decentralising and devolving power, which is anathema to the mindset of a technocratic state.” Tanner, who has worked for the Home Office and No 10, says it can be hard to jolt the state out of its bureaucratic, top-down habits.

“Ordinary people,” he observes, “have a lexicon of words to describe this: they might talk about the family, the group, about collective action. Often it’s old Anglo-Saxon words. But there’s a disconnect between the language of ordinary people and the language of politicians.” You have to start with the people, he says. “As soon as you start creating technocratic tools, you lose the magic.”

Before the 1979 general election, in a celebrated moment of fatalism, the Labour leader James Callaghan remarked to an aide that, “there are times, perhaps once every 30 years, when there is a sea change in politics… I suspect there is now such a sea change and it is for Mrs Thatcher.”

Those of us who aren’t Thatcherites have long hoped for a sea-change in the opposite direction, towards a less ruthlessly competitive Britain. Is it possible that the next transformation could bring about a more democratic society? If so, then it will begin at the grassroots, with the spontaneous growth of new models, new experiments in working together for a shared purpose. And the politicians might be the last people to notice it.


Dan Hitchens writes the newsletter ‘The Pineapple’ and is former editor of the Catholic Herald

ddhitchens

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

80 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Johannes Kreisler
Johannes Kreisler
3 years ago

At a glance i counted at least fourteen occurrence of the word “community” in the article. Not quite sure if the author realises how malignant that word is (it’s up there with “vulnerable”, “struggle”, “marginalised” etc. – just to name a few).

People don’t live in “communities”. We live in streets, towns, villages, districts, parishes, neighbourhoods, valleys, terraces, townlands, housing estates, counties, wherever. We work in various industries, congregate in societies, associations, clubs, churches, whatever. Some of us are parts of diaspora, others of native minorities with distinct languages, etc. etc.
Community was the first word i grew to truly deeply hate, at the age of 7, when i started school in a state-communist country. “Community” was dripping from absolutely every orifice of the politmachinery. Little did i expect back then to encounter the same in my fifties, in England of all places.

Johannes Kreisler
Johannes Kreisler
3 years ago

(Seventeen actually, after i counted them properly)

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago

It seems strange to me that you label an English word as malignant simply because it translates to one in your mother tongue which was used in a way you dislike by a regime you (quite reasonably) detest.
In English the word has many positive connotations, and we (most of us) do live and move in a number of communities – whether based in streets, towns, villages, districts, parishes, neighbourhoods, or communities based on common interests or even employment or profession.
You seem very rigid in your thinking.

Last edited 3 years ago by Paul N
Johannes Kreisler
Johannes Kreisler
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul N

You’re probably correct. However, it would be helpful for me if someone explained the sudden rapid proliferation of the “community” word in public discourse. 10 – 15 years ago it was nothing like it is today.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
3 years ago

It is often a completely meaningless term, used precisely where there is little community feeling of any sort. It seems to imply some sort of warm fuzzy comradeship within categories of people (‘gay’, ‘Black’ , etc) that doesn’t in fact exist. Yes, the word means something but is massively overused, rather similar to the term ‘sustainable’. Many of those using it unthinkingly would struggle to define it if asked.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul N

I agree Paul. Not all communities are the same.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul N

Why should I be in a ‘community’ with my neighbour, or everybody in my street. I don’t know them. I don’t necessarily want to know them. They may be incompatble with respect to my moral or political views. They may be actively evil. Contiguity implies nothing. I owe no obligation to any other human being. My obligations, such as they are, are to an impersonal legal system.I may have my own preferences (liking, love, respect etc.) but they cannot be demanded by others as of right.
Membership of any community is voluntary. If it’s not, it’s oppression.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
3 years ago

It is the subject of the article!

D Ward
D Ward
3 years ago

I agree. I loathe the word “community”.
Imagine the uproar if you casually mentioned you were from the “white community”. The lib/leftards would have conniptions.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago

Fair enough, Johannes. Do you have an alternative word? I don’t think it has those connotations for most people.

Johannes Kreisler
Johannes Kreisler
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

I honestly don’t know. Did you people have a word for that sort of thing before ‘community’ pervaded the language? (Genuinely curious, English not being my first language and it rubbed on me not that long ago at all. Yet i notice there was nothing like the current amount of “community” sloshing around in the media lingo say 10 – 15 years ago. In my mothertongue we have words along the lines of “citizenry”, “societies”, or just “people” for the thing.)

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago

It might have become more common via Healthcare. Possibly in the 1980’s – associated with moving healthcare out of hospitals (Mental Health being a prime example) and into services provided to people at home or at local health centres or schools or community centres.
I think also it’s used as an alternative to ‘Council’ – so Council Swimming Pools became Community Leisure Centres when the running of them was outsourced.
It gets adopted by pressure groups wanting to increase their profile a lot too – organisations claim to be representative of the business, Jewish, Irish, skateboarding or birdwatching community when they really mean they are a lobby group on behalf of a section of that community.

Johannes Kreisler
Johannes Kreisler
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

Thanks! Sounds about right. Been aware of it as a medical term, meaning “external to hospital environment” (community strain, community transmission – recall those from when my kid was doing a uni thesis on norovirus transmission).
Also i know it for denoting a shared interest (the model railway community, etc.), line of study / occupation (the physicist community, etc.) – these are all apolitical uses.
The public swimming pools i like to call “municipal”, i like the old-school tinge of it. And i sense it’s there where the ideological push begins, in renaming “public” and “council” things to “community”. Even “communal” would be a better term, being an adjective rather than a noun. Sounds to my (probably paranoid) ear as they are trying to soften up the public subconsciousness to embrace collectivism, by the power of buzzword-repetition.

Alex Delszsen
Alex Delszsen
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

Hopefully with open meetings so that all concerned Jewish, Irish, skateboarding or birdwatching people can influence the agenda.

Tom Krehbiel
Tom Krehbiel
3 years ago

I didn’t have your experiences in a Communist country, Johannes – to date, I’m a life-long American – but I share your contempt for the word “community” in one sense at least. Here in the States, we have taken to describing as “communities” entire ethnic groups. Thus, we hear of the Hispanic community, the Asian-American community, and, most prominently of all, the black community. Now, to take the last-named, how in the name of God can a group of more than 40 million stretched over a continent-sized nation possibly be a “community” without doing major violence to the word? We badly need to reconsider that terminology IMO.

Johannes Kreisler
Johannes Kreisler
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Krehbiel

That’s pretty much the gist of it here in the UK too. “Communities” is the polite media-term for not just any non-native ethnic groups in general, but for the black and muslim population in particular. (aka “the bames”). That’s why it became a loaded word for many of us here too.

Antony Hirst
Antony Hirst
3 years ago

I agree. “Community” just induces the cringe in me these days. Along with the phrases “critical thinking”, “fact check” and “existential threat”. These hopelessly overused buzz-phrases have no meaning anymore and people have no actual idea what they think they mean by them. Just repeated ad-nauseam.

Johannes Kreisler
Johannes Kreisler
3 years ago
Reply to  Antony Hirst

Good examples. “Controversial” is another one.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
3 years ago

It’s “problematic”.
These are all weasel words used to signal that correct-thinking people will know to avoid expressing support for the topic described thus.
Especially if it’s been condemned by a suddenly-emerged unelected “community leader” who is somehow on speed-dial for ready comment.

Johannes Kreisler
Johannes Kreisler
3 years ago

Western propaganda is very effective and generally not even noticed by the majority. 

Very true, on both counts.
Thanks for the Bill Hicks rec., will check him out! Good standups are an extinct species these days..

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
3 years ago

Yes. Sadly he passed. Just google bill hicks marketers. It is a famous skit

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

I have long believed that worker-owned companies should be encouraged wherever possible and there seem to be some good examples here. The example of Bramley Baths is particularly interesting. How many other council or state-run disasters could be turned around if handed over to people who know what they are doing? Quite a lot, I would imagine.

Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Unusually, I agree with you. Many of the problems with business are caused by financial incentives to decision-makers that diverge from the interests of other stakeholders – customers, employees, and society more broadly. This is aggravated by the short-term thinking of many decision-makers in business, and by the level of reward that makes them so detached from the experience of their employees and customers.

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul N

Corporations and big finance dominate all important industries. They are right at the teat of the fiat money spigot. This is how Western society is run. The WEF Klaus Schwab stakeholder economy seems to fall along the lines of these discussions. So the big money big power folks are talking about this. Somehow I dont see it leading to better outcomes. I haven’t checked in with Greece lately. After a decade of austerity and privatization have they moved to some sort of “community” or “stakeholder” economy. Call me cynical but something tells me this all leads to a community of poverty for the masses. The biggest problem is how do you get the fiat money teat away from the power mad lunatics who have control over it. I am a bit older and save in precious metals. I do look at crypto as a possible game changer. I do own 5 different crypto currencies and watch that market carefully. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it targeted. If the youth can save the world this is where it will be done. The idiots might get too bogged down in the woke garbage though. Lol

Last edited 3 years ago by Dennis Boylon
Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Boylon

A very good analysis, and the SEC is now targeting crypto, as you feared.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Boylon

Dennis, Crypto is probably toast. aside that it has no basis, or intrinsic value, every National Bank would want it killed as being a direct competition, but it sure has a FOMO value I feel all the time.-

I find gold to high so I feel I missed the boat there, but was messing with silver, aside from strong worries I missed that too. I bought at just over $20 spot, and 4 premium, I went off and bought a monster box of buffalos, and 500 face of junk, and got a safety box at my bank for $20/year, but that was earlyish 2020 when I had missed the $13, and saw the mess coming. I do not expect to do anything much with that, I am not very confident of a 2010 or 1980 bull run anymore., but keep happy it is still up. I have been buying some metals miners though, but recently, and all them down a touch.

I just cannot believe in the markets having such growth is anything but a stimulus bubble, and so missed the bull run thus far, and will keep missing it if it continues. The snag is gold and silver work in inflation (a minus real yield) but so many say it all becomes deflationary, which is no good for metals, and so I believe now in 30 year treasuries as the true safety net.

Harry Dent, “The market will collapse, if I am wrong I will quit my job!” – Financial Expert Harry Dent (but then he is one of the top doomsday Bear loons, most expect nothing but more Bull Market)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=83A1PM7VzFY

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I lived for a wile on a commune in around 1980s, in Oregon not far from Bhagwan Rajneesh actually, and regret not having a stint there too…. But anyway life on this tiny commune was likely one of the best in my life, although there were some pretty crazy and hard times, but the thing is, those who had it together (I was not one of those, I drifted in broke and drifted out broke) subsidize, and maybe enable, the less provident. I managed to stay high the entire time there, all winter, and we were poor, but happy, and owned nothing, so maybe there is something to the great reset…..

Anyway, what I know of the world is what ever Everyone Owns, No One Owns. The best example of this is the high seas fish stocks.

Or like a business owned by the workers. As someone who has been self employed most of my life I know there is nothing which incentivizes you like when you own your own business. 90 hr weeks, normal. Mortgage ones house to fund it, normal.

In this time of job changing, and I have had so many jobs in my life I could not remember half of them, how do you have equal power with someone who drifts in and out, someone who is lazy, bungling, mean spirited, weird, dis honest and so on? This article is exceedingly utopian.

And Dan, I love your father, he is one of my favorite people, but his, and your uncles, commie past I find appalling. It seems you all have some family similarities, and when you, like your father did, get mugged by reality and get a bit more right, keep up the good work and keep your amazing families writing contributions going.

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Sure…good marketing and use of buzz words. If we all own nothing who do we rent from? Who is to be God? I’m not following Gates and Schwab. They are more evil than smart.

Last edited 3 years ago by Dennis Boylon
Johannes Kreisler
Johannes Kreisler
3 years ago

If anti-capitalism has become fashionable

Has it, really? Or is it just the obligatory youth noises, the youth always has a beef with capitalism until they grow out of it (well, some never do – they become civil servants and teachers instead).
Not all capitalism is the same though, the wretched form of it which we see nowadays is i think called ‘neoliberalism’ or ‘globalism’. ‘Neoliberal globalism’? I recall a good few years ago the yoof was up in arms against globalisation, then i guess someone (from the ‘civil servant class’) passed them the memo that they are protesting against the wrong thing because “globalism = greater good”, and they ought to protest against nationalism instead. And the docile yoof obliged.
The racketeering neocapitalism has very socialist-looking means to advance its goal, which is the redistribution of wealth from taxpayer to the business-oligarchy via the global underclass. As the “western” consumer base inevitably shrinks (partly due to low birthrates, partly to “peak stuff” saturation), it has to rely on producing new, rapidly growing consumer stocks to sell its wares to – thus the incessant push for thirdworld mass-immigration. This newly imported consumer class not being able (or willing) to pay for said wares, their purchasing power has to be supplied via social benefits provided by the taxpayers’ contribution. The production of goods taking place overseas at wherever it is the cheapest to produce, and the goods themselves increasingly aimed at those who came to the “west” from the poor places, neither leg of the transaction has much to do with the locus of the transaction – the made in China peddled to the born in Ghana, on the streets of London, Paris, Bruxelles.
Among the host of problems it presents, one is the huge environmental cost of overpopulation (global and localised as well), something the pro-globalist yoof is in permanent cognitive dissonance about.
(Had a good chuckle in a touristy shop in Prague a few years back – a very nice Chinese lady asked the salesgirl: “Look, we came all the way from China to see this place, it’s magnificent. But do you sell anything Czech-made? We didn’t come all the way to buy Chinese tat here.” That shop actually sold good local-made stuff, turned out the Chinese lady got frustrated by all the street vendors’ wares.)

Last edited 3 years ago by Johannes Kreisler
Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago

If you can remember when communism was in charge, you’re some distance away from “the youth”. We may no longer be able to comment on what is or is not fashionable among younger generations.
Let’s avoid harumphing too stridently about “the youth” – who are growing up with very different challenges than we had. Some of their perspectives on today’s society may be better founded than ours – even if our experience lets us see some things they may miss.
If we listened more, and sneered less, we might learn something from each other.

Johannes Kreisler
Johannes Kreisler
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul N

Yes, i’m 55 (feeling like 93 on some days). Old by any count. I have two kids though.
At 16 i had a brief passion for anarchosyndicalism, as we all do. Then by 17 it was folk dancing and pottery (i sucked at both).

Last edited 3 years ago by Johannes Kreisler
Paul N
Paul N
3 years ago

feeling like 93 on some days

I hear you. Youth is wasted on the young.

Johannes Kreisler
Johannes Kreisler
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul N

It sure was wasted on me.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
3 years ago

One should try everything once except folk dancing and incest

Variously attributed, probably Thomas Beecham.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago

“If anti-capitalism has become fashionable

Has it, really?”
no, what’s fashionable is calling oneself anti-capitalist while making as much money as possible. I guess you get a pass to keep doing what you’re doing as long as you complain about it while doing it.
It’s similar to calling oneself an environmentalist while flying all over the world on private planes and owning four energy sucking houses.
We used to call this hypocrisy, today we just call it anti-capitalism or environmentalism.

Gavin Stewart-Mills
Gavin Stewart-Mills
3 years ago

All well and good but not all companies turn a profit. A scenario the article seems not to consider at all. Will the communitarian employees stump up? take salary sacrifices? underwrite bank loans? help with fundraising? Being a shareholder comes with risks as well as rewards; the employees might find they yearn for the simple days of receiving their salary and letting others worry about company debt / liquidity etc. etc.
BTW I think such a business model can be a great solution; my beef is only with the limited and shallow nature of the analysis here.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago

Fair points but isn’t one of the problems of the current situation that risk taking by shareholders (often meaning aggregate risk taking by massive corporate shareholders with shares in multiple businesses) involves much greater risk to employees than shareholders? At the other end of the scale 60% of new UK Businesses go bust in their first three years (fundsquire.co.uk) which has consequences for shareholders, employees and customers.

Gavin Stewart-Mills
Gavin Stewart-Mills
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

Yes one of the many problems is that indeed. But, again, most UK business is conducted by SMEs which also account for more than 60% of the workforce. So that form of abusive capitalism by very large enterprise you cite is certainly a problem (the biggest and most destructive culprit IMO being the various rackets flowing out of Silicon Valley). But in the normal world, SME shareholders bear the brunt of business risk in a way employees (whose risk merely extends to losing their job) do not. To me this article is just another example of the tired ‘progressive’ narrative that imagines business to be the plaything of Bond style villains counting their billions.

Walter Lantz
Walter Lantz
3 years ago

I tend to agree, the Riverford example is especially encouraging but more info is needed.
Do the 650 employees fully understand what it takes to build such an enterprise and that future success will depend on adopting a communal corporate mindset that recognizes the importance of the strategies used by Mr. Singh-Watson?
If they can do that and make collective decisions based solely on the future health of the company including the tough ones such as foregoing pay increases to invest in better equipment or firing people that just aren’t getting it done, then they’re definitely on the right path.
If on the other hand a socialist ‘jobs for life’ commune attitude sets in or if decision making is based more on earning progressive merit badges than profit it probably won’t end well.
I’d love to see a follow-up report in a year or so. It would be interesting to see how everyone has adapted to the new arrangement. Hopefully the company continues to be a success story.

Last edited 3 years ago by Walter Lantz
Gavin Stewart-Mills
Gavin Stewart-Mills
3 years ago
Reply to  Walter Lantz

I agree. You’d want to see (and hopefully would see) evidence that shared ownership like this released extra levels of performance, excellence, commitment etc from the individuals concerned, all flowing through to business success. Everything else is just hot air really. In fact the author claims “Employee ownership boosts productivity and profits as well as staff morale — and earnings” but I see no evidence for this claim anywhere in the piece.

Last edited 3 years ago by Gavin Stewart-Mills
Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago

Employees don’t make such decisions even if they are shareholders, the company’s management team does. Employees are not underwriting bank loans, that isn’t how companies with high levels of employee stock ownership work. Shareholders judge the management teams performance. They do not take over the management teams duties.

Saul D
Saul D
3 years ago

Strange no-one has mentioned the Co-op, or the mutuals, or the building societies, or John Lewis, or the sports clubs and member-based associations.
Worker, and member-based not-for-profit associations have a long and venerable history. However, those that work well can end up cashing out (as some building societies did), and those that work badly can struggle to make enough investment and slowly sink.
In modern times, rules and regulations make it harder to run them with layers of admin needed. And outside the UK, in places like the ex-USSR raiders and oligarchs were able to take over mutualised assets at rock bottom prices by buying (and intimidating) votes of the members, and providing loans that converted to equity.

Johannes Kreisler
Johannes Kreisler
3 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

Waitrose. I think Cadbury’s was like that too (?), the Bewleys of Ireland, Guinness, and that crown jewel of France, HermĂšs. I think it was typically the Quakers with a strong social conscience and work ethic who founded and ran their business like that; and they tended to rise to the top of their trades.

Last edited 3 years ago by Johannes Kreisler
G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago

“It doesn’t fit into an existing set of policies or an existing philosophical agenda.”

Can’t really see why some people have a problem recognising that other people see a wider, longer term social value in something that they can’t, not least usually because they don’t see it as sufficiently profitable.

This blinkered thinking has blighted many a community in the UK for generations now whereby everything is evaluated purely by the apparently harsh-but-fair myopic values of ‘the market’ rather than by other significant, though less immediately tangible contributing factors.

Governments, of course, make these decisions all the time, and often their ‘socialist’ subsidies amount to little more than state aided welfare hand-outs to multinational corporate behemoths owned by remote, faceless, lightly taxed shareholders so it’s difficult to see why the idea of a domestic, flourishing, unsubsidised, socially useful, worker owned and taxed business should somehow be seen as the antithesis of ‘capitalism’ by comparison when in fact it is a far truer representation of it.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago
Reply to  G Harris

Maybe the problem is the words we use. Worker owned businesses are seen as the antithesis of capitalism because they are the very definition of socialism. People assume capitalism means Amazon or Shell and socialism means USSR or Cuba – we always tend to extremes to provide our examples. Actually, both capitalism and socialism want the same thing, maximisation of shareholder/stakeholder value. The differences are in how you define the shareholder/stakeholders whose value you want to maximise.

Last edited 3 years ago by Last Jacobin
G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

Absolutely. Couldn’t agree more.

Words and language, like numbers, can be used as much to deceive as they can to clarify, which is why I’m always inherently suspicious of them.

Net outcomes, be they positive or negative, are always what ultimately count.

The words used to describe and define the ideologies, the processes or the ‘good’ intentions deployed along the way are all largely irrelevant.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  G Harris

I’ve been involved with several startups in which the company was owned by employees. But every employee doesn’t own the same number of shares, employees bought in whatever they wanted to and could, buy. This type of company is nothing if not capitalist helped along by the fact that since everyone is an owner everyone wants to see the company do well. 
This does not mean that decision making is shared equally by everyone in the company.

Last edited 3 years ago by Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

“Maybe the problem is the words we use. Worker owned businesses are seen as the antithesis of capitalism because they are the very definition of socialism.”
Not at all. I’ve been involved with several startups in which the company was owned by employees. But every employee doesn’t own the same number of shares, employees bought in whatever they wanted to and could, buy. This type of company is nothing if not capitalist helped along by the fact that since everyone is an owner everyone wants to see the company do well.
This does not mean that decision making is shared equally by everyone in the company.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
3 years ago

How inspiring to read of someone who has prioritised their principles over their pocket!

Bruce Smith
Bruce Smith
3 years ago

To return to the original discussion (before it was hijacked by community-phobia!) I have been a supporter, like many of us, of co-ownership for many years. In fact, my first vote was for the Liberals because I was under the impression that was part of their manifesto.
So let’s hope it continues to grow. The idea of shareholders being paid for doing nothing – and, yes, I am a shareholder – to receive dividends which (as far as the Companies that dish them out are concerned) seem to be almost the most sacrosanct duty of the organisation, is in need of an overhaul.
Could I also say that the standard of good manners in these comment columns is impressive. Thank you for making the experience such a pleasure. (In contrast to The Times comment columns, which are full of vitriol and pettiness. Could it be something to do with having to declare one’s real name rather than go under an alias?)

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
3 years ago
Reply to  Bruce Smith

I don’t think that its *dividends* these days that most companies are concentrating on generating, but increased stock prices. Until they go bust. Which then makes them a good thing to buy and the whole merry-go-up starts all over again. One of the things I like about such co-ownership is the prospect of getting the wealth out of the corporations and into the hands of somebody who will actually spend it to buy something that is not a financial instrument.
But I worry about hostile takeovers. How much money do you need to keep in the company to keep some snake from buying you, and making you more efficient — i.e. no longer doing all those things the worker-owner want to do?

Last edited 3 years ago by Laura Creighton
Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
3 years ago

This kind of thing was what the original communists wanted. Communes. Marxism destroyed all that.

It’s nice to think it could work but getting more capital could be an issue.

Johannes Kreisler
Johannes Kreisler
3 years ago

A pretty successful model for that was the TĂĄborites in 15th century Bohemia. They persisted for roughly 30 years, it was military intervention what ended the project, not internal dysfunction. Capital was created within, and by trade with the surrounding peasantry who were very supportive of the TĂĄborites. It was an autonomous, self-governing town, independent from Church and Emperor.

Vic Timov
Vic Timov
3 years ago

Quite a good bit on the Taborites and other mediaeval utopian groups in Prof. Norman Cohn’s excellent book The Pursuit of the Millennium.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago

Interesting!
I guess the next logical question is that can such communes exist successfully without the luxury of having some sort of protector community above and around them?
That is, at a local level, yes communes could work in specific cases and thrive, but only if they happen to be allowed the relative peace from without.

Johannes Kreisler
Johannes Kreisler
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

Probably the organic outcome (the one without military suppression) could have been Taborism merging into its (sympathetic) surroundings, therefore losing its insular status and becoming the mainstream for the region. Then possibly expanding further. Bit like how Switzerland happened. The Taborites / Husites were an early sort of protestants, minus the angry puritan agenda (being true Czechs, they loved the finer things of life.)

Last edited 3 years ago by Johannes Kreisler
Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
3 years ago

Seems to me these ideas are just small scale capitalism. Just that it is the taxpayer putting up the capital.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago

You could describe it that way but, with a broader objective than maximising shareholder financial return. Isn’t the point of the exercise that most people don’t want to maximise profit at the expense of all else and so if alternative supplies of capital can be found alternative models of capitalism could develop? The taxpayer, who is also the worker, would be repaid.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago

“Seems to me these ideas are just small scale capitalism. Just that it is the taxpayer putting up the capital.”
Yes and we already have a version of this through mutual funds. Rather than investing in companies individually, investors can cover a number of companies sometimes hundreds in a single investment. These appeal because taxpayers as a group don’t have great investment skills or knowledge so they are safer spreading their risk. Funds have management teams picking the investments.
We would have the same thing with direct taxpayer investment. It would not work to ask each taxpayer what they wanted to invest in, you’d still have to have a team of professionals directing the investment of some large fund of taxpayer money. And those professionals would be looking for maximum returns or they would not keep the job for long. Taxpayers would not simply turn money over and pretend that what the managers did with it doesn’t matter. We have already tried that, it’s called Social Security and the federal government has succeeded in nearly bankrupting it even in decades when the stock market was on fire.

Last edited 3 years ago by Annette Kralendijk
Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago

If anti-capitalism has become fashionable, it’s partly because the modern workplace often makes people feel disempowered.
Perhaps, but today it is largely unfashionable due to sheer economic ignorance. It’s almost a punchline how those who rail against it do so using systems, platforms, and products made possible by capitalism. In the US, they freely ignore that European style benefits are made possible because of the taxes imposed on productive activity.
Beyond that, people have felt “disempowered” in the workplace since the advent of the workplace. Unless you own the business, you are working for someone else and that can sometimes be unpleasant. The boss doesn’t ask everyone’s opinion on all matters; every decision is not put to a workforce vote. We are among history’s all-time one-percent, largely due to the forces unleashed by capitalism, yet remain intent on killing the goose.

William MacDougall
William MacDougall
3 years ago

Of course a wealthy man, like Singh-Watson or John Lewis may give part or all of his company to his workers if he wants. But there’s no reason for the state to encourage that over other possibly more worthy charitable causes. Nor is an economy dominated by worker owned companies likely to be healthier than one dominated by capitalist owned companies. In the former, worker owners have an incentive to under-employ labour, as each extra worker hired dilutes their share of the company. And it will have difficulty raising adequate capital without diluting worker control, so the firms are likely to be undercapitalised. With too little capital and too few workers, growth is likely to suffer.

Malcolm Ripley
Malcolm Ripley
3 years ago

Pure capitalism leads to monopolies and exploitation, hence government regulations. Marxism leads to a lack of innovation and pointless work (Soviet Russia). The answer lies between the two. Defenders of market forces always seem to use consumer goods such as TV’s as examples of the market. I have never ever heard of water, health (US), transport etc used as shining examples of market forces ! I wonder why.
It seems clear to me that “services” and essential goods do not respond well to the profit motive. People feel exploited when prices on essential goods are fixed to maximise profits, and rightly so. They never complain if TV’s are priced too high they just don’t buy them.
As the article points out people feel disenfranchised within a company managed by a few (usually wealthy beyond the capacity to spend it) whose employees just scrape by , often with overtime or multiple jobs. The inequality is the problem.
Employee owned companies solve both problems. I would argue that an employee owned NHS would be far more efficient and would most definitely work in the interest of the general public. Almost everyone is related to an NHS employee, the last thing they want is grief from the family!

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Malcolm Ripley

I have never ever heard of water, health (US), transport etc used as shining examples of market forces !
I’ve never heard of automobile manufacturing, technology development, and apparel design as examples of govt expertise, either, so what’s your point? As to health, there is no shortage of private practitioners in the US, nor are they unknown in Europe.
Transport almost never pays for itself, and we have things called Uber and Lyft that are privately-owned. It’s almost as if govt is not necessarily the best way to do something.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Don’t think Uber have made a profit, yet. Apart from the bit benefiting from Deliveries due to Covid. Private Health Practitioners in USA are notoriously inefficient (in financial and health equity terms).
I don’t think the argument was being made for more government – it was being made for greater equality of reward through worker ownership.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Government intervention has not helped companies become more profitable. If anything it hurts that effort. Obamacare would be a good example, care immediately becomes more expensive pricing many out of the market.
Malcolm is making the classic mistake of believing that companies with high levels of employee stock ownership give all employees an equal say in the company’s management. That isn’t how it works. Such companies are still managed by a few as he notes. Where the employees benefit is that they are rewarded twice, once with their salary and once through ownership benefits, stock price appreciation as well as potential dividends if it’s a dividend paying company.
Employees can create this double benefit through the purchase of shares in their company and many do, especially if they have an ESOP.

Last edited 3 years ago by Annette Kralendijk
Stewart Slater
Stewart Slater
3 years ago

Businesses exist primarily to make their customers happy – if they don’t, they go out of business. One of the ways they do so is by offering low prices, usually as a result of scale benefits which these social enterprises will struggle to generate. Therefore, the result is that while the employees of the enterprise will benefit, consumers will suffer.
By all means, those who chose to pay more than they need to should be allowed to do so, but I don’t think we should see it as best practice, more a luxury good for the middle classes.
While the author may not like “ruthlessly competitive Britain”, it’s living standards are the highest they ever have been…

Michael James
Michael James
3 years ago

The employer-employee relationship (worker versus boss) is a relic of feudal times. It should be replaced with a proper commercial contractual relationship in which both parties negotiate the terms.

Last edited 3 years ago by Michael James
Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  Michael James

Bosses are employees as well. And every employer- employee relationship is a contract. You work this many hours doing this work in exchange for this pay. And you do negotiate the terms.

Stephen T
Stephen T
3 years ago
Reply to  Michael James

ie remove government red tape

Alex Delszsen
Alex Delszsen
3 years ago

I wish. Democracy sucks. A senator with the duty of oversight is not allowed to document the situation at the border. Middle Management Jobsworth Everywhere patronizes him, saying “ We all want the best for these children, but you are compromising their dignity” or words to that effect, in a way just to shut him up. These ungodly people are everywhere raised up in corporate life, doing the masters’ work, and enjoying their rank inhumanity. Good luck.

Last edited 3 years ago by Alex Delszsen
Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Delszsen

I don’t about that. That Senator got the photos AND got the Biden apparatchik on camera trying to hide what was going on. I’d say that is a double win.

Gerard Rotonda
Gerard Rotonda
2 years ago

In favor of capitalism. The U.S. will enter a recession in early 2023, as inflation hit 8.3% in April (a 40 year high).  Never before has The Fed unwind it’s $9 Trillion balance sheet, Quantitative Tightening “QT” will tighten credit in the U.S.  The Fed will reduce its balance sheet by $3 Trillion.  As Jamie Dimon stated, “Brace Yourself”, economic “Hurricane” coming as a result of the hawkish Fed, rising inflation and Russia increased price of food and oil.  The words from one of the smartest CEO’s in the world should have us all factoring this into our current strategic plans and impacts our tactics and allocation of resources so that we can stay in control and avoid a hard landing.  Gerard Rotonda

Last edited 2 years ago by Gerard Rotonda
Gerard Rotonda
Gerard Rotonda
2 years ago

In favor of capitalism. The U.S. will enter a recession in early 2023, as inflation hit 8.3% in April (a 40 year high).  Never before has The Fed unwind it’s $9 Trillion balance sheet, Quantitative Tightening “QT” will tighten credit in the U.S.  The Fed will reduce its balance sheet by $3 Trillion.  As Jamie Dimon stated, “Brace Yourself”, economic “Hurricane” coming as a result of the hawkish Fed, rising inflation and Russia increased price of food and oil.  The words from one of the smartest CEO’s in the world should have us all factoring this into our current strategic plans and impacts our tactics and allocation of resources so that we can stay in control and avoid a hard landing.  Gerard Rotonda

Last edited 2 years ago by Gerard Rotonda
Antony Hirst
Antony Hirst
3 years ago

My feeling is that the Elephant in the room is, the more choice, freedom, and options you give people, the more miserable, angry, and frustrated they get.

Karl Schuldes
Karl Schuldes
3 years ago

It seems these community businesses are only good at taking over existing businesses that were started by individuals. I don’t envision a business started by forty people getting together.

Chris Mackay
Chris Mackay
3 years ago

Communal ownership and management of resources is widely practiced; take PNG as one example; however, the reality is that an elite is always created. Eventually, to recover the ‘ideal’ of joint ownership, a renewal process is needed and this is usually a generational matter.

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
3 years ago

Check out the work of Brazilian industrialist Ricardo Semler, who restructured his father’s enginering business from autocratic to participatory.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
3 years ago

Arguably Britain as a global trading nation needs to be a bit more ‘ruthlessly competitive’ rather than less.

I have no problem with a fair deal being given to mutuals and social enterprises where they can operate efficiently and provide good services to their customers, or if you prefer ‘the community’.

However there can be a real conflict between the short or medium term interests of the workers in such enterprises and the long term interests of the organisation.

The experience we have, such as it is, is not that encouraging, for example the disastrous Meriden motorcycle cooperative set up by Tony Benn of the 1970s. And social enterprises never seem to be good at ruthlessly being entrepreneurial and growth. John Lewis still seems to be the only famous large scale and successful example.

Last edited 3 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Claire D
Claire D
3 years ago

Only just read this.
I hope you’re right Dan, but I think it’ll always be a minor part of business, it just does’nt fit with human nature, as a natural development anyway.
It’s bit like wishing everyone was nicer and the business world fairer.

Last edited 3 years ago by Claire D
Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
3 years ago

A perhaps relevant story: Our favourite place to eat or get a coffee where we previously worked started as a normal business and then was converted into a “Workers Co-op” by it’s progressive owner who wanted to retire. At that time it was the most successful and hip coffee shop/eatery in town, famous for great coffee and desserts and a funky vibe.
The first thing that happened was the sharps containers in the bathrooms, there for “people who use substances” to discard their needles. The bathroom stalls became occupied for longer and longer periods of time.
Second, when everyone is boss, who cleans the loo? The answer was – nobody. Things got progressively dirtier.
When everyone is boss, who tells you to stop loafing and get the hell to work? The answer again – nobody. Several times I would be there in a long line, while 3 of 4 staff were out back smoking dope.
The final straw was that the progressive staff decided that they would only force people to pay who could afford to pay. ie: if you had spent all your money on booze or drugs, and wanted a coffee, this was the place to come. And you could sit and drink as long as you wanted. So the shop gradually became a haven for urine-soaked homeless people who hadn’t showered since the Vietnam war. So normal people (who actually paid for their purchases) stopped coming.
The shop went out of business.
JBP says it best – we have hierarchies for a reason. Communism is a great idea in principle, but doesn’t work in practice. Good luck to the veggie delivery company. We’ll see if they have set up a structure (hierarchy) that is robust enough that they actually stay viable over time.

ÎœÎ±ÏÎłÎ±ÏÎŻÏ„Î± Î€ÎŹÎœÏ„ÏƒÎ·
ÎœÎ±ÏÎłÎ±ÏÎŻÏ„Î± Î€ÎŹÎœÏ„ÏƒÎ·
3 years ago

Community cooperations are time bombs.
Although excellent in conception they require an everlasting honesty and socio-political maturity from all its contributors in order to work.
This prerequisite renders them utopical.