11:   Extract from Economic Democracy

C H Douglas (1920)

Now if there is any sanity left in the world at all, it should be obvious that the real demand is the proper objective of production, and that it must be met from the bottom upwards, that is to say, there must be first a production of necessaries sufficient to meet universal requirements; and, secondly, an economic system must be devised to ensure their practically automatic and universal distribution; this having been achieved it may be followed to whatever extent may prove desirable by the manufacture of articles having a more limited range of usefulness. All financial questions are quite beside the point; if finance cannot meet this simple proposition then finance fails, and will be replaced. It has been estimated that two hours per week of the time of every fit adult between the ages of 18 and 45 would provide for a uniformly high standard of physical welfare under existing conditions, and without endorsing the exact figures it is perfectly certain that distribution and not manufacture is the real economic problem and is at present quite intolerably unsatisfactory. There is no need to assume that the whole machinery of business as we know it must be scrapped; in fact, the machinery of business, as machinery, is highly efficient; but it must undoubtedly be adjusted so that no selfish desire for domination can make it possible for any interest to hold up distribution on purely artificial grounds. Since the analysis of existing conditions which we have undertaken shows that any centralised administrative organisation is certain to be captured by some interest antagonistic to the individual, it seems evident that it is in the direction of decentralisation of control that we must look for such alteration in the social structure as would be self-protective against capture for interested purposes.

As we have already seen, alongside the concentration of political and industrial power a powerful decentralising force is already beginning to show itself in various forms. In considering the manifestation of this force it will be observed that at the moment it is seeking expression through organization – in new forms, but for the present operating with old sources of energy, chiefly negative in character, such as the strike. To be effective, however, against positive centralisation, positive decentralisation will have to come – decentralised economic power is necessary.

Among the more important of these forms is the shop steward or rank-and-file movement in industry, and the workmen’s councils in politics, both purely decentralising in tendency, quite apart from any special policy for the furtherance of which they may be used. The apprehension with which the movements are regarded by the reactionary capitalist is based far more on a recognition of the difficulties such a scheme of organisation offers to successful corruption and capture than to any regard for the specific items in the policy it may for the moment represent; most of which have been previously parried with ease when presented through delegated Trade Union leaders, whose position of authority have been perforce achieved by exactly the methods best understood by those with whom they have to deal.

As the Shop Steward movement is the most definite industrial recognition from the Labour side, of the necessity for decentralisation, some examination of the general scheme is of interest. The actual details of the organisation vary from place to place, trade to trade, and even day to day; but the essence of the idea consists in the adoption of a decentralised unit of production such as the "shop" or department, and the substitution of actual workers in considerable numbers, for the paid Trade Union official as the nucleoli of both industrial and political power (although the political power is not exercised through Parliamentary channels).

The shop steward is generally "industrial" rather than "craft" in interest; that is to say, he represents a body of men who produce an article, rather than a section who perform one class of operation for widely different ends; but there is nothing inherently antagonistic as between the two conceptions of function, Industrial Unionism being largely a militant device. He is quite limited in his sphere of action, but initiates general discussion on the basis of first-hand information, and forms a link between the decentralised industrial unit and other units which may be concerned. The practical effect of the arrangement is that the spokesmen are never out of touch with those for whom they speak, since the normal occupation and remuneration of representatives is similar to that of those they represent; and should any cleavage occur, a change of representative can be easily secured. The official concerned has, in theory, no executive authority whatever, nor can he take any action not supported by his co-workers, i.e. the direction of policy is from the bottom upwards instead of the top downwards. The individual shop stewards are banded together in a shop stewards’ committee, which has again only just as much authority as the individual workers care to delegate to it.

It is, of course, obvious that the permanent success of any arrangement of this character depends on a common recognition amongst the individuals affected by the organization, of certain principles as "confirming standards of reference." In short, it would be impossible to administer a complicated manufacturing concern on any such principles unless the general body of employees had a general appreciation of the fundamental necessities of the business, inclusive of direction and technical design.

In other words, and in a more general sense all political arrangements of this or any other description simply provide a mechanism for the administration of an agreed system – they are not, and cannot in their very nature be that system in itself.

Where, of course, it is clear that there is a confusion of function is, that the shop steward claims control not only of the conditions of production, but eventually of the terms of distribution. This confusion is quite inevitable at present, but is not necessarily permanent, and is obviously undesirable. It is based on the fallacy that labour, as such, produces all wealth, whereas the simple fact is that production is 95 per cent. a matter of tools and process, which tools and process form the cultural inheritance of the community not as workers, but as a community, and as such the community is most clearly the proper though far from being the legal, administrator of it.