The Progressive Economics Forum

Economic Democracy
The Working Class Alternative to Capitalism

By Allan Engler  

This little book deserves notice simply because it comes right from the trenches, authored by a life-long trade unionist who has also taken the time and effort to research and write a significant contribution to our portfolio of economic and political alternatives. Al Engler has been active for decades with the longshore union in Vancouver (one of Canada’s most progressive unions) and the Vancouver Labour Council. This well-researched book is a fine example of the sort of worker-friendly political-economy education for trade unionists that our labour movement needs a lot more of.

Engler’s book is divided into three parts, although this time there’s a stronger story line that links them. Part I provides a critical review of capitalism. Part II describes Engler’s posited alternative, which he calls “Economic Democracy.” Finally, Part III discusses political strategy (namely, how to get there). In each case the discussion is well-documented, including both references to historical thinkers, and modern real-world examples (many of them Canadian). Engler’s critique of capitalism emphasizes its democratic failings-presumably to better contrast it with the more democratic features of his preferred alternative. The systemic failings which he catalogues are familiar ground to most of us, yet compiling them in one place, and conveying them with an honest sense of righteous outrage, is valuable.

Part II is the core of the book. Here Engler sketches out the features of a society in which conscious, collective oversight of the economy replaces the effective economic dictatorship which prevails in a business-dominated system. Engler sketches out a system of worker democracy in individual enterprises, along with community economic ownership and decentralized planning. In this regard his work is quite complementary to other work on “participatory economics” (Michael Albert et al.) or the “solidarity” economy. Because Engler is painting a picture of the ideal world he would like to see, this section reads as quite utopian.

However, Engler addresses the crucial question of how we build this idealized world in his final part. He reviews the failings of both statist and social-democratic strategies. He concludes, rightly, that we will build economic democracy by fighting many little pragmatic battles-but also by keeping our eyes on a farther-off horizon which promises something bigger.

Engler’s book will stimulate more questions for many readers than it answers, particularly regarding some of the economic details of his vision of economic democracy (such as precisely how firms would be governed in this system, to ensure both economic efficiency and popular accountability). But that’s just fine: anything that gets labour activists thinking structurally about the system we live in, and how we want to change it, is a step in the right direction. Economic Democracy is a fine introduction, written in clear but passionate language, to the failings of capitalism, and the elements of a better alternative.

–by Jim Stanford,, July 2, 2010

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