Ness and Azzellini's 'Ours to Master and to Own' is an easy to read, seemingly all-encompassing compendium on workers' control/industrial democracy. Immanuel Ness is a Professor at Brooklyn College, Dario Azzellini a sociology lecturer who teaches in Linz, Austria.
Workers' control and industrial democracy, these two more or less interchangeable terms refer to the various ways of trying to introduce democracy into industry/the workplace. This can be done via electing managers, creating elected 'workers' councils' to govern a business on behalf of all of its staff, or by requiring business decisions to be approved of by the votes of staff. Attempts at pursuing these aims and placing power in the hands of staff as a whole, rather than an elite bureaucratic minority, have been undertaken by people ranging from Socialists and Communists in 19th century Paris, working class Germans in the First World War and the workers of bankrupt factories in 1990s Brazil and Bengal.
The book draws on a variety of knowledgeable and highly fluent authors (Ralf Hoffrogge, Zbigniew Marcin Kowalewski, Marina Kabat to name a few) who each have written relatively short essays (22 essays in total) on the same theme - each essay dealing with a different place and time. In these essays constant detail is given to the viability and success of these radical forms of organising industry. For Ness workplace/industrial democracy is implied to be the great solution to society's problems, a solution which draws on a simple but pure concept of democracy in order to better the lives of ordinary people. For Ness industrial democracy is socialism at its most democratic and most pure. An interest in promoting equality is sometimes present but never becomes the key theme in a book which is ultimately about people taking power into their own hands and deciding themselves, from the grassroots.
Again and again the authors give the impression that such forms of organisation did not 'die natural deaths' but were instead crushed by intimidation or state violence. The introduction explicitly suggests that the biggest threat to industrial democracy is not that concern over whether industrial democracy can work, but rather that those people with large amounts of economic power are very reluctant to allow industrial democracy to flourish. This impression is reinforced again and again by examples of opposition to industrial democracy from people ranging from Vladimir Lenin to English factory owners to Bengali, Brazilian and Venezuelan businessman. The reason for this deep reluctance and opposition from elite businessman and businesswoman (what American protesters call the 'corporatocracy', what Marx and his worshippers call the 'bourgeoisie') is simple. Those who have a great degree of wealth and power have an obvious incentive to try and keep as much as they can. This is why as the book documents civil disobedience such as occupying factories or out of the blue strikes were at least effective at the start for those trying implement workplace democracy.
'Ours to Master and to Own' gives an assiduously well researched account of workers relentless attempts to implement workplace democracy across the globe. All of the chapters are worthwhile and (the German historian) Ralf Hoffrogge's essay was a particular personal favourite. I am certain I will be revisiting the pages of this book over the coming months and years, and it appears to be well worth the book's pretty hefty price (thank you Amazon you tax evading berk).
A phenomenally enlightening and engaging work of politics, economics and history. I would recommend this 400ish page compendium to anyone with an interest in any humanities related subject (be it history, politics, sociology or another). I expect it won't be very long until I try and force someone else to read this excellent piece of history.
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