Some hypotheses regarding the conspicuous absence of worker-owned businesses



Yesterday, I saw this story about workers taking over an abandoned factory in Greece. And it does sound pretty great for the workers! Which, of course, raises the question of why we don’t routinely see this in every sector of the economy–why we don’t have all sorts of worker-owned factories and stores and whatnot. There is definitely no hard prohibition on worker-owned businesses in capitalist countries, and having lots of these businesses thriving would be great proofs-of-concept for socialism and their existence in itself would be a significant step toward transition into socialism more broadly.

But almost no businesses operate this way. Off the top of my head, I can think of only a couple of exceptions. One-man businesses, of course, trivially fit the category. Some family businesses kind of fit. And food coops seem like the purest example of the kind.

I’m just going to throw out as many ideas as I can that might explain this absence. Some are cumulative and others are complementary with each other, and range from left to right in very roughly that order.

  • Plain unfamiliarity with the concept
  • Licensing or other legislation places significant hurdles to the formation of this kind of business
  • Ideological hostility to “socialism”
  • These kinds of initiatives are systematically sabotaged by existing government or business powers
  • Worker-owned businesses will generally sacrifice profits for their worker-owners’ comfort and well-being, and are thus outcompeted
  • Workers are unable to accumulate enough capital to start a business
  • Lack of existing models and institutions that facilitate their formation and operation
  • Lack of trust in what is a relatively large group of people
  • Cooperation breaks down without strong social bonds (i.e. why family businesses work)
  • Workers make a rational choice to be employees, eschewing the risks and commitments of ownership
  • Businesses with hierarchical structures are more efficient and effective
  • Small and medium businesses rely on one or a few owners whose self-interest strongly aligns with the long-term health of the business and are willing to make significant personal sacrifices for its success
  • The skills and disposition necessary to successfully operate a business are rare enough that upper management needs to be entrusted to one or a few, and breaks down in a collective process


there’s a company (i think? i don’t know if it doesn’t count as a single company or what) called ‘the co-op’ that is basically this i think, except they do a bunch of stuff. there’s co op grocery stores/ supermarkets, theres co op funeral care, a co op bank, co op insurance etc.

so there kind of is ONE group of people doing it it seems.

Workers make a rational choice to be employees, eschewing the risks and commitments of ownership

That’s the one in my case. I don’t work for stock options, I don’t want to be a joint owner, I don’t put my pension money into the company I work for.

“Hey Shieldfoss! Do you want your source of income and your major deposit of capital to be the same thing so a poor business decision will ruin you twice over?”

“Hello Stranger! Thank you for your concern! The answer is no the fuck I don’t!

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