The Tyranny of the Majority

Dear Professor Wolff, My name is Chris and I am writing to you from Australia. I am a huge fan of yours and I listen to your radio program religiously every week. Firstly I would like to thank you for all your efforts and your bravery in being able to talk about something which has been considered taboo for such a long time. It must have been very difficult to be against capitalism throughout the Cold War period so I have to thank you for not giving up in the face of all the demonisation and dismissal of socialist views. I wholeheartedly agree with your criticism of capitalism and the need to go beyond it. I have been thinking about this a lot over the past year and have been looking for alternative systems. As difficult as it is to predict the future, I think it is important that we discuss how alternative systems might work and what their advantages and potential flaws are. My question is, whilst capitalism gives a minority of the population (capitalists) power over the majority through their ownership and control over almost all of the means of production in society, do you think it is possible for the opposite to develop in a system comprised of worker cooperatives? By this I mean a situation in which the majority dominates and exploits a minority i.e. what is often termed the 'Tyranny of the Majority'. To my understanding (and correct me if I'm wrong), the root cause of the problem in capitalism is that most people (workers) cannot access the means of production which is absolutely essential for them in order to work and make a decent living, without getting permission from a member of a tiny group of people who privately own and therefore control those resources (capitalists). This leads to a situation in which the best choice available to the majority of the population is to agree to an employment contract in which they have to agree to be bossed around all day during work hours and give up a huge chunk of what they produce every day to the proprietor. Thus, the root cause of exploitation is the denial of peoples' freedom to access the resources they need to make a decent living without having to get permission from someone else. In a system of worker co-ops, presumably each co-op would control its respective means of production, with the control divided up equally amongst each co-ops' members (one person - one vote). If this is the case, then presumably each co-op would have the power to exclude people from joining the co-op and accessing its means of production, as well as being able to revoke a person's membership, otherwise it would just be purely common property that anyone could access. If all of the means of production in society is owned by different co-ops, then what happens to the people who do not belong to a co-op? Wouldn't they face a similar sort of dilemma as the worker in capitalism? If they do not have any capital themselves, then the only way they could access the means of production they need in order to make a decent living would be to get permission from a co-op. This would give the current members of co-ops a degree of power over the rest of the population, as they (democratically) control the means of production and could therefore impose conditions on anyone joining, similar to the way capitalists make workers sign employment contracts. The people who do not currently belogn to a co-op would have no better choice than to agree to a contract of this nature with a co-op, otherwise they would not be allowed to access a means of production. What is to stop co-ops from deciding, democratically, to pay new members less than existing members for the same work, thereby exploiting them. Particularly if they are under competitive pressure in a market, it is not difficult to imagine them doing this to remain competitive. Of course it may be objected that when a worker joins a co-op they get one vote, so everyone has a say over how the means of production is used. However, if a co-op already has thousands or more members in it, then the one vote of the new member is insignificant compared to the democratic will of the existing members. What happens to people who get out-voted and cannot find a co-op in which they can see eye to eye with the members? What about people who do not wish to join an existing co-op and would rather start their own or work for themselves? Where would they get access to the capital required to do this? What if the majority uses their democratic power over the means of production to discriminate against and exploit a minority of the population? I suppose this is a flaw of democracy itself, and it's probably better than the 'Tyranny of the Minority' that we have in capitalism, but at the same time as a libertarian socialist who sees the root of exploitation as the denial of individual liberty, I don't think we can dismiss this problem. Just ask the Jews who survived the death camps of Nazi Germany what majority rule can do. The other problem I can see is that what happens as co-ops accumulate capital? The value of the capital controlled by some co-ops may become greater than others, thereby giving their members control over a larger amount of capital than everyone else in society, potentially leading to capitalist type relations between people. Do you think that these are legitimate concerns or is there some sort of economic dynamic that I'm missing that would prevent these sorts of problems from manifesting? If these are indeed potential problems, are there any safeguards we could put in place to prevent these sorts of problems from happening? The only way I can think of is to come up with a system in which somehow every working age person is guaranteed control over an equal portion of society's means of production and land. What are your thoughts? Sorry for the long winded post, I always get a bit carried away. Hopefully I explained myself OK. Thank you very much for taking the time to read it I really do appreciate it. Keep up the good work, Chris


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