Pandemic crisis and beyond: From a graduate seminar on economic democracy
to possible solutions to the COVID-19 Crisis
LHA1148: Introduction to
Workplace, Organizational, and Economic Democracy ("the COVID-19 Edition")
Program in Adult Education and Community Development graduate seminar (May-June 2020)
Instructor and Course Designer:
Prof. Marcelo Vieta
This is the social action and intervention, community education, and legacy website of our Summer Session 1 2020 online graduate class, LHA1148: Introduction to Workplace, Organizational, and Economic Democracy. This version of the course was subtitled "the COVID-19 edition". The course took place during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic and socio-economic crisis, between May-June 2020. It was offered as a full credit, graduate level course in the Program in Adult Education and Community Development (AECD) at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT). Designed and taught by Prof. Marcelo Vieta, the course took on as its main contextual theme the economic and social ills caused by the emerging COVID-19 pandemic and how the proposals and practices of economic democracy can respond to the crisis. This website and the learning that took place in the course was co-constructed in a spirit of collaborative learning by the 36 graduate students that took the course, the instructor, and the two invited lecturers, M. Derya Tarhan and Lisa Mychajluk.
The course is regularly offered in AECD by Prof. Vieta. It explores theories and practices of workplace, organizational, and economic democracy as alternatives to the myriad crises caused by 21st century capitalism. Given the quickly escalating socio-economic crisis we were living through when the course took place, and the myriad community needs and solutions from the grassroots being proposed and practiced at the time, this version of the course had to be “the COVID-19 edition”. The course seized on the pandemic crisis, and the related viruses of supremacist racism, the rise of authoritarianism, and environmental catastrophe, as a moment for pause and reflection, of learning, and of social intervention and care.
The course looks at the many ways that people and communities around the world have been creating new socio-economic realities by taking control of workplaces, organizations, the broader economy, and their everyday lives in order to directly address diminishing job prospects, unequal wealth distribution, environmental degradation, and now, with this iteration of the course, the socio-economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The essays included here, written by students from the seminar, highlight some of the proposals and myriad ways that communities themselves are tackling and envisioning life beyond the crises wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic - a crisis compounded by the inequalities, marginalizations, and individualist obsessions of contemporary capitalism and its subservient nation-states.
In the course we critically assess both initiatives that seek to reform existing hierarchical work organizations and capitalist economic arrangements, as well as new community-initiated socio-economic models striving to rescue and transform our economy. We engage in this critical reflection by meditating on these initiatives’ historical contexts; structural dynamics; and the social, political, and ethical issues that interlace them. Ultimately, we reflect on the potential of broadening the sphere of economic democracy, where workers and communities are co-responsible for or co-own economic organizations and actively participate in decision-making.
In this COVID-19 edition of the course, we spend time also reflecting on the coronavirus pandemic as a socio-economic crisis and opening: How did we get here? What are the current community-led and social and solidarity economy responses to the crisis? What policies need to be implemented to secure the social and economic wellbeing of our communities? What promises could workplace and economic democracy offer for the rebuilding to come in our post-COVID-19 world?
Throughout the course, we apply theory to practice via multiple case studies of democratic forms of economic organizing from the global North and South. We also draw on students’ own experiences with work, participative and inclusive organizations, and alternative economic arrangements in the for-profit, not-for-profit, and public sectors.
While acknowledging our current existential uncertainties, injustices, oppressions, and fears, we do not linger there in this course; we primarily embrace a position of hope and possibility in alternative/other socio-economic organizing. Crises also teach us new things and can spawn deep, long-lasting, and positive social change. “Crisis blows open the sense of what is possible” Naomi Klein recently stated. During an earlier period of social upheaval in the 1960s, critical theorist Herbert Marcuse proposed that crises are moments of “potentiality” for something else. Elizabeth Drabble put it succinctly in her 1980 novel, The Middle Ground: “Anything is possible, it is all undecided.”
This course was already timely before the pandemic struck. Our global economic system based on the rules of neoliberal capitalism was already in crisis. Businesses and other work organizations in many countries had been restructuring or closing in record numbers in the wake of austerity measures. Inequality was growing ever wider. The status-quo economic system – neoliberal capitalism – has had a horrible track record with the environment. And jobs were already hard to find, and when we did find one they often fell short in bringing security and fulfilment to our lives. Now, all of these socio-economic ills have compounded with the pandemic. Can workers and communities do it better? Is economic democracy the way forward? And, if so, how do we get there? These are the key questions that guide the course.