• Marcelo Vieta

Shifting Consciousness Towards Economic Democracy Through Education and Social Competencies

Updated: Aug 4

By Lidia Mestnik

Themes: Education and Learning, Economy, Enterprise, Policy

Article 25 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. 

The neoliberal policies that have dominated socioeconomics globally over the past 40 years actually counteract these rights through ever increasing privatization and deregulation of business practices. The policies have led to unsustainable growth, environmental degradation and intensified disenfranchisement. Privatization has extended into almost every realm of our lives, enclosing land and resources, including labour, food, energy and knowledge. From an economic standpoint, COVID-19 has starkly exposed the vulnerabilities of our current neoliberal system, with massive temporary or permanent layoffs, business closures, and estimates of tens of millions of people being driven to extreme poverty (Partington, 2020). The focus on profits over people, and the shift to global production and distribution has curtailed access to essentials such as personal protective equipment (PPE), leaving millions vulnerable to poverty, homelessness, and even death.

To reduce financial inequality and improve access to a wide array of life essentials, a more democratic economy, including increased cooperation among businesses and workers, especially on a local level, is necessary. However, with wealthy and powerful corporations influencing both politics and consumers, economic democracy will only be welcomed on a global scale if we can achieve a shift in social consciousness. In this paper, I will argue that advancing economic democracy will require both formal and informal education, and the availability of viable alternatives, such as worker cooperatives. It will also require that we improve our social competencies in order to build allegiances with dissenters.

Viable Alternatives

Economic democracy as an alternative to neoliberalism

Educating people about the disadvantages of neoliberalism must be supplemented by the benefits of a more democratic economic system. This may include ensuring stronger social services such as a more comprehensive healthcare system, education, and some form of basic guaranteed income. When it comes to funding these services, we need to rethink how we evaluate “costs” and “benefits”. We also need to reconsider how we assess business profits and start taking into account market externalities such as pollution, non-wage work such as child-rearing, and the physical and mental health consequences of neoliberal workplaces and consumer-driven cultures. We also need to inform people, both children and adults, of viable alternatives, such as the benefits of producing and buying locally, to ensure self-sufficiency and that people can access necessities when needed, such as fresh, nutritious food and PPE. This does not mean that we stop international trade, but we should be looking to mutually benefit from import-export businesses, as was originally promised in the “trickle down” discourses of global trade advocates, rather than just the corporations and traders who currently benefit.

Although proponents focus on different aspects of economic democracy, Tom Malleson’s vision for it includes democratic workplaces (e.g. worker cooperatives), a democratic market system where “co-ops and consumers interact with each other and are coordinated by way of a market system”, and democratic finance and investment through public banks, credit unions and participatory budgeting (Malleson, 2014, pp. 200-201). Teaching and advocating this system will provide the necessary foundations from which to begin to attend to some of the most dire socio-economic challenges caused by our current crisis and for thinking through the rebuilding to come.

Malleson argues that such vehicles of economic democracy are beneficial because they allow members to have a greater say in their communities, including their workplaces. Workplaces impact workers more than customers, according to the Principle of Affected Interests (PAI) (Malleson, 2014, p. 205). He maintains that worker cooperatives foster greater freedom and improve people’s lives because people would work in less demoralizing environments, with more voice and engagement in deciding how and when to work, and what to work on. He also encourages providing a strong social safety net that would provide basic life needs such as healthcare, education, infrastructure and a basic income. Inequality would be minimized by adequate “remuneration” in worker cooperatives and through increased taxation of those who can afford it.

Democratising work through worker cooperatives

We can lessen the radical accumulation of wealth by encouraging and supporting the expansion of worker cooperatives. Vieta states that “converting businesses in trouble or with succession issues to cooperatives is one tried-and-true solution for business rescue” (Vieta et al, 2020). While COVID-19 is forcing thousands of businesses to close, many of which will never reopen (Ho, 2020), cooperatives are considered to be a viable alternative to back-to-normal business models. Cooperatives have demonstrated their agility in responding to the crisis, setting up delivery systems to protect customers and modifying work practices to protect workers faster than other businesses or even government organizations (Vieta & Duguid, 2020). Cooperatives are organizations that are owned, managed and operated by the workers, and are much more rooted in the local community.

There is no one way to run a cooperative, but ideally, each worker would have an equal vote in decision making, and the pay differential between the highest and lowest paid workers would be much more reasonable, three, maybe four or five times. One of the challenges that cooperatives face long-term is succession planning. Although more robust than other businesses, the majority of cooperatives tend to close by the third generation of workers. Cooperatives must evolve with their employees to ensure that the principles of the organization remain relevant to both present and future workers as well as the larger community.

Importance of Social Competencies in Shifting Social Consciousness

In order to effect impactful, long-term movement towards a fairer, more democratic economy, we require political and economic will on a global scale, including the will of the general public, most of whom are either willing or unwitting participants in the current neoliberal system. As we have seen throughout history, those with money or resources wield power and influence. We require their cooperation in this endeavour. We must reduce our reliance on competition, especially with respect to how we organize our societies. Humanity’s greatest advantage is not our ability to compete, but to cooperate, and our very existence depends on the written and tacit social contracts we continually negotiate. Confrontational discourse on both sides of the conversation abounds in politics, business, online and in our personal circles. It further polarizes people as each side refuses to give way. In recent years, people may stubbornly adhere to their position in spite of contrary evidence, citing “fake news”. If confrontation, blame, shame, and logic are not working to persuade staunch neoliberals, we need a better way to communicate with one another.

Education and Situated Learning

The benefits and drawbacks of neoliberalism and economic democracy, including the alternatives mentioned earlier in this piece, must be disseminated more widely. People learn in different ways, and social competencies can assist or diminish the impact of these teachings. We learn through formal schooling, through books and other forms of media, from family and friends, and through other experiences, all of which affect our perception of the world around us. Mondragon University in the Basque region of Spain, could be a model for formal education espousing cooperative principles (Mondragon University, n.d.). The values and principles of social and economic democracy, cooperation and social contribution are entrenched in the culture of the university. As part of a larger corporation that includes over 250 cooperatives and associated businesses, the university is a perfect example of both formal and situated learning.

The “learning experience is influenced by how learners are situated in the social world” (Mychajluk, 2017, p. 185). Situated learning is learning that takes place in our ‘communities of practice’, places where we live, work and socialize. Informal, socio-cultural learning theories, including situated learning look at how we learn, and the interpersonal dynamics of the places within which we learn. Mychajluk’s research focuses on ecovillages, small cooperative communities that attempt to live more equitably and minimize their impact on the environment. How can we utilize some of the principles of these ecovillages on a grander scale during and post-pandemic? In a city like Toronto, if our goal is to produce and consume more locally in order to decrease pollution from transportation and to ensure greater access to life goods, we may, for example, consider creating spaces for more community gardens. Situated learning can occur in these gardens when participants work together to learn both the practical uses as well as the cultural significance of various produce and growing practices.

Social competencies that were identified in Mychajluk’s research included “inclusive discussion and decision-making; honest and compassionate communication; non-violent conflict management; embracing diversity of people and perspectives; and inner work, such as trying to be less reactive and more reflective” (ibid., p. 187). Expressing opposing views is an important part of learning and growth. However, persuasion and cooperation require building on a common foundation. We must learn to establish respectful relations not only with people who are like minded, but those with whom we disagree, possibly even mistrust. This can be difficult if we feel attacked, or if we view our opposers as selfish, uninformed, or even immoral. We need to understand the underlying reasons for someone’s opinions, their fears or foundational beliefs. This may assist us in building relationships with them. This is an essential element of LEAP, a simple technique for developing social competencies and building bridges between people with opposing views.


Psychiatrist, Dr. Xavier Amador created LEAP for the layperson. It is based on motivational interviewing and motivational therapy counselling techniques. LEAP stands for Listen, Empathize, Agree and Partner (Amador, 2008). We need to listen in order to understand the other person’s motivations for their beliefs. Rather than interjecting our own opinion, we need to ask insightful questions about a person’s position. Not with accusation or condemnation, but with curiosity. We must want to understand. When discussing social democracy with a woman who is firmly entrenched in neoliberalism, I discovered that there was fear behind her opposition. Fear that her hard-earned tax allotment is being used to support individuals who are “lazy” or those who “waste” money on drugs or alcohol, behaviours she believes could be destructive to the individual or those around them. Worse yet, fear that the taxes will go to enrich politicians or their personal associates.

We must also empathize with our opposer. Even if we may not agree with their opinion or behaviour, we may be able to empathize with their feelings or perhaps their motivations. Agreeing with your opposer is also important, but you should not lie. Find areas where you genuinely agree. For instance, I was able to both empathize and agree with the woman’s fear of taxes being squandered or misappropriated. Once you have built rapport with your opposer, you can begin to partner with them, meaning that you build on your similarities in order to take steps towards building that which you both want. For instance, the woman and I could decide to advocate for greater transparency in tax allocations and improving access to addictions and mental health counselling services. Although taxes are often vilified by neoliberals, they are merely a pool of resources to be used by society and they should be used for its betterment.

Not only does the LEAP method help to ease tensions and arguments, but it allows us to work with people who we believe to be completely different from us. This is very important if we wish to encourage people to be more open to economic democracy. One of the initial challenges in using the method is being aware of our own triggers. When people upset us with their comments or opinions, we will hopefully learn to ask questions aimed at understanding, rather than reprimanding them, or simply walking away. Unfortunately, we will always find individuals who are too invested in their neoliberal views to change. However, we can enhance our chances of keeping the conversation open through improved social competencies.

Concluding Thoughts

Positive, democratic change to our economic and political systems requires increased cooperation among businesses, workers and communities, as well as the collective will of leaders and influencers who can unite us locally without dividing us globally. If we succeed in implementing democratic economic policies, we must ensure that the system is not once again manipulated by individuals or groups attempting to seize power or resources for their own selfish gain. Additionally, we need to protect human rights and principles of fairness and equality. As the pandemic ebbs and places start to reopen, we will have an opportunity to create greater awareness of the benefits of economic democracy, and to begin shifting social consciousness towards fostering collaboration and partnership over competition and greed. May we not squander this opportunity.


Amador, X. (2008). I’m Right, You’re Wrong, Now What? Hachette Books, New York City, NY.

Ho, S. (2020). As 2020 retail closures accumulate, thousands more expected, CTV News (June 14). Retreived from https://www.ctvnews.ca/business/as-2020-retail-closures-accumulate-thousands-more-expected-1.4983695

Malleson, Tom. (2014). Conclusion, Toward a Feasible Socialism for the 21st Century. In After Occupy: Economic Democracy for the 21st Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press (pp. 198-217).

Mondragon University (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.mondragon.edu/en/meet-mu/cooperative-university

Mychajluk, Lisa. (2017). Learning to Live and Work Together in an Ecovillage Community of Practice. European Journal for Research on the Education and Learning of Adults, 8(2) (pp. 181-196).

Partington, R. (2020). World Bank warns Covid-19 pandemic risks dramatic rise in poverty. The Guardian, (June 8, 2020), retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/jun/08/world-bank-warns-covid-19-pandemic-risks-dramatic-rise-in-poverty

Vieta, M. & F. Duguid. (2020). Canada’s Co-operatives: Helping Communities During and After the Coronavirus. The Conversation Canada. (Apr. 19, 2020). Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/canadas-co-operatives-helping-communities-during-and-after-the-coronavirus-135477

Vieta, M., F. Duguid, & Ontario Co-operative Association. (2020). Rescuing Main Street: Action Research Supporting Ontario’s Small and Medium Enterprises through Conversion to Co-operatives. Ontario Together “Ideas” proposal.