If there weren’t hundreds of years of propaganda in our collective psyche, we’d be able to recognize that the goals of free market entrepreneurialism and democratic market socialism are the same: empowerment for every working person and every entrepreneur. It just so happens that neither side realizes, those are the same people.

OWN IT written in comic book letters

I can still see the words written floor to ceiling across the wall of my company’s office.

The CEO and founder of the company had asked for his personal motto, “OWN IT,” to be emblazoned on the wall as a reminder for the employees to show their hard work and dedication. I’ll admit that at that time in my career, that was the kind of sentiment I believed in whole-heartedly.

But even to a young “rise-and-grind” tech kid like me, seeing it written out like that was weird, and yet it wasn’t until years later that I realized what rang so false about the motto:

the employees of that company did NOT “own it.”

But now I wonder, what if the workers at that company had owned our business? What would have been different?

Instead of having to stamp corny motivational posters onto the wall, every worker would have the very sincere motivation that their work was crucial to the enterprise that they own. Every person in every part of the business would be incentivized to innovate and automate and streamline.

Many people have addressed the fact that separating workers and owners leads to bad results for the workers, and there’s generally been two diametrically opposed schools of thought about how to handle this problem:

  1. Get yourself to the top of the system by becoming an entrepreneur
  2. Dismantle the system and replace it with socialism

However, it turns out that the distinction between the entrepreneurial solution and the socialist solution might actually be two ways of approaching the same end result.

The Radical Entrepreneur

Let’s take the entrepreneurial approach on face value. It suggests that you can overcome the shittiness inherent to working one of our society’s bullshit jobs by starting your own business. You create it. You own it.

Unfortunately, in most cases this approach requires you to then tell other workers what to do, perpetuating the cycle.

The obvious problem with this approach is that it only works for one person at a time, and it fundamentally relies on some people remaining in the shitty position of working without ownership.

But what if we radically reimagine entrepreneurialism to picture that everyone in your firm shared the same entrepreneurial spirit? What if we could provide the same empowerment to every worker in the company? If we take that thought experiment to its limit, we’d see a whole new type of firm come into being, where the distinction between worker and entrepreneur disappears.

The amazing part is that radically entrepreneurial business becomes the modern incarnation of socialist economics: the worker cooperative.

Socialism and Economic Democracy

At its heart, socialism is about saying that our society should collectively get to decide how the economy runs. This general premise has many specific incarnations. One that many people are familiar with is a centrally planned government control of everything, like in the USSR. However, a universal central planning system has some drawbacks that make it pretty bad at solving a lot of problems1.

A more refined and modern approach to socialism is embodied in democratic market socialism, where we utilize a political democracy to set up a government that decides how our market economy is going to work. This system has a lot of positive qualities and generally aligns with the direction that our modern liberal democracies are progressing towards.

The important point about this system is that it gives ultimate control of the economy to our democratic society as a whole, rather than being under the control of those who happen to have the most wealth accumulated. Currently things like which businesses get funded are largely decided by corporations or individual investors who have accumulated a lot of personal wealth, but under a democratic socialist economy every citizen would have a lot more influence in deciding which things were worth applying our collective effort towards.

One of the democratic market socialist systems that I’m personally a fan of would be called Economic Democracy, which I’ve written about before. Economic Democracy proposes to heavily incentivize all businesses to be run as worker cooperatives. This means that on the level of the individual firm, businesses would need to be run as democratic systems. Now, this doesn’t mean that everybody gets paid the same or everybody does the same work. What it means is that every worker has an equal ownership stake in the company.

When the workers literally “own it.”

The amazing thing is that socialism in its modern conception shouldn’t be a scary thing. If more working people understood it for the common sense approach that it really is, we’d be able to make a lot more progress. The fact is we already operate in a mixed economy, where capitalist approaches and socialist approaches commingle. But there were achievements that capitalism brought 100 years ago that it isn’t capable of sustaining without introducing socialist methods.

The beauty of democratic market socialism is that it has the capacity to bridge between our capitalist free market system and a smarter way of running the economy. Businesses still succeed or fail based on their own merits and the efforts of their workers in a marketplace, but everyone in the company shares in that success or failure. In a worker cooperative, every worker shares a stake in the business, effectively becoming an entrepreneur angling for their own collective success.

So in the end, the goal of free market entrepreneurialists ends up being directly aligned with that of the socialists. If there wasn’t 100 years of rhetoric (and a heavy amount of propaganda), we’d be able to recognize that both sides want empowerment for every working person and every entrepreneur. It just so happens that by the end, those are the same people.

  1. While there may be a place for some role of central planning in large-scale economic decision making, there are notable disadvantages of a centrally planned economy