The replacement of pension capitalism is one of the decisive challenges of our time


In response, Martin and Quick argue that we need a broader concept of unions – one that is rooted in solidarity with the entire working class and that extends the “bargaining unit” beyond the workplace to include communities and citizens, including the financial world are exploited capital. Caregivers should make common cause with those who care for them and their families; Railway workers should organize themselves with passengers; Energy workers should ally with energy consumers and residents. They cite inspiring examples of unions and social movements organizing around rent and debt – from Chicago teachers who demand affordable housing to the El Barzón movement, which campaigns for debtors in Mexico.

“Unions Renewed: Building Power in an Age of Finance” by Alice Martin and Annie Quick (Polity Press, 2020)

Both books highlight economic democracy as the ultimate answer to reindeer power. Martin and Quick define this as “shifting the power to make economic decisions from those who own capital to a much broader group – the workers, tenants and carers who benefit capital owners”. But – as they later admit – it is also about the democratization of the ownership of capital itself. As Christophers states, a conversion of the ownership of assets would mean that “the economic resources of society would be subject to much more distributed and democratic control than under capitalism” .

There’s a lot more to be unpacked about what democratization of property really means. Martin and Quick speak – understandably given their focus on trade unions – above all of employee participation. But if we accept that the employment relationship is not always the primary site of exploitation in pension capitalism, are there sectors where worker power is simply not the answer? If the socialist argument is basically that property and control should be in the hands of those who really create value, has modern capitalism changed so much that it no longer necessarily means wage workers in a particular industry?

Perhaps the most obvious example is big tech. Companies like Facebook and Google tend to rely on a relatively small number of highly paid knowledge workers, while their business model is based on extracting value from the data of millions of users – and amassing enormous inexplicable power in the process. Employee participation in these companies may not take us very far towards a fairer economy. Cooperative ownership by the users of the platform – or perhaps, public “data trusts” – could turn this asset into a shared resource rather than a private commodity. Likewise, the best examples of democratic banking are typically not owned by workers: they are either public banks or community and consumer-run cooperatives.

Of course there are many industries in which work is still the source of value and the central point of recovery – with care being an obvious example. Even in tech, companies like Uber and Amazon still rely heavily on the shiny apps and platforms to exploit the labor of drivers and warehouse workers. Here, employee empowerment is still the right answer to the injustice that is at stake.

Understanding rentier power also begs the question of what exactly we need to democratize. Martin and Quick use the traditional socialist language of “means of production” while Christophers suggests the need to go beyond that. Many successful retirees are essentially gatekeepers to the resources we need to lead a good life and participate in society – housing, energy, water, broadband access. The fact that they are essential makes them both such a reliable source of profit and what makes this profiteering so morally unacceptable. Accordingly, many new ways of thinking on the left – from energy democracy to universal basic services – are really about the means of the Livelihood, or maybe the means of wellbeing.


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