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What Can Europe's Answer to Wall Street Teach Us About American Capitalism?

Sweden, Germany and other European countries are proof that you can have it all -- but only if you have the right institutions.
 
 
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This article is adapted from Steven Hill's recently published Europe's Promise: Why the European Way Is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age (EuropesPromise.org).

A year and a half after an economic earthquake shook the world, the so-called experts are still trying to figure out what happened and how to move forward. In the shadows of that confusion, new economic models are beginning to find traction. Alternatives to Wall Street capitalism, the epicenter of the temblor, are suddenly getting a new hearing in the United States, whether it's Paul Volcker calling for reinstatement of Glass-Steagall regulation of the banking sector, the United Steelworkers announcing an alliance with the Mondragon cooperatives in Spain to develop manufacturing cooperatives in the United States, or Cleveland-based efforts to establish worker-owned co-ops in distressed communities [see Alperovitz, Howard and Williamson, "The Cleveland Model," March 1].

But the brightest spots in the postcollapse landscape are in Europe, which long ago advanced a degree of economic democracy that has proved its mettle in this crisis and therefore deserves closer inspection. If Americans want to learn about cooperatives, Europe is a great place to start. They produce an estimated 12 percent of the GDP of the European Union and involve, directly or indirectly, at least 60 percent of the population. Besides the Mondragon co-ops in Spain, in which 256 companies employ 100,000 people in industry, retail, finance and education, there's also Coop Italia, which operates the largest supermarket chain in Italy, employing 56,000 with more than 6 million members; housing co-ops like Poland's TUW; and the Co-operative Group in Britain, which is the world's largest consumer-owned business, with 4.5 million members.

However, most cooperatives are generally small-scale and thus unlikely anytime soon to replace the most important economic institution in modern mass economies, which is the corporation. The corporation, even with all its considerable warts, is the greatest wealth generator that humans have ever created, but its success raises the questions: Who gets to control that wealth? Whose pockets should the wealth flow into?

To answer those questions, Europe, led by Germany, has evolved over several decades one of its greatest contributions to the global economy. Practices unfamiliar to Americans, such as co-determination, supervisory boards and works councils, have been crucial in helping to harness capitalism's tremendous wealth-creating capacity so that its prosperity is broadly shared.

Co-determination has several features, one of which allows workers to elect representatives to corporate boards of directors known as supervisory boards. Supervisory boards then oversee company managers, who handle day-to-day operations. In Germany, the world's second-largest exporter and fourth-largest national economy, fully half of the boards of directors of the largest corporations--Siemens, BMW, Daimler, Deutsche Telekom and others--are elected by workers. In Sweden, one-third of a company's directors are worker-elected. To understand the significance of this, imagine if Wal-Mart were legally required to allow its workers to elect a third to half of its board, who would then oversee the CEO. Imagine how much that would change Wal-Mart's behavior toward its workers and supply chain. It's hard for Americans even to conceive of such a notion; indeed, when I ask Americans at my lectures how many of them have heard of worker-elected supervisory boards, usually no hands go up. Yet most European nations employ some version of this as a regular feature of their economy.

The impact has been impressive. Klas Levinson, a researcher for the former National Institute for Working Life in Sweden, is one of the world's experts on co-determination. I met with Levinson at the institute's Stockholm headquarters, a sleek glass structure with the air of a university campus. "Co-determination is Europe's little secret advantage," he told me. "The idea that elected worker directors should sit side by side as equal decision-makers with stockholder representatives, supervising management, is a little-known yet unprecedented extension of democratic principle into the corporate sphere."