In show of power, financiers impose will on Argentina’s Navy

We know that finance capital is powerful, but that a hedge fund can impound the navy of the world’s eighth largest country is nonetheless startling.

Financiers the world over have fumed over Argentina escaping their clutches a decade ago — the example of a country refusing to acknowledge the maximization of bank profits as the central organizing principle of civilization is too scary to contemplate — but most have made their peace. Accepting that something is better than nothing, at least for now, almost all of Argentina’s creditors accepted 30 percent of the face value of the country’s sovereign debt.

Much of that debt is odious, accumulated by Argentina’s military dictatorship as it killed, tortured, “disappeared” or forced into exile Argentines by the hundreds of thousands as it imposed the Pinochet/Chicago School economic model. The rest of the debt came courtesy of the the country’s neoliberal rulers following the end of military rule, as it followed International Monetary Fund instructions into a crisis that culminated with economic crisis at the end of 2001. When Néstor Kirchner became Argentina’s fifth president in two weeks, he put an end to austerity and defaulted on the debt, ultimately agreeing to pay 30 percent to those willing to negotiate a settlement but refusing to pay anything to holdouts.

Many of Argentina’s creditors are not the financial institutions that originally made the loans; much of the debt was sold to speculators. Two of those speculators, the hedge funds Elliott Capital Management and Aurelius Capital Management, are among the seven percent of creditors who refused to agree, instead demanding full payment of the face value of the debt that they bought for pennies on the dollar. The key speculator here is Paul Singer, the type of character for which the term “vulture capitalist” was coined. Mr. Singer’s hedge fund is Elliott Capital and one of the fund’s subsidiaries is NML Capital.

The eyes of a billionaire

To all appearances, the billionaire Mr. Singer is determined to squeeze every dollar out of every “investment,” and he has the means at his disposal to bring this about. Using the Internet, his NML Capital tracked a ship used as a training vessel for the Argentine Navy. Calculating its chances, NML Capital waited for the ship to dock in Ghana, then quickly went to a local court, where it successfully obtained an order impounding the ship. The ship remains stranded in Ghana’s main port, and the Argentine government had to resort to chartering a flight to bring most of the crew home; it couldn’t use an Argentine airplane under fear that the plane, too, would be impounded.

Mr. Singer has long used such tactics, according to a report in Forbes magazine, and he purposely waited for the ship to dock in Ghana because he believed it was the country among the ship’s ports of call that would most likely grant his wishes. Forbes reports that Elliott Capital had sought in 2007 to seize the Argentine presidential plane when it was scheduled for maintenance in the United States (the plan was foiled when Argentina was tipped off) and two years later plotted to seize Argentine assets at the Frankfurt Book Fair, forcing the government to withhold showing works of art.

That having the ship stranded in port might have negative effects on Ghana, a poor country, does not seem to have been of concern. The ship’s presence has greatly slowed down the ability of cargo ships to use the port, causing dozens of vessels to wait offshore in a lengthening queue, according to The Financial Times. Such delays are also costing the shipping companies and others considerable money.

But what could be more important than a speculator trading on other people’s misfortune scooping up windfall profits?

Buying (very) low, demanding (very) high

There is nothing out of character for Mr. Singer to be using such hardball tactics. In fact, his hedge fund’s strategy is to buy outstanding debt at a tiny fraction of its value and then demand to be paid in full. A report on him and the other billionaires with whom he plays, including David and Charles Koch, on the ThinkProgress blog reports:

“Singer, manager of a $17 billion hedge fund, earned the moniker “vulture capitalist” for buying the debt of Third World countries for pennies on the dollar, then using his political and legal connections to extract massive judgements to force collection — even from nations suffering from starvation and violent conflicts. Singer and his partners have used such tactics in Panama, Ecuador, Poland, Cote d’Ivoire, Turkmenistan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In addition to squeezing impoverished countries with sovereign debt schemes, Singer speculates in the oil markets, a practice which can lead to gasoline price hikes.”

Among his other exploits, Mr. Singer is the chairman of the Manhattan Institute, an extreme Right “think tank” that specializes in promoting neoliberal ideology.

That affiliation is evidentially not a coincidence. Investigative journalist Greg Palast, writing for Truthout, provides some of the details of the speculator’s previous efforts to “collect” his debts:

“Singer’s modus operandi is to find some forgotten tiny debt owed by a very poor nation (Peru and Congo were on his menu). He waits for the United States and European taxpayers to forgive the poor nations’ debts, then waits a bit longer for offers of food aid, medicine and investment loans. Then Singer pounces, legally grabbing at every resource and all the money going to the desperate country. Trade stops, funds freeze and an entire economy is effectively held hostage.

Singer then demands aid-giving nations pay monstrous ransoms to let trade resume. … Singer demanded $400 million from the Congo for a debt he picked up for less than $10 million. If he doesn’t get his 4,000 percent profit, he can effectively starve the nation. I don’t mean that figuratively — I mean starve as in no food. In Congo-Brazzaville last year, one-fourth of all deaths of children under five were caused by malnutrition.”

The financier war on Argentina

The billionaire speculator has also been attempting to get many pounds of flesh out of Argentina courtesy of the U.S. federal court system. The latest in a series of thundering rulings by a senior U.S. district judge, Thomas Griesa, earlier this month ordered Argentina to pay US$1.3 billion to Elliott Capital Management and Aurelius Capital Management, the two main holdouts who refused to agree to the 30 percent deal with Argentina.

The Argentine government appealed to a higher court on November 25. That is a routine the government is already familiar with, after the same judge last year issued a ruling that the two hedge funds could seize Argentina’s deposits with the Federal Reserve. Yes, it has come to the point where even the world’s most powerful central bank can be seen as a mere piggy bank to be raided at will by financiers. Well, almost, because that ruling was too much even for the U.S. government — it joined an appeal to a higher court, which threw out the ruling on the basis of sovereign immunity.

The Federal Reserve holds money and gold owned by many of the world’s governments, and has an interest in maintaining a shield that protects those holdings from private seizure.

This was a matter of the principal of sovereignty — the U.S. doesn’t want its overseas assets seized, either — so let us hold off from celebrating the appeals court reversal too joyously. The various bilateral and multilateral “free trade” agreements that elevate corporate profit above all other human considerations, and the arbitration bodies such as the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes that improvise ever harsher rulings that become precedents for future cases, quietly lurk in the background. Not that ago that the idea that a regulation against pollution that threatens human health would be illegal because it hurts profits would have been bizarre. Yet it is now routine international trade law.

A billionaire speculator seizing a military vessel is bizarre; the billionaire’s tactics are sufficiently outlandish that, in this case, other financiers oppose his insistence on being paid in full if only because they are afraid they would not receive their own payments if Argentina has to pay him. President Cristina Fernández has repeatedly said there will be insufficient money available to continue to pay back the creditors who accepted the 30 percent deal nor for domestic social programs if full payments are made to the holdouts Elliott Capital and Aurelius Capital.

But if the holdout hedge funds’ tactics ultimately work, what is outlandish will become accepted. What will be seized next? A country’s food supply?

Financiers love to portray themselves as the lubricants of the modern economy, enabling capital to be distributed to where investment is needed. They can believe that if they wish, but there is no reason for the rest of us not to see financiers as what they are: parasites.

World Bank’s call for slowing global warming ignores own role

Global warming appears, or so it seems, to have begun to be taken more seriously this week as none other than the World Bank issued a report sounding the alarm bells. But let us not grow warm in our hearts just yet that corporate leaders have suddenly decided to yield to science and reality.

What we have here is a case of truly monumental hypocrisy. The policies of the World Bank and its sibling, the International Monetary Fund, have constituted non-stop efforts to impose multi-national corporate control, dismantle local democratic institutions and place decision-making power into the hands of corporate executives and financiers, the very people and institutions that profit from the destruction of the environment.

The World Bank’s report, “Turn Down the Heat,” prepared for it by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics, does incorporate the latest thinking of climate scientists. It paints a dire picture of a world in which the average temperature will increase by four degrees Celsius (seven degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the 21st century without large-scale policies to reverse the trend. Among the effects of such a rise in temperatures, according to the report:

“[T]he inundation of coastal cities; increasing risks for food production potentially leading to higher under and malnutrition rates; many dry regions becoming dryer, wet regions wetter; unprecedented heat waves in many regions, especially in the tropics; substantially exacerbated water scarcity in many regions; increased intensity of tropical cyclones; and irreversible loss of biodiversity, including coral reef systems.”

The World Bank report advocates that the century’s temperature rise be held to less than two degrees Celsius. The bank says that “more efficient and smarter use of energy and natural resources” can reduce the climate impact of development “without slowing poverty alleviation or economic growth.” Despite the bank’s neo-liberal agenda, a goal stated in these terms is consistent with Center-Left political parties around the world. Among the initiatives proposed by the report are:

“[P]utting the more than US$ 1 trillion of fossil fuel and other harmful subsidies to better use; introducing natural capital accounting into national accounts; expanding both public and private expenditures on green infrastructure able to withstand extreme weather and urban public transport systems designed to minimize carbon emission and maximize access to jobs and services; supporting carbon pricing and international and national emissions trading schemes; and increasing energy efficiency.”

In other words, the very economic system that has brought the world to the brink of a disaster that could arrive in the lifetimes of many people alive today is supposed to magically eliminate the problem, and without significant changes to consumption patterns. Alas, that is wishful thinking.

The very energy corporations that stand to most profit from continued high energy use and increasingly damaging resource-extraction techniques are the biggest sources of misinformation intended to deny the reality of global warming or to claim that climate change is “natural” and to do anything about it would wreck the economy.

Increase in extreme weather events

Those executives who peddle that ideology will have long ago lined their pockets with outsized profits and will have left this Earth by the time the environmental bill comes due. Last month’s Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the coasts of New Jersey and New York, can’t be seen as anything other than a harbinger of what is coming; similar to the heat waves that destroyed crops in Russia and North America in 2010 and 2012, respectively, and the dramatic retreat of the Arctic ice cap.

Of course, no single storm or single heat wave can be attributed to global warming. But global warming increases the odds of destructive, deadly weather events. One measure is the number of “extreme” weather events (top or bottom ten percent of extremes in temperature, precipitation, and drought) as measured by the U.S National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Through the end of October, 38 percent of the contiguous U.S. land mass had experienced at least one of these extreme weather events in 2012, the second-highest figure since records began to be kept in 1910. The average for the past century is 20 percent; all but four years since 1991 have exceeded this average.

Consistent with the initiatives proposed by the World Bank report, the Obama administration has advocated “green capitalism” to deal with global warming, although in practice (particularly during the just-concluded presidential election campaign) Barack Obama has offered little better than the standard head-in-the-sand ideas of ramping up oil and gas extraction, salted with chimera like “clean coal” and “safe nuclear energy” — two concepts that are the epitome of oxymoronic construction.

Coal throws more global-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other energy source and the meltdowns at Fukushima and Chernobyl should be sufficient warnings against building more nuclear power plants even before we contemplate the impossibility of safely disposing nuclear waste.

Energy companies continue to sue to overturn regulations

Hydraulic fracturing of rock — or “fracking” — using jets of water and chemicals to force natural gas from underground is the latest offer from the world’s energy companies. Bitter battles across North America are raging over fracking and the pollution and destruction of water sources left in its wake. But lest we believe the latest World Bank report might induce a pause for thought, consider this: A U.S.-incorporated energy firm, Lone Pine Resources Inc., is suing under the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to overturn Québec’s regulations against fracking.

Lone Pine, which is actually headquartered in Calgary, Alberta, despite its formal incorporation in the U.S. tax-haven state of Delaware, is seeking $250 million in compensation, reports The Globe and Mail newspaper of Toronto. (More corporations are incorporated by far in Delaware than any other U.S. state because of its laws specially tailored to benefit corporate executives; the state even has a special court that only adjudicates business disputes.)

Technically, Lone Pine is suing the Canadian government because only the three national governments can be sued under NAFTA. The company is suing under NAFTA’s Chapter 11, which authorizes corporations to sue over any regulation or other government act that violates “investor rights,” which means any regulation or act that might prevent the corporation from earning the maximum possible profit. The Wall Street Journal reports that Québec “banned shale-gas exploration in parts of the Saint Lawrence Valley and revoked previously issued mining rights as it studied the environmental consequences.”

NAFTA allows a Canadian company to sue the Canadian government in a way it wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do — an excellent deal for polluters.

Because the rules of NAFTA are heavily tilted in favor of business and against labor or environmental regulation, almost every case brought to a tribunal under NAFTA ends with either a hefty payout to the suing corporation or an overly generous settlement by governments seeking to avoid an even bigger payout, and a reversal of regulations passed by democratic governments. These decisions are handed down in secret tribunals in which many judges are attorneys who specialize in representing companies in disputes with governments.

The rules of NAFTA, draconian as they are, are merely the starting point for still harsher rules under the secret Trans-Pacific Partnership being negotiated by nine countries. Moreover, the TPP would require the use of a tribunal controlled by the World Bank, a tribunal already in common use under many existing trade agreements. Each time a tribunal overturns a regulation or protection, it becomes a precedent — that is, a new starting point from which further corporate control of national laws can be launched.

World Bank policies fuel global warming

Environmental laws are frequently the target of corporate assaults under free-trade rules, and the most frequent initiators of these assaults are energy and chemical corporations. Tribunals controlled by the World Bank or other institutions that promote corporate globalization ensure that environmental, labor and other legal protections are eviscerated, thereby accelerating the destructive activities that fuel global warming.

The World Bank has long imposed harsh austerity on countries around the world, in exchange for drowning those countries in debt, which then gives multi-national corporations and itself, which enforces those interests, still more leverage to impose more control, including heightened ability to weaken environmental and labor laws.

The bank also plays a direct role in global warming, having provided billions of dollars to finance new coal plants around the world in the past few years.

The World Bank is a key organization in the concatenation of processes that has brought the world to the brink of catastrophic climate change. To issue a report on the likely future destruction to be wrought by global warming without acknowledging its own role and without calling for a fundamental change in the global economic system that it enforces — which is the root cause of a potentially runaway chain of environmental disasters — is beyond chutzpah.

Capitalism is incapable of reversing global warming. All of its incentives are for private profit without regard to public effect. The maximization of profit in the short term is the aim of a capitalist corporation (indeed, for one listed on a stock exchange, it is required by law to have no other purpose). Its incentive, then, is to shed costs whenever possible — not only to reduce wages, but to offload the costs of pollution and other public nuisances onto governments and, ultimately, taxpayers.

The rigors of competition require that ever bigger profits be made and expansion continually undertaken, under pain of going under if a competitor does this more successfully. Because of the necessity of endless growth, and the lack of need to take into account pollution and of the amount of carbon dioxide thrown into the atmosphere because those are not assigned to the corporate bottom line, every systemic incentive exists to extract and use more natural resources, regardless of long-term costs.

It is impossible for such a system to clean up its own mess. At best, it might, in the future, innovate new technologies for renewable energy, but not in a rational manner. The Chinese government has so over-invested in solar-energy equipment, for example, that it is estimated that capacity is now three times more than demand. This explains why U.S. solar-equipment companies are going out of business despite being granted significant government subsidies.

Capitalism has developed to the point where the very existence of humanity could be at stake in the future; where ever more inequality leads to deepening crises and an inability for humanity to deal logically with these crises, even ones that carry the potential for catastrophic destruction. What could be more unsustainable?

A tale of two elections: Venezuelan accountability and U.S. irregularities

There were two widely watched national elections earlier this month. In one, a popular incumbent won for the fifth time in a voting system called “the best in the world” by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. The other election featured widespread attempts at voter suppression with many localities using computer systems with no paper backup that do not confirm the results.

The incumbent in the first example is nonetheless routinely referred to the corporate media as a “dictator” while the second country is portrayed by the same corporate media as “the world’s greatest democracy” that has the right to dictate to other countries.

The first example, as you have by now surmised, is Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. Just for the record, here are the results of his presidential contests:

  • December 1998: Elected president with 56.2 percent of the vote.
  • July 2000: Re-elected president with 59.8 percent of the vote under a new constitution.
  • August 2004: Retained presidency by defeating a recall referendum with 59.3 percent of the vote.
  • December 2009: Re-elected president with 62.9 percent of the vote.
  • November 2012: Re-elected president with 55 percent of the vote (81 percent of those eligible voted).

If we were to count elections to the parliament, state and local elections, and various referendums, President Chávez and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela have won 15 of 16 elections since 1998. The lone exception was a ballot on constitutional changes that lost by two percentage points – and his reaction was simply to accept the results. Accepting a narrow defeat and allowing an opposition that bitterly hates you and everything you stand for to place a recall referendum on the ballot — it would seem that President Chávez needs to work much harder to become a “dictator.”

All parties confirm voting process in Venezuela

What most stands out in Venezuelan elections is the transparency of the electronic voting system. Voters in Venezuela make their selections on computers in which party and independent observers participated in 16 pre-election audits, according to a report by the Carter Center. The center’s report further states:

“One of the key aspects of the security control mechanisms involves the construction of an encryption key — a string of characters — created by contributions from the opposition, government, and [National Electoral Council], which is placed on all the machines once the software source-code has been reviewed by all the party experts. The software on the machines cannot then be tampered with unless all three parties join together to “open” the machines and change the software. In addition, each voting system machine has its own individual digital signature that detects if there is any modification to the machine. If the voting count is somehow tampered with despite these security mechanisms, it should be detectable … because of the various manual verification mechanisms.” [page 5]

As an added precaution, each voter has a fingerprint on file, with a voter having to provide a fingerprint to avoid anyone attempting to vote more than once, and this system is also encrypted to guarantee secrecy. Finally, there measures to ensure accuracy in the vote count, including printouts of all votes and an automatic audit. The Carter Center reports:

“The voting process permits voters to verify their ballots through a paper receipt generated by the voting machine. A comparison of a count of the paper receipts and the electronic tally at the end of the voting day with the presence of voters, political party witnesses, domestic observers, and the general public is conducted in a large sample of approximately 53 percent of the voting tables, selected at random. Additionally, party witnesses receive a printout of the electronic tally from every machine. The [National Electoral Council] gives the party a CD with the results of each machine and publishes them on the website so that all of these results can be compared. The human element is therefore still important.” [page 7]

The opposition coalition that supported President Chávez’s main opponent, Henrique Capriles, approved the voting lists and electoral process ahead of the vote; the opposition campaign therefore had no basis to contest the results afterward and indeed conceded soon after the polls closed. It took only “minutes” for the vote to be announced, based on 90 percent of the vote total, according to a commentary by a Venezuelan journalist writing for the business publication Forbes magazine.

One would not expect to see an article praising Hugo Chávez’s government in a publication like Forbes, which proudly refers to itself as a “capitalist tool.” So all the more noteworthy is this commentary by Venezuelan journalist Eugenio Martinez:

“[I]t may be time for the greatest democracy in the world to take a lesson from Venezuela on how to develop and administer an efficient electronic voting system spanning across all stages of the electoral process.”

Controversy in U.S. presidential elections

We can contrast that with the U.S. election, in which it took days for many local races to be known; the Florida vote for president wasn’t decided until the following weekend. A week after the election, the winners of six congressional races could not be determined.

U.S. elections are rarely without controversy, and the last four presidential elections have featured significant attempts to suppress the vote, controversies concerning unverifiable voting machines, hours-long lines at polling places sometimes due to manipulations in the distribution of voting machines and even (in 2000) a sacking of an election office to prevent a re-count from being conducted.

That 2000 sacking occurred in Miami when a mob organized by Republican Party operatives stormed the election office, physically preventing the vote count from continuing in an area expected to vote for Al Gore, the Democratic Party presidential candidate. The 2004 election saw the first widespread use of electronic voting machines. And in 2012, many states with Republican governments passed laws aimed at keeping groups of people, particularly African-Americans, from being able to vote, and on election day there were widespread reports of shortages of machines in areas expected to vote heavily for Democrats, leading to long lines while nearby areas expected to vote Republican had no lines at all. Similar problems also occurred in 2004 and 2008.

In contrast to Venezuelan voting machines which can be checked, many U.S. voting machines are not equipped with any way to confirm the results — and the machines use private, proprietary software belonging to the manufacturers of the machines that is not accessible to election officials, nor do they provide printouts for confirmation. The 2004 presidential election was noteworthy for the extraordinary 5.5 percentage-points disparity between exit polls and the announced results.

In the U.S., the presidential vote is actually 51 separate votes because each state plus the District of Columbia distill their individual totals into the electoral college. Statistically, it would not be unexpected that two might report a result that is a small amount outside the polls’ margin of error, with the divergences evenly distributed. In 2004, seven states reported results that were so far beyond the margin of error that the odds of any one happening are less than one percent, according to a study by the group US Count Votes. The odds of seven outliers (all in one direction, for George W. Bush) to such an extent is one in ten million!

The study then broke down discrepancies between exit polling and official results, and found that in jurisdictions in which paper ballots were used, the aggregate discrepancy was within the margin of error (and thus statistically unremarkable), while the aggregate discrepancy for electronic machines was far outside the margin of error, sufficiently so to conclude that an impartial investigation be conducted (which was not done).

A separate watchdog group, Election Defense Alliance, said of these unexplained discrepancies and other problems following the 2008 election:

“The central process of our elections is the counting of our votes. Yet we now have electronic machines that count our votes out of view [of U.S.] citizens — in other words, in secret. … In the presence of large exit polls discrepancies, there is no way to know whether or not extensive fraud has been committed without an extensive investigation, including access to the voting machines. After three consecutive national elections manifesting large exit poll discrepancies well beyond the margin of error, and all in the same direction, it is way past time that we find a way as a nation to ensure that our elections are conducted fairly.”

The three largest manufacturers of voting machines in the U.S. at that time each had strong connections to the Republican Party, and machines of each were involved in problems with the 2004 vote, according to exhaustive accounts chronicled in the book Fooled Again by Mark Crispin Miller.

The 2012 presidential vote aligned very closely with polling; perhaps sufficient safeguards have begun to be implemented. But the shortage of machines in areas with heavy concentrations of Democratic voters in several Republican-controlled states demonstrates that clean elections remain an aspirational goal. The attempted voter suppression may have backfired, as most of the voting-suppression laws were overturned by courts and news reports were full of African-Americans and others determined to vote to defy those who didn’t want them to do so.

Enthusiasm in Venezuela a contrast to U.S. voters

The sanctity of the vote itself aside, the U.S. election was mostly a sterile affair of voting against the other candidate; neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney could generate much excitement. Certainly there were millions of people in Venezuela motivated by opposition to Hugo Chávez, but there were many more who voted for the incumbent enthusiastically. A reporter writing before the election for the online news site Venezuelanalysis wrote:

“Talking to people at the Merida rally, I was impressed by the depth of political consciousness and variety of opinions among the crowd as to why they supported Chavez’s re-election. For some, Latin American integration was the reason, for others, free healthcare. For many, their main reason for supporting Chavez, as one middle-aged couple put it to me, was that ‘he’s the president who has most given power to the people’ while another man told me, ‘he’s the president who has awoken the people of Venezuela and fellow peoples.’ Another young woman told me her reason was quite simply ‘I love him.’ …

Indeed, the young woman who told me that ‘love’ was the reason she voted for Chavez wasn’t being tricked by some populist image or last minute spending burst. She came from a poor family which used to live in a shanty house near where the Merida rally took place. Now she is about to graduate as a doctor in the government’s integral community medicine program, and would have been excluded from the Venezuela’s traditionally elite medical system. Her shanty house had also been transformed into a dignified home through the community driven ‘homes for shanties’ program, part of the government’s mass housing construction mission. It’s transformations like these that have earned Chavez such strong support, as much as it pains the international media to say so. Indeed, according to corporate media sources, gaining the support of the popular majority through directing government policy toward their needs seems to be a bad thing for ‘democracy.’ ”

President Chávez is often accused in the corporate media, by no means only in the United States where the most vigorous opposition to the Bolivarian Revolution originates, of “buying” votes. Yet the presidential campaigns of President Obama and former Governor Romney spent approximately US$2 billion while an additional $1.7 billion was spent on congressional races, according to The Center for Responsive Politics. A handful of billionaires, most notably but not limited to oil barons David and Charles Koch and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson accounted for tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of dollars each thanks to the a string of decisions in the U.S. Supreme Court that equate money with speech, capped by the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission decision.

How does that staggering amount of money not constitute buying votes and offices?

Uneven progress for Bolivarian Revolution

The point here isn’t that Venezuela is perfect or a paradise — it is neither. But President Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution has repeatedly received Venezuelans’ approval to continue progress toward what he calls “21st century socialism.”

That process is aimed explicitly at putting an end to the neoliberalism that has imposed so much misery and putting power into the hands of local communities so that people can make the decisions that affect them. Doing so is bitterly opposed by the former rulers of Venezuela, who were the leading backers of opposition candidate Henrique Capriles; by industrialists and financiers throughout the advanced capitalist countries; and by the numerically minuscule capitalist elites of regional countries.

The Bolivarian Revolution is a sometimes chaotic process that does not advance in a straight line; aspects of its are opposed by some leaders inside President Chávez’s government. Although nationalization of the state oil company receives most of the attention, the bedrock of the revolution are the formations of small cooperatives in a variety of industries; the creation of “social production companies” in which existing enterprises were to create co-management structures and create chains of supply with cooperatives; shuttered enterprises that are expropriated by the workers who re-start production; and experiments in “co-management” with workers’ participation conducted in large state-owned resource enterprises.

The last of these initiatives has suffered setbacks for a variety of reasons, including resistance from existing managements. A need for modernization and resistance from unions has also contributed to setbacks in creating workers’ co-management of the large state-owned resource enterprises. Considerable differences of opinion on the appropriate forms of management and ownership of enterprises continues not only among working people but among officials in the government.

Dario Azzellini, in a chapter covering Venezuela in the book Ours to Master and to Own (the source for the preceding two paragraphs), summarizes the progress of the Bolivarian Revolution:

“The transformation and democratization of the economy has proved the most difficult. The administration of most companies is neither under workers’ nor community control. Surrounded by a capitalist system and logic, it has been extremely challenging to establish collective production processes. Questions over the distribution of work and the resulting gains are particularly conflictive. However, where workers have succeeded in gaining control of their workplace, it can be observed that they have usually developed ties with the surrounding communities, abolished hierarchical structures, made themselves accountable to the workers’ assembly, and in most cases introduced equal salaries and increased the number of employed workers.” [page 397]

Professor Azzellini concludes that “The search for an alternative economy is thus firmly on the agenda.” We need not look any further to discover the solution to the puzzle of Venezuela being falsely painted as a “dictatorship” when it has elections much more transparent and fair than those of the United States.

Self-directed workers as a “cure for capitalism”

The economy of the future will not be a tabula rasa. Today’s bricks will form part of tomorrow’s edifice and, assuming that humanity’s zig-zagging and often circular course toward greater freedom continues, pieces of a better world exist scattered around us.

Cooperative enterprises are surely part of that (hoped for) better tomorrow. If tomorrow’s better world is one of economic democracy, environmental sensitivity, rationality in production and distribution, equality and meaningful community involvement, than cooperatives will form some of the backbone. Some of these bricks are already here: Successful cooperatives exist today, although they are as yet small islands of democracy in the vast sea of authoritarian capitalist enterprises.

No one model could ever be universal. Differentiated internal operations and cultures are bound to develop. But certain bedrock principals can, and should, be in place for cooperative enterprises operating in an economy that increasingly includes them. The economist Richard Wolff, in his latest book, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism,* argues that the ability of the workers of an enterprise to be involved in all its strategic decisions is the most important principal to bring about economic democracy, without which political democracy is a formal, empty shell. He introduces the term “workers’ self-directed enterprises” to encompass such enterprises.

During the last structural crisis of capitalism, the Great Depression of the 1930s, massive movements from the Left, including unions, socialist parties and communist parties, forced widespread reforms to be instituted. Eventually, however, Keynesianism and social democratic programs developed new sets of instability and capitalists were able to at first slowly and then more vigorously roll back one reform after another. Professor Wolff argues that even if a suite of reforms could be enacted, the fix would be temporary — capitalists would intervene to take back the reforms, plunging us back into crisis.

But the problem is not simply that the wealthy, through their concentration of accumulated capital, can so readily bend political systems to their ends. The problem is the instability of capitalism itself — capitalists are induced to do everything they can to increase profits due to the relentless nature of competition. That can be achieved through taking a larger share of a market or through cutting costs — the latter can include the introduction of machinery or moving facilities to somewhere else where the workers can be paid far less. These decisions are made by a small number of people at the top of the company, ultimately by the board of directors, a body that almost always includes top executives.

A similar process of alienation happened in countries that used the system of the former Soviet Union, in which the government owned all enterprises. Professor Wolff uses the term “state capitalism” to describe that model because, in place of a private board of directors, state officials made all the decisions, again excluding workers. Those officials controlled all the production of the workers, appropriating the surplus by paying the workers a small fraction of the value of what they produced, the same as in a traditional private capitalist enterprise. A many-sided argument among Bolsheviks and others on how to organize production raged after the October Revolution, but, within a year of assuming power, the Bolsheviks nationalized large enterprises under the impact of the multiple deep crises of World War I and the threat of the advancing German army.

Such a system became synonymous with “socialism.” Along with many others, Professor Wolff argues that “socialism” has to be a much different system, one in which the workers themselves make the decisions of their enterprises, in conjunction with the community of which they are a part. A central part of the ongoing furious campaign against “socialism” is the supposed efficiency of capitalism in comparison to anything else. The inherent instability of capitalism (euphemistically called “business cycles” in orthodox economics) is itself inefficient, nor is it possible to measure all the wins and losses across a society.

“In short, the notion of measuring the efficiency of economic events or processes or of an economic system is a mirage. It is not possible to identify or measure all of the effects of any social factor, nor is it possible to separate and weigh all the influences that combine to produce each effect. The very concept of efficiency would have been banished from discourse, let alone science, long ago had it not proven so ideologically useful. Efficiency discourses resemble capitalist notions of efficiency, which in turn resemble the medieval doctrines and debates concerning how many angels can dance on the head of a pin: they too will one day strike people looking back as bizarre and absurd.” [pages 29-30]

Moreover, Professor Wolff continues:

“The efficiency argument for capitalism rings hollow in the face of high and enduring unemployment affecting jobless millions and their relatives, friends, and neighbors. Watching the growing absurdity of foreclosures creating both homeless people and empty homes throws into serious question the standard defense of capitalist efficiency. … Socialists and communists during the Cold War often simply inverted the standard argument by insisting that is was [their version of] socialism or communism that was efficient (or more efficient than capitalism) and thus represented progress. They, too, often ignored the impossibilities of identifying and measuring all costs and benefits and of separating and evaluating each of the myriad influences that produced them.” [pages 30-31]

Having set the stage, Democracy at Work provides a concise summary of the lead-up to the present crisis, from the Great Depression through the explosion of debt incurred as a result of stagnant or declining wages, and summarizes in clear, accessible language the basic problems of advanced capitalist and Soviet-style systems. The book then gets to its heart, sketching out the concept of “workers’ self-directed enterprises.” WSDEs are a distinct form of cooperative enterprise — this is an enterprise in which the workers themselves are the directors, making all decisions on what to produce, where to produce, how to distribute, determining wages and other compensation, and hiring management.

The surpluses produced would never be appropriated and distributed by anybody else. In a capitalist corporation, the board of directors are legally required to maximize the profits of the corporation going to the shareholders, regardless of the cost to the workers or the local community, and only the shareholders vote on who the directors are. The profits of the company, the bloated pay of the top executives and the huge piles of cash diverted into speculation are the product of the surpluses produced by the workers — and the competitive pressures of capitalism ensure that this process continually deepens.

WSDEs would operate in a far more humane manner. The workers themselves will make the decisions on technological innovation, which is only proper since they, and the surrounding community of which they are a part, will have to live with such decisions. (This is unlike a capitalist enterprise, in which those who bear the cost have no say in the decision.) The self-directed workers can consider a far wider set of issues and concerns about adopting new technology, or any other strategic decision, thereby fully weighing the effects on themselves, their families and their communities.

Professor Wolff proposes that a specialized agency be created that would monitor technological innovations, what enterprises need more workers, which enterprises have registered a desire to commence new production, and other social needs, to be funded with enterprise profits.

“Rather like a matchmaking service, this agency’s task would be to match employees willing to change jobs with job availability and to arrange for appropriate training and inducements to facilitate the reallocation of personnel. No loss of income would attend the transition period for workers who left one job for another. To run this agency would cost a small portion of all the surpluses distributed by WSDEs to sustain its staff and activities. This agency’s reports and services would form one basis for the decision by all workers about whether to make the technical change in question.” [page 132]

Jobs can be rotated (easing boredom), pay differentials minimized (drastically reducing inequality), environmental concerns would be taken seriously (otherwise you’d be polluting your own home) and communities would be stabilized (who would move their jobs to another country for a cut in pay?). And by being involved in your workplace’s decisions — and rewarded for your efforts in making the enterprise a success — alienation is drastically reduced. Without the need to work a crushing number of hours to compensate for low pay, you would have the time to be more of a participant in your community.

Professor Wolff’s concept of WSDEs rests on the workers being their own directors; that is, making all the strategic business decisions themselves. He stresses this aspect, and sees ownership of the enterprise as less important, arguing that different ownership models can co-exist with WSDEs. Local, regional and national governments could own them but allow them to be run by the workers; the workers themselves could own the enterprise individually or collectively; or ownership could take the form of shares traded on a market. The author also prefers not to pre-judge whether a system based on WSDEs would take place under market conditions or in which planning predominates; he believes that they can be compatible with either.

“How WSDEs will come to exist with private versus socialized productive property and to coexist with markets versus planning will not be determined by spurious claims about their comparative efficiencies. It will be determined through the construction of particular, specific postcapitalist economic systems as they emerge in transitions from both private and state capitalist systems.” [page 144]

Fair enough. But here I believe caution is warranted. Leaving a full market system in place would inevitably re-introduce some of the problems of capitalism, albeit in different and milder forms. As I have previously discussed, if collective enterprises, no matter how democratically they are run internally, compete with each other in unfettered markets, market forces would require the collectives to ruthlessly reduce costs (including their own wages) and aggressively expand the market for their products. Failure to do so would mean not surviving in competition with the enterprises who do adapt themselves to market conditions. Because all materials and finished products would remain commodities subject to price volatility in this scenario, the cooperative workers’ own labor would also become a commodity — in essence, they would “become their own capitalists.”

Some amount of planning — democratic, bottom-up planning based on aggregate demand as a guide and not top-down planning imposed as an order — would seem to have a significant role in an economy dominated by cooperatives; moreover, the cooperatives would have to have some cooperation with each other, particularly in negotiating prices up and down the supply chain. Ultimately, these are questions that won’t begin to be solved until there is more practice, although a “matchmaking” agency of the type proposed above implies some amount of planning.

Much more immediate is the question of how WSDEs would co-exist with capitalist enterprises. WSDEs would handle competitive problems and grapple with issues of size and other issues differently than a capitalist enterprise. For instance, Professor Wolff argues, if WSDEs organized mutual support and pooled political strength, or prove to be more productive, they could prevail against capitalist enterprises. Not extracting large amounts of money for bloated executive pay could free extra funds for developing innovations, or differentiating their products as made under democratic conditions could be a marketing advantage.

Early on, WSDEs would need state assistance. Professor Wolff advocates adapting the model of Italy’s “Marcora Law,” which enabled workers to take over troubled enterprises. The author suggests offering the unemployed a choice: Either the traditional weekly benefits, or taking it as a lump sum, pooling their resources with others taking the lump sum, and forming a WSDE. These new enterprises would likely need to rely on technical assistance, subsidized credit, tax breaks and other assistance; such aid can be looked upon as an extension of existing programs to assist small businesses or for women- or minority-owned businesses.

Social solidarity with and by existing cooperatives, unions and activist groups would be another form of support. A strong cooperative movement would provide an alternative to traditional authoritarian capitalist employment, eroding capitalists’ ability to impose harsher working conditions.

Democracy at Work does formulate one difference from traditional concepts of cooperative enterprises that will likely be seen as controversial: A differentiation between “surplus-producing” workers and “enabling” workers. The first group are those who directly produce the outputs that are sold. The second group include accountants, managers, secretaries, clerks and many other job functions that provide the conditions that enable the “surplus-producing” workers to do their work. Professor Wolff is careful to stress that both categories are equally crucial to the success of an enterprise.

Nonetheless, he advocates that only the “surplus producers” be allowed to make the decisions regarding the appropriation and distribution of the surplus. All other decisions would be voted on collectively by all workers. The rationale is that such an arrangement “secures the absence of any exploitation within the WSDE” [page 166]. But leaving such major decisions to only a portion of the workforce risks engendering a division within the workforce, the opposite of the goal, and arguably applies too narrowly the laudable goal of ending exploitation.

Moreover, this formulation presupposes that management will form a group distinct from line workers. But there should not be such a distinction: Managers should be elected by the workers a whole, to specific terms and be recallable. There is no reason why management and supervisory positions should not be rotated — workers can become managers, and then go back to being workers. More people would become familiar with more roles, be able to assume greater responsibility and be better equipped to participate in strategic decision-making.

Nor is there any reason why people can’t change roles from a direct production job to a support job, which, to be fair, is tacitly acknowledged in the author’s stress on the ability of workers to change job functions within WSDEs. Having two categories of jobs with a crucial decision-making function reserved for one category would seem to defeat the purpose of cooperation — equality. If everybody is necessary to the enterprise, then everybody should be eligible to vote on everything.

Decision-making, however, will not be confined to the walls of the enterprise. Residents and workers should participate in each other’s decisions to the extent that they are affected, Professor Wolff writes. Community representatives should participate in WSDE decision-making, and vice versa, as WSDE members are part of the community.

“In societies where WSDEs are the prevailing organization of production, capitalists will no longer occupy a crucial political position. Capitalists’ use of the surpluses they appropriate will no longer dominate politics. We will no longer have capitalists making political use of the resources typically at their disposal — the surpluses they appropriate. Instead, the community of workers who direct WSDEs will be the prevailing political partner of residence-based governing bodies. …They might finally realize democracy, which under capitalism was never allowed to go beyond very limited electoral functions.” [pages 167-168]

A much higher level of democracy does not mean that a society with an economy based on WSDEs would be a utopia. Professor Wolff is forthright in noting that there will be new problems and contradictions. But with vastly less inequality distorting all areas of society, problems would be more easily tackled. And just as the transcending of earlier systems eliminated many but not all social ills, transcending capitalism will put many problems behind us.

“The slave and feudal systems that proceeded capitalism fostered forms of crime rooted in their mixes of economic risks and rewards. But those systems never displayed the recurring boom-and-bust cycles common to all forms of capitalism. These cycles are the products of capitalism — not of this or that group (the state, criminals, others) functioning within that system and in response to its upswings and downswings. … Overcoming the systemic roots and nature of capitalist crises requires a change in the economic system.” [pages 51-52]

Professor Wolff’s Democracy at Work offers us a well-written practical guide to alternatives to capitalism, one that we can begin to build today with the tools at our disposal. Whatever disagreements a reader may have with this or that detail, Democracy at Work is recommended to anyone seeking a concise study of why we need to bring a better world into being and how we might get there.

* Richard Wolff, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism [Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2012]