Audacity, not hoping for reforms, the route to a humane world

Working people in the core capitalist countries have received benefits from imperialism (even if only crumbs) that workers in the rest of the world don’t receive. That dichotomy is a barrier that has hindered the building of global alliances necessary to reverse neoliberalism.

Or, going beyond, to create an international social movement strong enough steer the world from its present course of economic and ecological suicide to a sustainable system oriented toward human need. A further division among the world’s working peoples between the diminishing numbers with reasonably secure, regular employment and the vast numbers of those without available regular work — the “reserve army of labor” or, to use the increasingly popular term, the “precariat” — and divisions within these broad categories also, on the surface, seems to imply that the world’s workers don’t have any unifying interests.

On the contrary, an international movement that brings together the peoples of the global North and the global South, with a common goal of nationalizing the monopolies that currently have a stranglehold on the world’s economy and a commitment to “de-financialization” (a “world without Wall Street”) is not only possible but indispensable, argues Samir Amin in his latest book, The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism.* These would not be ends unto themselves, but rather the first necessary steps on a long road toward a sustainable and equitable future.

The Implosion of Contemporary CapitalismCritical to developing strategies to transcend an “imploding” capitalist system is developing an understanding of the world’s current organization. In the current stage of “generalized monopoly capitalism,” as Dr. Amin defines today’s world, monopolies tightly control all systems of production and thereby extract extraordinarily large profits. These surpluses are so large they can’t be invested rationally and therefore can only be deployed in speculation, fueling financialization. The process of financialization in turn enables banks to amass vast power and create debt that they profit from.

Increases in productivity outstripping growth in wages further fuels this process. But these monopolies are not located just anywhere — they are located in the capitalist core of the United States, Europe and Japan. Thus the power amassed by these monopolies is inflated by the extraction of capital from peripheries to these centers. Dr. Amin writes:

“In its globalized setup capitalism is inseparable from imperialist exploitation of its dominated peripheries by its dominant centers. Under monopoly capitalism this exploitation takes the form of monopoly rents (in ordinary language, the superprofits of multinational corporations) that are by and large imperialist rents. … [T]he material benefits drawn from this rent, accruing not only to the profit of capital ruling on a world scale but equally to the centers’ opulent societies, are more than considerable.” [pages 20-21]

(The term “monopoly” here is not meant in the “pure” sense of one single corporation dominating an industry, but rather refers to a handful of corporations that, as a group, act in a monopolistic manner. “Rent” is a macroeconomic term meaning the extraction of profits above the ordinary level derived from an advantage.)

The ability of monopoly capital to exploit the global South is aided by the collaboration of local elites, a class of “corruptionists,” to use Dr. Amin’s pungent phrase, who are “highly compensated intermediaries” allowed to take a slice of the extracted superprofits. The whole is partially masked by the fragmentation of production, which nonetheless remains tightly controlled by monopoly capitalists.

This creates the illusion of a divergence in the interests of working people, both within and among countries, but differences in skill levels and ability to earn higher wages has always existed. All working people have in common that they are exploited; the challenge then becomes to effect the unity of workers (including those in informal sectors), peasants and the middle classes in a united front crossing borders.

Smaller enterprises and farmers subordinate to dominant firms

The latest stage of capitalism, starting with the late 20th century, is the era of “generalized monopolies” in which monopolies command the heights of the economy and directly control entire production systems, reducing small, medium and all peripheral enterprises to subordinate roles. Those subordinate enterprises, as well as farmers, have become subcontractors whose operations are subject to rigid control by the monopolies. From this, Dr. Amin concludes:

“There is no other possible answer to the challenge: the monopolies must be nationalized. This is a first, unavoidable step toward a possible socialization of their management by workers and citizens. Only this will make it possible to make progress along the long road to socialism. At the same time it will be the only way to develop a new macro economy that restores genuine space for the operations of small and medium enterprises. If that is not done, the logic of domination by abstract capital can produce nothing but the decline of democracy and civilization, and a ‘generalized apartheid’ at the world level.” [page 113]

The “imperial rent” that accrues to the capitalist core’s monopolies mainly flows to the capitalists, but the workers of the North also benefit from it, and this creates a barrier to North-South alliance building. Workers of the South can’t help but be acutely aware of global imbalances that impoverish them, in contrast to many workers of the North tacitly embracing the relative crumbs they receive at the expense of their Southern brothers and sisters through uncritical acceptance of nationalist ideologies extolling the supposed superiority of imperial countries; this acceptance is reflected, for example, in the U.S. labor federation AFL-CIO’s decades-long uncritical embrace of Washington’s imperialist foreign policy.

Creating a better world — a world in which economic decisions are reached through democratic processes in which all affected parties have a voice and in which the economy is run for the benefit and development of all humanity rather than the private profit of capitalists — is therefore inextricably linked with providing solutions and better living conditions to the majority of the world who live in the peripheral countries.

Change must be in three “dimensions,” Dr. Amin writes — peoples, nations and states. The liberation of a nation and achievements by a state are complements to the advancements of the people; the idea that people can transform the world without taking power is “simply naïve,” the author writes. But it is the people who must be at the forefront:

“[T]he notion of national liberation ‘at all costs,’ in other words being independent of the social content of the hegemonic coalition, leads to the cultural illusion of attachment to the past (political Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism are examples) [that] is in fact powerless. The notion of power, conceived as being capable of ‘achievements’ for the people, but carried out without them, leads to the drift to authoritarianism and crystallization of a new bourgeoisie. The deviation of Sovietism, evolving from ‘capitalism without capitalists’ (state capitalism) to ‘capitalism with capitalists,’ is the most tragic example of this.” [pages 116-117]

The impossibility of reforming away concentrated power

Additional illusions are that the South can “catch up” with the core capitalist countries or that the maldevelopment of capitalism can be wished away through reforms. The imperialist system blocks the development of new industrial contenders; moreover, the rise of European capitalism required the “safety valve” of emigration to the New World as peasants were forced off the land. There are no new worlds that can absorb the many millions of peasants displaced and to be displaced as capitalism washes over all parts of the globe.

And, although this was not discussed in The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism, anarchist and Proudhonist ideas that employees can gradually take control of their workplaces while ignoring the state are also illusions. You may wish to ignore the state, but that does not mean the state will ignore you, nor will capitalists, with the powerful coercive apparatus of the state at their disposal, idly sit by and allow their property and prerogatives to be gradually taken away. Similarly, reformist ideas such as more regulation or a return to the post-World War II model are illusions — reforms can and are taken back and there is no going back to the past because the conditions of today are not the conditions of yesterday.

What Dr. Amin does advocate is “audacity, more audacity.” The proposed audacity centers on three programs: socializing the ownership of monopolies, “de-financialization,” and “de-linking” at the international level. Reversing the current social order is impossible without expropriating the power of monopolies.

Economic activity should be organized by public institutions representing groups up and down production supply chains, consumers, local authorities and citizens self-organized democratically. Management of monopolies should include workers in the enterprise as well as representatives of consumers, citizens, (democratically controlled) banks, research institutions and upstream industries. Large-scale production would continue to exist because it is unrealistic to believe that artisans and small local collectives could replace the production of large enterprises, the author writes, but production must be done on the basis of being answerable to society’s collective choices.

“De-financialization” is conceptualized as not simply the abolishment of “shareholder value” as the supreme force animating production but going beyond nationalization/socialization to establish direct participation in management by relevant social partners. Ecological impact, minimization of risk and client participation would be the foundation of banking. The focus on community control and international “de-linking,” however, does not mean a retreat into isolationism; rather it would be a reconstruction of global relations through negotiation rather than the current system of submission to the imperial powers.

These programs can’t be implemented on a global or regional basis, Dr. Amin argues, but only within countries committed to socialization and democratization of the economy. Thus the South must de-link from international institutions controlled by the imperial powers and Europeans must dismantle their undemocratic institutions responsive only to “market” reactions. There are no alternatives, the author writes:

“Capitalism is now an obsolete system, its continuation leading only to barbarism. No other capitalism is possible. … Either the radical left will succeed through the audacity of its initiatives to make revolutionary advances, or the counterrevolution will win. There is no effective compromise between these two responses to the challenge.” [page 146]

There is no guarantee as to what will succeed capitalism. We can sit back and let history unfold, continuing to cede the initiative to elites who have imposed austerity on the world and can only offer ever more harsh and repressive policies while consuming the Earth’s resources until nothing is left. Or we can collectively work together to create a humane, democratic future by overturning capitalism. If we don’t accomplish the latter, we will surely find ourselves in the hell of the former.

* Samir Amin, The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism [Monthly Review Press, New York, 2013]

Bankruptcy of Mondragon company demonstrates limits of cooperation under capitalism

The announcement that one of Mondragon’s companies is filing for bankruptcy isn’t a commentary on cooperatives, but it is a reminder that even the world’s largest cooperative enterprise is not immune to capitalist competition.

Cooperatives point toward a more humane way of organizing production, but in themselves don’t necessarily alter market relations. That is true not only because cooperatives are yet minuscule islands in a vast sea of capitalism, and thus must make decisions strongly impacted by a continual buffeting by market forces, but because a cooperative economy would require that cooperation, rather than competition, be the basis of relations.

The shuttering of Mondragon’s household-appliances company, Fagor Electrodomésticos, is also an opportunity to ask if there comes a point where a cooperative becomes too big. Mondragon has expanded steadily, through internal growth and creating new businesses but also through buying companies outside Spain. Although that expansion is not a factor in Fagor’s closing, Mondragon has had difficulty absorbing some of its acquisitions, with the result that at least 14,000 workers are actually employees of the cooperative.

Mondragon UniversityThus the cooperative members profit through extracting surplus value from these employees, who do not share in the decision-making. In fact, Fagor’s Polish factory (where the workers are employees, not members of the cooperative) was the subject of a slow-down strike in 2011. Fagor, reacting to capitalist competitive pressures, had moved some production there from France to take advantage of lower wages.

The failure of Fagor, unable to survive the drastic downturn in the Spanish economy, is also noteworthy because it is Mondragon’s original business, and one of the larger among Mondragon’s federation of 110 cooperatives. A manufacturer of washing machines, refrigerators, dishwashers and other “white goods,” Fagor’s revenues declined to €1.1 billion in 2012 from €1.8 billion in 2008, the year of the financial crash, and has not earned a profit since 2008. Revenue has been hurt by the intensity of the economic downturn in Spain, where unemployment is 27 percent amidst a collapse of the housing market.

Cooperative members better off than capitalist employees

Unlike at a capitalist corporation, where workers are routinely laid off merely because of a slight decline in profits, Mondragon strives to keep all its members employed. Decision-making is made by the workers themselves, in assemblies and through their elected, accountable managers, representatives and board members.

In the case of Fagor, its cooperative members had previously agreed to cut their pay by 20 percent. In addition, Mondragon had provided €300 million in financing in an effort to keep the appliance maker afloat. But Mondragon’s general council, which coordinates the policies of the various companies, decided it would provide no more funds, rejecting Fagor’s request for another €180 million that Fagor believed would finally stabilize itself.

A Mondragon press release issued on October 30 said:

“[T]he proposal submitted by Fagor Electrodomésticos is not viable, and [Mondragon’s general council] has unanimously agreed the company no longer responds to market needs, and the financial resources it requests would not ensure its business future.

“The [Mondragon] Corporation has analysed the situation following the financial assistance given to Fagor Electrodomésticos in recent years both by the cooperatives themselves and through sundry corporate instruments, and it has considered that the feasibility plan submitted by Fagor Electrodomésticos is not viable.”

Because each of Mondragon’s companies are autonomous, self-managed cooperatives (which assist each other through mutual support mechanisms), Fagor’s closing has no effect on the viability of other units. But because one of the mutual-support mechanisms is retraining workers in struggling companies and their transfer to stronger businesses, Mondragon may have difficulty absorbing a bankruptcy unprecedented in size.

On the other hand, the cooperative members of Fagor are not simply out in the street, as they would be at a top-down capitalist corporation. Mondragon’s press release went on to say that its general council pledges to:

“[C]ontinue to activate all the support mechanisms required to reduce to the furthest possible extent the impact on employment due to the circumstances of Fagor Electrodomésticos. These measures will range from reassignments to early retirements and the implementation of training schemes that will reinforce the employability of the worker-members of Fagor Electrodomésticos. … The diversity of sectors and markets in which our cooperatives operate is an assurance that leads us to believe they will continue to launch new activities in the short-to-medium term, with a positive knock-on effect on job creation. The fact our businesses are competitive in their respective markets is good news for the absorption of any redundancies forthcoming at Fagor Electrodomésticos.”

Given Mondragon’s history, that is not empty talk, although El País reports that Fagor’s employed workers, which would include those in its Polish factory, are not covered. There have been no layoffs in Mondragon despite the exploding Spanish unemployment rate; instead workers have agreed to reduce their wages by an average of five percent with a shifting of some to stronger from weaker companies. Fagor’s cooperative members will be paid 80 percent of their salaries for two years through Mondragon’s own insurance company.

Forced to ‘become their own capitalists’

Mondragon’s growth from a handful of people in the 1950s to its status as a major competitor in a range of industries rests on its ability to successfully compete against capitalist enterprises while riding the ups and downs of market competition. No article about Fagor’s closing — not even the sneering “I told you so” of The Economist’s report — so much as hints at any quality-control issues. Rather, Fagor went under due to slack demand in Spain and France, and stiff competition from low-wage Asian imports.

Therein lies a contradiction. Mondragon operates as a cooperative, fully under the control of its workers (at least those in Spain), in which all management and oversight posts are elected internally, wages are vastly more equal than in a capitalist enterprise, and it is owned exclusively by its workforce. In other words, the cooperative members share in the risks, gains and decision-making, with profits distributed to the workers themselves, to investment funds and to the overall organization’s internal support fund.

Despite that internal cooperation, Mondragon must operate like a traditional capitalist enterprise outside its gates. Forced to compete against capitalist corporations operating in capitalist market conditions, it can not do otherwise if it is to survive. This is the case for other cooperatives today. In essence, cooperative workers in a capitalist economy are, in the words of Karl Marx, forced to “become their own capitalists.”

Because of Mondragon’s size, Fagor’s workers may be able to secure work elsewhere in Mondragon. They didn’t face the prospect of their jobs being moved to a low-wage haven on the other side of the world, but they also could not stay in business in the face of capitalism’s worst slump since the Great Depression.

Moreover, Mondragon also acts like a capitalist corporation in that it acquires businesses and sometimes the employees of those acquired businesses, particularly those outside Spain, remain employees of the cooperative rather than become full members. Such a result flows from the need to expand to survive the rigors of capitalist competition. Any economy that operates on the basis of market competition — that is, in which markets are allowed to determine social outcomes — will lead to some form of “grow or die,” in which enterprises struggle to survive.

Cooperators’ own wages remain a commodity if everything else is a commodity priced by markets. In an economy dominated by cooperatives but with capitalist market relations intact, collective workers would face market pressure to reduce their own wages in order to compete better against their competitors. Some enterprises would become much bigger than others; smaller enterprises would be compelled to sell themselves to larger competitors, consolidating production until an oligarchy arose. Some industries would be much bigger than others. As market competition intensified, survival would require more ruthless behavior.

Democratic control as the basis for a new economy

A cooperative economy, therefore, has to not only be based on enterprises run on cooperative lines, but the cooperatives must cooperate with each other as well. The entire economy would have to be based on democratic control, with commodity prices negotiated in fair and open talks, and with a rational system of distribution that would be supple enough to respond to changes in consumer demand while not over-producing. Such an economy might largely be in the hands of cooperative enterprises, but with critical industries, such as banking and energy, in state hands, under democratic control.

Successful cooperative enterprises such as Mondragon provide glimpses of an economy organized for human need rather than uncontrolled private profit, but are insufficient by themselves. That is not a criticism of cooperatives; on the contrary, the growth of cooperatives should be encouraged as strongly as possible. In present circumstances, they exist on the margins, fully subject to the rigors of capitalist competition.

No cooperative today, no matter how successful, can operate outside the demand of the “market” — and the capitalist market is the aggregate interests of the world’s largest industrialists and financiers. As more industries follow the leads of textiles and electronic gadgets — that is, move production to places with ever lower wages and ever less regulations — the more pressure there will be to follow suit or go out of business. Fagor will not be the last cooperative to face this dilemma. It is inevitable as long as cooperatives remain small islands at the mercy of capitalist competition.

A better world, a rational economy geared to human need, requires a different system. As large as Mondragon is, it is has no ability to operate outside the logic of capitalism. Overall, it has thus far competed successfully, but at the price of becoming too large to integrate all its workers. The world would need many more Mondragons, cooperating and negotiating with one another, to even begin to crack the façade of capitalism, and capitalists are not likely to sit by idly while an alternative to their rule grows.

As worthy a model as cooperatives can be, they are not a substitute for working people around the world struggling collectively to create a better world. All the advances of the 20th century are the product of collective struggles, but because those movements settled for reforms while leaving the system in place, the gains have steadily been taken back.

If capitalism is to be transcended, the relations among enterprises, and between people and enterprises, have to be put on a new footing — one based on cooperation, not competition.

One small step for French workers but no giant leap

France appears on the verge of advancing the rights of workers, and although such a victory will be slight, even a tentative step forward is welcome. But it is no more than that: Once we get past the comedy of business leaders wailing that the sky is falling, do we really have anything other than a small reform that leaves the system intact?

It would seem not. The French National Assembly, on September 30, passed a bill that would grant employees a voice when their company is the target of a takeover attempt and require owners of companies with at least 1,000 employees to seek a buyer for a plant intended to be closed. The French Senate must also approve the bill before President François Hollande can sign it into law.

Marching in Paris against pension reformShould the bill be passed, a committee of workers would be organized inside a company being targeted for a takeover, which would be empowered to appoint an accountant to assess the bid. The board of the target company would be required to take the assessment under consideration before making its final decision. Although it is unclear what legal force this workers’ assessment would have, the company’s “works council” (an employee oversight body larger French companies are required to have) could ask a judge to intervene if it believes the board has not responded adequately to its queries, potentially delaying any deal.

The bill would also put a temporary roadblock in the path of a company that intends to shut a plant or some portion of its operations. Enterprises with more than 1,000 employees that intend to shut a facility with more than 50 workers would be required to seek a buyer for three months. Judge would be authorized to impose a fine if the company fails conduct a search or turns down a serious offer.

The French Senate has a narrow majority bloc of Socialists, Communists, Greens and other Left-leaning members, so it would appear that the bill is likely to pass the Senate, enabling President Hollande to fulfill a campaign pledge to give workers more say in the running of their enterprises.

A tiny change, a giant rage

In reality, these new powers, should they enter into law, would do nothing to alter existing relations within the workplace. Nonetheless the principal of the bill — that workers are entitled to a modicum of control over their working lives, at least in theory — has driven business leaders and the corporate media that loves them into fits of rage.

A Bloomberg report on the bill quotes a series of speculators in full indignation, including a Paris investment banker:

“In the M&A [mergers-and-acquisitions] world, the image of France viewed from outside is deplorable, and this law is adding extra complexity.”

Quelle horreur! Bloomberg itself grumbles:

“Foreign companies have spent $14.8 billion on French targets this year, putting 2013 on track to be the weakest for such deals in at least a decade, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The new rules may further dissuade potential buyers. France hasn’t seen a major hostile takeover since Mittal Steel Co. bought Arcelor SA in 2006 in a transaction then valued at about $36 billion.”

Oh, the humanity! Seven long years of only relatively smaller takeovers. How is a poor investment bank supposed to keep its speculators in the style in which they are accustomed? Although the underlying imperative of capitalist competition — expand or die — propels the frenzy of corporate mergers and acquisitions, the proximate cause is to enable enormous profits for corporate executives, investment bankers and partners at corporate law firms. The bigger the deal, the bigger the payday for those on the inside.

Keeping score of the money but not the human cost

Definitive totals on the numbers of jobs lost to takeovers are extremely difficult to come by; this is not surprising when the corporate media reports on mergers and acquisitions in breathless terms of the size of the deal and with assurances that jobs will be sacrificed on the alter of “efficiency.” In other words, the human cost is not even an afterthought. To take just two examples, Washington Monthly, in a report detailing the increasing monopolization that characterizes most industries, wrote:

“Consider two recent deals in the drug industry. The first came in January 2009 when Pfizer, the world’s largest drug company, announced plans for a $68 billion takeover of Wyeth. The second came in March 2009, when executives at number two Merck said they planned to spend $41.1 billion to buy Schering-Plough. Managers all but bragged of the number of workers who would be rendered ‘redundant’ by the deal — the first killed off 19,000 jobs, the second 16,000.”

The money to pour into these deals has to come from somewhere. So can measures like those passed by the French National Assembly reverse this trend? Because the limited “voice” to be granted workers is connected to France’s “works councils,” a look at these councils will help us answer that question.

Although only a minority of workers in France are protected by a traditional labor union, all who work in enterprises with 50 or more employees are represented by a works council. French law proscribes fines and even jail terms for employers who interfere with the functioning of these bodies. In unionized companies, trade unions put forth the candidates for the works council, although if more than 50 percent of the eligible voters do not vote, a second election is organized in which any employee is eligible to run.

The works councils are required to be consulted on the management and general organization of the company; personnel decisions, including dismissals; and changes to equipment, working conditions, professional-training procedures, or hygiene and safety issues. The opinion of the works council is not legally binding, however, unlike a collective-bargaining agreement negotiated with a trade union. Works councils decisions are binding in only a small number of minor issues, such as the hiring or dismissal of the labor doctor.

As private-sector union membership in France is low, the works councils provide a modicum of enterprise participation for French workers. The bill that has passed the National Assembly represents a tiny incremental gain while leaving all the prerogatives of ownership firmly in the hands of capitalists. The wailing from capitalists and the corporate media is more of a reflection of their desire for total control than any actual change in labor relations.

Works councils as controllers rather than consultants

Although their consultative status currently makes them little more than a safety valve, France’s works councils could, in theory, form the nucleus of actual workers’ control. The concept of real workers’ councils, assuming control over the decision-making of an enterprise, has taken root at different times in several countries. All the workers collectively make strategic decisions, and elect a council to oversee the running of the enterprise (including supervising management) and to act as links with other enterprises.

Meetings to discuss, and vote on, the enterprise’s business would be a part of the regular workweek. All ownership would stay within the workforce — each would own one share and relinquish it upon leaving or retiring. Shares could not be transferred or sold, except to the collective. Management would be recallable and promoted from within.

Why should democracy stop at the entrance to the workplace? Cooperatives are already flourishing. There are the examples of the Mondragon collective and the recovered factories of Argentina, among others, in which assemblies of all the workers make the strategic decisions and elect supervisory boards that are responsible to the assemblies. Mondragon has been a planned enterprise from its foundation; Argentina’s recovered factories are the products of workers struggling to restart production while slowly gaining the confidence to be their own managers.

Cooperatives are as yet minuscule islands in a vast sea of capitalism. Several countries have works councils, including Germany, where employers must reach agreement with them in regards to rules covering, inter alia, smoking bans, dress codes, overtime, introduction of new technical equipment and policies on pay bonuses. Employees are also represented on corporate boards of directors in Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and several other European countries.

Reforms should be taken whenever possible, but reforms can always be taken away. Instead of being the basis of minor tinkering, why shouldn’t works councils be one starting point for a complete transformation? Top-down authoritarian enterprises that give an elite dominating power over the overwhelming majority of humanity hasn’t been working out so great.

Venezuela’s revolution is a process propelled by millions, not one leader

Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution is much bigger than Hugo Chávez; it is a movement of millions. The movement that drives the process forward long predates his election and his failed 1992 coup.

Saying this should not come as a revelation, for no large-scale social movement can exist as a personal vehicle, nor can any one person, no matter how charismatic, single-handedly carry the responsibility for social change, especially when that change has the long-term, open goal of supplanting the global capitalist order.

We Created ChávezContrary to the myopic, superficial corporate-media narrative of a caudillo motivated by a fathomless desire to poke Uncle Sam in the eye (although we must immediately ask how a leader who won 16 of 17 national elections, almost all by at least 10 percentage points, can be a “dictator”), the Bolivarian Revolution is a continuation of struggles that have been waged since the late 1950s. The defining moments, George Ciccariello-Maher argues in We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution,* are not President Chávez’s electoral victories but rather two outbursts of people’s power, a 1989 uprising and the 2002 uprising that re-installed him, reversing the business coup.

The Bolivarian Revolution can’t be understood without a bottom-up perspective, without analysis of the pressure from below that buffeted President Chávez, pushed forward by organizations that support the revolution. Professor Ciccariello-Maher, as his book’s title signals, provides that necessary background:

“Hugo Chávez is not a cause but an effect, not Creator but creation; in this sense, the history that follows is literally a defetishization, a demystification. His election and even his failed coup did not mark the beginning of the Bolivarian Revolution, but were instead the results and reflection of its long and largely subterraneous history.” [page 21]

That history has roots two centuries old, and the modern manifestation of Venezuelan struggle begins in the late 1950s, ironically with the downfall of Venezuela’s last dictator and the establishment of a formally “democratic” republic. Marcos Pérez Jiménez was overthrown in 1958, replaced by a two-party system designed to stifle popular participation. The “social democratic” party, Acción Democrática — unusually ruthless in attacking its base even by the standards of world social democracy — mostly was in power, alternating with Copei, the Christian democrats.

‘Democracy’ proves little different than dictatorship

Acción Democrática leader Rómulo Betancourt won office in the first post-Pérez Jiménez election. Within a year, his government was shooting people dead in the streets and ruling under states of emergency. Violent repression was the swift response by the new president to his unpopularity; repeated massacres sparked uprisings across the country. A revolutionary situation developed, but Professor Ciccariello-Maher argues that the Venezuelan Communist Party waited too long while the Revolutionary Left Movement went too soon. A series of tactical mistakes doomed this armed struggle, not least of which was a lack of connections with the people, the author writes.

A series of groups blossomed and declined, rural guerrilla strategies failed, the electoral Left floundered, and mass fronts and other popular organizations faced severe state repression during the following years. The net of state repression was cast steadily wider — the government provided little services but attacked those who asked for them. Out of this situation, barrio assembles and popular militias began to be organized for self-defense; the latter forcibly ended the drug trade in neighborhoods in which they operated. These popular organizations organized sporting and cultural activities, and expelled the police — their militancy propelled people forward.

Professor Ciccariello-Maher argues that the 1989 uprising known as the “Caracazo” is the first of two “ruptures” (the 2002 coup reversal the other) that are the critical moments in the process that is the Venezuelan Revolution. Carlos Andrés Pérez took office as president that year as the Acción Democrática candidate on an explicitly anti-International Monetary Fund platform. It took him two weeks to jettison his campaign pledges and impose the full IMF-dictated austerity package. Riots broke out the morning of imposition, led by informal workers. But because political organization was widespread, these were not blind lashings-out — the target of the anger quickly went from bus drivers (a doubling of oil prices prompted large fare increases) to the state and its system.

A curfew was declared the next day, and a violent crackdown ensued, with as many as 3,000 left dead. The author leaves no doubt as to the severity of the government crackdown:

“Known organizers were dragged from their homes to be either executed or ‘disappeared,’ and when security forces met resistance from rooftop snipers, they sprayed entire apartment blocks with automatic machine guns. … The human toll of the rebellion has never been fully revealed, especially because the Pérez government subsequently obstructed any and all efforts to investigate the events. … A recent study has shown that some four million bullets were fired to quell the rebellion, and the Relatives of Victims Committee, an organization founded around the victims of the Caracazo, reports that 97 percent of the documented victims died in their own homes.” [pages 96-97]

Grassroots organizations build opposition

The author writes that the Caracazo crystallized and focused organized opposition within the military while civilian armed groups sought to unify the popular militias with the military opposition. By 1991, barrio assemblies in Caracas were organizing and coordinating opposition. The military uprisings in February and November 1992 (the former the one led by Hugo Chávez) were the “detonators” for subsequent popular rebellions. State repression could not break popular control of the streets, and these social movements led to the 1998 election of President Chávez.

“[D]efeat notwithstanding, the Caracazo sounded the death knell of the old system, simultaneously reflecting and contributing to the inevitability of its collapse and thereby setting into motion the entire process that came after it. In symbolic terms, it smashed in a single stroke the façade of [Venezuelan] ‘democratic exceptionalism,’ revealing the bankruptcy and the violence of the existing system for all to see. Neither completely spontaneous nor fully organized, the Caracazo was an instant in which widespread disgust and revolutionary capacity met on the streets, generating historical agency by emboldening the faithful and converting the waverers: it was 1989 that enabled 1992, and 1992 that enabled 1998.” [page 89]

The author’s second moment of rupture, the reversal of the 2002 business coup against President Chávez after two days, was a product of the connections between militias and military, of political understanding and experience. Millions poured into the center of Caracas in defiance of the coup. Venezuela’s corporate media had unleashed an orgy of lies before and during the coup; the state television channel was closed while the private media blacked out any coverage of the mounting resistance. The coup leader, Pedro Carmona Estanga, the head of the national chamber of commerce, dissolved all branches of government and declared the 1999 constitution void, despite its having been approved by 72 percent of the electorate.

Loyalist military units, taking their cues from the mass popular resistance to the coup, took the presidential palace back, with officers giving the credit to the people and their “spontaneity” — but the “spontaneity” was the product of years of organizing, with Left activists seeking much more than the mere return of President Chávez to the palace.

“[M]ass spontaneity, while fundamental in its importance, is often the result of serious organizing that, in the case of Venezuela, spans decades. As with the Caracazo, then, this spontaneous mobilization and its spontaneous grasp of the strategic realities of the situation it confronted should not lead us merely to a panegyric of spontaneity for spontaneity’s sake. Rather, every moment of this spontaneity and every gesture of these spontaneous masses contained an aspiration toward increasingly conscious organization. In this explosive dialectic between spontaneity and organization that was resistance to the 2002 coup, such conscious effort would be especially important in the realm of mediatic and popular armed organizing.” [pages 172-173]

Struggle within the struggle

Can an engaged people go back to the ancien régime? We Created Chávez was published just before Hugo Chávez’s untimely death, but given the context of this story the president’s passing in no way renders the book out of date. The modern history of Venezuela is that of regularly employed workers, informal workers, peasants, students, women, Afro-Venezuelans and Indigenous peoples in a many-sided struggle against domestic elites and the country’s subaltern status in global capitalism. Then there is the struggle within the Bolivarian Revolution.

There are tensions between economic and political demands, between workers’ autonomy and the state, over the nature and content of “co-management” and over if co-management is a step toward a higher level or a capitalist trick, as well as opposition to developing the Bolivarian process from managers and within the ranks of the movement.

What forms should workers’ control take? Some argue for state ownership with employee participation, others argue for full autonomy of enterprises and the workers in them, and there are gradations in between. Enterprises under state ownership presumably should be managed to benefit the community, but how much management should be ceded to the workforce? Should workers fortunate enough to work in the oil industry be able to reap benefits far in excess of other workers? How should autonomous enterprises be managed to benefit the community, not only those who work in them?

There are similarly serious questions regarding agriculture. Venezuelan land ownership remains highly unequal, with owners of large ranches in control of the countryside. Moreover, because the countryside emptied out and the economy grew overly dependent on the oil industry before 1998, the country lost its food sovereignty. This exodus to the cities has swelled the size of the informal workforce, who get by with street vending and whatever other means they can to survive.

Less than half of the workforce has formal employment, Professor Ciccariello-Maher writes, but although the Chávez government had difficulty with informals, to the point of occasional hostility, the author argues that this sector has been the staunchest base of support for the revolution and is neglected at the government’s peril. Informal workers played no small role in reversing the 2002 coup, for example.

There is no stasis

Ultimately, the revolution can only succeed through creating mechanisms for self-government. “Patriotic Circles” became Bolivarian Circles after 1998, and were tasked with drafting and defending the 1999 constitution. Communal councils (local bodies that manage policy and projects in their communities) came into existence after a 2006 law. These are legally on par with state institutions and have oversight over them; these are views as potential replacements for the state bureaucracy. The councils are linked horizontally to one another and vertically in communes with a goal of them exercising sovereignty.

Due to the timing of the book, the author concludes with an analysis of President Chávez’s “complex and nuanced position” as someone who is not purely a representative of the state but also an ally of the social movements that have driven Venezuela forward in past decades:

“[M]ore often than not he has pushed a radical agenda that facilitates the transformation of that state, a fact most visible in the recent development of communal councils and popular militias. Here there are no guarantees, and despite the fact that the collective ‘we’ of the Venezuelan revolutionary movements … ‘created him,’ this does not mean the creation will not betray the creators. However … to do so would certainly require a fight.” [pages 254-255]

The necessity of struggle to deepen the revolution is unchanged by the president’s death. Social movements have driven the process forward, and will continue to do so, regardless of who occupies the palace. We Created Chávez is indispensable toward understanding the process that is the Bolivarian Revolution and the path taken by Venezuela.

* George Ciccariello-Maher, We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution [Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina, USA, and London 2013]

A path toward bringing banks under democratic control

The struggle to create a democratic economy based on human need requires finding a path to a drastically smaller financial industry. Banking should be a utility, under public control and existing to serve the productive economy, in contrast to its current incarnation as an uncontrollable behemoth that exists to extract wealth from all other human activities.

storm over banksGiven the stranglehold of financiers over the world’s economies, democratizing banks will be no easy task. But it can done. Countries such as Norway and Sweden have nationalized their banks, only to promptly hand them back to private owners.

As always, a word of caution is in order: Although the financial industry acts as both whip and parasite in relation to the productive economy (providers of tangible goods and services) — the whip spurring ever harsher working conditions and intensifying the movement of production to low-wage havens and the parasite extracting money from every possible human activity — there is no neat separation of finance from the productive economy in capitalism. Many manufacturers have financial subsidiaries, for instance, and corporate executives grow wealthy from stock-market bubbles inflated by speculators and other financial manipulations.

The giant piles of money thrown into speculation are the products by industrialists’ profits created through exploitation of employees. There is a symbiotic relationship between financiers and industrialists; together they constitute a globalized class that maintains power through a web of institutions while scrambling to manage the ceaseless instability of capitalism. Although the financial industry is powerful, nonetheless there is not a small cabal of bankers who somehow control everything, an idea rooted in Right-wing conspiracy theories that easily shade off into anti-Semitism.

Caveats in place, the power of financiers must be broken to make any meaningful progress toward a democratic economy. What would a real socialization of banking look like? Specifics would naturally vary from country to country, but the Left Party of Germany has put forth a plan for the socialization of the German banking system that can serve as an excellent starting point for discussion. The Left Party’s model is based on specific aspects of existing local German banks, but contains concepts that are applicable to any country.

The report, How a Socialization of the German Banking System Might Look Like, written by Axel Troost and Philipp Hersel, envisions a banking system based on credit unions (some owned cooperatively by members and others owned by municipal governments) and democratized state-owned banks. Private banks would be either closed or drastically shrunk, depending on their solvency. All banks would be responsible to supervisory boards comprised of representatives of community organizations such as trade unions, environmental groups and consumer associations, and citizens directly elected in community votes.

Requiring banks to provide only basic services

All remaining banks would concentrate on what the report terms the core “PSL” functions — payments, loans, savings. Socialized banks would ensure a “low-cost system of payments including a corresponding supply of cash”; finance public- and private-sector investment that is socially and economically useful; and be secure and sustainable places for savings to be held. In the Left Party conceptualization:

“[S]ocialisation should be regarded as the subordination of the financial sector to steering and control by society and the anchoring of the sector in society.” [page 6]

The report stresses that a reduction in the size of the banking system is unavoidable, both to curtail its influence and to eliminate speculation:

“The false principles which have become established in recent decades were primarily propagated by the financial markets: shareholder value, lean government, competition to attract investment and tax competition. This process needs to be reversed, and the financial sector needs to be reduced to the role of a service provider for the overall economy. …

The aim has to be to substantially reduce the size of the financial sector and to diminish its economic and political power. As a service provider for the real economy and society, the financial sector must not be understood any longer as a place where value is added on its own account, but must be regarded as infrastructure needed for the economy as a whole.” [page 5]

Toward that end, private banks would largely disappear, as far as possible through insolvency. Private banks that remain solvent after all liabilities are placed on the balance sheet and who are so interwoven into the larger economy that their immediate shuttering would unravel other banks and enterprises would not be eliminated, but brought under public control and drastically shrunk in size in a manner that would not cause a cascade of collapses in connected banks and enterprises.

All banks would have to put all liabilities on their balance sheet for inspection, including non-performing loans and bad assets; they would no longer be able to hide them. Those without enough assets to cover the losses would be shut down. European law insures all deposits up to €100,000, and that would remain in force. Shareholders would be wiped out, however, and creditors would absorb losses, not taxpayers.

Only if an institution could not be shut down without causing a cascade of losses in other banks and enterprises would any government money be injected, but in these (hopefully rare) cases, shareholders and creditors would be wiped out and the government would assume ownership. The government would then restructure the bank so it would only perform the core “PSL” functions described above.

Credit unions as the foundation for banking

The current German banking system consists of three “pillars”:

  • Public-law banks (municipality-owned local credit unions and state banks).
  • Cooperative banks (credit unions cooperatively owned by their members).
  • Private banks (which operate across the country and include dominant institutions such as Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank).

The municipal- and cooperatively-owned credit unions have have continued to function well since the economic crisis struck. These continue to provide loans to small and medium-sized enterprises and basic services to depositors, and do not engage in speculation. The state banks (banks owned by the state governments within Germany) were supposed to act like the municipal credit unions (on a larger scale) but instead mimicked private banks by engaging in risky businesses outside their original mandates, saddling taxpayers with covering losses. Private banks concentrated on speculation and have done the worst of the pillars; moreover, despite receiving bailouts, private banks provide the least amount of credit.

Putting all banks on the model of the municipal- and cooperatively-owned credit unions, prohibiting speculation and limiting them to the core “PSL” functions would be the outcome of a socialized banking sector. Simply making banks public is insufficient, the Left Party report says:

“It would appear that banks in public and co-operative ownership can at least partially evade the dictates of the desire for profit. However, public ownership alone is no guarantee that an institution will take this opportunity. But private commercial banks have no alternative to an unconditional orientation to profits, because the financial markets systematically enforce the dictate of the profit motive. In view of this, a socialisation of private commercial banks can probably only succeed if they have first been liberated from the dictate of the profit motive by being transferred to public or co-operative ownership.” [page 8]

A key to the success of the municipal- and cooperatively-owned credit unions is that they operate on a small scale and are anchored in their immediate city or region.

“[Germany’s municipal- and cooperatively-owned credit unions] tend to be small-scale and very much anchored in their region. This includes on the one hand the municipal or regional ownership or patronage, and on the other hand the networking with stakeholders like local chambers of industry, commerce and crafts, sports and charity associations, as well as leading local authorities from religious communities, trade unions and intellectuals. To put it another way: [the credit unions] are integrated into their local environment; they can be said to be territorially socialised. This fits in with the fact that these two pillars of the banking system adhere to a strict territorial principle.” [page 8]

Be socially useful, or be shut down

Surviving state-owned and private banks would be required to adhere to the same core “PSL” functions; those that do not go out of business because those functions would be largely covered already by the credit unions would provide loans for large-capital projects beyond the ability of any credit union on its own. But there would be strict limits on the size of any bank and no bank would be allowed to be a national business. Socialized state and regional banks would coordinate on the large projects. Those larger banks are foreseen as being owned by the credit unions to provide another check on their behaviors.

Limits on territory and legal orientation toward social usefulness are see as as keys toward the goal of converting banking into a utility serving society:

“The [municipal and cooperative credit unions] show that a bank can be very successful if its statutes stipulate that its purpose is not abstract orientation to profit, but the exercise of a certain business model in a certain region. … A socialised bank must be characterised by the fact that the core functions of payments, savings and loans (PSL) are stipulated in its statutes as the area of its operations and its business model, and that these activities are only carried out in a certain geographical area. The region covered by the business operations determines which geographical section of a society is responsible for the societal control.” [page 11]

Nonetheless, a federal system of strict regulations would be implemented, including much higher capital requirements, caps on executive salaries and a ban on bonuses and stock options, an extra tax on the highest earners in banking, a tax on all financial transactions, and a requirement that half of the supervisory boards of banks would be allocated to employees and their trade unions and half must be filled by women.

Although the Left Party model is based on existing conditions in Germany, the basic principles are easily adaptable to other countries. Credit unions, for instance, are common in many countries. At least 7,000 exist in the United States (ordinarily owned by members) and more than 300 exist in Canada, although in those two countries they are buffeted by capitalist market forces and face hostility for being an alternative to large private banks. Similar to Canada, the number of credit unions in Britain is declining as smaller ones in particular face difficulties.

Socialization of the banks includes community control, strict restrictions on financial activities, an end to speculation and an environment in which market forces no longer prescribe behavior. The point of a market is to serve humanity — a strong contrast to the current world capitalist system, in which human beings exist to serve markets. And markets are nothing but the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers.

The Left Party model for bank socialization isn’t a ready-made formula, nor does it purport to be one, but is does provide a valuable starting point. Socializing banks is one only component of the broader task of creating a better world. Viable plans such as the Left Party’s nonetheless explode the idea that the current economic system is the only way to organize society — which is just as much an elite-propagated myth as the idea that a monarch is chosen by God to rule over everyone.

Those who do the work in the workplace should get the rewards

A cooperative enterprise rests on a basic concept — the people who do the work earn the money. Strange, isn’t it, that this straightforward idea is considered radical.

It shouldn’t. Yet it is. The modern capitalist system is advertised as a “meritocracy” — those who work the hardest earn the most. In reality, this is a fairy tale; those who accumulate the most are those who have the most capital, often inherited. The system is called “capitalism” for a reason.

Not even the hardest-working chief executive officer works 340 times harder than his or her average employee. The financier who manipulates numbers on a computer screen, indifferent to the humanity that produces those revenues and net incomes, surely does not work hundreds of times harder. Or, likely, even as hard, particularly if the corporate raider is looting a manufacturing company with a factory floor.

If the chief executive, or any manager, is elected from the ranks of the workforce by those same co-workers due to his or her meritorious effort and/or willingness to obtain a degree in management, then indeed an enterprise can be said to operate on a meritorious basis. Such enterprises already exist; some were created as cooperatives at the start and some were taken over by their workers to forestall closure or abandonment.

If you gave the average employee the choice of working in a cooperative, in which everybody shares in the rewards if the enterprise succeeds and everybody has a vote in strategic decisions in a democratic process, as opposed to being an exploited, powerless cog in the traditional authoritarian, top-down capitalist enterprise, there would be considerable support for the former option. If the person given this choice were to be told that wages, benefits and working conditions would be better in the cooperative (as in fact is the case), the decision becomes easier.

But what do we say to a small-business owner? Mom-and-pop businesses form part of the backbone of communities and, unlike a large corporation in which ownership shares are traded among speculators far removed from the actual underlying business, the small businessperson is present, often for long days. Here we have people who do put in more hours than others, and have put their limited capital at risk.

Why should anyone have to work 14 hours a day?

Two recent conversations have gotten me to think about this particular question. One was a debate conducted on another blog in direct response to a question from a small business owner who said he works 14 hours a day, six days a week. The other was a debate with a passerby I had last weekend while staffing an Occupy Wall Street literature table who insisted she was more deserving than others because she worked 12 or more hours a day when others weren’t willing to do so.

If someone chooses to work such hours and is personally fulfilled by doing so, that is that person’s business and not mine. But if you are at your job 14 hours a day, six days a week, your family is missing all the other things you have to offer them. And no matter how nice a house you may have, you’re not there to enjoy it.

Nobody should have to work such punishing hours. There are those who choose to do so out of personal conviction, but there are many millions of people in sweatshops working such hours, or still longer hours, who earn starvation wages — and they have no choice about it. The big capitalists of the world — people who have far more than any small-business owner — earn their fabulous wealth by exploiting such people, and by exploiting relatively more privileged people in advanced capitalist countries who work lesser hours but nonetheless work long, hard days.

Capitalists become rich by paying their employees less than the value of what they produce — usually far less. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t capitalists who don’t work, but a person who runs a small family business is not in the same category as a big capitalist. The passerby with whom I debated last weekend said if the people whom she claimed were jealous of her house were to run businesses like she does, and put in as many hours, they could have what she has.

But there is only so much space for such businesses; under capitalism, most people are going to have to work for somebody else. Moreover, opportunities are vastly unequal. I grew up in a middle class household where the expectation was always that I would go to college (which I did), and we lived in a town with an excellent public-school system, so I received a better education than most students. I had advantages that many people do not have, had I wished to pursue a business career.

Yes, some folks do climb out of disadvantageous situations, but only so many can do that in a (capitalist) system that puts tremendous roadblocks in front of people. Saving is difficult when mere survival is an increasingly difficult struggle.

A small-business owner may object that s/he puts in more hours than employees do (if they have any) and has capital at risk. That may be true, but having to do so is a requirement imposed by the capitalist system; it is not something ordained by some natural order. The capital put at risk was undoubtedly lent by a bank, which collects high interest — in other words, the bank is exploiting the small businessperson. The banker did nothing but sign a piece of paper while the owner works 14 hours a day. Why should the banker earn such big money? Quite likely, the banker, who repeats this exploitative operation with others, earns far more money and works far fewer hours.

The small businessperson is exploited by capitalists, too, just in a different way than an employee is.

The proprietor works, the landlord takes

Let’s take a concrete example. For more than 30 years, including two decades at his last location, a vegan baker much loved by the community operated a bakery before being forced out of business by a landlord who continually jacked up his rent, at three times the rate of inflation. The baker always gave to the community, frequently donating goodies at public events; I was far from the only person routinely greeted with a hug and often offered a free tea when I stopped in. During those years, the Lower East Side neighborhood of New York City changed from a unique enclave of Puerto Ricans, Ukrainians, Poles, artists, squatters, community gardeners, anarchists, communists and beatniks to its present-day state of gentrification run amok.

[Credit: VegGuide.org at http://www.vegguide.org/entry/436]

[Credit: VegGuide.org]

The baker worked from early afternoon to midnight six, and usually seven, days a week, just so all of his money could go to the landlord, who merely needs to sit in his comfortable office many miles away and let the money roll in. For landlords, the neighborhood is nothing but a cash cow to exploit, cynically taking advantage of the cachet created by the residents they are squeezing out by their exorbitant rents. The baker’s fate has been the fate of countless small businesses; only faceless chain stores are able to afford the rents. This corporatization has been replicated in countless other neighborhoods.

The free-lance worker gets the short end as well. For years, I was self-employed, and had to, for tax purposes, operate as my own small business and fill out tax forms the same way an actual small business would. But I was no businessperson — I was a worker who didn’t have a regular job. I was exploited; in fact I was more exploited than I now am with a regular job because I had no health insurance and I had to pay double the usual Social Security taxes (my half and the employers’ half).

People are taught to have a 19th century, romantic notion of capitalism — a myriad of small enterprises competing in a free market. But a “free market” has never existed. Capitalism was built on pushing people off their farms and passing draconian laws to force them into the new factories; markets are expanded through force both military (World War I is one particularly bloody example) and financial (such as International Monetary Fund diktats); and the largest competitors become a handful of oligarchs whose wealth enables them to get governments to give them yet more advantages and who compete by cutting wages rather than through competition that exists only in textbooks.

Employees are exploited through this system, regardless of collar color, by being paid only a small fraction of what they produce and forced to compete for a dwindling number of jobs, but also because they, as consumers, have to pay the high prices that result when competition reduces an industry to a small number of oligopolistic behemoths who dominate a market. Small businesses are also at the mercy of larger corporate entities, including rapacious bankers, and are hurt when their customers have less money.

In a cooperative economy, no individual must assume all the risk. The cooperative can do so, taking loans at reasonable rates by making a good case to a publicly accountable bank operated as a public utility. Enterprises would relate to other enterprises in a cooperative, not competitive manner, eliminating much of the anxiety inherent in a capitalist system in which humans serve markets instead of the other way around.

Hard workers such as the small businesspeople under discussion would be valuable to a cooperative enterprise. Someone possessing such drive would likely wind up being elected to an administrative or management post by their collective. Talents and hard work would still be recognized; such a driven person would still have the personal satisfaction of a job well done; and s/he could work fewer hours, allowing more time to be spent with family and friends.

Others, too, will contribute talent and work to the cooperative enterprise while sharing the burden. Everybody who works should have a say in what is produced, how it is produced and how it is distributed, with community input — after all, it is the community that would be supporting the enterprise, and the enterprise in turn would be operated by people from the community. Production should be for human need, not for a minuscule elite’s private profit with no regard to the greater good. Benefiting the community and earning a comfortable living while working a humanistic workday shouldn’t be oxymoronic.

Dangers from a ‘mixed’ economy that brought down Sandinista Revolution exist for Venezuela

A revolution meant to advance the material conditions of large numbers of previously disenfranchised people is necessarily larger than one individual. That is true even when the individual who embodies the revolution is a charismatic leader such as Hugo Chávez.

There is no denying that the death of President Chávez is a setback for Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution. That revolution is a process — it is perhaps more akin to a steady evolution than a revolution — and will go forward if Venezuelans continue to see the process as beneficial to them. That was true throughout the 14-year reign of President Chávez and is true whether or not he occupies the presidential palace.

Ultimately, the survival of the Bolivarian Revolution rests on two factors: Effecting a change in economic relations and becoming a constituent component of a larger bloc that effects a similar change in economic relations. Simply put, the Bolivarian Revolution has taken political power away from Venezuela’s capitalist elite but largely has left economic power in the hands of that elite. As Nicaragua’s Sandinista Revolution of 1979 to 1991 demonstrated, leaving economic power in the hands of a capitalist elite enables that elite to destabilize a revolution.

That represents a larger threat to the future prosperity of Venezuelans than the many-sided struggles going on within the country’s institutions, including disagreements inside unions, government departments and social organizations. The process of the Bolivarian Revolution is hardly straightforward, with some interests, such as union leaderships, that should be behind the socialization of production instead opposed. President Chávez often acted as an arbiter or a court of last resort, able to settle disputes due to his personal authority.

No other person possesses the charisma to arbitrate in such a manner; nonetheless, that personal authority — based on the late president’s popularity and repeated electoral victories — was invoked only in extraordinary circumstances. Such disputes will remain solvable, but may require more negotiation and grassroots struggle. The much larger question of who owns, controls and/or manages production and distribution is what will be decisive, and no one person, no matter how charismatic, can be decisive. This is a social question.

Sandinistas left economic power in hands of capitalists

A generation ago, another Latin American experiment held the world’s attention. The Sandinista Revolution, like the Bolivarian, tended to be seen through ideological prisms. The same hyperventilating language — “dictatorship” “communist” “repressive” — was used to describe Nicaragua during the Sandinista era. It was not a perfect government — is anything of human creation perfect? — but real progress was made despite the many mistakes that are inevitable when people previously blocked from any meaningful participation in their society suddenly find themselves in government.

The Sandinistas never declared that they would implement a socialist economy, and didn’t. For those who cared to pay attention, the Sandinista leadership repeatedly said their goal was a mixed economy. The Nicaraguan economy came to include large enterprises owned by the government; commonly owned collectives; marketing collectives composed of individual privately owned small farms; small-scale private businesses and independent farms; and private big-business manufacturing and agricultural operations left intact from before the revolution.

The property of the Somoza family, which came to personally own large portions of the Nicaraguan economy during its decades-long dictatorship, was confiscated by the Sandinistas following the revolution. Doing so was not necessarily opposed by Nicaragua’s capitalists, who were disgusted with the Somoza dictators because they had forced their way into many business sectors, muscling out capitalists when they saw an opportunity. Because of that, many business leaders came to oppose the dictatorship however much they applauded its ruthless, frequently deadly, suppression of labor.

The last dictator, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, ordered factories owned by capitalists opposed to him bombed, looted the treasury, laid waste to the economy and ultimately killed 50,000 in his bid to retain power. After the Revolution, the remnants of Somoza’s National Guard and the United States government, which had been the Somoza dynasty’s protector, created the terrorist groups known as the “Contras” that inflicted huge damage. The Contras specifically targeted public infrastructure and cooperative enterprises for destruction.

Nicaragua’s capitalists had expected to assume political leadership after the revolution, and when they discovered that the people and organizations that had carried out the revolution and had suffered the most repression would have the majority of political power, they swiftly began to undermine it. Although credit was now available for the first time for small farmers, most loans went to the country’s capitalists, who instead of using the capital for investment, spirited the money to overseas banks and began stripping their factories of assets. A few factories where this took place were nationalized, but the legal process to do so was lengthy and a factory owner determined to de-capitalize an enterprise could do so before the legal system could act.

The contradictions of a mixed economy

Strange as it may appear, the Sandinistas, more than once, imposed austerity on their own country, reducing living standards for working people while continuing to provide subsidies for capitalists. The Sandinistas had sought to raise living standards for working people in the cities and the countryside, provided large subsidies to the capitalists and were forced to fund an expensive military effort to defend the country. These factors were further aggravated by the U.S. embargo, with the resulting shortages fueling inflation. The only way to support all these policies simultaneously was to print more money, which touched off more inflation.

To combat inflation, the government implemented an austerity program in 1985 designed to “rationalize” these competing interests by reducing consumer consumption through reductions in the earning power of wages while increasing subsidies for capitalists and small farmers to induce more production. But since the capitalists controlled a much bigger share of the economy than did small farmers, the result was more subsidies for the already wealthy. Thus, “austerity” meant austerity only for working people — their reduced living standards would pay for the government money that would be channeled into capitalists’ pockets.

Nonetheless, the capitalists continued to refuse to invest, pocketing the money instead. Those local capitalists had strong links with capitalists in the United States and in other advanced capitalist countries, creating a web of interests. Under the impact of the intense military pressure of the Contras and the U.S.-imposed economic blockade, Nicaragua’s mass-participation social groups lost their grassroots characteristics and became more vertical organizations with imposed leaderships; progress on social issues, such as combating discrimination against women, halted because so much effort had to be put into basic defense.

In 1988, the Sandinistas imposed another round of austerity, a program similar to those demanded by the International Monetary Fund, although in this case without the often dubious benefits of the loans nor the debt burden. Speculators and smugglers had taken advantage of price imbalances by buying products cheaply in Nicaragua and selling them for more in foreign markets and, internally, by diverting subsidized food from intended markets and instead selling it at inflated prices, earning themselves windfall profits while increasing costs to consumers.

The country was also hurt by international currency speculators, who drove down the exchange-rate value of its currency, forcing costly devaluations. Wages were reduced in these austerity programs, to the applause of Nicaragua’s capitalists.

A strong contrast to the Sandinistas’ intentions, this was the result of maintaining a “mixed” economy in which economic power was left in the hands of capitalists. Although capitalists did not possess formal political power, political leaders were forced (by the “market”) to implement policies benefiting capitalists and hurting working people in agriculture and industry.

Social successes during the Chávez era

History does not repeat itself neatly, and the Venezuela of the 2010s is a different place than the Nicaragua of the 1980s. With no equivalent of the Contras and a high-priced commodity (oil) that Nicaragua does not have, the Bolivarian Revolution is on firmer ground. Venezuela also has a far larger population, making it is a much less attractive target for armed interventions. Nonetheless, its stated goal of empowering working people on a road to “21st century socialism” is an example that capitalists, and their governments, around the world would like to stamp out.

Venezuela is a country not without problems, although problems such as high crime rates and inflation were part of the Venezuelan fabric well before President Chávez took office. It is legitimate to argue that these problems have not been sufficiently tackled; it is unfair to insinuate that these are new problems caused by the Bolivarian Revolution as the corporate media repeatedly does. There have been many successes, among them these reported by the Center for Economic Policy and Research:

  • Annual economic growth of 3.2 percent during the Chávez administration (4.3 percent since 2004, after the government asserted control over the state oil company, PDVSA) as opposed to 1.4 percent annual growth in the 13 years preceding President Chávez.
  • Inflation, although high, is less than half of what it was in 1996, two years before President Chávez took office.
  • The unemployment rate is now half of what it was during the former PDVSA management’s lockout in 2003 and is far below what it was when President Chávez took office.
  • The rate of poverty has been halved, and the rate of extreme poverty reduced by three-quarters.
  • The number of higher-education graduates has tripled.
  • The number of Venezuelans receiving a pension has quadrupled.

And none other than the International Monetary Fund reports that Venezuela has the lowest level of inequality in the Latin America/Caribbean region, as measured by the Gini coefficient. Venezuela has also made the greatest improvement since 2005 in this widely used metric of any country in its region, at a time when inequality rose in many countries throughout the world.

As I have previously written, 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 transformation of Venezuela’s industry is not only resisted by capitalists, but faces resistance from within government bureaucracies and even inside the Bolivarian movement itself. Resistance from unions, for example, has contributed to setbacks in creating workers’ co-management of the large state-owned resource enterprises.

‘Endogenous development’ in response to sabotage

The Bolivarian process took a step forward in the wake of the PDVSA lockout carried out by the revolution’s opponents, which followed the failure of their 2002 coup against President Chávez. A 2006 Dollars & Sense article written by Betsy Bowman and Bob Stone noted that the need for internal development was a lesson learned from the lockout and coup:

“Cooperatives also advance the Chávez administration’s broader goal of ‘endogenous development.’ Foreign direct investment continues in Venezuela, but the government aims to avoid relying on inflows from abroad, which open a country to capitalism’s usual blackmail. Endogenous development means ‘to be capable of producing the seed that we sow, the food that we eat, the clothes that we wear, the goods and services that we need, breaking the economic, cultural and technological dependence that has halted our development, starting with ourselves.’ To these ends, co-ops are ideal tools. Co-ops anchor development in Venezuela: under the control of local worker-owners, they don’t pose a threat of capital flight as capitalist firms do.

The need for endogenous development came home to Venezuelans during the 2002[-2003 management] oil strike carried out by Chávez’s political opponents. Major distributors of the country’s mostly imported food also supported the strike, halting food deliveries and exposing a gaping vulnerability. In response, the government started its own parallel supermarket chain. In just three years, Mercal had 14,000 points of sale, almost all in poor neighborhoods, selling staples at discounts of 20% to 50%. It is now the nation’s largest supermarket chain and its second largest enterprise overall. The Mercal stores attract shoppers of all political stripes thanks to their low prices and high-quality merchandise. To promote ‘food sovereignty,’ Mercal has increased its proportion of domestic suppliers to over 40%, giving priority to co-ops when possible.”

A new stress on workers’ control of industrial enterprises was one of the responses to the capitalists’ attempts to sabotage the economy during and after the PDVSA lockout, when management halted oil production. Since 2005, enterprises in a range of industries have come under various forms of workers’ control. This has not been a straightforward process. According to analyst Ewan Robertson, who wrote in August 2012:

“The many achievements by workers in taking over and collectively running individual factories, and in driving forward a project of worker control for the state owned heavy industries in [the eastern region of] Guayana, have generated a backlash, not only among the US-backed conservative political opposition, transnational companies and private bosses, but also among a reactionary and bureaucratic faction within the Bolivarian revolution itself.

This is because progress made by workers threatens those who only support Chavez for personal gain and political opportunism, and see their special privileges or vested interests threatened by worker control: there is little need for state managers or union bureaucrats if workers eliminate hierarchies and operate factories themselves in a participatory democratic manner. It also undermines those who hold a more restrictive view of what socialism is and argue that workers are ‘not ready’ to operate factories themselves. Indeed, there are those in the government that hold socialism to be little more than state ownership of industry and central planning from above, with little participation from workers.”

Socialism is the full and free democratic participation of everybody in all spheres of life. In the workplace, that means a concrete and genuine workers’ control whereby all workers have a say in their enterprise’s decision-making, whether the enterprise is fully or partially owned by a government or fully owned by the workers themselves in a cooperative. Understanding the concept of socialism is one part of ongoing Venezuelan struggles. Another part is that about 70 percent of the country’s economy remains in private hands, according to the country’s central bank.

That means that capitalists still have the power to disrupt the economy and undermine the Bolivarian process. Venezuela’s continuing over-dependence on oil exports is another potential source of destabilization. Venezuela remains tied to the logic of capitalism and, no matter how much progress it makes in implementing its “21st century socialism,” it is too small to be a self-contained island of socialism in a vast turbulent sea of capitalism. No country on Earth can be self-sufficient, not even a country with as much exportable mineral wealth as Venezuela.

The Bolivarian Revolution can only advance and stabilize itself as part of a large regional bloc, large enough to withstand the economic, financial, political and military attacks of capitalist powers. But as of today, the furthest description that could be given to the Venezuelan economy is that it is a “mixed” economy. Capitalists hostile to the revolution still retain considerable ability to undermine it. The history of the Sandinista Revolution demonstrates what happens to a mixed economy. History has also demonstrated that an economy held in state hands has its own serious weaknesses.

Venezuela’s stress on workers’ control and cooperative enterprises demonstrates that the latter lesson has been learned; cooperation is at the center of the country’s “21st century socialism.” But there is also the lesson provided by the Sandinistas — that experience, too, should not be forgotten.