Solidarity instead of hierarchy as “common sense”

When the serious work of building a better world starts, we will have no choice but to use some of the bricks of the current world as we begin that construction. A social or economic system does not completely eradicate all traces of the immediately preceding system overnight. Nonetheless, the repressive elements of the prior system must be eliminated as quickly as possible, with new structures and thinking capable of defining the better world.

If socialism is to be that better world, what structures might be necessary? Socialism can be defined as a system in which production is geared toward human need rather than private profit for a few; where everybody is entitled to have a say in what is produced, how it is produced and how it is distributed; that these collective decisions are made in the context of the broader community and in quantities sufficient to meet needs; political decision-making is the hands of the communities affected; and quality health care, food, shelter and education are human rights. There is no class, vanguard or other group that stands above society, arrogating decision-making, wealth and/or privileges to itself.

A blueprint for such a future is not possible; a better world will be created in its making. But neither can we leap to a different world empty-handed or without a compass. Tangible counter-examples and concrete ideas are necessary if working people — the vast majority of humanity — are to break free from their acceptance of capitalism as “common sense” or the “only alternative.” When ideas become rooted in masses of people, they become a natural force, argues Michael Lebowitz in his latest book, The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now.* He uses the example of the “socialist triangle” to explicate a structure for a better, democratic system.

Socialist Imperative coverThe three sides of the socialist triangle (a concept put in this form by Hugo Chávez) are production for social needs and purposes, social production organized by workers and social ownership of the means of production. None or any two of the three sides stand on their own; each is dependent on the other two.

Production for social needs is defined as production accomplished for our common needs. This is envisioned as production in which we would go beyond self-interest and therefore create a “solidarity economy.” Social production organized by workers is essential for developing the capacities of working people. Decisions in the workplace are made by the workforce as a whole, developing the capacities of all. Social ownership of the means of production does not mean the state owns all enterprises; it “implies a profound democracy” in which people, in their capacities as workers and as members of society, determine the results of their labor.

A society in which all can freely develop

Professor Lebowitz proposes a “Charter for Human Development,” offered as “self-evident requirements”:

“1. Everyone has the right to share in the social heritage of human beings — an equal right to the use and benefits of the productions of the social brain and the social hand — in order to be able to develop his or her full potential.
2. Everyone has the right to be able to develop his or her full potential and capacities through democracy, participation, and protagonism in the workplace and society — a process in which these subjects of activity have the precondition of the health and education that permit them to make full use of this opportunity.
3. Everyone has the right to live in a society in which human beings and nature can be nurtured — a society in which we can develop our full potential in communities based upon cooperation and solidarity.” [page 174]

The goal of these three points, Professor Lebowitz writes, is to redefine the concept of fairness:

“It is unfair that some people monopolize the social heritage of human beings; it is unfair that some people are able to develop their capacities through their activities while others are crippled and deformed; and it is unfair that we are forced into structures in which we view others as competitors and enemies.” [page 174]

We are talking about a different world than the one we live in now. Quite different. A world in which these are guiding principals is a world that has a new concept of “common sense.”  Any ideology, if its hold on a sufficiently large percentage of people is strong, becomes a material force. Industrialists and financiers, who constitute the dominant class in the present world and thus decisively shape contemporary belief systems, can and do wield an enormous and deadly apparatus of violence to maintain their dominance, true, but that is insufficient in itself. Capitalism’s staying power rests on the widely held belief that there is no alternative to it.

Capitalism “tends to produce the workers it needs,” Professor Lebowitz argues, drawing on Karl Marx’s insights. People’s need to sell their labor power — that is, their need to obtain employment in order to survive — and the creation of perpetual unemployment creates a dependency on capital that has continued for so long that the capitalist mode of production comes to be seen as “self-evident natural laws.” Struggles are therefore contained within the confines of capitalism. Bargaining over wages and working conditions can become contentious, but this is never more than bargaining over the terms of exploitation; the relations within this system are never touched. Thus an alternative common sense must be constructed.

Going beyond limitations of past models

Neither the Soviet model, overly centralized and lacking in democracy, nor the Yugoslav model of cooperative enterprises constitute that alternative common sense. The Socialist Imperative argues that the Soviet system discouraged innovation because workers and managers saw it as disruptive. Moreover, initiative was monopolized by central planners and party elites, reproducing problems of alienation even if workers’ expectations of guaranteed employment and rising consumption were sufficiently strong to constrain leaderships.

In the case of Yugoslavia, unemployment was produced because workers (who were self-managers) sought to maximize their enterprises’ income per worker. Workers acted in solidarity, but only within their own enterprise; eventually loans were used to finance higher pay in weaker enterprises. The logic of capital gained ground, Professor Lebowitz argues, until Yugoslavia accepted an International Monetary Fund loan and passed a 1988 law that substituted stockholders for workers’ councils, hastening the end of the Yugoslav experiment.

Solidarity across society and a decoupling of consumption with work capacity are offered as the keys to a socialist society. Income distribution based on an individual’s capacity to work is a distribution based on unequal personal endowment or inheritance and thus a “right to inequality.” In other words, different people are born with different capacities, and social solidarity mandates that those accidents of birth not be made into permanent sources of inequality. Permanent inequalities are products of capitalist relations.

We are stunted individuals under capitalism; paid a small fraction of the value of what we produce and, given the dictatorial nature of relations in the capitalist enterprise, told we are incapable of making decisions and thus unable to develop ourselves. We are also kept divided along gender, racial, religious and national lines and fighting among ourselves, helping keep capitalists in power. Going beyond reformism and instead struggling together to overturn capitalist relations creates the capacity to do so:

“The working class makes itself a revolutionary subject through its struggles — it transforms itself.” [page 143]

Who is this working class? It everybody who has no choice but to “sell their labor power” — those who can not survive other than by hiring themselves to a capitalist. Those who have a job, those out of work and those who survive in the informal sector. Crucially,

“They may not correspond to the stereotype of the working class as a male factory worker, but that stereotype was always wrong.” [page 145]

Building a solidarity state from a local base

A social state can only be constructed from the bottom up, The Socialist Imperative argues. Drawing on the example of the communes of Venezuela, the book envisions neighborhood councils as the basis of local decision-making, with successively larger representations through councils established on city, regional, state/provincial and national levels. Mechanisms would be needed to transmit information up and down these levels for national-level decisions to be made as democratically as possible and for communities to have proper input. Needs and capacities would be assessed to democratically plan to meet those needs and make adjustments based on available capacities.

Socialist triangleEnterprise transparency and worker education would be established in the workplace to begin the process of social production. Worker decision-making would be increased step by step through negotiations between workers and management on the basis of social contracts filed with a ministry of work. These would be steps toward social ownership of the means of production necessary for the full development of human beings and society. The local self-interest that would exist at the start of this process would be a relic of the old (capitalist) system that would need to be overcome to establish a system fully rooted in social solidarity.

The movement must go beyond simply taking state power, Professor Lebowitz writes, but must create spaces for the grassroots to transform into active agents. Old structures must be subordinated:

“Working within a hierarchy, functioning without the ability to make decisions in the workplace and society, and focusing upon self-interest rather than upon solidarity are activities that produce people on a daily basis; this is the reproduction of the conservatism of everyday life — indeed, the reproduction of elements of capitalism.” [pages 189-190]

No blueprints are offered in the book; properly so as pre-conceived conceptions are useless. It would have been useful to have had more concrete examples in a book that is sometimes a little too abstract, but it does provide a thorough grounding in why the salvation of humanity and Earth itself rests on a transition to a rational, democratic system, one based on human need and not the profits of a privileged few. The form of that system will be different from 20th century systems that called themselves “socialist” and necessarily vastly different from any form of capitalism. We have a world to win, a goal for which Michael Lebowitz has given us an inspirational guide.

* Michael Lebowitz, The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now [Monthly Review Press, New York 2015]

What if Bernie Sanders were really talking about socialism?

Socialism has re-entered the realm of popular political discussion in the United States, for the first time in decades. There are several reasons for this, the most important being that a quarter-century has passed since the fall of the Soviet Union and the force of the bogey it represented has little resonance for a younger generation; several years of ongoing economic turmoil has led to more people being willing to question capitalism; and the popularity of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign because of the Vermont senator’s willingness to challenge the status quo.

Senator Sanders routinely speaks in front of large, enthusiastic crowds and although it remains unlikely that he will win the Democratic Party nomination, his strong showing and common-sense demeanor has forced the corporate media to expand the ordinarily heavily constricted boundaries of political and economic discourse. He calls himself a “democratic socialist,” and the corporate media by and large seems content to use his label, often even dropping the “democratic” and simply referring to him, without the usual rancor, as a “socialist.”

So is it really true that socialism has become acceptable and mainstream? Or, to be more direct: Is Bernie Sanders really a socialist?

Bernie Sanders rally in Louisiana (photo by Bart Everson)

Bernie Sanders rally in Louisiana (photo by Bart Everson)

The answer to the first question remains to be answered, but the answer to the second is “no.” Senator Sanders offers reforms to the capitalist system. Significant reforms, ideas and platforms far beyond any other major-party candidate for president. These would certainly be welcome if they could be enacted. But they are still reforms, not real change. Reforms, unfortunately, can and are taken away — as the past three decades have vividly demonstrated. Just as Keynesianism is not going to save us, there is no going back to the past nor is it still possible to believe capitalism can be a progressive force.

In the first Democratic Party presidential primary debate, Senator Sanders offered Denmark and Sweden as examples of the democratic socialism he has in mind. The front-runner, Hillary Clinton, immediately parried with a claim that the United States dare not “turn our backs on what built the greatest middle class in the history of the world.” That more of those in the broad middle or with less are struggling just to keep a roof over their heads and keep from drowning in debt, that wages have been stagnant since the 1970s while the one percent grab all the gains, that prospects for students and recent graduates are more dismal than for their parents or grandparents, it would seem that Secretary Clinton’s middle class doesn’t have it so good.

Europe versus the United States

It tales no more than a cursory glance at Denmark, Sweden or many other countries to see the unreality of her claim. For one thing, health care is a right in most of the countries of the world, but in the United States health care is a privilege reserved for those with money or a full-time job (if it has reasonable benefits). In Denmark, all people who reach age 65 are entitled to a retirement pension, all residents have sickness benefits if they are unable to work, health care is a right, stays in public hospitals are free and paid parental leave is available up to 46 weeks. Danish workers are entitled to five weeks of vacation each year by law and many workers have a negotiated sixth week of vacation.

European countries require 20 to 30 day of vacation, and Australia and New Zealand require 20 days. The United States is the only advanced capitalist country that mandates none.

The idea that working people in the U.S. have it good is laughable. Secretary Clinton is no different than her Republican challengers in her ideological belief in “American exceptionalism,” the nationalist term used by United Statesians to claim theirs is the greatest country and a mandatory ideology for those seeking political office. However much better life may be there, however, it isn’t true that Denmark or Sweden are socialist countries. Those countries, and others applying versions of the Scandinavian welfare model, are capitalist countries that have laws and regulations to ameliorate the conditions of capitalism. So austerity is not an impossibility there; the relentless downward pressure applied to working people under capitalism is in force across Europe.

It is no accident that the European Union bureaucracy is unaccountable to any democratic vote; the E.U. is designed by central bankers to benefit European big business and financiers. European capitalists desire the ability to challenge the United States for economic supremacy, but cannot do so without the combined clout of a united continent. This wish underlies the anti-democratic push to steadily tighten the European Union, including mandatory national budget benchmarks that require cutting social safety nets and policies that are designed to break down solidarity among wage earners and different regions by imposing harsher competition through imposed austerity.

The European Union, in its current capitalist form, is a logical step for business leaders who desire greater commercial power on a global basis: It creates a “free trade” zone complete with suppression of social accountability while giving muscle to a currency that has the potential of challenging the U.S. dollar as the world’s pre-eminent currency. Europeans’ ability to keep the reforms they have won are dependent on their organizing and going into the streets, the same as in the U.S. or any other country.

A basic sketch of socialism

What would socialism look like? There is no specific set of formulae, but some basics are:

  • Everybody who contributes to production earns a share of the proceeds — in wages and whatever other form is appropriate — and everybody is entitled to have a say in what is produced, how it is produced and how it is distributed, and that these collective decisions are made in the context of the broader community and in quantities sufficient to meet needs, and that pricing and other decisions are not made outside the community or without input from suppliers, distributors and buyers.
  • Nobody is entitled to take disproportionately large shares off the top because they are in a power position.
  • Every person who reaches retirement age is entitled to a pension that can be lived on in dignity. Disabled people who are unable to work are treated with dignity and supported with state assistance; disabled people who are able to work can do so.
  • Quality health care, food, shelter and education are human rights.
  • Artistic expression and all other human endeavors are encouraged, and — because nobody will have to work excessive hours except those who freely volunteer for the extra pay — everybody will have sufficient time and rest to pursue their interests and hobbies.

In such a world, there would not be extreme wealth and the power that wealth concentrates; political opinion-making would not be dominated by a numerically tiny but powerful class perpetrating its rule. Without extreme wealth, there would be no widespread poverty; large groups of people would not have their living standard driven as low as possible to support the accumulation of a few.

In any country in which a model of worker cooperation or self-management (in which enterprises are run collectively and with an eye on benefitting the community) is the predominant model, there would need to be regulations to augment good will. Constitutional guarantees would be necessary as well. Some industries are simply much larger than others. In a complex, industrialized society, some enterprises are going to be much larger than others. Minimizing the problems that would derive from size imbalances would be a constant concern.

Furthermore, if enterprises are run on a cooperative basis, then it is only logical that relations among enterprises should also be run on a cooperative basis. An alternative to capitalist markets would have to be devised — such an alternative would have to be based on local input with all interested parties involved. Such an alternative would have to be able to determine demand, ensure sufficient supply, allow for fair pricing throughout the supply chain and be flexible enough to enable changes in the conditions of any factor, or multiple factors, to be accounted for in a reasonably timely and appropriate fashion. Prices would be negotiated, with all enterprises’ financial information publicly available so no unfair profiteering could take place.

Investment would need to go to where it is needed, a determination made with as many inputs as possible, but because of its importance banking is one area that would have to be in state hands and not in collectives. Financial speculation must be definitively ended, with banking reduced to a public utility. Enterprises seeking loans to finance expansions or other projects will have to prove their case, but should have access to investment funds if a body of decision-makers, which like all other bodies would be as inclusive as possible, agrees that the project is socially useful or necessary. Energy, another critical industry, would also be nationalized and under democratic control.

Government infrastructure projects should be subject to the same parameters as enterprises, with the added proviso that the people in the affected area have the right to make their voices heard in meaningful ways on local political bodies and on any other appropriate public boards. No private developer wielding power through vast accumulations of money will be able to destroy forests or neighborhoods to build a project designed for the developer to reap profits while the community is degraded. Development would be controlled through democratic processes at local levels, and regional or national infrastructure projects should require input from local bodies representing all affected areas.

None of the foregoing is being talked about by Bernie Sanders, and certainly not any other candidate for the U.S. presidency. But such gains are unattainable under capitalism, no matter how many reforms are (temporarily) extracted from industrialists, financiers and the politicians who whistle their tune.

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.