The Venezuelan alternative

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The Socialist Alternative
Could a new brand of socialism aid and inspire opposition to capitalism?

Michael Lebowitz is a professor emeritus of economics at Simon Fraser University now living in Venezuela working with Centro International Miranda, a government-supported think tank. In The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development, he contrasts Venezuelan policies with the top-down socialism of the 20th century. The latter had focused on rapid industrial development through state ownership and top-down command. In Venezuela the government of Hugo Chavez focuses on human development, on the cooperative meeting of human needs, on social ownership and on participation in community and workplace decisions.

A socialist focus on human development is not new. Lebowitz notes that in the 19th century French socialists Louis Blanc and Claude-Henri Saint-Simon held that the goal was to provide every member of society with the greatest possible opportunities to develop their faculties. In the Communist Manifesto Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote that the working-class goal was "an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all."

Now in the 21st century, capitalism continues to hold back universal human development. Wealth-holders' entitlements deny workers and communities a voice and vote in economic decisions. In the competition to maximize private profits capitalist corporations expand production, reduce payments to labour, cut employment, and externalize environmental costs. As productive capacity relentlessly rises working-class income declines, unemployment rises, markets stagnate, and environmental costs are passed on to communities, workers, future generations and other species.

Although capitalism is once again in a global downturn, little is heard of an alternative. Lebowitz is not surprised. Because capitalist property relations dominate the global economy and are virtually unchallenged, people continue to view the collective capacity of the working class as the power of capital. Daily work experience, education and custom, convince most workers in most countries that the logic of capitalism is natural and immutable. Exploitation, unemployment, poverty, discrimination and environmental destruction seem to be just facts of life.

The memory of 20th century socialism does not help. Top-down state ownership did appeal to anti-imperialist students, intellectuals, and professionals in poor countries -- so long as it held out the prospect of rapid industrial development. However, the identification of socialism with a state standing over and above people, commanding and even oppressing workers, did not inspire mass opposition to capitalism. With no acceptable alternative, most workers simply look for ways to defend their interests and better their own lot within the system.

Lebowitz does not claim that Venezuela is socialist. Capitalist property relations continue to dominate their economy. Entrenched state officials remain under the influence of capital. However, the socialism emerging can aid and inspire opposition to capitalism. The new Venezuelan Constitution calls for an alternative to capitalism based on human entitlement, plural communal ownership and workplace democracy.

Lebowitz does not believe that socialism can be decreed by people on top. Real human development has to be produced by the mass of people themselves. But the socialist aspirations of the elected government of Venezuela does provide openings for movements of workers, peasants and the poor. The government has created the legal framework for expanding human entitlement, for expanding communal ownership and workplace democracy. It has given "unequivocal" support for initiatives from below, including police, military, and judicial support for land and workplace occupations.

Lebowitz does not expect one mass action to establish socialism. Each incursion against capitalist title, each advance in communal and workplace democracy may look like a mere reform, but advancing social gains can methodically weaken and ultimately end capitalism. As more people participate in movements against the narrow minority entitlement of capitalism, more come to understand that capitalism is not compatible with human wellbeing. As movements from below succeed in replacing private profit with human need as the motivator of social labour, as communal ownership replaces capitalist ownership, as workplace democracy replaces the dictatorship of master-servant relations, wealthholding minorities lose capacity to direct social labour in their narrow interests. The transition from capitalism to socialism is ultimately another step.

Mass actions can transform states. In Venezuela, "the old state with its hierarchy, institutions of force and repression" is providing space for movements from below. As the logic of capitalism is progressively replaced with the logic of human need, a new state "made up of community and workplace cells" will emerge. These new institutions of democratic social power will initially focus on local concerns. As cooperative movements against capitalism broaden and deepen, these will "take on the attributes of a new socialist order."

The 20th century provided ample evidence that the state cannot change social consciousness by decree. But people can change themselves. As more people work cooperatively to build a world of human equality, social ownership and workplace democracy, more people will become "conscious of their interdependence and of their own collective power." As people come to see "social production organized by workers and production for social needs as self-evidently rational" a "new common sense" is produced. It will become obvious that the wellbeing of each depends on the wellbeing of all. People will have produced themselves as new socialist men and women.—Allan Engler

Allan Engler is a B.C. trade unionist, social activist, and author. His Economic Democracy: The Working Class Alternative to Capitalism was published earlier this year by Fernwood.

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