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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Build It Now: Socialism For the 21st Century

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Reviews Repost
January 2, 2008
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Michael A. Lebowitz. Built It Now: Socialism for the 21st Century. Monthly Review Press, 2000.

A book review by Frank Lindenfeld

What would a humanist, participatory "socialism for the 21st century" look like? In this short book, Michael Lebowitz shares his vision and asserts that the Chavez administration has embarked on transforming Venezuela into such a society through its Bolivarian Revolution.

The most interesting feature of Build it Now is the author's vision of a democratic, participatory socialism for contemporary Venezuela. The objective is to build a socialist society based upon workers' self-management and local democracy. Such a society must put a primacy on human needs and human development. As Lebowitz puts it, "the goal is the full development of human potential. Socialism is the path to that goal."

Since his initial election to the Presidency in 1998, Hugo Chavez has been slowly moving to implement a humanist socialist vision of a social economy based on solidarity rather than self-interest and material incentives, according to Lebowitz. Venezuela is still a capitalist society. However, some of the tenets of Chavez' Bolivarian Revolution are embodied in the Constitution adopted in 1999 which requires the state to protect and promote cooperatives. In 2001, the Chavez government enacted a number of reform measures: to expropriate idle land and distribute it to peasants, to support cooperatives, to provide for microfinance, and to obtain greater revenues for the state from oil. (Petroleum accounted for 90% of Venezuela's total export income of $64.5 billion in 2006. The U.S., its major oil market, consumes almost 60 percent of the country's oil exports, predominantly as gasoline sold in Citgo gas stations. Many of Venezuela's social programs are funded by the government's oil income).

Lebowitz points out that capitalism in Venezuela could have absorbed each of these reforms, but taken together they were seen as threats to capital. They resulted in the attempted coup to depose Chavez in April 2002 and the abortive attempt to shut down the state-controlled oil industry, PDVSA, by company managers and technicians later that year. Both events were led by local elite opposition and encouraged by the U.S. government.

Chavez' revolutionary vision has been further clarified in his statements and actions of the last several years. In his speech at the 2005 World Social Forum, Chavez spoke about the need to re-invent socialism in a form different from that of the state capitalism that characterized the Soviet Union: "a new type of socialism, a humanist one, which puts humans and not machines or the state ahead of everything." While not abolishing capitalism, the Bolivarian constitution also outlines a vision for a self-managed and participatory society based on the values of mutual cooperation and solidarity. In these respects, the Venezuelan constitution is similar to the self-management laws adopted by Yugoslavia more than 50 years ago. Lebowitz poses a number of questions based on the Yugoslav experience:

  • How can one avoid the gap between "expert" managers and workers, between those who think and plan vs. those who carry out the work? Worker-owners need to have not only the power to decide, but knowledge which would make that power meaningful. This suggests the need to incorporate learning into part of every workday.
  • How can one transcend "enterprise consciousness," replacing it with a consciousness of the needs of society as a whole? How does a business cope with decreases in enterprise sales without laying off some of the work force? Does everyone tighten their belts, work fewer hours, equitably sharing the reduction in income? Should social enterprises be allowed to fail?

I should add here that Venezuela, like many other poor countries, imports most of its food. Venezuela needs to diversify its economy, move toward endogenous development including food self-sufficiency, and reduce its dependence on oil and oil-based revenues. Venezuela has made a good start with the government-initiated Mercal supermarket chain which provides food staples at a discount at over 14,000 locations; whenever possible, Mercal buys from Venezuelan co-ops. Another program launched to address this issue was project Vuelvan Caras (about-face), an educational program which involved about a million people. As Lebowitz points out, half of the scholarships for participants were for training in the agricultural sector. Initiated in March, 2004, Vuelvan Caras emphasized development from within based on a social economy. Many of its graduates formed cooperatives. The program was focused on "preparing people for new productive relations through courses in cooperation and self-management."

Most of the new co-ops are small. They include some savings, consumer, and housing co-ops in addition to worker cooperatives. More than five percent of the labor force now works in cooperatives. However, Venezuela's economy remains predominantly capitalist, though with a state-controlled oil industry and other state enterprises such as the aluminum firm ALCASA. The government has adopted a policy of expropriation of closed industrial plants and turning them over to their workers. So far, however, a cooperative transformation has occurred in only several large plants. It remains to be seen whether even with government support the cooperative sector can expand to displace the capitalist sector.

Two initiatives mentioned by the author, still in the process of formation, promise to take socialist development further in the direction of creating a democratic, participatory economy: the creation of communal councils in both urban and rural areas with some decision-making powers at the local level, and the development of co-management in state firms (explained further below). Both of these projects are encouraging. As the author puts it, "Since people develop through their activity, protagonistic democracy in the community and workplace will change them, and over time, they become people who understand this particular partnership between workers and society that can build the new society."

Co-management in Venezuela is closer to the Yugoslav model of self- management than to the German co-management system which became a form of worker co-optation. Co-management here refers to democratic participation with an emphasis on balancing the self interests of workers with those of the society as a whole. "The point of co-management is to put an end to capitalist exploitation and to create the potential for building a truly human society". (Lebowitz, "Constructing Co-Management in Venezuela,"

It is still uncertain, however, how successful Venezuela will be in alleviating poverty and social inequality and implementing the Bolivarian vision of a self-managed, cooperative society. The goal will be to maintain and enhance popular participation without endangering civil liberties in the continuing struggle to overcome the colonial legacy of military dictatorship, clientelism and corruption that have plagued so many Latin American countries. Moreover, this social transformation will take place in the context of ongoing U.S. hostility toward the Chavez regime.

For a more comprehensive analysis of co-ops in Venezuela, see Betsy Bowman and Bob Stone, "Venezuela's Cooperative Revolution," GEO #71, a combined issue with Dollars and Sense.


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