Commoners and Cooperators Key to Cuba's 21st Century Socialism
This paper conceptualizes socialist construction as a process of incremental reclaiming from capital of those resources that can best be held in common so that members of a community can achieve their fuller human development*. Under democratic rules the community regulates the commons so as to ensure its accessibility and sustainability. The formation of cooperatives is an instance of the socialization of the workplace. By bringing workers together into self governing collectivities, cooperatives also contribute to the socialization of workers to a socialist moral order. In Cuba a socialized state is fostering the socialization of civil society through the promotion of cooperatives.
At the same time, the Cuban state is allowing private businesses as a way to enliven the economy and quickly absorb surplus workers. President Obama seeks to assist these entrepreneurs as a nascent capitalist class. Socialist construction requires that the state develop an adequate regulatory regime to contain this part of the non-state sector while also fostering the cooperative sector.
Reinventing Socialism for the 21st Century
The dominant view of socialism in the 20th century was that a revolutionary state would socialize the means of production, expropriating the capitalist expropriators, and, acting as the representative of the working class, would run the economy in a rational, planned way for the benefit of society as a whole. Only state property was considered fully socialist. Socialism was state centric.
While this model had some spectacular successes in developing the forces of production in some societies where capitalism had failed to do so, in the long run it proved to not be sustainable. In addition, it did not lead toward what socialists had aimed for – a society governed by the associated producers. While it paternalistically provided many social benefits, it empowered a bureaucratic state rather than working people.
That is why in the 21st century there are efforts to reinvent socialism. These look at socialism not so much as a system, but a process, a process of socializing, of progressive collective empowerment of people over their lives. It is a more participatory, more democratic, more de-centered process. Thus we should not speak of constructing socialism, a manner of speaking that suggests it is a system, a thing. Rather, let’s speak of socialist construction, the process of socializing the institutions of society, a directed transition toward a society directed by the associated producers. This is a process in which institutions are built in different spheres and at various levels in society through which communities can democratically manage their common resources so as to promote human development. These communities may be at the level of the workplace, the neighborhood, the region, or the national community. What does it mean to socialize an institution? To use a musical metaphor, it is to tune it to the common good. Or, using a compass as a metaphor, it is to point it toward the common good. (1)
I find it instructive to think of the socializing process as a kind of reclaiming of commons from capital (2), a reversal of the process by which capitalism grew through the dispossession of commons, enclosing them, privatizing them and commodifying them. It did this not only in what Marx called primitive accumulation, but continues to do so throughout its history up to the present, as David Harvey has argued. (3) Socialist construction can then be conceived of as a reversal of that capitalizing process, as a reclaiming of commons, a socializing of those resources that are useful to human development.
As we know, commons are shared resources held by a community, governed democratically and available for use by members of the community. These shared resources are not only land and public spaces, but also the air we breathe and the water we drink, public health facilities, the internet, accumulated human knowledge and culture, and a host of other resources available to all and that can enrich our lives. Capital seeks to privatize these commons so as to profit from them. Socializing them reclaims them as our common wealth available to all and for the benefit of all.
Since a commons is held in common by a community, it is managed by that community so as to assure access and sustainability. Whether the rules by which it is governed are customary or are enacted laws and regulations, they issue from a participatory process to which the commoners consent and in that way is democratic. How is the democratic governance of a commons possible? By democracy we understand the possibility of joint decision making for collective action for a common good. Democracy depends on a collective agency and that requires a collective identity. (4) That is, the commoners must identify themselves as a community sharing the common resource and thus feel a commitment to its proper governance, i.e. for the common good. This is the foundation of a democratic governance of the commons.
These are precisely the conditions that obtain in a worker cooperative. There is an awareness of a shared interest in the success of the collective project because of the interdependence experienced daily in the workplace. “All for one and one for all” is a lived reality. The institutional structure of the cooperative engenders a social consciousness – a socialist consciousness. Cooperatives are little schools of socialism. (5)
We're All Commoners Now
This governance can take place on different levels, depending on the scope of a given commons. The commoners in a workplace are the workers who make up the cooperative. The commoners in a neighborhood are the residents who share a space in the city. The commoners in an urban transportation system are the bus riders, auto drivers, bicycle riders and pedestrians. And as we are becoming increasingly aware of global climate change, the commoners of our planet are all of humanity, both present and future generations.
In each case of these nested commons (6), it is those who share a common resource and whose lives are affected by it who have the right to participate in its governance. In the first instance, this participatory democracy operates at a local level, at the level closest as possible to the everyday lives of people. Higher levels of decision making are to support the lower levels and, where necessary, coordinate them. This is the principle of subsidiarity that guides the relations between commoners at different levels.
I emphasize the participatory democratic character of commons because it is through such participation that the commoners are themselves socialized. That is, they develop the social values, attitudes and practices that sustain a full human life together in which all can develop fully. As Marx put it, they realize their species being.
In the renovation going on in Cuba today, we see the devolving of state power downward to lower levels of government and to cooperatives. This is an application of the principle of subsidiarity that empowers civil society. The constituted power of the state is facilitating the constituent power of civil society. (7) While ownership of common resources remains with the state as representative of the national community, management of those resources is devolving to those in actual possession of given resources. Ownership and management are distinct functions.
Thus we are seeing a reclaiming of commons (from the state) and an empowering of commoners. There is an incremental socializing of the institutions of society, facilitated through the state under the leadership of the Party as custodians of a directed transition from capitalism towards a society governed by the associated producers. The Revolution constituted the power of this leadership and now it is empowering its constituents. Socialization is the transition to commonism.
Maintaining Commons for Common Benefit
Commons are a domain outside the market. They represent a collective “ownership” that is distinct from private property. There are often those who seek to privatize commons or privatize the benefits afforded by the commons for their own benefit. This may come even from within the commoners. That is especially likely where there is a market and emphatically so where that is a capitalist market driven by the logic of endless accumulation.
The problem can be seen in Habana Vieja. The Historian’s Office has done an exemplary job of restoring both public and private buildings and spaces. The renovated Plaza Vieja is a vibrant public space surrounded by private residences and public commercial buildings. The increased use value that public investment has made possible is now becoming exchange value due to the opening of a real estate market. Private residences are being sold to investors for profitable commercial development. While the commons of the plaza is not itself being privatized, the attendant benefits are in a kind of de facto public-private partnership. And so far, the public is unable to capture some of that value.
This is an issue that Cuba will have to face as its renovation moves forward. The emerging non-state sector of the economy includes not only cooperatives, but also private businesses employing wage labor. Private businesses are decidedly non-socialist. A petty bourgeoisie is seen as compatible with socialism - compatible as long as it is regulated and taxed so it doesn't become a big bourgeoisie. Great inequalities of income and accumulation of wealth are to be avoided - a cautionary note made in the Guidelines. But it is clear a petty bourgeoisie is not socialist; it does not nurture a socialist consciousness, but the narrow mentality of the petty shopkeeper. It does not nurture socialist social relations, but individualism. As Raul Castro pointed out in his Report to the 7th Party Congress “petty bourgeois ideology [is] characterized by individualism, selfishness, the pursuit of profit, banality, and the intensifying of consumerism.” A petty bourgeoisie may be compatible with socialism when kept within limits. But it is not socialist.
Socialism has to be rooted at the base of society among ordinary people. Its values, its practices and its social relations have to be built into daily life where people live and work. This is the virtue of cooperatives. Cooperatives thus can help make socialism irreversible by rooting it in the daily worklife of people. Cooperatives contribute to socialist hegemony. (8)
If a social order is to be sustainable over the long run, it needs to be rooted in the moral order, in the character of the people. Their values, their sensibilities, their taken-for-granted understandings, their very subjectivity needs to be consonant with its institutions. The socialist transition is a process that needs a people with a socialist character if it is to continue. The social relations of cooperatives help build such a character among the people.
To state the current juncture in Cuba's socialist construction in bold terms, there is a race for the soul of Cuba between the cooperative movement and expanding private businesses. A major thrust of President Obama’s opening to Cuba is support for private businesses. Witness the entrepreneurial conference he held in Havana during his visit in March. His strategy to transform Cuban society more to the liking of U.S. capitalism is to nurture this nascent capitalist class within Cuban civil society.
Clearly, this is a new challenge for the Cuban Revolution. How can the petty bourgeoisie be limited while still taking advantage of its dynamism? Here are some measures presently available:
- Promotion of an ideology of social responsibility for private businesses, perhaps enforced by the local community.
- A steeply graduated tax on private business profits.
- Steep import duties on imported supplies for private businesses.
- Requirement of a minimum salary for wage workers.
- Unionization of employees and vigorous enforcement of workers' rights.
- A limit on the number of wage employees allowed in private businesses. Today some paladars have as many as 70 employees!
- Requirement that when a private business grows to a certain size, it be converted to a cooperative so all employees can share in the profits and decision-making. Cuba could adapt a kind of Meidner Plan whereby a % of profits would go into a workers fund representing equity in the business. In a matter of years the workers could thus become owners and the business become a cooperative.
A regulatory regime needs to be developed for the private sector. The state seems to be slow in developing this and some complain it is a wide-open free-for-all. Others see that as a virtue, pointing to small- and medium-sized private businesses as well as foreign investment as the key to needed economic growth.
While promoting cooperatives with one hand, the Cuban state needs to carefully regulate private businesses with the other hand so as to assure that they do not accumulate great wealth. Why is this important? The political power of a class lies not just in its control of political institutions. It also lies in its weight in the economy. If private businesses were to come to dominate the non-state sector of the economy so that prosperity depended significantly on them, the state could find itself compelled to favor this non-socialist form of enterprise. Obama is determined to push Cuba down this slippery sloop toward capitalism. The Cuban Revolution needs to use its smarts to prevent that by containing the private sector while promoting the cooperative sector.
That is a major challenge as Cuba seeks a socialist construction of its future. Cooperativization is the key to the socialization of Cuba’s economy and of its people.
* Prepared for a workshop on “Cooperativism and Local Development: An Alternative Development Path for Cuba”, April 28-29, 2016, Halifax N.S and at a Seminar at the University of Havana, June 28, 2016.
1. Eric Olin Wright, “The Socialist Compass” in Envisioning Real Utopias.
2. George Caffentzis, "Alternatives to a System in Crisis" in Moving Beyond Capitalism, Cliff DuRand. Editor (Routledge, 2016).
3. David Harvey,
4. Cliff DuRand,
5. Camila Peneira Harnecker,
6. David Harvey,
7. Cliff DuRand, “The Dialectic of Constituent Power and Constituted Power” in Moving Beyond Capitalism, Cliff DuRand, ed. (Routledge, 2016), pp. 195-9.
8. Olga Fernandez,
Related works by Cliff DuRand:
“The Dialectic of Constituent Power and Constituted Power” in Moving Beyond Capitalism, Cliff DuRand, ed. (Routledge, 2016), pp. 195-9.
“Whither Cuba?”, Truthout (April 14, 2015) http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/30209-whither-cuba and in Spanish “¿Hacia Donde, Cuba?”, Revista Estudios Críticos del Desarrollo
"US Cuba policy: from Regime Change to Systemic Change", Truthout (January 8, 2015) http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/28413-us-policy-on-cuba-from-regime-change-to-systemic-change and http://www.globaljusticecenter.org/obama_s_new_cuba_policy
“Cooperative Cuba”, Z Magazine (October 2013) under the title “Laboratory for a New Society: Moving toward a cooperative economy,” https://zcomm.org/zmagazine/laboratory-for-a-new-society-by-cliff-durand/
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Cliff DuRand (2016). Cooperatives in Socialist Construction: Commoners and Cooperators Key to Cuba's 21st Century Socialism. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). https://geo.coop/story/cooperatives-socialist-construction