Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Massive reform programme (2010)

Book Review from the June 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Real Venezuela – Making Socialism in the 21st Century. By Iain Bruce, Pluto Press 2008

Venezuela, since Chavez, has been both hailed as champion of the poor and underclasses and also excoriated by leaders of the global capitalist hegemony. In this book Bruce takes no side but over a period of several years and a number of visits to various parts of the country – urban, rural, factories and farms – he has interviewed 'ordinary folk' involved in co-operative initiatives ranging from the workplace to community planning, land reform and literacy programmes.

Throughout Bruce attempts to discover if the reality of various initiatives lives up to the rhetoric by comparing plans discussed at earlier visits to any noticeable changes several months or two or three years later, and, as would be expected, his findings are mixed. Whilst adult illiteracy was eliminated in a relatively short time and vast improvements in health care have been afforded to all by means of the Health Mission involving 20,000 Cuban medical staff, bringing visible, tangible changes especially to the poorest, some other workplace initiatives have floundered. Bruce offers a number of explanations for these failures later in the book after further investigation following up on his earlier interviews.

A recurring theme, endogenous development, (development created from within the country; Chavez - “if we want to put an end to poverty we have to give power to the poor”) is referred to as being one of the building blocks of the revolution, “socialism for the 21st century”. The call to empower the poor in opposition to the IMF's view is manifest in the idea that spending on the poor is seen not as an expense but as an investment; education being a tool of empowerment so that those previously “buried in silence, obscurity and neglect have suddenly emerged” and become “protagonists both of their own individual stories and of the nation's collective drama”.

As Bruce points out, all around the world, especially in the last 50 years, the poorest communities with almost no resources and few formal skills have constructed and installed infrastructure for themselves with no official help. Barrios, slums, shanty towns, call them what you will, in cities such as Jakarta, Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg and Caracas, communities housing millions and millions of the world's poorest – not helpless and passive as often claimed, but proactive and self-reliant and most of whom are underemployed and/or work in the informal sector, all of this revealing a history of self-organisation.

The chapter on 'Democracy at Work' gives an account of the attempt at a “radical extension of democracy” at Venezuela's second biggest aluminium plant ALCASA which was “intended to be a test-bed and catalyst for a much wider change”. He lays out the history, the hopes, the set-backs, the workings of co-management, the divisions of labour, the participatory budget and the aim of spreading this model to other factories. Carlos Lanz, the president of ALCASA in 2005 was interviewed at length and he spoke of how the criteria of quality and efficiency would have to change and that to traditional indicators of efficiency and effectiveness would have to be added other categories such as social and environmental pertinence or appropriateness. “Profitability and growth, per se, are not the objective, but human development is.”

Two years later one of ALCASA's activists explained some of the failures to Bruce, citing that ALCASA was an isolated example and a reminder that, “if you can't build socialism in a single country then you certainly can't build it in a single factory”. The overwhelming challenge facing any part of this move towards 'socialism for the 21st century' is that Venezuela is bogged down by the logic of capitalism and although there are many efforts to encourage and instil the alternative logic they are forever met with the incompatibility and antagonisms of the two systems.

In some areas Bruce notes examples of great achievements from communal councils including one where a mayor closed down his social development department because “the community has shown that they are running it better”, and there are many inspiring accounts of successful outcomes to community-inspired initiatives. However, it must be stated that many of the challenges faced by this ongoing attempt to transform society come from being entrenched in a monetary system which continues to allow ample opportunity for graft and corruption, pre-established managers and bureaucrats wanting to hold on to their privileges and mafia-like organisations intent on keeping a hold on their share of the spoils.

All the way through the book, in the examples cited of substantial success, partial success or abject failure, the challenges relate directly or indirectly to the fact that products still have to be bought and sold, imported and exported to meet the requirements of the market and trying to set up an alternative logic of production continually clashes with the logic of capitalism. There is no mention from individuals interviewed or encountered in this book of abolishing money either sooner or later but there is recognition that there is still a long way to go and according to Bruce at the time of writing, mid-2008: “It looked as if it could go either way.”

We may judge the current stage of proceedings as being a massive reform programme but there are those who truly believe there are real possibilities for socialism here. In any case there are both cautionary tales and positive examples well worth discussing.
Janet Surman