[OPE-L] Michael A. Lebowitz, Constructing Co-Management in Venezuela Contradictions along the Path

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Tue Oct 25 2005 - 14:17:05 EDT

The following is the text of the speech given by Michael L which
was summarized in an article by Jorge Martin which I sent to
you yesterday (see "workers' management and factory occupations").
Published by 'mrzine'. / In solidarity, Jerry


Michael A. Lebowitz, "Constructing Co-Management in Venezuela:
Contradictions along the Path"

            [Below is a talk that Michael A. Lebowitz gave at el Encuentro
Nacional de Trabajadores Hacia la Recuperación de Empresas
(the National Meeting of Workers for the Recovery of
Enterprises), organized by la Unión Nacional de Trabajadores
(UNT, the National Union of Workers) in Caracas, Venezuela, 22
October 2005. The meeting was preparatory to el Primer
Encuentro Latinoamericano de Empresas Recuperadas por los
(the 1st Latin American Gathering of Companies Recovered by the Workers),
to be held in Caracas on 27-29 October 2005. -- Ed.]

            I think it is no secret, nor is it surprising, that
increasingly the eyes of the world are on Venezuela. Because
it is
becoming clear (even with the misinformation provided by the dominant
international media) that Venezuela has said "no" to neo-liberalism.

            It said no in 1989. It said no with the election of President
Chavez. It said no in the Bolivarian Constitution. It said no
in April 2002, no during the bosses' lockout in 2002-3 and, of
course, no, in
August 2004.

            Despite all those people who continue to say TINA, that there
is no alternative, Venezuela is saying that there is an
alternative to
neo-liberalism, there is an alternative to imperialism, there is an
alternative to capitalism.

            And, that means, of course, there are enemies. Enemies both
outside and inside. Those enemies want Venezuela to fail on
its new path. They especially want the idea of participative
and protagonistic democracy to fail. They want it to fail in
the communities. They want it to fail in the workplace. They
want participative and protagonistic democracy in society as a
whole, the idea of people communally deciding on their needs
and communally deciding on their productive activity, to fail.

            And, nothing will make the enemies of this process happier, I
suggest, than the failure of Venezuela's path to
co-management. Because workers -- especially in Latin America
but elsewhere, too -- are starting to look at the development
of co-management here as a real alternative to the despotism
of the capitalist workplace.

            Now, some people may be bothered by what I'm going to say now,
but I have to tell you that for many workers in capitalist
firms the idea of state ownership with decisions made at the
top has not been a real alternative. My father was a
machinist, and I was never able to convince him. For him,
state ownership was just a bigger, more powerful boss. What he
wanted was to escape, to get out of the factory.

            But, worker management is a real alternative. If co-management
succeeds here, it will be an inspiration to workers
everywhere. And, if
co-management fails, it will strengthen the rule of capital; the message
to workers will be that there is no alternative.

            Why Co-Management?
            We should be clear, though, that the project of co-management
in Venezuela is not at all the same as what has been called
co-management in Germany. Although reflecting workers'
strength at one point long ago in Germany, co-management there
became co-optation. Giving workers' representatives a presence
in capitalist decision-making in Germany was a means of
incorporating workers into the project of capitalists,
separating them from their representatives and creating an
identity of workers with the particular capitalist firms in
which they worked. In Venezuela, though, co-management is an
alternative to capitalism.

            In particular, the point of co-management is to put an end to
capitalist exploitation and to create the potential for
building a truly human society. When workers are no longer
driven by the logic of capital to produce profits for
capitalists, the whole nature of work can change. Workers can
cooperate with each other to do their jobs well; they can
apply their knowledge about better ways to produce to improve
production both immediately and in the future; and, they can
end the division in the workplace between those who think and
those who do -- all because, in co-management, workers know
that their activity is not for the enrichment of capitalists.

            The development of worker decision-making, the process of
combining thinking and doing, offers the possibility of all
workers developing their capacities and potential. And this is
the kind of society, one which encourages the full development
of human potential, which the Bolivarian Constitution
envisions. Without democratic, participatory, and
protagonistic production, people remain the fragmented,
crippled human beings that capitalism produces. Democracy in
production is a necessary condition for the free development
of all; it is an essential element of socialism in the 21st

            Why Not Call It Self-Management?
            Yugoslavia called its system of worker-management
"self-management," and it demonstrated that you don't need
capitalists -- that enterprises can be run by workers through
workers councils, that those enterprises can be efficient and
introduce modern technology which increases the productivity
of those firms, and that considerable solidarity develops
among the workers in each firm.

            But there was a problem in Yugoslav self-management that is
implied in its name -- "Self." True, workers in each firm
determined the direction of their enterprises by themselves.
But, they also looked out primarily for themselves. The focus
of workers within each firm was on their own self-interest,
their collective self-interest. What was missing was a sense
of solidarity with society as a whole, a sense of
responsibility to and responsibility for society. Instead, the
emphasis was upon self-orientation, selfishness. In some
respects, it was like the worst of capitalist mythology, the
concept of "The Invisible Hand": the idea was that if each
collective follows its own self-interest, the society as a
whole will benefit. In fact, the invisible hand in Yugoslavia
operated to increase inequality, to break down the solidarity
of society -- leading, ultimately, to the dismembering of

            Co-management in Venezuela is an attempt to avoid this
particular mistake. Co-management implies a particular kind of
partnership -- a partnership between the workers of an enterprise and
society. Thus, it stresses that enterprises do not belong to the workers
alone -- they are meant to be operated in the interest of the whole
society. In other words, co-management is not intended only to remove the
self-interested capitalist, leaving in place self-interested workers;
rather, it is also meant to change the purpose of productive activity. It
means the effort to find ways both to allow for the development of the
full potential of workers and also for every member of society, all
working people, to be the beneficiaries of co-management.

            In Co-management, Who Speaks for Society?
            If co-management is a partnership between the workers of an
enterprise and society, though, who speaks for society?
Ideally, with the transformation of producers as the result of
the experience of co-management, producers themselves should
be able to speak for society. In other words, in the world we
want to create, socialism of the 21st century, recognition of
the needs of society would be internalized and understood by
all producers. There would be no gap between particular
producers and society as a whole.

            Yet, even in an ideal situation where differences no longer
represent antagonistic interests,  the needs of society must
be identified; and this is necessarily a democratic process --
one in which producers as citizens function in a democratic,
participatory, and protagonistic manner. This combination of
democracy in production and democracy in society is at the
core of the co-managed society, socialism of the 21st century.

            But, is that possible at the beginning of co-management? Who
speaks then for society in this partnership between democratic
producers and society? Always, our answer must be the same --
the only way that society itself can speak is through
democracy. Thus, where enterprises
(for example, electric services) exist in particular communities, the
democratic bodies within those communities identify their needs and what
they feel those enterprises should contribute. The logic is the same for
enterprises that serve the whole of the society -- the first step is to
identify society's needs and then workers can determine how best to
produce for society's needs.

            Naturally, the smaller the community in question, the easier
it is to develop democratic, participatory, and protagonistic
solutions. Even in those smaller communities, however, the
development of self-government by the producers is a process
-- just like the process of development of co-management. It
is a learning process which becomes richer through practice,
through the transformation of the participants.

            In the case of strategic enterprises that serve the whole of
society, ensuring that the central state which speaks for
society truly represents society is likely to come at the end
of a process of democratisation rather than the beginning. For
this reason, the fullest possible discussion throughout
society of the expectations for those specific enterprises is
critical. How else can the workers in those enterprises know
that the goals of those enterprises are the result of a social
consensus and are not arbitrarily assigned by enterprise
directors or ministries?

            With the confidence that the work they do and the decisions
they make are important because they meet social needs,
producers can go beyond searching for value in market rewards
and can develop their own initiatives to meet those social
needs. The measure of success in this partnership between
worker management and society is the extent to which
it is possible to realize the goal of Article 102 of the Bolivarian
Constitution of "developing the creative potential of every human being
and the full exercise of his or her personality in a democratic society."

            Contradictions in Introducing Co-Management Are Inevitable
            It is essential to understand, however, that contradictions in
the process of developing co-management are inevitable. The
people who
must co-manage the resources and industries in the interests of the whole
society don't drop from the sky. Should we be surprised if workers (after
all their long struggles to defend their immediate interests from attack
by capitalist employers) continue to focus initially on those immediate
interests? Should we be surprised if managers, accustomed to hierarchical
patterns of decision-making, revert to them at the first sign of trouble?

            It is not inevitable, of course, that workers and managers
will begin by following the old patterns. After all, the
enthusiasm for building new productive relations and a new
society can carry you past such obstacles. But, the old ideas
and old ways can easily return -- it is a tendency that we
need to be constantly on guard against.

            The main danger in introducing any change in productive
relations is that the old ideas and familiar patterns will
penetrate into the new relations and make them simply new
forms of the old. This is how new relations are deformed and

            For example, the idea that workers' interests in state
enterprises should be secured by giving workers shares of
ownership in those enterprises -- whether those shares are
individual or owned by a cooperative -- is a case where
co-management can be deformed into self-oriented private
ownership. Instead of workers functioning as
socially-conscious producers, expressing themselves as
co-operating producers and members of society, they are
transformed into owners whose principal interest is their own

            In a society marked by such extreme differences between the
living standards of the mass of working people (so many of
whom function within the informal sector) and workers in
relatively privileged sectors, the idea that important sectors
of the economy should be regarded as the private property of
particular groups of workers will not only lead to the
rejection of the idea of co-management; it is also a recipe
for the breakdown of solidarity in the anti-neoliberal,
anti-capitalist project.

            And, indeed, this kind of partnership between workers as
private owners and the state as owner is certain to produce
one problem after another. Who owns the means of production in
such a hybrid? Who will invest? Will the state and the
cooperative invest in accordance with their existing ownership
shares? What if the cooperative is not able or willing to do
so? As long as these relations are not changed into true
of co-management (a partnership between workers as producers and society),
it is not difficult to envision one of two alternative directions
emerging: (a) the transformation of state property (legally or, simply, in
fact) into the private property of particular workers or (b) the
restoration of capitalist relations with the workers relegated to the
position of wage-laborers who are also share-holders. In either case, the
idea of co-management is discredited.

            Can Co-Management in Strategic Industries Be Risked?
            But, this is just one example of a contradiction that can
emerge in taking the first steps toward the development of
co-management. Some people worry, for example, that worker
management does not belong in strategic industries. But, if
industries like oil production and electricity generation and
distribution are to be excluded from co-management, what is
that saying to the workers in those industries? That
we don't want them to develop their potential through the process of
decision-making? That we don't trust workers to be able to make decisions
in the interests of society? What kind of vision for socialism of the 21st
century is this?

            Obviously, strategic enterprises like PDVSA are not like
others. Society has definite and appropriate expectations that
those enterprises will function in the interest of society as
a whole. And, not through an act of faith. Society has the
right to indicate to those enterprises exactly what its
expectations are -- e.g., we need X this year; we need X +5%
next year. In other words, where there are strategic
enterprises whose functioning affects everyone, a target or
plan is needed as a guideline.

            Once society's expectations are identified, however, why
shouldn't workers in the enterprises in question be fully
involved in determining how to reach those targets? Why
shouldn't the decisions on
how to proceed be made by the associated workers? Why should it be
assumed that the workers in these enterprises have interests that differ
from those of society as a whole?

            If you say that workers can't be trusted to make the right
decisions on such critical matters, you are saying that you
want workers
to continue in the adversarial role that they play in capitalism -- that
you expect them to focus on the struggle for higher wages (the highest of
all because their industry and thus their work is so important), on
greater benefits and privilege and upon shorter and less intense
work-days. You are reinforcing, in fact, all the self-oriented tendencies
of the old society and undermining the building of the new. Indeed, what
are you saying but that when decisions are important, capitalism, state
capitalism, or
statism is the answer -- but not co-management or socialism of the 21st

            Contradictions are inevitable as the path to co-management is
constructed; however, without co-management, there is no

            The Greatest Danger
            The greatest danger, though, is confusing an inevitable
contradiction among those committed to the revolution with a
contradiction between those committed to the revolution and
its enemies. Are those who want to turn recovered enterprises
into cooperatives enemies? Are they opposed to serving the
needs of the poor and excluded in this society? Or, are they
workers whose past experience tells them that ownership is
necessary for control and the power to make decisions?

            Are those who are opposed to co-management in strategic
industries enemies who are trying to defeat and sabotage the
process? Or are they people committed to the revolution who
worry that workers formed in capitalism (and, in particular,
in the Fourth Republic) are self-oriented and not committed to
the interests of society?

            One of the most serious problems in every revolution is the
need to distinguish between contradictions among supporters of
the revolution and contradictions between supporters of the
revolution and its enemies. There are many contradictions here
-- for example, between the informal sector and the formal
sector, between the exploited and the excluded, between
workers and peasants, between cooperatives and state sectors.
One of the greatest errors that can destroy and deform a
revolution is that of transforming a non-antagonistic
contradiction among the people into a contradiction between
the people and the enemy.

            There may be enemies -- people who wear the red shirt but who
are opposed to the revolution. But the revolution already has
enough enemies -- outside and inside. So, how do you avoid
making the mistake of turning supporters of the revolution
into enemies? You do it through democratic discussion,
persuasion, and education. And, in this process,
the most important thing is to begin from the desire for unity.

            We need to recognise that co-management is a process. It is a
process of learning, and it is a process of development. The
very idea that people develop through their activity (a
central concept of Marx) should help us to understand that
co-management will change people and that, over time, it will
produce the people who understand this particular partnership
between workers and society that can build the new society.
That recognition will help us to be tolerant of the initial
errors of others and self-critical of our own mistakes; and,
that process of mutual respect is a condition for the success
of co-management.

            Nothing will make the enemies of the Bolivarian Revolution
more unhappy than the success of co-management.


            Michael A. Lebowitz is the author of Beyond Capital: Marx's
Political Economy of the Working Class (Palgrave Macmillan
2003), winner of the 2004 Deutscher Prize, and of Build It
Now: Socialism for the Twenty-first Century (forthcoming from
Monthly Review Press in 2006).

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