'21st century socialism should be socialism for human development'

May 23, 2009

Michael Lebowitz is a Canadian Marxist economist. He is the director of the "Transformative practice and human development" program at the Caracas-based left-wing think tank, the Centro Internacional Miranda. He is professor emeritus of economics at Simon Fraser University and author of Build it Now: 21st Century Socialism and the 2004 Isaac Deutscher-prize winning Beyond Capital: Marx's Political Economy of the Working Class.

Lebowitz was a featured speaker at the World at a Crossroads conference organised by Green Left Weekly in Sydney over April 10-12. GLW's Christopher Kerr spoke with him about capitalism's crisis, the socialist alternative and lessons from Venezuela's revolution.

In the interview, Lebowitz says that the Venezuelan government of President Hugo Chavez was yet to introduce significant policies to confront the global economic crisis and the drop in oil revenue it has meant for Venezuela. Since the interview, the Chavez government, which has said the rich rather than the poor would be made to pay for the crisis, has implemented some important, radical measures.

There has been a strong push around land reform, redistributing idle land to impoverished campesinos (peasants) in a bid to raise local food production. A number of factories have been taken over. Currency controls for the food industry have been tightened — essentially the sort of "selective currency devaluation" Lebowitz raises below, which favours local industry.

On May 7, Venezuela's national assembly passed a decree expropriating companies providing goods and services to the oil industry. These nationalisations further strengthen state control over all aspects of the industry, in areas previously contracted out to multinationals.

On May 21, militant trade unionists held a day of roundtables in Cuidad Guayana in the industrial state of Bolivar. The meeting, broadcast live on Venezuelan TV, was by attended Chavez and several ministers. Lebowitz told GLW that Chavez spoke in support of a number of the radical proposals raised, including for workers' control over production. Amid cheers and chants, Chavez announced a series of steel-related companies to be nationalised to help create a "solid platform for socialism".

The video below of Chavez announcing nationalisations and other radical measures to the unionists, although in Spanish, shows the emotion and joy of the workers who have struggled against great odds for these gains [video unavailable].

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Given the current economic crisis, is Marxism still relevant?

It is more relevant than ever. Marxism seeks to explain the underlying reasons for what is occurring and to seek out the alternatives.

Liberalism, neo-classical thought and other schools don't try to look for the underlying reasons for historical events, such as the current crisis. These schools of thought take certain phenomena and treat them either as accidents or as caused by bad people, bad policies, bad bankers, bad speculators, etc.

Only Marxism really attempts to understand the nature of capitalism and why capitalism generates crises, why it generates exploitation, why it deforms and cripples people rather than helps their self-development.

You have talked a lot about a 21st century socialism as a rejuvenation of the socialist project. Do we also need a 21st century Marxism as a part of this?

Absolutely, we need a rejuvenation of Marxism — in many respects a return to the Marxism of Karl Marx.

We have to go back to Marx's premise and goal, which was the concept of human development.

It is no accident that the Communist Manifesto, written in 1848 with Frederick Engels, talked about how the free development of each depends upon the free development of all.

By free development, they meant the development of human potential and capacities. In Marx's writings from 1844 through 1858, and in Capital, he kept talking about developing a rich individuality and rich human beings. He argued that capitalism distorted human development, while socialism was necessary for it.

We lost that in the 20th century. Marxism became interpreted as having to do with a way to develop the productive forces, in which the question of economic development became everything. The question of the nature of the relations between people in economic production, the nature of the circumstance in which we function, became forgotten or ignored.

One of the key parts of Marx's emphasis on human development is that it only occurs through practice. That's the concept of revolutionary practice — the simultaneous changing of circumstances and self-change.

And if you understand this key link in human development, then you understand that you cannot build socialism, a new society, without workers' management in workplaces, without community control — without control from below over society.

This is not because it is nicer or more efficient, but because it is the only way people transform and develop themselves, thus making a new society possible.

How relevant is Venezuela as an example for 21st century socialism?

I think Venezuela is one of the most relevant examples. If you look at Venezuela's constitution, it talks about the goal of overall human development. It says that people must develop their potential and all their creative possibilities. It also says that this is only possible through practice.

These are not simply nice words in a constitution; it's also that we see this introduced in so many ways in Venezuela. The most obvious case right now is the communal councils, where with small units, representing in the urban areas at most a thousand people and less in rural areas, people have the opportunity in assemblies to make decisions. People are able to identify and plan their own needs, and then proceed to put the plan into action.

You can also see it through the promotion of cooperatives, and now increasingly through worker-managed companies called "socialist enterprises".

There are a number of Latin American projects aiming at regional integration, such as the Union of South American Nations (Unasur), the Market of the South (Mercosur, involving Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela) and the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA, involving Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Honduras, Dominica and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines). There is also the Bank of the South (Bancosur), which seeks to create an alternative to lending agencies like the International Monetary Fund that is controlled by Latin American nations. To what extent do such moves represent a break from the past?

Not all of these projects are entirely a break from the past. The initiatives differ in their nature and implications.

The distinction between Mercosur and ALBA is a good example. Mercosur is a regional trading bloc and inside it the most powerful rule. The most powerful are Brazil and Argentina, so it is dominated by Brazilian capital and Argentine capital.

Its aim is to create a free trade zone among member countries. How can Venezuela develop endogenous (internal) production, favour new economic models like cooperatives and socialist enterprises, through agreements with countries like Brazil in the context of a Mercosur dominated by Brazilian capital?

Brazilian capitalists, who want access to Venezuela, will view these models as a violation of their trade agreements.

This is quite distinct from the whole concept underlying ALBA. That is a concept of solidarity.

Where one country has particular kinds of capabilities and another country has particular kinds of needs, ALBA seeks to take that as the basis for cooperation. Cuba provides, in the context of ALBA, medical and cultural support for Venezuela. In return, Venezuela provides investment and economic assistance in Cuba, including in housing.

Other programs include Mission Miracle, whereby the poor in the continent receive free eye operations in Venezuela due to a joint Cuba-Venezuela program. This is not done on a cash basis, but on the basis of solidarity. It uses Cuban doctors for the operations and Venezuelan planes to transport people to and from their countries. This is based on the concept of solidarity rather than a commercial trade agreement.

That same kind of division, between solidarity and capitalist trade relations, has to be made with the concept of Bancosur. Although it hasn't been properly formed yet, Brazil and Argentina want it to run along capitalist lines.

By contrast, the aim of the Bank of ALBA is solidarity.

These two paths can come together in the struggle against the neoliberal policies pushed by the "monster of the North", the United States. But they are still two different paths.

Unasur, which is based on representation of all South American nations, becomes important because it's based on the recognition that these countries can unite on certain matters and kick the monster out of the tent. The monster says it should determine what happens in Latin America, and to this end excludes Cuba, a policy rejected across Latin America.

With the global economic crisis, Venezuela is relying on much-reduced oil income. What policies is the government implementing to tackle the crisis?

Nothing fundamental so far. Venezuela has a very nice cushion in the form of US$40 billion in international reserves. So in the face of reduced revenue, and oil is a very substantial part of their budget, 80% I think, state budgets have been cut and waste is being tackled.

What the government has done is take $12 billion out of reserves so it could be used for maintaining the pro-poor social programs.

That part is fine, but other measures are not entirely clear yet. The minimum wage has been raised by 20%, although this is still below inflation. Also the Value Added Tax, a regressive tax, has been increased.

There was some talk about raising gasoline prices, currently extremely cheap, as a way of increasing revenue, while simultaneously discouraging wasteful overuse of gasoline and ensuring that the burden falls on the wealthy hummer-drivers rather than the poor.

I think if gas prices increase, the government will definitely ensure a subsidy for all public transport to protect the poor.

Also, the government is hesitant on devaluation of the bolivar, which would solve a lot of problems because with every dollar in oil revenue, it would receive more bolivars. This could solve a lot of budgetary problems.

Ali Rodriguez, the finance minister, said they would not devalue the bolivar in order to solve budgetary problems. However, he said they would consider the question in terms of strategic economic issues. The over-valued bolivar (and there is no question that it's over-valued) means that it is very cheap to import goods and it is very difficult for local agriculture and local industries, including cooperatives, to compete with imports.

Devaluing would reduce imports and strengthen local manufacturing and local agriculture. Strategically, with the government's goal of ending reliance on the oil industry, this is very important. The government is hesitant to devalue, however, because the oligarchy, which has taken its money out of the country and holds it in dollars, would therefore be able to receive a wealth gift by transferring the cash back to bolivars.

We can see why all of the opposition newspapers are shouting "Devalue!" Sure, because the rich oligarchs will benefit.

One of the things I have heard they may attempt to do is introduce a selective devaluation depending on what is being imported. For example, luxury cars. Why should buyers of luxury cars get a better rate? A selective removal of items from the current official bolivar rate would allow for a selective devaluation that wouldn't give that wealth gift to those who hold dollars outside.

I think before long there will be new proposals for reforms. Right now, what they have done is definitely inadequate — raising taxes and reducing government spending in an economic crisis does not reduce the crisis but increases it.

Further, the reduction in oil export revenue and what that means for the ability to import may compel the government to take more vigorous steps to increase agricultural production (which may involve recovery of latifundias (large landholdings), which could be used to produce for domestic needs.

And, the same may be true in dealing with the monopolies that control food processing. Crisis is always an opportunity.

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