Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Freedom and cooperative socialism

In my last post about "Socialist Factories' in Venezuela, I mentioned the experience of INVEPAL, a partly worker-owned paper factory in Venezuela that has become a showcase of the Venezuelan revolution's ideals of cooperative production. It is worth looking more in detail at the experience of both Invepal and a similar enterprise, Inveval (which makes valves). Both were nationalized in 2004 and 2005 respectively. They had been privately owned up until the unrest of 2003, when most of the country's capitalists attempted to shut down the national economy, and overthrow Chavez, by closing their factories. Fortunately, the owners wound up hurting primarily themselves: they kept their factories closed so long that they effectively went bankrupt, while Chavez managed to ride out the storm and emerge more powerful than before. The workers at the paper and valve factories had little desire to participate in the 'strike' however, and they seized the factories and started to operate them themselves. In the year and a half or so that the workers at Invepal (at that time called Venepal) ran the factory, they set records for the highest productivity and lowest wastage the factory had every seen.

Today, both Invepal and Inveval are run according to the principle of 'co-management', in which they are jointly managed by the state and by the workers. In 2006-2007, each were owned 51% by the national government, and 49% by the workers' association. This probably isn't a stable equilibrium, as the government has made it clear they would prefer to nationalize the companies and have them owned by the state but run by their workers; the workers' associations on the other hand have the right to in extending their share of the ownership up to 95-99%. Apparently in the last year the Venezueland government has made the decision to fully nationalize Invepal, though I haven't been able to verify this. It will, however, remain worker-managed.

There are some interesting differences between the companies though. The valve company, Inveval, is run along egalitarian, democratic lines. Each worker, from the worker-manager down to the person who sweeps out the restrooms, receives the same wage. The workers at Inveval have said that they 'don't want to create new capitalists' and for this reason they would prefer that the state own the company and control the profits, although they would like to control the working process and working conditions. It hasn't been able to produce many valves yet due to a lack of raw materials- the associated foundry was shut down by its owner during the general strike of 2003, and was never nationalized, so they lack a supplier. Regardless, when they get up and running presumably Inveval will be an example of a highly ideological extreme of a cooperative- on the extreme left of the cooperative spectrum. Last year, a 'Revolutionary Union' of cooperative workers was founded at Inveval, and has begun to spread to other industries. This union, Fretecos, has been very vocally anti-capitalist and has warned that the Venezuelan revolution needs to ensure that worker-owners do not become little capitalists, and that they never forget that their primary goal should be producing for the common good, rather than pursuing their own self-interest. Fretecos has insisted that cooperatively owned companies should produce goods at a fair price that can be afforded by poor Venezuelans, even when that cuts into their profits.

Invepal, on the other hand, has gotten into a bit of hot water for hiring contract laborers who are not part of the worker-owner cooperative, and for firing redundant workers. Clearly they prioritize production and profit over selfless pursuit of the common good.

And that's perfectly healthy. There needs to be a diversity of economic models in Venezuela, just as there is a diversity of human personalities. Some of us are idealistic enough and morally pure enough that we really can motivate ourselves by thinking of the common good, and desiring to serve others. For those people, moral incentives are enough, and in a healthy socialist Venezuela they can join a more 'left-wing' cooperative like Inveval. Others need economic incentives- within certain limits- to motivate them to produce, and they could work at a more profit-oriented company like Invepal. This is the living disproof of the idea that socialism needs to mean uniformity, or that by making virtue compulsory and eliminating free choice, socialism abolishes virtue itself- for virtue cannot really exist if it is compelled. Socialist Venezuela, even after almost all of the economy is under either state, cooperative, communal, or smallholder ownership, will not be a place that 'compels' people to ignore self interest and to sacrifice their own profits and desires for the common good. It will be a place that encourages people to make that choice, and to sublimate their own goals and desires for the sake of the good of others, and for the building of a just and charitable society. It will also be a society that prohibits capitalist ownership- that prohibits, in other words, actual economic exploitation, and that prevents people from participating in a particularly serious type of economic immorality. But prohibiting extreme immorality is not the same as compelling morality. Even if we eliminate the extreme greed and exaggerated acquisitiveness, each man will still have the choice between being reasonably and moderately acquisitive (in a non-exploitative, cooperative context), and being ascetically self-sacrificing. They will have the choice, in other words, of being 'minimally decent', fulfiling the basic demands of morality, and being actively good, beyond what is required of us by the state.

This is the type of diversity in personalities that will always exist, and that is necessary if free will and free choice are to exist. How much better a choice, how much richer a freedom this is than the freedom of capitalist society in which we are all compelled by necessity to participate in an immoral system! Evil is monotonous, and stultifying; good is diverse and ever-ramifying. No two snowflakes are the same, no two tree leaves in spring are the same; no two beautiful things are the same, nor any two human souls; sameness is alien to the Good. The fight to encourage good, and to suppress evil, is in its truest form a celebration of freedom, not a violation of it. It eliminates certain choices, and pays us back by giving us a much deeper and richer array of choices in which we can truly throw our body, our mind, and our soul.

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