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An Alternative Worth Struggling For

Michael A. Lebowitz is professor emeritus of economics at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, and the author of Build It Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century (Monthly Review Press, 2006) and The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development (Monthly Review Press, forthcoming). This essay is adapted from the preface to the Norwegian edition of Build It Now, published as a special issue of Rødt! magazine, Socsialisme skapes ikke i himmelen! (Rødt!, nr. 2, 2007)

“We are sinking in the Devil’s excrement,” wrote a close observer of Venezuela’s adventures in oil. Was Venezuela’s deep culture of corruption, crime, and clientalism imaginable in the absence of the oil rents which became the supreme object of desire? Was the truncation of industry and agriculture and the vast chasm between a privileged oligarchy and an impoverished mass inevitable—given the effects of oil wealth upon a poor, developing country?

To “sow the oil” was seen as a means of escape—to use that available nonrenewable wealth to build up agriculture and industry in order to create a balanced viable economy. But, until Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution, these efforts floundered in the wake of transnational corporation restructuring, neoliberal state policy, and, in particular, the failure to challenge the logic of capital.

Today, in Venezuela, there is an attempt to “sow the oil.” But, it is being done in a different way. More than a focus upon fostering particular sectors, the emphasis is upon stimulating the full development of human beings. Obviously, in a society suffering from an enormous social debt, the escalation of expenditures upon health and education has been a necessary starting point. But, it is only a starting point. The orientation toward “ensuring overall human development” contained in the Bolivarian Constitution has as its premise that protagonism and participatory democracy are essential for transforming people and “ensuring their complete development, both individual and collective.” Thus, the focus upon transferring state power to communal councils, fostering cooperatives, introducing worker councils into industry, reducing the traditional work day in order to ensure education for worker self-management in workplaces, developing a focus upon production for communal needs and purposes—these are steps being taken which start from the logic of a human society rather than the logic of capital.

This process which has begun in Venezuela may not succeed. Among other things, Venezuela faces a determined internal class opposition and, even more important, imperialist enemies. And, it cannot succeed upon its own. However, it points clearly to an alternative to barbarism (including barbarism with a human face). That alternative is a society that places human beings first and that struggles to create the conditions that allow (again in the words of the Bolivarian Constitution) the development of “the creative potential of every human being and the full exercise of his or her personality in a democratic society.” That is an alternative which says no to capitalism, no to the logic of society in which human beings and nature are means for capital and profits.

Venezuela has put socialism for the twenty-first century on the agenda everywhere. In particular, it demonstrates that we can take material wealth and begin to transform it into real wealth—the wealth of human beings. It demonstrates especially that its oil wealth need not be the devil’s excrement nor the means of reproducing the old relations but, rather, can be the basis for creating new relations where the explicit goal (in Marx’s words) is making the “development of all human powers as such the end in itself.” And, that is what I hope readers will take from my book, Build It Now—that there is an alternative, that it is an alternative worth struggling for, and that we have to struggle for it now.