Latin America: Another World Possible, Over the Horizon, in the 21st Century

Governments across Latin America are turning towards the Left. What could this mean, particularly for Venezuela, which seeks to implement "21st Century Socialism"? One model that could be a source of a source of inspiration is participatory economics.

[A variation of this piece was solicited by Washington Post.com editors for “Post Global”. It will run with other pieces relating to the recent Ortega win in Nicaragua by Greg Grandin, Sergio Ramirez and Mark Weisbrot over the next few weeks. It has been revised for ZNet]

What’s happening in Latin America? Was last week’s victory by Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua another popular expression of desire and hope for change? Is a Leftward tide gaining ground in South America? What are the consequences for the rest of the world? Following a long history of Spanish colonialism, and decades of poverty imposed by free market policies, the people of Latin America are making efforts to shake off the neo-liberal yoke.

Although Washington had bitterly opposed Ortega’s candidacy, supporting opposition groups and mounting a vitriolic propaganda campaign, it’s doubtful that Ortega’s win alone is much cause for concern. He has given mixed signals about whether he’ll drift further to the Right, or to the Left. He has criticized the “savage capitalism” that has ravaged the country and he has also courted the country’s business leaders promising to respect property rights, support the newly implemented Central American Free Trade Agreement with the US and negotiate a new economic package with the International Monetary Fund. It’s too soon to tell whether he’ll steer the country towards genuinely addressing the poverty and welfare of Nicaraguans or whether he’ll subject the country further to neo-liberal prescription.

Much more serious for Washington are the surrounding forces which indicate shifting currents in the region. Chavez in Venezuela, a thorn in Washington’s side, is aiming for Presidential re-election on December 3rd. There are the other Left of center governments, mass social and indigenous movements, and Ecuador’s Nov. 26 run-off election as well, which may offer yet another continental step toward the Left if Rafael Correa is elected. Ortega’s election is simply further evidence of Latin America’s popular discontent, not only with inequities between North and South, but also within the South itself; and that there is a consciousness and desire stirring to do something about it.

Regional unification and integration of Latin America is aiming towards a development path independent from Washington. Still more cause for concern is that similar independence is happening in Asia, while there is also an anti-US alliance in the Middle East comprised of Iran, Shiite forces in Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas in Palestine. As a consequence, a third threat is movement toward a multi-polar world, away from US hegemony and its imperialist project, whether Republican or Democrat.

Upon Ortega’s win presidents Elias Antonio Saca (El Salvador), Hugo Chavez (Venezuela), Evo Morales (Bolivia) and Oscar Arias (Costa Rica) welcomed Ortega saying they would work with him to contribute to regional integration. Chavez went so far as to say Ortega’s victory was part of an integration axis taking shape in Latin America and that “Another world is possible and it is getting visible over the horizon”, a statement aimed over and above the heads of US elites as an appeal to the people of Latin America and the world; not just a multi-polar world where the US has to abide by international law and with a reformed global economic structure, but “Another World”. Chavez aims to arouse hope because he believes we can win.

Broadcasting a phone conversation with Ortega, on Venezuelan state television just after his victory, Chavez said “We’re very proud of you” and “Now like never before, the Sandinista revolution and the Bolivarian revolution unite, to construct the future, socialism of the 21st century”. While we don’t know where Ortega will go, Chavez’s talk of constructing socialism in the 21st century is serious.

The Bolivarian project is one of creating a regional force in Latin America to gain independence from the US. Chavez himself is forthright about these intentions. More, although seeking “socialism of the 21st century”, Chavez has said he’s not a Marxist. However, he’s also stated that capitalism is inherently exploitative and could not be humanized. For a 30 year old, who missed the New Left and multi-continental movements of the 60’s and 70’s, envisioning “Another World”, beyond capitalism (and beyond racism, sexism, corporate rule and pending ecological collapse) in the 21st century stokes hope, imagination and desire. But seeing a whole continent stir arouses inspiration of the possibility – in this century, in my life time. And because I’m hopeful I think we should hold these possibilities to serious scrutiny.

What does Chavez have in mind for a 21st century alternative to capitalism? Is he trying to do better than the horrendous failures of 20th century central planning? If so how? Is he aware of economic models and experiments that we aren’t? If so, what are they? Is he simply feeling his way forward slowly and carefully like someone does entering a mansion with the lights out? But the Chavez government isn’t moving slowly. They seem to be two steps ahead of the rest of Venezuela in making radical structural changes. In fact the Chavez government seems to be moving faster than the rest of the continent. Does Chavez have a clear picture of where they are headed or how his leadership within Venezuela and the rest of Latin America today will affect the country and region tomorrow?

Chavez seems to be a very smart person and seemingly a good leader as well. In paying heed to the lessons and failures of last century Chavez may be interested to know that in 2004 Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the former Soviet Union, the longest running experiment of a centrally planned economy in the 20th century, who is responsible for initiating glasnost and perestroika, signed a statement awarding a “highly prolific American economist” who “is the author of a bold, innovative economic theory aimed at replacing self-serving competition in the economic field with egalitarian cooperation” a “…radical economic model, known as Participatory Economics, which constitutes an alternative both to capitalism and to what used to be the Soviet-style model of Real Socialism.”

The letter further stated…

“In Participatory Economics, solidarity takes the place of competition and remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of work replaces remuneration for property, power, or output. Likewise, methods of self management replace authoritarian decision making and a new method of allocation called participatory planning replaces markets.

To realise his project of radically changing a private-enterprise production system that generates economic inefficiency, Michael Albert counts on workers and consumers operating in councils according to the principle of participatory self-management.”

The Pio Manzú Centre recognises that this American economist’s radical new theory constitutes the most powerful and fully articulated challenge to the current models of socio-economic thought and that Albert’s outstanding merit lies in the fact that he has indicated a new major highway in economic organisation as a feasible proposition.”

Mikhail Gorbachev, President
Rimini, 17 October 2004

Gorbachev claiming that he’s found an alternative to capitalism and central planning, as a “feasible proposition”, should be seriously considered by anyone wanting to construct a 21st century alternative to capitalism. Published in the wake following the failed reform of the Soviet bloc, Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel published two complimentary texts simultaneously, “Looking Forward: Participatory Economics for the Twenty First Century” (South End Press, 1991), a comprehensive and detailed outline of their ideas, and second, “The Political Economy of Participatory Economics” (Princeton University Press, 1991), a technical exposition, of the same ideas, aimed at economists. These two books challenged declarations of “the triumph of capitalism”, and assertions that we had reached “the end of history”. They also confronted Thatcherite ideological claims that “there is no alternative” (TINA). These books pushed for a vision of a participatory economy looking into the 21st century. Since then more books on the participatory economic vision have been written, “ParEcon: Life After Capitalism” by Albert (Verso, 2003), “Economic Justice & Democracy” by Hahnel (Routledge, 2005), and “Realizing Hope” also by Albert (Zed Books, 2006). This last book extends insights derived from the parecon model into every major domain of life, shedding light on what a future good society may look like. For over 15 years Albert and Hahnel have been carefully deepening the foundations of the parecon model. Here, a very brief description may be in order:

A participatory economy is comprised of federations of worker and consumer councils, socially owned productive property and participatory planning determining which goods and services are produced according to a set of rules and procedures accommodated by various Facilitation Boards. Everyone works in a balanced job complex combining work tasks for equal distribution of both desirable and empowering tasks, remunerated in accord with effort and sacrifice.

Workers in worker councils propose what they want to produce, how much they want to produce, the inputs needed and the human effects of their production choices. Consumers propose what they want to consume, how much they want to consume and the human effects of their consumption choices. Through the Facilitation Board, workers and consumers negotiate a chosen plan implemented for the coming year.

A participatory plan is a feasible and desirable choice distributing the burdens and benefits of social labor fairly. It involves participants’ decision making inputs in proportion to the degree they are affected. Human and natural resources should be used efficiently providing a variety of outcomes.

Participatory Economics offers vision, hope, and a way to assess our movements today, in what we seek for tomorrow. It should be scrutinized fairly pointing out and highlighting its weaknesses and celebrating its strengths. Chavez, the people of Venezuela and Latin America are also offering hope and practical movement gains in their own region while at the same time challenging US hegemony. Anyone hopeful by this movement should equally scrutinize calls for constructing “socialism of the 21st century”. People burned once by the failure of 20th century central planning should not want to be burned again, but instead should want to win. Scrutiny and hope are needed to win — and we can win. Another world is possible, over the horizon, in this century.

Chris Spannos is staff at ZNet and editor of two books forthcoming from AK Press, “Parecon & the Good Society”, and “Hope, Reason & Revolution”. His email address is [email protected]

Source: ZNet