Interview On Venezuelan Workplaces with Carlos Lanz

An interview with Carlos Lanz, one of Venezuela's main socialist intellectuals and leaders, who pioneered worker management in one of Venezuela's largest state-owned companies, the Aluminum processing plant Alcasa. He talks to Michael Albert about how the workplace of the future would be organized, among other things.

Carlos Lanz is an advisor to the Ministry of Education and former director of the Aluminum processing plant Alcasa, which was one of the first experiments in creating a socialist enterprise in Venezuela, in which the workers run one of the country’s largest and most important industrial state-owned enterprises.

Can you first just say your position?

I am now in the Education Ministry but I was until quite recently working centrally at the Aluminum plant at Alcasa.
I want to talk with you mostly, if it is okay with you, about that plant…

Yes, it has now had about two years experience, and is entering into a new phase of creating a socialist enterprise.
What is the change from a capitalist firm to that aluminum firm now, and to that firm in the future?

We have to talk about the change in context of transition and the unique case of this plant. The uniqueness is because the plant exists as an example and as a test, because not all enterprises are headed in the same direction. This has to do with the development conception that the national government has. There are many tendencies in Venezuela ranging from leftist Keynesians and social democrats through people more like myself. With this great diversity of currents in the government and country, the president acts a bit like an oracle pointing out possibilities and judging among results, but at least for now there is no dominant view to follow.
We started in the aluminum plant, for example, by first implementing a social democratic concept of co-management, but we are now taking it to the level of a change in social relations.

A first step was incorporating direct elections by the workers council and also participatory budgeting within the enterprise. Another step was to acknowledge the past debt to workers and try to get closer to a level of social justice in wages regarding that. And so we got to a concept of industrial development that is different from that of traditional aluminum plants, one that gets to the heart of the revolution, which has to do with the social division of labor and work.

I come from a critical theory tradition that focuses on property, exchange, and the social division of labor. The socialism that we have known last century has emphasized nationalization and statification. All previously existing socialism postponed dealing with changing the social relations of production, keeping all the old existing hierarchies of work.
There was a hierarchy of nine levels in the aluminum plant when we began our projects there. The idea that we could make socialism by just redistributing wealth a bit or having good national policies was clearly false. We had to have more equal incomes but we clearly also had to correct the hierarchy of positions in the plant.
Did you know that when you began trying to reconstruct the plant?
Yes, I had that view.
How many others had it? Did Chavez have that view in 1998?
Does he have it now?
In the 2007 to 2013 national development plan for creating 21st century socialism, point number four does deal with this issue. And indeed, this is the first time that a government has written into its agenda to reconstruct social relations within workplaces as well as to turn the surplus to social good. Chavez has abandoned the paths he originally proposed, social democracy within capitalism, and now seeks something far more radical.
So what have we done and what do we need to do to convert state enterprises into socialism? Of the 16 firms that belonged to the CVG [the state holding company to which Alcasa belongs], only Alcasa was able to provide an answer to this question. Interestingly, changing our social relations is causing us to confront the workers and unions often, not just the elites. The union leadership is rather Stalinist and corporatist and so doesn’t think much of our aims.
I want to get to obstacles, especially among workers, but before you get into how far you have come and obstacles, it would help if it was clearer what the endpoint was. When you say you are trying to change the social relations in the factory, I am assuming you mean something like we should change the way work is distributed and organized so that the work done doesn’t make some people much more empowered and able to participate while making others less empowered and less able to participate.

Yes, exactly.
Typically in the U.S. about 20% of the workforce monopolizes the empowering work that gives them an overview, knowledge, access to decision-making, etc. About 80%, in contrast, are doing rote and repetitive work that leaves them exhausted and less knowledgeable and confident than when they came in.

Yes, that is the problem…
We propose something called balanced job complexes which just means take the empowering tasks and distribute them among the entire workforce so that we each do a mix of tasks but the total of what we do is comparably empowering for each of us. Is that roughly what you mean?

Yes, I am talking about changing the division of labor, enriching work, and democratizing knowledge, reducing fragmentation and the simplification of work, integrating mental and manual labor, all together what we sometimes call polyvalent work.
So you started with the old arrangements, and you wanted to transform the social relations in the workplace to support classlessness – what obstacles have you encountered?

Well, one that may be surprising, is that the workers have been socialized a long time, and many are alienated and want to continue to labor as in the past, resisting the important changes and keeping the same limited responsibilities. So we have created a place for training workers and raising consciousness, and without this kind of growth the revolution will be impossible.
To just make the hierarchical structures a bit softer, and have some elections, and make the wages a bit more equal, isn’t the revolution we want, and wouldn’t last, anyhow, without going further into changing social relations.  We have to humanize the worker’s situation and raise awareness. This means reducing the workload, rotating work, and enriching work. And we have to do this against opposition from old management, intellectuals, but also even many workers, which means it is slow going and involves gains but also retreats.
This also changes our view of productivity and cost effectiveness. We are replacing the concept of bottom line finances with attention to what we call integral human development. Success can’t be just about more aluminum. The worker needs to be less exposed to debilitating conditions and more involved.
The aluminum factory produces aluminum, but it also produces changed workers who may be more or less fulfilled, and also more or less involved, and you are saying that should be taken into account?

Yes. Exactly. But the familiar old logic of production suggests instead that we are sacrificing some output and leading the enterprise to bankruptcy…
Which leads us to another point, which is all the radical changes you are describing are subverted by the market and its implications. I think we agree quite a lot. But I am curious about how many people with views like you there are.

On paper we have maybe a hundred or perhaps as many as two hundred firms that are called socialist, but in reality there is actually much less.
And not all of them are as far along as the aluminum plant?

True. The president proposed that basic industries would become the core for the formation of socialism and so that is where the count comes from. But I have seen many up close and most were living out the contradiction between wanting something new but living in the context of the old, which is overwhelming and have only made some headway.
On the one hand, there is a desire to make a revolution without bloodshed and perhaps even without much conflict. The path is to take over or create new alternative institutions, have them as a model, growing, and eventually taking over different parts of society. On the other hand, you can imagine pursuing that agenda and you develop the aluminum plant as a model, and some other workplaces, for example, but you still have the market, and the market beats up on the people who are innovating first, and they become cynical and lose their passion. So it seems like a very difficult path to navigate. You want to go slow enough to not fight a war, but you have to go fast enough to not lose the passion and energy. Do you think it is going fast enough?

I would propose two relevant concepts, the concept of hegemony and the concept of unequal and uneven development. Because we are avoiding confrontation what becomes most critical is a steadily growing change in culture and ideology. As someone who comes from the guerilla movement I do believe one has to be prepared for the possibility of violent struggle. But in any event, development will be asymmetrical. Different areas will progress and have conflicts at different times.
What is absolutely necessary is to develop alternative experiences and models so others say, why not generalize and apply this approach all over? The capitalist market is operating all the time, for now, working against us. The revolutionary agent isn’t yet very strong. There is a vacuum of organization and consciousness. So, yes, it is a complex process fraught with dangers.
There is a debate, for example, about the historical subject of the revolution. We prefer to talk about a social and historical revolutionary bloc which includes workers, women, intellectuals, youth, peasants, and others who become involved too. There is not just one line of thought informing the revolution, also – there are five sources of inspiration. First the lessons from indigenous resistance. Then Afro-Venezuelan experience, liberation theology, revolutionary Bolivarianism, which goes beyond the normal Bolivarianism, and critical or libertarian Marxism – these sources are guiding us to a new approach.
The traditional marxist approach doesn’t work, nor does keynesianism. We need to reconstruct revolutionary thought. So we discuss everything, the theory of value, social relations, ideas about profit, revolution in just one country, or continent wide, or the world. The Bolivarian movement has continental aspirations.
I would like to further clarify the difference, as you see it, between 20th century socialism and 21st century socialism. So I would like to ask a few very specific questions. Looking into the future, we don’t know far, but to when the revolution has become stable and succeeded. So, yes or no, there is no more private ownership of means of production?

In the transition there would be five forms…
I am not talking about the transition…

Okay, okay, it is gone, yes.
The people who are doing work are still remunerated for their labor aren’t they? I still have a budget which determines how much I can consume, yes?

We need to clarify how that is established.
Yes, if I work longer do I get to consume more?

And if I choose to work less long, do I get less?

What if work harder? We each work eight hours, I want to work harder, you want to work less hard…

We have to think about this. But the main task is to reduce the workweek to provide more leisure time for all. Zero growth would make sense.
People will decide, they may want to have less, they may not.

Yes, that is a discussion that we are having. A group of workers at the aluminum plant said no, we want to work longer, overtime, to earn more income…
And why not?

The reduction of the workweek should not mean reducing benefits, but increasing time with family.
Suppose I like astronomy. And you don’t like that or have any other expensive hobbies. So you only want to work four hours, and I want to work eight, while the average is six. Can you work four and I work eight, in socialism as you understand it?
No. We are talking about creating a situation in which you can choose between different life styles, but everyone works the same amount.
So you are saying society can tell everyone that everyone should work the average length of time and you can’t work less or more.

Yes, but integrated humanized work. We reduce the work time and expand free time, but for everyone.
Is there central planning, or markets, or something else?

In the transition there would be all those, but at the end there should be democratic planning of the whole economy. What we are proposing is basically a communal state and a republic of councils.
So you are aiming toward some kind of cooperative negotiation between the producers councils and the consumers that arrives at a plan for the economy, without a command structure at the top and without competition?

Yes. We will integrate production, consumption, and distribution. The society and state will democratically develop a request for what is needed, and then based on that, different producers would react, and there would finally be a plan.
Suppose it is the middle of transition. Someone in the aluminum plant has a job that is much more onerous than another person there. They say they deserve higher income because what they are doing is more debilitating. Do you have sympathy with that view?

Yes, the people working in the heat in the factory and those not doing so have very different situations. And there are also different conditions from factory to factory, and from those producing to those keeping track of things, doing paperwork. And these differences can be quite great.
One of the things the revolution has to do is to change this inequality, getting rid of privileges and also differences in pay. The opposition complains we are raising incomes too much down at the bottom, and lowering incomes at the top, but that is what we intend.
The president is asking, how much is the top manager earning, and how much is the bottom worker earning. So in my case, I was the top manager at the aluminum plant and I was earning about $5,000 and the lowest paid worker was earning about $400, a month.
So it was about 12 to 1. Just so you know, that is nothing compared to the U.S. The person who runs a big firm, just income, not even profits, can earn in an extreme case maybe 400 times the lowest paid worker.

Amazing, but we are trying to lower the 12 to 1, of course.
So long as workplaces are competing on the market, however, the pay of some people will get bidded way up, and of others will be pushed down due to their relative bargaining power …

But we are developing a new concept of income, including benefits, etc. to remove these difficulties.
I know we don’t have much more time, and so even though I would like to work harder to clarify issues about what we have already covered and explore it further -not least because I think language is causing us some confusions – there are a whole different set of issues I would also like to ask about, where I suspect language won’t interfere as much. So – do you think President Chavez should run again in 2012, 2018, 2024?

It is important for the process to have a collective leadership that continues over time. So we need to have this continuity of leadership but that doesn’t imply the same individual forever. The continuity depends also on the relation of forces. Just as in relations in the workplace, and society in general, we need to rework the situation in politics to have more collective leadership.
If you were as popular as Chavez, could you do as good a job in 2012?

No, the social and historical characteristics let us all play a certain role. And the revolution needs collective structures and organizations. In fact, the permanency of an individual can even be the Achilles heel of a revolution. Chavez has even proposed that there needs to be a far more collective process, which is one reason why the new party was created.
Are you a member of the party?

Does it worry you that it might become a single dominant party, narrowing political discussion and options?

No. Within the party there are many tendencies…
That is what the Bolsheviks said…

But here the demand for internal democracy is present. I can say whatever I want with no one interfering, in the party, on television, whatever.
Well, we have come to the end of our time, and I want to thank you very much.

And thank you, as well.

Source: ZNet