Cooperation, Co-operatives, & Revolution in Venezuela

How are cooperatives and cooperativism different? How can they be a part of creating something new? I believe that cooperatives and cooperativism, as exemplified by projects in Venezuela and elsewhere, have the potential to work against oppression, exploitation and general misery by giving real power to people who have been excluded from economic institutions, whether they be part of a market system of distribution or not.

By Micheal Snow

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Collecting tomatoes at an eco-cooperative in Barinas (Larevolucionvive)
Collecting tomatoes at an eco-cooperative in Barinas (Larevolucionvive)
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“No we will not accept the austerity measures that the government is trying to impose; No we will not accept the dictatorship – neither the dictatorship of the dictators nor the dictatorship of money that dresses as democracy; No, we will no longer accept the obscenity of capitalism. These explosions of rage, so beautiful in recent months, are necessary to break the tyranny of the present system. But then what do we do?” John Holloway

On Revolutionary Potential:

John Holloway makes two important distinctions about revolution speaking in the context of the CECOSESOLA (Central de Cooperativas de Servicios Sociales de Lara) cooperative in Venezuela. He outlines two ways of “saying no” to the current system, or as he describes them, the two “temporalities of revolution”: The sharp explosion of” no,” and the transformation of the way in which we live and produce, creating alternatives to current systems.

The first revolutionary form or temporality refers to the outbursts societies experience during especially tense times encapsulated by riots, large marches and “civil disobedience”, disruptive actions, and other means of protest. The second is the accumulation of the actions and projects that we take on to create different ways of relating to each other, and ultimately a different kind of society. The first part is important to open up space for dialogue and action. To inspire us to start acting in different ways, revealing new avenues of being and operating, whether political, cultural or economic. However, without the second part we are left with the same old system. We go back living as we had been, reproducing the same society that leaves people hungry and without health care, causes poverty and crime, and abandons people to freeze to death in the streets during the winter. A radical change depends on our actually creating something different; New institutions, new ways of relating, new economic forms; things that will replace the former ways of operating.

How are cooperatives and cooperativism different? How can they be a part of creating something new? I believe that cooperatives and cooperativism, as exemplified by projects in Venezuela and elsewhere, have the potential to work against oppression, exploitation and general misery by giving real power to people who have been excluded from economic institutions, whether they be part of a market system of distribution or not. I believe that the way radical cooperatives make us think about, and act on, concepts of social property as opposed to public and private property and the way they think about development as serving needs and desires of the people who are part of them instead of making an ever expanding profit margin, give us something new.

Editor’s Note: I do want to say that I do not believe that cooperatives are radical in themselves if they don´t maintain values that are intended to empower the people within the organization, as well as the community in which they exist, to work for “democracy, equality, equity and solidarity (ICASCI, 1995)”, and work to put those values into practice. Examples of failing to fully accomplish this to the ends of creating something new and revolutionary (anti-capitalist) are co-ops with hierarchical models of management like REI, Darigold, Ocean-Spray, Food Co-ops that also offer very little worker and community control, etc. As the rest of this zine will attest, our ideas about what might be “radical” and/or “revolutionary” coincide with our understanding of the concepts of horizontal organization, inclusion, anti-authoritarianism, and shared power and knowledge.

 The Cooperative in Venezuela:

Cooperatives are an alternative form of investing and managing productive and distributive entities. It means that the people who run the productive-organization/cooperative own it as well as make all the decisions about what they produce. Not only this, but also have power over how things are produced, where the raw materials come from, what qualifies someone to receive a service or good, and in a market distribution system, what they do with the money they make from what they do (profit/surplus). There are all types of cooperatives and although they aren´t all radically different in a way that may lead us to a change in the way we socially relate to each other, in Venezuela they are treated as an institution and inspirational form that is capable of changing the economy and investment in very radical ways.

The concept of the cooperative, as outlined by the book El Mundo de Las Cooperativas written by Julio Rafael Silva Sánchez and produced by the Venezuelan Ministry of Cultural Education and the National Council of Culture is that it is “a socio-economic institution of production formed by people with a common objective” (39). The cooperative differentiates itself from a commercial business partly by the fact that “the participation of each person in the wellness of the project is determined by the work they put into the common objective and not by the amount of money they have invested.” Cooperatives are seen as one means, alongside worker controlled factories and “co-managed” industries, to democratize the economy in Venezuela creating needed employment, putting resources into the hands of people who were before excluded, and reducing dependency on exports. What this means from an economics perspective is that production and services can be accomplished by groups of people who aren´t capitalists in the sense that they only think of development and production in terms of how they can make the most profit, but in terms of what community needs are and how to satisfy them by working together cooperatively. A cooperative intends to be a society of people, not of capital.

A good example of this intention is the de-emphasis that cooperatives in Venezuela put on advertising or “marketing” products, and instead push to find more people to become part of the cooperative, and choose the services or products they provide based on community decisions about what is needed. A cooperative I worked in associated with CECOSESOLA, ETNA, was originally a family owned and operated theater group that traveled around the country performing theater pieces that highlighted social and environmental issues. When they joined the CECOSESOLA cooperative, the larger co-op did an analysis and decided they wanted a natural fruit juice concentrate producer and gave the ETNA group a loan to acquire capital and start producing. They have been doing this for only a couple of years now but have already paid back the loan to the larger cooperative and are bringing extra money in to support themselves, better their services, and supply extra funds to the larger cooperative for community projects such as the recently built community health center.

The majority of cooperatives in Venezuela are focused on the production of goods and services and on agriculture. Their priority is to provide basic necessities such as basic food stuffs like bread, pasta, fruits and vegetables. The goal is to reduce people´s dependency on imports from transnational corporations that exploit both the worker and the consumer. In Venezuela companies like Pepsi, etc. are prevalent and well-practiced in the art of economic exploitation. Prices are inflated to their utmost maximum and taxes are evaded just the same, attempting to squeeze the working people of the small amounts of money they can make selling their time as laborers while at the same time refusing to give anything to the national or regional governments to use to provide basic social services like health care or water services.

How they are Different:

            The criticisms of Capitalism are aplenty. These include but are not limited to how it as an economic system unfairly excludes people from goods and services, concentrates power and wealth for a minority who have generated wealth most commonly through the chance of being born into a family/community that already has wealth and/or power; how it ensures that most of the work we do in our lives will not belong to us, how our “work life” has to be intensive and unsatisfying while our “social life” is almost exclusively indulgent and based on buying things we have no other relationship with other than our consumption of it (meaning it is not our interest how it is made, or why it is made, who made it? etc); as well as how it leaves almost no space for communities on a community based decision-making level, to decide what would be best to produce in the region. We are only given the choice of giving input as individuals by “voting with our dollar”. These are things that capitalist organizations are prone to, and are things that should and are being challenged by some cooperatives.

 Economic Inclusion: In Venezuela the majority of the population is considered to be in poverty although the country itself has a lot of wealth primarily due to its oil resources. In the cities and rural areas people are excluded from access to water, health care, trash removal/disposal, and access to healthy food. It is not because these things don’t exist, but because traditionally they have only been provided to those who have plenty of money to pay for them, and those people have been few.

            The cooperative services I experienced and learned about in Venezuela were health, dental, food, and a separate example of trash services. A dental cooperative associated with CECOSESOLA provides quality dental services (I know because I used them) almost every day for affordable prices. You don´t have to be a member of the cooperative, and you don´t have to make an appointment. It takes only a couple of hours, and emergency situations are treated with urgency. The health center, built with funds provided by all the associated cooperatives within CECOSESOLA, works the same way. Anyone can go there, the services are subsidized by the cooperative so they are affordable, the clinic and workspaces are clean and well taken care of, and the quality of the service is great. Worker-members of the cooperative receive health care at the facility without charge except for the massage and acupuncture services that they also provide at a really low price.

            CECOSESOLA food services are priced to provide more access to food for the community in which it exists. The original and persistent intention is to make the best situation for people on all ends of the process. The producers are part of the cooperative and are part of the group that decides the prices that growers get, as well as the prices that the food is sold for. This means that both farmers and workers at the market decide what to charge a person, which ultimately affects how much money the growers receive, as well as if the food is affordable for the people who need to eat who live in the city. In a normal capitalist market system these parties are separated and put up against each other, raising prices for consumers and lowering them for small producers, excluding those people from getting enough money to afford all the necessities that are typically only provided at a high price.

            One communal council, a parallel governing organization of community members linked to investment funds from the national government, in the city of Merida, Venezuela organized themselves to get funds to buy a trash collection truck. The truck at the time was used for a specific waste removal project that removed waste from their community regularly but was not a traditional collection service. However, they did have plans to expand the project to start their own collection service, and this would be provided by the commal council, an anti-capitalist organization which does not require people to pay for the service. Although this is not a “co-operative” as some hardliner co-operative enthusiasts might point out, it is a horizontal anti-capitalist organization widening access of necessary services to the larger community run by community members; following cooperative values of equity, inclusion, and solidarity I believe this to be an example of cooperative economics and action. It appears to me that economic inclusion is much more likely to widen only when those who are being excluded are included in the process of organizing the services and are in control of the economy.

Economic Democracy: Here I want to define “democracy” not as majority votes versus minority positions, but as the fullest amount of participation possible of people in decisions that affect their lives. In terms of the economy this means a lot about the distribution of wealth, including decisions about salaries, prices of goods and services, property rights, etc. and decisions about investment and defining what “development” looks like to a community. These possible areas of participation begin in the home, the workplace, the neighborhood, and extend to the region and the nation. Development also can be viewed in terms of our own human development as well as the development of our communities and economies.

            Cooperatives have the power to have almost absolute democracy in the workplace, delegating responsibility throughout all members, and bringing important decisions to the whole to work through and find the best possible solution. All organizations differ in the way they make decisions, and the ways they find to be most helpful for distributing power (or not), however there are some good examples that share some strong elements. The largest and most powerful element of the cooperative is the assembly, defined by El Mundo de Las Cooperativas as the maximum authority of the organization made up of the majority of the associated members. “Its decisions apply to all associated members, from those that are present, to those that are absent.” This model requires you to be present and participate to be part of the decision making process. Dario Gonzalez of CECOSESOLA describes their assembly meetings as “open conversations” and “open discussions where every member can participate and give his or her opinion.” They create “collective criteria” together; agreements stipulating whether individuals have power over certain decisions or whether it is up to the whole group. However, he assures that these “are not rigid, they can change at any moment.” The cooperative I lived with in Venezuela had regular organizational meetings where they informally came to agreement and were even able to come back to re-evaluate decisions that didn´t seem to be satisfactory for the whole group in this same way. Decisions and decision making, in this way, are viewed as a process not contained by meetings and discussions in board rooms, but are always being analyzed and made better by the process of putting them into action, and not only by thinking them out and writing them down.

The objective of production for a cooperative is not to maximize profit but to maximize human development in the workplace and the satisfaction of the needs of the community. Human development here means the ability and even sometimes the necessity to develop our different capacities to create and contribute something, even something entirely new to a group. It means we all contribute a part in doing the work everybody loves to do and the work no one usually wants to do; all depending on what the organization decides together. This could mean that you are doing accounting one week and janitorial work the next, but that you have the chance to do it all in the ways you are capable. At CECOSESOLA they practice job rotation and knowledge sharing. Lizeth Vargas explains that “if we have a member with technical skills, that person will offer his or her knowledge to the entire organization and to all allied organizations.” They also “have a permanent exchange between farmer producers, market workers, doctors, and facilities workers.” Lizeth emphasizes that “this day-to-day sharing helps us to create a bigger community for all and for each one of us.”

The question of defining and identifying a community I think is difficult, depends on the context, and is entirely up to the group of people being identified and defined. Taking this into account, a conversation about serving community needs and acting in the community´s interest also becomes difficult. I believe in the best case scenario, the needs of the community are in the minds of the cooperatives because the workers and consumers that have power within the organizations belong to those communities and have the ability to understand the needs to be met. CECOSESOLA members don´t distinguish between themselves and the community, but recognize that they have a different understanding of what defines “we” in a capitalist society following capitalist social relations of worker who works and capitalist who owns. Lizeth says that “ a ‘we’ does not stop with my family, a ‘we’ does not stop with my immediate context, a ‘we’ that goes beyond to our community, to our planet, precisely because we are a global ‘we.” In our own cultural context here in the U.S., I am cautious and wary about us assuming that we are including everyone’s interests in our actions as they are, and as they are represented in our organization’s membership, but I think it is an important idea for us to consider that we include people into the organization that can represent themselves and their communities by exercising their power in the decision making of economic production and cultural reproduction.

In the context of alternative ideas about community development, we see some preferable options to the capitalist way of doing things in the examples of cooperatives. Consumer cooperatives redistribute revenue surplus to members, reintegrate that money into making prices lower, and have the ability to invest in important community projects like the Health Center (Centro Integral Comunitario de Salud) that CECOSESOLA built. It is extraordinary that even the possibility that extra income that cooperatives generate could be put into social projects and community development. Whereas in a traditional capitalist organization we only see a kind of hand-out ideology propagated by people like Bill Gates that gives money as “charity” (still excluding communities that he extracts wealth from, in the forms of labor and natural resources, from having control over that wealth in the first place), reinforcing and justifying his right to own so much himself in the first place without having any other relationship with the things that he owns other than the fact that he bought them.

Something New and a Social/Solidarity Economy:

Although cooperatives in the sense that they are just group investment projects might not appear to be inherently political, I believe they are in the way that they work to create collective property, and with a radical management structure, a way in which collective property is actually controlled by the people who work with it and/or use it as a resource.

People who oppose the logic and harmful consequences of capitalism would most likely agree a radical and revolutionary turn would be in the direction of giving power and resources to the people who work the productive institutions as well as the communities that this affects. This idea of collective property and an economy based on cooperation and the desire to satisfy the needs of all affected even though that might require sometimes earning less than possible, working harder than a traditional capitalist might have to, and moving beyond the confines of ideology that suggest certain kinds of people are solely responsible for certain kinds of work (e.g. women and child care/taking care of the home) is a move in a new direction.

            Doing this implies changing some major institutions in society. It requires the implementation of social property and collective responsibility. Property now is typically viewed as public or private. Private property belongs to the owners whether they are capitalists or a cooperative and public property is owned by the state, supposedly under the control of the people of the country by means of their access to the political system that governs it. Social property implies collective ownership as well as direct control, rather than indirect control managed by representative democracy models, by both the workers and the consumers of the goods and/or services. This concept put into practice by radical cooperatives has the potential to start to tackle these issues of economic inclusion and economic democracy and build an economy based on solidarity. Dario Gonzalez describes it well as a process of working together to create trust between each other as individuals, organizations, and communities as “trust generates transparency, and transparency and trust generate mutual respect.” This is embodied by the cooperatively-formed policies of pay and cooperative work to price goods in ways that benefit all parties involved. I believe that collective responsibility finds its way into our work through the practice of this, and through a process of group education integrated into our everyday activities by altering the ways we work with each other, on more equal planes, valuing what each has to offer as a way to grow. Dario’s words resonate when he says: “When we have knowledge, we share that knowledge, and when we make a wrong decision that causes economic loss, we share that loss, because that is the way we move forward.”

 A Basic Introduction to Cooperatives. Print.

Camila Piñeiro Harnecker. “The New Cooperative Movement in Venezuela´s Bolivarian.” Latest Articles on Venezuela Analysis. 17 Dec. 2005. Web. <http://www.venezuelaanalysis.com/>.

Enciso Patiño, Rafael.“A Multiple Socialist Administration Model and Enterprises of Social Property in Venezuela: Successes, Difficulties, Prospects.” Latest Articles on Workers Control. 04 Feb. 2012. Web. 30 May 2012. <http://www.workerscontrol.net/>.

 Silva Sánchez, Julio Rafael. El Mundo De Las Cooperativas. Caracas: Consejo Nacional de la Cultura, 2004. Print.

Vargas, Lizeth and Dario Gonzalez. “Building Here and Now the World that we Want.” First Global Prout Conference in Venezuela. 7 Jul. 2011. Caracas.