Workplace Democracy

Liberal ideology insists that a society in which conscious solidarity is the dominating attitude/approach is impossible, because humans are primarily and perpetually motivated by individual material incentives. But the revolutionary process that Venezuela embarked upon in 1999, known as the “Bolivarian Revolution,” is challenging the core liberal tenet that narrow self-interest is the immutable human condition.

In common with notions of participatory democracy and democratic socialism, the Bolivarian process asserts that solidarity and collective action are possible because individuals’ preferences (i.e., needs and desires) are socially and historically constructed through their practices. Rather than being invariably egoistic, humans can come to value social solidarity if institutions are designed to facilitate and not to penalize cooperation.

Workplace Democracy and Collective Consciousness: An Empirical Study of Venezuelan Cooperatives, Camila Piñeiro Harnecker

It’s relatively rare, I think, to find a piece of good old fashioned scientific socialism research, especially a piece that is both accessible and relevant. That’s exactly what Harnecker has produced and like much out of Venezuela recently, it’s a welcome surprise. There’s a lot to think about in the essay, not the least of which is her concise formulation of what might be called the ontological root of capitalism, the Social Darwinian notion of a so-called selfish human nature.

What I like most about the piece is the way it frames this question as an open ended process of creation ratter than a metaphysically closed discovery. The question, in other words, is not whether or not human nature is this or that; the question is whether or not human beings can begin to live in a more directly democratic, cooperative way. If “individual preferences,” in other words, “are socially and historically constructed,” then “humans can come to value social solidarity if institutions are designed to facilitate… cooperation.”

Harnecker also provides a historical portrait of workplace democracy in Venezuela as well as a set of criteria that could be used anywhere to measure any institutions’ progress towards the goal of participatory democracy. Among the most important criteria are “extent,” “mode,” and “scope.” Harnecker also focuses on what we might call transparency and on the extent to which a cooperative has ameliorated problems associated with the traditional divisions of labor.

Her descriptions of the problems these institutions face are relevant well beyond Venezuela. “The emergence of a sense of community among the workers’ collective is undercut,” Harnecker writes, “by internal conflicts largely stemming from members’ inexperience in social relations and administrative tasks.” That sounds like most unions (or universities for that matter) that I have known.

Interestingly, Harnecker links these sorts of problems to size: “But I found that these clashes are only significant in cooperatives with a large membership, where participatory practice is also considerably limited.” It’s a very traditional anarchist idea and perhaps one rooted a kind of social common sense: the larger the organization the more difficult it is for participants to have an effective voice.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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