A new kind of socialism, locally and abroad

Centralized, government-controlled economies have been rightfully dis-credited. But modern radicals are making their own vision a reality.

I like murder, and firing squads, and mass graves in the woods, and forced labor camps, and a whole host of other totalitarian abominations Ö This is what others have been accusing me of for years, most recently right here on The Minnesota Daily’s editorial page.

This is because I am a socialist. I think wealth should be redistributed in a far more equitable way and, ideally, that there should be collective ownership of the means of production.

Traditionally, socialists have favored state control over the economy, meaning that everybody works for the government. Some central bureaucracy decides how much steel, butter, soap and whatever else society needs and then it issues a declaration and everyone gets to work.

Not surprisingly, in many instances, this setup is terribly inefficient and leads (some would say inevitably) to a Soviet-style collapse. The quality of goods produced under such a system is generally low, and the quality of life for the average person is quite a bit below that of nations with decentralized, market-based economies, like the United States.

Centralized economies – in which the government is the only boss – have been largely discredited and rightfully so. Now that the Soviet Union is dead and buried, most thoughtful radicals are justifiably skeptical of the state. What this means is that when conservatives or liberals attack radicals as a bunch of naive, intellectually bankrupt holdovers from the ’60s, they’re really just attacking a straw man. No credible radical wants to build a society that resembles the 20th century’s authoritarian monstrosities.

On the contrary, I would say that the socialist vision for the 21st century is a major reversal of the old vision: Instead of “top-down,” it’s “bottom-up.” It is radically democratic and decentralized and concerned, first and foremost, with the empowerment of poor and working- class people. In fact, if the new socialist vision has any flaws, it is that it is too skeptical of the state, not the other way around.

Nor is the new socialist vision some dreamy, pie-in-the-sky, academic fantasy. Today, workers in Argentina and here in the Twin Cities are living this vision and showing us the future.

Last week, Minnesota Film Arts ended its run of “The Take,” a documentary on Argentina’s occupied factory movement by writer and anti-globalization activist Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis. The film’s Web site is at www.nfb.ca/thetake/.

In 2001, Argentina’s economy disintegrated. Up until then, Argentina’s economy was the envy of all Latin America, but in the 1990s, the Argentine government cozied up to the International Monetary Fund and turned Argentina into a “capitalist wild west.” To make a long and complicated story short, everything went to hell. Tens of billions of dollars left Argentina overnight, the government put severe limits on regular citizens’ access to their bank accounts and factories all over the country shut down.

Many Argentine workers realized that they didn’t have to wait for the electoral process to produce a sympathetic government. Instead, workers across the country decided to reopen their shuttered workplaces and restart the production process – without any bosses and without having their profits stolen by their companies’ shareholders. By the time the documentary had been completed, more than 200 factories, schools and health-care providers (employing approximately 50,000 workers) were worker-run.

Isn’t this just stealing? The workers don’t see it that way: They prefer the term “expropriation.” Anyway, why should they care how the owners feel? The workers in the Movement of Occupied Factories are running the show now.

In worker-run enterprises, decisions are usually made at a general assembly, where each worker gets one vote: How much do they want to pay themselves (and should everyone be paid equally)? How much do they want to spend on improving their workplace? How much vacation will everyone have? And so on Ö Every worker has an equal say. If someone’s slacking off, he or she hears about it from his co-workers.

The notion that workplaces ought to be run by, and for the benefit of, the people who work there is simple, powerful and revolutionary. And when you think about it, it’s pretty shocking that it’s shocking. I know I’ve worked plenty of jobs where my co-workers and I could have done a better job running everything than our boss.

Luckily, you don’t have to go to Argentina to see worker-run workplaces in action – the Twin Cities is home to a handful of them: North Country Co-op Grocery, Hard Times Cafe and the Spokes Pizza Collective are just three examples. Interested parties should check out the Web site of The Federation of Workplace Democracies in Minnesota at www.mncooperate.org.

People the world over are desperate for an alternative to ruthless, cut-throat capitalism. Meanwhile, liberal and conservative pundits claim the collapse of the Soviet Union demonstrates that no such alternatives exist, but workers in the Twin Cities and Argentina have already proved them wrong.

Nick Woomer welcomes comments at [email protected]