Latin American Lessons for the European Crisis: Interview with Michael A. Lebowitz


Fourth Annual Lecture in Memory of Nicos Poulantzas
Michael A. Lebowitz will deliver the Fourth Annual Lecture in Memory of Nicos Poulantzas (“Building Socialism of the 21st Century: The Logic of the State”) on Wednesday, 8 December 2010, 7 PM, at the auditorium of the Goethe Institute (Omirou St. 14-16) in Athens, Greece.

Mr. Lebowitz, is Marxism still relevant today?  I ask because, despite the profound crisis of global capitalism, the Left, in all its varieties, has failed to mobilize people.

Marxism analyzes capitalism as a system with specific property relations and tendencies (including the tendency to crisis).  We see its value right before our own eyes.  In contrast, non-Marxist theories substitute a mythical model for reality and, when the model manifestly doesn’t fit reality, they conclude that the model is perfect and what’s wrong is the reality.

For example, they say that the crisis is not inherent in capitalism, but a result of bad capitalists, bad bankers, bad credit, bad governments, bad mistakes.  Many people no longer believe that capitalism is perfect, but still think that there is no alternative.  Marx understood that there was an inherent tendency for workers to regard the demands of capital as normal.

It is not easy to reverse this perception — especially when the media and academia tend to make Marxist analysis invisible.  We must recognize, however, that another problem was the political error of the Left: the adoption of an old model which dictates to people, rather than learns from them.

You talk about “socialism of the 21st century.”  Do you mean the kind of “authoritarian state socialism” of former Communist regimes of Eastern Europe?  Can private capital exist in a future socialist society?

I think the best answer is one given by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano about the collapse of the Eastern Bloc.  He said that we were invited to a funeral, but the deceased wasn’t ours.  I stress that we must return to Marx’s conception of a society which, directed towards the full development of human capacities, necessarily requires profound democracy and participatory decision-making in communities and workplaces (which did not exist in the East European model).

Is there room for private capital?

I prefer not to be dogmatic on this issue.  A future socialist society should ensure such conditions as transparency, workers’ decision-making, and accountability to communities and society.

If private capital can meet these requirements, which are what I would call “conditions of socialism,” it’s all well and good.  But I think that private capital would exclude itself because it would not fulfill the conditions demanded by society.  Nevertheless, that is something that remains to be seen.

Would you comment on your experience as advisor to Mr. Chávez’s Bolivarian government in Venezuela?  We hear allegations of authoritarian trends. . . .

Although I was a consultant to several ministries in the past, I now direct a program on human development and transformative practice at a research institute affiliated with the Ministry of Education.  In this capacity, I mainly come in contact with social movements (of workers and communities) and find it very exciting the way people are learning through practice.  There will always be tensions between the impatience of those above and the experience of those below, but I trust the will of those below to fight for what they need and how President Chávez addresses the needs of these movements (particularly with respect to management by workers and communities)

Of course, except that about Venezuela we always hear allegations of violations by the government.  That is not surprising since the international media broadcast the voices of the Venezuelan opposition and the Venezuelan private media (which constitute a de facto opposition party to the right of Fox News).  There is a reason for this.  Why, for example, don’t we hear about the murders of social activists (trade unionists, etc.) in Colombia?

I tell people that, if they want to learn about Venezuela, they should come and see for themselves, but until then they could read the alternative media on the Internet about what is excluded by the capitalist press.

How do you see the current crisis in Europe?  Will the euro survive?  And is there any danger of a return to nationalistic rivalries like those of the 1930s?

The crisis in Europe should be seen in the context of the crisis of global capitalism.  It has, however, its own characteristics due to internal economic imbalances in Europe and the dominant position of German and French banks.

I cannot predict how it will be resolved, but I think that, in the absence of an effective struggle against the attempt to make the workers bear the burden of solving capital’s problem, capital will be strengthened at the expense of everyone else.

How can the experience of Latin America help us in our struggle against the debt?

There is a real lesson to be learned from Ecuador, where a committee to audit the external debt revealed the extent to which the debt had been inflated without any benefit for the people of Ecuador.

I think the answer is debt cancellation; but opening the books is a good start!

Michael A. Lebowitz is Professor Emeritus of Economics at Simon Fraser University and the author of Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class (winner of the 2004 Isaac Deutscher Memorial Prize), Build It Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century, and The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development.  He is Director, Program in Transformative Practice and Human Development, Centro Internacional Miranda, in Caracas, Venezuela.  The original interview “Ψάξτε πώς φούσκωσε το χρέος σας και διαγράψτε το” was published by Ελευθεροτυπία on 4 December 2010.  MRZine thanks the volunteer translator who wishes to remain anonymous.

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