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Book reviews:

Massive reform programme

The Real Venezuela – Making Socialism in the 21st Century.
 By Iain Bruce, Pluto Press 2008 

 Venezuela, since Chavez, has been both hailed as champion of the poor and underclasses and also excoriated by leaders of the global capitalist hegemony. In this book Bruce takes no side but over a period of several years and a number of visits to various parts of the country – urban, rural, factories and farms – he has interviewed 'ordinary folk' involved in co-operative initiatives ranging from the workplace to community planning, land reform and literacy programmes.

 Throughout Bruce attempts to discover if the reality of various initiatives lives up to the rhetoric by comparing plans discussed at earlier visits to any noticeable changes several months or two or three years later, and, as would be expected, his findings are mixed. Whilst adult illiteracy was eliminated in a relatively short time and vast improvements in health care have been afforded to all by means of the Health Mission involving 20,000 Cuban medical staff, bringing visible, tangible changes especially to the poorest, some other workplace initiatives have floundered. Bruce offers a number of explanations for these failures later in the book after further investigation following up on his earlier interviews.

 A recurring theme, endogenous development, (development created from within the country; Chavez - “if we want to put an end to poverty we have to give power to the poor”) is referred to as being one of the building blocks of the revolution, “socialism for the 21st century”. The call to empower the poor in opposition to the IMF's view is manifest in the idea that spending on the poor is seen not as an expense but as an investment; education being a tool of empowerment so that those previously “buried in silence, obscurity and neglect have suddenly emerged” and become “protagonists both of their own individual stories and of the nation's collective drama”.

 As Bruce points out, all around the world, especially in the last 50 years, the poorest communities with almost no resources and few formal skills have constructed and installed infrastructure for themselves with no official help. Barrios, slums, shanty towns, call them what you will, in cities such as Jakarta, Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg and Caracas, communities housing millions and millions of the world's poorest – not helpless and passive as often claimed, but proactive and self-reliant and most of whom are underemployed and/or work in the informal sector, all of this revealing a history of self-organisation.

 The chapter on 'Democracy at Work' gives an account of the attempt at a “radical extension of democracy” at Venezuela's second biggest aluminium plant ALCASA which was “intended to be a test-bed and catalyst for a much wider change”. He lays out the history, the hopes, the set-backs, the workings of co-management, the divisions of labour, the participatory budget and the aim of spreading this model to other factories. Carlos Lanz, the president of ALCASA in 2005 was interviewed at length and he spoke of how the criteria of quality and efficiency would have to change and that to traditional indicators of efficiency and effectiveness would have to be added other categories such as social and environmental pertinence or appropriateness. “Profitability and growth, per se, are not the objective, but human development is.”

 Two years later one of ALCASA's activists explained some of the failures to Bruce, citing that ALCASA was an isolated example and a reminder that, “if you can't build socialism in a single country then you certainly can't build it in a single factory”. The overwhelming challenge facing any part of this move towards 'socialism for the 21st century' is that Venezuela is bogged down by the logic of capitalism and although there are many efforts to encourage and instil the alternative logic they are forever met with the incompatibility and antagonisms of the two systems.

 In some areas Bruce notes examples of great achievements from communal councils including one where a mayor closed down his social development department because “the community has shown that they are running it better”, and there are many inspiring accounts of successful outcomes to community-inspired initiatives. However, it must be stated that many of the challenges faced by this ongoing attempt to transform society come from being entrenched in a monetary system which continues to allow ample opportunity for graft and corruption, pre-established managers and bureaucrats wanting to hold on to their privileges and mafia-like organisations intent on keeping a hold on their share of the spoils.

 All the way through the book, in the examples cited of substantial success, partial success or abject failure, the challenges relate directly or indirectly to the fact that products still have to be bought and sold, imported and exported to meet the requirements of the market and trying to set up an alternative logic of production continually clashes with the logic of capitalism. There is no mention from individuals interviewed or encountered in this book of abolishing money either sooner or later but there is recognition that there is still a long way to go and according to Bruce at the time of writing, mid-2008: “It looked as if it could go either way.”

 We may judge the current stage of proceedings as being a massive reform programme but there are those who truly believe there are real possibilities for socialism here. In any case there are both cautionary tales and positive examples well worth discussing.


Helping to Survive

Why We Cooperate.
By Michael Tomasello: MIT Press £11.95.

 Young children are cooperative and helpful. At the age of eighteen months, almost all children will try to help an adult they have just met, for instance by opening a cupboard door if the adult’s hands are full. This is one of the findings from experimental studies carried out with colleagues that Tomasello, a psychologist, reports in this short but informative volume.

 Before they can be helpful like this, a child has to be able to perceive what another person wants to do, and to have the altruistic motive to help. Assisting others in this way seems to emerge naturally, before children have been trained by parents to behave in this manner. Moreover, concrete rewards undermine this helping, rather than stimulating it.

 Helping is only one of three kinds of altruistic behaviour. The second is informing others by providing and sharing information, which children do naturally at twelve months (lying comes much later, and assumes pre-existing trust and cooperation). The third kind is sharing goods such as food, which again young children do in a reasonably generous way. Children are far more cooperative than chimpanzees, who do try to help humans in experimental situations but are less keen to share food or to inform fellow chimps.

 From the age of around three years, children become more discerning in their altruism. For instance, they may share more with someone who was previously nice to them, or are more helpful to those who help others. The eventual outcome will be mutualism, where we all benefit from working together towards a common goal. Underlying this is a sense of ‘we’, a sense which is uniquely human.

 If our closest primate relatives, then, do not cooperate to anything like the extent that humans do, the question arises as to how and why this cooperativeness arose. Answers here must be less definitive, but Tomasello sees cooperative foraging for food as playing an essential role in making us, in his terminology, ‘obligate collaborators’.

 So in answer to claims that it is ‘human nature’ to be competitive, just say that no, we are by nature cooperative beings.


Dawkins criticised

The Selfish Genius.  How Richard Dawkins Rewrote Darwin’s Legacy.
By Fern Elsdon-Baker. Icon Books. £8.99.

 This is an attack on Dawkins’s claim that the views he put forward in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene are the only one and true form of Darwinism. In this notorious book Dawkins advanced the view that the unit of natural selection is not the species nor a group within a species nor the individual organism but the individual gene. It’s a theory but it wasn’t Darwin’s, if only because Darwin had never heard of genes. So, Elsdon-Baker argues, it is perfectly possible to be a “Darwinist” without accepting the “selfish gene” thesis.

 Darwin’s contribution was to collect a mass of evidence to show that the various different species of life came about through a process of natural selection (akin to the artificial selection of animal breeders, pigeon-fanciers and flower growers, but unplanned and over a much much longer period, as environmental factors changed). Darwin was scrupulously honest and admitted that he did not know what caused the variations between individuals that the process of natural (and artificial) selection worked on. He suspected that it might have something to do with unknown “particles” governing the inheritance of an organism’s features. Later, after his death, such particles were identified (even though they didn’t have all the features Darwin had speculated they might have) and called “genes”.

 Elsdon-Baker outlines developments within biology since the publication of Dawkins’s book which in her view undermine his view of genes as the only unit on which natural selection operates – so-called “junk DNA” may also play a role and genes can be modified by other natural factors than natural selection. But even if these developments undermine Dawkins’s position, they don’t challenge Darwin’s basic conclusion that it is through natural selection that species evolved.

 Elsdon-Baker also criticises Dawkins for linking his personal militant atheism with science, seeing this as counter-productive and unscientific. She claims that it cannot be said that it is a scientific fact that “God does not exist”, on the grounds that it cannot be proved that a non-interventionist god does not exist. Maybe but this depends on what is meant by “exist”.

 A non-interventionist god, precisely because it did not intervene in the world of observable phenomena, could not be detected and so to all intents and purposes does not exist in any meaningful sense of the word. As to an interventionist god, as the mathematician and astronomer Laplace is supposed to have said to Napoleon, science does not need that hypothesis to explain the world of phenomena. Having said this, whether militant atheism (as opposed to practical, matter-of-fact materialism) is useful has been debated amongst socialists as well as scientists.