The Relevancy of Marxism in Modern Latin America

Although capitalism has taken root throughout the world, even in socialist and communist countries like Venezuela and China, Marxism remains today an important ideological force in Latin America more than anywhere else. This paper argues that in Latin

America, there exists a strong movement to peacefully reform the economic, political and social structure in the area, consistent with Marx’s “theory of the state”. The allure of Marxism appears, at least in part, to be a reaction to negative ramifications resulting from capitalist globalization, such as the methods of production in developing countries. The idea of Marxism is not necessarily important for political leaders in communist and socialist countries, but more so for the working classes which make possible the production of goods by multinational corporations; the very people who suffer from low wages and class struggles.

Judging by 20th Century Latin American history, Marxism has no doubt established itself as an important ideological force in revolutionary movement. Cuba (1959-1991), Chile (1970-73), Grenada (1979-83), Nicaragua (1979-90), El Salvador (1980-1991) , and Venezuela (1992-Present) are all cases in which revolutionary change occurred with Marxist and Socialist ideals in mind. During most of those events, however, the effects of globalization were not wholly realized by the people of Latin America and the respective end results were not what Marx had in mind when writing the Communist Manifesto.

The economic and political climate is much different today than it was for most of the 20th century. Today, socialist states retain the social structure which Marx criticized: there is a class of workers and there is a class of owners. Countries like Sweden and Norway are only considered ‘socialist states’ because those countries utilize vast government-controlled welfare programs. Even though countries like Venezuela and China use almost all revenues from nationalized business to fund social programs , political and business leaders hold all of the power, which creates class struggles.

Marxist ideals are most relevant to the developing parts of Latin America because of its populist appeal. Capitalism is indubitably responsible for economic growth in Latin America , just as it has been in the industrialized nations; however, the fundamental unfairness in how the economic growth is distributed in these developing countries contributes to the frustration of working classes.

Looking at the Gini Index, a measure of income distribution, most Latin American countries rate around or well above 50 on a scale of 0-100, where 0 represents total equality . Whereas industrialized nations control capital investment, the developing nations rely on this investment for growth, and the governments in Latin America have a record of lax legislation in order to appeal to multinational corporations’ investments. Such a situation contributes to the ‘alienation’ of a worker.

Workers in Latin America produce goods which they almost never benefit from and receive compensation for that work which is worth considerably less than the good produced. Data from the Quarterly Journal of Economics in May 2006 states:

“The distribution for Brazil is displayed in Figure IIe. The rightmost part of the distribution shifts a lot more than its lower end, which reflects an increasing level of inequality. This is a phenomenon that we tend to observe in all Latin America. The reduction in poverty rates in Brazil seems to have been small, and to have occurred mostly during the 1970s. In fact, the lower end of the distribution appears to shift to the left between 1980 and 1990, which indicates an increase in poverty during the “lost decade” of the 1980s. Little progress has been made during the 1990s.”

Multinational corporations exploit the workers’ desperate situations by gaining control of their work and work lives, and the workers of Latin America have realized that their situation hasn’t gotten any better.

The situation presented is problematic for more reasons, because the conditions in which workers are placed are reminiscent of what Marx saw in Europe in the mid 19th century. Workers are subject to “that quantum of the means of subsistence which is absolutely requisite to keep the laborer in bare existence as a laborer” (Marx, Engels, 1848). Workers earn just enough to get by, impoverished, and they continue to lack the capital to build their own enterprise. The work itself is also characterized by monotony and alienation; says Marx, “He becomes an appendage of the machine, and is only the…most monotonous…that is required of him. Hence, the cost of a workman is restricted…to the means of subsistence that he requires for his maintenance.”

It is important to realize that Marx admires the successes of capitalism in broadening the horizons of material and cultural opportunity, and that his aim of revolution is not a communist or socialist state. He says in the Manifesto, “[The Bourgeoisie] must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere. The bourgeoisie has…given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country.” Marx’s objections rather are directed at class divisions, and how history is defined by class struggles; the bourgeoisie have subjugated the working classes in a terrible manner. Marx’s objective is to overthrow the bourgeois supremacy and establish the political power of the proletariat. In the case of Latin America, the goal of the working class is to overthrow multinational corporations, nationalize critical markets, and establish a society in which the government—under the will of the people—rules all and divides the economic spoils as it sees fit.

Perhaps the least radical and violent method of reformation is the implementation of a worker cooperative movement. The rise of the worker cooperative in Latin America is the most basic and important example of how and why Marxism is relevant to the people of that region. Branko Horvat, a Marxist scholar, argues that the “basic form of socialism is self-management” and outlines the basic characteristics of self-managed groups:

1. Participation in decision making is direct on all matters affecting the work unit

2. The decision making process itself and the decisions reached are transparent

3. Because of the continuous face-to-face nature of the group, the unjustified and permanent imposition of the will of the majority is unlikely

4. Because of (1) and (3), the possibilities for the manipulation of opinion are limited.

Worker Cooperatives meet all of these criteria, since they are based on common ownership of a company and democratic decision making. Since the standard of living, infrastructure, education and advanced skill sets in Latin America are much lower than in developed countries, the working classes must still rely on manufacturing and exports in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle. This means that capitalism, or the free trade of goods and services, is still the best option since it is beyond reason to think that any country could achieve self-sustainability the way Stalinist Russia tried to achieve.

The worker cooperative achieves the productive goals of the free market while still avoiding the negative implications of worker vs. owner capitalism. Trent Craddock and Sarah Kennedy, Canadian researchers of worker cooperatives, state that “since December of 2001, the government of Argentina has been very supportive of worker co-operatives and has recognized that worker co-ops are able to sustain employment and production.” The instance here is an example of workers peacefully moving to gain control of industries in which they collectively make decisions and have part ownership in their company. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO) is an organization started in the United States which promotes and helps organize worker cooperatives in the Latin American region.

Worker cooperatives also avoid the negative implications of Marx’s “alienation” and “globalization”. The workers in this case will own a part of their company and thus benefit from the sale of the relative product, rather than being paid a wage not consistent with their product’s value, in the case of private ownership. The workers democratically make decisions, which ensure that their labor is not subject to the dominant bourgeoisie and that since their method of work is decided by them, it is most likely not going to be monotonous and degrading. As explained above, “alienation” exists when all of these factors are present in a person’s work life. Worker cooperatives do not fit into the idea of “globalization” since foreign companies are not providing and controlling investment to run these companies.

There are multiple instances of Latin Americans overthrowing private interests, but almost none are consistent with Marx’s vision, insofar that every time a government has attempted a Marxist state, factors still exist which destroy the ultimate goal of Marxism, which is to empower the working class.
A more specific example provides insight into the problems of collectivization. In Cochambaba, Bolivia, the people managed to drive out a corporation which attempted to privatize the water supply . Rather than achieving a society in which everyone enjoyed access to water, the system returned to a poorly government-run system where sixty percent of households are connected to a water supply and pay as much ten times what they would have to a private company . The net effect of nationalizing the water supply is critical in considering the legitimacy of Marxism as it used and exploited in today’s social struggles. When a country nationalizes markets, it cuts itself off from the benefits of privatization, and for a society trying to sustain for the long term, for the immediate benefit of nationalization and social programs could result in that country one day finding itself without the accumulated capital it needs to grow.

In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez nationalized the oil industry—much like populist leaders in Ecuador and Bolivia—because he thought that too much of the revenue generated from the industry went to private, foreign interests . As the Tina Rosenberg states in The New York Times, “When Venezuela’s oil was in private hands, the government collected 80 cents of every dollar of oil exported. With nationalization the figure dropped, and by the early 1990s, the government was collecting roughly half that amount.” This troubling figure is due to the fact that Chavez ignores the need for more oil exploration and diverts almost all of the funds to social programs and his own secret funds and agendas.
These examples of failures in national interests don’t lie on the same premises as worker cooperatives. The executions of these industrial reformations were made by an oligarchy, and either society hardly reflects true Marxism. Yet these failures must remain an important lesson to worker cooperatives, and how growth and expansion is necessary to sustain a company.

There are factors working against the Marxist movements in Latin America as well. In Nicaragua, during the revolutionary movement against the Somoza regime, the hierarchy in the Catholic Church acted in the counterrevolutionary interests and supported the bourgeois cause . Catholicism is an important cultural aspect in almost all of Latin Americans’ lives, and it is likely that business and authoritative interests will work against common ownership and democratic thought. This does not, however, discount the legitimacy or importance of a Marxist movement.

The situation of the majority of the Latin American working class currently fits into the extreme of what Marx criticized in his writings: alienation of the worker from his or her product; that worker’s life being dominated by monotonous and dismal work; and also the forcing of the worker into a vicious cycle of subsistence and survival. This picture is also characterized by foreign investment controlling these unwanted factors. It is important to realize that because of these factors, Marxism will play a role in peaceful worker movements, consistent with his “theory of the state”, in order to gain common ownership and decision making rights in a broad range of industries in Latin America.

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