Thursday, February 11, 2010



Democracy according to Aristotle and the Revolutionary Workers in Venezuela.

A society is called a State when it has a collective aim, and according to Aristotle it aims at the highest good, this good is of the State itself and not of each citizen’s as individual.

Naturally, thought Aristotle, this State shall have rulers and subjects and is to be governed in a way ‘where everyman can act best and live happily’. This happiness is bond to wisdom and not to material possessions, but to be wise one has to have leisure time and not be engaged in everyday life survival, therefore wise man must be provided with property. Here comes a vicious circle, those who are wise must be entrusted with property, those with property and free time will certainly be wiser. So property is again a condition to rule and in the end of the day Aristotle polity is an oligarchy.

Nowhere in his treatise Aristotle considers a State without rich and poor; even though he affirms that the best States are those where the middle class is the larger class; as a matter of fact it could be accepted – there have been always rich and poor, but is troubling when it is never questioned why are always the same getting the best gifts from Fortune, for it seems that there is not much class interchange in his treatise.

Education is paramount to Aristotle’s constitution, and it is a matter of the State; this reveals which instrument is used to maintain each player in its own position, for education is the same among equals but some are equals as possible rulers and others equal as permanent subjects. Aristotle will use a similar argument to Plato’s to differentiate natural rulers and natural subjects making an analogy with the anatomy of the soul where one part – rational – naturally rules and the other – irrational – is ruled. Again why some are soul and others body is difficult to accept as natural.

Now, let the citizens rule! But what is a citizen? A citizen is not an individual who lives in a certain State, he is the one who takes part of the government of the State; and the constitution will be different if this government is in the hand of one, or of few, or of many; and of course governing to the common interest otherwise they are perversions. The best constitutions are then, according to Aristotle, kingship, aristocracy and polity or simply constitution, which is a ‘fusion between oligarchy and democracy, inclining towards democracy in an attempt to unite the freedom of the poor and the wealth of the rich.’

In practice there are only two types of government: oligarchies and democracies, both perversions, or imperfect constitutions. A form of government is a democracy when the free, who are also poor and the majority govern, and an oligarchy when the rich, being few, rule. Focusing only on Aristotle notion of democracy, we find that it arises out of a revolution based on ‘the notion that those who are equal in any respect are equal in all respects; because men are equally free, they claim to be absolutely equal.’ With which he disagrees, because men are rarely absolutely equal, the simple fact of being young or old, he would argue, differentiate men. And because a democracy governs towards the interests of the majority and not of the common is, therefore, a perversion.

Nonetheless the main characteristics of democracy, for Aristotle, are: ‘the election of officers by all out of all; and that all should rule over each, and each in his turn over all’; the appointment to every office is made by lot; the possession of property should not be required for offices; no one should hold an office twice, and this tenure should be brief; all men should judge, in all matters, or in the most important; the assembly should be supreme over all causes, or the most important. This highest type of democracy is based strictly on equality, rich and poor have the same right to hold office and the multitude has supreme power. But because it is the highest it is also the worst type.

As a counterbalance I propose a look at 5 Factories, the 2006 documentary by Dario Azzellini and Oliver Ressler about five self-managed factories in Venezuela, which seems to show that a democratic rule is possible. After the Bolivarian Revolution (term coined by the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to refer to the social movement, or twenty first century socialism in South-America) many workers in Venezuela took charge of factories that they had worked on and had been closed down by their former administrators as ruined and led them to full operational plants. Organized in cooperatives, the five examples given in this documentary portray a different way of managing a company, a social administration way. Taking the example of the presented CAIGUA tomato sauce factory, which won a government subsidy - already during Chavez legislation – to invest in modern equipment and enlarge the range of products, but which subsidy was diverted for personal expenses, I will demonstrate how a democratic management is done. The workers, realizing, that the factory was working only at 10% of its maximum capability, due to lack of raw material but specially due to ill administration, saw in the misuse of the government’s subsidy and the lack of payment the excuse they were looking for to take the management of the plant in their hands. Occupying the factory day and night over three months, they prevented the former administration to enter the facilities. Encouraged by Chavez government they constituted a cooperative, that gives shape to their social struggles. Part of this different way of managing a company, which is directed towards the benefits of the whole community and not only of the company itself, CAIGUA helped the local producers with machinery in order to augment the producing of their raw material, tomatoes. The company is managed by a temporary board of directors, selected from the body of workers, which works closely with the assembly all, 58, workers. All the projects and decisions pass by this assembly where all the opinions count. It seems only possible because there is such a small body of workers, critics of democracy would argue; but in another example presented in this documentary, an aluminium plant, the same management is being done with 3200 workers. Part of the success of these co-managed companies is due to the fact that all workers are informed of all the procedures necessary for the company’s production and management; that all workers are involved in all decisions and also because part of this type of cooperative administration involves a social-political engagement and education. At CAIGUA all workers earn the same salary, being administrators, technicians, or operators; and the surplus is distributed between the community by supporting education centres, medical care or opening their canteen tho the most needed. The aim of a democratic state, Aristotle would say, is liberty. Listening to these workers one can understand this idea of liberty, of not being constrained to express one’s opinion and ideas regarding the management of the common, but they are also aware that it does not mean simply licence - as described by many democratic critics.

The danger for Aristotle is that in democracy ‘the people becomes a monarch’, which grows into despotism. The best democracy, for him, would then be that which is subject to the law. The multitude is not call to decide upon every matter, specially the most important, for those would be in the hands of the magistrates; and the best citizens are in charge, so the more qualified represent the uninformed.

Yet, we realize in this documentary that when a worker feels that his opinion counts; that the company also belongs to him and that the result of his labour will benefit not the company and its few owners but himself and his community; he will be engaged in aiming at that Aristotelian highestgood, which is not the good only of himself but of the community, and ultimately he is HAPPY.

Aristotle, 1921, The Works of Aristotle, Oxford, Clarendon Press
Azzellini, D. and Ressler, O. 2006. 5 Factories. [DVD].


(An Ideal Society Creates Itself: Venezuela and the Bolivarian Process) Oliver Ressler

see also the text "Can the Bolivarian Process Achieve Socialism? 5 Worker-controlled Factories in Venezuela" by Sharat G. Lin

1 comment:

groove68 said...

Watch "Venezuela from Below" and other films by Oliver Ressler as video on demand streams

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