By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
October 03, 2019
In the early 1970s when Marxist economics was all the rage, several Caribbean graduate students attended to the classes of Jaroslav Vanek, an economist and professor at Cornell University. He was known worldwide for his research on labor-managed economies or what he called “participatory economies.” Yugoslavia’s President Tito (1843-1980) was in power and was following this approach to social and economic development.
Professor Vanek wrote a lot on the subject (The General Theory of Labor-Managed Market Economies and The Participatory Economy). His use of the term “participatory economies” referred to a form of organized management based on self-directed work on the part of workers. With the decolonization movement on the rise there was an urgent need to transfer control of the means of production from capital to labor.
In his introduction to The Participatory Economy, Vanek wrote persuasively: “The quest of men to participate in the determination and decision-making of the activities in which they are personally and directly involved is one of the most important sociopolitical phenomena of our times.” This observation rang true.
I became a fan of Vanek. In 1984 I wrote: “The first condition of a socialist self-managed democracy is the workers’ control of the economy.… Such a revolutionary transformation in the economic relations of the society can only lead to the deeper democratization and humanization of the society. In such a society, the working people manage the means of production themselves, decide on all matters that relate to their working conditions, and exercise control over the fruits of their labor” (A Just and Moral Society).
The essence of my argument remains true. I still believe that if we place more control of our economy into the hands of workers it is likely to transform the labor situation in the island. The workers may feel more empowered if they have a greater stake in the organization and control of production. They are likely to work more efficiently. If they fail at their tasks, they cannot blame anyone but themselves.
I also noted that self-management obliges workers “to be responsible for using these social resources in a socially and economically suitable manner, to renew and expand these resources continually, and to fulfill their economic responsibility in a conscious and constructive manner. Self-management… instills in the working people a greater sense of social obligation” (A Just and Moral Society).
This is why the Express editorial (September 22) was so much on target when it argued, “If the bid by Patriotic Energies and Technologies Co. Ltd progresses to the point of being signed and sealed, it offers the very real potential of transforming the trade union sector and, ultimately, the base of the national economy.”
Many people see the selection of Patriotic’s bid “as a calculated political move” but thoughtful social scientists do not see an impermeable barrier between politics and economics. Each interacts with and influences the other. “Economics,” as I argued in A Just and Moral Society, “is nothing but the concentrated expression of politics,” which is why we cannot have one (economics) without the other (politics).
Dr. Eric Williams had this bold approach to economic development in mind when he said in his “Chaguaramas Declaration” that the ideology of his “New Society” would be guided “neither by liberal capitalism nor by Marxism, at least in their pure forms.” I called this approach “the middle way,” somewhat analogous to a participatory economy (see Movement of the People.)
In entering into this arrangement with Patriotic Energies and Teachnology a PNM government has gone full circle without even realizing it, such is their misunderstanding of their own history. This bold bid—that of giving a union the responsibility of running what hitherto was one of our biggest economic assets—has the possibility of strengthening and deepening our democracy in ways that we cannot yet imagine.
The movement towards a participatory form of economic development was not a conscious decision on the part of the government. This proposed change in our economic arrangement—that is, the active participation and control of workers in their labor—may well lead to an improvement in our political culture. Brian Harry, one of our perspicacious thinkers, believes that “this move will be great for the social and economic re-engineering of Trinidad and Tobago.”
PNM established the Point Lisas project, which turned the economic fortunes of the country around. That was a conscious decision undertaken by a government meant on transforming the economy. The decision to place the oilfield refinery into the hands of the workers accidentally but it may achieve a similar end. It might be a magnificent breakthrough.
The significance of placing this industry in the hands of the workers may have not yet sunk into the consciousness of the average Tribagonian. However, it continues an economic trajectory that was started by a PNM government, which was always looking for the best way in which to empower the citizens of a newly independent society. Carried out properly, it has the possibility of transcending the race dichotomy in one felt swoop.
The government may not have envisioned this progressive and optimistic outcome, but if this gamble succeeds it has the possibility of moving the country to a higher level of economic and political sublation as Hegelian thinkers say. This is what philosophers mean when they speak of the law of unintended consequences: outcomes that are not always seen or anticipated when one undertakes an action.
We may not appreciate it now but if Patriotic Energies and Technologies succeeds in its endeavors all of us will benefit and that can only be a good thing for our country.