Friday, May 18, 2007

On the Five Motors of Bolivarian Socialism

The Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, in its most recent and most radical phase, is developing along 5 thematic axes. They manifest in theory and practice quite visibly in Caracas in propaganda, communal council elections, the formation of the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, the various Misiones, and in the countless debates and discussions – both organized and impromptu – taking place throughout the city.


First Motor: The Enabling Law
Chavez ran and was re-elected by a decisive margin in 2006 with the promise of doing what needed to be done to create a new form of socio-political organization in Venezuela, what is being called ‘21st Century Socialism.’ The enabling law, which critics to the north consider to be a mandate for despotism and rule by decree, allows Chavez to bypass the legislature to enact laws and prioritize government projects.

(Funny…the state department didn’t mind when Chavez’ neoliberal predecessors in Venezuela and throughout the world used these very same constitutional powers in the service of ‘fiscal responsibility.’ Fiscal responsibility, of course, is a euphemism for structural adjustment, or the economic and political reorganization of a country in the maximum interests of [most often transnational] business. This is the stuff of privatization of state industries, tariff removal, new commodity frontiers [the most notorious example of late being the commodification of water], and the slashing of social spending in education, healthcare, and infrastructure…).

The enabling laws are supposed to last for a year, and some of the highlights of what Chávez has already enacted have been laws regarding the re-nationalization of key industries (for example, the May 1st re-nationalization of the oil fields around the Orinco river, the telecom company CANTV [privatized in 1991, the lion’s share of which was held by Verizon], electricity providers…he’s basically attempting to undo all that was done at the behest of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund by his predecessors. These gestures have been given more weight given Venezuela’s exit from both international organizations in April this year [after, it is worth noting, paying back its debt]. This his been long in the making, and the IMF’s offices in Caracas had been closed for a year before Venezuela’s official exit).

The most interesting thing about this first motor, however, is that it doesn’t seem to be all in all necessary. Venezuela, since the new constitution of 1999, has a unicameral legislature. At a late stage in the 2006 election, when it became obvious that a Chavista sweep was all but inevitable, many opposition parties called for a boycott of the elections and pulled their candidates. The result, along with the widespread popular support of the floatilla of parties then associated with the Chavista project, has been an all-but purely Chavista legislature. In other words, there seems little doubt that Chavez could have passed legislatively all that he has done by decree since he received the mandate of the enabling law.

So, why is it necessary?

I can offer only two tentative hypotheses. The first has to do with the particular historical moment. That is to say, Venezuela is ready for socialism. The country has endured capitalism at its most cutthroat and socially polarizing glory – obscene wealth abutting abject poverty, transnational supermodels in one zone, no running water and 40 shooting-death weekends in another. The result is a society ready to tear itself apart, with the Opposition hoping a cataclysm would allow for the managed chaos of the fourth republic to return (with the various factions of the opposition taking different positions. The oligarchy has had and continues to have enough private security and international contacts to weather most storms. The middle classes long for the days with the police and military maintained the border between the barrios and the center, keeping the poor out of their metropolis). The more most radical Chavista sectors hope to blast through the current antagonisms and into new models of human cohabitation based on socialist ideals. In other words, socialism now.

This alludes to my second hypothesis, that the first motor is necessitated by a widespread public distrust of and distaste for the political class. In general, politicians here are seen as corrupt bourgeois careerist opportunists, more interested in a post and the opportunity to bilk the public coffers than work toward the public good. (This is, by the by, a perception applied to opposition and Chavista legislators alike, and why the current spate of referenda are being applied to ineffective legislators of all stripes). The ley habilitante is in this manner a way of sidestepping politicians, their gridlock, and their greed. This popular disdain for politicians and the ‘old way’ of doing politics is most explicitly manifested in the final motor of the revolution, Popular power, but it plays an important informing role in all aspects of its unfolding.

Second Motor: Constitutional Reform
The gist of this motor is basically to make up for what holes remain in the Bolivarian Constitution of 1999 in the pursuit of 21st century socialism, and requires the convocation of another constituent assembly. An example: while maintaining private property rights, projected reforms would introduce communal and social property regimes into the law of the land and protect them with just as much protection (and, hopefully MORE than) that exists for private property. Another thing, which I am rather interested in is the introduction and refinement of directly democratic measures relating to the Communal Councils and the fifth motor, the explosion of popular power. This is also ostensibly why Chávez has been pushing so hard to organize the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) as a mass front, incorporating the traditional left as it goes forward. The logic, in other words, is that without a united, popular front, the reform of the constitution will be coopted by more conservative sectors of Chavismo. A united front via the PSUV in this regard forms a socio-political bloc to be reckoned with, that can push the revolution forward and realize its most radical potentials rather than being forced into lukewarm reforms and impotent half-measures.

Another constitutional reform he’s mentioned is jettisoning the two-term limit for presidents. For Chavistas, this is cause for celebration. The opposition, on the other hand, is looking for houses in Miami (the result of which, as per my experience and according to the daily Úlitimas Noticias has been a 90% drop in apartment or room rentals. More folks are looking to sell their places outright and move north to join the gusanos and their patrons in the Empire).

Third Motor: ‘Morals and Enlightenment’ – Popular Education
This motor has to do with education, and with the need that in order to build socialism, one must first instill socialist values amongst the populace through a wide-ranging reappraisal of the education system. In Chavez’s words: “Education isn’t only about the study of some particular material or finished by the sixth grade, no, it is much more than that, it is about values, culture, solidarity. It is an ethical revolution, which is why I take the important sentence of Bolívar in Angostura: ‘Morals and Enlightenment are the poles of a republic.’”

The anecdotal funny bit about this has to do with Chávez’ mannerisms while delivering his near countless public addresses. This is a man who to speak. And who loves maps. Even better, he loves to speak and use maps. He never misses an opportunity to interrupt a speech occasioned by the visit of a foreign notable or head of state (thus far I’ve seen it with the Presidents of Laos and Gambia and the Nobel Lauret Mohammed Yunnus – but more on him later) to ask the audience “do you know where (insert country of origin of the notable here) is? You should, we need to know the world, to be familiar with it.” He then pulls out a map and draws all over it, circles, arrows, estimated distances…today, while speaking with Yunnus, he drew an approximation of the global tropical zone, arguing that the people of Venezuela and Bangladesh can build on their common love of mangoes and build a more just, multipolar and south-south world. The point is not so much the third world alliance rhetoric here, but rather the moments where Chávez steps out of his orator persona and steps into a more didactic one, playing the teacher to his television audience. The moral delivered: everything is an opportunity to build knowledge, and knowledge properly deployed is one of the most important and effective tools the population has in its battle against imperialism.

Of course, the rather vague ideas animating the ‘Morals y Luces’ will extend beyond geography lessons. They already have – in Cuban style literacy campaigns, the establishment of government schools in the poorest barrios, popular education around the 1999 constitution, and more. The point Chávez is trying to emphasize, however, is that there needs to be more that just more education, there needs to be a different kind of education, different things taught. Otherwise ‘21st century socialism’ will look a lot like 20th century capitalism.

Fourth Motor: The New Geometry of Power
After the failed 1992 Coup, and after he was released from prison, Chavez and Company engaged in a protracted analysis and charting project diagnosing the cartography of economic, political, and cultural power in Venezuela. The construction of 21st century socialism, they have concluded, requires the reconfiguration, in spatio-cultural terms, who has access to the exercise of power in Venezuela. The ‘new geometry’ seeks to make ‘power’ a popular concept, without the mediation of absentee representatives or the elitism and exclusiveness of the oligarchs who have hoarded the benefits of this resource-rich nation since the colonial era.

This strikes me, for reasons which will soon be apparent, as distinctly more than fetishization of ‘decentralization’ and ‘civil society’ which were de rigeur in many academic and activist circles in the 1990s. That is to say, whereas the aforementioned projects, associated with regionalism and the NGO boom, often if unwittingly served the interests of global neoliberal economic interests, this new geometry has more to do with direct and meaningful participation in the processes that determine the course of the life of the nation.

Fifth Motor: The Explosion of Communal Power
This is the most important of the motors. Without it, everything else is just window dressing. The idea of communal power, as it is developing here, has to do with the direct participation of communities in the political life of the nation. Communities at present are being organized on a small scale (in roughly 200 person blocs) for the task of self-government. In Chavez’s own plans, the development of communal councils seeks to make the central government unnecessary, replacing it with an adaptive/responsive ‘protagonistic democracy’ where citizenship and action are synonymous and the mediating function of the bureaucracy is minimized to all but infrastructural ends. In Chávez’s own words, this explosion’s task is to “dismantle the bourgeois state” because all states “were born to prevent revolutions.” [by the by, I lifted that quote from a Greg Wilpert article on, a most definitely worthwhile info source on current events here]

So can they do it? What will happen when/if Communal power ‘explodes’? Can the ‘masses’ be trusted? Is all this just bread and circuses?

It seems to me that it has been exploding, in stages to be sure, but announcing its presence to the world and Venezuelan society and the world in unequivocal terms nonetheless. The most obvious example would be the counter-coup of April 2002, when the oil and media oligarchies attempted to reinstall the 4th republic order and were stopped by a massive, popular mobilization demanding Chavez’s return. What is most important about this, however, is not the mandate it exhibited for Chavez and the revolutionary path (indeed, there was a shift in favor of conservative factions within the Chavez bloc after the coup). Rather, this was a moment, if you’ll pardon the Deleuzian nomenclature, of a molar intervention. That is to say, the countercoup of April 2002 was a surfacing of the social networks which have been forming and evolving since (at least) the Caracazo of 1989. It was not and should not be depicted as a purely spontaneous reaction to the coup. To claim such would be to project a profound naïvete about Venezuelan political reality. The countercoup was a mobilization of unprecedented scale in defense of the Bolivarian revolution.

So can they do this thing?

I dare you to tell them they can’t.

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