Just getting done with the Historical Materialism conference in London, and then I'm off to Caracas (tomorrow morning...)
A few folks asked me to post the paper I gave, so...
Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution and the Post (neo)Liberal State
Prepared for Historical Materialism
7-9 November, 2008
There is an increasing though rather unfinished literature in social science and area studies circles on so called ‘post-liberal regimes.’ Writing in this vein runs the gamut from the pejorative – as with Larry Diamond’s (Diamond, 2002) notion of ‘pseudo-democratic,’ ‘electoral authoritarian’ or otherwise hybrid regimes that fail to live up to the criteria of good governance established in the United States and most of Europe – to the speculative and hopeful – in the analytical position outlined by Benjamin Arditi (Arditi, 2003). Both perspectives note the ways in which the positions and institutions of modern liberalism – as a political praxis dominant in the west based at a minimum on a strong sense of individualism, formal-legal equality, limited government, free markets, and religious and ideological tolerance – are seemingly on the wane or losing their hegemonic position in the political imaginary.
Better, both of these poles characterize what is consistent throughout the literature on post-liberalism, though from different political positions. That is to say, the era of the ideological emphasis of freedom first with unfettered transnational capital, and only then with western style formal political equalities (to say nothing of substantive, abilities-needs fairness or justice) – has ended or as at the very least entering a major crisis. While this may or may not signal the end of ‘liberalism’ as a legitimating discourse entwined with the modern state and capital, neoliberalism has certainly sustained a substantial blow to its short and medium term credibility.
However, any triumphalism in the face of the contemporary crisis of global capitalism, its deployment of the modern state form and the obfuscatory discourses of liberalism would be well served to recall C.B. Macpherson’s (Macpherson, 1965) observation that states were states before they were liberal, liberal before they were democratic, and finally that liberalism itself was liberal before it was democratic. The collapsing of these categories which has been the steady work of the 20th century’s long project of making the world safe again for capitalism may be less possible today than in 1994, but this does not mean the critical work of highlighting the contradictions within these and emerging forms of class domination are no longer needed. Quite the contrary. Nowhere is this more pressing than in the consideration of the state form and its relation to a potentially reinvented class struggle. This is my present task.
My wager in this paper is that the Bolivarian Revolution is in the process of building a new type of state power in Venezuela. The at times inconsistent and at present precarious nature of this project is in part due to the state culture and the form of capitalism developed by the previous, Fourth, Republic. In large part, this history helps explain the centrality of the state in the pursuit of 21st century socialism. However, the extent to which this new role for the state is feasible is directly contingent upon the ability of the Bolivarians to resist the entropy and alienation of the modern state form. That is to say, the ability of the Bolivarian Revolution to create a new form of state power – one that emerges from the post-liberal moment de-linked from the requirements and domination of modern capitalism – is directly tied to its ability to move beyond the very notion of the state itself.
The revolutionary process in Venezuela has decidedly yet to take the form of a frontal assault on the most sacred institutions of liberal capitalism, but has rather of necessity been much more tentative and ad hoc than definitive; more additive than destructive. Far from exiling or attacking core liberal values like private property and individual liberty, the Venezuelan government has for at least the last 5 years attempted to augment such conventions. The chief means through which this has taken place has been through massive increases in social spending – effecting a partial democratization of consumption rather than fomenting a social revolution. While these measures are in no doubt long overdue, their revolutionary importance is decidedly lesser than the creation of parallel institutions such as the consejos comunales (neighborhood based legislative, cultural and budgetary bodies), and the misiones sociales (an armada of educational, nutritional, health, collective-entrepreneurial and cultural projects).
The original aims of the misiones and the consejos was one of building direct democracy, decentralizing political power and the construction of a more fair economy. However, with the steady radicalization of the Chávez government – spurred on by what Gregory Wilpert describes as an opposition that was preemptively reactionary (Wilpert, 2007) – these parallel institutions were increasingly seen as capable of replacing the traditional and alienating bodies of liberal democracy. This radicalizing trend, and the potential for building a revolutionary counterpower within the revolution has been put into question in the aftermath of the failed Constitutional Reform of December 2007.
Within Chavista ranks a so-called ‘endogenous right’ made up of bureaucrats and largely middle-class supporters of the government has been able to expand its position, arguing for a slower, more defensive and conservative pace to the Revolution. This moment, or so their logic goes, is one in which the government needs to make friends amongst the upper and middle classes, to make gestures toward the progressive bourgeoisie, to forge public-private partnerships and work towards the integration of the opposition into the government. These conservative elements by and large see the consejos and the misiones as supplements to the pre-existing order – something akin to welfare programs designed to catch those who have ‘fallen through the cracks’ of contemporary society (Ellner, 2008). In other words, their vision of socialism for the 21st century is rather closer to European social democracy than to communism of the Soviet or Cuban varieties.
At the same time, radical elements in the base have argued in essence that the best defense is a good offense. They rightly locate the failure of the 2007 reforma not in the opposition’s ability to convert the government’s supporters but rather in the failure of the Chavistas to mobilize their own base. More fundamentally, they point to a faltering in the parallel institutions such as misión ribas and misión barrio adentro as key reasons why Venezuelans did not turn out in the same numbers for the reforma as they did for the re-election of Chávez merely a year earlier. Their strategic position is in essence rather similar to that of the Lenin of Dual Power (as George Ciccariello-Maher has argued in the pages of the Monthly Review), that the state is necessary only insofar as it can be used to attack the enemies of the revolution but that it cannot and should not be mistaken for the substance and ultimate aim of the revolution. Rather that the state must be ultimately overtaken by the armed and organized force of the revolutionary proletariat. Even though both wings of the Bolivarian Revolution have been impeccably democratic – in Chávez’s words, “peaceful, but armed” – this bloc is much less accomodationist than the endogenous right and much more skeptical of the existing state structure. As such, they have envisioned the parallel institutions of the Bolivarian Revolution as tools to create political, social and economic powers capable of overcoming the inherently corrupt institutions of bourgeois liberal democracy (Ciccariello-Maher, 2007).
This particular task of the radicals is made all the more difficult given the nature of the Venezuelan state and its relation to the economic life of that nation. The extent of this difficulty defies a quick simplifying gloss. It entails a history spanning the long marches of Simón Bolívar’s liberating armies in the early 19th century to the bloody Caracazo uprising against the neoliberal reforms of president Carlos Andrés Peréz and the collapse of the Venezuelan political establishment in and after 1989. I will do my best to highlight a few key moments in this history in the hopes of better contextualizing my concluding remarks on the transformation of the state in the Bolivarian Revolution.
The centralization of military, economic and political power in Venezuela truly came to its maturity during the Vicente Gómez years (1909-1935), a process which was greatly expedited with the discovery and state control of access to oil starting in 1914. Having dispossessed the caudillos both militarily and politically, Vicente Gómez exercised complete control over oil concessions, removing their economic power as well. It was also in this moment that the bases of power and the shape of Venezuelan society shifted from the countryside to the cities, and the beginning of a distinctly Venezuelan model of capitalism and the modern state form.
The modern sovereign state emerged at the same time as did Venezuela’s capitalist economy – it was not a holdover from an absolutist ancien régime but rather in many ways its commencement. This economy, from the beginning, was based not on the capture of labor power, but rather on the capture of oil rents levied upon foreign petrol companies, a process which was monopolized by the state. It is thus rather difficult to locate sociologically something on the order of a distinct ‘ruling class’ that could wield state power in any sort of ‘instrumental’ fashion in that the state itself was the owner of the ‘means of production.’
Thus against traditional liberal and Marxist historiography of the modern state and capitalism which rely heavily on the emergence and consolidation of an indigenous bourgeoisie in the interstices of the absolutist state and the eventual emergence of a disciplined if oppressed working class (Koselleck, 1988; Marx, 1978), the primary indicator of social power in 20th century Venezuela was political rather than propertied in nature (Coronil, 1997; Hein, 1980). At precisely the moment in which a central state emerged which was strong enough to protect the country’s fledgling industries, Venezuela threw itself headlong into oil production just in time for the Second World War. Subsequent intensification of the petrol industry further weakened what few autonomous social and economic forces remained, strengthening the power of the central state as it brokered the contracts of the foreign-dominated extraction process. Thus something of ‘the Dutch Disease’ avant la lettre took hold in Venezuela for political as well as economic reasons. As a domestic strategy of control it endured the pacted transition to democracy in 1958, just as the consequences of uneven internal economic development persist for the population to this day.
This enduring trait of Venezuelan political economy is worth drawing out in more detail, as it is key to any attempt to think the state-form of the Bolivarian Revolution. While the transition to democracy energized and expanded its atrophied and exiled ‘civil society,’ it did little to counter what Fernando Coronil (Coronil, 1997) has described as the ‘magical’ or ‘shamanistic’ nature of the Venezuelan state. In Coronil’s estimation, this phenomenon, specific to the expanded opportunities afforded by oil wealth, was ‘magical’ in that the state literally transformed ‘nature’ (his word) into the physical and material traits of an imagined –and deeply desired – modernity. This persistent trait of Venezuelan political economy was intensified during the dictatorship years, as General Marcos Pérez Jiménez (1948/52-1958) adopted policies of intense infrastructure development – building highways, universities and housing on a scale never before seen in the country – and which arguably has lasted until the present government’s attempts to build collective and communal forms of property and industry. (Anecdotally, “Sembrar el petroleo” Arturo Úslar Pietri, Diario Ahora 1936…lack of tax collection…).
With democratization came a deepening of the Venezuelan form of the ‘Dutch disease,’ as the parties which dominated the structurally exclusionary democratic system known as the ‘puntofijo pact’ tightly controlled unions and social organizations (García-Guadilla, 2007) and the dominance of the oil sector led to consistent annual declines in domestic industrial and agricultural productivity (Karl, 1997). There was thus little space for autonomous power to be built against either the state or the ruling class by the bourgeoisie. Even less so was there much hope for economic counter-systemic organization amongst workers outside of state run industries (oil, aluminum, and steel) with the explosion of the informal sector beginning in the 1970s and continuing to the present (Orlando, 2001). The global boom in oil prices around that time contributed to a spike in urbanization without industrialization. Unable to compete with subsidized imports, the inhabitants of the Venezuelan countryside flocked to a few key cities in order to find employment in the interstices and service economies around the oil sector. By 1992 informality so dominated employment and housing in Caracas that, Aristóbolo Istúriz, then the recently elected mayor lamented that his administration had no clue how many people lived in the constantly growing city, let alone how to provide them with basic services (Harnecker, 2005). The deepening of the social crises surrounding consecutive rounds of structural adjustments in 1989 did little to improve this situation, though they did hasten the collapse of the fourth republic, by which time the Venezuelan state could be considered to have transitioned from a liberal or quasi-liberal state to a neoliberal one.
In 1871, writing on the Paris Commune, Marx warned that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes” (pg. 629) a caution that has dominated subsequent Marxist thought on the role of the state in revolutionary transformation. It is precisely this warning which inspired the Leninist concept of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and of ‘dual power,’ as well as the often (incorrectly) opposed Gramscian formulations of hegemony and War of Position. The state, they argued, was a powerful element of class warfare, either as the instrument of the ruling class (Lenin) or as a complex series of relationships capable of either crushing or neutralizing class struggle (Gramsci). In either case, the present liberal-bourgeois state would have to be done away with in the pursuit of socialism, and the party – in different ways – was precisely the body to take on this historical task.
This approach to the state was by and large eclipsed by the post-Soviet renaissance of ‘radical democracy,’ a slogan that often took the place of Socialism, Marxism or communism in the imaginaries of university leftists and the so-called ‘anticapitalist globalization movements.’ Within this line of thought, the state is often seen as a highly likely if not inevitable harbinger of Stalinist statism. The state is thus for this tendency uniquely a power-over, antithetical to the spirit of anticapitalism. More troublingly, in its abandonment, the net result of the actions of these tendencies often result in little more than appeals for a kinder, gentler, perhaps more inclusive capitalism. The principle, then, of radical democracy when delinked from the pursuit of state power (pursuit as in the Leninist or Gramscian sense of ending the liberal bourgeois model of political power) comes down to little more than a democratization of consumption or the naïve faith that the principles of liberalism and the promise of the egalitarian, democratic state are sound if ill executed. If anything, current events have eroded this position’s theoretical coherence, if not torn it completely asunder.
If the Bolivarian Revolution is to be successful, it must capitalize on the uncertainty of this post (neo)liberal moment and end this substitution of radical democracy for the communist imperative that the liberal state is a lie, and must therefore go. It is, however, a rather difficult task in that the historical identification of the Venezuelan state with capital favors a political approach in the Poulantizian sense of the state as a field ‘traversed’ by struggle (Poulantzas, 2008 pg. 367). The problem is deepened still more given the persevering political and economic consequences of the ‘Dutch Disease.’ A historically weak working class, the absence of a peasantry and the ubiquity of the informal economy all make a rallying organizational praxis along the lines of ‘all power to the soviets’ something of a ridiculous proposition. In its place – and this has been the strategy of the radical base of Chavismo against the endogenous right – the strategy must be ‘all power to the communal councils,’ locating the terrain of the struggle against state domination and capitalist exploitation in the social.
In order to avoid the theoretical and strategic circle such a series produces, there is little other choice than to rely on the state to engender and protect the antagonistic force of the poor. And in this light, despite the present uncertainty and its rather uneven progress, Venezuela should be seen as building just such a state. It has, however, been able to do so for the past 5 years almost in spite of itself, given the tragicomic ineptitude of the opposition which all but gave Chavistas not only state power, but hegemony. The upcoming elections of 23 November put this luxury in question. While an opposition rout is highly unlikely, the reemergence of opposition lawmakers would strengthen the hand of the endogenous right’s calls for moderation and a slowing of the pace of the Bolivarian Revolution. In other words, the capacity of the hard line Chavista project of ending the substitution of radical democracy and the democratization of consumption for social revolution remains suspended in the balance. Such is the uncertainty of the post (neo)liberal constellation, the situation we now face in Venezuela and throughout the world and where, I unfortunately, must conclude.
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