Sunday, January 4, 2009

Optimism and Responses to Economic Crises in the New Year

The vast majority of Venezuelans are supportive of President Chávez’s administration and are optimistic about the Bolivarian project of 21st century Socialism, according to 2 polls published today. According to Grupo de Investigación Social XXI (GIS) and the Instituto de Análisis de Datos (IVAD), 74.9% and 64.9% of Venezuelans approve of the Chávez government, respectively. The GIS survey also reports that 47.4% of Venezuelans are ‘optimistic’ regarding the economic future of the country this coming year – in stark contrast to similar polls that have recently reported rather gloomy outlooks in the centers of global capitalism.

These numbers bode well for Chávez, who has signaled that he would like the plebiscite for a constitutional amendment to allow for perpetual reelection of the presidency to take place on the upcoming 27th of February (the 20th anniversary of the Caracazo). If these numbers maintain, as we should expect, Chávez will win his bid to initiate the ‘fourth stage’ of the Bolivarian Revolution in the presidential elections of 2012. (The first stage, according to Chávez’s chronology, began with the popular rebellion against neoliberalism and the death knell of the puntofijo system in the Caracazo of 1989. The second stage was initiated with his election in 1998 and included the first steps toward ‘Socialism for the 21st century.’ The third, which started last year and continues to this day Chávez considers to be a stage of deepening and institutionalizing revolutionary hegemony. The fourth stage, envisioned to begin in the next ten years, is to be the final transition to a distinctive Bolivarian Socialism in Venezuela).

Until the regional elections in late November of last year (which saw a record turnout of 65.5%) one could see three related aspects – positive and negative – of Chávez’s overwhelming popularity. First, the popularity of Chávez reflects a more general symptom of contemporary democracy. Disproportionate attention and weight is placed on the chief executive, in an often times auto-reproducing dynamic that year after year increases the imaginary and actual power of the president. Area studies specialists have for a long time argued that the resulting ‘presidentialism’ is an endemic trait of Latin American politics (though they are often less apt to recognize the same dynamic in the post-FDR United States). While it must be noted that Chávez has perhaps been more willing to use this centralizing trend to democratize the Venezuelan state than any of his predecessors, the strength of the executive has nonetheless been cause for concern among left and right commentators.

Secondly, Chávez’s continued popularity underlines the perceived direct link between himself and the people. While political scientists have been quick to locate in this relation a recurrence of ‘populism’ of the Peronist or caudillo variety, their analysis misses the racial and economic components of Venezuelan politics. Whereas Peron and other examples of ‘classical populists’ were almost exclusively of the dominant racial group and spoke the language of national unity (de la Hoya in Peru being perhaps the most striking example here), Bolivarian discourse is one of a politics of antagonism and partisanship. While Chávez is indeed (perhaps before all else) a nationalist, the Bolivarian government is perhaps the only one in the world that orients itself toward the betterment of the poor and the interests of those marginalized by contemporary global capitalism. (not to mention the fact that the Chavista government of the past 10 years has delivered – increasing the quality of life, the purchasing power, and the access to social goods and services for Venezuelans on a scale never before seen).

Thirdly, and perhaps most disconcertingly, is the identification of Chávez with the revolutionary project itself – that only he can carry forward the transformation of Venezuelan society. The reasons for this are of course many, not the least of which is that many ‘Bolivarian’ politicians have ambiguous revolutionary credentials at best. The most significant problem with this identification has less to do with the norms of representative democracy than with practical concerns. If the Bolivarian movement cannot get beyond the centrality of Chávez, it will not be able to permanently transform Venezuela.

The hope – or my hope, in any event – is that the formation of parallel institutions and the deepening of popular power will be able to preclude this practical concern. The deepening of the role of the communal councils, the formation of the PSUV, and the continued work of the missions are gestures toward a fluid institutionality, a form of political power capable of adapting and escaping the inevitable entropy of the state and its subsidiary social formations. In this case, the hand wringing of allies and enemies of the Bolivarian Revolution vis-à-vis the centrality of Chávez would amount to a series of ill-formed questions.

Different numbers
On numerous recent occasions, Chávez and his ministers have argued that the global economic crisis triggered by the collapse of the US housing market will affect Venezuela less than it will other countries. Today communications minister Jesse Chacón declared “the global economic crisis will affect us less than other countries and we have sufficient savings to go on unaffected even if the price of a barrel of oil falls to $0.00.”

In another reaction to global market turmoil, members of ALBA (The Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas – Venezuela, Bolivia, Honduras, Nicaragua and Cuba) will be meeting this week in Caracas to discuss the formation of a new, regional, currency and a new monetary standard and system intended to replace the continued dominance of the US dollar in financial matters. While simply changing currencies cannot hope to dislodge the United States’ central and commanding position in Latin America (paraphrasing Eduardo Galleano: “When the United States sneezes, Latin America as a whole catches pneumonia”), such a gesture would be a powerful symbolic blow to the Washington Consensus.

However, there remains much work to be done. One the whole, I find talk of the ‘pink tide’ of ostensibly left-wing governments in Latin America to be overexcited. There is simply too much variation among the governments in question to make any solid links (though it must be admitted that there is more in common between Venezuela and, say, Brazil than between Bolivia and Mexico or Colombia in terms of economic and social policy). What is more, ALBA has yet to truly emerge as more than a symbolic force, with even Ecuador refusing to join. The alliance’s vision and program will continue to gain popularity throughout Latin America and the rest of the world during this most recent crisis in global capitalism. However, if it hopes to combat the inevitably approaching ‘green Keynesianism’ of capital’s response, it will not only have to expand but also offer a concrete and antagonistic analysis of precisely the sorts of reformism making up the majority of ‘pink tide’ economies – a seemingly impossible and unlikely task.

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