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Richard Seymour: Venezuela in the 21st century
With the announcement of Hugo Chavez’s reelection as president by 55% of the Venezuelan electorate, spontaneous crowds across the country gathered to celebrate the victory. More photos at http://venezuelanalysis.com/image.
By Richard Seymour
October 8, 2012 -- Lenin's Tomb, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with Richard Seymour's permission -- Chavez lives. He has survived cancer, thus far, and will most likely survive the presidential election with a comfortable majority (update: yep). And what if he did not? Would not Venezuela still have a popular mass socialist party, a thriving democracy, an expanding union movement, a politically emasculated ruling class, a greatly enhanced welfare state which incorporates elements of grassroots participation, and probably one of the few societies in the world today where it's almost impossible to impose a vicious austerity project? Jealous much?
Complacent. A defeat for Chavez would be a serious political defeat for the popular movements. It would hand the initiative to the bourgeoisie and their right-wing allies. The media climate would be horrific. The assault the right-wing forces would mount would be brutal. Every advance on their part has been accompanied by violence, and the revenge against the left would be vicious. Right-wing regional governments have already been implicated in the killings of trade unionists. The confidence they would gain would allow them to start tearing up the welfare state, the missions, the literacy and health programmes. So, it matters if Chavez's rival is within an inch of taking power, as some of our media allege, or if the popular base will turn out once more for the Bolivarian Revolution. But it's still not clear what the ultimate stakes are. Is this a process of socialist transformation, anti-imperialist realignment, social democratic reform, or what?
I think we on the international left have struggled to really comprehend what is going on in Venezuela. It's not a question of us being particularly dim, or not me anyway (you can look after yourselves): it just defies all our expectations. Who would have thought that a politician elected on a "Third Way" ticket with a degree of ruling class support would turn into the mortal enemy of US imperialism and the Venezuelan ruling class? Who could have anticipated that an agenda of constitutional change, none of it terribly radical on the surface, would become a kind of political manifesto, a programme of action in the hands of mobilised masses aiming to make good its promise of equality, participatory democracy and human rights, to realise them in the fullest sense? Who would have expected that the ruling class would be so brittle that they would lash out in an ill-judged coup, thus losing a tremendously important political battle, causing a crisis in the state and proving to the Chavez government that had to be a 'class struggle' government to a degree, mobilising its popular support against the elite? Now, importantly, who would have thought the radical left government would still be in power, still going strong, still not hitting a brick wall in terms of delivering reforms?
We have heard every possible explanation. On the one hand, we used to hear that Chavez is just some populist caudillo, or a left-Bonapartist taking advantage of the stalemate between classes. Some stalemate which is characterised by an upward surge of popular organisation, and continual victories for the left. Some Bonapartism where the initiative of the popular classes is so important. Perhaps we've heard the end of that argument, on the left at any rate. It has also been suggested that Chavez is at best a well-meaning social democrat, radicalised by popular mobilisation and his bruising conflict with the ruling class, yet essentially creating a reformed capitalist state. This seems plausible, but it always runs into this problem: if the people are mobilised for a real social revolution, a challenge to capitalism, a move to socialism in the 21st century that Chavez pledges but has no strategy for delivering, why has their faith in Chavez barely ebbed? Why no crisis of expectatons? Why has the Bolivarian Revolution not differentiated in a serious way? Is it plausible that millions of active Venezuelan socialists are simply deceived?
On the other hand, the idea that there is literally a transtion to socialism underway, taking place through a democratic rupture in the state itself combined with mass extra-parliamentary mobilisation and popular assemblies, is very popular in some European left parties. But the trends in Venezuela don't seem to support such a view. Setting aside some of Chavez's disappointing foreign policy stances, which seem to go beyond radical realpolitik, the fact is that for all the advances made by oppressed groups and by workers, the position of the popular classes and particularly the working class is still fundamentally subordinate and doesn't look like changing soon.
One can resort to formulations such as that of Marta Harnecker, that the pace of change matters less than the general direction in which the government is proceeding. But this is of limited use, especially if the direction, the endpoint, is gauged from the broad and sometimes ambiguous statements of the president. The pace of change is all too often indicative of the ambiguities and antagonisms inherent in the project.
Take, for example, the moves toward implementing some types of workers' power, which are serious and not to be dismissed. Experiments in democratising nationalised industries with elements of workers' control haven't always been too successful. Part of the reason for this is that the PSUV bureaucracy, at a certain level, distrusts working class self-organisation. Though its dominant forces have an agenda of democratisation, this keeps bumping against certain reflexes. Of course, there is a rational basis for the bureaucracy's worries, given that their perspective is governed by the need to keep a state-centred strategy for growth, redistribution and democratisation. The constant fear is that workers from the opposition will take control and use the opportunity to wreck strategically important industries. There are also real antagonisms between the PSUV wing of the state and the unions, particularly where industrial action is seen to threaten the government's wider strategy for growth.
Finally, there's a dilemma for workers taking control of the means of production in this way. They have to continue to produce with a certain respect for capitalist imperatives, maximising revenues, otherwise the experiment is deemed a failure. Sometimes, forms of workers' control succeed, and revenues are expanded, and this fits well with the PSUV's overall strategy. But to do so, they have to be good at exploiting labour power, even if it is their own labour power. The successes, failures and antagonisms all seem to be structured around the ambiguity of a radical government trying to govern in the interests of the popular classes, trying to experiment with new forms of socialisation and participatory democracy, while running what is still a capitalist state predicated on capitalist production relations.
The pace of change is indicative of limitations in other ways too. The government has found it very difficult to tackle corruption in the state, and even in its own ruling party, and can barely acknowledge the associated problems of patronage and clientelism. It hasn't been abled to stop the repressive apparatuses from hurting leftist and industrial organisation, or prevent regional governments from murdering shop stewards. It hasn't been able to substantially alter the position of the working class vis-a-vis private sector employers, at least inasmuch as precarious, temporary and short-term unemployment is still de rigeur. Despite the ruling class's hatred for Chavez, they continue to get rich.
Even so, the very fact that the PSUV government has any strategy at all for seriously empowering the masses, for waging any kind of battle in government against the ruling class -- even with all of its limits -- is surely unique. Chavez's speeches, the PSUV's organising drives, its real roots in the Venezuelan popular classes, especially in the working class heartlands, have all encouraged a degree of radicalisation, popular organisation and even a current favouring socialism based on workers' control. Indeed, this agenda is gaining growing support across the continent. And even the development of the welfare state, necessarily coming from above in terms of the initiative, has produced real democratising effects. For example, the use of referenda, Community Councils (consejos comunales), Local Planning Councils, and so on, to devolve power represents a material reorganisation of aspects of the state, which defy simple categorisation. There is a growing popular participation which can't be reduced to co-optation.
There are real problems in these organisations. Some of them are spatial, inasmuch as they are supposed to cover populations that they can't feasibly cover; some are financial, inasmuch as funding is not allocated relative to population but to district or area, meaning that richer, lower population areas get the same funding as bustling 2 million strong districts in downtown Caracas; decisively, some of the limits are to do with political authority, since the planning and community councils are ultimately subordinate to mayors and local governments, meaning in effect that the bourgeoisie remains politically dominant. Ultimately, despite the chronic crisis in the state and the political paralysis of the bourgeoisie, there has been no real rupture with the capitalist state form. Still, if one really is interested in 21st century socialism, some of these organisations have to be considered as part of a potential infrastructure for that new society. And that is a unique, inimitable circumstance. It's hard to imagine any other state where the government could perform such a role, where capitalist state power could be used as a lever to enable socialist working-class organisation.
Jealous much? Well, you should be. But don't imagine you can copy the Venezuelan experience where you live. It's strictly a one-off.
[Richard Seymour blogs at Lenin's Tomb. He is a prominent member of the British Socialist Workers Party.]