Venezuela: Michael Lebowitz on what we can expect from Chavez's fourth term

Michael Lebowitz in Zagreb. Photo by Jovica Drobnjak.

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November 1, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal – The following interview with Michael Lebowitz was recently published in Novosti, a left-wing newspaper in Zagreb, Croatia.

Michael A. Lebowitz is professor emeritus of economics at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. He author of The Socialist Alternative, Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class, Build It Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century and Following Marx: Method, Critique and Crisis. He was director, Program in Transformative Practice and Human Development, Centro Internacional Miranda, in Caracas, Venezuela, 2006-2011. His most recent book is The Contradictions of "Real" Socialism: the conductor and the conducted, released in mid-July 2012 by Monthly Review Press.

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Novosti: What we can expect from Hugo Chavez’s fourth term of office as president of Venezuela?

Michael Lebowitz: I think it is essential to recognise the extent of change that has occurred in Venezuela under Chavez. Venezuela has been a rentist economy, relying upon oil revenues; and the culture that grew up around oil rents [prior to Chavez’s coming to power] has been one overwhelmingly of corruption and clientalism. Venezuela suffered very significantly as a result of neoliberal policies which involved cutbacks in social services, the ending of subsidisation of necessities and the general process of privatisation. The situation in the 1990s was one of disaster – something not uncommon in Latin America in that decade (and certainly very familiar now in Europe).

When Hugo Chavez was elected at the end of that decade, he came into government with the support of social movements and the poor, but also of the middle class which understood that this situation could not continue. (At the time Chavez was calling for a good capitalism, an end to neoliberalism, a third way; he learned as he went along.)

And what Chávez has proceeded to do is of enormous importance. In particular, he has channeled resource revenues from oil into education and health – something so critically needed by the poor, who are the overwhelming majority of the population. These are measures that can be understood as populist but also as meeting the real needs of people and which can permit their capacities to develop.

Yet, it is not only the direction of oil wealth to the people that is been characteristic and unique in Venezuela. There has also been a very significant process of empowering people – of creating institutions that permit people to function democratically and to make decisions that affect their lives.

I’m describing, in particular, the development of the communal councils, institutions at the local neighborhood level in which people have the power to deal with problems that affect their own communities. These communal councils come together to form communes to deal with larger problems.

This is a process that has been described by Chavez as one of creating the cells of a new socialist state. As well, there is a process of development of workers’ councils. Here again it is a process of transforming people, of creating the conditions in which they are able to develop all their capacities. In particular, the Bolivarian Revolution has been creating people with a sense of dignity and pride.

These are very important achievements. But they don’t happen smoothly, and it is important to recognise there are many contradictions within Chavism. There are three groups and tendencies within Chavism. One can be found at the base with the social movements, the communities and portions of the working class. Another is composed of those individuals and groups that have risen with Chavez but, having enriched themselves through their positions and through the continuation of corruption and clientalism, now think the revolution should be over – and it is for them. (They are often referred to as the “boli-bourgeoisie”.) A third group is committed to continuing the revolution but doing so entirely from the top down; its perspective is one of ordering the advance of socialism, and it does not want to leave decisions at the bottom.

While Chavez himself is very vocal about the theoretical importance of building at the base and allowing people to develop their capacities through their own protagonism, he is impatient and often supports those who don’t have the same orientation.

So, what will happen in Chavez’s next term of office? That depends on class struggle within the Chavez camp. It would be a struggle which revolves around Chavez’s party (the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, PSUV), which contains all these elements but in which the top-down orientation has dominated and at the same time dispirited many people at the base.

Assuming Chavez continues in good health, it is possible that the revolution will be deepened at the base through his initiatives. He understands the problems and he stressed the importance in the election campaign of creating a front between the PSUV, other parties of the left and the social movements. If Chavez is not around to unify the various forces within Chavism, however, I think there could be a major struggle.

There are two types of economic and political systems that exist today in Venezuela – socialist and capitalist. Can we talk about a coherent and consistently functioning socioeconomic system in Venezuela?

I think it is essential to understand that there is always incoherence and dysfunctionality in a process of transition. When the elements of a new society coexist with the elements of the old society, each deforms the other. Each functions less efficiently than it would in the absence of the other. Accordingly from the perspective of the old, all the problems of incoherence are the result of the attempt to introduce the new. And from the perspective of the new, all the problems of incoherence are the result of the continued existence of the old.

Despite the process of reversing privatisation and expanding the state sector, and creating new institutions of decision making at the community and enterprise levels, capitalism is still present in the banking system, in large agricultural estates and especially in imports and the import-processing sector (and of course in the private mass media).

If Venezuela is to advance in building a new kind of socialism, it of course must overcome these elements of capitalism. However, I don’t think that is a priority. For me, far more significant at this time is to strengthen and deepen the socialist elements by expanding workers’ management in state sectors and increasing democratic decision making from below. Chavez made a very important statement a few years ago, referring to the state sectors in oil, steel, aluminium, iron ore, etc. He said, “what we have now is state capitalism. Without workers’ control, you cannot have socialism.”

I agree, and I think that moving on such questions is an essential part of class struggle in Venezuela and to advance the process right now.

Recently, we have seen a TV show about the election in Venezuela on our national [Croatian] television. More or less, all the participants in the TV show agreed that the social reforms provided by the Chavez government are just some sort of political bribery directed at poor people. What is your opinion about this?

Well, I’m not certain that such social reforms would be a bad thing, even as political bribery given that they are dealing with enormous material deficiencies for the poor and are making up for the crimes of previous governments. But there is of course much more to this.

After all, providing health facilities, education and adequate housing are essential for creating the conditions in which people are able to develop their own capacities. How can anyone criticise this?

Compare such policies to the austerity programs that punish people (especially the poor) for the disasters created by capitalism! Compare this to policies that bribe banks! I think that the participants in those television programs reveal more about themselves than they reveal about the actions of the government of Chávez.

The system of cooperatives was designed as an alternative to standard capitalist corporations. Has there been any improvements and progress in that area?

I think that measured by the number of successful cooperatives, there are great limits to relying upon small cooperatives as an alternative. Many such cooperatives have failed or discontinued – just like small businesses and small cooperatives elsewhere.

There are some cases in rural areas where there are very successful cooperative processes. But, in general, I think the most important aspect of the major cooperative initiative in Venezuela has been that the cooperatives have been schools of socialism – thatis, they have given people experience in the process of making decisions themselves. I think the real alternative to the capitalist corporation will be workers’ management of state enterprises.

Is there anything in socio-political system in Venezuela what we can apply in European political context?

Yes, of course! You don’t need oil to have protagonistic democracy. You don’t need oil to create communal councils and communes that make decisions about neighbourhoods and communities. You don’t need oil to introduce workers’ management and transparency by opening the books of all enterprises and government.

Venezuela has taken important steps to develop a protagonistic democracy, a revolutionary democracy in which people transform both their circumstances and themselves through their practice. It has done so in a poor country with a culture of clientalism and corruption. I think that European countries are in a position to take that same road without the same problems.

What will happen with the “Bolivarian revolution” and with “socialism of the 21st century” in the next period? 

In the October 2012 election in Venezuela, it was absolutely essential to defeat the right-wing opposition, which wanted to turn the clock back. Chavez’s victory keeps the door open for the advance of the Bolivarian revolution. That victory was not only important for Venezuela but for many countries in Latin America – not only those governments closely associated with Venezuela (such as Cuba, Bolivia and Ecuador) but also governments strengthened by Venezuela’s insistence under Chavez upon a sovereign Latin America. And certainly, too, for the social movements elsewhere in Latin America (and not only Latin America) for which the Bolivarian revolution has provided hope.

It is not clear yet how much of this victory will extend to the election of state governors in December. The particular link that Chávez has forged with the masses does not extend to all candidates of his party. It never has. In this case, too, some of those choices of candidates (choices made by Chávez and his advisers in the PSUV rather than from below) are quite unpopular at the base; and this could lead to significant abstention or to support for other left candidates who support the Bolivarian revolution but not the internal processes and actions of PSUV.

This remains to be seen but I think the general prognosis is one for significant struggle within Chavism.

Ne treba vam nafta za protagonističku demokraciju!

October 29, 2012 -- Novosti -- Zamolili smo profesora Michaela Lebowitza da nam prokomentira nedavno završene izbore u Venezueli. Ljubazno se odazvao našem pozivu i odgovorio nam na pitanja vezana uz Cháveza, Venezuelu, izgradnju socijalizma za 21. stoljeće i budućnost Bolivarske revolucije. Naš sugovornik je ekonomist i profesor emeritus na sveučilištu u Vancouveru u Kanadi, a prije osam godina bio je na mjestu savjetnika u Chávezovoj vladi.

Što se može očekivati od Chávezovog četvrtog mandata? Naravno, uzimajući u obzir njegove prethodne političke dosege u protekloj deceniji.

Mislim da je važno shvatiti koliki je opseg promjena koji se zbio u Venezueli pod Hugom Chávezom. Venezuela je imala rentijersku ekonomiju koja se oslanjala na prihode od prodaje nafte. Kultura koja se razvijala oko prodaje nafte bila je većinom obilježena korupcijom i klijentelizmom. Venezuela je patila od posljedica primjena neoliberalnih politika koje su uključivale socijalna rezanja, prekid subvencioniranja osnovnih potrepština i opći proces privatizacije. Situacija u Venezueli početkom devedesetih godina prošlog stoljeća bila je jedna od najkatastrofalnijih. I to u Južnoj Americi u kojoj je u to vrijeme katastrofalna ekonomska situacija bila jedna od uobičajenijih stvari (otprilike kao danas politika stezanja remena u Evropi). Kad je, dakle, Chávez krajem te decenije dobio izbore, u vladu je ušao uz potporu društvenih pokreta, siromašnih slojeva, ali i dijela srednjeg sloja koji je uvidio da se tako dalje ne može. U vrijeme njegova dolaska na vlast, na Zapadu je na djelu bio pokušaj implementacije tzv. trećeg puta po formuli – dobar kapitalizam plus neoliberalizam u ekonomiji. Sam Chávez vrlo je brzo uočio da su te dvije stvari zapravo povezane i zajednički ih je otpravio iz Venezuele. Uglavnom, ono što je Chávez napravio od odlučne je važnosti. Preusmjerio je zaradu od nafte u obrazovanje i zdravstvo, što je bilo krajnje neophodno učiniti, pogotovo za siromašne koji čine većinu stanovništva zemlje. Na ovakve se mjere, istina, može gledati kao na populističke, ali se s druge strane na njih može gledati i kao na zadovoljavanje realnih, osnovnih potreba ljudi, što im onda omogućava razvoj i reprodukciju.

Novi tip socijalizma

Naravno, nije redistribucija naftnog bogatstva ono jedino što karakterizira Venezuelu i njezin politički put. Tu se radi o mnogo široj slici koja uključuje i jačanje demokratskih i političkih kapaciteta samog stanovništva. Uključuje i stvaranje institucija koje ljudima dozvoljavaju da imaju utjecaj na procese koji ih se tiču. I osobno sam pisao o razvoju općinskih vijeća, zatim institucija na nivou lokalnih susjedskih zajednica u kojima ljudi dobivaju mogućnost da se uhvate ukoštac s problemima koji se tih zajednica tiču. Takva općinska i mjesna vijeća, kad se pojave širi problemi, prerastaju u svojevrsne komune. Chávez je to nazvao osnovnim ćelijama nove socijalističke države. Paralelno s tim ide i proces razvoja radničkih vijeća. Da ponovim, riječ je o stvaranju uvjeta u kojima sam narod dobiva mogućnost da razvije sve svoje potencijale. Bolivarska revolucija narodu vraća njegov ponos i dostojanstvo.

Sve su to vrlo važna postignuća. Međutim, ne ide u tom procesu sve glatko i važno je prepoznati kontradikcije unutar chavizma. Tri su grupe problema i tendencija. Prvi problem nastaje u samoj bazi socijalnog pokreta, u samim komunama i dijelovima radničke klase. Drugu grupu čine oni pojedinci koji su izrasli skupa s Chávezom, ali su se uslijed svoje bliskosti s vlašću obogatili i svojim klijentelističkim odnosom i korumpiranošću prigrlili nemali dio prihoda. Takvi navaljuju da se s revolucijom završi jer su se, eto, oni snašli. Zovu ih često “boli-buržoazijom”. Treći su oni koji su potpuno predani nastavku revolucije, ali se strogo drže partijske hijerarhije, odnosno planovi se, prema njihovom mišljenju, hijerarhijski trebaju proraditi prije nego se u njih krene. Sam Chávez vrlo je jasan u svojoj podršci narodu, a i svjestan je teorijske važnosti izgradnje baze te prepuštanja inicijative samim ljudima, koji će onda dobiti mogućnost da se samoizraze i razviju svoje kapacitete. Chávez je ujedno strpljiv i često daje podršku i onima koji ne dijele u potpunosti s njim orijentaciju u pogledu razvoja društva.

Što će se desiti u njegovom narednom mandatu? To ovisi o klasnoj borbi unutar samog Chávezovog kruga. Borba će se odvijati u okviru njegove partije (PSUV – Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela), koja sadrži sve spomenute elemente, ali je hijerarhija dominantna, što često demoralizira ljude na terenu. Pretpostavljajući da će s Chávezovim zdravljem sve biti u redu, moguće je da će pravac revolucije ovisiti i o inicijativama koje dolaze s terena. Chávez u tom smislu nakon ovih izbora kani stvoriti širu političku frontu sastavljenu od PSUV-a, drugih stranaka ljevice i samog socijalnog pokreta. Borba će se, dakle, voditi oko različitih snaga unutar chavizma i mnogo će toga ovisiti o tome koliko će sam Chávez biti sposoban sve te različite orijentacije objediniti.

Danas u Venezueli postoje dva tipa političkog i ekonomskog sistema. Možemo li govoriti o koherentnosti i konzistentnosti u supostojanju venecuelanskog kapitalizma i socijalizma?

Bitno je shvatiti da je proces tranzicije uvijek nekoherentan i često disfunkcionalan. Kad elementi novoga koegzistiraju s elementima staroga, neizbježno je da jedno deformira drugo. Svaka funkcija je manje efikasna nego što bi to bila u nedostatku one druge funkcije. Ili drugim riječima, iz perspektive starog, problem nekoherentnosti proizlazi iz pokušaja uvođenja novog, i vice versa, iz perspektive novog, problem je u nastavku egzistiranja starog. Unatoč procesu u kojem je privatizacija zakočena, a ekspandirao državni sektor, usporedno s čime se uvode samoupravni mehanizmi na nivou lokalnih zajednica i tvorničkih pogona, kapitalizam je i dalje prisutan u bankarskom sistemu, u velikim latifundijama i agrikulturnim sistemima, u medijima te u uvoznom sektoru i sektoru prerađivačke industrije. Ako Venezuela i nadalje bude htjela graditi novi tip socijalizma, morat će nadvladati ove oblike kapitalizma. To bi trebao biti prioritet. Meni se daleko najvažnijim čini produbiti i ojačati socijalističke elemente, posebno u pogledu jačanja radničkog samoupravljanja i povećavanja demokratske moći same baze. Chávez je prije koju godinu dao jednu važnu izjavu. Govoreći o državnom sektoru u naftnoj industriji, u proizvodnji aluminija, iskopavanju rudače itd., kazao je: “Ono što sad imamo je državni socijalizam. Bez radničke kontrole, ne možete imati pravi socijalizam.” Slažem se s time i mislim da se takvim pitanjima pod hitno treba nastaviti baviti i da je to pitanje bit klasne borbe.

Dosezi i ograničenja kooperativa

Naša javna televizija (HRT) nedavno je emitirala prilog o izborima u Venezueli. Praktički su se svi sugovornici u njemu složili da Chávezova vlada socijalnim mjerama potkupljuje posebno siromašni dio stanovništva. Što mislite o tim prigovorima?

Dakle, nisam siguran da takve društvene reforme mogu biti loše, čak i uz eventualno postojanje potkupljivanja, budući da se ovdje radi o enormnim materijalnim manjkovima kod siromašnih ljudi, što je rezultat upravo kriminalne politike bivših vlada koja se prema njima vodila. Uostalom, osiguranje zdravstvene zaštite, regularnog obrazovanja i stvaranje normalnih uvjeta stanovanja esencijalne su stvari za razvoj ljudskih mogućnosti. Tko bi to mogao kritizirati?! Usporedimo samo takve politike s ovom aktualnom politikom stezanja remena koja zapravo kažnjava stanovništvo, posebno onaj siromašni dio, i to za katastrofu koju je stvorio sam kapitalistički poredak. Usporedimo Chávezovu politiku s politikama potkupljenima od strane banaka. Čini mi se da su sudionici te televizijske emisije zapravo takvim izjavama više otkrivali nešto o samima sebi nego što su govorili o učincima Chávezove politike.

Kao svojevrsna alternativa korporativnom kapitalizmu u Venezueli je nastao sistem kooperativa. Ima li napretka na tom području?

S obzirom na broj uspješnih kooperativa, mogli bismo reći da postoje velika ograničenja u tome da u kooperativama vidimo potpunu alternativu dominirajućem kapitalizmu. Mnoge od njih su, baš kao i mala poduzeća ili kooperative bilo gdje u svijetu, jednostavno propale. Postoji dosta slučajeva uspjelih kooperativa u ruralnim područjima. Međutim, čini mi se da sistem kooperativa treba shvatiti kao jednu veliku školu socijalizma u kojoj su ljudi dobivali mogućnost da iskuse procese donošenja odluka i njihovu primjenu. Inače, realnom mi se alternativom korporativnom kapitalizmu čini radničko upravljanje u državnim poduzećima.

Ima li nečega iz vencuelanskog političkog projekta što bismo mogli primijeniti u Evropi?

Naravno! Ne treba vam nafta da postanete protagonist demokracije! Ne treba vam nafta da osnujete komunalna vijeća koja će donositi odluke od važnosti za vaše susjedstvo, kvart, mjesnu zajednicu ili općinu. Ne treba vam nafta da uvedete radničko upravljanje i da uvedete transparentnost u poslovanju kako javnih tako i državnih poduzeća. Venezuela je u tom smislu poduzela važne korake u protagonističkoj demokraciji, gdje sam narod kroz svoje djelovanje mijenja ne samo svoje okolnosti nego i samoga sebe. To se, ne zaboravimo, dogodilo u siromašnoj zemlji u kojoj su dotad cvjetali samo klijentelizam i korupcija. Mišljenja sam da su evropske zemlje u situaciji da krenu istim ili sličnim putem, a da pritom izbjegnu mnoge od venecuelanskih problema.

Bolivarska revolucija daje nadu

Što će se dogoditi s Bolivarskom revolucijom i socijalizmom za 21. stoljeće u narednom razdoblju?

Na nedavno završenim izborima bilo je od presudne važnosti poraziti desnicu, koja je namjeravala vratiti sat unazad. Chávezova pobjeda vrata Bolivarskoj revoluciji i nadalje drži otvorenima. Pobjeda nije važna samo za Venezuelu nego i za Južnu Ameriku generalno. Ona nije samo važna vladama bliskima Chávezovoj (Bolivija, Kuba i Ekvador) nego i onim vladama koje su ojačale upravo zbog inzistiranja Venezuele pod Chávezom na suverenosti Latinske Amerike. Naravno, socijalni pokreti ne samo u Latinskoj Americi nego i drugdje, Bolivarskom revolucijom dobivaju neophodnu nadu.

Još uvijek nije jasno kakav će utjecaj ova pobjeda imati na lokalne izbore koji se održavaju u 12. mjesecu. Naime, kandidati Chávezove partije nemaju tako dobre veze i takav ugled kao sam predsjednik. Ne mogu ni imati. Problem je što su neki od njih na samom terenu dosta nepopularni. To bio moglo voditi ili biračkoj apstinenciji ili okretanju drugim lijevim kandidatima, kad govorimo o lijevom biračkom tijelu. Ti drugi lijevi kandidati podržavaju Bolivarsku revoluciju, ali ne i samu politiku PSUV-a. U svakom slučaju, sve ćemo to tek vidjeti, a meni se osobno čini da će ti izbori biti dobra prognoza za daljnje borbe unutar samog chavizma.