Venezuela: Politics of the commons — The open-ended history of communes


First published at Venezuela Analysis.

The history of the Communes is the history of the organization of the working class. But not the working class in an abstract sense, but that of the really existing one in a specific historical moment.

Both the available documentary record and the testimony of organizers allow us to conclude that Hugo Chávez, and certainly the most astute members of the Bolivarian movement, fully understood the need, to unite and organize, to interpellate and be interpellated by what Chávez then referred to as the "marginal classes," that is, the poorest among the poor, that fraction of the working class that was excluded thrice over: from the formal labor market, from citizenship, and from the market economy, and which, by the mid-1990s, constituted the majority of the workforce in Venezuela.

Much has been said about the immense effort by the Bolivarian government during the first decade of this century to address the historically accumulated "social debt." However, before then, during the preceding decade, Chávez and the Bolivarian movement set out to address a more pressing debt: the political one. After his release from prison in 1994 and during his various tours through cities and towns across the nation, Chávez focused on establishing a relationship of dialogue with the popular majorities, accordingly with that segment of the population that some scholars identify as the subproletariat.

With little or no connection to the more traditional forms of political and social activity - parties, unions, guilds - a significant portion of the subproletariat became involved in the task of overcoming the steep slope of demoralization, depoliticization, and disorganization. They began to see themselves as participants in a national project, as members of a political identity in the making, and as protagonists of a new kind of democracy: a participatory and protagonistic democracy.

The backbone of this massive and poli-classist movement that would bring Chávez to power in 1998 would be this subproletariat, whose mobilization would increase as the contradictions worsened. Following the turning point represented by the April 2002 coup d'état, they took the political initiative and assumed a leading role, which decisively impacted the people’s counter-attack. They played the same role in the resistance against the 2002-2003 oil lockout-sabotage, and coronated their political victory in the recall referendum of August 2004.

In the brief temporal interlude between the definitive defeat of the oil lockout-sabotage in February 2003 and the “Battle of Santa Inés” (name given to the recall referendum) in August 2004, with an economy practically in ruins but with a clear political horizon, the Bolivarian government created the first social missions, significantly accelerating the process recognizing the true citizenship of the popular majorities. This would begin to lay the foundations for their progressive incorporation into the market through democratic redistribution of the oil rent. The poorest among the poor, who happen to constitute the majority fraction of the working class, emerged as the central subject of government policies.

As is well known, five months later, in January 2005, Chávez would publicly announce his support for socialism, which implied undertaking the task of transforming a subordinate and dependent economic structure. A few months later, in July of the same year, the first communal councils were created.

To take on the titanic task of transforming a subordinate and dependent economic structure implies, to put it in Rosa Luxemburg's words, venturing into uncharted territory and facing a thousand problems. One of them, just one, involved discovering the formula that would make optimal use of one of the most important factors of all: the subproletariat. How to correctly harness such force? How to enhance their capacity to act as a force to recreate social ties? How to create the conditions to improve their dignity through productive work? How to ensure their effective distribution throughout the territory?

The formula discovered by the Bolivarian leadership was the communal councils. It is essential to emphasize that these councils were not conceived as a subject or a "sector" among many others, much less as something akin to a "level" of government in a subordinate relationship with higher levels - municipal, state, and national. Instead, they were seen as the space belonging to the community, primarily occupied by the poorest of the poor, who would take on a leading role not only due to their majority presence in the territory but also because of their political qualifications, their repertoire of struggles, and their Auctoritas (authority) founded on the defense of the community's interests and, beyond that, of their class, the nation, and so on.

From this point on, this subproletariat organized in the territory would have as their objective the progressive transformation of both the material and spiritual conditions of the community itself and, more specifically, the overcoming of the conditions of poverty. However, this will not happen in isolation, as the community is nothing if not conceived as part of a whole. As Gerardo Rojas has pointed out in an unpublished work, a popular self-government will be conceived as part of a multiscale governance system, ranging from the communal to the national level: "as a force that does not 'dilute' itself in the power of the State, nor surrender its sovereignty to the political class, but rather, it is part of 'a combined State-society system, building socialism'."

Regarding the role of the subproletariat in the Bolivarian process, in a tentative and highly schematic manner, we could speak of four stages: the first stage, from the mid-1990s to 2003, characterized by the increasing mobilization and politicization of this segment of the working class; the second stage, from 2003 to 2012, marked by the evident and undisputed centrality of the subproletariat in the actions of the Bolivarian government; the third stage, from 2013 to 2015, characterized by a fierce and silent dispute; and the fourth stage, from 2016 to the present, during which there is a displacement of the working class as the gravitational center of governmental policies.

One of the most significant political milestones of the second stage is the creation of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela in 2007. In this regard, Gerardo Rojas has brought to light a circumstance that eloquently describes the political tensions and challenges of the moment: originally, the establishment of the communal councils had been planned to take place after the presidential elections in December 2006, which would have coincided with the foundation of the new party. However, to put in Chavez's words, who said in June 2006: "Since dynamics have their own rhythm, and sometimes they accelerate without us wanting them to, we realized that we couldn't wait."

The underlying problem was the organization of the subproletariat, a segment of the working class that always had its own dynamics and its own pace, to use Chavez's words. Since its inception, this dynamic was characterized, among other things, by a fundamental mistrust in traditional forms of political participation and was also shaped by the dynamics of Chavez's leadership, which emphasized direct communication with the majority of his social support base without significant mediation.

It is by no means a coincidence that the communal councils, and later the communes, were conceived as the quintessential space for the subproletariat. Delaying the formation of the first communal councils by one or two years to synchronize the rhythms of the subproletariat with the overall movement would have meant squandering an immense political energy.

Moreover, the contradictions between the communal councils and municipal governments, regional governments, ministries, and political parties became evident from the very moment of their inception. Chavez’s warning during the first Aló Presidente Teórico in June 2009, stating that the communal councils could not become "appendages" of any institution, is frequently cited. What is less known is the fact that Chavez had addressed this issue, using the same terminology and with the same emphasis, at least on three different occasions, as early as the first quarter of 2006.

By October 2012, with Chavez's victory in the presidential elections and the famous "Golpe de Timón" (Strike at the Helm) immediately after, the communal councils and communes had accumulated invaluable experience, paving the way for their imminent consolidation and further expansion as spaces of self-government.

With Chavez's passing in March 2013, the communal councils and communes lost their most important ally: the only figure capable of mediating internal contradictions within the Bolivarian movement in their favor. However, during that brief yet whirlwind third stage, the Communes fought to firmly establish themselves in their respective territories, claiming and defending the progress made during the preceding decade. The communes effectively managed to expand and develop both quantitatively and qualitatively, something that would lead to an intensification of the contradictions.

In the fourth stage, that is, after the defeat in the parliamentary elections in December 2015, the path was cleared for forces that, for various reasons, pursued the survival of the Bolivarian project through elite agreements. This shift was reflected programmatically in the displacement of the working class as the center of gravity of government politics. These circumstances, briefly outlined here, did not result in the disappearance of these spaces of self-government, but rather the progressive loss of their place as protagonists, naturally accompanied by the diminishing centrality of the working class.

Does this scenario mean the definitive end of these experiences of popular self-government? Not at all. Contrary to what the apologists of capitalist realism may claim, this is a story whose ending has not been written. However, achieving a resolution favorable to the interests of the popular majorities requires, among other things, not forgetting our starting point: the history of the communes is the history of the organization of the working class.

Reinaldo Iturriza López is an activist, writer, and sociologist with a degree from Venezuela’s Central University. He is the author of several books, including 27 de Febrero de 1989: interpretaciones y estrategias and El chavismo salvaje. Iturriza López, father of Sandra Mikele and Ainhoa Michel and Venezuelan baseball enthusiast, is a former Culture Minister and Communes and Social Movements Minister. He also headed the Audiovisual Production School at Ávila TV. He writes regularly for the blog Saber y Poder. Translated by  José Luis Granados Ceja for Venezuelanalysis.