No word has featured more in the rhetoric of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution than democracy.
The principle of ‘participative democracy’ was enshrined in the 1999 constitution introduced a year after the late President Hugo Chávez came to power. The Chavista governments have pioneered radical social, economic and constitutional reforms designed to integrate millions of Venezuela’s poorest and most marginalised citizens into the country’s political and economic life. ‘Socialism is democracy and democracy is socialism’, Chávez said, and for years, millions in Venezuela and beyond had reason to believe him.
It is too easy to condemn the increasingly crude efforts of Chávez’s United Sociality Party of Venezuela (PSUV) to hold on to power without acknowledging the historic, bitter divisions of class, ethnicity and ideology that continue to electrify Venezuela’s supercharged political atmosphere.
The opposition to Nicolás Maduro’s government is becoming increasingly broad-based but is still led by the economic and social elites from which Chávez won power, and that continue to undermine the Revolution at every turn, staging a coup in 2002, forcing a Presidential recall referendum two years later, and – today – exercising their financial muscle to aggravate a desperate economic situation further, a cumulative record of implacable opposition giving weight to Maduro’s accusations of ‘sabotage’.
There is little reason to suppose that an alternative government would do anything other than what it did last time it held power: pursue an austere economic programme of the kind that created the conditions for the revolt that brought Chávez to power in the first place, and launch a crackdown of its own. Suffice to say there is precedent in Latin American political history for the replacement of populist socialist administrations with military and political elites bent on uncompromising market liberalisation.
And yet it is hard to see how things could get much worse than they are now. The utter collapse of the Venezuelan economy has been well documented, by the left as well as the right. GDP has fallen by a third since 2013, a catastrophe objectively worse than any in the history of the US, Western Europe or the rest of Latin America. Like their despised predecessors the Chavistas have failed to build an economy that does not simply fall over at the first sign of a drop in commodity prices.
As he seeks to hold onto power Maduro has broken the fragile democracy that Chávez’s – broadly popular – constitution sought to create. The 2015 parliamentary elections in which the opposition won some two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly may prove to be the country’s final democratic exercise for some time.
A state of emergency was declared shortly after the vote, and regional and trade union elections cancelled. The Assembly was prevented from exercising its constitutional right to call for a referendum on Maduro’s leadership. A vote to stop the government pressing ahead with oil exploration in an environmentally sensitive region was blocked.
The ‘Bolibourgeoisie’, the sprawling state bureaucracy that has grown to implement the Revolution’s social programmes, is riven with corruption: last year Chávez’s ex-minister of finance Jorge Giordani revealed that $500 billion had simply disappeared from the state’s treasuries.
The regime has become increasingly reliant on a military from whose ranks the majority of cabinet members and state governors are drawn, which enjoys economic privileges through access to exclusive markets sequestered in army bases.
And the PSUV has become an instrument of state control, increasingly conducting tests of political allegiance as a condition for receipt of food programmes, state services, pensions and passports.
It is a tragic course for a revolution that just a decade ago had begun to roll out its programme for an exotic form of participative democracy, inspired both by Venezuela’s indigenous traditions of communal self-government and the most avant-garde socialist political theory.
The Bolivarian Revolution traces its lineage to and takes its name from the struggle against Spanish rule waged two centuries ago by the legendary Venezuelan political and military rebel Simón Bolívar. Like Bolívar Chávez was inspired by the ideas of the 19th century utopian socialist and radical educator Simón Rodríguez, who argued for the replacement of Venezuela’s colonial state with a decentralised political system in which power would be distributed throughout a network of self-governing communities working together as necessary in a loose, flexible confederation.
Rodríguez’s vision, which the young army officer Chávez considered ‘very near to the territory of utopia’, formed the basis of the reform programme the future President and his military faction wanted to push through had their attempted 1992 coup been successful.
It was an agenda that also looked to the barrios, the ramshackle but dynamic neighbourhoods that had accumulated on the outskirts of Venezuela’s major cities through the 1960s, 70s and 80s, as much of the rural population moved to urban areas in the hope of gaining a share of the nation’s oil wealth.
Amidst the successive economic shocks of the 1980s, when Venezuela was caught up in the South American debt crisis, residents of the tightly packed barrios formed themselves into self-governing units to ensure their material survival, securing their own supplies of water, food and essential goods. In 1989 the barrios finally ignited an uprising, the Caracazo, ‘the week the hills came down to the city’, in the face of the efforts by the then President Carlos Andrés Pérez to force through an IMF ‘structural adjustment programme’ that would slash threadbare public services and ratchet up food and energy prices.
Chávez finally came to power after the 1998 Presidential election with a mandate to deliver radical reform for the barrios and Venezuela’s other marginalised communities. His administrations remain best known for the ‘Missions’, an array of social programmes that sought to transform the material conditions of millions of poor Venezuelans through greatly expanded health and education services, mass house building schemes and food, water and energy subsidies. But Chávez’s constitutional initiatives were even more radical, an unabashed effort to bring Rodríguez’s soaring vision of decentralised government down from the cloudscapes of socialist speculation to Venezuela’s cracked political soil.
The 2006 Communal Council Law encouraged the country’s confusion of collectives – barrios, neighbourhoods, farming communities and co-operatives – to formalise themselves into ‘Communal Councils’, defined political and geographic units with recognised authority to manage their own infrastructural and social projects.
The Councils, typically covering some 200 to 400 households, elect spokespeople, the voceros, to oversee the day-to-day running of community projects, and come together en masse to vote on significant questions regarding the selection and funding of projects, jobs, wages, and housing. The parameters within which Councils operate were designed to be sufficiently flexible to encompass Venezuela’s diverse communities, which might range from a cluster of households round a farm growing coffee or corn, to a local radio or TV station, to an urban neighbourhood where order has been established between warring drug gangs.
In 2010 Chávez went further, introducing a new law to allow adjacent councils to cluster together as ‘communes’, confederations sufficiently large to work towards attaining the economic diversity and economies of scale necessary to become fully self-sustaining.
The communes were at the heart of Chávez’s vision for a ’21st century socialism’. His final major speech, the Golpe de Timón (’Strike at the Helm’), delivered in 2012 just months before his death, was dedicated to the ideal of the ‘communal state’. The President delivered the speech brandishing a copy of a dense work of political theory by the Hungarian Marxist István Mészáros, Beyond Capital, which seeks to develop Marx’s admiring references to the 1871 Paris Commune – which he considered ‘the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of man’ – into a robust prospectus for a system of mass direct democracy.
Chávez’s Law of the Communes orientates Venezuela’s political framework towards this utopian horizon by granting the communes powers to manage their own security through ’collective defence’ forces, to enforce the law by means of communal justice processes, and to develop their own systems of production, distribution and exchange. The communes run ‘social property enterprises’, worker co-operatives covering more or less every sphere of economic activity: farming, industry, infrastructure, transportation, distribution, services. Communal parliaments decide what is produced and when, how much workers are paid, appropriate distribution mechanisms and how ‘surpluses’ – nor ‘profits’ – should be reinvested. The communes can even import materials required for production directly, without having to go through national state institutions.
Clusters of communes can and have come together to form increasingly larger confederations, through which they exchange products, services, technologies and ideas. As Chávez had hoped, these networks are creating a sphere of production beyond the capitalist market, a ‘socialist economy’ in which production, distribution, exchange and consumption are managed by direct democracy rather than capitalist relations. And the web of councils and communes has expanded rapidly under Maduro – there are now some 45,000 councils integrated into 1,500 communes – who has spoken openly of its potential to ‘demolish the bourgeois state’.
A ‘state’ within a state
That is the aspiration. The reality is confusion, as Chávez’s high-flown vision clashes against the complexities of Venezuela’s existing political frameworks.
Certainly, many communities have been strengthened and afforded new dignity through the new powers with which they have been entrusted to manage their day-to-day affairs. But the loose institutional frameworks within which they operate, open-ended by intention, have also facilitated waste and corruption. Communities have often proved themselves able to manage resources more effectively than private contractors or state agencies with little stake in a project’s success. But credit has been squandered and resources wasted by neighbourhoods lacking the expertise necessary for more complex projects. And their status as key supporters of the Revolution have allowed the more unscrupulous comuneros to evade penalties for failing to meet the conditions according to which the state loans they received were granted.
Paradoxically the communes have become increasingly subject to burdensome regulations as the state has sought to exercise greater oversight. Byzantine processes for the approval of funding criss-cross myriad government ministries, creating new opportunities for corrupt officials to siphon government money.
It’s as tangled a picture as might be expected of an attempt to build a socialist sphere of production within the wider sphere of what is still a predominantly capitalist economic system. The sharpness of that contradiction becomes fully apparent in the legal right bestowed on communes to demand the ‘transfer’ of authority over privately held property falling within the territories they manage. Here the stark radicalism of the Bolivarian Revolution reveals itself: the ‘communal state’ is no less than a state within a state, a bridgehead for transition to a post-capitalist society in which ‘bourgeois’ property rights are gradually rendered redundant.
And, now that it has gained momentum, Chávez’s alternative state is a juggernaut that continues to accelerate, notwithstanding Venezuela’s swirling economic and political chaos. Millions of comuneros are working to strengthen and expand the web of councils and communes, establishing relationships between collectivities with complementary productive capacities and needs, often in the teeth of opposition not only from members of the old economic order seeking to bring Maduro down and close the Revolution out, but also the ‘new establishment’, the state bureaucracy created by the PSUV to administer its sprawling array of programmes, eager to hold on to the powers and privileges it currently enjoys.
For Miguel Gómez, an organiser from the Pío Tamayo Commune in Barquisimeto, quoted in George Ciccariello-Maher’s study Building the Commune, the ultimate objective is the incremental formation of a new state ‘from below’:
The government is not the Bolivarian project, which goes far beyond the presidency – this is why they haven’t been able to defeat it and why it is still in the streets today. We need to continue to resist and to build a truly revolutionary option that can transform the very structure of the state. The Constituent Assembly is a step toward this, but we also need to cleanse the government and the institutions, where there is too much corruption and bureaucracy. We have to wrest power away from the military.
Ciccariello-Maher, following the Trinidadian theorist CLR James who drew on archetypes from the French Revolution to describe the dynamics of the the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, suggests the Chavista governments might be thought of as the Jacobins, the elite governing on behalf of the people, and the people themselves as the sans culottes, radical democrats demanding direct democracy: government of the people by the people.
Whether the emergent communal state is a chrysalis or a cancer depends on ideological perspective. It seems that the nascent communal network is sufficiently embedded to survive, in some form, even if Maduro is forced out. A stubborn network of self-governing units has embedded itself within Venezuela’s tangled political structure. But its continued growth will depend upon its capacity to establish stronger and clearer norms of self-governance, a defined institutional framework that can be enforced through impartial judicial processes and systems of oversight. Even a revolution needs rules. An anarchist system is a system, not mere anarchy.
During his Golpe de Timón address Chávez urged his audience to ‘remember the Soviet Union, which is gone with the wind; in the Soviet Union, there was never democracy’, and promised that ‘one of the fundamentally new things about our model is its democratic character.’
The Russian Revolution, too, at first, aspired to replace the state with a thoroughgoing participative democracy, made up of self-governing, self-sustaining Soviets – the Russian word for ‘council’. It wasn’t long before the life of the Soviets was choked by an icy bureaucracy fearing counter-revolution. A century on, as Venezuela’s troubles intensify, it becomes harder to see what is ‘fundamentally new’ about another Revolution’s attempt to set the people free from the power of an overbearing state.