Chavismo beyond Chavez

by Ben Campbell on September 25, 2013

In June, North Star caught up with George Ciccariello-Maher, author of We Created Chavez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution.

(Editors Note:  We realize the transition beyond Chavez has moved much since this interview and we hope to return to the issue and update it as developments continue.)

It’s now been some time since Chavez’s death and since his successor Nicolás Maduro was elected. Could you give us an update on what’s been happening in Venezeula?

The aftermath of Maduro’s election was particularly heated. The opposition called the people into the streets, essentially with the unstated intention of causing disturbances and violence; it ended up leading to the death of more than ten people. The question of how to confront this opposition violence has been central, as has been the question of how to confront the fact that Maduro only won the election by a slim electoral margin. That was shocking, especially to his supporters. The question has been whether this is a moment to mediate, be moderate, and reach out to the center and private bourgeois interests, or whether it is a moment to really kick the machinery of popular power, popular assemblies and communal councils into full gear.

A lot of people in the social movements at the grassroots level have been frustrated, in that Maduro seems to be taking the tack of looking to the bourgeoisie; he’s had very public meetings with and made agreements with large capitalist interests. This is something that is difficult to interpret. Chavez often made these kind of overtures in very specific moments when it was necessary strategically, but it has seemed like Maduro was going a little further — certainly further than people would like him to.

One of the things we’re looking at, for example, might be called a “Chile scenario,” in the sense that there are goods disappearing from the shelves, and the population is getting frustrated. There are  shortages, and yet these have been caused in large part by large capitalist interests not wanting to sell, explicitly using them to create instability for political gain. So the question is, in an effort to stabilize the situation, why would you reach out to those same people? Instead of building these kind of alliances with the bourgeoisie, the popular movements would like to see a turn toward popular organizations for oversight, such as checking prices and preventing capitalist interests from hoarding.

Now the economic situation in Venezuela right now is one of stagflation, with inflation reportedly topping 30%. What possibility is there for these economic conditions to spur another upsurge of popular resistance?

Well the popular upsurge won’t be at the level of 1989, in the sense that the government is not identified as an enemy, as much as the opposition would like to paint it that way. Rather, the government has been seen as an actor that should be doing something slightly differently, and should be providing more.

It’s important to point out that inflation is actually not as high as has been claimed, and that consistently high inflation has been part of the Venezuelan project for a long time. Rather than  pursuing a low inflation strategy and having people unemployed, the government has actively pursued a high-inflation strategy, which has gone well with high growth and high employment. The other thing to bear in mind is that inflation affects people very differently depending on their social situation. In Venezuela, as a result of years of struggle, you have free public education, free healthcare, and subsidized supermarkets. As those subsidized supermarkets do not sell at the market rate, inflation does not hit the poorest people in quite the same way.

What is the present status of the Venezuelan labor movement?

The labor movement in Venezuela has, unfortunately, never been the revolutionary spearhead of this process. As both a cause and consequence it has also been completely internally divided, with struggles for power within the various labor unions, which never really got their act together. Now in 2002-2003, when the oil industry was shut down, the working class played a heroic role by manually restarting what had been a very electronic industry. This was a major intervention by the working class, yet they have not been able to push forward and play a leading role in this overall process. This has instead been played by people who, for the most part, work in the informal sector, live in the barrios, and who operate politically, not so much economically. This operates though communal councils and popular territorial organizations, instead of through working class organizations.

That is not to say that the working class hasn’t been able to amplify the struggle — they have been able to in some instances. For example, a few years ago, what led to the nationalization of the steelworks in Eastern Venezuela was when workers undertook a radical strike against the Chavista government, against the Chavista labor minister. They were repressed by the government, leading to the sacking of the labor minister and the nationalization of the oilworks.

So there’s this tense dynamic that goes on. It isn’t one where you say the government is against the workers. No there’s a much more complex interplay that goes on, and the dialectic that the workers can set into motion, just like the dialectic that popular sector movements can set into motion, is one that can allow the government to take more radical measures. That is the way this process has lept forward.

So these democratic community organizations that you mention, can you give us an overview of what these look like in the present? What possibilities might exist for increasing the struggle through them?

On the one you have the official communal councils. These were technically established in 2006 and have flourished across the country. They’re popular directly democratic organs whereby a local neighborhood can get together, sit down, democratically participate, vote and decide on what is done in terms of development in their area. Those decisions are set up for funding from the government. Alongside and actually predating that, and this is the really interesting part, there’s a long history of popular organizations, in the barrios especially but across society as well. These neighborhood councils gave rise to what are called patriotic circles and Bolivarian circles, and alongside these popular militias. These various armed collectives are essentially revolutionary organs of communism in small local areas. So what you have is a coexistence of these different institutions and organs, which is tense in some places, and directly overlapping in other places. These are the institutions that really need to serve as the basis for the communal state in Venezuela.

At this moment the question is whether the government is going to be able to push toward the communal state, or whether they are going to withdraw and attempt some sort of cross-class alliance that allows some stabilization for electoral purposes. My view is that the electoral problem is not going to be resolved by reaching toward the middle. Chavez’ success was never because he moved toward the middle. Chavez’ success was that he pulled the middle to the left. He was able to polarize the country in a way that drew the entire political spectrum to the left, so today you have a situation where even the opposition runs on what is basically a soft Chavista platform. He completely changed the parameters of politics in the country. This is what the Chavistas need to keep doing, by emonstrating how they are actually different from the opposition and the center, rather than capturing that center.

How does this situation relate to the concept of dual power?

I understand dual power as a reservoir that allows for the pressuring, transformation, or takeover of the state apparatus, and ultimately toward’s that apparatus’ destruction. People generally understand dual power as a situation. But when you look at Lenin, when in 1917 between the revolutions he writes on the subject, he refers to it as an “entirely different kind of power.” He’s not referring to a moment or situation that must be quickly resolved. That wouldn’t be an entirely different kind of power. He is talking about power seized from below by armed workers and peasants in a directly democratic model that very much parallels the commune.

That’s how I understand dual power, and the question is, how is this dual power complicated by the Venezuelan situation. Of course Chavez was supposedly “in power,” but power itself is a much more complex thing. The state is a sprawling bureaucratic apparatus; how do we replace or transform that apparatus in a revolutionary way? And here the political side of this — the communal councils aligned with these other popular democratic structures — and the sort of paramilitary side are really the basis for this other power. As it stands, and it needs to be developed, it is replacing the liberal bourgeois state. It’s developing alongside of the state rather than confronting it, but it is beginning to operate as a replacement structure. That’s really what needs to be deepened as we move forward.

How the 2002 coup attempt affect all of this?

The importance of the brief 2002 coup against Chavez is really second only to 1989, which was the massive Caracazo rebellion that in many ways started this entire process. The coup of 2002 served as another event, to use the language of Badiou. You had a founding event, in Caracazo, and a second event in 2003 that really energized the process. So unlike other places, such as in Ecuador or Bolivia where you have had similar moments of rupture and radical opening allowing the election of radical leaders, what you had in Venezuela was a re-energization. 2002 was a fundamental moment for explaining how Chavismo went form being a more social democratic movement to a much more radical socialist movement. That re-energization was actually what led to a lot of these radical measures being taking, constituting a second stage of the process. The question today is how do you re-energize the process? How does Venezeula do that again now?

How will the movement respond to the hole that’s left now in the absence of Chavez — or can they?

That’s a good question. I think it’s true that people didn’t really realize what was being lost. A lot of people who spent their time organizing autonomous social movements and revolutionary movements  are now saying they had no idea what a massive impact this was going to have. There’s no question that Maduro is going to be another Chavez; that’s simply not going to happen. Absent some other event on the level of 1989, on the level of 2002, there’s not going to be that individual leadership. So the question now is, how does the collective leadership of this new communal state emerge?

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