Friday, August 29, 2014

21st century Chavism (2011)

Book Review from the June 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Venezuela. Revolution as Spectacle by Rafael Izcategui, translated by Chaz Bufe, Sharp Press.

Rafael Izcategui, editor of El Libertario, Venezuela’s longest-running anarchist periodical (and on-line at, offers a Venezuelan anarchist’s critique of the Bolivarian government of Venezuela and Hugo Chavez in particular. There are many endnotes for those interested in seeking further information or corroboration but most of them are in Spanish although El Libertario does have an English language section.

Included is a brief review of the oil industry through the various regimes; an industry the development and management of which resulted in mass migration of populations to oil-producing regions, seeking better employment, depopulating the countryside, turning an agricultural exporting country into a major importing country in a short space of time and followed by all the knock-on social and economic effects. The petroleum industry was originally nationalised in 1976, long before Chavez came to power. Then came a reversal of this policy starting in 1992 which involved employing ‘mixed-enterprises’, i.e. foreign companies’ investments. The mixed-enterprise policy was continued and expanded with transnational companies when Chavez came to power in 1998, the country’s economy being highly dependent on oil and gas as the main sources of wealth.

Much of the author’s criticism of Chavez is with regard to the many contradictions between his rhetoric and his actions; a president as leader of a vanguard movement cannot equate to socialism; his anti-imperialist rhetoric against the US whilst attempting to build a bloc in the south to counteract it; his top-down decrees for new organisations rather than encouraging real initiatives from the base. According to Izcategui, Chavez is just one more in a string of populist leaders: it is a well-established concept in Latin American countries – the role of the military strongman, the cult of the macho man, politics as a matter of urgency or emergency – everything starting anew with each new individual in power. The first ‘Bolivarian’ government, that of the Democratic Action Party between 1945-8, following a military coup which ceded power to civilians, saw a ‘new social order’ seeking to be inclusive, democratic and not corrupt. This was ended by another military coup. The author contends that the current regime is just one more phase in a kind of circular politics.

In a chapter discussing various social movements he strongly questions Chavez’s rhetoric, about the people becoming the subject and object of the revolution, for this has to be a question of ownership. Autonomy cannot be imposed from above; people have to want it and work for it. This is a recurring theme, that Chavez is very much about imposing his ideas from the top, ideas which in many areas don’t match what social groups are seeking for themselves, and that there is a gulf between words and results, between ideas and realisation. For instance, the communal councils are directly linked to Chavez’s executive power, not routed through municipal or parochial councils, and have direct government funding for their projects – a way of garnering and maintaining their support?

There have been many demonstrations and riots incurring various levels of restraint in Venezuela’s history often resulting in efforts at redistribution of oil wealth. Some of Izcategui’s examples and people’s personal testimonies are an effort to show the outside world that nothing much has changed with Chavez, that this still is a nationalist state with a neoliberal capitalist economy that leaves many of the population sidelined. He selects two self-labelled anarchists for particular criticism because having an international following they should be especially aware of the need for objectivity; Noam Chomsky and Michael Albert. He views them both as too ready to take Chavez and his government spokespersons at face value without checking the voices at the base of the supposed revolution.

It seems that, in the end, ‘21st century socialism’ comes down to a self-named revolutionary government, manipulating by rhetoric and an illusion of resistance and social mobilisation, but in reality following a well-trodden path culminating in different forms of resistance and social struggle which then become criminalised and persecuted. (Statistics provided in the book.) A movement attempting to distance itself from US hegemony it may be; anti-imperialist but not anti-capitalist. If it is nothing else, this book demonstrates the fundamental requirement that for true socialism to take hold the most important consideration is for the overwhelming majority of the working class to be aware of the need to develop to the full their socialist understanding and consciousness. Socialism is the ongoing task of the majority; it cannot work top down; it cannot be imposed and cannot be legislated for by one or more leaders or vanguard movement, however well-intentioned. If populist, charismatic, paternalistic and concentrated in the most subordinate sectors, using anti-elitist discourse and redistributive methods in a dependent client context with the aim of constructing a base to gain the support of the popular sector – then a socialist revolution it is not. Beware of wearing rose-tinted glasses.
Janet Surman

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