Participation and Caudillismo in Venezuela

I know Gregory Wilpers from years ago, through his works on integral politics, an attempt to go beyond the left-right divide. I lost touch with Gregory when he moved to Venezuela, and heard of him again through a book he wrote on Chavez. It is entitled “Changing Venezuela by Taking Power

Venezuela is a country that sends out mixed signals, on the one hand there is a lot of grassroots participation, but also a strong presidency that seems to move in clear authoritarian ways …

Wilpert book’s tackles these contradictions straight on:

The heart of the book, Chapters 2 to 5, provide detailed descriptions and analyses of the governance policy, economic policy, social policy, and foreign policy of the Chavez government and the extent to which the Chavez government manages to approximate institutions that fulfill the ideals Chavez talks about. In all four policy areas there are clear indications that indeed the government is pursuing innovative policies that transcend the institutions of capitalism as usual. However, these policies are often contradicted or undermined by contravening policy tendencies. For example, while the Chavez government has embarked on an important project of increasing citizen participation in a wide variety of state institutions, it has also increased the importance and strength of the presidency, which tends to undermine the participatory policies. In the area of economic policy, the government has gone a long way towards establishing economic democracy, but the high oil revenues upon which many of these policies depend, threaten the long-term viability of self-managed enterprises in Venezuela. These types of contradictions exist in all of the main policy areas examined here.

However, in addition to the frequent problem of contradictory policies, there are even deeper obstacles lurking within the Bolivarian socialist project, which have to do with the Bolivarian movement itself. The last chapter, “Opportunities, Obstacles, Prospects,” discusses these obstacles and finds that the three most important obstacles for the Chavez government’s project are the persistence of a patronage culture, the nascent personality cult around Chavez, and Chavez’s own autocratic instincts, which undermine the creation of a participatory society. If Venezuelan society and the Chavez government manage to resolve these three key issues that are internal to the Bolivarian movement, if the policies themselves are made more consistent, and if there is no significant outside interference, then Venezuela might well be the greatest hope for establishing freedom, equality, and social justice in over a generation. ”

What to think of 21st cy socialism, proposed by Chavez?

Gregory Wilpert:

“Unfortunately, Chavez has not clearly defined 21st century socialism, other than to say that it is about establishing liberty, equality, social justice, and solidarity. He has also indicated that it is distinctly different from state socialism. However, such ideals, by themselves, make 21st century socialism indistinguishable from most other social projects of the 20th and 21st century. Surely, what distinguishes 21st century socialism would have to be the institutions it aims to create, not the ideals it is pursuing. At heart, such institutions would be characterized by their democratic and participatory nature. Also, if one establishes that the economic institutions of capitalism-of private ownership of the means of production, the market system, and pro-capitalist state-are incapable of fulfilling society’s ideals, then the new institutions must clearly distinguish themselves from these institutions. This chapter goes on to outline what non-capitalist, perhaps 21st century socialist, political and economic institutions could look like.”

Gregory explains the motivations in writing the book:

My hope is that the book will have an impact, first, among progressives, to show to them that something very important is happening in Venezuela today, something that holds extremely important lessons for the left and for our conceptions of how we might want to organize a better society. Also, I hope that progressives would learn to see Venezuela not in the purely black and white terms that it is usually seen in, as either “the” revolution of our times that is doing everything right or as the result of a typical Latin American populist and demagogue who is imposing authoritarian rule in the name of socialism. Clearly, my perspective on Venezuela is closer to the former, but I also try to introduce some elements of realism by showing that not everything is working that fantastically in Chavez’s Venezuela and that there are some real dangers ahead that could lead this amazing experience astray. I would thus be happy if more progressives embraced what is happening in Venezuela, but that they did not embrace it uncritically.

This is a very tricky subject, of course, because often people believe solidarity should not be critical or should be without reservations because anything else would be an imposition of our own imperial views on another people. This is true, in a sense, if we are clear about who we are in solidarity with – the government or the people. Of course, if the answer is, “with the people,” then critical support for the Chavez government is, in my opinion, the only kind of support one should give. This is the perspective I try to take in my book and my analysis takes me to precisely this kind of critical support. I thus hope my book will draw more people into supporting the Chavez government, but that they do so with their eyes wide open, unlike what all too often happened with earlier socialist movements, such as with the Russian Revolution.

My second hope is that this book might have an impact in the broader culture (beyond progressives), in moving it away from the mostly negative conception of current events in Venezuela and to appreciate that there is a sincere effort to create a society that is neither capitalist, nor social democratic, nor state socialist, but wants to create a new kind of socialism, a more participatory socialism for the 21st century.

The real test of success of this book’s efforts (and that of others like it) would be if it were able to avert further U.S. intervention in Venezuela. A failure would be continued or intensified U.S. intervention and the eventual defeat of the Chavez government as a result of such intervention.

Also, I am aiming this book at Venezuelan readers (it has been translated and will soon be published in Venezuela), in the hope that Venezuelans too might gain something from this analysis – that die hard “Chavistas” might stop confusing Chavez with the people and that die-hard opposition people might see that most of what the government has done has benefited the country’s poor majority. Also, I hope that the book will contribute to the discussion within Venezuela and around the world as to what might constitute “21st century socialism” and whether the government’s policies are really heading in that direction.”

Here is a more critical review of the book

In a recent email, Gregory mentions that ” I’ll send you the appendix, though, where I mention your work and which provides my conception of 21st century socialism.”

I’m of course curious as to the possible connection with P2P Theory and so may return to the topic soon.

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