Excerpted from Dario Azzellini:
“In January 2007, Chávez proposed to go beyond the bourgeois state by building the communal state. He thus picked up and applied more widely a concern originating with anti-systemic forces. The main idea was to form council structures of all kinds (communal councils, communes, and communal cities, for example), as bottom up structures of self-administration. Councils of workers, students, peasants, and women, among others, would then have to cooperate and coordinate on a higher level in order to gradually replace the bourgeois state with a communal state. According to the National Plan for Economic and Social Development 2007-2013, “since sovereignty resides absolutely in the people, the people can itself direct the state, without needing to delegate its sovereignty as it does in indirect or representative democracy.”4
The notion of a separation between “civil society” and “political society”—as expressed, for example, by NGOs—is thus rejected. The focus is rather upon fostering the potential and the direct capacity of the popular base to analyze, decide, implement, and evaluate what is relevant to its life. The constituent power is embodied in councils, in the institutions of popular power, and in the basic concept of the communal state. As was proposed in the constitutional reform that was rejected in the 2007 referendum, the future communal state must be subordinated to popular power, which replaces bourgeois civil society.5 This would overcome the rift between the economic, the social, and the political—between civil society and political society—which underlies capitalism and the bourgeois state. It would also prevent, at the same time, the over-centralization that characterized the countries of “real socialism.”
The communal councils are a non-representative structure of direct democracy and the most advanced mechanism of self-organization at the local level in Venezuela. In 2013, approximately 44,000 communal councils had been established throughout the country. Since the new constitution of 1999 defined Venezuela as a “participative and protagonistic democracy,” a variety of mechanisms for the participation of the population in local administration and decision-making have been experimented with. In the beginning they were connected to local representative authorities and integrated into the institutional framework of representative democracy. Competing on the same territory as local authorities and depending on the finances authorized by those bodies, the different initiatives showed little success.
Communal councils began forming in 2005 as an initiative “from below.” In different parts of Venezuela, rank-and-file organizations, on their own, promoted forms of local self-administration named “local governments” or “communitarian governments.” During 2005, one department of the city administration of Caracas focused on promoting this proposal in the poor neighborhoods of the city. In January 2006, Chávez adopted this initiative and began to spread it. On his weekly TV show, “Aló Presidente,” Chávez presented the communal councils—consejos comunales—as a kind of “good practice.” At this point some 5,000 communal councils already existed. In April 2006, the National Assembly approved the Law of Communal Councils, which was reformed in 2009 following a broad consulting process of councils’ spokespeople. The communal councils in urban areas encompass 150-400 families; in rural zones, a minimum of 20 families; and in indigenous zones, at least 10 families. The councils build a non-representative structure of direct participation that exists parallel to the elected representative bodies of constituted power…. “