Another Left Turn In Venezuela

On the top page of ZNet, in the box in the center column labeled Venezuela, for example, you will see some interviews, including one with Julio Chavez, Carlos Lanz, and Fernando Torrealba respectively, at the time of the interviews, Mayor of Carora in Venezuela, Venezuelan vice minister of Education and former activist within the economy, and Supreme Court Justice, again, in Venezuela.

In addition, on the Audio page linked from the ZNet top page under the ZNet tab, you will see a link as well to a talk by myself and one by Noam Chomsky – both recorded at an event at MIT a week ago, where Julio Chavez spoke as well, but in Spanish, so that his talk isn’t online as yet.

I draw your attention to these pieces because of their special cumulative relevance to the discussion below.


The Bolivarian Revolution 

The development of the Bolivarian Revolution, including using the institutional gains achieved to date to meet human needs and develop popular potentials via humane policies, as well as establishing further institutional gains, has encountered three major obstacles: residual capitalists, residual oligarchic government, and residual mainstream media.

Many people look at Venezuela as an established society of the future and ask, okay, what are its features, what are their benefits and costs, are they worthy, do they meet our most exalted desires? This is a mistake.

Revolutions take time to undertake gigantic transformations of attitudes, habits, and structures. Usually a revolution takes many years, or even decades, to increase popular commitment and raise popular consciousness, as well as win positive improvements – finally reaching a turning point where mass consciousness is sufficiently high, aroused desire is sufficiently high, and organized movements are as a result able to direct development thereafter not from a position of opposition, but due to being in possession of organized power.

Venezuela, however, is different. The Bolivarian revolution – its period of extensive struggle and strife aimed at raising consciousness and enlarging commitment while winning policies to meet needs, pretty much began with Chavez taking national office, or more accurately when he later moved from being a populist progressive reformer president to being a revolutionary president.

In other words, the organizing and struggling associated with developing a revolutionary path while being an opposition force is occurring now in Venezuela, but with a President and large parts of the federal government assisting the process rather than obstructing it. This federal support speeds things up, dramatically. The reason is evident. Would you rather have a government that welcomes your activism and defends your occupation of a factory – or one that crushes it? And in Venezuela‘s case the odd fact of the government being part of the process rather than opposing the process has also dramatically reduced violence and violent conflict, though the reactionary opposition would like to reverse that trend.

So viewed in this manner Venezuela is a gigantic cauldron of diverse perspectives – including many left orientations but also owners wanting to go backwards, media who are incredibly reactionary, and also old governors and mayors, who are sometimes quite reactionary, but who are more often, by now, rather progressive or even seriously leftist, but nonetheless not eager to give up their own power. They mostly see themselves as the repository of social wisdom and do not see the people as the leadership – and they therefore think good government is authoritative government, rather than good government being people’s power, which is, of course, an obstacle to desired gains.

So what do I mean by pointing to the three residual phenomena – owners, oligarchic officials, and media – as obstacles? Well, the minute you view the current cauldron that is Venezuela as a giant mult-polar struggle for attitudes, allegiances, and structures, the meaning of these features being obstacles becomes clear.

Obstructions to Success

Owners obstruct government efforts to meet needs and redress grievances. There are endless examples, but consider construction companies that won’t build for the poor, or cement manufacturers that ship their product abroad rather than having it used to build for the poor at home. In other words it isn’t just that these residual owners cling to their control of their own still privately held firms and accumulate wealth for themselves that should have social benefit. It is that they also actively impede the revolution, withholding their assets and also trying to subvert Bolivarian efforts at serving the broad public.

The impact of many of the mayors and governors is similar, though now often not so overt or malevolent. These officials of the old style government are supposed to work to build communal councils. They are supposed to work to enlarge the knowledge and confidence of their constituencies, and they are supposed to turn over steadily more political power to those constituencies, which means to the broad population via their grass roots organizations and particularly their communal councils. That is what the federal constitution mandates but instead, and this is their obstructive aspect, many residual officials cling to the prerogatives and perks of power. Sometimes they hold on to oligarchic authority sincerely, though paternalistically, believing that it is better for the country that they rule than if the populace were to decide its own fate. Other times they are just being greedy and power hungry.

Similarly, the privately held media marshals its resources, with marginal attention to truth, to build fear and doubt, and to manipulate by lies, again obstructing consciousness development and even trying to reverse existing gains.

These three obstacles to change – residual owners, oligarchic government, and media – not only slow progress, therefore, they potentially even threaten the success of the Bolivarian Revolution. How can they have such profound negative impact?

The public hears wonderful sentiments from President Chavez and others, and sees wonderful innovations like the literacy and educational missions, the Bolivarian University, and the communal councils, but over time the public also begins to wonder, why hasn’t more been done? Why are there still big problems with crime and cronyism? Why aren’t there more new homes for the poor? How come I still don’t have power? And with delays in delivery, eventually, momentum ebbs and hope gets hurt. At that point, the fear mongering of the media gains some traction, and support begins to sag a bit rather than grow much greater.

In the most recent election the Bolivarian agenda won 55/45, but why not 60/40 or 70/30, or even better? Why doesn’t support keep climbing? The answer isn’t mainly because the revolution can’t appeal more widely. It is that the revolution is constantly obstructed, restricted, and defamed, and the public doesn’t always realize that it is old private owners, old oligarchic officials, and old style media, who are at fault. In fact, even those who do realize the source of delay, still sometimes wonder, okay, its the counter revolutionaries, but why doesn’t the revolution deal with this and move on?

So what is to be done?

Removing the Obstacles

This is without doubt a delicate problem. President Chavez and other Bolivarian revolutionaries want to avoid harsh and even deadly conflict. They want the Bolivarian process to be one of debate. They want the contest of the Bolivarian future with the capitalist past to be about ideas and models. They want it waged without force, instead won by reason and the weight of evidence. However, their opponents use every opportunity to obstruct, to sabotage, to lie, and that kind of opposition is hard to work around. The government delivers worthy policies and innovations that would increase Bolivarian support. The old residual elements, seeking to go back to the past, try to delay or prevent or pervert the humane changes, while arousing fear and doubt. At some point, when support has become wide and deep enough, steps will presumably need to be taken to change the residual obstructive features. The people at the heart of that activity are not going to be won over by reason and evidence alone. Will the change come soon enough to prevent lagging hope from derailing the Bolivarian process? That is the big question. The still private property must transform. The still oligarchic government officials and structures must transform. The still old style private media must transform. And these three changes must occur before the continuing presence of these obstructions do too much damage.

One problem with the final push toward dealing with these obstacles is having a clear idea of what to transform the residual features into. What is a better way to deal with property, political power, and communications? Having such vision is essential to escape the past not just by periodically punishing reaction, but by positively seeking innovation.

Regarding the economy, this vision is very clearly emerging in Venezuela, though of course still in process of development and still being debated (see the interview on ZNet with Carlos Lanz, for example). The emerging vision is about seeking and attaining worker, community, and consumer control over economic choices via self managing councils. It is about attaining equitable income distribution, plus an end to class division based on property or based on, as Lanz indicates, a division of labor that consigns the many to obey a few. And it is also about developing non authoritarian, non competitive allocation compatible with equity and self management, which I suspect will wind up being participatory planning.

At some point the innovative newly socialist parts of the economy will be pushed and pulled even more strongly toward these or closely related aims, and perhaps even more important, the old residual parts of the economy, currently still privately held, will transform as well. For example, imagine a decree that says, broadly, any privately held firm that refuses to engage in production for the social good, or that diverts its product away from use for the social good, or that excessively denies the dignity and rightful influence of its employees or neighbors, as assessed by Venezuela’s network of communal councils, loses its private status and is turned over to its employees as a new socialist institution. Or that, at least, is what the Lanz interview leads me to believe is the kind of alteration that may be coming in the not to distant future.

Regarding the polity or governing institutions, again, I think in Venezuela there is a very clearly emerging positive goal, perhaps by now even more clear than its economic counterpart mentioned above. The aim in this case is people’s power based on a federation of local communal assemblies – 50,000 of them – countrywide. This is about participation but is also about preparation, as in citizens having valid and relevant information and means to process that information so as to arrive at opinions and so as to then agitate for them and register desires with real self managing influence. And this brings us back to the earlier mention of the work of Julio Chavez and the interview with him and event where he spoke. It is because as mayor of Carora he was steadfastly and vigorously aggressive about assisting the creation of communal councils, about aiding the population in becoming more confident and aware, and then, most remarkably, about jettisoning his power to the communal councils.

Indeed, I think Julio Chavez’s efforts spell out at least the main contours of the political framework of a new type of people’s power at the heart of a new type of polity, and thus provide texture for the goal toward which the President could require other states and cities to move as the only way to demonstrate their Bolivarian commitment, and more important the only way to lawfully serve their constituents. This step would mean not only bringing to fruition the creative experimental work that has been done to date, but transforming residual old oligarchic government structures so they can no longer obstruct progress. This is what the Julio Chavez interview led me to hope for and anticipate.

And now we come to the last pillar of reaction, the media. Here I think the issue is to realize that free speech is not a tiny group of rich people controlling the major organs of communication for the whole society, much less those few people lock stepping the media into opposition to progress and into promoting fear and obstruction. Please, in this regard, see the interview with Justice Fernando Torrealba and also regarding very interesting legal issues in Venezuela. But what is to replace the old style media?

I think here the Bolivarian Revolution has the least developed view of an alternative. Yet, there are instances of popular media in Venezuela operating with grassroots administration and utilizing grass roots information, as well, and I suspect the answer is evident in those projects, but writ large. What needs to happen to the old media, most likely, is that it becomes a new people’s media. This doesn’t mean all opposition journalists and commentators lose their media access. It means, instead, that the media as institutions is made popular. The institutions, tv, print, radio, are altered so they are run and organized with workers control and with consumer input too, just like other production units. And of course opposition voices should remain in the mix, and perhaps they should even be subsidized beyond their proportion in society. But the entire media apparatus should not be an agency for lying and fear mongering. That aspect of media must end, naturally. And we should realize, and it should be made abundantly clear, that if something like this path is taken, that it is not only not a flight away from free speech, as Justice Torrealba clarifies, but it is a flight toward free speech. This, or something broadly like it, would be the third leg of a diverse program to overcome the three primary obstacles to furthering the Bolivarian Revolution.

The reactionary past, at some point, must be left to history, present only in museums – while Venezuela journeys into the future.


As I completed this article, I heard from Venezuelan friends that the second part of the above mentioned tripartite agenda of change has recently begun. President Chavez convened a major meeting at which I have heard he held up Carora’s experience – Julio Chavez’s model – as the type of government model to be enacted throughout the country for the future. The meeting was of governors, mayors, and legislators and it seems to have essentially called upon them to work to make Venezuelan government an extension of communal people’s power, with the mayors and governors giving up their authoritative power, perhaps even as a precondition to continue serving their constituencies as agents of popular will.

If true, this is a very aggressive and ambitious turn toward a new style of truly participatory grassroots polity. If such an effort succeeds, in my view, it will be an amazing step forward. If comparably radical advances can occur regarding the residual property and residual media problems, the Bolivarian Revolution will be poised to become an incredible beacon of rapidly advancing potentials for people all over the world.

Leave a comment