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Beacon of hope or smoke and mirrors?


Introduction
 
For many people on the left, within and outside of Southern Africa, the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ is seen as a beacon of socialist hope in a sea of capitalist despair [1]. The reason why many leftists feel so strongly attached to this project, and promote it as an alternative, is because they have come to view it as a move by the Venezuelan state towards creating a genuine, free form of socialism [2] or at the very least an experiment that profoundly breaks with the tenets of neo-liberalism [3] [4]. Many articles have, therefore, been written lauding the state’s nationalisation of some industries [5], its land distribution programmes [6], and its attempts to supposedly create participatory democracy in workplaces (through co-management and co-operatives) [7] and in communities (through community councils) [8]. Linked to this, a great deal has also been made of the state using some of revenue generated by the Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA)toroll out social services such as education, subsidised foodstuffs and healthcare [9]. Much ink has, consequently, been spilt arguing that all of these are socialist inspired moves and passionate calls have been made for other states, like the South African state, to adopt Venezuelan style ‘Socialism for the Twenty First Century’ [10].
 
This article, however, questions the assumption that the Venezuelan state is embarking upon a path to create a truly egalitarian and free socialist society. It will, therefore, be argued that Venezuela is not in a transitional phase to socialism; rather it is a capitalist country where the private sector and important state-owned companies seek to maximise profits. Indeed, it will be argued that while some welfare is handed out by the state, this often sits side by side with other policies that are outright neo-liberal. In order to make the argument that Venezuela cannot be considered as heading in a socialist direction, this article will engage and examine issues around the state’s nationalisation programme, its relations to multinational corporations, its community councils project and its social service programmes. Coupled to this, the nature of the economy will be looked at, including ownership patterns, and it will be critically considered whether or not the relations of production that define capitalism are being transformed into more socialist relations based on direct democracy, mutual aid and self-management in workplaces and communities. In fact, it will be argued, from an anarchist perspective, that unfortunately relations that define class rule and capitalism are not being eroded away by the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’: instead of an egalitarian society arising, it will be considered how and why an elite still exploit and oppress the working class. It will, therefore, be critically considered how and why class rule and capitalism, and even elements of neo-liberal capitalism, in Venezuelan society are not in the process of being eroded away. Far from being a beacon of hope the ‘Bolivarian process’ may be more correctly identified as a case of smoke and mirrors.
 
The Quagmire of the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’s’ rhetoric
 
There is no doubt that both the supporters and opponents of the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ feel passionately about the figure of Hugo Chavez and place him firmly at the centre of the ‘revolution’. The consequences of this are that many of the people commenting on Venezuela seldom go beyond Chavez’s and the state’s rhetoric and examine the actual practices of the state and the real conditions of workers and the poor. Part of the reason why focus tends to be heaped on what Chavez says, and not so much on what the state does or doesn’t do, is his charisma. Chavez is a great orator who has the ability to arouse strong emotions amongst the audiences that he addresses. One only has to think of the massive rallies that have taken place where he has regularly called upon people to embark upon a great battle against neo-liberalism and imperialism. As part of this, he has often presented himself as a great defender of the people: a man willing to live and die side by side with them for what he believes. The fact that Chavez, and the rhetoric he uses, looms large has contributed to a situation in which the actual conditions in Venezuela are often not critically examined, and as a result much of the analysis tends to be relatively shallow. In terms of this, the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ is often defended in polemical terms on the left and demonised on the right, with reality and facts sometimes having little impact. 
 
A good example of how facts are simply ignored can be seen in the pieces and papers of its right-wing opponents. For them, the reality that the ruling class, including Venezuelan capitalists, continue to enjoy an opulent lifestyle is simply ignored. Rather the focus is solely on the socialist and anti-imperialist rhetoric of Chavez. For right-wing opponents, Chavez has become seen as the devil incarnate: a man who is supposedly hell bent on destroying capitalism and imposing a totalitarian dictatorship. At times, Chavez has even been compared to Hitler by conservative opponents [11]. When one, nevertheless, rationally looks at the Chavez regime, it cannot in all honesty be successfully argued that it is a totalitarian dictatorship. As will be highlighted later, there are oppressive tendencies with regards to many of the actions of the state – mostly directed at workers and the poor – but Venezuela is still a bourgeois representative democracy. 
 
The irrationality that seems to surround interpretations of the ‘Bolivarian process’, nonetheless, are not limited to right-wing opponents. Supporters, especially those internationally and in southern Africa, have often unfortunately accepted the messages from Chavez and others in the state on face value. Some supporters, like Eva Golinger, have even defended the current state to the point of glorifying Chavez and almost suggesting that he could do no wrong [12] [13] [14] [15]. Even when mistakes are admitted, these have sometimes been defended on the basis that Venezuela faces imperialism and a tough external environment. Sometimes this also has gone hand in hand with blaming a corrupt or a treacherous bureaucracy and the old guard for the problems; while continuing to praise the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ without considering the structural realities that have led to the rise of a powerful bureaucracy in the first place [16]. A more nuanced version of this also comes from Marxists like Alan Woods who believe that while the revolution is still incomplete and reversible – and feel that a revolutionary party, revolutionary cadre and revolutionary leadership are needed to take tasks forward – Hugo Chavez is seen as being genuine about wanting socialism. They tend to see him as a real radical trying to charter a cautious path forward to prevent a ‘counter-revolution’, supported by the people, but surrounded on all sides by danger, which includes ‘Stalinists’ and ‘reformists’ manipulatively holding back the real revolution and preventing the working class from taking power [17]. Worse still, a minority of staunch international Chavistas see any questioning of the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ as heresy, and dismiss any criticisms out of hand as being counter-revolutionary and playing into the hands of imperialism. The actual content of the critical arguments that have been made by a minority of progressive analysts and activists are not even engaged by such Chavistas; when they have been, responses have often taken the form of unfounded personal attacks. Good examples of this have been the reactions of some leftists to the documentary, Nuestro Petroleo y Otros Cuentos, which highlighted the problems around the PDVSA and the oil industry [18].  Such attacks have tended to stifle debate and undermine the struggle for genuine socialism; of which freedom of expression, speech and debate form a central part.
 
Too often, therefore, some of the left supporters of Chavez have tended to be stuck in the quagmire of the rhetoric that has surrounded the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’. When one, though, ignores the rhetoric and critically examines reality, it becomes very difficult to argue that Venezuela is heading towards socialism or that there is some grand, but cautious plan to hand real power over to the working class in the long run. Most glaringly the reality that capitalism, including elements of neo-liberalism, continue to flourish in Venezuela cannot be denied.
 
The ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ and Minority Property Ownership
 
Many of the left writers who support the Venezuelan state have often praised the Bolivarian Constitution as progressive and even in some cases they have described it as a step towards socialism [19]. The Constitution does include clauses that, on paper, commit the state to protect and further the rights of people, communities and the environment. Within the document there are also clauses that pay lip service to the idea of participatory democracy and the full development of human beings. Sections also promote the role of the state within the economy (which as will be argued later, however, does not amount to socialism). For some leftists these clauses are seen as evidence of the progressive nature of the Constitution and in their writings it is these clauses that they choose to highlight [20].
 
Important sections of the Bolivarian Constitution, nonetheless, also enshrine the protection of minority property including state-ownership and private property [21]. The implications of this should not be disregarded. By protecting and recognising the right of a minority to own most of the property, the Bolivarian Constitution also commits the state to uphold the unequal relations that flow from this. Unequal power relations are the basis of a class society. For anarchists, the ruling class consists of two sections, capitalists and state managers, who monopolise wealth and power. As such, state managers derive most of their power by controlling the means of administration and coercion (along with sometimes controlling and owning the means of production through the state), while capitalists’ source of power rests largely upon directly owning the means of production – for which private property rights are essential.  Indeed, it has long been recognised by anarchists that minority property rights, whether based on private property or state ownership, are one of the main foundations on which the capitalist system rests [22]. Property rights generate and maintain a class system defined by a situation where an elite owns most of the property; while a majority has little or nothing. The fact that an elite few have a monopoly, protected by the state, over the ownership of the means of production also allows them to exercise power over the majority who, by design, have very little. As such, property rights create and entrench a process whereby those who do not own prope

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