Which Way?

1. In your recent article, "Which Way Venezuela," you share a large amount of information on some of the reforms currently underway in Venezuela, but for most of the article pose a series of questions, which point to the fundamental issue of whether Venezuela is on a path of social democratic reform that will revitalize capitalism or is it on the path to real transformation, which you might call participatory economy, and I might call socialism. What, if any, is your assessment of this issue with regard to Venezuela?


My feeling is exactly what I put in the article which is to say, I am very hopeful, but I lack sufficient information to be more than hopeful. I wasn’t saying that only others need more information, though many other people do, of course. I also don’t know enough to have clarity about where Venezuela is headed. 


Yes, I did offer considerable little known information, most of which, I think, is very positive and hopeful. It is strange but true, however, given the incredible importance of what is occurring in Venezuela, that many people, even on the left, know very little about the country and its struggles. Even among those who have access to all the available information, and who have some or even a lot of first hand experience in Venezuela, few, I think, could provide evidentiary background and policy aims, plans, and projects, including their basis and logic and vision, that are either underway or are in preparation, that compellingly and convincingly address the various points I raised in the essay. Of course, there are lots of reasons for this, but my point was, whatever the obstacles to greater clarity are, to the extent that there could be more clarity, it would have great benefits.


Regarding labels, I would call the type society that I hope Venezuela is moving toward, and the type I would like to help attain, participatory society – and I would call that type of society’s economy, participatory economy. Why not use the word socialism? Well, there are a few reasons. 


Socialism insofar as people describe it institutionally, is overwhelming just an economic goal and I don’t think we should conflate it with the whole of society. Indeed, doing this mistakenly implies that having economic aims is sufficient to deal with kinship, cultural, political, and other basic defining features as well as with features of the economy. This is an old error that lives on in this terminological confusion, I think. 


But, further, I try to avoid using the word socialism even solely for the economy. I think this is quite analogous to when Chavez, for example, says he is for Twenty First Century Socialism. I assume that label means he wants to acknowledge that he likes the underlying sentiments of many historic socialists and socialist movements but he doesn’t want to align with what they have institutionally put in place. Okay, I agree. But I think using the word at all causes way too many people to think of typical socialist structures including markets and or central planning, corporate divisions of labor, class division between empowered and disempowered economic actors, remuneration for output or power, and other features as well, all of which I, and I hope Chavez also, reject. It seems to me, if – and it is of course still an if – we want a new kind of economy that is really classless, that doesn’t have markets or central planning, that doesn’t have the old typical division of labor and old norms of remuneration, class divisions, and so on, then we would do well to give what we seek a new name as well as a full description. 


If I said I was for an equitable, just, and humane capitalism, you would say that’s absurd because the institutions of capitalism – private ownership, markets, corporations, etc. etc. – preclude equity, justice, and humanity. If I then said, but I don’t want those institutions, you would reply, I bet, great – but then don’t call what you seek capitalism by which nearly everyone means a system with those institutions. I think if you said this to someone saying they want humane capitalism, you would be right.


Now if you say to me that you are for an equitable, just, and humane socialism, I say back, but the institutions of socialism – markets or central planning, corporate divisions of labor, top down economic decision making, remuneration for power and or output, etc. – preclude equity, justice, and humanity. If you then say, but I don’t want those institutions, I reply, great – but then don’t call what you seek socialism, by which nearly everyone means a system with those institutions. And I think that stance is sensible even without even bothering to mention that insofar as we expand our view beyond the economy, socialism has typically meant a one party state or even harsh dictatorship, cultural homogenization, and continued patriarchy. 


It is of course largely semantics, but there is also a real underlying issue. If what we want is truly different than what has gone under the label socialism, great, but then why not specify it sufficiently to make that difference very clear, and why not use words that highlight rather than confuse the key points?


2. Do you think the Marxist tradition’s metaphor of quantitative changes adding up to qualitative transformation (as Marx indicated ushered feudalism into capitalism) might be useful in explaining the potential outcome of the systematic social reforms being put in place in Venezuela?


I don’t think that phrase means much. It can’t help one predict, or probably explain, anything. For example, what causes a pile of accumulating little alterations to trigger, or to add up to, something more fundamental? Well, it most certainly is not merely that there are lots of changes piling up. Lots of changes pile up, in society, and in history, all the time. Every day, week, and month – always. So if that alone meant there would be qualitative transformation, then there would always be qualitative transformation. Instead, of course, it is most often the case that small- if you want to call them quantitative, fine – changes take place but accommodate or reproduce qualitative defining relations, in no sense overthrowing them, but instead typically bolstering them. 


So the answer is no to the general question. For me what matters isn’t quantitative changes piling up, but whether changes are evolutionary – fitting the current defining relations – or revolutionary – militating against and tending to undermine or replace the current defining relations, even if only a little. 


But my guess is that behind that general issue, you are asking in this specific case, could the many policy innovations and alterations occurring in Venezuela add up to a revolutionary transformation of that society’s basic institutions? And of course the answer is yes, they could – but it is also, which is the point of the article, no, they might not. 


That is, if we take a positive attitude about what is occurring, a hopeful one, then we will feel that the many changes are aimed at fundamental alterations, just in a careful way that avoids violence and chaos as much as possible. But if we take a less hopeful view then we will feel that the many changes are addressing serious problems and bettering the lot of suffering people, to be sure, but either not leading toward basic transformations or, if they are leading away from existing relations, leading to new ones that are suboptimal.


3. How important is it that the state, under the Chavez administration, is an apparent ally of workers who want to rebuild their economic structures, communities, and so on through building cooperatives and the like?


Well, of course it is incredibly important. Which would you rather, to live in Argentina and take over a factory and have the state immediately seek ways to undermine and reverse your efforts – or to live in Venezuela and have the state urge you on to enlarge, diversify, and extend your efforts? That said, there is also a danger, of course, in that innovations could become subordinate to new statist centralizing structures – that is one of the key issues about which we don’t know enough to have confidence. About that and related issues, I hope, and I think I have some good reason to hope, that the efforts to create communal councils are a sincere attempt to replace old state forms with a new kind of self managing polity. But, there are also contrary tendencies, and even this experiment could be only partial, or twisted from good to bad implications, depending on how things unfold as well as on what the underlying intentions really are, not just for Chavez, but for different constituencies, etc. 


4. Generalizing from the specific situation of Venezuela, your article highlights the conundrum that puzzles many leftists to this day: the contradiction between reform and revolution. What is your thought on this idea?


I think the question is posed a tiny bit wrong. The issue isn’t reform or revolution, it is reformism or revolution. Why do I say that? 


Well, which revolutionary, in what country, when, would be against ending a horrible war, or redressing bad conditions with higher wages, or shorter work time, or having affirmative action, and on and on. None, of course. So revolutionaries are not against reforms. The only person against progressive reforms is someone who seeks to enhance only the well being of the powerful and rich. 


But if revolutionaries favor, and work for, reforms, what distinguishes them from reformists? 


The reformist fights for an end to a war, or better wages, or for new taxes that are progressive, or a for new law that is good, affirmative action, say, or whatever else, and does so as an end unto itself. The reformist takes for granted that underlying defining features of society are not going to change. Because of that belief, in the reformist’s view, there is no need, indeed it would distract from viable concerns, to worry about making such changes, just as there is no need and it would distract from viable concerns to be trying to help people flap their arms and fly instead of working on real modes of transport, say. It would be nice if the wonderful thing happened, but in fact it isn’t going to happen, so we shouldn’t waste time trying for it, and in fact, we should even deter others from trying, and we should do what we do based on knowing that things are not going to fundamentally change. That’s the reformist viewpoint.


The revolutionary is very different. He or she might fight for the exact same reform as the reformist, but will do so very differently. The revolutionary believes underlying defining institutions can be changed and wishes to contribute to that change. So the revolutionary doesn’t fight for a reform as an end unto itself, but first because it will help people, of course, and then second, also, in ways designed to cause constituencies to seek more changes after winning, to develop organization and structure and aspirations and commitments leading toward the new defining relations. The idea is to fight for and win the reform in a non reformist way, in a revolutionary way, that leads forward.


5. Shifting subjects, your article appeared at the new ZNet Web site. Can you talk a little about the new site, what readers can find/do there, and what convinced the ZNet crew to make these significant changes? How do you see online activism today, its role in generating political and social change? And has the left here really gotten a good grasp of its full potential? If not, why not, and what will change that?


That’s a lot to try to answer. The new site is far easier to navigate and traverse than the old, has more video and audio, but mostly has way more interactivity and participation. Users can comment, have blogs, upload photos and photo albums, chat with one another, instant message their friends or workmates, and on and on – with more features coming. Our effort is to have what we call ZSpace become like myspace or facebook, in features, but without commercialism and with serious content and mutual respect. And then we hope leftists, all over, will benefit from using it, including group pages, calendars, forums, blogs, and so on. 


Basically, when ZNet was born it was innovative technically, and also, I think, for its content. But as the years passed, while the content kept pace and developed, the technology of the site did not. We have now remedied that, I believe, not only with what is there right now, but by having a new infrastructure that facilitates continued change. For example, despite just having done this immense combination of innovation and makeover, we are already hard at work on new features – in particular, for example, users are going to be able to very easily create their own personal versions of ZNet, featuring the content they want easy access to, and likewise for their personal ZSpace page, not to mention using our new online school, among other new features coming soon. 


I think online activity has major benefits for inexpensive communication and participation. But fully utilizing these possibilities is still a hope, not something in place. ZCom, the encompassing system that we have, is used by about 300,000 people weekly. But still only a relatively small number, thousands and sometimes only hundreds or less, use features that, if they were they used by everyone, could have immense benefits. I am thinking of means of people communicating with one another, making shared plans, addressing one another’s views in deep and sustained ways, sharing content, even taking courses, entering preferences in polls and other facilities, etc. 


I am not sure what will change the extent that people partake of options – if I knew, we would do it. The obstacle may be time as most people suggest is the case, but I actually think not. So the same person who says they have no time for some kind of left interactivity, or community, or whatever – may do facebook, or may read things of marginal benefit, and so on. My own feeling is that the obstacle is more tenacious and disturbing. I think people feel funny, or alienated, or fooloish, doing leftward things. People are so skeptical of the efficacy of anything leftist that their doubts create a self fulfilling prophecy. I won’t answer a poll, I won’t use a forum, I won’t take a course, I won’t upload pictures, won’t share my opinions, won’t search for people who live near me with views like mine who I can work with – and so on and so forth – because, well, it seems so futile to expect anything good to emerge from leftists efforts and acting as if there is potential makes me look like I am unrealistic. 


I know that is an odd and vague answer, but I think it is where the real problem lies… and how to create a feeling that far from being unrealistic, pursuing online and offline left ties and projects and activism is not only moral, but wise, and feels that way, is the real task we face – but not an easy thing to do.

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