Sunday, 31 January 2010
CHAVISM: THE ART OF AVOIDING THE WORST
Venezuela’s political and social evolution arouses many discussions, including within the anti-authoritarian socialist milieu where positions range from more or less critical support to the Chavez government to a sharp rejection of its principles and functioning.
This text was written after a debate who took place in Paris, summer of 2006, with two Venezuelan comrades. A., an unemployed metal worker now living in the informal economy and C., a teacher in a small provincial village, were formerly activists in the national liberation movements, which they have critiqued. In contrast to most of these group’s members, who have joined up with the “Chavist” project to constitute its local and national activists today, A. and C. were among those who chose engagement with rank and file struggles putting forth antiauthoritarian socialist demands and making workers’ autonomous activity central.
The debate followed the presentation of Ressler and Azzelini’s 2006 film, Five Factories: Worker Control in Venezuela.
This film highlights a little-known aspect of the Venezuelan regime today, the changes introduced by the new government in the area of production. Through interviews and testimonies of “administrators” and workers, the film shows working conditions in five workplaces where a form of management was set-up that some people, like the film makers, have called “workers’ control”.
This was a chance to publicly debate a document which avoided strictly ideological confrontations and tackled the concrete conditions of the social reproduction of life in the current situation.
In order to discuss the recent developments in Venezuela one needs to approach them in a larger historical perspective.
The “thirty glorious years” weren’t only glorious for the capitalists in developed countries but for Latin America’s too. Latin American capitalists followed Keynesian policies of state intervention which supported heavy industrialization and important economic and social modernization. If rural migration exceeded demands for a work force in the cities, the view that social mobility was rising wasn’t simply an illusion: the middle layers developed rapidly. The “anti-imperialist national liberation movements” represented, to a certain extent, those layers seeking to benefit from this evolution and hoping to eventually accelerate it without being so subordinate to world market conditions dominated by the U.S.
The Keynesian model unraveled worldwide, but spread to Latin America in the 1980s with the external debt crisis. The neo-liberal policies that followed
trapped slum inhabitants and worsened wages and material conditions in the middle layers, with the Soviet bloc’s collapse and subsequent reunification of a worldwide market heightening this tendency even more. Populist policies disappeared and poverty spread widely in the exploited classes. Those political forces which relied on Soviet strategy to resist North American domination found themselves weakened and collapsed one after the other. The terrible results from these “experiments” in free market capitalism opened up a new period of uprisings and social upheavals of which the Chiapas revolt and the Argentine workers’ rebellions were two significant moments. As a result of these developments, a new generation of political forces rose to power mingling populism and calls for returning to state intervention in society.
In a short explanation, C. came back to this analysis to show more specifically the meaning of the Chavez project.
Venezuela in the last years of the 20th century was characterized by the population’s progressive loss of confidence in the institutions. The parliamentary system no longer responded to social demands and hopes. More and more wealth was concentrated in the hands of a small circle of exploiters, who monopolized equally political power from the government to parliament. Oil income, shrinking because of a fall in oil prices, was even more an object of looting by a section of the bourgeoisie. Increasing corruption thus became one of the defining features of the last two Venezuelan governments of the Fourth Republic.
In February 1989, a popular revolt, lasting several days, uncovered how widespread was the discontent. The revolt was drowned in blood, counting hundreds of victims. But if this revolt forced the bourgeoisie to give in to wage and other demands, it also forced through needed overhauls to the democratic system. Some years later in 1996, the bosses and government with union and Socialist Party support, launched a new attack on workers, modifying the Labor Code calculating social benefits seen by Venezuelan workers as an important social right.  The role played by Petkoff, the Socialist Party minister lingered in people’s memories . Meanwhile, a secret network grew within the military, merging nationalist with Bolivarian themes. This organization focused its opposition to the government on corruption and State repression, not exploitation.
Two attempted military coups against the government in February and November of 1992 brought Hugo Chavez to the public eye. Very quickly, Chavez emerged as someone capable of giving an answer to the discontent in different social layers: how to save the democratic regime? How to channel popular discontent towards the institutions?
Once in power, Chavez didn’t hide his intentions: “I am there to avoid the worse!,” the first actions of his government aiming to reorganize democratic capitalist institutions. The 1999 Constitution was the cherry on the cake, a “Bolivarian Constitution” becoming the new reference point which restored hope to a section of the bourgeoisie by permitting supervision of demonstrations, protests and disobedience from the population. But for this strategy to become a reality, it was necessary for Chavez to launch an even bolder politics founded on demagogy, populism, radical language and personal irreverence. The savior must appear as “The Savior” in people’s eyes. A military man coming from a poor background, of mestizo origin, Chavez was the man for the situation, because it must not be forgotten how caudillismo (leaderism) weighs heavily in Venezuela’s history.
Putting in place a program designed to distribute a small fraction of oil earnings required two conditions. First, the programs must encourage the feeling that social change was taking place. From now on, the “Bolivarian” state must clearly appear as the decision maker, thus, the well known “missions” in education, health, employment, housing and food distribution. In all these programs, decisions are made from above, the point of view of those concerned counts for nothing except if it goes along with decisions already made. The “new” democracy thus looks like a gloss over the old representative democracy.
In the reknowned “Bolivarian Revolution”, unemployment, low wages and insecurity dominate individuals’ lives. The everyday life of Venezuelan workers is reproduced in a quite specific framework: a monthly salary of $170 in the best of cases, half the population informally employed (which implies precariousness of work) under constant threat from gangs and the police. But at the same time, increasing corruption goes on, the new layers of the “Chavist” socialist bureaucracy enriching itself openly and publicly.
For the Venezuelan comrades, the film of Azzelini and Ressler seems to be primarily aimed at an European public unaware of the situation. The film is poorly or not at all known in Venezuela and the Venezuelan comrades discovered it in Europe. A. said that one of his friends working in a factory shown in the film wasn’t aware of the film’s existence. In a humorous and significant detail, one of the main figures in the film, the new boss of a metal factory under “self-management,” is a former leftist leader who was one of their fellow inmates in the past.
For C., this film promotes a self-styled social movement aimed at constructing a new kind of socialism. But in reality, what the film shows negates this proposition. It’s strange how a system of “Co-management” and “self-management’ is established without any workers’ struggles. Those interviewed seem to be reciting a speech and the decisions which are shown primarily aim at discipline production by raising it. Where then is a radical change in working conditions? It is obviously the state who organizes and supports the survival of workplace “experiments” in bankrupt businesses bought by the government.
The events taking place in South America can be analyzed in two separate ways. The discredited classic vanguardism, deeply rooted in political theory, persists in seeing these new populist forces as the emergence of an anti-imperialist political tendency in the old sense, that is anti-capitalist and anti-American, capable of guiding the growing numbers of disinherited towards a more just future. Opposed to this, populism can be seen not as a direct expression of popular revolt but as a political response seeking to channel these revolts towards the state’s territory. That’s C. and A. opinion. Therefore, about these new political forces, from Chavez to Lula, from Morales to Correa, one can say that they are less the direct expression of a popular movement, but instead the latest emanation to date of the former political system and its institutions, a response engendered by growing poverty in Latin American societies.
During the discussion which took place in Paris, the first position wasn’t expressed, although one person left indignant that anyone could consider the “Chavist” project as form of capitalist government. If most of those present agreed in recognizing a populist and demagogic dimension in the new regime, others stressed nonetheless that the new situation is leading to better living conditions for the exploited and excluded, an improvement that must be supported.
Against this view, others, including the Venezuela comrades themselves, argued that it is the political content of these measures which counts, which determines in the long term, the chances for a liberating social transformation. Two different outlines, one focused on an immediate and tactical view of the situation, the other, while not denying improvements, stresses the political consequences and authoritarian and statist methods at work. As one participant in the discussion pointed out, these immediate material improvements, to the extent in which they are led by the State, aren’t guaranteed in the future, remaining fragile and totally dependent on the regime’s stability.
The Venezuelan comrades insisted on the fact that social struggle remains very lively, with direct land and housing occupations and strikes following one after the other. These actions are led by workers, the majority of who identify with Chavism. But inevitably, the government steps in to recuperate the movements and lead them into the state’s orbit .
Finally, C. gave an example of the difficulties faced by the mobilization this year in his school against gang vandalism. The attempts made to strengthen social ties and re-establish contact with marginalized youth were not accepted by the majority, which preferred to support the security measures suggested by the Chavist authorities (meaning cops in the schools !). As an aside, A. explained how the authorities’ call to create cooperatives lets them financially control informal activities and leads people to transform themselves into exploiters of others’ work, often their own family members.
In the Venezuelan comrades’ own words, the concrete result of “Chavism” is the revalorization of State institutions, even those that the previous corrupt democratic regimes had stripped of credibility. The stifling or strengthening of independent action by the exploited and excluded remains the determining factor in events to follow.
(translation Curtis Price)
 When a boss fired a worker, the boss was obliged by this law to pay him off double the amount of his social security benefits (seniority and compensation). Thus, if a worker had worked there for 20 years, the boss was obliged to pay him his social security benefits for 40 years with the last monthly salary as the basis. For the workers this had been an achievement that was not negotiable as their security for times of unemployment. They had enforced its entry into all work contracts in all branches of industry. All of this was abolished by a new labor law during Rafael Calderon's second period of presidency. Until today (March 2007), not one letter of this law has been changed, and the workers have no security at all. This is why it is being seen as a hard blow to salaries.
 Petkoff is today presented as the “serious” left opposition to Chavez in the international democratic sectors.
 Recents events in some cooperative industries confirm this tendency. The central government intervenes more and more in these sectors in order to replace the cooperative directions by members of the state economic nomenklatura. Not to say that this cooperative directions are a direct expression of the workers! But this move is another proof that the Chavez bureaucracy functions in a classic state socialist logic and wants to have the centralised control of all economic bodies and enterprises.
Of course, the international press gives no importance to these authoritarian mesures, while the shut down of a private anti-Chavez TV station receives a lot of coverage.