Thursday, September 30, 2010

Venezuela's Choice

Venezuelan election commentary is still in flux - reactions are still trickling in. Still, so far available analyses are mostly failing to address the election's most important implications.

Yes, the Bolivarian Revolution is still in the saddle.

Yes, Chavez is vastly more popular - despite being in office ten years - than Obama, now in office for two years.

Yes the PSUV has retained more support and influence than, for example, the Democrats in the U.S.

One could continue in that vein, but viewing the election as if it is a one off experience that is lost or won depending on the ballot count from electoral district to electoral district measuring assembly seats won by Chavistas and the opposition, so that the Chavistas can say - hooray, we won - or viewing it in comparison to what goes on in the U.S. or other typically top down and politically bankrupt societies, so again the Chavistas can say, hooray, we are doing better, is highly simplistic.

Venezuela is continuing an already decade long incredibly complex struggle for its future. This means what goes on in Venezuela cannot be usefully compared to what goes on in simpler settings.

In Venezuela, some wish to reassert or preserve old relations - basically capitalism, political bureaucracy, racial hierarchies, gender hierarchies - all the old crap.

In Venezuela, there is also a drive toward something new - a goal that is not spelled out and in fact in many respects barely even intimated, but that is nonetheless also clearly anti racist and anti sexist, clearly for the poor and weak, and maybe profoundly self managing.

The agents for reaction will do whatever they can to obstruct the agents for change - and the reactionaries have no scruples and plenty of resolve or resources for their tasks.

If a coup will work, give it a try. Or try a referendum. Or try an election boycott. They tried, and failed, and failed. Chavez was way too popular. So they needed another more sophisticated strategy.

What they arrived at was to subvert the Chavez government's efforts to move forward on behalf of the poor, and then to blame Chavez for failing to solve problems and better people's lives. As people become tired and doubtful, the opposition ups the ante. How can a reactionary opposition do all that? Let's count the ways.

1. Old owners subvert plans to produce for the poor and weak. They obstruct efforts at building housing and other projects in numerous ways, including just selling off the needed resources over seas, creating bottle necks, or even simply not working, or working slowly, or working poorly, on various projects. This is very effective, especially in Caracas.

2. Old police don't curb violence and theft - but instead engage in it. They become the criminal element in order not only to enrich themselves, but to create an environment of fear and anger. They even kill - to the same end. It isn't the stolen bounty that is the most important goal. Nor is it the dead victims. No, the most important goal is the assault on the social imagination. It is making people wary, fearful, and not willing to talk, organize, and participate. This is very effective, especially in Caracas, but throughout the country, as well.

3. Old political bureaucrats - or new ones for that matter - can obstruct rather than aid (as the Chavez government mandates) the emergence of new grassroots people's assemblies. The new structures are supposed to become the new government. It should not be surprising that old mayors and governors are slow to aid them, or even, very often, quick to subvert them, thus bringing local government often out of the revolutionary process and into a reactionary one. The bureaucratically oriented even on the left see popular progress as personal loss. Their obstructionism, rather than their advocacy, of popular participation is very effective, all over Venezuela.

4. Old media - nearly all of Venezuela's media - maintain a never ending assault on Chavez and the government including blaming them for anything and everything that causes people pain or worry - from crime to draught, from continuing poverty to frustration with efforts at local governance - even if, as is most often the case, it is the owners of the media and their allies who own other industries and who administrate cities and regions and who "police" the public, who are actually at fault.

5. The above fourfold strategy to obstruct, disrupt, and blame, it must be admitted, has been very successful. And it also must be admitted that the success can extend even unto impacting Chavista agendas. It can not only distort outcomes in the field in ways that block libertory changes and then undercut support, it can also infect even Chavista motives, inducing a defensiveness about and even denial of ills as well as isolation from the public in turn causing additional problems including, for example, local lethargy of government branches and resistance to admitting and thus dealing sufficiently with crime issues.

"But the Chavistas won still another showdown. How can you claim the opposition has had great success" - I can hear some reply, or demand, on hearing the above.

Well, if you look at seats in the parliament, and if you simply count the final tally of who won those, then these critics of my stance are absolutely right. There have been some losses, sure, but overall the election marks another victory, albeit a bit tighter.

But what if we look at the situation as befits judging not a simple parliamentary election but instead an accounting of sentiments in a broad and long social struggle?

After ten years of a government that seeks revolutionary transformation in the direct material, social, and psychological interest of 80% of the population, and, arguably, also in the social interest of quite a few more - support has dropped roughly 10%. Where support for the Bolivarian process should, in the past ten years have risen from about 60% to up near 80%, it instead appears to have fallen to roughly 50%. Momentum is undercut. The publics hopes decline, their support much less inclination to act, diminishes. Even the resolve of avowed revolutionaries starts to wither.

This trajectory has to be seen for what it is: a downslope to hell.

This trajectory must be reversed.

This trajectory cannot be reversed if the fourfold oppositional strategy listed earlier, and also the additional internal Bolivarian flaws of process and practice persist.

This trajectory cannot be reversed if efforts to deal with the fourfold oppositional features and internal failings proceed so slowly that their minor gains are swamped by continually growing pubic exhaustion and doubt.

The Bolivarian Revolution needs to regain aggressive momentum and wide spread participation.

The Bolivarian Revolution needs clarity as to its aims. Why else will people be energetic supporters? How else then by knowing what the revolution's aims are, and being able to adapt and alter the aims for themselves, can the public be part of and literally command the process?

The Bolivarian Revolution needs mobilization at the base of communities and throughout workplaces to attain its aims. How else can progress be gained and defended?

Nothing much can be achieved over night. But reticence to act due to not wanting to arouse stronger opposition so as to avoid serious conflict - or not being willing to see and admit the need - is a direct road to hell.

The Bolivarian idea, or one might say the Bolivarian hope, incredibly admirable, was that in a fair and rational debate with vote after vote - reason would prevail and sympathy for the public would win out. And well it would have, except for one thing. The opposition is not interested in a fair and rational discussion. The opposition simply wants to win by whatever means they can find, including obstructionism, lying, manipulating, fear mongering, and criminality. Waiting for a fair debate is suicide. While waiting, one's support is undercut or grows tired and despondent, and one's priorities and policies become distorted as well.

There comes a time when one must finally admit - however admirably much one wished to avoid the implications - that to have Venezuela undergo a truly democratic and self managing popular assessment of options and then freely and insightfully choose among those options - the opposition must be denied pride of place and practice.

The opposition can debate like all others - but they cannot own and control the only megaphone in society - its tv, newspapers, etc.

The opposition can work at producing social outputs like all others, but they cannot obstruct work by owning firms and directing them away from revolutionary agendas.

The opposition can help to govern like all others, but they cannot use governing positions to obstruct popular organizing and decision making and abuse participation.

The opposition can aid in fighting against corruption and theft like all others, but they cannot become the country's most egregious corruptors and thieves.

And even among the agents and allies of the Revolution, ever greater receptivity to the desires of masses of people throughout society, ever greater willingness to admit and correct errors rather than deny and paper them over, and ever more receptivity to widening participation, are also essential.

From outside Venezuela, admittedly having only modest connection to or information about the details of complexly developing options inside Venezuela, it does seem that to overcome reaction and to seriously pursue liberation something quite like the following steps must somehow soon be achieved as the necessary minimal basis for continuing success.

(1) The media must become democratic and public - critically insightful and inspiring - not a lapdog mouthpiece of the revolution, but also certainly not a lapdog mouthpiece of insane and venal reaction. Yes, there will be a price in rhetorical assault and real confusion around the world when the mass media are taken from venal and even criminal private ownership and turned into exemplary vehicles of public participation, education, criticism, and exploration - but this is a price that must be paid at some point - and sooner is better.

(2) Mayors, governors, and other officials throughout Venezuela, whatever their other inclinations may be, must become abettors of and advocates for popular power. Neither Chavez nor the PSUV should support candidates or elected officials rerunning for office who do not as a core element of their program and practice work hard to develop the popular assemblies of popular participation and rule, including supporting and working to implement programs mandated by those assemblies. Yes, those who lose support and then office may become overt opponents of the Revolution, but they will be far less damaging in that role than as trusted officials given power to subvert progress.

(3) Old police, wedded to reaction and engaging in crime and fear mongering - whether by action or by calculated inaction - must be replaced. If the new national police can push and teach and force local police to comply, fine. But, if not, then more aggressive steps must be taken. Are there centralizing dangers in such scenarios? Most certainly there are very serious centralizing dangers as well as a rhetorical cost in criticisms. But what must be done, must be done - and putting off acts which, by their delay make their eventual success harder, not easier, is self defeating. The solution to the dangers is to address policing like one addresses production, or health care, or anything else - not only improving it beyond abysmal, but thinking through what would be exemplary, in accord with self management, etc., and implementing that.

(4) The old owners must have their property appropriated for control by the relevant workforces. Their compensation should be that which the society sees as morally warranted - which is to say, at least in my view, enough to maintain a viable income level while seeking new economic involvements. Owners who have sabotaged Bolivarian agendas for the poor and weak, however, should arguably get nothing. Again, any transfers will lead some losers of land or property to overt opposition - but that overt opposition will do far far less damage than the same people's quiet opposition undertaken as heads of workplaces, rather than mere citizens.

(5) The revolution also needs to look again at itself. Not all current problems are a function of overt external opposition. Some problems reside within, albeit perhaps largely induced by the long obstruction and threats of reaction, but by this time also rooted in on going and self sustaining habits of the present. So in addition to dealing with the above four opposition obstacles, there must be a new level of practical commitment to rectifying stale or misguided practice by incorporating criticism from and the desires of the broad population into the actions of local government, of the PSUV, and of the national government as well.

The above steps are not the revolution.

The above steps don't bring plenty to the poor. They don't elevate the weak to influence. They don't remove hierarchical difference. They simply remove the obstacles to seriously and steadfastly seeking those greater aims including ever growing popular participation and popular self managing control over political life and over production and allocation, and indeed over all dimensions of Venezuela's future, with new social structures and programs suited to the purposes.

But in the absence of fulfilling the above steps, more encompassing positive efforts will continue to be subverted, the public will continue feel despondant and cowed, and Chavista support will continue to atrophy.

The road to hell - or the road to solidifying and enlarging revolution.

From outside, it appears that that is the current choice.

In Brazil, when the PT and Lula won office, they succumbed to fears of reaction and violence. To avoid that calamity they settled on a path less radical and encompassing than their rhetoric had suggested they would pursue.

In Venezuela, the path has been the opposite. Threats have provoked Chavez and the Bolivarian government to move further left, not retreat to the right. But now comes the real crossroads.

To now stand pat and keep debating the opposition while they criminally subvert projects - a calculated opposition behavior that will in coming months only become more aggressive - will end in disaster.

To rear back and decide that the Brazilian social democratic route at least preserves broad political participation and avoids overt conflict, will end in disaster.

The only road with promise is the road forward. And the road forward must be traversed over and through - not simply around - the old owners, the old political bureaucracy, the old police, the old media, as well as new but hopefully only superficial habits of aloof defensiveness in the PSUV and the Revolution, as well.