Report: Chavismo After Chávez: What Was Created? What Remains?

The Communal State: Communal Councils, Communes, and Workplace Democracy – Published on nacla.org, by Dario Azzellini, Summer 2013.

The particular character of what Hugo Chávez called the Bolivarian process lies in the understanding that social transformation can be constructed from two directions, “from above” and “from below.” Bolivarianism—or Chavismo—includes among its participants both traditional organizations and new autonomous groups; it encompasses both state-centric and anti-systemic currents. The process thus differs from traditional Leninist or social democratic approaches, both of which see the state as the central agent of change; it differs as well from movement-based approaches that conceive of no role whatsoever for the state in a process of revolutionary change.  

The current transformation in Venezuela is thus the product of a tension between constituent and constituted power, with the principal agent of change being the constituent. Constituent power is the legitimate collective creative capacity of human beings expressed in movements and in the organized social base to create something new without having to derive it from something previously existing. In the Bolivarian process, the constituted power—the state and its institutions—accompanies the organized population; it must be the facilitator of bottom-up processes, so that the constituent power can bring forward the steps needed to transform society.

This approach was elaborated on various occasions by former president Hugo Chávez and has been confirmed by his successor, Nicolás Maduro, during the recent electoral campaign. It is shared by sectors of the administration and by the majority of the organized movements. Both from the government and from the rank and file of the Bolivarian process, there is a declared commitment to redefine state and society on the basis of an interrelation between top and bottom and thereby to move toward transcending capitalist relations. Although not free of contradictions and conflicts, this two-track approach has been able to uphold and deepen the process of social transformation in Venezuela … //

… Regarding the democratization of ownership and administration of the means of production, Venezuela has experimented with a series of different models. Between 2001 and 2006, the Venezuelan government—in addition to asserting state control over the core of the oil industry—focused on promoting cooperatives for any type of company, including models of cooperatives co-administrated with the state or private entrepreneurs. The 1999 constitution assigned the cooperatives a special weight. They were conceived as contributing to a new social and economic balance, and thus received massive state assistance. The favorable conditions led to a boom in the number of cooperatives founded. In mid-2010, according to the national cooperative supervisory institute Sunacoop, 73,968 cooperatives were certified as operative, with an estimated total of 2 million members, although some people participated in more than one cooperative and were thus counted twice.10 The initial idea that cooperatives would automatically produce for the satisfaction of social needs and that their internal solidarity based on collective property would extend to their local communities, proved to be an error. Most cooperatives still followed the logic of capital; concentrating on the maximization of net revenue without supporting the surrounding communities, many failed to integrate new members.11 In the light of these experiences the government’s focus in supporting the creation of cooperatives switched to cooperatives controlled and owned by the communities.

In response to the employers’ lockout of 2002–2003, the “entrepreneurs strike,” with the stated intention of toppling the Chávez government, workers began the process of taking over workplaces abandoned by their owners. At first, the government relegated the cases to the labor courts, and then in January 2005 began expropriations. Beginning in July 2005, the government began to pay special attention to the situation of closed businesses, and since then hundreds of such companies have been expropriated. But a systematic policy for expropriations in the productive sector did not exist until 2007. The expropriated enterprises are officially supposed to be turned into “direct social property” under the direct control of workers and communities. In reality most of them are not administered by workers and communities but by state institutions. Working conditions have not fundamentally changed, and expropriations have not automatically produced co-management or workers’ control.

The concept of “direct social property” is also supposed to apply to hundreds of new “socialist factories” built by the government in the context of an overarching strategy of industrialization. The local communal councils select the workers, while the required professionals are drawn from state and government institutions. The aim is to gradually transfer the administration of the factories into the hands of organized workers and communities. But most state institutions involved do little to organize this process or prepare the employees, which has generated growing conflicts between workers and institutions.

In 2007, Chávez picked up the idea of “socialist workers councils,” which was already being discussed by many rank-and-file workers and by existing councils and workers’ initiatives. In fact, there was a network with the same name: Socialist Workers Councils (CST). Chávez presented CST as a good practice and called on workers to form CST at their workplaces. Nevertheless, since most institutions were opposed to workers councils, only a few councils were formed at the beginning, mainly in recovered factories like the valve factory, Inveval, or the water pipe factory, Inefa.

Growing pressure from below led several government institutions to start to accept or even promote the creation of workers councils in institutionally administered workplaces, even without the benefit of an enacted law on workers councils. But while on the one hand the majority of institutions tried to prevent the constitution of workers councils in their workplaces, in others, and in state administered enterprises, the institutions often tried to assume the lead and constitute the CST themselves. This move represented an attempt to distort the councils’ purpose and reduce them to a representative authority dealing with work and salary related questions within the government bureaucracy. As a consequence, the CST turned into another site of struggle for workers control.12

The most successful attempt at a democratization of ownership and administration of the means of production is the model of Enterprises of Communal Social Property (EPSC), promoted to create local production units and community services enterprises. The EPSC are collective property of the communities, which decide on the organizational structure of enterprises, the workers incorporated and the eventual use of profits. Government enterprises and institutions have promoted the communal enterprises since 2009, and since 2013 several thousand EPSC have been constituted. Most belong to the sectors of community services like public transport or are engaged in food production and food processing. The state-owned oil company, PDSVA, set up a local liquid gas distribution administered by communities call Gas Comunal.13

Since 2007, the government’s ability to reform has increasingly clashed with the limitations inherent in the bourgeois state and the capitalist system. The movements and initiatives for self-management and self-government, designed to overcome the bourgeois state and its institutions, with the goal of replacing it with a communal state based on popular power, have grown. The broadening of direct grassroots participation brings an increase in the conflicts between the state and its popular base (especially in the sphere of production) as well as within the state itself, which becomes a site of class conflict. Not surprisingly, the deepening of social transformation multiplies the points of confrontation between top-down and bottom-up strategies. But simultaneously, because of the expansion of state institutions’ work along with the consolidation of the Bolivarian process and growing resources, state institutions have been generally strengthened and have become more bureaucratized. Institutions of constituted power aim at controlling social processes and reproducing themselves. Since the institutions of constituted power are at the same time strengthening and limiting constituent power, the transformation process is very complex and contradictory.

Institutions, as well as many individuals in charge in institutions, follow an inherent logic of perpetuating and expanding their institutional power and control to guarantee the institution’s survival. Or as Thamara Esis, a consejo comunal activist from Caracas explains in a personal interview, “These nice people who already made themselves comfortable in their offices, are not willing to renounce their benefits, they live on the needs of the people. It is like a little enterprise, you understand?” This tendency is strengthened in times of profound structural changes when the purpose and existence of any institution is questioned in the context of transformation.

In fact, the Ministry of Communes turns out to be one of the biggest obstacles to the construction of communes and most of the communes under construction complain about the Ministry. Only the growing organization “from below,” especially the self-organized network of commune activists that brings together about 70 communes could bring enough pressure on the Ministry of Communes to start changing its politics at the end of 2011. They forced the ministry to register some 20 communes. In return, the communes had to set up the registration sheet since the Ministry of Communes not only did not register any communes in the first three years of it’s existence, but one year after the law on communes had been released, it had not even created an official procedure for the registration of communes.

Nevertheless, strategies “from above” and “from below” have maintained themselves in the same process of transformation for 14 years and the conflictive relationship between constituent and constituted power has been the motor of the Bolivarian process. In his government plan for 2013-2019, presented during the electoral campaign for the 2012 presidential elections, Chávez stated clearly “We should not betray ourselves: the still dominant socio-economic formation in Venezuela is of capitalist and rentist character.”14 In order to move further towards socialism, Chávez underlined the necessity to advance in the construction of communal councils, communes and communal cities, and the “development of social property on the basic and strategic factors and means of production.”15 His successor, Nicolás Maduro, committed to the program, and one of the central slogans of the movements supporting his electoral campaign was “Comuna o nada”.

(full long text and notes).

(Dario Azzellini is a visiting fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center and works at the Johannes Kepler University (Linz, Austria). He has published several books and journal articles about popular movements, workers control, local self administration, and privatization of military services, with a regional focus on Latin America.
Read the rest of the nacla summer 2013 issue: Chavismo After Chávez: What Was Created? What Remains?
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Links:

nacla.org, the north american congress on latin america;

Dario Azzellini auf de.wikipedia: (* 1967 in Wiesbaden) ist ein italienischer Autor, Dokumentarfilmer, Künstler, Politikwissenschaftler und Soziologe …;

Dario Azzellini on amazon, on ZNet, on AlterNet, and on his own website (under construction);

Russian inquiry to UN: Rebels, not Army, behind Syria Aleppo sarin attack, on Russia Today RT, July 10, 2013;

NSA spied on Latin America for energy and military intel – Brazil, on Russia Today RT, July 10, 2013;

Here is What’s Going On in Canada, Part 1: Two Telltale Speeches by Stephen Harper, on The Peoples Voice.org, by chycho, July 9, 2013.

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