Venezuelan politics seen from Venezuela

This piece by Max Ajl in the current NACLA gives another perspective on Hugo Chávez's latest electoral triumph: Venezuela: Local Reactions to the Re-Election Reform. Some interesting ideas here, though one of the oddest arguments in this collection of opinions has me perplexed:
And two, as Venezuela scholar Julia Buxton notes, there is something "fundamentally wrong in thinking that democracy is judged through reference to the procedural mechanics of liberal democracy," which is often understood as demanding pluralism, in which the opposition controls some political levers. Buxton argues that democracy simply is not measurable using the yardstick of mainstream U.S political science, and that it should be understood as popular control of decision-making and popular engagement within the society as a whole. On those scales, Venezuela is no lightweight.
If that's what she's saying, she's confusing democracy with plebiscite. Aside from the logical and political ethics problems (democracy without freedom to dissent? Come on!), there's the pragmatic problem of running a successful regime. If there are no constitutional checks, and no guarantees of pluralism, you lose the synergy that only a multiplicity of energies and ideas can create. Stupid ideas occur to everybody, even very smart people (remember Fidel Castro's "10 million tons" campaign? Or the coffee trees he ordered planted all around Havana? Or, to take a very different smart man's blunder, how about Winston Churchill's World War I strategy at Gallipoli?). If there's nobody around to talk back to the smart (or unsmart) strongman, disasters are more than likely.


jewbonics said...

This is partially Buxton's contention, and partially mine. Neither she nor I suggest that freedom of speech isn't important. The issue is, rather, that the specific sort of procedural liberalism espoused by American "liberal" political scientists is pretty lacking in terms of understanding "democracy" in any rich or real sense.

The point is that communal councils, the spontaneous organization within Venezuelan society--those are the measures of democracy. Economic and social rights are part of it, too.

The specific argument she rebuts is the one often offered by the Venezuelan opposition: since the assembly is controlled by chavistas, there is no pluralism, hence no democracy. That's crap--chavistas control that assembly because the opposition boycotted elections in 2005.

But there's another issue too, that you sidestep: political democracy in a capitalist system. If parties right now are an expression of class interests, why should we be interested in pluralism? Why should capitalist interests have ANY political sway when their economic power is morally indefensible? (The logical follow-up, why should they be permitted to exist, I would answer with the response, they shouldn't).

None of this is to say all political power should be vested in 1 individual, that there should be no political dissent. But class-based politics masquerading as a "multiplicity of energies and ideas" isn't the solution.


Christopher Leo said...

Which capitalist interests shouldn't have any political sway? Store owners, small farmers, owners of construction companies, owners of automobile repair shops, artists who sell their paintings, owners of web sites that gain their revenue from advertising? Unquestionably, the degree to which money and ownership of the means of production "talks" is a problem of democracy. The idea that you can neatly identify a class, label them capitalists, and declare that they have no political rights vastly oversimplifies the problem, as well as capitalism and society itself.

Christopher Leo

gef said...

Great! More articulate disagreement rather than rant. Thanks to both of you. Jewbonics writes: "If parties right now are an expression of class interests, why should we be interested in pluralism?" (1) If the premise were true, the answer would be obvious: political pluralism helps keep the conflicting parties from killing each other. (I'm thinking of the Spanish civil war, but there are many other examples of failed plurism). (2) All real parties (e.g., Socialists or Populares in Spain, Republicans or Democrats in the U.S.) are amalgams of diverse & contending class, regional and cultural interests, and tend to turn into institutions defending their own interests (re-election & privileged access) independent of the classes that support them. Outstanding example: Mexico's PRI for over 70 years).

jewbonics said...

Christopher: you make a series of claims that are tenable, but only if one shares your assumptions. I don't. Capitalist interests shouldn't have political sway because capitalism is an unacceptable system. If there is no moral basis for their existence then it follows logically that they should have no political sway. This does NOT mean they shouldn't have political rights--eg speech, freedom, assembly, the right to vote, etc. Political sway isn't just an issue of having a representative in political institutions.

Furthermore, the "small-business owner" is a capitalist. He owns capital, and employs workers who can either starve or work. The economy--which is a plan, subject to political control--is explicitly set up to allow him to do that. So he has political sway. That political sway has become institutionalized to give him privileges as a capitalist: to invest, to manage, etc.

Small farmers and artists--self-employed people--are not the issue, they aren't the "capitalists" with overweening power in Am. society, and it's a straw man to worry about their political rights, which once again are protected anyway by their formal rights within political liberalism. I'll tell you, since I write about agriculture: small farmers struggle far more than large farmers do under American state capitalism. The majority work off-warm to support their farms. Many of those that don't are the larger ones, who employ itinerant labor to work their property--and once again, we run into the issue of the moral underpinnings of a system in which anyone has to sell their labor to survive. Intolerable, to my eyes, which completely vitiates your argument.

So again, the problem IS simple: democratize the means of production, which could be done through a political, and a democratic, process. You write, "Unquestionably, the degree to which money and ownership of the means of production "talks" is a problem of democracy." But it is a problem that afflicts the very core of the system. Democracy is definitionally untenable within a liberal democratic capitalism, which is why right-wing political scientists are forced into such severe nonsensical contortions as they try to explain the world, and why no one reads them.

Gef: Your answer to (1) is, to my eyes, problematic. You say that even if we were to accept that political parties are an expression of class interests, then pluralism keeps them from killing one another. But I think you're accepting a kind of mental colonization vis a vis the moral legitimacy of capitalism. Let me explain why: suppose that there is no pluralism (there is pluralism, by the way, in Venezuela, although the PSUV has enough power to push through most of its agenda). And suppose the capitalist classes--in American society, a sharply demarcated group, as can be seen from income statistics--refuses to go along with democratic measures passes to expropriate their property. They go to war. This is the fault of the people trying to socialize wealth? If people are willing to go to war to defend class interest, it is not the fault of the people trying to redistribute wealth in a more egalitarian manner. To say we must have pluralism to prevent radical redistribution to prevent bloodshed naturalizes capitalism.

I see that you live in Spain, and I don't mean to doctrinaire or dogmatic, but my reading of the Spanish Civil War is a tad different. I think that the anarchists could have won the War, and defeated Franco, by trying to appeal more overtly to the troops in Franco's armies. Or by deeper organization to prevent reformists or Stalinists from ending the revolution in Catalonia. But anyway, it is not THEIR fault that capitalists will go to war to maintain privilege. Besides, capitalism is CONSTANT violence. As we know from Barrington Moore, the costs of going without violence must be weighed against the cost of violence. Your argument can as easily be turned into a pro-slavery argument in 1860, no? Take ANY measure to prevent the Civil War, etc.

Your second point, that parties are amalgams, is true, but doesn't refute mine. I made a rough statement--parties as an expression of class interests. Democrats and Republicans are, roughly, expressions of different class interests in Am, often breaking down along the lines of Prussian v. Traders, along the lines of the work of Michael Klare. But both support imperialism, both support capitalism--two policies that place the burdens of society on one group of people and vest the benefits of it in another. This seems to me an unjust situation. It may not to you, in which case our assumptions are too divergent for communication. You seem to take a Skocpolian view of politics (one which, incidentally, describes reality rather more closely in Venezuela than it does in the US, I think, although it is sitll invalid, I think), with regard to the ultimate full autonomy of the state. I just don't think you can understand political parties without analyzing organic linkages to the economic system. I can not universally defend this view, and don't think of myself as a gross Marxist, or indeed any kind of Marxist, but surely you don't contend that Rep. and Dems. in the US are not an expression of overwhelming class power?