By: Frederick B. Mills, Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
This article was originally published by Open Democracy.
One of the challenges of the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela today is how to advance towards a communal state in the context of the ongoing reproduction of speculative capitalism, a fall in oil prices, and a relentless counter revolution, the extreme elements of which episodically resort to violent attempts at extra-constitutional regime change.
This challenge is clear to all of the currents within Chavismo. It is equally clear that advancing the Bolivarian cause requires a stepped up government counter-offensive against speculative capital in order to close the circle of the import, distribution, and point of sale of basic goods and curtail the further devaluation of the bolivar. Hugo Chávez Frías was well aware of the difficulties and opportunities for making progress towards democratic socialism in the context of a capital system and an opposition bent on restoring oligarchic privilege, and he took these issues into account in hammering out his vision for the next stage of the Bolivarian revolution. This essay aims at a first approximation of the political theory of Chávez with regard to the transition to 21st century socialism in Venezuela, and in particular, the role of the commune in such a transition.
State and commune
In his last published interview with Venezuelan journalist Jose Vicente Rangel, Chávez was asked what power meant to him. Chávez replied:
“Power is the pueblo, the majority of the Venezuelan pueblo have given me part of their power, because the pueblo is the owner of political power, and there is the thesis of Dussel: potencia [constituent power] and potestas [constituted power]. I am a subject of potestas, I have powers. But the power, the subject of power, is the pueblo. That is democracy. And I am here to exercise that power, in the name of the pueblo, but obeying the pueblo. It is what Enrique Dussel calls: gobernar obedeciendo [to govern obeying]. This is very important.” (Sep. 30, 2012)
One can observe here that the emancipatory theme expressed in the politics of liberation in Enrique Dussel, clearly influenced the development of the political theory of Hugo Chávez, and in particular Chávez’s ideas about the importance of the protagonist role of potentia (constituent power) in bringing about a transformation in the ethical, social, economic, and political lifeworld inherited from the Fourth Republic. This Dusselian influence is evident not only in the interview with Jose Vicente Rangel quoted above, about the nature of political power, but also in Chávez’s strategic vision of the Bolivarian transition to a communal state. There too we see Chávez’s rootedness in the perspective of popular power while personifying, as President of Venezuela, a leader of constituted power.
For our purpose here, we turn to Chávez’s deep concern about the evolving relationship between popular power and Bolivarians elected to the democratic liberal state, especially with regard to planning for the next stage of the revolutionary process. I would like to raise two related questions about the feasibility of a transition to a communal state. 1. What was Hugo Chávez’s own understanding of the roles of the democratic liberal state and popular power with regard to the transition to the communal state? 2. How does the government’s largely inadvertent role in the reproduction of speculative capital impact the feasibility of that transition?
The problem of transition to socialism in Venezuela
The late President Hugo Chávez noted that in that same fateful year, 1989, in which Francis Fukuyama published his essay The End of History?, there was an uprising by the popular sectors in Caracas against a neoliberal paquetazo (structural adjustment package) imposed by then Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Pérez. Pérez responded to the uprising by authorizing security forces to gun down protesters, killing hundreds, if not thousands of Venezuelans. Dussel describes the ethical implications of this sort of historic moment in stark language: the “life-conserving drive becomes an extraordinary vital impulse” and “tears down the wall of Totality and opens a space at the limits of the system through which Exteriority bursts into history.”
For Dussel, a politics of liberation, is anchored in the point of view of the victims of the prevailing system. It is from this point of view that one encounters the Other (the community of those excluded by the prevailing system) and may opt for solidarity with the Other and engage in a critique of the Totality. But a politics of liberation must also move beyond critique in order to propose an alternative to the prevailing system. The liberatory project aims at the transition from a system that denies the majority the ability to live and develop in community, to one that makes it possible for everyone to achieve their full potential.
During the 1990’s in Venezuela, a broad based consensus had emerged that the Punto Fijo Pact, whereby the three main political parties of the elites dominated the state since 1958, had lost its democratic legitimacy. In Dusselian terms, the Fourth Republic not only lacked practical truth because it generated so many victims; it also lacked procedural validity because in conditions of extreme economic and social inequality it was not possible for everyone to have an equal political voice.
The Alternative Bolivarian Agenda of Hugo Chávez (1996), was designed, to “tear down the wall of Totality and open a space at the limits of the system.” It expressed the dissent of the majority who had been excluded from the material benefits of the wealth of the petro-state. The Agenda promised to push back against neoliberalism, end the subordination of Caracas to Washington, and begin to pay the social debt. All this would be facilitated, urged Chávez, by the refounding of the nation by the sovereign people (pueblo soberano). And the advance to socialism in Venezuela or any other country in the region would be made feasible in the regional context of growing Latin American—Caribbean independence and integration.
That emerging dissent given voice in the Agenda proved to be an important feature of the new consensus when Hugo Chávez was elected president in December 1998. After the election, Chávez made good on his promise to convene a constituent assembly, and a new constitution was approved by popular referendum in 1999. Chávez also took aim at reforming the management of the state owned oil company as one important means of redistributing the national income. Despite the constant assaults by the counter revolution which is still today bent on restoring oligarchic power, Venezuela has made great strides over the past sixteen years, in alleviating poverty, reducing economic inequality, advancing land reform, codifying labor rights, and expanding access to health care, education, and housing.
The basic economic and social structures of capital, however, still persist in Venezuela and have degenerated into what philosopher Carlos Lanz Rodríguez has called speculative capitalism. The capital flight, commodity shortages, inflation, contraband, and moral degeneracy associated with speculative capitalism pose a serious challenge to the viability of the transition to socialism in Venezuela and to the continued predominance of Chavismo in the electoral arena. So what is to be done?
The Country Plan 2013-2019
In a speech delivered in the Teresa Carreño Theater (Caracas) in celebration of the seventh anniversary of the Revolutionary Bolivarian Government, on February 6, 2006, Chávez urged all levels of government to focus on facilitating the work of the communal councils:
“I want us to dedicate ourselves in an intense manner to the . . . consolidation of the structure of a system that we can well call local self governments (autogobiernos locales), and this is an essential part of the new democracy, participatory democracy, the Revolution, the revolutionary democracy. . . . We have to believe in the capacity of our people to organize themselves and make decisions. And the Communal Councils ought not at all be extensions of the mayors, or an extension of the governors, or an extension of the political parties . . . and we should be facilitators in this direction, only facilitators, promoters, guides; the Communal Councils are for making decisions .”
Six years later, facilitating the development of the communes figured ever more prominently in Chávez’s vision of the road to twenty-first century socialism, and with even more urgency. The strategic goals of the Chavista project for the next stage of the transition to socialism in Venezuela are spelled out in the Plan de la Patria (2013-2019). “This is a program of transition to socialism,” writes Chávez, “and of the radicalization of democratic and protagonist democracy.” Chávez was aware that such a program requires the further extension of democracy to the economic and social spheres. And this extension can only come about through the implementation of structural change, that is, change that overcomes the separation of labour from control over production and the means of production as well as the separation of labor from consumption. “The ownership of the means of production,” urged Chávez, “should be in the hands of the commune; social property in different combinations.”
But how practical is this goal in the near or even medium term? Although there are now a number of worker-owned and mixed enterprises, the major food import and processing operations, pharmaceuticals, auto-parts, and some other key industries are still in the hands of the private sector. Although there have been a number of expropriations, President Nicolas Maduro has not signaled an effort to change the constitution of 1999 in which (Article 115) private property has some significant protection, despite the emphasis on the importance of state owned and mixed enterprises and the subordination of private accumulation to social rights. Moreover, Maduro has been actively seeking cooperation with the private sector, though generally under terms that are consistent with progressive labor and land reform laws which are often vilified by leading associations of the private sector such as the Federation of Chambers of Commerce (Fedecamaras).
One of the main pillars of the Chavista alternative, the key to a transition to democratic socialism in Venezuela, is the commune, especially in rural areas. One of the strategic objectives of the Plan de la Patria 2013 – 2019 is the establishment of co-responsibility for governance of the country between voceros [spokespersons] of the communes and local, state, and national government. This objective, as stated in the Plan is “to advance the co-responsible participation of popular organization in . . . the development of plans, works and services in the communities and regions.”The Plan also calls for the public sector provision of financing, training, and inputs to communes with a focus on assisting social production units and for increasing the overall number of registered communes to cover 68% of the population by 2019.
Communal councils bring together citizens, social movements, and community organizations, to practice direct participatory forms of self governance and engage in various types of social production, including experiments in eco-socialism. The councils have been reaching out to neighboring councils to form communes, and these in turn have been forming larger confederations that cross municipal and state lines. This project is not just a sideshow; it is intended to ultimately replace the democratic liberal state. Critics of this project point to examples of failed cooperatives and the presence of clientelism as drawbacks. For the medium term, however, with sufficient inputs and technical training, there are already indications that communal production units could play an important role in achieving food security and food sovereignty as well as helping somewhat to diversify the productive base of the economy. A communal census from year to year would help researchers to empirically measure progress in this direction.
For Hugo Chávez, the communal project is not merely an economic challenge; progress in communal self governance requires a revolution in ethical values. Chávez argued the prevailing capital system promotes egoism, social antagonisms, and stunts the natural sense of human solidarity.
“We need a popular power capable of dismantling the web of oppression, exploitation and domination that subsists in Venezuelan society, capable of configuring a new socialidad from everyday life where fraternity and solidarity flow together with the permanent urgency of new modes of planning and producing the material life of our people.”
The socialidad Chávez had in mind requires the development of horizontal economic and social relations based on the equal dignity of all persons. Once such horizontal structures take form for an extended period they would presumably be resistant to the restoration of vertical relationships of social control. During a delegation visit to Venezuela in 2013 led by the Bolivarian Circle of New York “Alberto Lovera,” the author was able to engage with comuneros and comuneras who were actually practicing this new socialidad.
The communal structures finally received a more definitive legal personality with the passage of the organic laws of popular power and the organic laws of the communes in 2010. The legal personality of the communes recognizes the right of grassroots organizations to govern their own communities within the parameters of the constitution and, to the degree that these communes demonstrate competence, to take on more and more of the functions of the public sector.
The notion of co-responsibility between popular and public power and the ultimate deference of public to popular power is grounded in the sovereignty of the people. The legal definition of popular power, codifies the intrinsic “sovereignty” of the constituent power (potentia) that we find expressed in Dussel’s Twenty Theses on Politics. The law reads:
“Popular power is the full exercise of sovereignty by the people in the political, economic, social, cultural, environmental, international, and any other sphere of the progression and development of society through their diverse forms of organization that build the communal state.”
The full exercise of sovereignty of the people can be realized by the organized expressions of popular power, built from below. And it helps if such organization is facilitated by public resources and is recognized as a legitimate source of self governance by the state. The Organic Law of Popular Power specifies that public power must include voceros of popular power in governmental planning. For example, Article 7 of The Organic Law of Public and Popular Planningprovides that, “The organs and offices of Public Power, during the period of planning, execution, follow up, and oversight of the respective plans, will incorporate the citizens in their discussions by means of their community councils, communes and integrated systems.”
Beyond being inclusive, public functions are also to be gradually transferred, by law, to the communes. No doubt there are some nominal Chavista public servants who do not look kindly upon such an encroachment by popular power on public power, despite the fact that every ministry is nominally a ministry of “popular power.” Should the right wing opposition win a majority in the National Assembly, it is likely they would seek to halt the transfer of public functions to communal organizations, leaving comuneros and comuneras to fend for themselves. It was perhaps partly for this reason Chávez sought to accelerate the process so that it would become politically unfeasible to reverse.
Maduro, in a move faithful to the legacy of Chávez, promised to make the ‘commune or nothing’ campaign a top priority of the first Chavista administration. The Ministry of Popular Power for the Communes and Social Movements has been charged with the promotion and registration of communes; the Ministry also coordinates the numerous supportive services, including the benefits of the various social missions, training opportunities, and financing instruments that are generally available to incipient communal organizations. As registered organizations, the communes are supposed to have a voice in local, state, regional, and national governance.
Speculative capitalism, communes, and the state
From a Dusselian point of view, there is an ethical and political tension between the state’s reluctant role in the reproduction of speculative capital and the state as the champion of a politics of liberation through the practice of co-responsibility. I say “reluctant role” because while the Maduro administration is earnestly combatting currency fraud, contraband, price gouging, and hoarding, the state is the main source of divisas (dollars that are used in currency exchange) and there are some public “servants” who collaborate with illicit speculation.
President Maduro is in a tough political place right now. He faces pressure from the pro-opposition Fedecamaras (Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce) to disburse more and more divisas to the private sector, to roll back the progressive labor laws, and to deregulate the economy, all as a purported means of ending the shortages. Though Maduro negotiates from time to time with leaders of the private sector, this Worker-President shows no signs of caving in to these demands in any significant way. Maduro is also taking heat from the dissident Chavista left, such as the Plataforma de Auditoría Pública y Ciudadana (Platform for a Public Citizen Audit) and in particular its leading organization, Marea Socialista, that is calling for an independent audit of government finances and an even tougher government stand against speculative capitalism, including more aggressive action against corrupt elements within the state. If the municipal elections of December 2013 have provided any lesson about such a get tough stance, government progress against corruption and speculation would likely increase the chances of Chavista victories in the upcoming legislative elections in December 2015.
The whole question of transition in strategic terms is concerned with the direction of the country given the persistence of capital as the dominant economic and social model. Is Venezuela headed towards the restoration of the Fourth Republic or is it advancing, however slowly and despite however many road blocks, towards a new, participatory, democratic, socialist model of governance? Chávez himself did not labour under the delusion that Venezuela had already become a socialist country or that the democratic liberal state had magically done away with capitalist relations of production. On his television show Alo Presidente, Chávez asked:
“Who would think to say that Venezuela is a socialist country? No, that would be to deceive ourselves. We are in a country that still lives in capitalism, we have only initiated a path; we are taking steps against the world current, including, towards a socialist project; but this is for the medium or long term. It is on account of this that the oligarchy is hell-bent on stopping us, because they know that we are going there. They will not detain us.”
Chávez also recognized the apparent ambiguity of a liberal democratic state engaged in the promotion of participatory democracy.
“We are representatives,” declared Chávez, “but we have sworn to give life to a democracy that is not representative, but participatory, and even more, protagonistic. We are a contradiction, because if we are to speak of democracy, we have to remember the liberal democracy that was imposed on all these countries . . . for the elites of our countries; democracy is not like this.”
For Chávez, these contradictions draw attention to the importance of self criticism and rectification as a constant process that is consistent with a politics of liberation. He also warned against centralizing tendencies within the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and the importance of governing obediently. Again, what makes a transition democratic-socialist in nature is first and foremost the revolution in ethical values. “For there to be socialism,” insisted Chávez on Alo Presidente, “many things are required. First I want to insist on the consciousness of social obligation. The first revolution is here inside, in the spirit.”[ Chávez goes on to describe communal governance in these terms: “It is a government not designated by Chávez or anyone else, nor by the party, but rather by you yourselves in direct democracy. This is the political component of socialism, popular democracy. True democracy.”
One of the early communes, El Maizal in the State of Lara, was named by Chávez himself and formed in 2009 by producers who took over expropriated land. El Maizal aims at sustainable agro-production to meet the nutritional needs of the community. It consists of the integration of 22 communal councils with a total of 3,500 families which represents about 8000 persons. The commune shares four vehicles and a block production plant that has been used to construct 84 housing units. It also has a social production enterprise that provides gas to all 22 councils. The financial resources generated by the excess product from agricultural production, are used to meet a variety of social needs, including food for the communal schools, infrastructure repair, and assistance with health care. Chávez wanted to see communes like El Maizal duplicated throughout the nation. And he entrusted the facilitation of this project, in a meeting of the council of ministers in October 20, 2012 (Golpe de Timon), he said, as he would his life, to Nicolas Maduro, declaring: the commune or nothing!
The commune or nothing
The Maduro administration has taken Chávez’s plea of “the commune or nothing” seriously. On August 22, 2013 at a gathering of comuneros, President Maduro identified the commune as the centerpiece of democratic socialist governance. Presently, Maduro is spearheading a reactivated Presidential Commission on Communes. By the end of 2013 532 communes were registered nationwide (and more under construction), constituted by more than three and a half million Venezuelans. At this writing there are 1189 registered communes, many of which are receiving training, agricultural inputs, technical assistance, and financing from various government entities. The Maduro administration is also taking steps to advance institutions of co-responsibility.
On May 17, 2014, President Maduro announced the formation of a Presidential Council of Popular Government for the Communes during a meeting of thousands of comuneros representing 632 registered communes. He has held cabinet level meetings with voceros of communes nationwide. On July 18, 2014, the first session of the Council convened in Barquisimeto, Lara, bringing together 471 spokespersons from 280 communes. By August 22, 22 state level conventions (blocs) had been formed, with the participation of more than 500 communes from across the country.
The new communes generally include production units of various kinds, and they will require financing, training, and material inputs until the successful ones become self sufficient. Scarce resources, however, continue to be drained by currency fraud and speculation. Since, as Chávez recognized, the commune depended on a revolution in values, their sustainability depends on more than just material inputs, but also on the continuing commitment and enthusiasm, from the base, to stay the course.
Though distressed by the queues for basic goods, the Chavista base has so far largely responded to the ‘economic war’ (here referred to as speculative capitalism) with patient endurance and faithfulness to the legacy of Hugo Chávez. They know that for every item diverted from store shelves there is a corrupt party benefiting from contraband. Franco Vielma expresses such sentiments well in the aftermath of the June 28, 2015 PSUV primaries in which more than 3,262,000 voters cast their ballots:
“There are more than 3 million persons that have not reduced our political identity to something that could be confiscated by the absence of a roll of toilet paper on a shelf. We declare before the country that our political orientation is not negotiable. Our Chavista conviction is not manipulable. We cannot be blackmailed. These are deeds, not opinions: behind every product that is in short supply on a shelf there is a private business that distributes or sells it. Behind every Venezuelan product on the Colombian side, there is a mafia type business . . . . Behind every business boycott, there is an opposition pseudo-businessperson. Behind every empty shelf there is an opposition camera manipulating public opinion. Behind every demagogic opposition discourse blaming the government for shortages, there is a political motive. The Venezuelan people are not fools, anyone can figure out what is happening.”
While Franco Vielma’s comments are insightful, the patience and forbearance of the Chavista base may nevertheless have its limit. The popular sectors are well aware that despite the arrest of a number of corrupt public officials, there still remains an element of the guarimba (counter revolutionary forces) entrenched inside the government bureaucracy that is collaborating with the draining away of sorely needed public resources. And the Chavista base is cognizant of the multiplication of bachequeros (those who illicitly buy and sell goods) with each passing day.
To be sure, Maduro certainly cannot be written off. The right wing opposition, currently in disarray, and their international allies in Madrid, Bogota, and Miami, have in the past arguably underestimated Maduro’s staying power and his ability to mobilize the popular sectors. If the Maduro administration steps up the counter offensive against speculation and makes substantial progress in closing the import and distribution chain, such measures would likely result in the retention of a Chavista majority in the National Assembly this December. It would also help to buy Chavistas more time for the construction of a confederation of communes that exercises progressively more co-responsibility for the democratic governance of the country.
By: Frederick B. Mills, Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
A version of this paper was presented at the Caribbean Philosophical Association Conference, June 18, 2015. All translations by the author are unofficial.
Featured Photo: Hugo Chavez in Guatemala. From: Agência Brasil.
 Rangel, J. V. 2013. De Yare a Miraflores, el mismo subversivo: Entrevistas al comandante Hugo Chávez Frías (1992-2012). Third edition. Caracas: Ediciones Correo del Orinoco, 445-46.
 For a discussion of the relationship between popular power and the state in Venezuela, see Ciccariello-Maher, G. 2013. We Created Chavez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution. Durham: Duke University Press.
 Dussel, E. 2008. Twenty Theses on Politics. Trans. George Ciccariello-Maher. Durham: Duke University Press. 12.1.3, 78-79.
 Ibid. 4.2.1; 4.2.2, 26-27.
 Chávez, H. 2006. La Unidad Latinoamericana. Ed. Sergio Rinaldi. New York: Ocean Press and Ocean Sur, 325-26.
Plan De La Patria. Programa De Gobierno Bolivariano 2013-2019. Testamento Político del Comandante Hugo Chávez. Hereafter cited as Plan.
Plan, Presentación, II.
Chávez, H. F. Julio 2009. Comunas, Propiedad, y Socialismo; Al Principio Era El Socialismo. Alo Presidente Teórico, Programa No. 1. And No. 2. In Colección Cuadernos para el Debate. Caracas: Ministerio del Poder Popular para la Comunicación y la Información, 65.
 Plan, 18.104.22.168.
Plan, Presentacion II; see also 2.4.
Gaceta Oficial, No. 6.011, 21 Dec. 2010, Ley Orgánica de las Comunas. All references to organic laws of popular power, including communal structures, are in Leyes Del Poder Popular, República Bolivariana de Venezuela, Asamblea Nacional, Caracas, Venezuela, 2012.
Ley Orgánica del Poder Popular. Gaceta Oficial, No. 6.011, 21 Dic. 2010, p. 7. See also, Ley Orgánica del Poder Popular, Capítulo II, Art. 9. For example, Article 24 states that “all of the organs, entities and instances of Public Power will guide their actions by the principle of governing obediently in relation to the mandates of the citizens and organizations of Popular Power, within the parameters of the Constitution of the Republic and the law.” Other articles refer to “the transfer” and “decentralization” of public functions to grassroots organizations (Art. 7, 2; 27). Other articles refer to a relationship of “shared governance” (Art. 17) and “co-responsibility” (Art. 27) between public and popular power. And still other articles are very clear that organized communities will receive “preference” (Art. 29) and “priority in the processes of public contracts” (Art. 30).
See Daal, U. 2013. Dónde está la Comuna en la Constitución Bolivariana?4.4.2, formulación de planes comunes en correspondencia con el Plan de Desarrollo Económico y Social de la Nación.
Comunas, Propiedad, y Socialismo, 96.
Comunas, Propiedad y Socialismo, 31-32.
Comunas, Propiedad y Socialismo, 135.
[ Boletín No.5, Ministerio del Poder Popular para las Comunas y los Movimientos Sociales, Mayo 2015.
Ibid. 140-41; 154.