We Are (Almost) All Chávez: Challenges in the Deployment of the Chavista Political Identity

Writing for Venezuelan political research body GIS XXI, Íñigo Errejón examines challenges facing the political identity of Chavismo in post-Chavez Venezuela. Translated by George Ciccariello-Maher.

By Íñigo Errejón - 21st Century Social Investigation Group (GIS XXI)
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Writing for Venezuelan political research body GIS XXI, Íñigo Errejón examines challenges facing the political identity of Chavismo in post-Chavez Venezuela. Translated by George Ciccariello-Maher.

 At one point in his conversations with Ignacio Ramonet, captured in the essential book Mi Primera Vida [My First Life], Hugo Chávez denounces the fact that traditional elites “sanctified Bolívar” in an effort to “depoliticize him.” In a remarkable historical paradox, the “Chávez myth” faces a similar situation today. The elevation of the figure of the Comandante above political debate, either by hypocritical a posteriori condescension or a sincere militant nostalgia, could contribute to converting him into an “ideological transversal”: a central point of reference in Venezuelan political culture that no longer provokes conflicts, a consensus melded in the past with little political impact in the present. After his death, the figure of Chavez is only openly rejected by the minority that still dreams of returning, peacefully or not, to the country as it existed before the masses invaded the state. When these sectors accuse the Bolivarian revolution of polarization, they are accusing it of politicizing poverty and exclusion, i.e.: making these into public issues, which are debatable and solvable, instead of dull and private sorrows.

Since Machiavelli we know that politics, all politics, is a variable tension between consensus and conflict. In revolutionary politics, two parallel risks are marginalization, with as much content as it lacks seductive capacity, and absolute integration into the existing order, becoming a reference point as broad as it is tendentially emptied of content and incapable of producing transformation. One February 4th, Chávez invaded the life of Venezuelans as pure conflict, a head-on and public contestation of the existing order. A watershed amid the slow moral, political, and social decay of the Fourth Republic and its leading sectors. That gesture became a symbol around which the unsatisfied demands of different social sectors were able to link with one another, which with Chavez as a catalyst passed from fragments to components of a people in gestation. Fourteen years of Bolivarian Revolution decanted this proper name into a way of jointly referring to the most disadvantaged. His radical boundary position vis-à-vis the Venezuelan political scene allowed Chavez to be a name and a surface of inscription for a heterogeneous totality of social positions and aspirations, which were not reducible to any of the previously existing ideological frameworks. This popular field is held together by dates and symbols, emotions, shared descriptions of reality, values, ​​and a common horizon for the country, which allow us to speak of a political identity that, as we have maintained, is not only the majority but also relatively hegemonic: Chavismo.

The fundamental discursive success of Chavismo was to challenge the differences between the traditional parties and erect a new border ordering the loyalties of Venezuelan society, transforming a privileged minority into a political minority and the dispossessed majorities into a project for the construction of a “people” demanding representation for the entire community. Chavez took on the task of embodying this border, at the cost of great physical exhaustion, serving as the principal axis on which the affinities and in the country would pivot, forming a national-popular will oriented toward socialism. After his death, his adversaries, who were unable to overcome this ordering that had relegated them to a subaltern position, now aim to erase that border by transforming Chávez into a beautiful historic memento and Chavismo into the non-political act of missing an individual, with no implication for current political loyalties. They seek to short-circuit the connection between affective identification with Chávez and adherence to the national project he defended. The discursive management of this border is key at present: Chavismo is tendentially for (almost) everyone but it is not just anything, and nor does just any content fit within it. As a result, it is fundamental to construct its “outside” carefully and manage the inclusion-exclusion game with flexibility, seducing immediately while at the same time deploying political pedagogy that will cultivate positions of the future.

The maneuver of depoliticizing Chávez and dispersing Chavismo, from an opposition eager to no longer be “anti-Chavista,” has in its favor the passing of time and the extreme youth of the Venezuelan population pyramid. Against this we must have a process for articulating a culture and narrative of Chavismo that continues to be excited by the future and not only the past, that continues to produce a common horizon for the country, that recovers intellectual and moral leadership among revolutionaries. The efficiency of the New Socialist Public Management and institutional construction are sine qua non conditions for fortifying those positions advanced by a decade and a half of state transition. But these successes do not necessarily ensure the support of the majority of society, which cannot be confused with the momentary success of electoral victories.

To do this there are at least three major tasks: training the next wave of intellectual-managers; the forging of a new epic that nourishes the generations who have not experienced the historical landmarks that structure and unite the Chavista story or the onerous past against which the revolution represents “the new”; and the work of studying, discussing, systematizing, and developing Chavismo, not as an old and beloved photo album, and nor as an ensemble of dogmas—let’s remember the Marx of “I would never be a Marxist”—but instead as the bonds and elements that have linked together a political subject that challenged the “end of history” and, against the current of international evolution, rescued politics as the art by which those who have nothing but themselves seize the reins of a common destiny.

Venezuela has spent a decade and a half immersed in a process that moves in a socialist direction in conditions of full freedom and expanding popular sovereignty. Its evolution has led to historically unprecedented experiences and advances, but one of the prices paid for his audacity is to face challenges and contradictions for which there are hardly any historical reference points and very few theoretical clues. But the certainty remains that politics and struggles will never end, that it will always be necessary to seduce and construct, in the creative tension suggested by Boaventura de Sousa Santos: “Socialism is democracy without end.”

Íñigo Errejón holds a PhD in Political Science from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, and is Director of the Political Identities research line at the GIS XXI Foundation and a Member of the CEPS Foundation. Originally published in Correo del Orinoco.

Translated by George Ciccariello-Maher. Edited by Venezuelanalysis.com.