Raul Zelik was born in Germany in 1968 but speaks Spanish with total fluidity, and his relationship to Latin America didn’t start yesterday. The political scientist, author of texts such as Venezuela Beyond Chavez; Chronicles of the Bolivarian Process (2004), is visiting the country this week for two reasons; to discuss in the Repensar forum the emancipation from 20th century failures and new strategies of transformation, which was held yesterday in the Romulo Gallegos Center of Latin American Studies (Celarg), also, to refresh his contact with Venezuelan reality.
Zelik emphasizes that there have been “important emancipations,” considering that countries with leftist governments have solidified “the inclusion of popular sectors, symbolically and authentically.” There have also occurred constituent processes and social policies for inclusion, which are evident in public spaces of central Caracas, he said.
“That is a much better repartition of the petroleum income, at least during some phases, and those are achievements we must recognize.”
Even so, he points out, “There hasn’t been a debate in terms of the failed emancipations.” There hasn’t been a clear analysis of the “reasons for the failure of 21st Century socialism.”
By his judgement, those reasons are composed of; an authoritative political model: the copying of the Fordist industrialization model, which in Latin America is “exctractivism,” criticized in theory but not in practice because there are interests in maintaining that model. And, he adds the economic model, because there hasn’t been “a strategy designed to improve neither the market nor the state bureaucracy. Zelik insists that state bureaucracy is not an alternative to the market.
He describes socialism is “what is public, communal, for the common good, and that must be constructed from within the communities, not by the state.” But, the analyst feels that a “fatal combination” is made by the petroleum rent, state bureaucracy institutionalism and consumerism. He believes that even president Hugo Chavez “was afraid to confront those problems,” because “it could put Bolivarian unity at risk.”
Since there is no real debate on the subject, he adds, “the rentier state blueprints” are repeated. In Venezuela and all of Latin America, “there is no clear definition of 21st Century socialism. We see this in international politics as well, where very naïve evaluations of anti-imperialism are employed.” It’s most visible because “it doesn’t even amount to state socialism, rather, it’s a copy of traditional rentier extractivist models.” For that reason, “many blueprints within the state” are similar to those 40 years before.
The Consequent Left
The practices of corruption and consumerism are collective, Zelik affirms. “We revolutionaries should set the example so that these models of consumerism, corruption, and irresponsible shortcuts are not reproduced.”
For Zelik, consumerism is a global problem, which even Cuban society experiences. “There is a strong cultural hegemony, not only North American but globally capitalist,” he argued.
“Not even the supposed anti-imperialists can escape from this; they may be very radical but they may also love Mercedes Benz.”
He considers it very important to leave that model behind and understand that living well is something “completely different than that Western consumerist model.”
He clarifies that there is nothing wrong with owning objects, but there must be an understanding that quality of life “has nothing to do with our income.” For him, an example to follow is the Uruguayan president Jose Mujica, who “keeps driving that old car, he doesn’t have any special model.”
Those that make up the left must be clear, he said, “if we decide capitalism is shit, we don’t need consumerism by any measure.”
But there is a double standard, because people who claim to be leftist can go crazy for items in fashion. Why?
“How can we resist it? How can traditional communities counteract these practices? With mutual social control, mutual critique and the possibility to criticize the powerful of our communities. Those of us who occupy public roles must be very critical and self-critical in this way. The other thing would be to change the media model, as well as stopping the import of certain car models, for example. Why does a country need to import Hummers? It is only thing to allow for different tastes, but some tastes I do not think need the state to finance them.”
“Capitalism invades and penetrates our sense of self, so that we think a life full of colorful ads is preferable to a rich social life. Consumer goods invade our emotions, until our own bodies become objects of consumption. It is not only imperialism, but the way of imperial life that alienates us entirely.”
The political analyst says that the idea of the commune, and of common property, is a “key element in overcoming capitalism.” He emphasizes the need to get beyond “private property concentrated in few hands,” and insists that socialism “is a profoundly democratic process, because it wishes to amplify democracy in social and economic life.” He insists the project of socialism is certainly an alternative to capitalism.
What are socialist economic policies that work, that satisfy peoples’ needs?
We have some central concepts. It is very correct to prioritize what is public. Caracas has a practically free public transit system, my question would be why don’t they remove the ticket system, if its already essentially free? Water, electricity, healthcare, and education should be in public hands- not necessarily the state, but public. In that sense it seems very right what has been attempted. A socialist economy can only be constructed from below, from cooperatives and communities, and that process is more reliant on quality than quantity.
Zelik notes that cooperatives are a “world economic power” which can move within the capitalist market and set examples. “Maybe it was an error not to collect concrete experiences and try to construct the cooperatives on the basis of those experiences,” he muses.
In that sense, he says, alternatives to the market and to state bureaucracy must also be investigated. “The economic alternative that we know is of common property, which has been studied.”
“It’s not about reproducing antiquated [policies] from 500 years ago. We don’t want a socialism of the Middle Ages, we want modern socialism, but we should try and learn from those models, especially as natural resources will become scarce,” he explains. “We should develop economic models that are prepared to manage the scarcity of certain products.”
The analyst calls for the development of ecosocialism, as “an economic model which regards the concept of growth in a totally different manner.”
What would you do with the petroleum?
“The historic saying was merely rhetoric, but it’s true; ‘We must sow the oil.’ But we must sow it in a way that conceptualizes transformation, the transition to ecosocialism.”
Zelik recalls that Chavez himself, in 1999, called for agricultural development. “We have failed in that,” he admits, but “Venezuela must look at why these agricultural efforts have failed, and open a debate on the subject.”
He concurs that “nobody expects Venezuela to have the answer to global problems,” and considers it logical that these problems exist, because “it’s much more difficult to chane the model than maintain the model. Problems and failures are inevitable.”
Is capitalism really as bad as the left believes?
“Yes. The wars being waged at this time are proof that we are coming within proximity of a critical moment in history. What will that moment look like? We don’t know, but there are multiple crises, and those crises are interlaced.”
According to Zelik, “it’s not only a crisis of over accumulation [of wealth], but an ecological crisis as well, a social crisis of rising contradictions between the rich and the poor, and a political crisis because the representative model no longer meets peoples demands.” It is even a “cultural crisis, of alienation, created by new technologies and mass media.”
Based on this theory, he warns “we will see more wars, more conflict” because the possibility to generate material wealth is becoming smaller and smaller. His conclusion is that the prospect of ecosocialism should be taken very seriously.
Venezuela is a country being watched by the whole world, for better or for worse. “It is a country that really attempted to break from the standing social, political and economic model,” Zelik affirmed. “And it was able to create a strategy for new transformation, because Venezuela doesn’t represent traditional reformism nor traditional revolution.”
In Zelik’s view, “the constituent process has opened a door to the imaginary world collective.” It is not coincidence, he said, that “one of the most intriguing political forces in Europe, Spain’s Podemos, was so nurtured by the Venezuelan experience.”
The analyst considers himself “very critical of Venezuelan state control, and of the rentier extractivist model,” but at the same time he admits to having a “very big love” for the process “and I am not afraid of failure.”
By his criteria, “Venezuela has contributed much with which we may rethink different forms of change. In fact, if we are are reaching a final limit, I am sure that it has helped us to open doors and we will continue to open doors. The Venezuelan people, the Bolivarian people, must do more than trust in state control.”