There is a now-famous quote by neoliberal political theorist and political operator Milton Friedman that illustrates the tactic of neoliberal capitalism: “Only a crisis –actual or perceived– produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”
Several things are worthy of attention here. Friedman admits that the crisis can be real or perceived. In other words, the crisis may not be real and yet, through manipulating perceptions, achieve the same “transforming” effect. Furthermore, the use of the expression “the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around” conceals, in a quasi-religious way, the mechanisms of dissemination of ideology and consensus-building by the dominant classes.
The truth is that in Venezuela we can account for both a real and a perceived crisis, but we are also witnesses to the struggle to build from the (real) manipulation of the previous two a Necessary Crisis in which, as Friedman says, “the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”
The real crisis exists despite the attempts to hide it or mitigate it. The Bolivarian government’s narrative of denial cannot put the breaks on the crisis’s real effects: collapse of public services, growing difficulties in access to food and basic goods, exponential hyperinflation, progressive devaluation of the real wage, intensification of the migratory wave, etc. The harshness of the crisis is not felt by all Venezuelans alike, it especially affects the “eternal” victims of all crises and debts – poor Venezuelan men and especially women– while benefiting a minority of industrialists, retailers, bankers, landowners and corrupt bureaucrats who feed off of the crisis’ very high profit and rent rates. Thus we may conclude that in this aspect of the crisis, the class conflict revolves around different economic agents’ attempts to capture the oil rent. Unfortunately, the logic that has prevailed is one that privileges individualism and pettiness among the most vulnerable sectors of society, in the face of a general climate of economic Darwinism and bewilderment, slightly alleviated by small government subsidies and remittances.
By contrast, in the perceived crisis, the struggle takes the shape of competing interpretations, meanings and narratives concerning the dimension, scope, causes, depth and solutions to the crisis. On the one hand, the crisis is explained as a consequence both of the aggression and sabotage by the parasitical Venezuelan bourgeoisie and of US government sanctions; those are the pillars of the “economic war” story. On the other hand, there is an interpretation that points to the government’s negligence and administrative bankruptcy, endemic corruption, default, and authoritarianism. These are the basic elements of the narratives positing a failed state, the failure of socialism, the Maduro dictatorship, and the humanitarian crisis.
The stories told by the two powerful power groups concerning the crisis don’t succeed in explaining the complexity and multifaceted structure of the situation. This is shown by the recent episode in which the Vice President of the Republic stated that extreme poverty came down to 4.4% in 2017, while a Survey on Living Conditions in Venezuela (Encovi) maintained that extreme poverty reached 61.2% in 2017. This case exemplifies the two poles’ implausible treatment of the crisis. It’s clear that the government’s practice of absconding and manipulating official figures does much to favor data coming from sources sponsored by the right and its institutions (research centers and NGOs), thus further adulterating the perceived crisis.
The humanitarian crisis discourse comes as a clear justification for a foreign military intervention and a change of government by force. At the same time, the threat of a military intervention and the growing blockade work as pressure tactics that attempt to force the negotiated resolution of the conflict. The aim of all this is to weaken and soften up the government, make it abandon the revolutionary and socialist project, assume the cost of the crisis, and begin to take the first steps required by neoliberalism in its efforts to wind back the clock. It is worth pointing out that there appear to be systematic efforts by some government actors who are in favor of this retreat from the revolutionary project and themselves act as neoliberals. Because of their common interests, they work in concert with the principal bourgeois and oligarchical elements that exert pressure on the government.
In this kind of situation – in which the real crisis is exacerbated and taken to unprecedented extremes, the threat projected by the perceived crisis gets worse, and the paralyzed revolutionary leadership deprives its social base of reasons, arguments, goals, and morale – enter the shock that is needed overcome all resistance and allow the “ideas that float in the environment” to be those of neoliberal capitalism in its worst mode. These ideas and discourses are penetrating all areas of life, and are made manifest in the current dismantling of PDVSA, the artificially induced failure of dozens of state enterprises, the reinstatement of large landed estates and the violent displacement of campesinos, the dictatorship of retailers and their speculation, the proliferation of usury, the pauperization of the working class, the massive abandonment of public administration and the privatization of natural resources. In sum, we are witnessing a wave of privatizations with profound social and cultural repercussions, which send the population in search for individual solutions to social problems, while drawing them away from social organization and spaces of socialization aimed at the production and reproduction of material and spiritual life. A cult of introspection, self-absorption and social fragmentation functional for the full reinstatement of capitalist domination thus emerges, erasing the whole revolutionary struggle and parodying the revolutionary and radical project in its entirety.
Everything points to the fact that the strategy of the enemy is in connivance with that of certain sympathetic Bolivarian sectors within the state. Here the objective would be not only the economic suffocation of the revolution, but also its subsequent political defeat and military obliteration. The ultimate objective would be to wipe out the hope of socialist transformation. This thesis is confirmed by Trump’s unambiguous claim at the United Nations: “The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented but that socialism has been faithfully implemented.”
Trump is wrong. The crisis is instead that of rentier capitalism and its forms of accumulation, which are approaching an unprecedented collapse. Neither Trump nor our bourgeois enemies, nor the reformist sectors should put the responsibility of the crisis on incipient socialism, which was only beginning to emerge and confront the thousand-headed monster that has ruled Venezuela’s economic life (and brought tremendous misfortunes to the people) for the last one hundred years.
Translation by Cira Pascual Marquina for Venezuelanalysis.com.