Hernan Vargas is a spokesperson for the Movimiento de Trabajadoras Residenciales [Movement of United Residential Workers] and the Venezuelan Movimiento de Pobladoras y Pobladores [Settlers’ Movement, henceforth Pobladoras]. He also has an important role coordinating the ALBA social movements. Vargas’ research interests include popular economies and modes of social reproduction.
In the first part of this interview, we focused on the origins of the Pobladoras’movement and the concept of the “urban revolution.” In Part II, we discuss the movements’ struggle over urban spaces, connecting that struggle with larger debates within Chavismo.
Regarding the goal of the Pobladoras movement, you have said that it shouldn’t be merely a question of fighting for people’s “right to the city” (since that could amount to merely building some low-income housing and a few parks). Instead, it should be about struggling to wrest the city from capital’s control. That sounds great, but what does it really mean?
The majority of the ideas of Chavismo – and of the Pobladoras movement in particular – developed over time, in the course of the struggle. In developing the idea of the urban revolution, which is the key thesis driving our struggle, we came to reject the idea that the poor can reconcile their demands with the city as it is organized now (as if the city were a place where rich and poor can happily live alongside each other). To a great degree, the discourses based on “the democratization of the city” or “the right to the city” are about that: “democratizing” the city of capital. Needless to say, that is not possible.
More or less the same thing happens with the progressivist project, which is an attempt to extend and democratize the promise of occidental modernity. That can only happen in a very limited way in the centers of power, in the centers of capital. When you look at the configuration of global capital, you see how the central countries’ elites live by dispossessing the majorities, and especially the majority populations of the Global South. Thus, that model cannot be democratized because it is based on dispossessing the other.
The “right to the city” model is not viable. We cannot democratize the model of life of the rich minority. It’s not a harmonic model, extendable to everyone, but one based on structural privileges.
This is something that we discovered over time, which meant calling into question paradigms that we took seriously a while ago. When Friedrich Engels analyzes the problem of housing, he concludes that workers’ housing is actually a need for capital at a certain stage of its development. However, once accumulation by dispossession begins to organize the capitalist economy, access to housing for the poor – particularly in the periphery – ceases to be a need for capital. In fact, I would even say that resolving housing problems never sat well with capitalism, but here and now, in the Global South, [Engels’] hypothesis is farther removed from reality than ever before. In our case, informal and precarious labor, with a focus on services makes the hypothesis even more extravagant.
That means that the urban revolution has to struggle over urban space, and it must also build a new model of social reproduction. When we occupy, for instance, a vacant lot to build a new socialist community, that is not just about redistribution of the land; it’s also about developing a new set of social relations in that space. As families organize to occupy a plot of land for their homes, and as they go through the process of caring for it, all that happens along with collective decisions and assemblies.
The assembly is the place where the collective decides not only how to physically construct a building, but also a space where internal social relations are debated and reconstructed. Issues such as gender violence are addressed collectively. For example, a compañero who is violent with his partner will be excluded from the process.
Of course, I’m not saying that these exercises of organization actually constitute forms of consolidated socialism. However, they are spaces where we struggle for control of the city, and in doing so we are struggling for another model for the city where the private is not separated from the collective. It’s a new mode of producing and reproducing life in the city, a new way of building social relations, cultural relations, with new forms of interpreting reality.
So the Pobladoras movement is about building socialism at a local level, which is what Chavez proposed. That is why conceiving the commune as the space for fostering socialism is integrally part of our proposal. Here I’m not talking so much about the bureaucratic process of registering a commune, but rather about the communal project at its core, which is a collective emancipatory project. The Pobladoras, too, are contributing to the communal path. After all, that is what socialism is for us: the communes, the common, the collective struggle for the means to satisfy collective needs.
Among the projects of Pobladoras, there is one that I find especially fascinating. It’s the practice of occupying urban spaces and then building housing there, which is done by the “Pioneros” (Pioneers).
I would say that the Pioneros and their projects grow out of the whole Pobladoras movement. So, if Pobladoras is a confluence of organizations around the idea of the urban revolution, Pioneros can be seen as a kind of synthesis of all the historical currents that evolved into the Pobladoras movement.
First, the CTUs emerged because of people’s need to organize to get deeds for the land where their homes were built, in the steep hills on the outskirts of the city. Then there were others who joined the movement: the people who lived in precarious housing conditions, residential workers living in quasi-slavery, tenants struggling to avoid evictions, the occupiers of vacant buildings… Together we began to think about wresting the city from the control of capital that is growing at the expense of everything else.
All those currents come together in Pioneros’ camps, that aim to take over unused land which is in the hands of capital.
I’ll tell you about a new socialist community, the Amatina Pioneros’ Encampment, which was recently inaugurated in a Gran Misión Vivienda Venezuela act [henceforth GMVV, government housing program]. This housing was built on a plot of land that we took from the Polar Corporation [a giant Venezuelan private food conglomerate]. Polar kept the lot vacant, using it to dispose of waste. Under the banner of the Revolution, we were able to occupy that plot of land. A group of organized families collectively built their homes there (which, as I said before, is the immediate aim, whereas the strategic objective is to generate a new form of life). In that way, the two hundred or so “Pioneros Amatina” families generated a collective social fabric based on communality, thereby getting away from the false premise that we can individually solve our problems.
First came the housing, then the new community began to plan a socialist bakery or a vegetable garden. This process implies, of course, the distribution of work. For the community to advance, all the adult and healthy members of the family have to work, and their work has to be coordinated. That is how one new community grew. Our idea is to foster new forms of urban life based on self-organization and self-management, which is part and parcel with Chavez’s project.
Inspired by [Hungarian Marxist] Istvan Meszaros, Chavez conceived of a new kind of participation and democracy – substantive democracy – which has self-management as a key element.
By the way, when we say “self-management,” we aren’t just talking about self‐building or self‐financing. No, we are talking about the people taking charge of the means to produce and reproduce their own lives. In this regard, the economic crisis has been an interesting moment for us, because it is now that society can recognize that the path of self-management is the only one that leads to real solutions.
Recently, we organized a march to the National Constitutive Assembly, first to demand that the institution return to being really constitutive, and secondly to promote the self-management model, calling for a legal framework that would prioritize collective [ownership] over [the interests of] capital in the realm of housing.
The huge GMVV housing project is essentially a top-down initiative, since most of the homes are built by large construction companies and people don’t participate in the process. That means that, between Pobladoras and GMVV, there are two very different kinds of projects, both of them vying for the state’s resources (based on oil rent). One is grassroots, self-organized and based on cooperation and solidarity, whereas the other is top-down. Would you agree that there is a conflict between the top-down model that aims merely to redistribute the oil rent versus your own model which aims for grassroots control of the country’s resources?
I was recently listening to an Argentinian who had done research on the Pink Tide. She pointed out that the redistributive model, whatever its limitations, was in itself the outcome of a struggle. The redistribution of resources that emerged in the progressive governments during the economic boom is not just a handout. So we could imagine that this struggle has different phases: first there is a struggle for access (to services, to healthcare, to housing), but that struggle could morph into something else, less dependent, more autonomous, more emancipatory.
For instance, in the last few years, Pobladoras has become one of the groups carrying out the projects of the GMVV. There is a part of the GMVV that is done hand in hand with popular power, and we in Pobladoras represent a tiny percentage of that part. What’s the upside of this? In these initiatives, to one degree or another, people become the subjects. As I mentioned, not all the projects related to popular power are self-managed, but they represent a first step.
When the GMVV begun, we made our position clear. We said it would only be viable if it went beyond merely distributing the resources derived from the oil rent, and had a basis in self-management. At that time, people considered us a bunch of crazies! Now we may still be the “crazies,” but the crisis and cruel blockade has made it clear, the only way forward is popular organization and collective work.
As Chavez said in the “Plan de La Patria” , Venezuela still has a rentier capitalist economy. From the beginning, Chavismo has attempted to democratize a model that is not democratizable because it’s based on appropriation of wealth, on looting… Within that framework, we did the best we could: millions of people graduated from high school and college, and millions of people got access to public healthcare, entertainment, housing, etc.
The problem is that the redistributive model [that maintains the rentier economy] can only go so far, and it surely cannot survive a crisis of the scale that we now are facing. For this reason, we went to the Constitutive Assembly and we said that, in the face of the crisis, the only option is self-management; the only path is to struggle for the control of the means of production. In that sense, we in Pobladoras are offering a solution.
Just as campesinos struggle for land and access to seeds, machinery and tools, so we struggle for plots of urban land. We also struggle for the means of production – from the building materials to the machinery needed to build our homes. In constructing our homes with our own work, we produce new communities based on solidarity.
For us, the struggle within the Revolution now is precisely that: a struggle to generate ample conditions so that the people can be the builders of their own lives. Today, I don’t think that the balance of power in Venezuela is such that we can make our model – based on self-emancipation – hegemonic right now. Nevertheless, we must struggle to displace the old modes of rent circulation, if we don’t want to lose ground.
This brings us to a very interesting debate about the Bolivarian Process. On the one hand, there are those who argue that the project is about distributing state resources more democratically and extending basic services to all, but all within the logic of rentier capitalism. On the other hand, there are those of us who consider that we need to develop a new metabolism. When there was a lot of money to go around, this debate was not intense. Now, however, those who live off of the appropriation of the rent, confront the popular sectors who call for a complete reorganization of the country in economic and cultural terms.
[Because this debate is coming to the forefront], we have to prepare ourselves not only for occupying urban land, but also for advancing our alternative model. For that reason, we asked for a chance to take the floor in a session of the National Constitutive Assembly. We need to make our case there and in other spaces, shaping public opinion.
Regarding public opinion, we have to acknowledge that we have had serious defeats in recent times. In the current crisis, many began to think that it was better to have well-stocked shelves in supermarkets, even if the prices are very high, than poorly-stocked shelves with accessible products. That was a battle we lost on a symbolic level.
In the historical line leading up to the present, reaching from the continent-wide movements [of the ‘60s], to the struggles of the ‘90s and the Chavista movement, the battle of ideas has been just as important as the struggle for territory. There, our main programmatic points are popular control, self-management, and greater democracy from the base. All this has one objective: to guarantee the reproduction of life for working people.