Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution in the Post (neo)Liberal Constellation

The Bolivarian Revolution is in the process of building a new type of state power in Venezuela, one that represents one of the most progressive poles in the postliberal constellation.

There is an increasing though
rather unfinished literature in social science and area studies circles on so
called ‘post-liberal regimes.'[1]  Writing in this vein runs the gamut
from the pejorative – as with Larry Diamond's (Diamond, 2002) notion of
‘pseudo-democratic,' ‘electoral authoritarian' or otherwise hybrid regimes that
fail to live up to the criteria of good governance established in the United
States and most of Europe – to the speculative and hopeful – as
might describe the analytical position outlined by Benjamin Arditi
(Arditi, 2003)
Both perspectives note the ways in which the positions and institutions
of modern liberalism – as a political praxis dominant in the west
based at a minimum on a strong sense
of individualism, formal-legal equality, limited government, free markets, and
religious and ideological tolerance – are seemingly on the wane or losing
their hegemonic position in the political imaginary.

These two opposed positions also
characterize what is most consistent throughout the literature on
post-liberalism, though from different political positions.  That is to say, the era of the
ideological emphasis of freedom first
with unfettered transnational capital, and only
with western style abstract and formal political equalities (to say nothing of substantive,
abilities-needs fairness or justice notions of equality) – has ended or
is at the very least entering a major crisis.  While this may or may not signal the end of ‘liberalism' as
a legitimating discourse entwined with the modern state and capital, neoliberalism
– which in political terms was effectively a counterattack on the part of
the wealthy against the post-war Keynesian class compromise and in economic
terms (especially in Latin America) called for the end of Import Substitution
Industrialization and state-directed development policies (Harvey, 2007) – has certainly
sustained a substantial blow to its short and medium term credibility. 

In this ‘post neoliberal
constellation' (a ‘constellation' in that there is by no means any sort of
cross-case homogeneity – Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution is rather
different than Putin's Russia or China's state capitalist development) it is
rather important to keep in mind that despite left and right propaganda of the
1980s and 1990s that heralded the ‘whithering
of the state' the state was alive and well throughout even the darkest of the
neoliberal ‘lost decades.'  That is
to say, a strong state was necessary to facilitate the expropriation of labor
and natural resources in Latin America – to privatize the social safety
net and to keep the rabble in line. 
The ‘neoliberal state,' then is a form of government that facilitates
this counterattack of the ruling classes, a more obviously and directly
‘instrumental' state than previous ones. 
Whereas the post-war state so famously described by Poulantzas
as a "relatively autonomous" apparatus that could from time to time act against
the immediate interests of the
bourgeoisie in order to better serve the long term interests of capital (Poulantzas,
the neoliberal state served as the structural means for the redistribution of
wealth (not, importantly, its generation)
from the commons to the few (Harvey & Lilley,
2006).  In the course of this counter-attack
that transformed the nature of state power from the 1970s to the 2000s, the
immediate-term interests of the rich were pursued with an orgiastic fervor, and
it is this fervor that is being tempered down to highly varying degrees in
reaction to the contemporary crisis of global capital.

However, any triumphalism in
the face of the contemporary crisis of global capitalism, its deployment of the
modern state form and the obfuscatory discourses of
liberalism would be well served to recall C.B. Macpherson's (Macpherson, 1965) observation that states were states before they were liberal, liberal before they were democratic, and
finally that liberalism itself was
liberal before it was democratic. 
We have seen crises before, and constantly been reminded that as a
system, capital not only thrives on crises it produces and needs them. 
This historical persistence and adaptability can be seen perhaps in the
first steps of ‘industrialized' nations of the north in the face of the
crisis.  Rather than calling the
capitalist world system into question, the United States and several Eurozone economies have intensified the funneling of money
to the rich (taxpayers ultimately being expected to carry the tab for bailing
out firms ‘too big to be allowed to fail'), though these have been accompanied
by a few timid calls for a green Keynesianism and increased government
oversight of that ‘wild west' that is economic speculation.  As such, it is not at all clear that ‘postliberalism' will be much better for the world's
majority than was the past 30 years. 
What is clear however is that space has been opened, and it is in this
space that experimentation with political and economic forms and the
reinvigoration of class struggle can – and must – take place.

My wager in this paper is that
the Bolivarian Revolution is in the process of building a new type of state
power in Venezuela, one that represents one of the most progressive poles in
the postliberal constellation.  The at times inconsistent and at
present precarious nature of this project is in part due to the state culture
and the form of capitalism developed by the previous, Fourth, Republic
(1831-1999).  In large part, this
history helps explain the centrality of the state in the pursuit of 21st
century socialism.  However, the
extent to which this new role for the state is feasible is directly contingent
upon the ability of the Bolivarians to resist the
entropy and alienation of the modern state form.  That is to say, the ability of the Bolivarian Revolution to
create a new form of state power – one that emerges from the post-liberal
moment de-linked from the requirements and domination of modern capitalism
– is directly tied to its ability to move beyond the very notion of the
state itself.

The revolutionary process in
Venezuela has decidedly yet to take the form of a frontal assault on the most
sacred institutions of liberal capitalism, but has rather of necessity been
much more tentative and ad hoc than definitive; more additive than
destructive.  It is in this way
still a democratic (increasing
participation, injecting some needed justice into the pre-existing order) and
not a social (that is, replacing the
entire class order of society in its entirety) revolution. Far from exiling or
attacking core liberal values like private property and individual liberty, the
Venezuelan government has for at least the last 5 years attempted to augment such conventions.  The chief means through which this has
taken place has been massive increases in social spending – which
democratizes consumption but, given the glut in oil profits that have
accompanied Chávez's oil policy, has yet to be forced to make serious impacts
on the fundamental class nature of Venezuelan society. While these measures are
in no doubt long overdue and socially absolutely necessary, their revolutionary
importance is decidedly lesser than that the creation of parallel institutions
such as the consejos comunales
(neighborhood based legislative, cultural and budgetary bodies), and the misiones sociales (an
armada of educational, nutritional, health, collective-entrepreneurial and
cultural projects). 

The original aim of the misionesand the consejos was one of building
direct democracy, decentralizing political power and the construction of a more
fair economy.  However, with the
steady radicalization of the Chávez government – spurred on by what
Gregory Wilpert describes as an opposition that was preemptively reactionary (Wilpert, 2007) – these parallel
institutions were increasingly seen as capable of replacing the traditional and
alienating bodies of liberal democracy. 
This radicalizing trend, and the potential for building a revolutionary counterpower within
the revolution has been put into question in the aftermath of the failed
Constitutional Reform of December 2007. 

Within Chavista ranks an ‘endogenous
right' made up of bureaucrats, careerists and largely middle-class supporters
of the government has been able to expand its position, arguing for a slower,
more defensive and conservative pace to the Revolution.  This moment, or so their logic goes, is
one in which the government needs to make friends amongst the upper and middle
classes, to make gestures toward the ‘progressive' bourgeoisie, to forge public-private
partnerships and work towards the integration of the opposition into the
government – always with the aim of consolidating their own position
relative to power. These conservative elements by and large see the consejosand the misiones as supplements to the pre-existing order – something akin to
welfare programs designed to catch those who have ‘fallen through the cracks'
of contemporary society (Ellner, 2008).  In other words, their vision of
socialism for the 21st century is rather closer to European social
democracy than to communism of the Soviet or Cuban varieties.

At the same time, radical
elements in the base have argued in essence that the best defense is a good
offense.  They rightly locate the
failure of the 2007 reforma not in the opposition's ability to convert the government supporters
but rather in the failure of the Chavistas to
mobilize their own base.  The
opposition ‘No' campaign, mobilized the same numbers they have been able to
historically, which allowed them to defeat the Chavista
‘Si' by a roughly 1% margin.  More
fundamentally, they point to a faltering in parallel institutions such as misión ribas and misión barrio adentro
– and by extension, to the increasing influence of the endogenous right
– as key reasons why Venezuelans did not turn out in the same numbers for
the reforma as they did for the re-election of Chávez
just one year earlier (where he won with 63% of the vote to opposition
candidate Manuel Rosales' 37%). 

Their strategic position is in
essence rather similar to that of the Lenin of Dual Power (Ciccariello-Maher,
that the state is necessary only insofar as it can be used to attack the
enemies of the revolution but that it cannot and should not be mistaken for the
substance and ultimate aim of the revolutionary process.  Rather, once captured the modern state must only
be seen as a temporary weapon in the fight against the ruling class.  This weapon is to be used as the
capacity, force, and organization of the revolutionary proletariat is in
gestation, and will itself be
overthrown when this ‘dual power' has reached the point in which it can replace
these now outdated bourgeois institutions with its own.  Even though both wings of the
Bolivarian Revolution have been impeccably democratic – in Chávez's
words, it is a "peaceful, but armed" revolution – this bloc is
predictably much less accomodationist than the
endogenous right, quicker to denounce fellow travelers for the corruption that
remains endemic to Venezuelan politics, and much more skeptical of the existing
state structure.  As such, they
envision the parallel institutions of the Bolivarian Revolution as tools to
create political, social and economic powers capable of overcoming the
inherently corrupt institutions of bourgeois liberal democracy rather than
government charity (Ciccariello-Maher,
2007; Ellner, 2008).

This particular goal and
strategy of the radicals is made all the more difficult given the nature of the
Venezuelan state and its relation to the economic life of that nation.  The extent of this difficulty defies a
quick simplifying gloss.  It
entails a history spanning the long marches of Simón
Bolívar's liberating armies in the early 19th century to the bloody Caracazouprising against the neoliberal reforms
of president Carlos Andrés Peréz and the collapse of
the Venezuelan political establishment in and after 1989.  I will do my best to highlight a few
key moments in this history in the hopes of better contextualizing my
concluding remarks on the transformation of the state in the Bolivarian

The years following
independence from Spain were rough for Venezuela.  The wars had been particularly bitter there, and had a
significantly negative impact on the country's working population, economy and
infrastructure. Indeed, the centralization of military, economic and political
power in the central Venezuelan state only truly came to its maturity during
the Vicente Gómez years (1909-1935), a process which
was greatly expedited with the discovery of (and state control of access to)
oil starting in the first quarter of the 20th century.  Having dispossessed the caudillos (local and largely agrarian
strong men in control of their own private armies and of the territory they
claimed as their own) both militarily and politically, Vicente Gómez exercised complete control over oil concessions,
removing their potential economic power as well.  It was also in this moment that the bases of power and the
shape of Venezuelan society shifted from the countryside to the cities, and the
beginning of a distinctly Venezuelan model of capitalism and the modern state

The modern sovereign state
emerged at the same time as did Venezuela's capitalist economy – it was
not a holdover from an absolutist ancien régime but
rather in many ways its commencement. 
This economy, from the beginning,
was based not on the capture of labor power, but rather on the capture of oil
rents levied upon foreign petrol companies, a process which was monopolized by
the state.  It is thus rather
difficult at this stage to locate sociologically something on the order of a
distinct ‘ruling class' that could wield state power in any sort of
‘instrumental' fashion in that the state
was the owner of the ‘means of production.'

Thus against traditional
liberal and Marxist historiography of the modern state and capitalism which
rely heavily on the emergence and consolidation of an indigenous bourgeoisie in
the interstices of the absolutist state and the eventual emergence of a
disciplined if oppressed working class (Koselleck,
1988; Marx, 1978),
the primary indicator of social power in 20th century Venezuela was
political rather than propertied in nature (Coronil,
1997; Hein, 1980).  At precisely the moment in which a
central state emerged which was strong enough to protect the country's
fledgling industries, Venezuela threw itself headlong into oil production just
in time for the Second World War. 
Subsequent intensification of the petrol industry further weakened what
few autonomous social and economic forces remained, strengthening the power of
the central state as it brokered the contracts of the foreign-dominated extraction
process.  Thus something of ‘the
Dutch Disease' avant la lettre
took hold in Venezuela for political as well as economic reasons.  As a domestic strategy of control it
endured the pacted transition to democracy in 1958,
just as the consequences of uneven internal economic development persist for
the population to this day.

This enduring trait of
Venezuelan political economy is worth drawing out in more detail, as it is key
to any attempt to think the state-form of the Bolivarian Revolution.  While the transition to democracy
energized and expanded its atrophied and exiled ‘civil society,' it did little
to counter what Fernando Coronil (Coronil,
has described as the ‘magical' or ‘shamanistic' nature of the Venezuelan
state.  In Coronil's
estimation, this phenomenon, specific to the expanded opportunities afforded by
oil wealth, was ‘magical' in that the state literally transformed ‘nature' (his
word) into the physical and material traits of an imagined -and deeply
desired – modernity.  For
example, the slogan "Sembrar el petroleo"
("sow the oil"), first coined by in 1936 by Arturo Úslar
Pietri in the pages of Diario Ahora has been a constant theme of every
subsequent Venezuelan government – including the present one.  The notion of the oil economy is thus
one that oil profits hold the key to Venezuelan development and modernization
above and before all else, resulting in the perhaps paradoxical (given the
meaning of the slogan) further deterioration of other economic sector.  This persistent trait of Venezuelan
political economy was intensified during the dictatorship years, as General
Marcos Pérez Jiménez
(1948/52-1958) adopted policies of intense infrastructure development –
building highways, universities and housing on a scale never before seen in the
country – and which arguably has lasted until the present government's
attempts to build collective and communal forms of property and industry.  

With democratization came a
deepening of the Venezuelan form of the ‘Dutch disease,' as the parties which
dominated the structurally exclusionary democratic system known as the ‘puntofijo pact' tightly controlled nearly all aspects of
Venezuela's politics and economy (García-Guadilla,
and the dominance of the oil sector led to consistent annual declines in
domestic industrial and agricultural productivity (Karl, 1997).  There was thus little space for autonomous power to be built
against either the state or the ruling class by the bourgeoisie.  Counter-systemic organizing was also
rather unlikely from the organized working class, most prominent in the petrol
industry, but also in aluminum and steel production, as they were tied rather
tightly to the party machines of puntofijismo
What is more, the exploding informal sector (which picked up major pace
in the 1970s, a trend that continues to the present (Orlando, 2001)) presented its own unique
difficulties for any sort of traditional or Orthodox Marxist anti-state or
anti-capitalist organization as informal sector workers are by definition a
decentralized and precarious workforce more closely resembling the lumpenproletariat
than the working class.[2]  The global boom in oil prices around
that time contributed to a spike in urbanization without industrialization.  Unable to compete with subsidized
imports, Venezuelan farmers flocked to a few key cities in order to find
employment in the interstices and service economies around the oil sector.  By 1992 informality so dominated
employment and housing in Caracas that, Aristóbolo Istúriz, then the recently elected mayor lamented that his
administration had no clue how many people lived in the constantly growing
city, let alone how to provide them with basic services (Harnecker,

The deepening of the social
crises surrounding consecutive rounds of structural adjustments throughout the
1980s and 1990s did little to improve this situation, though they did hasten
the collapse of the Fourth Republic. 
While the twentieth century political and economic history of the
Venezuelan state defies easy classification as liberal, the years following the
Caracazo or
Sacudón– nationwide popular uprisings in
response to president Carlos Andrés Peréz's
bait-and-switch neoliberal reforms in which scores died in the state's response
– clearly saw the development of a neoliberal state.  The administrations of Peréz and then Caldera both oversaw the selling off of the
state oil company, PDVSA (nationalized – by the same Peréz
– in 1976), the telecommunications network and mining concerns – to
name only a few prominent examples. 
Popular protest skyrocketed throughout the 1990s with little to no
impact on substantive government economic policy (López
Maya, 2005).  As a result, by the time of the 1998
elections the political establishment had so discredited itself in the eyes of
the population that Chávez's status as an outsider was
perhaps the most important element of his resume. 

However, it is important to
note that Chávez was not immediately a revolutionary, to say nothing of him
being a socialist.  The process of
radicalization only reached the point where Chávez announced the construction
of ‘Socialism for the 21st century' in 2004, and it only arguably
truly picked up pace between 2006 and 2007, first as Chávez faced an opposition
candidate running on a populist platform, and second as the movement announced
its roadmap (the so-called ‘5 motors') to a Bolivarian socialism.  It has also been in this timeframe that
the question of the state form in the Bolivarian Revolution has become
increasingly prominent among radicals.

In 1871, writing on the Paris
Commune, Marx warned that "the working class cannot simply lay hold of the
ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes" (pg. 629) a
caution that has dominated subsequent Marxist thought on the role of the state
in revolutionary transformation. It is precisely this warning which inspired
the Leninist concept of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat' and of ‘dual
power,' as well as the often (incorrectly) opposed Gramscian
formulations of hegemony and War of Position.  The state, they argued, was a powerful element of class
warfare, either as the instrument of the ruling class (Lenin) or as a complex
series of relationships capable of either crushing or neutralizing class
struggle (Gramsci).  In either case, the present liberal-bourgeois state would
have to be done away with in the pursuit of socialism, and the party – in
different ways – was precisely the body to take on this historical

This approach to the state and
the party form was by and large eclipsed by the post-Soviet renaissance of
‘radical democracy,' a slogan that often took the place of Socialism, Marxism
or communism in the imaginaries of university leftists and the so-called ‘anticapitalist globalization movements.'  Perhaps not coincidentally, this
discourse came to dominate progressive activism at the same time as the
‘Washington Consensus' – which put its own definition of democracy center
stage – dominated political and economic policy throughout Latin America.
Within these lines of thought, the state is often seen as a highly likely if
not inevitable harbinger of Stalinist statism.  The state is thus for this tendency
uniquely a power-over, antithetical to the spirit of anticapitalism
(or obversely, to the free market's singular capacity
to realize human potential and freedom) (see, for the capitalist
and anticapitalist views on this respectively,
Friedman, 1982; Holloway, 2002)
More troublingly, in the rejection of state power, the net result of the
actions of these tendencies within progressivism often resulted in little more
fundamentally than appeals for a kinder, gentler, perhaps more inclusive
capitalism.  The principle, then,
of radical democracy when delinked from the pursuit of state power (pursuit as
in the Leninist or Gramscian sense of ending liberal
bourgeois governance and capitalist economics) comes down to little more than a
democratization of consumption or the naïve faith that the principles of liberalism and the promise of the egalitarian,
democratic state are sound if ill executed.  If anything, current events have eroded this position's
theoretical coherence, if not torn it completely asunder.

If the Bolivarian Revolution is
to be successful as a social revolution,
and not just a democratic one, it must capitalize on the uncertainty of this
post (neo)liberal moment and end this substitution of
radical democracy for the communist imperative that the liberal state is a lie,
and must therefore go.  This is, however,
a rather difficult task in that the historical identification of the Venezuelan
state with capital favors a political approach in the Poulantizian
sense of the state as a field ‘traversed' by struggle (Poulantzas,
2008 pg. 367).  The problem is deepened
still more given the persevering political and economic consequences of the
‘Dutch Disease.'  A historically
weak working class, the absence of a significant peasantry and the ubiquity of
the informal economy all make a rallying organizational praxis along the lines
of ‘all power to the soviets' something of a ridiculous proposition.  In its place – and this has been
the strategy of the radical base of Chavismo against the endogenous right – the strategy
must be ‘all power to the communal councils,' locating the terrain of the
struggle against state domination and capitalist exploitation in the

There is, of course, something
of a theoretical circle here.  In
order to avoid this problem – first that the focus on ‘civil society' in
academic and activist circles throughout the past 20-30 years has dangerously
tracked hegemonic tendencies in its rhetorical antithesis to state power;
second that the particularity of Venezuelan capitalism and politics in the past
and present requires a social as opposed
to directly political or economistic organizing
– a reconsideration of the state-form and indeed of ‘society' in
non-bourgeois terms is in order. 
This reconsideration has been taking place in Venezuela at the radical
base, as communities organize around social production, popular sovereignty
(and defense), and continue the push for an economic
system based on solidarity and a politics based attuned to the popular
will.  However, paraphrasing Lenin,
this new order is perhaps not yet ready to be born from the corpse of the
old.  As such, there is little
other choice than to rely on the current state to engender and protect the
antagonistic force of the poor. 
And in this light, despite the present uncertainty and its rather uneven
progress, Venezuela should be seen as building just such a state. 

The project has, has, however,
been able to do so for the past 5 years almost in spite of itself, given the
tragicomic ineptitude of the opposition which all but gave Chavistas not only state power,
but hegemony.  The upcoming
elections of 23 November put this luxury in question.  While an opposition rout is highly unlikely, the reemergence
of opposition lawmakers in key states would strengthen the hand of the
endogenous right's calls for moderation and a slowing of the pace of the
Bolivarian Revolution.  In other
words, the capacity of the hard line Chavistaproject
of ending the substitution of radical democracy and the democratization of
consumption for social revolution remains suspended in the balance.  Such is the uncertainty of the post (neo)liberal constellation, and such is the situation we now
face in Venezuela and throughout the world.

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[1] This is a
slightly revised version of a paper delivered at the annual conference of the
journal Historical Materialism
convened in London 7-9 November, 2008. 
The comments that followed in the discussion period were both insightful
and well appreciated. My special thanks to Jeffery Weber,
Alberto Toscano and Nina Power. 

[2] This is of
course not to suggest that the ‘lumpen' elements of a
given economy cannot be
organized.  My personal political
position argues that there is just as much if
not more
revolutionary potential in these elements than in the ‘organized
and disciplined proletariat.'  This
is only to suggest that they present a unique set of conditions necessary to
consider from the aspect of socialist strategy, and that traditional and
orthodox Marxist approaches have by and large been rather skeptical.