Venezuelan Direct Democracy – The case of the Consejos Comunales

In 2004, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez created a movement named the consejos comunales
(communal councils) aimed at creating more responsive local governance
by handing local budgetary and legislative power to the councils. I asked Michael Albert if he might be able to offer his opinion on this movement in Venezuela.

By Michael Albert and Adam Gill - ZNet
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In 2004, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez created a movement named the consejos comunales
(communal councils) aimed at creating more responsive local governance
by handing local budgetary and legislative power to the councils. This
movement was seen by Chavez as one of the most important of the five
motors of the ‘Bolivarian Revolution' in that they should influence
policy from the grassroots upwards. Great interest in the councils was
evident between 2004 and 2007 in that thousands formed quickly and $5
Billion was given to them during this period. Communal banks are a
pre-requisite to receiving funds from the government so as to avoid
clientalistic relationships of dependency.

Local
councils have the power to vote on issues directly affecting their
community and have used this to make significant changes. Major
improvements have included building social housing and repairing roads.
The local councils are formed with 200-400 families with members aged
15 and above and have an executive council and representatives of
groups within the community.

I asked Michael Albert if he might be able to offer his opinion on this movement in Venezuela.


What do you feel the role of the Communal Councils is strategically and politically?

Well,
I believe they are partly intended, in the present, to push forward the
whole revolutionary process by increasing current participation,
raising consciousness, etc.

But I also believe that for a great many folks in Venezuela,
both inside and outside the government, the councils are the evolving
infrastructure of a new polity. The idea is that people should govern
their own lives, and in that context local councils are the proposed
vehicle for doing it. As such, they are intended to become an
alternative to rather than just being an adjunct to local governments
of mayors and governors and the like.

Would you say the councils have created social change or more that their energies are being pulled in other directions?

I
don't feel very equipped to answer this question, and I am not entirely
sure, in any case, what you mean by "other directions." I can judge
only from a very great difference and based on talks with only a
limited number of people what the councils are up to.

My
impression, and it is tentative, is that the councils are a vast and
evolving experiment and project, by no means final in form and by no
means fully up to speed, but coming along, though many problems still
exist. First, for example, there is a population which - like our
population in the U.S - has almost zero experience prior to this
experiment with serious democracy much less participatory self
management. So the councils and their members are learning in practice,
and for many people that has ups and downs. But second, and less
benign, there are obstacles as well having to do not only with past
habits or current doubts, but also with real opposition, as in local
governing and corporate elites not wanting this experiment to work.

Venezuela
seems to me to be uniquely seeking a gigantic revolution in structures
and relations - not just economically but also politically, socially,
culturally - all non violently and even without much confrontation,
none provoked by the agents of change. That is historically ambitious,
to say the least.

So
in one corner you have corporate media continuing, and corporate
ownership in many realms, and governors and mayors and whatnot from the
prior history of the country, all also still in place, nearly all still
hoping to resurrect that prior history. In the other corner you have
the Bolivarian activists, and Chavez, and a large proportion of the non
elite population, instead trying to escape that past into something
fundamentally new.

Venezuala
is, in other words, a daily economic, political, social, and cultural
cauldron of experiment and opposition - and thus a site of intense
struggle. Or that is how I see Venezuela,
at any rate, and in that context the local communal councils are partly
a tool of the struggle but are also partly seeds of a new future being
built in the present.

Should Communal Councils be free of political party influence?

This
depends, I think, on what you mean by party influence. So, for example,
it wouldn't make sense to say there should be no party influence.
Imagine a council with people in it, of course. Some people are in one
party, some people are in another party. The parties they are in
influence those people's desires (and vice versa). The people then
bring their desires to the councils, so through their members the
parties influence the councils as well. That much is fine, in my view.
It would make no sense to say that shouldn't occur.

So,
for example, there are councils in communities that are very
Bolivarian, and they have views and aims quite like those of the
Bolivarian revolution. There are other councils in communities that are
opposed to Bolivarian projects, and those councils reflect those
opposition views. The parties are in part carriers of the views and the
people form parties, in turn, influence the councils.

On
the other hand, I think you might mean should parties as entities be
able to themselves direct or otherwise impact councils, other than by
the fact of their members indirectly doing so. Here I think the answer
is no, they should not be able to do that.

Your
question is a bit like asking, in the U.S., should local government
(just imagine, for the sake of the discussion, that it was actually
grassroots and participatory) be in any way at all subject to
instruction or control by political parties (other than being impacted
by the local members of the community who happen to be in parties)?
Well, of course it shouldn't, and ditto for Venezuela.
A party should impact councils simply by impacting the population that
composes the councils, but not by some sort of collective or structural
authority.

Do you think that party influence and political movements still operate as clients of central governments?

I am not sure I understand this question. In Venezuela,
at present, the Bolivarian revolution is very much a manifestation of
the ideas and will of President Chavez. We might prefer that the
movement had bubbled up, instead, from the population, and that Chavez
was merely one among many carriers of their intentions - but that isn't
the case. In fact, Chavez is constantly trying to impact what the
population thinks and wants, not just to hear from it. The government
is not only administering Venezuela, as it is seeking to use state power as a tool to build social involvement and activism. It is very unusual, of course.

So
in that context, the recently created revolutionary party Chavez is in
is certainly affected greatly by him, as are the social movements whose
members typically consider him a repository of valuable ideas and
plans, as is the government. Again, this is arguably not an optimal
picture, and it is certainly an unusual one - a president seeking to
build movements that will replace authorities, including the old
government structures, including himself - at least that's the current
agenda - throughout the country - but that is what is happening, or so
it seems to me, from my admittedly limited contact.

Can the Communal Councils in your opinion, become the only form of local government in Venezuela? What obstacles do you perceive to be happening now and possibly in the future?

I
certainly think that is possible, and that that is the goal, not just
conceivable, at least in many people's minds, including in the relevant
political ministries. I sat in offices and heard them explain their
hopes for these councils becoming the seat of governing power
throughout the country, describing the 50,000 councils that were needed
- with about 30,000 currently formed - and describing the gains in
confidence and methods also needed within the councils, and explaining
that yes, these would be above majors and governors and even the
President. So, yes, having them be the primary locus of government
power is the aim. Might that aim be swept aside as a goal? Sure, it
might. But it also might come true as a reality.

As Communal Councils are the constitutional embodiment of popular power in Venezuela, do you think President Chávez would respect this power if the popular mandate was against one of his policies?

I
don't have to guess. He already has. And so have the most left
Bolivarian mayors, for that matter. In contrast, of course, the
opposition simply ignores democratic desires unless they happen to
match the opposition's agenda.

A
very Bolivarian Mayor, in response to my asking a similar question,
described a long interaction with the communal councils in his town,
overturning what he thought was a local priority and imposing, on him,
a different agenda. He also described turning over to the council full
control over the local government budget, not just a little part of it,
so now he has to act their permission for projects, rather than vice
versa.

As
far as Chavez is concerned, for the most part so far there is no
precise test because the local councils are addressing local issues,
and Chavez pretty much stays out of that. But I asked your question in
a slightly different form - what would happen if the councils proposed
an electoral change Chavez didn't want. The answer was that their will
would override his. And I see no reason, so far, to doubt it, because
Chavez has given in to plebiscites and votes - which are far less
seriously participatory then something decided in the councils would
be, so why wouldn't he give in to institutions he is struggling so hard
to empower? We don't know, but that is my guess.

What is the potential for the Communal Councils power in the future?

I believe their potential is to become the infrastructure of government in a transformed Venezuela.
Whether there would even be such things as Mayors, Governors, etc.,
still existing in that case, I don't know. You would certainly various
organizations and structures for political tasks, but perhaps not those
particular ones. But if they did continue to exist, they would be
subordinate, as some already are.

Do
you think that we as Westerners, could learn from the Communal Council
experience and is direct democracy the only or best way forward in
local and even national politics in tackling local and global issues
like global climate change and economic crises?

This
is a big question but yes, of course I believe we could learn a
tremendous amount from Venezuela, both about the struggle and in
particular one way - not the only way - to wage it, and also about the
goals, of course.

I
know your emphasis here is on the councils, and they are critically
important, I very much agree, and they are also arguably the part of
the Bolivarian project that is most solidly and fully conceived, even
as they are also still developing - but I would say there is also much
to learn in other realms of society, too, and that dealing with
economics and ecology has much to do with those other realms, not just
the political structures.

Is Venezuela
in a sense more progressive than other countries in terms of
representation or could it be viewed that it is more historically tied
to relationships of reliance politically and indeed on its extractive
economy?

Of
course it is greatly focused on oil, but I don't see how that is
contrary to being more progressive. Rather, the oil revenues have
created room to move, and provided a degree of protection, ironically,
against incursions, on the one hand, but, agreed, on the other hand,
they also impose complicated problems. I don't know what you are
referring to when you say reliance politically - unless you mean on
world exchange and, in the past, on the U.S. Well, yes, that is a history that matters but Venezuela
is doing incredible things on that score too, seeking to not only
diversify its international relations, but even to establish new
structures and norms outside typical market logic.

In
terms of the development of communes in Venezuelan communities and
proposed networks of community ownership (as mentioned in the April 13th Mission), would you say that collective ownership could be one of the best ways to consolidate Socialism?

Well,
yes and no. Getting rid of private ownership is certainly one important
thing to do. But if you mean having collective ownership as in some
group owning a workplace instead of some set of stockholders owning it
- say the workforce or the surrounding community being the new owners -
then, no, I don't honestly think that has much to do with real
socialism.

Yes,
to escape from capitalism includes escaping from stockholders owning
workplaces and industries. That much is true enough. But to decide more
than that, it depends what the aim is. If we would be satisfied with a
new economy that didn't have private owners but in which the behavior
of collective owners was still mediated by market competition and still
driven by seeking their own personal profit - then the change you note
to groups owning could be called critical to that overall goal.

But that isn't my goal, and from talking to people in many different venues in Venezuela,
I don't think it is the most advanced Bolivarian goal, either. Rather,
I think they want, as I want, an economy that seeks to fulfil and
develop its citizens rather than to pit them against each other and,
even more, an economy that is classless rather than still class
divided. This would take time to discuss more fully, but I would say
that moving away from any idea of ownership at all is critical, yes,
but so too is escaping the logic of market competition, and also
escaping the logic of corporate divisions of labor.

When
interviewing someone very active in trying to transform a major
workplace, an aluminium factory, he expressed a very similar
perspective, arguing that getting rid of the old capitalist owners was
a nice step forward but what would really indicate success was
redefining the structure of work which meant not only democratizing it,
but changing the division of labor so everyone could fully participate,
and then also changing remuneration and the ties among workplaces.

What are the pros and cons of direct democracy over representative democracy in your opinion?

First
I don't think our choice is all of one or all of the other. Suppose we
want to attain as much as possible, short of silly perfectionism that
costs way too much in time and effort, that each person in society has
an influence on decisions in proportion as they are affected by them.
If that is our aim then we will choose a mix of political structures
and methods to attain it. The method - representative or direct - isn't
the principle, it is self-management that is the principle. My
expectation is that with that mindset we would likely sometimes utilize
overwhelmingly local direct council decision making, but other times we
might utilize, as well, recallable representatives, and sometimes
something in between.

The
Venezuelan government officials I have talked to lean in their
preference, I think, even further toward decisions always being taken
at the base than I do. They make that pretty much a principle, whereas
I think it is a method, often worthy, but sometimes not really viable.

Suppose,
for example, to be crass about it, that it turns out that in a
revolutionized Bolivarian Venezuela there are just a couple of hundred
national political decisions a year to be made. Okay, if so, maybe
every one of those national legislative or executive decisions could be
voted on in local councils by all citizens. But what if there are
10,000 such decisions that address the whole country? Then it seems
rather obvious that you can't have every citizen voting on each issue.
So the question arises, how do you delegate, or do other things, to
best convey self-managing say in such circumstances.

What I think is arguably most exciting about Venezuela
so far is that it is not doctrinaire. They don't think that if
something is written somewhere, in some text, that that makes it so.
They instead test ideas, learn from the results and refine their view.
My guess is they will learn pretty quickly that you can't have everyone
making every decision, and then they will adapt their structures to
maintain participation and what I hope will be self management, given
that reality.

Are the people better qualified to make the ‘right' decision when in the West we are taught to trust in our ‘leaders'?

Expert
knowledge matters. But it should not convey excess votes in deciding
outcomes. Suppose you and two friends are deciding on a restaurant. If
someone knows something relevant about a possible place to go, it
matters. The knowledgeable party will put it into the discussion. But
you don't then all say, okay, since you had that knowledge, you get to
decide. Rather you all cooperatively decide in light of the knowledge.

Why
shouldn't the same hold true in a country. It makes no sense to say we
should all together make decisions about what to invest in, or about
most other matters, without paying very close attention to expert
information. But, even so, there is no reason to give experts who
provide useful information the right to make decisions for us.

So
the polarity between consulting good insights and distributing
influence among those affected is simply false. We can do both, and we
should.

There
have been reports of opposition groups, mayors and governors hindering
the process of changes that the Communal Councils have made and have
been reluctant to hand power to them too. How many mayors will obstruct
the power transfer over the coming years and what will the PSUV do to
manage this situation do you feel?

It
is more than just reports. It is of course what the opposition does,
period, and it is also the approach of most mayors and governors, as
far as I can determine. The exceptions are exemplary, but are still
few. They are mayors and governors who are organizing and facilitating
their own loss of power and loss of elite standing whereas the folks
you talk about are trying to instead obstruct new ways to preserve old
ways.

To
guess what will be done, from outside, is limited to a few simple
observations, I think. So we can reasonably predict that the truly
Bolivarian elements will keep trying to amass popular support and
movement activism including growth of the councils, until whatever
mayors and governors remain opposed to the transformation are simply
voted out. That is the aim, I think, non violent and largely non
confrontational. But what happens if mayors of governors resist and try
to subvert change even more aggressively, preventing elections or
cheating, and so on? I don't know. But as long as Chavez is pursuing
the Bolivarian agenda and is President, there are many tools a the
disposal of change.

How,
do you imagine the opposition will position itself as a movement if the
only way to change local issues is in forming Communal Councils?

In
some places it will, as it has already, form such councils and dominate
them and try to use them to get outcomes it favors. That is a kind of
struggle that is going to proceed for some time to come, even in best
case scenarios, I think. But I think there is a bigger issue because I
don't think the opposition can succeed in this type contest, in the
long run. So the bigger aim they will have, if they are to persist, is
to get Chavez out of office and if need be, as they have already tried,
to do that by coup, or by external intervention, so as to prevent a
democratic process from unfolding.

Will the electoral battles serve to break down the opposition through education or fuel the anti-Chávez sentiment?

I think without greatly increasedU.S.
intrusion, the opposition will steadily crumble. Honestly, I do not see
them, perhaps I am wrong in this but it is my impression, as the real
abiding problem for the Bolivarian revolution. Rather, the problem is
the U.S., or the opposition as a vehicle for the U.S.,
on the one hand, and also, the possibility of devolution of the
revolution from within (which might look superficially like the
opposition growing, but it would really be the revolution losing its
roots).

If
communities of opposition Communal Councils grow and form opinions that
are against the government, do you think that they too would be
listened to and respected as equally as those who tow the party line?

That
is the formulation that is in place, yes, true participation and true
democracy, and I believe it would be followed, at least so far. But you
have to be careful in what it means. If there is some council in some
neighborhood or region which says we are entitled to own the oil below
the ground here, or own the aluminium factory that sits here, or
whatever, then no, that won't be abided, nor should it be, because it
affects everyone and most everyone will be on the other side of the
issue.

Take
the mainstream media. It represents, I think, a relatively small sector
of the population, yet it monopolizes the flow of information and
entertainment. Some people think that democracy and participation means
the elites who run media, own it, bias it, should be free to do what
they choose. Well, that isn't my view - I think a democratic media
isn't one that is overwhelmingly dominated by the will of a small
percent of the population. In this case, I suspect, though I don't
know, that the Bolivarian revolution doesn't for a minute think the
reactionary and vile media manipulators who routinely lie to the
population, deserve to control so much wealth and information. Rather,
I suspect Chavez and his allies are so wedded to a non violent and a
participatory approach, that they do not want to provoke even the
appearance of any divergence from that path.

So
the point is that so far, not only do opposition groups get heard, but
they get heard disproportionately much more than they ought to, even
when they demonstrably serve only narrow interests.

Is there a culture of follow me or have not?

I have no idea what you are asking with this question, sorry.

Some of the people I have interviewed in Venezuela
feel that the national government is using Communal Councils and the
proposed communes to do the jobs that they cannot persuade local mayors
to do for them. Linked to this is that some people feel that the
Communal Councils are a way that central government can ‘keep an eye
on' movements in Venezuela.

This
too I asked a lot of question about. The first point is odd and moot, I
think. Asking the population of an area, and that is what the local
councils are, to pursue some course that their mayor and governor are
obstructing is not misusing the councils, but is, instead, simply
overcoming autocracy. So that is okay. Using the councils to keep watch
on things is a bit different. That could be horribly, a kind of
foreshadowing of police intrusion. But there is, as I was constantly
told, another side to the issue in a country where external intrusion
is also possible. So reasonable people can disagree. I would not like
to see this aspect utilized much, if at all, but others would say with
free speech and free press and such oversight only looking for external
coup planning, it is worth doing.

Do
you feel that Communal Councils are a more secure form of local
politics for the PSUV than mayors and is there a surveillance element
to their role?

I
think they are a vastly better form for local politics because I think
they foreshadow real political self management. The councils are the
local population. That the councils hear about a bad thing and try to
fix it is okay. That they do it as a kind of assignment carried out for
the national government, in my opinion, would not itself be a bad
thing. Whatever this is happening, or to what extent, I don't know.

How
can the Communal Councils overcome these obstacles especially due to
the fact that although some mayors may wear red on the outside, they
certainly do not act in line with the PSUV?

Ok
Michael, thank you for your time and valuable insight into such an
interesting and rich movement. I do however have just one final
question; what do you believe is the future for the Communal Councils
taking into account the benefits and also the obstacles facing the
movement?

Adam Gill is a PhD researcher at the Institute of Latin American Studies, University of Liverpool, UK. His research focuses on direct democracy in Venezuela, especially in the Communal Council movement.

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