There is a powerfully dangerous and condescending myth circulating about so-called ‘civil society’ in Venezuela, which goes something like this: as Daniel Levine put it on a recent radio program, “there’s just not independent groups as we conceive of civil society” in Venezuela. Focusing above all on the Communal Council phenomenon, Levine portrays these directly democratic institutions not as the radically participatory experiment they claim to be, but instead as little more than a cynical ruse by the late Hugo Chávez and his movement to enforce political objectives from above.
I can trace my interest in moving to Venezuela to this very question of civil society. As a young Ph.D student, I clearly remember reading a number of academic articles which attempted to clumsily impose the pre-established conceptual framework of civil society onto the development of participatory institutions in Venezuela. First with the nascent Bolivarian Circles and later with the Communal Councils formally established in 2006, U.S. academics have held up the template of civil society, scratched their heads as to why it doesn’t fit, and then concluded that since it does not, something must be wrong with Venezuela and not with their own concept. The Circles and the Councils, it was and continues to be argued, are not truly independent of the state, and therefore cannot be civil society “as we conceive.”
Firstly, the concept of civil society as we conceive it emerged and was cemented in struggles against dictatorship in the Southern Cone and against Soviet bureaucracy in Eastern Europe, displacing the far more critical variant associated with Gramsci. This new version privileges autonomy from the state as the criterion, systematically obscuring other crucial forces from which organizations might want to remain autonomous: imperial powers, the capitalist market, etc.
As a result, many accept as nominally ‘independent’ many forces that are nothing of the sort: private economic interests, NGOs with powerful funders, and foreign-backed political parties. Such forces constituted the bulk of the organized Venezuelan opposition, whose ‘civil’ credentials are questioned by few. Some have therefore described the 2002 coup against Chávez (which was reversed after 48 hours) as a “civil society coup,” and rightly so. It was this appropriation of an uncritical concept of civil society more than anything else that led many Venezuelan Chavistas to abandon the language of civil society at the same time that the anti-Chavistas seized upon it: this concept doesn’t describe what we’re doing, so let them have it.
Secondly, however, and more importantly, this idea that independent organizations do not exist in Venezuela contains a willful neglect of and indeed contempt for the many thousands of popular organizers who have been struggling and continue to struggle autonomously and independently to determine the future of the Revolution. In my recently released book, We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution, I buck this trend of conceptual imperialism by talking to these organizers directly and researching their decades-long struggles.
Speaking to those revolutionaries who are ironically shunned by critics not for being against the government, but for being for it, I found an oft-overlooked sector of internal critics of the Bolivarian process, those demanding more solutions, less corruption, and above all a deepening of the very same directly democratic institutions that ‘civil society’ academics deny exist. Contemporary Venezuela is veritably bursting with a proliferation of grassroots organizations: from revolutionary collectives that do not even let the official police enter their neighborhoods (colloquially known as ‘Tupamaros’), to popular media outlets that are radically critical of governmental policies, to those combative collections of workers, peasants, urban dwellers, and students who occupy their factories, land, housing, and universities against the explicit demands of the Chavista leadership.
More importantly, whereas the critics focus on official institutions like the Communal Councils, which are admittedly groundbreaking and important, I unearth the pre-history that gives content to their form. In their historical struggles against a corrupt and violent two-party representative democracy, those who would become radical Chavistas experimented with and developed popular assemblies and neighborhood militias. But when Chávez emerged, more important for them than simply rejecting the state to maintain their status as properly ‘civil’ society was figuring out a way to use that state as a mechanism for transforming society (and the state itself). Refusing power to conform to the academic standards of ‘civil society’ was not a luxury that these organizers could afford.
But it seems as though, simply for supporting and identifying with a project of political transformation, these radical organizers have been disappeared with the stroke of a pen from the north, condemned to non-existence, and excluded from a concept of civil society that was not theirs to begin with. To dismiss as “dependent” on the state those who struggled for decades against the state as they struggled against capitalism, earning their political independence often at the expense of imprisonment, torture, and even death, is a misrepresentation at best and an insult at worst. And here is the irony: it is also an internalization, disguised as critique, of the worst caricatures of populism and clientelism, in which poor people are defined as simply too dumb to know any better.
This post was written by a guest blogger, George Ciccariello-Maher, who is a professor of political science in the Department of History and Politics at Drexel University. To contact the author, please email gjcm(at)drexel.edu.