Politics of the Commons: Serving the People, Not Capital

VA columnist Reinaldo Iturriza revisits the insights of Alí Rodríguez Araque to put Venezuela's political dilemmas in perspective.
Ali Rodriguez Araque
The predominance of oil in the Venezuelan economy has led to several crossroads over time. (Venezuelanalysis)

The lack of knowledge about our history, the absence of even the slightest analytical rigor, and perhaps more dangerously, a certain tendency to reproduce a common sense that prevails in these times of capitalist realism, can lead us to incorrectly assess the years of the Hugo Chávez presidency as a period in which everything was possible thanks to the oil revenue.

From the aforementioned, it is often deduced that, in the absence of sufficient oil revenue—as a result of falling oil prices, the impact of sanctions against the oil industry, etc.—the logical assumption would be that what was once possible is simply no longer feasible. Instead we must tighten our belts, grit our teeth, and move forward, dealing with a reality that once favored us but no longer does.

Following that line of thinking, it would thus be necessary to understand that, in the economic field, we must make some tough but unavoidable decisions, that sacrifices are a must, and, getting to the key point here, the decision to move toward a “post-oil” or “productive” Venezuela is unavoidable.

Concerning the first point, I will only briefly mention that, at best, it is a half-truth that invariably overlooks everything that Hugo Chávez, his government, the Venezuelan people, and the oil-producing countries gathered in OPEC did to lift oil prices at the beginning of this century. At worst, it is a simple fallacy.

I would like on this occasion to focus on the second aspect: that of a “productive” Venezuela. To do so, I find it appropriate to briefly refer to a couple of proposals made by Alí Rodríguez Araque in his book Serve the People, originally published in 1988 and reprinted during the early years of the Bolivarian Revolution, with an added preface written by the author.

As Rodríguez Araque explains, the content on those pages was the product of many discussions within the organization Tendencia Revolucionaria, founded in 1979, the same year that the man also known as Comandante Fausto decided to break away from the Partido de la Revolución Venezolana (PRV).

Let’s quickly put things in context: Serve the People was published during a global neoliberal counteroffensive. In Venezuela, just five years had passed since the material expansion phase of the “oil century” had concluded, and the economy had entered a phase of financial contraction. Behind the country’s back, the oil establishment had opted for the “internationalization” of PDVSA. In the seventh and final chapter of the book, after an extraordinary exercise of historical precision and analytical depth about the Venezuelan 20th century in the preceding chapters, Rodríguez Araque describes the situation in the following terms:

The nature of the ongoing change simply consists of a transition from an economic model whose main source of accumulation was international surplus value in the form of international rent, to another where the primary source of accumulation is national surplus value extracted from Venezuelan workers. This fact starkly reflects in the harsh reality of life, the scale of the adjustments to the Venezuelan production process that are currently being posed. 

Following this, he explains how those “sectors that control economic and political power” began to resort to a discourse filled with references to a “parasitic” Venezuela in contrast to a “productive” Venezuela. He notes:

And, of course, the entire ideological discourse aims to plant in the minds of the people the idea that the only possible path to overcome the crisis and achieve prosperity is to accept the privations and sacrifices that their project implies. But, is only one path possible? Could there not be another path where the people find complete satisfaction for their material and spiritual aspirations? Is there not a truly democratic path where the people can be the source and beneficiary of the outcomes achieved?

Rodríguez Araque’s response to the last two questions is, of course, yes. Not only is it affirmative, but he also posits it as an ethical and political imperative: the dilemma is presented between “serving capital” or “serving the people.” And in the case of those who see themselves as revolutionary militants, this shouldn’t even be posed as an actual dilemma.

Rodríguez Araque distinguishes between the “productive” Venezuela posed “as a purely economic-business problem” and the one understood “as a means to achieve a human end.” He dissects the former in the following way:

  • “When they criticize ‘parasitism,’ they assume a grossly one-sided view by referring exclusively to that part of the rent that was allocated to stimulate popular consumption”, while “the portion destined for material capitalization in the form of investment – preferably private – did not constitute, nor does it constitute, parasitism; it was ‘the sowing of the oil’.”
  • The ‘productive’ Venezuela is one “where the entirety of oil income has been privatized, meaning placed in the hands of big business owners and where the purchasing power of the people will depend exclusively on the relations of production with the business sector.”
  • Regarding the “circulation of products, such a strategy has only one goal: the foreign market […]. The mechanism would be to produce cheaply, relying on a depreciated workforce paid in bolivars, in order to later sell in dollars. Hence, the entire strategy, both in the private and public sectors, is outward-facing, placing the domestic market in a secondary position.”
  • “The hegemon in this whole process is the State, which, limited from new economic investments […] has to eagerly seek foreign capital to partner with,” meanwhile “private capital feels incapable of undertaking large investments (and assuming the great risks that this implies) in strategic sectors” so it “limits itself to requesting ‘greater participation’.”

Before listing, in some detail, the policies that should be included in a project of a national and popular nature—most of which were, in fact, proposed and implemented during Hugo Chávez’s rule—Rodríguez Araque argues that it is not enough to address the immediate needs of the people, no matter how dramatic and urgent they may be. The solutions to these needs must be part of a strategy where the objective is defined by an incessant improvement of the material and spiritual conditions of the Venezuelan people. Here is where we find the first qualitative difference, as both programs aim to generate greater wealth, but the capitalist one thinks in terms of greater concentration of wealth, while the revolutionary one conceives it in terms of good nutrition, health, education, culture, well-being, freedom, and the participation of the people.

If there’s one thing Rodríguez Araque teaches us, it’s that, under no circumstances, no matter how adverse, should a revolutionary entertain the false dilemma: serve capital or serve the people. Opting for the first option, claiming it’s the only “viable path,” to put it in Rodríguez Araque’s words, is to enter a historical dead-end with no way out.

It is essential to continue insisting on the need to know one’s own history to avoid such pitfalls. In the very specific case of those who consider themselves militants of popular and revolutionary causes, few tasks are as important as studying the works of figures that are part of the intellectual tradition of the Venezuelan revolutionary Left. Not just for the sake of scholarly pursuit, of course, but because within them, invaluable keys to understand the reality we are trying to transform can be found.

It is by no means coincidental that, immersed in such readings, we encounter many problems that remain, to this day, our fundamental issues. These problems, naturally, do not currently manifest themselves in identical ways, although at times the similarities can be truly surprising.

In essence, it is about not wasting an extraordinary accumulation of analytical thought, about cultivating a far-reaching perspective, and being able to identify lines of historical continuity but also ruptures. Often, these ruptures are precisely the result of the praxis of men and women whose political calculation extends beyond the short term, beyond the merely circumstantial, beyond what appears before our eyes as an incontrovertible truth. Ruptures involve audacity but also require study, deep and unbiased analysis.

Reinaldo Iturriza López is an activist, writer, and sociologist with a degree from Venezuela’s Central University. He is the author of several books, including 27 de Febrero de 1989: interpretaciones y estrategias and El chavismo salvaje.

Iturriza López, father of Sandra Mikele and Ainhoa Michel and Venezuelan baseball enthusiast, is a former Culture Minister and Communes and Social Movements Minister. He also headed the Audiovisual Production School at Ávila TV. He writes regularly for the blog Saber y Poder.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.

Translated by Venezuelanalysis.