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Day 17

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Can Maduro Avoid the Trap?

Way Down in Venezuela, Capital Won’t Let the People Go

by CHRIS GILBERT

It was shortly after Moses’s encounter with the Burning Bush that God promised to take the people of Israel to the land of milk and honey. God, who could be extremely cryptic in his explanations (“I am that I am”), did not beat around the bush – of the either burning or extinguished variety – when it came to capturing his audience. For that reason, he did not offer houris (which might lose their charm in a few weeks) or freedom and democracy (which can ring hollow on an empty stomach) but two simple use-values: milk and honey.

In this sense – and in very few others – God is like the Venezuelan opposition. Freedom, Dictatorship, Regime Change are just words after all. Milk, sugar, and flour are things, the reality or absence of which is quite palpable. The Venezuelan opposition knows that in certain moments it can appear to be a matter of supreme indifference whether a land is run by Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, or Jebusites as long as… it is flowing with milk and honey.

The Bible, or at least most of the Old Testament, was written by hungry people. In a well-fed society, a pomegranate might inspire thoughts a beloved’s rosy cheeks, but theSong of Songs presents just the opposite fantasy; the whole of the beloved’s body transports the lover to thinking about sheep, goats, fruit and, yes, milk and honey. Or again, the despicable Esau forgoes his birthright not for a lentil field or shares in a lentil business but for a plate of lentils. All of this, along with the handful of prophets who like Ezekiel actually chow down on their prophetic calling, points to the presence of hunger, not of the passing sort but of a gnawing and persistent kind: a people who can’t get food off their minds.

In the drama called Food on the Mind that is taking place now in Venezuela, Act II “The Peace Conference” began on February 27 with Lorenzo Mendoza entering from stage right. Mendoza, who descends from the oldest Venezuelan oligarchy and perhaps even Bolívar’s sister, knows how to speak to his people. His blue-blooded family has never really left the government, usually naming or occupying the position of Minister of Agriculture, except under Chávez. Mendoza is a seasoned player who knows his part well and is also aware that to cut through the apparent conflict and bring people out of their 14-year apostasy, moralizing jeremiads will accomplish very little. Instead he proposes something more concrete. Mendoza says: The economy is what we need to talk about, not politics.

His words – which taste like milk and honey – are received by a great many in Venezuela as the possible basis of a new covenant. Indeed, Beer, Flour, Butter, Cooking Oil should all flow freely. Private business is part of the solution not the problem, Mendoza says; and he seems to be speaking the truth as these very foodstuffs in the brands sold by his giant Polar corporation (Maizeite oil, Mavesa margarine, PAN cornmeal) miraculously reappear in Caracas just two or three days after his speaking. Precisely in what the new covenant consists, on the other hand, is something which will be revealed in future days.

Humor aside, the real question and the point of this extended comparison is to reflect on why it is that private business is God and also why we, for all practical purposes, are Egyptian slaves. Or put more concretely: how is it that Mendoza and company (really the whole businessman’s class here), who have been offstage for most of the political process, can wield such tremendous power – a power amounting to control over eating or not eating, life and death? This is a power beside which political slogans, even the most carefully-forged ones, can taste like… something considerably more bitter than milk or honey.

The explanation is that capitalist society separates the political and economic spheres to a degree never before attained in history. In fact, in political terms all that a businessman needs to make profit and exercise his Olympian class power is the rule of law and formal equality before the law. The large differences in property holdings will take care of the rest. Because he has the means of production in his hands, a capitalist – or rather his social class – can legally kill a thousand poor souls by simply not hiring them or can legally make a million go hungry by just raising prices or cutting production. Alongside this kind of despotic economic power, mere political power can seem pathetic and trifling.

Today in Venezuela the capitalist class is back in action, trying to discipline the institutions of political power which, with Chávez, escaped a bit from their usually restricted field of operation. The government, which feels cornered, calls the opposition’s activity “economic warfare,” but the truth is that this is just business as usual for the capitalist class. Speculating, playing with prices, and tinkering with supply and demand is not strictly speaking a perversion of capitalism but an integral part thereof. (Is not the formula for both productive and commercial capital, M – C – M’, simply the quotidian form of speculation that makes capitalism’s world go round?)

Desperately, the government complains about the street-blocking guarimabas and other forms of violent protest. It tries to make visible the difficult situation and its faceless enemy by pointing to the violence which is overt and illegal, but the real problem is elsewhere – in the completely legal form of (economic) violence, sanctioned by the empire of law. In fact, Mendoza and company know that unless President Maduro opts – as he is very unlikely to do – for the most radical heresy, which is to deny the sacredness of private property, they will retain the upper hand.

Mendoza is popularly reckoned to be a straight shooter. That may be the case, but the opposition as a whole, which has become more sophisticated in its 14-year struggle, is in fact making a complex feint. With the guarimba, which is a blocking of streets by armed youngsters that often results in loss of life, they hope to provoke Maduro into adopting their project – the defense of a form of politics that confines itself to establishing rule of law and order while letting the economy to itself – as his own program. That way the government’s attempt to control prices, although recently upheld as constitutional by the Venezuelan Supreme Court, will simply fall into the background, and the capitalists’ economic dictatorship will continue unfettered.

Will Maduro fall into this trap? So far, he seems to be taking the bait by railing primarily against the guarimba and calling for universal disarmament. It is of no help that behind Maduro are many people – among his chief cadres, not in his rank and file – whose class interest is not too different from those he confronts in the opposition. But when Maduro initiates the negotiations that are taking place this week with his first talking point as “national pacification” and his second as “the opposition should join in combating criminality,” he gives every indication of assuming the exact role that not history but rather one social class, the most powerful worldwide, is trying to assign him.

Chris Gilbert is professor of Political Science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.