When President Maduro responded to the recent White House executive order declaring Venezuela to be a national security threat, saying first that it was a “Frankenstein” and later that it was “schizophrenic,” he may have made small errors regarding both literature and psychiatry, but his point was clear enough: Obama’s decree is a bit like Frankenstein’s monster (a hodgepodge) and it indeed comes from a government with a split-personality.
In fact, U.S. politics, like that of most Northern governments, is deeply irrational. This is in part because it is concerted among various oligarchical interests and monopoly groups, making the official discourse really something of an epiphenomenon. Yet it is also because the political sphere obeys discordant, heterogeneous time-frames.
U.S. politics’ profound internal clock – which ticks away in the country’s innards – is that of capital accumulation. The demands of capital accumulation, when they irrupt on the surface of usual national and international politics (with its quotidian fare of summits, elections, and everyday lawmaking) produce strange effects that defy the rationality of this more visible arena.
Take the case of the U.S.’s policies regarding Venezuela. This country’s recent political panorama has been defined, in the first place, by a Bolivarian reformist government that has opted for a Chinese-style project of gradually diversifying its productive apparatus and, in the second place, by a right-wing opposition that (because it was tacitly consulted on the government’s reforms) was inclined to wait patiently for upcoming elections, in which it projected important successes.
Abruptly, this has all undergone a sea-change. In months, if not weeks, the older scenario has given way to a situation marked by widespread political disobedience on the part of the opposition, a graver economic situation, alarming information about coups d’etat, and now open U.S. interference.
Why has this happened? No rational sequence of steps in the internal arena explains why Maduro’s government should abandon its carefully-crafted reformism, nor why the Venezuelan opposition should ditch its plan for very likely electoral successes in late 2015 and 2018. The first key to a serious explanation is to be found rather in the U.S.-Saudi engineered drop in oil prices that happened last November.
The drop in oil prices was the deep voice of international capital speaking, which irrupted as if from nowhere and in counterpoint to the rhythms of local and visible Venezuelan politics. When international capital spoke, it dashed all the local plans, because the slow time-frame of the Bolivarian government’s plans for economic diversification and the turtle steps of the Venezuelan opposition’s march towards the upcoming elections suddenly were no longer viable.
New actors and new, surprising actions appeared. Among them were the opposition’s about-face regarding several “Citizen Power” nominations in December, their extra-parliamentary disobedience, the mysterious Air Force conspiracy, and now the exotic declarations of the White House. These can only be understood as political surface-effects that correspond to the rhythms of capitalist accumulation. In effect, the engineered drop in oil prices needs to have its pay off, not in the middle- or long-term, but more immediately!
Now that the surprise has come, what should the Venezuelan government and people do? The risks of this new situation are more than evident but, by the same token, it should be clear that the Bolivarian government was extremely foolish to think that it could follow a risk-free path to socialism, which was the aspiration expressed in the concerted “Chinese model” of slowly developing the country’s productive forces by way of innocuous reforms. This is the perennial social-democratic myth, which is always projected upon capitalism’s gradualist time-lines and fantasies of normality. It is a myth that capitalism itself, when it periodically assumes a fascist modality, takes charge of debunking.
With risk-free, rule-abiding normality dashed to the rocks, is it not time for Venezuela to try something else? That Maduro has been both brandishing the Venezuelan Constitution like a talisman and at the same time asked for exceptional powers, shows him to be caught between two options. Yet for the Bolivarian socialist movement as a whole, it is clear that some variant of the latter option – that is to say, declaring a state of exception – is the right path.
The real state of exception, however, is nothing other than socialism: the negation of capitalism’s automatic mechanisms and clocks of all kinds in favor of a deliberate human construction. It consists neither of chasing the imperialist monster to the North Pole nor ignoring it, but rather marching to the beat of one’s own drummer. The rhythm of this drummer is marked by the masses’ needs, the programmed satisfaction of which (via solid steps toward socialism) is the surest protection Maduro’s government can have when faced with imperialism.
Chris Gilbert is professor of political science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.