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Economism in Venezuela: Theory and Practice

Caracas.

Economism in the analysis of the Venezuelan revolution often expresses itself as a bare-bones attitude toward politics: the discourse and decisions of the Bolivarian leadership – and above all the political practice of Chávez – count for little, and the Bolivarian Process itself is reduced to welfare policies (i.e. social programs) funded by the oil bonanza. This theoretical perspective – that has always accompanied the Process but has become more prevalent in these moments of crisis – is profoundly misguided. Yet far more problematic than theoretical economism is economic fatalism as a political reality and political practice.

In the hands of the analyst who looks on from the sidelines, the economicist perspective argues that the Process is “really just about social assistance” and that the socialist part is “merely discursive.” In the crisis brought on by the end of the economic bonanza, the same analyst adopts an apparently revolutionary language: “Venezuela (who?) has arrived at a crossroads. Now the country (who? what?) has no choice but to become really socialist (how?) or give in to savage capitalism.” Stripped-down alternatives of this kind – even the overused “socialism or barbarism” slogan – can ring hollow and leave one wondering about who or especially what class is faced with the tremendous option. Hamlet, though he may have reflected in terms of vital options, had the virtue of speaking in the first-person.

Yet the economicist analysis, the fatalist and reductionist attitude toward historical events, is far worse when it reflects a reality. That is, political actors can themselves become short-sighted and unimaginatively allow their activity to follow the path of least resistance, which is always that of economic determinism. Today in Latin America, as the wave of “populism” seems to peter out in tandem with falling commodity prices – already leading to significant defeats in Argentina and Venezuela – there are many signs that the left leadership is as economicist as the misguided reductionist analysts.

To be sure, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro seems to be the last person to accept economic fatalism. In his favor, one can point to recent declarations. Didn’t Maduro say, not too long ago, that Venezuela’s social misiones would continue even if the global oil price dropped to zero? He also claimed that Chavism would win the elections on December 6 “como sea” (come what may). Of course, the merely verbal nature of the latter claim was exposed by his ready acceptance of defeat on election day (though Maduro’s simultaneously insisting on always playing by the rules of the electoral game made the assertion doubtful from the beginning).

A War or a Massacre?

These are isolated statements. The linchpin of Maduro’s discourse, however, is that there is an “economic war” against Venezuela and his government. Here, at least, Maduro appears to be worlds apart from economism. An “economic war” after all must refer to a struggle that can be won or lost, and the figure of war speaks for the need of both tactics and strategy, along with an actively interventionist government. At the same time, Maduro’s discourse seems to coincide with a profoundly anti-economicist theory: Marxism. This is because the punchline of Marx’s Capital is that capitalism is an economic war of the bourgeoisie against the proletariat; it is an economic war the terms of which are anything but eternal but rather pertain to a specific historical formation.

Yet Maduro’s apparent anti-economism falls apart on closer examination. The problem is that the President has jumped too quickly to the Marxist punchline and thereby short-circuited the discourse, emptying it of content. The proof is that almost every time Maduro uses the phrase “economic war,” it could be substituted by “economic rout” (or “economic massacre,” as a friend of mine argues), since he clearly sees the government as fatally determined to lose the war and hence a mere victim, while offering no strategy that would put victory or even containment within view. The point is that in a war, as against a massacre, the opposing sides are not simply victims but rather combatants who struggle for an uncertain outcome.

Rhetoric apart, Maduro gives every indication of an unwillingness or incapacity to struggle. Meanwhile the de facto policy of the government, which is profoundly economicist, comes not from the mouth of the President (dedicated to channeling the late Chávez), but rather from Jesús Faría, vice-president of the National Assembly’s Financial Committee, who has recently taken to pontificating in an unmarxist (because anti-historicist) manner about the scientific character of the economy. To rectify and return to growth, Faría asserts, we need to respect objective “economic realities”! [1]

Here we have bald economism as a political program. Faría’s discourse reveals a fetichized view of the economy’s objective character. [2] We are encouraged to forget that the laws of the capitalist economy are not natural, physical laws but rather historical and social ones and that even within capitalism, as Lenin argued in relation to the development of Russia’s agrarian capitalism, there is more than one way of taking a determined step. (The same thinking about the “needs” and “realities” of the economy is surely behind Kirchnerism’s recent decision to launch a doppelganger candidate against Mauricio Macri, because in effect “the moment for economic liberalism had come for Argentina.”)

The Burning Question

More than a hundred years ago Lenin wrote the pamphlet called What Is to Be Done? Though the left perennially (ritually) returns to this “burning” question, it has rarely considered the strangeness of Lenin’s title choice. The title is after all a borrowing from Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel about bourgeois reformers in Russia. For the class that Chernyshevsky describes, this question makes perfect sense. Having both money and time, they can easily both ask and answer the interrogative in their terms. What is to be done? Simply open a sewing cooperative to help the poor women of St. Petersburg. Or experiment with new relations between the sexes (apparently as easy as a new arrangement of sleeping quarters), etc.

On the other hand, Lenin’s pamphlet, as attentive readers will notice, does not provide good answers to the question posed by his borrowed title. What is to be done? Make a nation-wide newspaper… combat opportunism… combat spontaneity… engage in theoretical struggle… All these partial responses fall short of answering the mega-question in the title. How to understand this aspect of the text? Is it simply a slip of Lenin’s. In fact, the discrepancy results because Lenin aims not so much to answer this outsized question (bloated because of its generality and lack of a clear subject) as to establish the organizational conditions under which the question could be dealt with – and not by bourgeois reformers but rather by a popular movement!

Much more important than the specific conditions which Lenin lays out – a military model of the party, professional cadres, etc. – his genius consists in having raised the question of how the exploited masses can become a political subject: how their movement could ask and answer, What is to be done? Today in Venezuela, with the specter of “going with the economic flow” all too present, there is a pressing need to think about these conditions for the Bolivarian movement. In Venezuela, this has much to do with recovering a rich if critical appreciation of the original political practice of Chavism (and not on the level of mere image as Maduro prefers to do). This is indeed “the burning question” of our moment. For it is only when the masses become a political subject that they can confront and alter the economicist path of least resistance.

Walter Benjamin in Venezuela

That Chávez had a caudillo-like form of leadership is accepted by detractors and admirers alike, but the description remains rather empty unless one examines the specific characteristics of this leadership model, the Latin American roots of which reach back to Artigas, Bolívar, and Boves? What relation does the popular, rural caudillo establish with the masses and they with him? What democratic potential does this political form have? It should be remembered that a rural caudillo lives as an equal among his followers and is not above them except in certain moments. A caudillo must always listen to the group before taking a decision and show care for the living conditions of each militant. Also to be considered is what forms of means-ends (or other) rationality and long-term vs. immediate gratification have operated in successful Venezuelan popular movements. If a spark is to light up a field, it hardly needs saying that it must operate with the motivational horizons that form the life-world of the masses.

Walter Benjamin, who was one of the greatest critics of economism in Europe, had the courage to reach into discourses normally thought to be foreign to Marxism, such as theology. A host of terms and figures including “interruption,” “vengeance,” “redemption,” “reading history against the grain” and “Jetztzeit” (now-time) are deployed in his texts to question a vision in which the economy is made to be the automatic motor of history. His ideas have had a glorious life on an ideological level in the North. That is, Benjamin’s thought, or “Benjaminism,” has had an important trajectory in the Northern academy. But only that. Chavism, on the other hand, in its best moments was “Benjaminism” played out on the level of reality  In effect, such categories as interruption, redemption and reading-history-against-the-grain once worked on a profane political level in Venezuela. Instead of, as in the North being mere ideas, these categories were actually operative and part of a lived reality.

In the present multidimensional crisis in Venezuela – with the threat that real-life economism could hegemonize the Chavist movement – there is a pressing need to understand, recover and amplify the strategic political practice that at an earlier moment in the Process began to take shape. [3] Whether we call this Benjaminism in practice, or an interruptive attitude to history, a profound anti-economism is what made Venezuelans decide some 15 years ago to open up a space of interruption, redemption and rupture. They did so by effectively re-activating Bolívar – which meant above all struggling and forging rather than accepting destiny. [4] If Chávez re-activated (not merely remembered!) Bolivar’s struggle, thereby opening up a moment of “present time” (Jetztzeit) that suspended the neoliberal destiny of Latin America, it remains for us today to re-activate (and not merely remember) both Bolívar and Chávez.

NOTES

[1] “Simplicación cambiaria, disciplina fiscal y acuerdo entre Gobierno y empresarios propone Jesús Faría,” Correo del Orinoco (December 15, 2015). http://www.correodelorinoco.gob.ve/tema-dia/simplicacion-cambiaria-disciplina-fiscal-y-acuerdo-entre-gobierno-y-empresarios-propone-jesus-faria/

[2] Fernando Hugo Azcurra and Modesto Emilio Guerrero, “Las mentiras de Jesús Faría,” Aporrea (December 21,2015). http://www.aporrea.org/actualidad/a219750.html

[3] Chris Gilbert, “To Recover Strategic Thought and Political Practice,” MRZine (September 15, 2015). http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2015/gilbert290915.html

[4] An excellent book that touches upon the relevance of Walter Benjamin’s thought to Latin America: Michael Löwy, Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History,” (Verso, 2005): 56-7.

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Chris Gilbert is professor of political science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.

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