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Over the past generation, progressives have witnessed the fall of the Soviet Union and the decline of neoliberalism. As in all periods of collapse, the smoke and fury of the falling debris has, to some degree, concealed the possibilities that produced, accompanied and emerged from the breakdown. The most exciting progressive alternatives to emerge have come from the resurgence of the left in Latin America. This resurgence is multi-faceted, encompassing social movements, civil society and states: exemplified by networks of indigenous movements, the World Social Forum process and the election of leftist political parties and leaders. In terms of the latter the most prominent, contradictory and significant for the Canadian and global left to study is the Chávez government in Venezuela.

Interpretations of the Chávez government and its “Bolivarian process” are often polemical, with President Hugo Chavez seen by some as a driver of national and global justice, and by others as the latest mad, bad, dangerous form of Stalinism. Despite the intensity of the different positions, the overall project cannot be easily captured by any one ideology. The Venezuelan process is a fluid amalgam of contradictions that resist a coherent storyline: some argue that the government is increasingly autocratic and from this perspective, the steady augmentation of state control over the economy and society presage a dictatorship. Others state that the government is more committed to democratization than any administration before it, pointing to the numerous policies implemented over the last decade. In reality, the Bolivarian process embodies both centralized forms of decision-making and dramatically democratized courses of action. At its most conservative, the government is undermining representative democracy. However, at its most novel the Venezuelan government’s policies and philosophies constitute a conceptual revolution in the categories by which social change, development, and modernity have been traditionally understood. The revolution in Venezuela, at its most experimental, is a transformation of the standard left discourse: from a uni-dimensional focus on “socialism versus capitalism” to a multi-dimensional project anchored in radical democracy.

Power and representation

There are numerous dimensions — economic, cultural, and political — to the Venezuelan government’s project over the past 12 years, with the latter being the most significant. The importance of the question of political representation can be seen in the government’s implicit interrogation of the standard conception of development. The inherent question is: how can everyone in society be equally capable of intervention in social life in light of modern society’s representational hierarchies? Some groups’ interests are less likely to be politically represented than others: the Bolivarians do not simply criticize neoliberal economics, or the traditional status hierarchies that have devalued the contribution of women or citizens of indigenous descent, they also question the dominant notion of governance. Rather than see representative democracy, the quintessential institution of political modernity, as a neutral or even progressive form of administration, the advocates of the Bolivarian process hold that Venezuela’s traditional form of representative democracy has favored political-economic elites. Thus the various functionaries, movements, and individuals that make up the Bolivarian process explicitly state that participatory forms of democracy need to have equal weight as representative democracy, or even in some cases, replace it.

The Venezuelan Constitution, brought in by Chavez in 1999, elucidates the reasons for its promotion of a new politics:

“This regulation [in favour of participatory democracy] responds to a felt aspiration of organized civil society that strives to change the political culture, which so many decades of state paternalism and the dominance of party heads generated and that hindered the development of democratic values. In this sense, participation is not limited to electoral processes, since the need for the intervention of the people is recognized in the processes of formation, formulation, and execution of public policy, which would result in the overcoming of the governability deficits that have affected our political system due to the lack of harmony between state and society.

To conceive public administration as a process in which a fluid communication between governed and the people is established, implies a modification of the orientation of state-society relations, so as to return to the latter its legitimate protagonism.”

Examples of this participatory democracy are referenda, communal councils, cooperatives, forms of social auditing and the aforementioned inclusion of civil society in state decision-making. We can define these new forms of political representation proposed in the Constitution as self-representative for obvious reasons: they are attempts at directly facilitating public input. The Bolivarians perceive democracy to be an act of human self-fulfillment: participation in the democratic process enables the citizen to articulate their individual and collective political potential: the public is given the opportunity to express its ingenuity in tackling the most important questions that society faces. Through the process of public deliberation each individual embodies their desire to be an agent not a spectator, a self-conscious subject not an instrumentalized object of social life.

Participatory democracy is not a new or simply Western phenomenon. The Western conception of a participatory democratic society, often linked to the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was picked up by activists in the 1960s, most prominently by “Students for a Democratic Society.” More recently, new deliberative forms of democracy have emerged again in the consciousness of social movements via the city of Porto Alegre in Brazil. Since 1989, Porto Alegre has run an annual participatory budget that takes place over 10 months and regularly involves over 10,000 citizens from a city with a population of one million people. The success of this innovative budget process has reactivated the aspiration for citizen-driven governance; Porto Alegre has become a reference point for the newest cycle of leftist social movements that have emerged, that is, the “global justice” movements who have called for a deeper local and universal democracy.

The most prominent meeting space for social movements committed to the search for alternatives has been the World Social Forum. The Forum has been an annual event that pulls together civil society movements from around the world to debate proposals for an alternative globalization. Anywhere from 20,000 to 150,000 participants have attended each of the Forums. The majority of Forums have been held in Porto Alegre and the dominant alternative called for has been participatory democracy. Porto Alegre and the World Social Forum are the most obvious contemporary influence on the Bolivarian project: it was at the 2005 World Social Forum held in Porto Alegre where Chávez announced that he was pursuing “21st-century socialism.”

The Venezuelan government explicitly and implicitly proposes that new forms of democracy are an integral condition for tackling the obstacles posed by economic, cultural and political hierarchies, thus social development has to be assessed according to three elements with the latter being the integral agent. This attempt at producing new forms of democracy in order to diminish economic, cultural and political inequality genuinely novel. In past decades, the call for greater public participation, though not necessarily the practice, has been heard in numerous countries such as Tanzania in the 1970s and Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Nicaragua during the 1980s. However the previous goals for participation were not embedded within a multi-dimensional project. None of the earlier projects placed as much emphasis on economic redistribution, cultural recognition and political representation; this combination of factors makes the Venezuelan experiment unique.

Yet despite its innovation, numerous critics as well as writers from within the Bolivarian process, have noted that the personalist organization of power around the charismatic president subverts the government’s aspirations to building a deeply democratic society. There are many examples of decisions that demonstrate overly centralized governance; one factor that has contradicted the government’s aspiration for a new democracy is its carousel of cabinet ministers: while previous governments since 1959 have in total changed cabinet members anywhere from 28 to 90 times, the current one, from 1998-2007 changed ministers 153 times. While there may have been substantive reasons for replacing each minister at each conjuncture, the overall result is a concentration of institutional memory in the hands of the president, or simply a loss of information, thus leading to institutional inefficiency. This centralization of knowledge and power is a political landmine: it is the central obstacle, to the long term viability of the Bolivarian process. While the process is made up of elites, supporters and ideologues, it is disproportionately oriented around President Chávez. History shows us that a political movement evolves as it is structured: personalist, charismatic governance subverts its own capacity to cultivate democracy. The primary internal restraint to the government’s innovative conceptual revolution lies in its inability, or unwillingness, to fully follow its stated commitment to democratizing governance. The perpetual fluidity within the cabinet is symptomatic of a government that is not only propelling a participatory democracy but also advancing a highly centralized, personalized, state apparatus that threatens representative democracy.

Closing thoughts

When the proponents and critics of the government argue, with the former suggesting that Venezuela’s social policy is substantial and the quasi-authoritarianism superficial, and the latter claiming the exact opposite, we see a phenomenon that defies an unequivocal analysis. The advocates contend that the wealth of the country is being used to implement a radical democratization whereas the opponents maintain that it is being used to dismantle representative democracy. Commentators have noted that participatory democracy is actually leading to the unravelling of representative democracy: the government’s imposition of a new democracy is reducing the pluralism of political debate because of its erosion of the separation of powers. The Venezuelan government thus clearly embodies many of the criticisms of its supporters and its opponents. These different groups point to the two elephants in the room in any discussion of the Bolivarian process: detractors rightly criticize the quasi-authoritarianism of the government with infamous internal and external examples such as “la Lista Tascón” (a published list of those who petitioned to have Chavez recalled, declared traitors by Chavez) and the decision to embrace the nefarious Ahmadjinedad of Iran; meanwhile, advocates reply that an autocratic, government would not have instituted numerous democratic experiments over the last decade, nor respected the result of the 2007 constitutional referendum.

While the Bolivarian discourse is lofty, the practice is less pristine: it is veined with destabilizing contradictions, making the future less than certain. The process may follow the historical pattern once discerned by Hegel that the political process that embodies a new universal impulse often perishes while its principle persists. As the Bolivarians’ institutional project ebbs and flows, the conceptual innovation spreads, rippling throughout Latin America and further. The aspiration for an alternative, statist project in which humanity deliberatively, directly, and democratically shapes society, is spilling across the borders of Venezuela through the continent and across the global left. Thus while the future of the national process is unclear, the principle elaborated by the Chávez government is helping articulate not only a new Latin American left but also a new global left. The concept of an expressive, multi-dimensional project — the real meaning of the phrase “21st-century socialism” — is helping inform a new generation of political parties and social movements. The dream of a participatory democracy is the seed of an alternative modernity even if the prospects of its most prominent advocate, the Chávez government, rests imperilled not only by relentless external forces but also by its own evident internal hierarchies. Whether this vision is generalizable, that is, whether other governments can implement the best — without the worst — of this new statist left project is a question whose answer lies not only in the present governments of South America but also in the ones to be born across this continent and others.

Thomas Ponniah is an affiliate of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University.

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Thomas Ponniah

Thomas Ponniah, Ph.D, was a Lecturer on Social Studies, Assistant Director of Studies, and Faculty Associate of the Project on Justice, Welfare and Economics at Harvard University from 2003-2011. He...