|Book: Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The Policies of the Chavez Government|
ZNet Book Page
ISBN: -13: 978 1 84467 552 4
Greg Wilpert's book is important: important not only as an account of developments in
What Wilpert calls "the heart of the book" is a very detailed and quite informative look at the policies of the Chávez government, and their affects on Venezuelan political, economic, social, and foreign policy institutions of
Wilpert treats Chávez and his government critically, but with great respect. He does this by delving in great detail into the various areas of concentration. For example, in his chapter on "Governance Policy," he examines the 1999 Constitution, the judiciary, the military and the concept of "Participatory Democracy"—and each section gets serious consideration. Under the section on the Constitution, he examines the name change of the country; gender inclusivity; the state of law and justice; human rights and international treaties; women's rights; the right to information; political parties; referenda; social, educational, cultural and economic rights; indigenous rights; environmental rights; the expansion of the state to five branches of governance instead of just three (as previously in Venezuela, and in the United States), the legislature, the presidency, the state's role in the economy, civil disobedience, common criticisms of the Constitution; and then provides an overall summary of that section. And this level of detail and knowledgeable discussion takes place throughout this chapter and the others referred to above.
Wilpert is a founder of Venezuelanalysis.com, an excellent website on current developments in
If there is a criticism of this part of the book, it is that it tells the reader what happened, and maybe some considerations that led to what happened, but I prefer knowing the processes by which things developed and led to the results, not just the results themselves. Yet that is in regard to my interests, and would have required a different type of book than what Wilpert produced—Steve Ellner's 2008 book, Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict, and the Chávez Phenomenon (which will be issued in paperback in October 2009 by Lynne Reinner Publishers) provides more of this—but within what he attempted to do, Wilpert did an excellent job.
Chapter 6 is where Wilpert examines the opportunities, obstacles and prospects for the creation of 21st Century Socialism in
In short, Chávez is clearly pursuing an anti-capitalist strategy that is replacing two of the three key institutions of capitalism. First, he is gradually supplanting private ownership/control of the means of production with a mix of worker and state ownership/control. Second, the defeats of the insurrectionary opposition, the implementation of more participatory forms of governance, and the freedom that large oil revenues have provided, have broken the state free from the control of powerful private or capitalist interests.
However, the third key institution of capitalism, the market system, is still firmly in place for allocating most of the country's products and wealth. As of yet, the recognition that the market fundamentally works against social justice is not very strong in
From there, Wilpert discusses obstacles to succeeding in the project, focusing on both internal and external challenges. He argues that the internal challenges "are internal to the Bolivarian movement and ... they tend to be in people's heads" (195). Here he talks about patronage-clientelism and corruption, of a top-down management style, and what he calls "personalistic" politics, based on Chávez himself. And he discusses each.
He follows this discussion with one about the external obstacles. He examines the old elite, domestic and international capital (and he argues that we cannot conflate the elite with the capitalists, as their interests differ while overlapping at places), and
Wilpert argues that this detailed examination is necessary because "The Chávez presidency and the Bolivarian project are unique in recent world history." He explains,
The Chávez government is the first, anywhere in the world, at least since the 1980 Sandinista revolution in
Wilpert follows this with an "Epilogue" that brings the account into 2007, particularly noting changes and developments after Chávez' re-election in December 2006. Chávez announced changes that addressed some of the shortfalls identified by Wilpert (and others) in the Bolivarian project. These included developing a Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela, and nationalizations of "key sectors" of the Venezuelan economy. These efforts were made along with decisions not to renew an oppositional television channel's license, to seek (and get passed) the enabling law that allowed Chávez to institute legal changes without going through the legislative process—an approach used by previous Venezuelan presidents as well as by Chávez in the early years—and evaluating the movement toward 21st Century socialism.
One of Wilpert's continuing fixtures is upon Chávez himself. He notes, "... the Bolivarian project faces a contradictory situation in which on the one hand, it would never be where it is without Chávez, his charisma and his strategic vision, and on the other hand, the movement's dependence on Chávez and his charisma reproduces some of the worst aspects of the previous regime that the movement set out to overcome" (235).
This is where I have some questions: while Chávez is certainly at the center of things, and has an outsized affect on developments, I wonder if Wilpert has not placed too much emphasis on him? Certainly from reading Ellner's book (referred to above), I get the sense that Chávez' relationship to the people of
Incidentally, I think the first six chapters and epilogue are excellent descriptions and systematic analyses of developments to date. I think their importance goes beyond
I think certainly they would be of immediate interest to the comrades in South Africa in helping to define future development of the African National Congress (ANC), with the elevation of Jacob Zuma to replace Thabo Mbeki, although the South Africans won state power after building up forces from below (especially through the labor movement and community mobilization) and then negotiations, rather than seizing state power though elections, as did Hugo Chávez. And I think the South African labor movement, especially COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions), would have a lot to teach the progressive labor movement in
And yet—if I can be excused for my verbosity—there is one more section of Wilpert's book, the Appendix, where he tries to concretize the concept of "Twenty-first Century Socialism," that I think takes his book to still a higher level. In my opinion, this is where his relevance expands beyond
Twenty-first century socialism is very vague in
The process that Wilpert follows is interesting. He discusses Chávez' ideals for 21C socialism, which Chávez first announced at a January 30, 2005 speech to the fifth World Social Forum. He notes the aforementioned vagueness. Then he says, well if we don't know what we want, at least we can begin by recognizing what we don't want.
He begins with a discussion of capitalism—which, while I agree with that capitalism sucks, I did not find Wilpert's overview very satisfactory, although adequate for the task at hand. He notes five key negative consequences of it: it inherently produces social inequality (he does not say it depends on the exploitation of workers), that it creates alienation, that it is inherently unstable, that it destroys the environment, and that "it encourages racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination and marginalization" (242-243).
He points out the ideas of 21C socialism, but notes that they do not distinguish this from any other form of "socialism." He then, usefully, examines different varieties of socialism, including social democracy, state socialism, market socialism and libertarian socialism. He notes, "libertarian socialism is one of the most interesting branches of socialism because it attempts to address all of the problems of capitalism as well as the problems of the other three socialist traditions" (249).
He then presents five guiding principles for institution building. We cannot build institutions where we assert that the ends justify the means. Approaches toward building institutions toward building these new institutions cannot be dogmatic. He thinks we should not privilege one ideal over another. We should avoid privileging the individual over the collective or the collective over the individual, because they are interlinked and denying one denies the other. And that we should pay attention to these new institutions' place in the existing set of relations and of meanings.
With those ideals presented, he then focuses on new economic institutions. He says they must be built on self-management, balanced job complexes (which is a key part of Albert and Hahnel's ideas of "participatory economics" or "Parecon"), remuneration for effort and sacrifice, participatory planning and "cooperative allocation, and free knowledge, as suggested by the Free Software Movement.
He then projects ideas for new political institutions. He wants to shift politics from representative democracy to participatory democracy, from formal equality to justice, from identity politics to universal solidarity, and a new form of communications, from peer-to-peer.
And encouragingly, he argues that "these institutions for a participatory society are much more feasible and realistic than at first seems" (265). He says he's come to that conclusion based on his experiences in
I find these interesting ideas, and I think they are a firm jumping off point for future debate and discussion. I hope people will grapple with them.
My only criticism of Wilpert's approach is that he does not address environmental devastation—like most other folks suggesting some form of "socialism" or "alternative" society. This is obviously a key contradiction in
My big problem with this, however, is that Wilpert does not address the issue of environmental destruction, global warming, etc., in his ideals for creating 21st C socialism. It's a tremendous limitation. (I have confronted this issue head-on in my "It's Time for a Deep Green Vision for the
Whether I'm right or not, nonetheless, I think Greg Wilpert has done an excellent job with book. Based on his experiences in
Kim Scipes, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Purdue University North Central in