Thursday, September 24, 2009

"Inside the Revolution"

What to make of the Bolivarian revolution? Despite its limitations, it has achieved real decreases in poverty, higher social spending per capita, elements of grassroots democracy, and a widespread radicalisation among Venezuela's working class. The revolution has thus far withstood various challenges from the right, including a coup, largely because of the solid backing the Chavez government receives from the poor. Unlike previous efforts at social transformation in Latin America, this one has not been drowned in rivers of blood. Is Venezuela therefore a model for others to follow, as well as an inspiration in its own right?

The new documentary Inside The Revolution (trailer here) deals with precisely this question. This sort of film could so easily just re-tread old ground. It could just as easily lapse into uncritical adulation. Or it could just be very cliched, with various pleasing sentiments structured around a 'story so far' narrative. Already, films about Venezuela are characterised by some very familiar vistas: the red t-shirts, the smiling Chavez supporters, the scandalously abusive corporate media footage, and the slums, all overlaid with cheery joropo music. And if these were to be the fixtures of a genre that ossified the exciting and conflict-ridden social processes of Venezuela into low budget entertainment for leftists, then the Bolivarian revolution would have been done a disservice. But Inside The Revolution takes the argument deeper than previous films, making an effort to gauge what kind of example Venezuela provides for the left. It has less glamour and polemical bite than Pilger's The War on Democracy, for example, but is intellectually more challenging.

The argument is more distinctive than the material, most of which can be found in useful texts such as Bart Jones' biography of Hugo Chavez - cryptically entitled ¡Hugo! - and Gregory Wilpert's Changing Venezuela By Taking Power (an excellent counterblast to the Holloway thesis). Thus, you get a very brief account of the history of Venezuelan politics, from the Jimenez dictatorship to the highly controlled liberal democracy during the oil boom of the post-war era, to the social collapse and soaring poverty from 1978 onward. You get a discussion of the radicalisation in 1989, a counterpoint to the general demoralisation on the Left as the Berlin Wall fell. There is footage of Chavez's attempted coup in 1992, and his 72 second speech to the nation upon surrendering in which he famously said that his goals could not be achieved "por ahora" (for now). This statement became a catchphrase for millions, as Chavez became a hero to the poor and, upon his release, he began to build up support for a presidential campaign. He wins, brings about constitutional changes, faces down the hysteria of the ruling class, defeats a coup, braves a referendum defeat, suffers electoral setbacks, but continues to make progress. So far, so familiar - and accurate too.

The issue, then, is does Venezuela stand on the precipice of lasting socialist transformation? Does it defy what might be seen as the linear, stageist conceptions of social change that have dominated some quarters on the left for a century? The main editorial voice of the documentary appears to be Michael Lebowitz, author of Build It Now, and a critical supporter of Chavez. He has long maintained that Chavez's reforms, such as the breaking up of the latifundia, the creation of communal councils and particularly the institutions of co-management in which workers are represented at the managerial level of firms, place Venezuela in a transitional state. It is not socialism, he acknowledges, but it is potentially a pathway to socialism. As it is, the argument is underdeveloped in the documentary because of the constraints of time and narration, but it does leave you with a clear sense of the unfinished character of the Venezuelan experiment, the left-right divisions within the PSUV, the arguments over how to relate to the legacy of Stalinism and the dangers of confusing socialism with statism, the persistence of corruption and conservatism within the Bolivarian state, the existence of a rump within Chavez's government who continue to obstruct real change, and so on. It is nonetheless optimistic that with the enabling reforms carried out by Chavez and continued pressure from below, something like socialism could be constructed.

There are, though, a few things missing from this picture. The first is that, had this process began in 1980, the Bolivarian revolution would most likely have been crushed by death squads and torturers trained by the CIA. Today's Venezuelan ruling class must feel terribly betrayed by the United States for its insufficient attention to its own back yard. So, a vital condition for the successes of Chavez has been that the most concentrated centres of capitalist power in the world did not make it a priority to destroy the revolution. How long would such a state of affairs persist, one wonders, if the reforms went too far? So far, capital has been regulated, nationalised and curbed by Chavez, all in a very improvised fashion and with considerable restraint bearing in mind the powers that he is up against. For example, take land reform. As a rule, the institutions created by the government to redistribute land to the peasants have taken a very softly-softly approach, and have had to be goaded by popular radicalism to take more controversial stances. Thus, when peasants occupied the El Charcote estate, challenging the claim to ownership of the land by the British cattle-ranching company of Lord Vestey, the land institute ruled that though the company couldn't prove ownership of the territory, they could keep the two-thirds of it as it was being made use of. The other third was distributed to peasants. Examples of this kind of very qualified expropriation, being carried out on a pragmatic basis and in a very negotiated fashion, are typical. Were peasants and rural workers to start occupying and socialising estates on a mass basis, though, this would place the Chavez government in a very difficult situation. They would either have to confront the established centres of power whom Chavez has said he prefers to negotiate with, or send the police or army in to shut down the militancy. So, there is in that sense a self-limiting quality to the Bolivarian revolution.

Another problem with the documentary is that its focus can be a little parochial. It discusses Chavez's efforts to carve out a space independent of imperialism through such initiatives as ALBA, and this is indeed an extremely important development. It is not exactly a pilot for 'socialism in one continent', but it frees a space for further democratic breakthroughs and is thus worthy of applause in its own right. But there are some less savoury global imperatives that Chavez has to pursue. For example, he has to do business with the Chinese dictatorship in order to keep selling the oil that produces the revenues that fund his reforms. I don't think this is so terrible, but there is a problem when Chavez openly praises the leaders of countries where Venezuela does business - China, Iran, Syria, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Russia, Belorussia, etc. You may say he has no choice in this respect, which is debatable. But what is indisputable is that Chavez is making it harder for those struggling for the same kind of social justice and human rights that he defends, in those countries. This limits any claim to internationalism by the Bolivarian state, and it does point to the limited, cautious nature of its objectives. That is not to say it deserves any special opprobrium, but I think it does enjoin a more restrained attitude than is evident in this documentary.

All of that said, it helps to see how the experience of change in Venezula - change you can believe in, though Obama may not - is driving a process of ideological radicalisation and intellectual enquiry within Venezuela. There is a very real sense from the footage of the communal councils of just how much the workers and poor believe the revolution to be theirs, not the property of Hugo Chavez or anyone else. And it is that very old-fashioned idea, of socialism from below, that gives the documentary its most hopeful and critical edge.

ps: more info here.