The problem with Venezuela’s revolution is that it didn’t go far enough

Why was there no Venezuelan left to provide an authentic radical alternative to Chavez and Maduro? 

Slavoj Zizek
Wednesday 09 August 2017 11:29 BST
Can we even imagine a society outside the state?
Can we even imagine a society outside the state?

Back in the early 1970s, in a note to the CIA advising them how to undermine the democratically elected Chilean government of Salvador Allende, Henry Kissinger wrote succinctly: “Make the economy scream.”

High US representatives are openly admitting that today the same strategy is applied in Venezuela: former US Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger said on Fox News that Chavez’s appeal to the Venezuelan people “only works so long as the population of Venezuela sees some ability for a better standard of living. If at some point the economy really gets bad, Chavez’s popularity within the country will certainly decrease and it’s the one weapon we have against him to begin with and which we should be using, namely the economic tools of trying to make the economy even worse so that his appeal in the country and the region goes down … Anything we can do to make their economy more difficult for them at this moment is a good thing, but let’s do it in ways that do not get us into direct conflict with Venezuela if we can get away with it.”

The least one can say is that such statements give credibility to the idea that the economic difficulties faced by the Chavez government (major product and electricity shortages nationwide, for example) are not only the result of the ineptness of its own economic politics. Here we come to the key political point, difficult to swallow for some liberals: we are clearly not dealing here with blind market processes and reactions (say, shop owners trying to make more profit by keeping some products off the shelves), but with a fully planned strategy.

However, even if it is true that the economic catastrophe in Venezuela is to a large extent the result of the conjoined action of Venezuelan big capital and US interventions, and that the core of the opposition to the Maduro regime are the far-right corporations and not the popular democratic forces, this insight raises further questions. In view of these reproaches, why was there no Venezuelan left to provide an authentic radical alternative to Chavez and Maduro? Why was the initiative in the opposition to Chavez left to the extreme right which triumphantly hegemonised the oppositional struggle, imposing itself as the voice of the ordinary people who suffer the consequences of the Chavista mismanagement of economy?

Chavez was not only a populist throwing around the oil money; what is largely ignored in international media are the complex and often inconsistent efforts to overcome capitalist economy by experimenting with new forms of the organisation of production, forms which endeavoured to move beyond the alternative of private and state property: farmers and workers cooperatives, workers participation, control and organisation of production, different hybrid forms between private property and social control and organisation, etc. (Say, factories not used by the owners are given to the workers to run them.)

There are many hits and runs on this path – for example, after some attempts, giving nationalised factories to workers to own them, distributing stocks among them, was abandoned. Although we are dealing here with genuine attempts in which grass-roots initiatives interact with state proposals, one must also note many economic failures, inefficiencies, widespread corruption, etc. The usual story is that after (half) a year of enthusiastic work, things go downhill.

In the first years of Chavismo, we were clearly witnessing a broad popular mobilisation. However, the big question remains: how does or should this reliance on popular self-organisation affect running a government? Can we even imagine today an authentic communist power? What we get is disaster (Venezuela), capitulation (Greece), or a full return to capitalism (China, Vietnam). As Julia Buxton put it, the Bolivarian Revolution “has transformed social relations in Venezuela and had a huge impact on the continent as a whole. But the tragedy is that it was never properly institutionalised and thus proved to be unsustainable.” It is all too easy to say that authentic emancipatory politics should remain at a distance from state: the big problem that lingers behind is what to do with the state. Can we even imagine a society outside the state? One should deal with these problems in the here and now.

To really change things, one should accept that nothing can really be changed (within the existing system). Jean-Luc Godard proposed the motto “Ne change rien pour que tout soit différent” (change nothing so that everything will be different), a reversal of “some things must change so that everything remains the same.” In our late capitalist consumerist dynamics, we are all the time bombarded by new products, but this very constant change is more and more monotonous. When only constant self-revolutionising can maintain the system, those who refuse to change anything are effectively the agents of true change.

Or, to put it in a different way, the true change is not just the overcoming of the old order but, above all, the establishment of a new order. Louis Althusser once improvised a typology of revolutionary leaders worthy of Kierkegaard's classification of humans into officers, housemaids and chimney sweepers: those who quote proverbs, those who do not quote proverbs, those who invent (new) proverbs.The first are scoundrels (Althusser thought of Stalin), the second are great revolutionaries who are doomed to fail (Robespierre); only the third understand the true nature of a revolution and succeed (Lenin, Mao).

This triad registers three different ways to relate to the big Other (the symbolic substance, the domain of unwritten customs and wisdoms best expressed in the stupidity of proverbs). Scoundrels simply re-inscribe the revolution into the ideological tradition of their nation (for Stalin, Soviet Union was the last stage of the progressive development of Russia). Radical revolutionaries like Robespierre fail because they just enact a break with the past without succeeding in their effort to enforce a new set of customs (recall the utmost failure of Robespierre’s idea to replace religion with the new cult of a Supreme Being). The leaders like Lenin and Mao succeeded (for some time, at least) because they invented new proverbs, which means that they imposed new customs that regulated daily lives. One of the best Goldwynisms tells how, after being informed that critics complain how there are too many old clichés in his films, Sam Goldwyn wrote a memo to his scenario department: “We need more new clichés!” He was right, and this is a revolution’s most difficult task – to create “new clichés” for the ordinary daily life.

Video shows Venezuelan men in uniform claiming start of coup

One should go one step further here. The task of the left is not just to propose a new order but also to change the very horizon of what appears possible. The paradox of our predicament is thus that, while resistances against global capitalism seem to fail again and again to undermine its advance, they remain strangely out of touch with many trends which clearly signal capitalism’s progressive disintegration – it is as if the two tendencies (resistance and self-disintegration) move at different levels and cannot meet, so that we get futile protests in parallel with immanent decay and no way to bring the two together in a coordinated act of capitalism’s emancipatory overcoming.

How did it come to this? While (most of) the left desperately tries to protect the old workers’ rights against the onslaught of global capitalism, it is almost exclusively the most “progressive” capitalists themselves (from Elon Musk to Mark Zuckerberg) who talk about post-capitalism – as if the very topic of passage from capitalism as we know it to a new post-capitalist order is appropriated by capitalism.

In Ernst Lubitch’s Ninotchka, the hero visits a cafeteria and orders coffee without cream; the waiter replies: “Sorry, but we’ve run out of cream. Can I bring you coffee without milk?” In both cases, the customer gets straight coffee, but this coffee is each time accompanied by a different negation, first coffee-with-no-cream, then coffee-with-no-milk. The difference between “plain coffee” and “coffee without milk” is purely virtual, there is no difference in the real cup of coffee – the lack itself functions as a positive feature.

This paradox also rendered nicely by an old Yugoslav joke about Montenegrins (people from Montenegro were stigmatised as lazy in ex-Yugoslavia): "Why does a Montenegrin guy, when going to sleep, put two glasses, one full and one empty, at the side of his bed? Because he is too lazy to think in advance whether he will be thirsty during the night." The point of this joke is that the absence itself has to be positively registered: it is not enough to have a full glass of water, since, if the Montenegrin is not be thirsty, he will simply ignore it – this negative fact itself has to be registered, the no-need-for-water has to be materialised in the void of the empty glass.

A political equivalent can be found in a well-known joke from socialist-era Poland. A customer enters a store and asks: “You probably don’t have butter, or do you?” The answer: “Sorry, but we’re the store that doesn’t have toilet paper; the one across the street is the one that doesn’t have butter!”

Or consider contemporary Brazil where, during a carnival, people from all classes will dance together in the street, momentarily forgetting their race and class differences – but it is obviously not the same if a jobless worker joins the dance, forgetting his worries about how to take care of his family, or if a rich banker lets himself go and feels good about being one with the people, forgetting that he has just refused a loan to the poor worker. They are both the same on the street, but the worker is dancing without milk, while the banker is dancing without cream. In a similar way, East Europeans in 1990 wanted not only democracy-without-communism, but also democracy-without-capitalism.

And this is what the left should learn to do: to offer the same coffee, with the hope that a coffee without milk has all of a sudden changed into a coffee without cream. Only then can the struggle for cream begin.

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