Michael Lebowitz is a professor emeritus of economics at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and an award-winning author. His most recent book is The Contradictions of “Real” Socialism. He was director of the Program in Transformative Practice and Human Development, Centro Internacional Miranda, in Caracas from 2006-2011.
Below is a slightly abridged interview with Lebowitz by Novosti, a left-wing Croation newspaper in the aftermath of Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez, first elected in 1998, being re-elected for a six more years on October 7. The full version can be read at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, www.links.org.au.
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What can we expect from Chavez’s fourth term of office as president of Venezuela?
I think it is essential to recognise the extent of change that has occurred in Venezuela under Chavez. Venezuela has been a rentist economy, relying upon oil revenues. The culture that grew up around oil rents was one overwhelmingly of corruption and clientalism.
Venezuela suffered very significantly as a result of neoliberal policies involving cutbacks in social services, ending of subsidisation of necessities and privatisation.
The situation in the 1990s was one of disaster ― something not uncommon in Latin America in that decade (and certainly very familiar now in Europe).
When Chavez was elected at the end of that decade, he came into government with the support of social movements and the poor, but also of the middle class that understood this situation could not continue. (At the time Chavez was calling for a good capitalism, an end to neoliberalism, a third way; he learned as he went along.)
What Chavez has done is of enormous importance. In particular, he has channeled resource revenues from oil into education and health ― critically needed by the poor, who are the overwhelming majority.
These are measures that can be understood as populist, but also as meeting the real needs of people and which can permit their capacities to develop.
But there has also been a very significant process of empowering people ― of creating institutions that permit people to function democratically and to make decisions that affect their lives.
I’m describing, in particular, the development of the communal councils, institutions at the local neighborhood level in which people have the power to deal with problems that affect their own communities. These communal councils come together to form communes to deal with larger problems.
This is a process that has been described by Chavez as one of creating the cells of a new socialist state. As well, there is a process of developing workers’ councils.
It is a process of transforming people, of creating the conditions in which they can develop all their capacities. The Bolivarian Revolution is creating people with a sense of dignity and pride.
These are very important achievements. But they don’t happen smoothly, and it is important to recognise there are many contradictions within Chavism.
There are three groups and tendencies within Chavism. One can be found at the base with the social movements, the communities and portions of the working class.
Another is composed of those individuals and groups that have risen with Chavez but, having enriched themselves through their positions and through the continuation of corruption and clientalism, now think the revolution should be over ― and it is for them. (They are often referred to as the “boli-bourgeoisie”.)
A third group is committed to continuing the revolution but doing so entirely from the top down; its perspective is one of ordering the advance of socialism, and it does not want to leave decisions at the bottom.
Chavez himself is very vocal about the theoretical importance of building at the base and allowing people to develop their capacities through their own protagonism, but he is impatient and often supports those who don’t have the same orientation.
What happens in Chavez’s next term of office depends on class struggle within the Chavez camp. It would be a struggle which revolves around Chavez’s party (the United Socialist Party of Venezuela ― PSUV). It contains all these elements, but the top-down orientation dominates and has dispirited many people at the base.
Assuming Chavez continues in good health, it is possible the revolution will be deepened at the base through his initiatives. He understands the problems and he stressed the importance in the election campaign of creating a front between the PSUV, other parties of the left and the social movements.
If Chavez is not around to unify the various forces within Chavism, however, I think there could be a major struggle.
There are two types of economic and political systems that exist today in Venezuela ― socialist and capitalist. Can we talk about a coherent and consistently functioning socioeconomic system in Venezuela?
It is essential to understand there is always incoherence and dysfunctionality in a process of transition. When the elements of a new society coexist with the elements of the old society, each deforms the other. Each functions less efficiently than it would in the absence of the other.
From the perspective of the old, the problems are the result of the attempt to introduce the new. From the perspective of the new, all the problems are the result of the continued existence of the old.
Despite the process of reversing privatisation and expanding the state sector, and creating new institutions of decision making at the community and enterprise levels, capitalism is still present in the banking system, in large agricultural estates and especially in imports and the import-processing sector (and of course in the private mass media).
If Venezuela is to advance in building a new kind of socialism, it must overcome these elements of capitalism. However, I don’t think that is a priority. For me, far more significant at this time is strengthening and deepening the socialist elements by expanding workers’ management in state sectors and increasing democratic decision making from below.
Chavez made a very important statement a few years ago, referring to the state industrial sectors. He said: “What we have now is state capitalism. Without workers’ control, you cannot have socialism.”
I agree, and I think that moving on such questions is an essential part of class struggle in Venezuela and to advance the process right now.
In a Croatian TV show on Venezuela's elections, more or less all participants agreed the Chavez government's social reforms are just some sort of political bribery directed at poor people. What is your opinion about this?
Well, I’m not certain that such social reforms would be a bad thing even as political bribery, given they are dealing with enormous material deficiencies for the poor and making up for the crimes of previous governments.
But there is much more to this. After all, providing health facilities, education and adequate housing are essential to creating the conditions in which people are able to develop their own capacities. How can anyone criticise this?
Compare such policies to the austerity programs that punish people (especially the poor) for the disasters created by capitalism! Compare this to policies that bribe banks! I think that the participants in those television programs reveal more about themselves than the actions of the Chavez government.
The system of cooperatives was designed as an alternative to standard capitalist corporations. Has there been progress in this area?
There are great limits to relying upon small cooperatives as an alternative. Many such cooperatives have failed or discontinued ― just like small businesses and small cooperatives elsewhere.
There are some cases in rural areas where there are very successful cooperative processes. But, in general, I think the most important aspect of the major cooperative initiative in Venezuela has been that the cooperatives have been schools of socialism. That is, they have given people experience in the process of making decisions themselves. I think the real alternative to the capitalist corporation will be workers’ management of state enterprises.
Is there anything in the socio-political system in Venezuela what we can apply in Europe's context?
Of course! You don’t need oil to have protagonistic democracy. You don’t need oil to create communal councils and communes that make decisions about neighbourhoods and communities. You don’t need oil to introduce workers’ management and transparency by opening the books of all enterprises and government.
Venezuela has taken important steps to develop a revolutionary democracy in which people transform both their circumstances and themselves through their practice. It has done so in a poor country with a culture of clientalism and corruption.
I think that European countries are in a position to take that same road without the same problems.
What will happen with the goal of “socialism of the 21st century” in the next period?
In the recent election, it was absolutely essential to defeat the right-wing opposition, which wanted to turn the clock back. Chavez’s victory keeps the door open to advance the Bolivarian revolution.
That victory was not only important for Venezuela, but many countries in Latin America ― not only those governments closely associated with Venezuela (such as Cuba, Bolivia and Ecuador) but also governments strengthened by Venezuela’s insistence under Chavez upon a sovereign Latin America.
And certainly, too, for the social movements elsewhere in Latin America (and not only Latin America) for which the Bolivarian revolution has provided hope.
It is not clear yet how much of this victory will extend to the election of state governors in December. The particular link Chavez has forged with the masses does not extend to all candidates of his party. It never has.
Some of the choices of candidates (choices made by Chavez and his advisers in the PSUV rather than from below) are quite unpopular at the base. This could lead to significant abstention or to support for other left candidates who support the Bolivarian revolution but not the internal processes and actions of PSUV.
This remains to be seen but I think the general prognosis is one for significant struggle within Chavism.