Book Reviews: “Venezuela. Revolution as Spectacle”, “Injustice”, “On The Currency Of Egalitarian Justice”
21st century Chavism
Venezuela. Revolution as Spectacle Rafael Izcategui, translated by Chaz Bufe, Sharp Press.
Rafael Izcategui, editor of El Libertario, Venezuela’s longest-running anarchist periodical (and on-line at www.nodo50.org/ellibertario), offers a Venezuelan anarchist’s critique of the Bolivarian government of Venezuela and Hugo Chavez in particular. There are many endnotes for those interested in seeking further information or corroboration but most of them are in Spanish although El Libertario does have an English language section.
Included is a brief review of the oil industry through the various regimes; an industry the development and management of which resulted in mass migration of populations to oil-producing regions, seeking better employment, depopulating the countryside, turning an agricultural exporting country into a major importing country in a short space of time and followed by all the knock-on social and economic effects. The petroleum industry was originally nationalised in 1976, long before Chavez came to power. Then came a reversal of this policy starting in 1992 which involved employing ‘mixed-enterprises’, i.e. foreign companies’ investments. The mixed-enterprise policy was continued and expanded with transnational companies when Chavez came to power in 1998, the country’s economy being highly dependent on oil and gas as the main sources of wealth.
Much of the author’s criticism of Chavez is with regard to the many contradictions between his rhetoric and his actions; a president as leader of a vanguard movement cannot equate to socialism; his anti-imperialist rhetoric against the US whilst attempting to build a bloc in the south to counteract it; his top-down decrees for new organisations rather than encouraging real initiatives from the base. According to Izcategui, Chavez is just one more in a string of populist leaders: it is a well-established concept in Latin American countries – the role of the military strongman, the cult of the macho man, politics as a matter of urgency or emergency – everything starting anew with each new individual in power. The first ‘Bolivarian’ government, that of the Democratic Action Party between 1945-8, following a military coup which ceded power to civilians, saw a ‘new social order’ seeking to be inclusive, democratic and not corrupt. This was ended by another military coup. The author contends that the current regime is just one more phase in a kind of circular politics.
In a chapter discussing various social movements he strongly questions Chavez’s rhetoric, about the people becoming the subject and object of the revolution, for this has to be a question of ownership. Autonomy cannot be imposed from above; people have to want it and work for it. This is a recurring theme, that Chavez is very much about imposing his ideas from the top, ideas which in many areas don’t match what social groups are seeking for themselves, and that there is a gulf between words and results, between ideas and realisation. For instance, the communal councils are directly linked to Chavez’s executive power, not routed through municipal or parochial councils, and have direct government funding for their projects – a way of garnering and maintaining their support?
There have been many demonstrations and riots incurring various levels of restraint in Venezuela’s history often resulting in efforts at redistribution of oil wealth. Some of Izcategui’s examples and people’s personal testimonies are an effort to show the outside world that nothing much has changed with Chavez, that this still is a nationalist state with a neoliberal capitalist economy that leaves many of the population sidelined. He selects two self-labelled anarchists for particular criticism because having an international following they should be especially aware of the need for objectivity; Noam Chomsky and Michael Albert. He views them both as too ready to take Chavez and his government spokespersons at face value without checking the voices at the base of the supposed revolution.
It seems that, in the end, ‘21st century socialism’ comes down to a self-named revolutionary government, manipulating by rhetoric and an illusion of resistance and social mobilisation, but in reality following a well-trodden path culminating in different forms of resistance and social struggle which then become criminalised and persecuted. (Statistics provided in the book.) A movement attempting to distance itself from US hegemony it may be; anti-imperialist but not anti-capitalist. If it is nothing else, this book demonstrates the fundamental requirement that for true socialism to take hold the most important consideration is for the overwhelming majority of the working class to be aware of the need to develop to the full their socialist understanding and consciousness. Socialism is the ongoing task of the majority; it cannot work top down; it cannot be imposed and cannot be legislated for by one or more leaders or vanguard movement, however well-intentioned. If populist, charismatic, paternalistic and concentrated in the most subordinate sectors, using anti-elitist discourse and redistributive methods in a dependent client context with the aim of constructing a base to gain the support of the popular sector – then a socialist revolution it is not. Beware of wearing rose-tinted glasses.
Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists. By Daniel Dorling. Polity Press £19.99.
The sub-title is the more important, as this is really about inequality, what it involves and why it continues to exist. On the one hand there is a small group of amazingly wealthy people, who have acquired their riches through inheritance, profit and interest. These super-rich cluster in enclaves, in particular regions, cities and streets (e.g. near Hyde Park in London). One way in which this elite is maintained is by careful selection of marriage partners: if you’re a member of this group and marry someone else from it (it’s called homogamy), you and your spouse are likely to remain in that upper part of society.
At the other pole is a group, the worst-off part of the working class, who are effectively destitute. One child in five in London has no annual holiday because their parents cannot afford one. A fifth of the population of Britain find it difficult or very difficult to get by on their incomes. People with depression or chronic anxiety are found in one-third of British families, as inequality increases and despair grows among the worst-off.
At the heart of this destitution is not primarily joblessness or old age, as was once the case, but debt. In a modern form of indenture, people are forced to borrow, not in order to live in luxury, but in order to simply keep going. The number of people taking out expensive ‘payday loans’ to get them through to the end of the month more than doubled in 2007-8. In 2005, members of an average household in the US owed 127 percent of their annual income in outstanding debt. A quarter of the ‘young elderly’ in the US, aged 65–69, have to work in order to get by.
This inequality extends of course to educational provision and the creation of and response to crime. The US now has ten times as many in prison as in 1940, and 70 percent of the two million prisoners are black: ‘their biggest mistake is not their crime, but having been born at the wrong time, to the wrong family, in the wrong place, in the wrong country’. The American dream remains an impossible fantasy for nearly everyone.
Apparently at least half of the US economy is devoted purely to ‘transactional purposes’, not designing or making beans but counting them. Dorling is aware that such nonsense as stocktaking and barcode scanning could be dispensed with ‘in a society where consumers and producers work much closer to (and more closely with) each other’. It will take more than that, but in socialism we could get rid not just of credit cards and tills but of the rich and poor too.
On The Currency Of Egalitarian Justice. By G.A. Cohen, Edited by Michael Otsuka, Princeton University Press, 2011
Contrary to popular myth, Marx and Engels did not frame their arguments for socialism in terms of material equality. In fact they rejected demands for levelling down as ‘crude communism’. As the political philosopher Allen Wood has pointed out, they did not criticise capitalism because poverty is unevenly distributed, but because there is poverty where there need be none, and that there is a privileged class which benefits from a system which subjects the majority to an artificial and unnecessary poverty. In his Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875), Marx argued that socialism or communism (they mean the same thing) would be based on from each according to ability, to each according to need. This is not an egalitarian slogan. Rather, it asks for people to be considered individually, each with a different set of needs and abilities. Nor would socialist society have to be underpinned by some conception of ‘distributive justice’. From each according to ability, to each according to need is a practical arrangement for meeting self-defined needs.
This book is a collection of essays by the academic political philosopher G.A. Cohen, who died in 2009. The ‘currency’ in the title is a reference to the principles used by political philosophers in the academic debate about ‘egalitarian justice’, though in one essay Cohen does acknowledge that those who have more currency (meaning more money) are freer than those who have less of it. This may seem blindingly obvious but it is often denied in academia. Cohen has built a reputation on work allegedly inspired by Marx’s writings, but here again he misleads. This is confirmed in the essay ‘Back to Socialist Basics’ in which he demonstrates no understanding of socialist basics. Cohen claims that he is setting out the principles for ‘egalitarian justice’ – as if they existed in a timeless social and economic vacuum. But the mechanisms for bringing about the desired changes – Cohen argues for a ‘fair’ redistribution of money via taxation – crucially depend upon capitalism’s ability to actually deliver an egalitarian society. Since he does not show that capitalism can do that there is no reason to take his philosophising seriously.
According to political philosophy justice prevails when people get what they deserve, though there are widely differing interpretations of its ethical implications. For socialists, as for Marx, the concepts of justice and fairness are not so much wrong or false as not relevant for our purposes. They misrepresent the exploitative social relations of capitalism and are inappropriate to the struggle for socialism. Socialists operate within a different frame of reference, using different principles which transcend present-day society. Socialism will undoubtedly be a more materially equal society, but that is not the objective. Common ownership of the means of life will be a social relationship of equality between all people. This establishes a classless society. That is the socialist objective and not a ‘fairer’ capitalism which was Cohen’s real aim.
Books received: Paperback edition of The Enigma of Capital by David Harvey (reviewed in the June 2010 Socialist Standard).