We Are Not in Possession of Power; We Are in Possession of the Government:
The Long Goodbye of Social Democracy in Latin America
“The pueblo must understand that I have to remain loyal to what I have said. We will make the revolutionary changes within pluralism, democracy and liberty, which will not mean tolerance for subversives or fascists….”
In the last year the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela has come to crisis, with its United Socialist Party (PSUV) on the brink of collapse; the Workers’ Party has been unseated in Brazil; and Evo Morales has lost his referendum bid to maintain his hold on the Bolivian presidency. U.S. newspapers are sounding the habitual refrains with which they always greet the fall of leftist governments. The usual pull quotes and tropes are back in the headlines: “anyone who has taken freshman Economics could tell you,” “Econ 101,” “the Maduro regime,” “but it’s the poor who suffer most under [x]’s brand of socialism.” To throw another cliché into the mix, history is written by the victor, in this case by the neoliberal press, as they sermonize over the ruins of the South American left. But it is not the left itself which has been defeated, but rather Social Democracy which has died another death in its long and pernicious zombie campaign.
By Social Democracy we do not mean the reformist, center-left parties that now often claim the name. When we say “Social Democracy” we mean it in its original sense, encompassing revolutionary, anti-capitalist movements that look to electoral politics and legislative and judicial maneuvers as their primary means of struggle. This is a path that has been described by its originally Marxist adherents as an “evolutionary” or “peaceful” road to socialism. If we are to inject new life into the anti-capitalist project it is necessary for the radical left to offer its own critique of Social Democracy.
It is an unfortunate reality that it takes crisis to produce radical consciousness. We have a surplus of crisis, surrounded as we are with war, poverty, inequality, and ecological catastrophe. In the wake of global austerity, the financial crisis, and the rapid rise of populists and protest candidates on both sides of the political spectrum, this is a moment pregnant with possibility, which cannot be wasted on the likes of a Corbyn or a Sanders who at worst represent the reformist and opportunistic center-left tendencies of European Social Democrats and at best embody a sincere belief in the original idea of a revolutionary Social Democracy. This idea is fatally compromised. The ambition of this article is to look to Latin America to evidence our critique. Latin America serves as a useful object lesson specifically because it is one of the last and most persistent bastions of revolutionary Social Democrats, with leaders who show a sincere desire to transition from capitalism to socialism through representative democracy. We in the “global North” should learn the lessons of the “global South.”
“The south also exists... the future of the north depends on the south.”
– Hugo Chávez
On both the left and the right, theorists and journalists involved with Latin American politics are pre-occupied for the moment with apportioning blame. Is Venezuela, for instance, collapsing under the weight of foreign intervention or autocratic rule? Is the country a democracy or ruled by a dictatorship? Is it capitalism or socialism that has undercut Chavismo? The paradoxical thing about Social Democracy is that to almost all of these questions the answer is “both.” It is by nature a Janus-faced enterprise, which necessarily entrenches itself in hostile institutions and accommodates numerous contradictions. It attempts at once to carry out a revolution while refusing to disenfranchise its enemies, as pluralism and liberal democracy demand. Thus socialism is compelled to defend what it seeks to destroy.
We take as cases for the examination of these contradictions two radical movements with parallel features, despite the historical distance between them: Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular government in 1970s Chile and the Chávez/Maduro Bolivarian Revolution in present-day Venezuela. In both countries socialist presidents were in conflict with right-wing legislatures. Both featured economies highly dependent on one commodity with considerable foreign investment, copper in Chile and oil in Venezuela. Both governments successfully defeated their opposition’s first attempt at a coup—the abortive Tanquetazo in Chile and the 2002 coup in Caracas. And both attracted support from North American leftists.
In both coup attempts, the disposition of the private media played a crucial role. In Venezuela, Venevisión, a television station owned by the avowedly pro-globalization businessman Gustavo Cisneros, actually hosted major figures responsible for orchestrating the anti-Chávez coup. Pedro Carmona, the head of the business association Fedecámaras who was crowned as the new head of government during the two days of reactionary success, personally attended meetings at the station. In the days leading up to the final action, private television stations unceasingly broadcast anti-Chávez programming, even going so far as to air unpaid “public service announcements” that exhorted the people to go out onto the streets and, implicitly, depose Chávez. Journalist, and one time Minister of Popular Power for Communication and Information, Andrés Izarra, who was working for Venezuelan station RCTV at the time of the coup, claims that he was instructed by station management: “No information on Chávez, his followers, his ministers, and all others that could in any way be related to him.” We might find the partisan source less than credible if it weren’t the case that, famously, when Chávez was returned to power by loyal soldiers and mobilized supporters, private TV channels engaged in a media blackout (known as the golpe mediático—media coup), airing Tom & Jerry cartoons in the hopes of buying time to re-consolidate reactionary forces.
In Chile, the owner of the right-wing newspaper El Mercurio, Augustín Edwards Eastman, has admitted that he flew to the United States the day after Allende’s election to meet with American officials. His paper was subsequently at the forefront of an anti-Allende propaganda campaign, even employing C.I.A. assets to write editorial pieces following the American line. After the failure of the Tanquetazo, El Mercurio performed an impressive bit of sophistry by providing an ex post facto justification for the failed coup, asserting that the socialists’ totalitarian aims were the ultimate beneficiaries of the military action and that total repression in the guise of popular power was en route. Therefore it was not that the coup was undemocratic, but the audacity of Allende to survive it. Newspapers and radio stations such as La Tribuna, tied to Partido Nacional politician Victor García Garzena, followed a similar pattern, asserting first that “the army is confronting the totalitarian Marxist government,” and then, when defeat was clear, proclaiming the Tanquetazo an “auto-coup” staged to justify increased repression by Unidad Popular and Allende. The paradoxical logic of El Mercurio and La Tribuna highlights a crucial Social Democratic problem—the counter-revolution can wage a real war against what is only the spectral promise of revolution.
After these failed coups the two presidents remained in office, faced with media that were not simply critical but outright hostile. Major news outlets and key information centers had acted in an essentially military capacity in support of extra-legal reactionary forces, promoting and even announcing the enactment of the coups. This is indicative of another dilemma for Social Democracy, whose options in such a situation are simple but painful: undermine the newspapers and television stations, censor them, expropriate them, dissolve them, or allow them to continue. But who would permit enemy communications to function unfettered in a real, declared conflict? This is the basic issue. Social Democracy cannot admit that it is at war, that capitalism and socialism ultimately cannot co-exist. To do so would be a betrayal of pluralism, and an invitation for the opposition and even foreign powers to strike, on the basis of supposed autocracy.
Certainly Venezuela got a taste of this dilemma. When the “Law on Social Responsibility on Radio and Television” was introduced in 2004 and steps were taken to curtail the activities of media that had actively participated in the coup, organizations like Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists howled about authoritarianism and the erosion of press freedom. The cumulative weight of these types of accusations now, years later, has allowed the Organization of American States to consider expelling Venezuela on the basis of betraying its charter. Yet to fail to respond to a politicized media is to allow oligarchy and capital to control the largest propaganda networks in the country, as well as a key military site. All of this takes place in the context of judicial machinery inherited from liberal government, which grants extraordinary guarantees to private property and “freedom of the press.” A basic choice must be made in response to every attack between the sword of revolution and the shield of bourgeois democracy.
Furthermore, each time one is chosen over the other, a rift widens between an increasingly conservative government and an increasingly radical base until they can seem to be working at cross purposes. This polarization was demonstrated in the aftermath of the Tanquetazo, which led to a retreat on the governmental level, Unidad Popular being forced to seek accommodation with the right-wing Christian Democrats and to make plans for a plebiscite that would ultimately affirm his executive (and moral) authority. Meanwhile, militants and workers at the local level were beginning to speak of the need to prepare for civil war. Other workers excitedly misread the politicization of the armed forces, believing that the growing inclusion of the military in Allende’s cabinet signaled he was preparing at last to use heavy force on the “mummies,” as they derisively termed the reactionary elements in Chile. A more stark political schizophrenia is hard to imagine within a “united” movement.
It is no surprise, then, that Chile saw a deepening of its radical program precisely at the moment of crisis, when the government’s Social Democratic project was at its most fragile. It took the 1972 transportation “strike,” often referred to as an employers’ lockout since it was instituted by the Chilean Truck Owners Association along with professional and management sectors, for Chilean workers to organize themselves into largely autonomous mass militant organizations. The so-called industrial belts, chains of affiliated expropriated factories that functioned in concert under workers’ management, arose out of the necessity to maintain production in the face of the strike, regardless of propriety or judicial blessings. “Vigilance committees” and “community commandos” were formed, non-governmental organizations run by and for workers capable of taking militant action irrespective of “constitutional” limitations. For the politicians of Unidad Popular this was often an unwelcome development, which they attempted to restrain to avoid being placed in legal jeopardy. Workers had become aware that capitalist owners, the political elites, and their organizations could sabotage the economy and the country freely within the boundaries of the law, while laborers’ hands were tied. How do you tell a woman, as her family goes hungry, that she must wait to seize the means for their daily bread, that she must exercise restraint, all the while agreeing that it is theirs by right? Impatience naturally set in and the “peaceful road to socialism” began to come in for heavy criticism from the workers it claimed to speak for. Workers denounced bureaucracy and expropriated land and factories, often against the wishes of Unidad Popular officials, who explained that they were “at the mercy of the judicial powers.”
“We are not in possession of power. We are in possession of the government.”
—Chilean worker two years after Allende’s election
The transportation owners’ strike had as its goal the collapse of the Chilean economy and thus the collapse of Allende and Unidad Popular. It had as its main effect, in combination with economic half measures and an American-led boycott, an extreme shortage of basic goods and an explosion of the black market, leading to hoarding and rampant speculation. For the government, this produced a crisis of legitimacy. But the poor recognized it for what it was—an open confrontation, with their literal survival at stake. Committees for direct provisioning were set up in working-class neighborhoods. This eliminated the profit motive for essential goods, as they bought food directly from the state and sold it at cost. Workers from the industrial belts went so far as to re-open closed shops and to seize hoarded materials for redistribution at “people’s stores,” creating a direct challenge to local businesses and shop keepers.
What was a radical advance on the ground was a further liability at the institutional level. The provisioning policies, expropriations, and price controls were used by the opposition-controlled Congress to foment a constitutional crisis. They asserted that such policies were outside of the scope of executive power and made endless accusations and official investigations against government ministers. Finally, the opposition announced the blanket illegality of the current government, in essence lobbying for another coup, which would be justified by the constitutional gridlock.
“People, awareness, arms.”
“The expropriated factories will never be handed back.”
“We will fight to create popular power.”
These slogans could be heard on the streets of Chile by the time Allende was overthrown. The people understood that the time for open conflict had arrived, that civil war was inevitable. But they were not provided with arms. Instead, Allende presided helplessly over a military that had been consistently raiding the industrial belts, harassing and disarming leftist workers, assessing their strength and readiness for resistance to the coup to come. For Allende to have acted otherwise would have been a complete betrayal of Social Democratic principles, an admission that the “gradual” transition to socialism through electoral democratic means was an impossibility. To arm the people would be to undo his entire legislative legacy, and to gamble all on a decisive and abrupt rupture, everything which Social Democracy seeks to transcend. Instead, Social Democracy did as it must; it demurred, and fought for legitimacy rather than victory.
It is ironic that Chile’s national motto is “by Reason or by Force.” In this instance, Allende’s unlimited allegiance to the former proved to be his ultimate undoing, as the “force” demanded by the popular organizations (the industrial belts, vigilance committees, peoples’ stores, occupied factories, etc.) and the “reason” of government planners performed the mutual task of tying each other’s hands. The result was the imprisonment and execution of scores of activists and militants under the dictatorship of Pinochet. A decisive repression against which a truly mass movement was barely able to lift a finger, inhibited rather than armed and organized to fight by a Unidad Popular, constrained as it was by an inflexible ideology.
In contrast with Chile, Venezuela’s radical objectives developed after their executive protagonist came to power. The Bolivarian Revolution can be said to have truly begun in a mild manner in 1999, only a year after Hugo Chávez’s election as president, with the adoption of a new constitution ratified by referendum. Without explicitly socialist rhetoric, the new constitution laid the foundation for an ambiguous leftist project, with the right to housing, employment, and healthcare constitutionally recognized. But it was only in 2005 that Hugo Chávez publically embraced an overt Social Democratic ideology, promoting the Bolivarian Revolution as the “socialism of the 21st century” operating under the auspices of representative democracy but with explicitly anti-capitalist goals. The Venezuelan contribution to socialism under this system would be an added emphasis on popular democracy, as represented by the institutionalization of local councils and support for self-management in the economy. The councils would form the Bolivarian base (its activist ground level supporters), undertaking significant duties such as granting formal titles to land in the barrios and managing local projects and funds. This development in particular, a voiced commitment to decentralized popular power and direct democracy, looked like a radicalization of the Social Democratic project, engendering new enthusiasm in the Western and international left.
“We have to re-invent socialism. It can’t be the kind of socialism that we saw in the Soviet Union, but it will emerge as we develop new systems that are built on cooperation, not competition.”
But this policy has only heightened the contradictions that were laid bare in Chile, with popular initiatives supported and constrained in an alternating fashion as the political winds have demanded. Take the government’s call for workers’ self-management. In 2008, for example, when the steel manufacturer SIDOR saw a year of labor disputes develop into an aggressive strike, the multinational majority shareholder Techint and Bolivarian Minister José Ramón Rivero united against the workers’ demands. After an extension of the strike in response to government complicity, the Bolivian National Guard acted as old-fashioned strikebreakers, arresting tens, injuring scores, and demolishing workers’ property. This conflict led to heavy pressure on Chávez from below, forcing him to institute and widely promote “Plan Socialist Guayana,” which included the nationalization of SIDOR and its placement under nominal workers’ control. In July of this year, the U.S. owned Kimberly-Clark factory was seized and re-opened “in the hands of the workers” only after it shuttered its doors over lack of access to raw materials and was subsequently occupied by its then unemployed workforce. It should be noted that the most common form of expropriation in Venezuela happens under a system of “co-management” wherein the state retains a 51% share in a company and the workers 49%. The intention is for profits from operations to slowly “buy out” the state’s share and transition to full workers’ control. How these liberating profits are meant to materialize in a political atmosphere wherein expropriations are forced primarily by political or economic collapse, rather than by the success of Social Democratic policies, is a mystery. As a result true self-management remains a distant goal, in contrast with the government’s lofty rhetoric.
Economically, today the government is again in retreat, just recently having dismissed the left-wing political economist Luis Salas from his post as Vice President for Productive Economy, replacing him with Miguel Pérez Abad, the former president of the business lobby FEDEINDUSTRIA. This is a clear indication of a renewed willingness to make concessions to private industry and free-market policies. Politically, Venezuela has arrived at the same constitutional gridlock as Chile. Radical Chavistas asserted early this year that the entire National Assembly should be declared illegal by the Supreme Court for admitting three legislators previously banned for supposed electoral fraud, leading to a protracted battle between the separate governmental branches. The National Assembly has answered in kind by insisting the Supreme Court is an illegitimate rubber stamp stacked with “Bolivarian” judges. At ground level, Venezuela’s opposition is currently attempting to neutralize support for the base Bolivarian organizations, popularizing the notion that the communal councils have become exclusively a form of ideologized militias, armed and acting as marauding pro-government gangs. Certainly it is true that the local councils commonly known as colectivos (including infamous, militant groups like the Tupamaros and la Piedrita) have expressed their willingness to use arms to defend the government and to provide military and political support in the event of another coup or even civil war. The PSUV has reacted as expected, with Social Democratic imperatives demanding that they re-assert the primacy of the State over social movements and, in the process, doubling down on the opposition’s attempt to hamstring the militant base. Pro-Bolivarian writer Clodovaldo Hernández summarizes Maduro’s response: “[A]ny person who raises weapons in alleged defense of the Bolivarian Revolution is out of line, and outside the limits of the law. The monopoly of legitimate violence is exercised by the state alone, as a democratic obligation.” Just as in the Chilean case, the survival of the administration is treated as more important than the survival of the radical movement. The message is sent that legality is more important than political or economic justice, that legitimacy is derived not from the strength and development of the movement, but from the approving nods of heads of state.
Even if the Maduro government manages to outlive its immediate difficulties, its electoral prospects are dim. The devaluation of oil alone may be enough to cost the United Socialist Party the next elections, both presidential and legislative. After all, social-democratic governments are vulnerable to the very crises and cycles of capitalism which they critique, and which they should understand to be intrinsic, inevitable results of capitalist production. This is an implicit risk of a “slow, gradual” dismantling of capitalism, which means maintaining the liberal market model for much of society and the economy in the short term. Bizarrely, social democrats seem to believe that they can weather these crises indefinitely—that they are immune to the electoral shifts that accompany economic decline in all of its forms, whether as a result of mismanagement, sabotage, or immutable global factors. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and years of progress are routinely undone by a single day’s balloting. Somehow neoliberal shock-doctrine proceeds with much more speed than the abolition of class society.
Social Democracy leads always to a choice between these two paths: to an open conflict which nullifies pretensions to a “peaceful transition to socialism,” or to political centrism which renounces its anti-capitalist aims. The Bolivarian Revolution now sits perched on this familiar precipice.
We can see how the centrist path is faring in Europe. In Greece, Syriza has agreed to impose yet another round of austerity measures. Their administration has been described as having “not done anything to the political orthodoxy,” which was not a jibe from the left, but rather an endorsement by an economic strategist at Standard Bank. In France, Prime Minister Hollande and the Socialists are presiding over the most egregious assault on labor rights in their country’s recent history, and are forcefully repressing the strike movement that has developed in response. In Latin America, the Social Democrats prefer annihilation. In Europe, they prefer collaboration.
“… the foundation of a state does not increase the freedom of a people… nation-states have become serious obstacles for any social development.”
—Abdullah Öcalan (PKK)
Since its inception more than a century ago, well before the advent of Marxism-Leninism, Social Democracy has consistently failed to achieve its objectives: in Germany post-World War I, in Spain during the Civil War, in France under the Popular Front, in Israel under the Workers’ Party Mapai, in Chile under Allende, and on many more fronts besides. With the fall of the Soviet Union, precious few now believe in the centralized state as the arbiter of revolutionary change. It is time that we add a socialist variation on liberal democratic state intervention to the list of failures. What so excited the West about Venezuela was precisely its (unfortunately inadequate) gesturing away from the state, and towards the primacy of horizontal, self-managing popular organizations and social movements. As the Bolivarian government goes into decline, it is on these groups that we should rest our hopes. The Venezuelan experiment makes one thing clear: if radical progress is to be made and maintained in the 21st century, it must be made from below.
MATTHEW WHITLEY is a writer and poet whose work has appeared in publications and journals including Translit (St. Petersburg), Matter, Vanitas, Kunstverein NY, Gigantic Sequins, and The New Museum’s New City Reader. His writing has also been published in the exhibition and conference context, including the recent Artspace exhibition Vertical Reach: Political Violence & Militant Aesthetics and Yale’s “Red on Red” conference, as a part of their Utopia After Utopia research initiative. Politically, he is active within the committee Rojava Solidarity NYC, supporting the horizontalist revolution in “West Kurdistan.” He currently co-edits the radical artists’ imprint Cicada Press with Anastasiya Osipova.