Chavez did much to include Venezuela’s marginalized poor, but the demise of the revolutionary may yet turn out to be a blessing for their revolution.
A sea of tears engulfs Carácas. A revolutionary has died. His lifeless body, once lauded by García Márquez to be made of “reinforced concrete” for being able to take 30 cups of coffee per day and working till 3am, is now set to be embalmed and put on “eternal display” in the Museum of the Revolution, so that the spirit of Chávez’ Bolivarian revolution may live on in perpetuity even in the Comandante’s physical death. For the millions of admirers who could not be consoled by this extravagant display of political worship, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian President who considered Chávez to be a brother and friend, offered soothing messianic words, stressing that he had “no doubt” that Chávez would “return alongside Jesus Christ and Mahdi to establish peace and justice in the world.”
During the state funeral on Friday, millions of followers, mostly those who would fall asleep in abject poverty at the close of the 20th century and who woke up feeling newly empowered at the dawn of the 21st, poured into the streets in mourning. Others, mostly those pale-skinned Venezuelans who had some kind of economic privilege to defend or those ignorant gringos who put an almost unquestioning faith in the dramatically biased reporting of the international media, are trying hard to conceal their muted glee and celebration. Given these dramatically divergent responses to the death of the Venezuelan President after a two-year battle with cancer, it is now little more than an uninspired cliché to note that Chávez was a polarizing figure — a man you either loved or hated.
Chávez and the Structural Polarization of Latin America
Yet such a superficial statement, all too prevalent in the bourgeois press and in leftist circles alike, misses a crucial dimension to both Chávez’ character as a leader and the broader Bolivarian process he claimed to represent (and, to an extent, almost single-handedly represented). For was not Chávez in a way the very embodiment of a structural contradiction that lies at the heart of Latin American history, and Venezuelan society in particular? Did not Chávez represent — in his own eccentric, megalomaniac and sometimes morbid kind of way — the long-delayed response of the region’s weakened immune system to the relentless intrusion of what Eduardo Galeano called the “open veins of Latin America”? Did not Chávez, through his defiant and polarizing populist discourse, bring to the fore the structural polarization of the continent wrought by 500 years of bloodletting at the hands of European and American imperialists?
The shocking gap in living standards between social classes; the ocean of poverty and despair dotted seemingly at random with tiny islands of opulence; the systematic intrusion of the United States into the sovereign affairs of its southern neighbors; the history of bloody US-supported military coups and dictatorships — as if this were somehow not evidence enough of Latin America’s deeply polarized identity as a continent, the bourgeois press of the West has deliberately chosen to focus almost exclusively on the extravagant and often bizarre ways in which Hugo Chávez brought those contradictions to the fore; conveniently ignoring the deeper social divisions that Chávez’ mere existence ultimately served to reveal. In the process, Chávez, partly through the careful grooming of his own cult of personality and partly through the media’s grateful adoption of that excessive emphasis on the personal, simultaneously helped to shed a light on the structural polarization of Latin American society and the capitalist world-system and, ironically, helped to obscure that same structural polarization under a plethora of media-filled lies and superficial emphases on the individual at the expense of the whole.
When I visited Venezuela back in 2009, one thing immediately dawned on me: while few Venezuelans would have been very interested in talking politics two decades ago, now everyone talks politics. But, that said, whenever Venezuelans talk politics, they talk Chávez. In a way, both for those who reviled him and for those who worshiped him, the personal came to embody the political. Similarly, where few foreign journalists would have been interested in discussing Venezuela two decades ago, now they all talk about this small Andean-Caribbean country of 30 million. But, just the same, whenever the international media talks about Venezuela, it talks about Chávez. What receives much less attention, both from bourgeois media like The Economist and New York Times, which continue to vilify Chávez even in death, and from self-proclaimed socialist intellectuals like Tariq Ali, whose uncritical praise for Chávez merely presents the reversed image of that sketched by the bourgeois media, are the internal contradictions at the heart of the Bolivarian process.
The Internal Contradictions of the Bolivarian Revolution
In this respect, the bourgeois hatred of Chávez and the state socialist love for him are not just simplistic and superficial representations of reality, but, much worse, constitute two sides of the same coin. Both, in a way, are simply the unabashed ideological projections of those who know very little about Venezuela or Latin America in general but who have plenty of political ideas to propagate and personal preferences to defend about the respective visions for humanity’s future they themselves adhere to. Whether you loved or hated Chávez depended, ultimately, not on what you knew about Venezuela — but what you thought you knew about politics in general. Most importantly, what you thought about Chávez ultimately turned on what you thought about the state-market relationship: whether we should have more of the market, as the neoliberals would have it, or more of the state, as the chavistas passionately claim.
Since few analyses go much deeper than that, the bourgeois press ends up ignoring the structural dimensions of global capitalism that are inherent to that very state-market relationship, while most state socialists continue to ignore the profound problems at the heart of the Bolivarian attempt to break away from that neoliberal structure through the state apparatus as such. In this sense, the truth is much more ambiguous than either the bourgeois press or the state socialist narrative would have it. In reality, Chávez as a person and a leader was probably just as ambivalent and rife with internal contradictions as the Bolivarian revolution he personally stood for. So, rather than celebrating or chastising the man in death, let us scratch the surface and discover underneath the plethora of media-filled lies and ideologically-inspired witticisms a complex process of political, economic and psychological change that constitutes perhaps one of the greatest social experiments of the 21st century — but one whose final results, equally ambiguous as they are, yet remain to be determined.
To be truly meaningful, any analysis of the legacy of Hugo Chávez and the future of chavismo and state socialism more generally will therefore have to revolve around the three main internal contradictions of the Bolivarian process: the relationships, respectively, between capital and the state; between social movements and the state; and between the figure of Hugo Chávez and the state. Before such a discussion can even be had, however, we first need to dispel with some of the common myths that obscure a genuinely reflective appreciation of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Bolivarian experiment. Sadly, those myths were not just fueled by the vitriolic propaganda of the hostile international media, but by the “revolutionary” administration and personality cult of Hugo Chávez himself as well. It is this double smokescreen that makes any genuine reflection on Chavez’ legacy so extremely difficult.
Beyond Media Lies and Leftist Mythology
In a bizarre piece of biased journalism published just after his death, Associated Press reporter Pamela Sampson complained that, unlike the Arab oil sheikhs who chose to invest the proceeds of their mineral resources into skyscrapers, Chavez preferred to invest Venezuela’s oil wealth into social programs and healthcare. In a way, this observation perfectly embodies the apex of hypocrisy in the international media’s reporting on Venezuela and Chávez: relentlessly chastising the democratically-elected Chávez for choosing to invest his country’s natural wealth in improving the living conditions of his people, the media conveniently sidesteps even the mildest critique of the sheer social waste of collective resources at the hands of unelected fundamentalist dictators in the Middle East. Saudi royals can continue stoning women, decapitating gays and funding terrorist organizations, as long as their oil revenues continue to seamlessly blend into the logic of global capitalism. But lo’ and behold if a democratically-elected government chooses to invest its oil proceeds in human development as opposed to the pointless accumulation of excessive wealth!
Chávez’ populist “petrodiplomacy”, the bourgeois media claims, amounts to a dramatic mismanagement of the domestic economy. Never mind the fact that, in just 14 years, Chávez presided over one of the most dramatic reductions in poverty levels in history. As an economic report by the Washington-based Center for Economic Policy Research showed, real GDP in Venezuela nearly doubled between 2003 and 2009, growing by 13.5 percent per year; the poverty rate was cut by more than half from 54 percent in 2003 to 26 percent at the end of 2008; extreme poverty, as measured in cash terms, fell by a spectacular 72 percent, while inequality fell substantially in the same period; infant mortality fell by more than one-third; the number of social security beneficiaries more than doubled; the amount of primary healthcare physicians in the public sector increased 12-fold from 1999 to 2007, providing healthcare to millions of Venezuelans who previously did not have access; and education enrollment rates more than doubled from 1999 to 2008.
And yet not all is well on the Bolivarian front. Of course, one of the most talked-about issues confronting Venezuela is the wave of violent crime plaguing the country. But while this problem is undeniable and extreme — and affects the poor much more than the bourgeoisie, which most vocally complains about it — the problem is by no means isolated to Venezuela and cannot simply be pinpointed as an effect of Chávez “polarizing” policies. As Samuel Grove pointed out for Upside Down World back in 2010, Venezuelan crime statistics should be read as a wave of violence washing across Latin America as a whole. Indeed, Mexico, a neoliberal poster child, has been rocked by similarly serious crime levels for much of the past decade, but few Western commentators have dared to explicitly connect this to the structural reforms and trade liberalization of the 1980s and 90s, which effectively displaced millions of families from their traditional forms of employment and turned Mexico into a major conduit for the narcotics trade to the US. In this context, it is equally remarkable that the media continues to ignore violent crime in Puerto Rico and El Salvador, which is even more severe than it is in Venezuela.
On the other side of the coin, however, are those who read into the same contradictory figures an unambiguous confirmation of their belief that Chávez somehow constituted the embodiment of a reborn revolutionary spirit called back to life to dispel myths about the End of History and reinvigorate the state socialist project in the globalized post-Cold War reality of the 21st century. Tariq Ali’s eulogy for his friend in The Guardian was particularly disappointing in this respect. Praising Chávez for being an “indestructible ox, speaking for hours to his people in a warm, sonorous voice, a fiery eloquence that made it impossible to remain indifferent,” Tariq Ali seems to have desperately fallen prey to the President’s cult of personality, conveniently sidestepping critical questions about Chávez’ eccentric ego-maniacal tendencies and the strange ties he held in the world of global diplomacy, from Robert Mugabe to Muammar Gaddafi. Indeed, it seems that on the issue of Hugo Chávez, it is simply impossible to be both deeply sympathetic and fiercely critical at the same time: as with George W. Bush and his war on terror, you were either with him or against him.
Contradiction #1: Capital and the State
Neither of these dogmatic points of view is fully satisfactory. When we look below the surface manifestations of the Bolivarian revolution — the populist rhetoric, the state and media propaganda, the cult of personality — what we find is a process riven with internal contradictions, producing at once a spectacular defiance of the structural logic of global capital and a systematic strengthening of that very same logic through the creation of a developmental state that may one day come to underpin the administration of a fully functioning capitalist economy. In this respect, we need to move beyond rather simplistic state-market dichotomy that continues to define the left-right spectrum in contemporary politics. What the Bolivarian process demonstrates, in more ways than one, is that a simple distinction between market and state is untenable, for the institution of the state — and the Latin American state in particular — remains forever imprinted with its bourgeois roots, and thus contains within its very DNA the same internal contradictions that bedevil the capitalist system as such.
At the heart of the state-market nexus lies not a dichotomous tug-of-war between two clearly identifiable entities, but rather a symbiotic relationship of mutual dependence that at once renders capital reliant on the state for purposes of administration, public order and the protection of private property, and renders the state dependent on capital for the maintenance of basic socio-economic indicators like growth, employment and commodity prices. Ultimately, it is this structural dependence of the state on capital that gives the latter its unprecedented structural power over the state apparatus, even if capitalists themselves do not control that state apparatus. As political economist Adam Przeworski noted during the (in)famous debate on the Marxist theory of the state during the 1960s and 1970s, “as long as the process of accumulation is private, the entire society is dependent upon maintaining private profits and upon the actions of capitalists allocating these profits.”
What happens in the process of capitalist development is that a fundamental contradiction emerges in this state-capital nexus: while the accumulation of capital at once helps to emancipate poor countries from the shackles of poverty, it at the same time casts them into a new form of bondage; namely an increased dependence on continued capital accumulation to guarantee the continued survival of the state. For most peripheral countries, which as a general rule have not (yet) developed deep financial markets of their own, the structural dependence of the state on capital takes the form of a reliance on foreign credit to fund domestic development. As Rosa Luxemburg famously remarked in the wake of a number of crippling debt crises that occurred in the early 20th century, “though foreign loans are indispensable for the emancipation of rising capitalist states, they are yet the surest ties by which the old capitalist states maintain their influence, exercise financial control and exert pressure on the customs, foreign and commercial policy of the young capitalist states.”
This is precisely what happened in the 1970s, when Venezuela — like all of Latin America — began to borrow massive amounts from Wall Street banks to fund domestic development (although the loans more often ended up enriching domestic elites and fueling official corruption). As oil prices collapsed and US Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker unexpectedly raised interest rates at the turn of the decade, Venezuela and the rest of Latin America suddenly found themselves caught in a crippling debt trap. The World Bank and IMF were called in to restructure the domestic economy: import restrictions were lifted, fuel and food subsidies dismantled and state institutions privatized. The resultant social dislocation and popular outrage led to a massive IMF riot in Carácas in 1989, known as the “Caracazo”. President Carlos Andrés Pérez called in the military and hundreds or even thousands (the real numbers remain unknown) were killed as the military opened fire on the protesters. As the website of Oliver Stone’s documentary, South of the Border, notes: “the ‘Caracazo’ was a crucial turning point in Venezuelan history, polarizing society and galvanizing support for an end to the old political system, and laying the groundwork for popular support for Chávez and his political movement when it emerged three years later.”
While Chávez’ 1992 coup d’étât failed miserably from a military point of view, his surrender speech before the assembled media turned out to be a political success of historical proportions. A joke did the rounds on the Venezuelan streets at that time: Chávez deserved 30 years in jail — 1 for the coup, and 29 for failing. With the white aristo-bourgeois ruling class now firmly discredited in the eyes of the public, the stage was set for a wave of grassroots social movements to wash across the country, and for Chávez to start pondering a more peaceful path to top-down political revolution. By 1998, after two years in jail and four on the campaign trail, Chávez participated in democratic elections and won by a landslide. And yet, in his first years in government, El Comandante was hardly the revolutionary many had expected him to be. Not only did he keep the Finance Minister of the previous conservative government; he also emphasized the importance of fiscal rectitude and placated international investors by claiming to represent a vague Blair-like Third Way beyond both free-market capitalism and state socialism. In those years, Chávez branded himself mostly as a pragmatist: someone willing to operate firmly within the limits imposed by the system.
It was not until a failed US-backed coup attempt in 2002 was overturned by the mobilization of millions of Chávez’ working-class supporters, who encircled the presidential palace and demanded the President be restored to power, as well as the precipitous rise in the oil price from 2003 onwards, that Chávez began to take a more defiant approach to Washington and global capital. What is crucial to understand in this respect is that rising oil prices and the emergence of China as a major player in the sovereign lending game suddenly allowed the Venezuelan government to temporarily bypass its structural dependence on US-based capital. As long as China, the fastest-growing capitalist state in the world, was willing to buy Venezuelan bonds at sub-market prices (it lent Venezuela some $46.5 billion since 2008, or half of Venezuela’s debt accumulated during that period), Chávez did not have to impress Wall Street to keep interest rates low; and as long as oil prices kept rising, Chávez did not have to fear the repercussions of his expropriations in the oil sector. Indeed, with the world awash in liquidity and demand for oil, the government would always find willing buyers; and with Venezuela sitting on the world’s largest oil reserves in the world, supplying that oil would never really be a problem.
As Chávez moved aggressively to nationalize parts of the oil industry and appeal to China for further credit, the structural dependence of the Venezuelan state on US-based capital was greatly reduced, even while its structural dependence on oil revenues was greatly increased. Indeed, with the oil price rocketing up from $9 at the time Chávez came to power, peaking at $150 in 2007 and continuing to hover around $100 today, oil revenues now constitute 30 percent of Venezuela’s GDP. A decade ago, Venezuela depended on oil for 80 percent of its export earning, a share that has risen to 96 percent today. In a way, the reduced structural dependence on US-based capital gave Chávez much freer reign to publicly chastise the US government and openly contest the logic of global capital — at least on a rhetorical level — but it simultaneously forced him to feed the insatiable appetite of the global capitalist system for the Black Gold. As a result, Chávez developed himself into nothing short of an extremely talented state capitalist salesman of his nation’s oil on world markets. While the Bush and Obama administrations despaired with the vitriolic anti-imperialism of the Venezuelan President, US diplomats were said to send cables back to Washington: “don’t listen to what Chávez does, look at what he does.” No surprise, then, that there was little reaction to Chávez death on oil markets: in many ways, traders, refiners and consumers all assume business to continue as usual, just as it did under Chávez, whose behavior often was much more pragmatic than his populist rhetoric would suggest.
Indeed, as Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the CEPR and one of the co-authors of the report cited above, just wrote in a mildly critical piece for the New York Times, “most of the poverty reduction [under Chávez] came from increased employment, not “government handouts,” and during most of Chávez’s tenure the private sector has grown faster than the public sector.” Similarly, in a much more unsympathetic eulogy in The New York Review of Books, Alma Guillermoprieto nevertheless correctly notes that, “for all his anti-imperialist fulminations, the flow of Venezuelan oil to US ports was not interrupted for a single day. For all his socialist preaching, his country remained firmly capitalist.” Of course the bourgeois press has an interest in making such an argument, but it nevertheless has an important point: to continue the process of capital accumulation upon which the survival of the bourgeois state ultimately depends, Chávez had to accept the logic of the global capitalist system as such. This hardly constitutes a critique of Chávez — indeed, Chávez’s brilliance resided partly in his being aware of the limits imposed by the bourgeois state over which he presided and the capitalist world-system in which he resided; skillfully trying to push those limits outward as aggressively as he possibly could, while simultaneously remaining firmly within them, essentially building up a developmental state within the logic prescribed to him by global capital.
Contradiction #2: Social Movements and the State
To his credit, Chávez appears to have been critically aware of the limits inherent to the bourgeois state. In the wake of the spontaneous 2002 popular uprising that re-installed him in office following the failed US-backed coup, Chávez therefore increasingly began to answer to the desires of his most powerful political constituency: the large grassroots social movements. Since January 2007, as Dario Azzellini just recounted in an excellent but perhaps somewhat overtly pro-Chávez assessment, “Chávez has proposed going beyond the bourgeois state by building the communal state,” the basic idea behind which is to “form council structures of different kinds, especially communal councils, communes and communal cities, which will gradually supplant the bourgeois state.” By easing legal restrictions on the formation of cooperatives and by extensively funding the development of grassroots decision-making organs based on direct democratic principles, Chávez hoped to lay the groundwork for a series of autonomous forms of self-governance to ultimately replace the state. Much more than his efforts to expand state power in the face of the market, it is probably this emphasis on new forms of governance — creating ways for citizens to directly participate in the decisions affecting their lives — that will prove to be Chávez’ most important revolutionary legacy.
As Andrew Kennis has observed in his investigation of grassroots resistance in Venezuela, “Venezuela’s megalomaniac president … is not the only one shaking up the country’s political system.” Indeed, according to Kennis, “a community-based revolution is underway in Venezuela. Ordinary people all over are changing how their communities are governed.” As one of Kennis’ interviewees, Alidio Sosa, observes: “the councils are a symbol of how the old parties are dead and won’t ever come back — the parties of the past never concerned themselves with the community.” In recent years, tens of thousands of communal councils (consejos comunales) have sprung up around the country, bringing together millions of Venezuelans who now decide collectively upon local issues, ranging from the maintenance of roads, housing improvements and the provision of basic services like water and electricity, to cultural activities and efforts at community building. The councils — inspired partly by the participatory democratic models developed in Kerala, India and the participatory budgeting initiatives of Porto Alegre, Brazil, as well as the experiences of the Venezuelan coastal state of Cumaná, where communal councils have been operating successfully for years — signify the self-creation of what Toni Negri called “constituent power“; a form of power that, unlike the external judicial power of the state apparatus, is internal to the collective social process of ordering and shaping society.
Again, Chávez was brilliant in recognizing revolutionary opportunities when he saw them. Declaring the councils to be “the great motors of the new era of the Revolution”, “a basic cell of the future society”, and “fundamental … for revolutionary democracy,” Chávez greatly stepped up federal support for the communal councils. Indeed, as Kennis notes, the “organizing frenzy” of grassroots initiatives “was accompanied by significant federal funding”: from $1.5 billion in 2006 to $5 billion by 2007. Simultaneously, “laws governing the distribution of petroleum revenues were modified so that 50 percent of funds—the portion previously directed to state and municipal governments—went to communal councils.” A few years before, in 2001, Chávez had already decreed the Special Law of Cooperative Associations, which made it much easier for citizens to form cooperatives and, as one former Cooperative Superintendent, Carlos Molina, put it, “transformed cooperatives into a fundamental tool of social inclusion.” Indeed, Venezuela now counts over 180,000 registered cooperatives, putting the country firmly at top in world rankings with most cooperatives.
At the same time, however, this top-down assistance to essentially bottom-up initiatives — while a core component of the Bolivarian revolution — introduced a second major contradiction to the process: the emergence of a fundamental and, to an extent, insurmountable tension between the emerging constituent power of the grassroots movements outside of the state apparatus, and the simultaneous solidification of the top-down constituted power pushed by Chávez from within the state apparatus. Indeed, local officials and bureaucrats — many of whom owe their jobs to the extension of the state apparatus that occurred since Chávez took power — are said to feel increasingly threatened by the growing constituent movement towards self-governance, and in particular the billions of dollars of state funding these projects now receive. As Azzellini notes at length:
After 13 years of revolutionary transformation, the biggest challenge for the process is the structural contradiction between constituent and constituted power. Especially since 2007, the government’s ability to reform has increasingly clashed with the limitations inherent in the bourgeois state and the capitalist system. The movements and initiatives for self-management and self-government geared toward overcoming the bourgeois state and its institutions, with the goal of replacing it with a communal state based on popular power have grown. But simultaneously, because of the expansion of state institutions’ work, the consolidation of the Bolivarian process and growing resources, state institutions have been generally strengthened and have become more bureaucratized. Institutions of constituted power aim at controlling social processes and reproducing themselves. Since the institutions of constituted power are at the same time strengthening and limiting constituent power, the transformation process is very complex and contradictory.
Contradiction #3: Chavez and the State
This brings us to the final contradiction in the Bolivarian revolutionary process: the relationship between the figure of Chávez and the state. If there is a tension between the constitutive power of the state and the constituent power of the communal councils, there seems to be an even greater tension between the aspiration towards social emancipation and the ever-growing concentration of state power into the hands of a single individual. Gradually melting into the very state apparatus, for all practical purposes becoming the state, Chávez tried to abolish term limits through a referendum, and when he failed, simply tried again, prompting Manolis Glezos, the 89-year-old Greek resistance hero and currently an MP for SYRIZA in Greek Parliament, to press Chávez on Venezuelan public radio: “I am telling you, as a father to a son, that this is not democracy. If you want a revolution, you have to step down.”
The international media, of course, has been all over this from the very start: Chávez is simply a populist caudillo, an authoritarian strongman, even a despot with dictatorial tendencies. It goes without saying that most of this is sheer nonsense. Since 1998, Chávez has won 13 out of 14 national elections, many of which with overwhelming majorities. Former US President Carter, who monitors third world elections through the Carter Center, stated that “of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say that the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.” It is said that at least one third of the country was genuinely infatuated with Chávez, while another third had doubts about him but largely supported his policies. Even after 14 years in government, the chavista movement could still muster millions to its many rallies. Despite Chávez’ egomaniacal tendencies, there are probably few governments in the world that commanded greater and more genuine popular support than Chávez’s.
That said, there is no doubt that this popularity hinged to a great extent on a sometimes laughable form of idolatry, worship and deification. While it is not uncommon for state socialist movements to worship their icons and generate their own personality cults — think of the likes of Stalin, Mao, Ho-Chi Min, Castro and Pol Pot — Chávez was perhaps unique in his ability to take his public posturing to a messianic extreme. Carefully crafting a revolutionary mythology comparing himself to the Latin American liberation hero Símon Bolívar, he even had the latter’s remains dug up to examine the body for indications of a murderous plot that Chávez (on the basis of no real historical evidence whatsoever) wrongly claimed to have cost him his life.
But there is more to Chávez’ cult of personality than meets the eye. To an extent, in Latin America, where the state apparatus tends to be relatively weak and profoundly aligned with the interests of a land and property owning aristocratic-capitalist class, breaking the bourgeoisie’s hold on the state apparatus requires a great command not only over the state apparatus per se, but also over that force that ultimately determines who controls it in a democracy: the minds of the voters. In this respect, Chávez personality cult should be seen not simply as an extension of his undoubtedly megalomaniacal and narcissistic tendencies, but also as a careful attempt to craft unity within his party and command a cultural hegemony over society more generally. In a deeply impoverished and profoundly Catholic country like Venezuela, Chávez realized like no other the value of posing as a Saint-like figure, a messiah even. After announcing that his cancer had returned, Chávez attended mass in his home state and publicly prayed: “Give me your crown of thorns, Christ, I will bleed. Give me your cross, 100 crosses — and I will carry them for you. But give me life, because I still have things to do for my people and my country.”
Of course, as Pablo Navarette just wrote for Alborada, the very charisma that Chávez commanded — and the cult of personality and resultant cultural hegemony he crafted out of it — constituted double-edged sword: “It served both to placate divisions between various factions of his movement and energise his followers into action; but it also fed into what was arguably one of the major weaknesses of the Venezuelan process: the over-reliance on Chávez.” In this sense, Chávez may have been an “indestructible ox”, as his friend Tariq Ali wrote for the Guardian; but a single ox, even if its body is made of “reinforced concrete”, can only pull the cart of revolution and plough the fields of social change for so long. In a way, it is precisely because the cultural hegemony of the Bolivarian process hinged almost entirely on the greater-than-life figure of Chávez that his lifeless body will now have to be balmed and put on eternal public display. Only by constantly rekindling the legacy of the Saint can the faith of the worshipers be kept alive.
Yet things are not all that simple. When Chavez’ supporters head out into the streets and chant “we are all Chávez”, they are not just submitting themselves. In fact, they are saying two contradictory things at the same time. On one level, they are indeed making a somewhat frightening collectivist statement that sees them submitting their collective agency as a constituent power to that of an external source of authority, a savior even, who has taken it upon him to suffer and struggle on behalf of the masses. At a deeper level, however, the statement also reveals a contradictory sense of empowerment felt by millions of Venezuelans: if Chávez, a poor boy from the plains, can do it, we can do it too. “We are all Chávez” thus assumes both a submissive and an empowering element, precisely the strange type of contradiction that lies at the heart of the Bolivarian process. Up until his death, Chávez claimed that there was and would be “no chavismo without Chávez”; a statement that can at once be read as a narcissistic attempt to put himself at the heart of the revolutionary process, and as a contradictory attempt to efface his legacy (in the form of chavismo) and urge his followers to form their own -ismo, their own constituent movement, should he come to pass.
In this sense, the vacuum left by Chávez passing may yet serve to dissolve some of the internal contradictions within the Bolivarian process. As the constitutive power, dependent as it was on the living legacy, cult of personality and cultural hegemony surrounding Hugo Chávez himself takes a major hit over the crumbling of its core pillar, new space may open up for the constituent power to move in and replace the caffeine-fueled momentum of Chávez top-down project with the genuine revolutionary spirit of a participatory mass movement based on principles of direct democracy, worker control, radical equality and autonomous self-governance. As Gonzalo Gomez put it in January 2012, “The post-Chávez era will not depend on individual figures, but rather on our capacity to continue developing, deepening, and advancing the Bolivarian revolution once that leadership is no longer there.” In that sense, at least, the demise of Hugo Chávez may yet turn out to be a blessing for the revolution.
The revolutionary is dead; long live the revolution!